The South’s loss?

Stephen Sears, Chancellorsville. (part two)

The death of Stonewall Jackson and the “sameness” of the two armies’ positions at the end of the Chancellorsville campaign figure prominently in Sears’ account. As I mentioned yesterday, Sears accessed documents and other material that had not been previously considered in discussions surrounding Chancellorsville. In his concluding section, Sears explores the astonishment of Union officers and men at their withdrawal, as well as the anguish of Jackson’s death.

Throughout the text, one of the consistently effective strategies used by Sears is incorporating letters, newspaper accounts, and records into the telling of his tale. This method is particularly compelling in that the reader is constantly reminded of the real people involved in the campaigns. As Sears dissects the aftermath of the battle, these people have a lot to say. “You can’t make any person in this army believe we were whipped,” proclaimed one New York soldier opined (431). Newspapers and letters expressed shame and dismay about the actions of Howard’s Eleventh Corps, but as Sears points out, the scapegoating of Howard’s men was useful for the larger Army of the Potomac (432, 433).

Sears’ points about passing the blame hat around the command staff of the Union army are fascinating, particularly as a bookend to the opening chapter discussing the revolt of the generals against Burnside’s command at the end of 1862. From the perspective of Joseph Hooker and Gouverneur Warren, 50% of the army’s generals of corps failed the “competency test,” resulting in the defeat at Chancellorsville (436, 437). For Sears, as I mentioned yesterday, the blame cannot fall completely on Hooker, and I believe the author has proven his point on that score.

In pressing through the casualty figures, we find that my great-great grandfather’s corps (Third) suffered mightily with 4,124 casualties out of 17,304 in all, including ancestor Sherlock. Indeed, as Sears points out, the losses for the Union army were uneven, with some corp losing as few as 300 men (440, 441). But, the reason for this post’s title focuses on Sears’ conclusions about the fate of Lee’s army.

Nearly every man in the Confederate infantry faced combat during the campaign and despite the tactical victory, the casualty figures for Lee’s significantly smaller fighting force were severe. General A. P. Hill lost 25% of his men, while Robert Rodes lost 29%. Lee’s men were exhausted and in some cases, their campsites had been raided and personal possessions taken. On the bright side, despite Lee’s own lamentations about not gaining ground, the Confederate troops were able to resupply themselves with scattered arms, ammunition, and more strewn across the battlefield. Yet it was the death of Thomas Jackson that created the largest hole as Sears poignantly explores.

When I was still teaching high school, I used to put photographs from Chancellorsville’s aftermath on a screen along with pictures of both Jackson and my great-great grandfather, explaining how two important leaders died as a result of the battle. I cannot say what might have become of Sherlock or Jackson for that matter had they both lived. The former was rising through the ranks largely because everyone above him seemed to die. The latter was at the top of his game in 1863. Had both survived, they certainly would have faced each other again soon, and while I can feel the personal loss of Sherlock, the loss of Jackson had the greater impact across the seceded states and for the thread of the rest of the war. As Sears effectively demonstrates, victory on the field at Chancellorsville did nothing for the overall efforts of the South going forward as men, munitions, and leadership were too much to overcome.

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