One hundred and fifty years ago today in northern Virginia, the Battle of Chancellorsville began. It would take a week and claim 24,000 lives. That’s a number that requires a moment to sink in. Maybe it helps to write it out: twenty-four thousand men perished there in fighting over seven days.
Aside from the massive human cost, Chancellorsville is interesting to me because it was the beginning of the apex of the Confederacy militarily. Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg it seemed quite likely that the Confederacy would win the war.
After years of study as a curious amateur, then as scholar, and now as a writer, I still can’t understand why things were so close for two + years and particularly for those two months. How could the Union — with more than twice as many people (the ratio gets even more unbalanced when you take into account Confederate unwillingness to arm the sizable enslaved population), almost all of the industrial production, and vastly superior infrastructure and wealth — not crush the Confederacy immediately?
The answers to that question (e.g., weak military leadership, hubris, bad luck, differences in culture, etc.) proved so costly it makes me ill. The American Civil War should have ended quickly, but it did not and thus 660,000 people died and cultural rifts were entrenched that still haven’t fully healed (see Confederates in the Attic).
But back to Chancellorsville! It was a decisive Confederate victory, though the death of Stonewall Jackson clouds this assessment, and it set up the dynamic for the war’s true turning point, Gettysburg. Because of his win at Chancellorsville — a win that occurred entirely because of tactics as he had been badly unnumbered — Robert E. Lee felt emboldened to invade the Union and that turned out to be a mistake, though the war wouldn’t end for two more years.
Chancellorsville has a long and prestigious literary history as the subject of Stephen Crane’s novella The Red Badge of Courage, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “A Night at Chancellorsville,” a poem by Herman Melville entitled “Stonewall Jackson,” and a diary entry by Walt Whitman from the very underrated Specimen Days in America.
On July 1, I’ll be waltzing quite brazenly into the party with my novel Brave in Heart, a historical romance that finds it’s turning point on the Chancellorsville battlefield. I hope you’ll join me there.