MACKOWSKI & WHITE: Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front (2013)

Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863 by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White. Savas Beatie, 2013. Cloth, IBSN: 1611211360. $32.95.
In Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front, authors Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White seek to remind historians that the May 1863 battle was even more complex than commonly thought. Likewise, they aim to bring a semblance of order to the Chancellorsville campaign by fitting its many engagements into a coherent whole. Their narrative relies on a wide array of primary sources, from commanders’ accounts to diaries of enlisted men. By interweaving multiple perspectives from the battlefield, they have produced a narrative that is fast-paced and readable for those with only casual interest, but also authoritative enough for serious scholars.

The authors depict the large-scale campaign in which the Army of the Potomac failed to seize the “best opportunity since Antietam to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia” (315). A lack of coordination between General Joseph Hooker’s force at Chancellorsville and the left wing of the Union army at Fredericksburg contributed to this debacle. Originally, Hooker intended for the federal left wing, comprised of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Corps, to act as a diversion. After Hooker yielded the tactical advantage at Chancellorsville on May 1, and following his walloping from Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack on May 2, Hooker changed his plans for Sedgwick. Hooker now ordered his subordinate to Chancellorsville in the hopes that he might assault the main Confederate force.

Sedgwick, slow both to receive these orders and to act on them, never made it. On April 29, his men bridged the Rappahannock. On May 3, they “methodically” (173) took the heights outside Fredericksburg, including the ominous Marye’s Heights — where thousands of Union soldiers died the previous December.  Sedgwick began to move west to Chancellorsville when a single brigade under General Cadmus Wilcox stalled the Union commander long enough to allow Confederate reinforcements to blunt a federal advance at Salem Church. Sedgwick pulled back to a defensive position on the Rappahannock and fought off what could have been a decisive Confederate counterattack at the Battle of Banks’ Ford on May 4. Like his commander to the west, Sedgwick then recrossed the Rappahannock, forfeiting all tactical gains.

The most valuable contribution of this work is its portrayal of Chancellorsville as a campaign that included not only the well-known fighting around an eerie crossroads in the wilderness, but also action outside of Fredericksburg. One story should not be told without the other, and the authors skillfully transition between the sites of conflict. The Chancellorsville campaign was majestic in scope, but cripplingly uncoordinated in execution. Civil War armies were unwieldy things, and their size often outpaced communications, logistics, and command. Union failings at Chancellorsville stemmed not merely from Hooker’s braggadocio or from Sedgwick’s plodding, but from the fact that efficient communication was not possible between the army commander and his subordinate. Orders, for example, traveled a “circuitous route” (129) that required two crossings of the Rappahannock.

The Union loss, the authors ultimately argue, transcended any one man. Mackowski and White assign blame in an admirable and even-handed manner. “Fighting Joe,” for one, comes off better than expected. The Confederates—Wilcox, Jubal Early, William Barksdale, and, to a lesser degree, Lafayette McLaws—mostly receive praise for halting Sedgwick. Even Sedgwick himself, who neglected to coordinate his men and moved his massive wing at a lethargic pace, emerges an able general.

The fact that Chancellorsville unfolded as a terribly coordinated campaign raises the question of the ultimate significance of the fighting in Sedgwick’s theater. Of course, it entailed major engagements in which a large number of men fought, sustained wounds, and died. This drama alone deserves chronicling, which Mackowski and White accomplish. But the relationship between these battles and the overall campaign is somewhat ambiguous. For one, these fights did not busy Union forces otherwise essential for success at Chancellorsville. To be sure, Hooker originally envisioned Sedgwick’s deployments as diversionary. Hooker already had the men necessary for victory; he had simply mismanaged them. Nor did Sedgwick’s movements hinder Lee, who seemed quite content to split his army multiple times and take the fight to both Hooker and Sedgwick. The authors lament that the three battles east of Chancellorsville are often viewed incidentally, if at all. Yet, to some extent, they were incidental. In the end, it might be said that these battles are more significant for what they were not — part of a coordinated campaign.

Joshua Lynn is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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