McPherson: The Battle Of Chancellorsville's Importance

Historians in the News

Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun, 17 Nov. 2004

Chancellorsville, VA - It's a brisk fall morning, the sun battling to break its way through leaden clouds, as the man in the wraparound shades pops out of a thicket of trees. Thirty-five people trail in James McPherson's wake as he ambles down a brush-covered hillside toward a clearing below, but he casts nary a glance to the rear. The general's job is to keep his eyes on the battlefield, you see, to keep looking ahead. The troops just have to keep pace.

Like any good leader, McPherson has canvassed his terrain before. One of America's pre-eminent Civil War historians, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 68-year-old has walked the battlefields at Chancellorsville, Va., many times. The author of Battle Cry of Freedom, a best-selling overview of the Civil War, doesn't have to work up idle theories as to why an impetuous Union general, Joseph Hooker, came here 141 years ago and tried to outflank the South's greatest military commander. Seeing the place, walking its distances, feeling its contours beneath his feet, McPherson almost knows the reason in his bones.

Hooker's gambit was one of the war's most infamous, and if McPherson has his way, his troops will know, by the end of the day, what made it so. St. Mary's College of Maryland has made McPherson the first visiting professor in its new program, the Center for the Study of Democracy, and today's 10-hour, four-battlefield tour will exemplify its goal of immersing students in the problems of early democracy in America.

McPherson strides to the center of a clearing, a place called Hazel Grove, and the panting detachment surrounds him. He takes off the wraparounds.

"Right here, where you're standing," says McPherson, his sky-blue eyes aglow in the morning sun,"the first shots were fired in anger. May 3, 1863, was probably the second-worst day of fighting, in terms of casualties, of any in the Civil War.

"Look up along the clearing; for three-quarters of a mile, in the open and in the trees, they fought. Why did it happen, and why did it matter?"

Hazel Grove is an odd name for a place that is actually one of the few open areas in a densely wooded region. McPherson stands in that hillside clearing amid a circle of cannon, gesturing with his hands."I'll tell you what was happening at 5:30 on the afternoon of May 2," says the man who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Johns Hopkins 42 years ago."The Union fellows had been working hard. They were feeling good about what they'd accomplished. They'd come a long way in a very few days."

He points to a thicket a hundred yards to the west."Over there, in that line of trees, they'd already stacked arms for the night," he says."They were relaxing, beginning to cook supper. They had no idea what was coming next."

If the hallmark of a good teacher is bringing clarity to the complex, McPherson is a fine commander. The Battle of Chancellorsville, like every Civil War engagement, was an immensely complicated enterprise, its roots going back months and years. To grasp its causes, it helps to know that by early 1863, Confederate generals from Robert E. Lee to Thomas"Stonewall" Jackson had made their Union counterparts look like amateurs; that the South had secured the all-important lines to Richmond, and that Northern morale was so low that 200 men a day were deserting.

When the Union chose Joseph Hooker to spearhead its southward progress, the general's charge included boosting his side's confidence. He drilled his men in the field. He instilled discipline. He pondered the psyches of his foes. By the spring, McPherson says, he was itching to go on the attack.

On April 27, Hooker led three corps - about 40,000 men - on a campaign to"turn the Confederate left flank." He drove his men eastward, toward Fredericksburg, Va. By mid-afternoon on April 30, they had forded two rivers, gained key bridges and, to their surprise, met no serious Confederate resistance. They arrived at a place where the Orange Turnpike and Old Plank Road converged, a crucial site called Chancellorsville.

What Hooker did at that point was a study in squandering one's advantage. Whatever the reason - exhaustion, overconfidence, maybe both - he decided to entrench his position rather than keep on pressing.

"Don't worry," the general told Darius Crouch, a corps commander."I have Lee right where I want him. He has to fight me on my ground." In a letter he boasted:"We have the greatest army on the planet."

Back in the 21st century, McPherson, like all good storytellers, sees the bigger themes in the details."(On May 1 and 2), Union scouts were in these trees here, keeping watch," he says, snapping a salutelike nod in the direction of a thicket to the west."All afternoon (of May 2), they felt something was the matter. They kept saying (to their superiors), 'Colonel, you know, there's an awful lot of noise and motion out here in the woods. I think the Rebels might be building up to something.' But basically, they were ignored."

[Editor's Note: This is only an excerpt of the original story.]

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