William Glenn Robertson rightly asks in his review of Stephen W. Sears Chancellorsville, “is another massive study of Chancellorsville necessary?” Robertson asks this question because as he writes, “Since the end of the campaign, analytical accounts of Chancellorsville generally have reached the same judgments on the performance of the opposing commanders.” The universal consensus among historians is that Gen. Robert E. Lee outclassed Union Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Hooker had recently replaced Gen. Ambrose Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. The Union was still recuperating from the Fredericksburg campaign in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln decided to make the change. Hooker, whom James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom describes as having openly expressed interest in Burnside’s failure to gain command of the Army himself, was considered to have many moral flaws. However, as Robertson writes, “President Lincoln gambled that Hooker’s vaunted fighting skill would overcome his fondness for intrigue and produce a decisive victory in the eastern theater.” And to Hooker’s credit, he was able to quickly turn the morale of the Army around and fix the many logistical issues that plagued the Union army.
President Lincoln had been for sometime willing to overlook moral flaws in his generals who he deemed willing to fight, having suffered through Gen. George B. McClellan’s tentativeness for years. Hooker, having earned the nickname Fighting Joe, seemed to be the fighting general Lincoln had hoped to lead his Army of the Potomac. Initially, Hooker appeared to validate Lincoln’s gamble by producing a plan that would have, if implemented successfully, placed the Union Army in an advantageous position to take the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia without heavy casualties.
However, as William Garret Piston writes in his review of Sears’ Chancellorsville the battle is, “Generally considered Robert E. Lee’s finest campaign.” Despite being outnumbered two to one on May 1, 1863 by the Army of the Potomac, by May 6 “Hooker’s army had withdrawn across the Rappahannock in defeat.” However, both sides took considerable damage with the Union suffering 17,304 casualties to the Confederate’s 13,460. The most notable and devastating of the Confederate losses was Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
Nevertheless, as Robertson writes, “Lee had restored the status quo and his army seemed invincible.” Hooker was quickly disgraced, and President Abraham Lincoln continued to search for the general who would lead his Army of the Potomac. This is the consensus of most historians, so, again, why another history of Chancellorsville?
Sears provides a well written history of Chancellorsville that goes into depth about the tactics that both sides employed, but it’s his “depiction of Joseph Hooker [that] might be called revisionist.” Sears’ thesis focuses on the positive aspects of Hooker’s brief command of the Army of the Potomac and places the blame of his defeat at Chancellorsville not on Hooker but on his subordinates.
Gary W. Gallagher in his review of Sears’ work illustrates Sears’ intent in the beginning of his review when he copies Sears’ passage “Primary sources previously unavailable or unused cast a great deal of new light on this campaign …” Sears believed that his book would set the record straight on what he felt was a history of the battle that had been distorted by historians who derived too much of their information from the soldiers who fought in the battle.
Nowhere in Sears’ book is his thesis more clearly stated then when he contends that the battle was indeed Lee’s finest campaign but that Lee “was repeatedly blessed with astonishingly good fortune.” Furthermore, Sears contends that Joseph Hooker wasn’t the “morally weak braggart so often described but as an able officer who by all rights should have defeated Lee.” Sears lays heavy blame on many of Hooker’s subordinates who didn’t follow through on the general’s orders. Sears contends that had they in fact implemented Hooker’s battle plan then the Union would have been victorious.
Sear’s knows the Army of the Potomac better than perhaps any other historian in recent memory, but, though his revisionist history of Chancellorsville is insightful and well written, he’s ultimately unconvincing when trying to frame the battle for anything other than what it was – a Southern triumph and legend maker for Lee.
Daniel E. Sutherland puts it best when reviewing Sears’ Chancellorsville for the New York Times, “The lesson of Chancellorsville is this: It is one thing to formulate a grand, even brilliant battlefield plan. But victory belongs to those who seize it.” Hooker did a great job to improve the Army of the Potomac and provided a great battlefield plan at Chancellorsville, but ultimately he fought defensively when he should have taken the offense with superior numbers. So, Sears’ thesis, though well thought out and well written, is more of a novelty, but also a welcomed counter to the historical consensus.