From the spring of 1862 through the spring of 1865, the Union Army of the Potomac under a succession of commanders battled the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Only once did the Union army come close to defeating Lee through a superior plan. That was the battle of Chancellorsville and it was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, “a close run thing.” Few readers of Civil War history know how close a battle Chancellorsville was. Stephen Sears’s wholly admirable volume makes that fact, and many others, at once clear and fascinating.
One of the many virtues of Stephen Sears’s study is that he highlights the strengths of General Joe Hooker as a commander. Outstandingly successful in restoring Union morale after the devastating debacle of Fredericksburg, Hooker’s feint against Lee’s right and his subsequent wheel against the Confederate left were soundly planned and—up to the final thrust—perfectly executed. Had the Army of the Potomac enjoyed corps commanders equal to Hooker’s battle plan, Sears suggests, then Lee would have met defeat on the banks of the Rappahannock and Rapidan. Hooker, however, had no Stonewall Jackson.
Lee did, and his daring plan of dividing a smaller army to outflank and attack a larger foe was practicable because Jackson was his lieutenant. Jackson’s death in the May twilight made another Chancellorsville impossible for the South. For most historians, the death of Jackson becomes the focus of the battle.
Sears argues convincingly that Hooker was a much better general that generally realizes—and quotes Confederate Porter Alexander that Hooker’s plan “was decidedly the best strategy conceived in any of the campaigns ever set on foot against us.”
How that excellent strategy was conceived in planning and undone in practice is the fascinating story of CHANCELLORSVILLE, Stephen Sears’s definitive account of this epic encounter.