That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy, May 1-4, 1863 by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White. Savas Beatie, 2014. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-61121-219-8. $12.95.
The Chancellorsville Battlefield was a confusing and chaotic place during the bloody days of May 1-4, 1863. The difficulty of navigating the terrain led to one of the Confederacy’s greatest setbacks: the death of Stonewall Jackson. In 2014, the fields at Chancellorsville can still bewilder those trying to maneuver around them. The shifting battle lines and multiple fronts of the campaign (including the Second Battle of Fredericksburg) can easily disorient a visitor. In That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy, May 1-4, 1863, Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White attempt to solve that problem while providing an in-depth story of Lee’s greatest Pyrrhic victory.
It is critical to remember the central purpose of That Furious Struggle. This is not meant to be the definitive study of the Battle of Chancellorsville (perhaps the most significant argument of the book is suggested by the subtitle—identifying Chancellorsville, and not the Angle at Gettysburg, as the Confederacy’s High Tide). Instead, the book reads much like a high quality guided tour. The story of the battle is told in a manner that corresponds with tour stops, which sometimes disrupts the sequence of events; however, the authors make these disruptions perfectly clear, and their sensibilities to the needs of the common tourist will be appreciated by most readers of this book. As the authors state: “The organization of this book and tour reflects knowledge of those roads [and] takes into consideration related information such as park facilities and the availability of parking” (x). The book functions as a terrific navigator for any exploration of the field. Each section concludes with meticulous directions to the next tour stop, including traffic patterns and GPS coordinates. Those who do not wish to go on frustrating reconnaissance missions through the woods will surely benefit from these details.
At the heart of the book is a quality history that paints a picture of the battlefield in the manner that only an efficient tour guide can. The authors enhance their text with over 100 photographs. Presumably drawing its information from a collection of books listed at the end of the volume – the authors do not provide citations – That Furious Struggle conveys stories that inform and intrigue the reader. While the images immerse the reader in the scene, the text brings it to life; there is almost a “Ken Burns Effect” to the whole experience, as the images move between direct and peripheral vision while reading the sweeping descriptions and quotes culled from first-hand accounts. To be entirely honest, it makes one yearn to be standing on the field – a feat that some other field guides surprisingly fail to achieve.
As already stated, this is not necessarily the book to delve into for the full story of the fight at Chancellorsville. The book directs readers to several deeper investigations of the battle in its appendices. Mackowski and White are hardly taciturn about their opinions here, even taking a swipe at Stephen W. Sears as an “unabashed Joe Hooker apologist” who goes to “implausible” lengths for that purpose in his Chancellorsville (173). The most valuable appendix is a full Order of Battle. Though not the focus of the book, there are also allusions to the other battles fought in the area of Chancellorsville.
Mackowski and White have produced an invaluable resource for the tourist of one of the Civil War’s largest and most critical battles. The most refreshing thing about That Furious Struggle is that it consistently remains true to its purpose. Never aiming to become the definitive book about the Battle of Chancellorsville, it instead stakes a claim for itself as the definitive book about the battlefield at Chancellorsville.
Joseph J. Cook teaches American history at Wayne Country Day School in North Carolina.