Friday, May 03, 2013


Today, Friday music is pre-empted to resume my occasional series on the Civil War by remembering the battle of Chancellorsville, fought this week, 150 years ago. It is an odd battle - it doesn't seem to me to be remembered all that well, even by Civil War nuts like me. It's not so much that people overlook it, though sometimes they do - but that only certain parts of it are remembered.

Everyone remembers Stonewall Jackson's part - caving in the Union right flank, sweeping the south to victory, then being shot by his own men in the confusion of nightfall in a forest. What they don't remember is that as spectacular a victory as that attack was, it didn't really win the battle. The Union still had an overwhelming superiority of numbers, and very little reason to go anywhere. One of the main things people don't remember (or know) about Chancellorsville is that the next day, May 3, the day after Jackson's flank attack, was the second bloodiest day of the war. (Which is to say, the second bloodiest day in American history.) Jackson's attack left the Union in a strange and difficult position, with units exposed to attack from both sides. The next day, the rebels attacked all across the front to break the exposed parts - the Yankees held as long as possible - and both sides shot each other to hell. After the brilliant feat of daring and execution (moving all those men around the Union army in the middle of the day to launch a surprise attack) that led to Jackson's attack, the next day, the fight turned into a brutal stand up and blast the other guy to hell fight. Something that happened a lot in the war - well, the brutality happened a lot; the brilliance wasn't so common. But when you do find it, you almost always find an unimaginative slog on its heels. In any case - by the end of the day on the 3rd of May, the Yankees were sill there, driven back a bit, but dug in, with overwhelming numerical superiority, with much of the army completely fresh, having seen no action.... But the battle was over and they had lost. The army not so much - but the generals were beat.

This is generally taken to be Lee's finest hour - it is. He was badly outnumbered, caught between two large forces of Yankees, one at Fredericksburg under Sedgwick and the main force at Chancellorsville under Hooker. But he went straight to the attack - leaving a skeleton force to hold off Sedgwick while he fought Hooker, then splitting that force again to have Jackson march around the Union army to attack the flank. And - worth noting that when that part of the battle petered out, and Sedgwick finally got moving, he divided the army again, leaving a small force to look after Hooker, while the main force tried to pin down Sedgwick - and did, trapping his force by the river, making its fate a close thing. Lee probably had to do something like that - he couldn't match all the Union forces directly - he had to try to beat them in detail, and he did os masterfully. (Thanks to Jackson.) But boy - when you talk about Lee's luck... It's hard to imagine a more poorly handled battle this side of John Pope - by people who were, actually, fairly competent generals. It's a litany of bad decisions - from Hooker pulling back his advance guard on the first day of the fight, to Howard leaving his right flank completely in the air, to Dan Sickles (who wasn't competent) chasing after phantoms, to the army's abandonment of the high ground that the confederates used as an artillery platform, to Sedgwick's failure to act while the lines around Fredericksburg were thinnest, then getting himself pinned down when he did move - and Hooker, of course, not doing anything to help him, let alone take advantage of Lee moving troops around. And it all, in the end, comes down to Hooker - who lost his nerve - maybe before the battle; most definitely, though, on the 3rd, when he was knocked out by an artillery near miss. From the sounds of it, he had a concussion, and was virtually incapacitated for much of the day - no one else took charge in that time, and when he resumed command,t he fight was completely gone from him. So he never noticed Lee's weaknesses; he left a third of his army out of the battle; and in the end he rather meekly packed up and left. It's the story of the Army of the Potomac, at least before Grant got his hands on it - they constantly stopped fighting before they'd won or lost. They weren't anywhere nearly beaten here, for all the beating they took - but they walked away as if they were.

Finally - it is Friday... poking around YouTube reveals a plethora of Confederate songs - this would be fascinating, if they weren't all fitted to videos made by CSA apologists. The treason in defense of slavery crowd is still going all too strong in this country.... But still: this is a song written, apparently, in 1862 in honor of Stonewall Jackson - and the historical interest is too much for me. Jackson himself, of course, was a damned good general, traitor or not - and, well - he's the central figure of Chancellorsville, both for his success and for his death there. So - here's Bobby Horton, and Stonewall Jackson's Way.

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