Connecting with the Chancellorsville Battlefield

by Scott Manning on May 1, 2013

After 150 years, the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) remains a textbook example of maneuver warfare, of Sun Tzu’s maxim to avoid strength and attack weakness. Quite literally, it was one of several examples in my maneuver warfare course at AMU a few years ago.

Battlefields always require some imagination, but few battlefields offer visitors such a reward as Chancellorsville. To get the most out of the experience, you will need a good map and some foreknowledge. However, the effort is worth it, as the battlefield comes alive.

I have had the privilege and providing tours to Chancellorsville for friends and family. Starting the battle with a modified map of the troop dispositions on May 1 has led to some interesting comments. My friend Sean looked at the map and said, “So Lee’s screwed, right?”

chancellorsvillemap

From there, we trek McLaws Trail. The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center provides a pamphlet that gives a superb tour across 2 miles of rolling hills, providing commentary and quotes along the way. Here, before any flanking attack occurred, we ponder why Union General Joe Hooker gave up this ground. It is one of my favorite spots on any battlefield, as these hills surrounded by trees feature three days of events from a single battle.

chancellorsville panorama

From there, I get the immense joy of explaining Stonewall Jackson’s flanking movement, how Union General Daniel Sickles almost spoiled the whole thing, and how the Georgians covered Stonewall’s movement. People can visualize it on a map, which easily translates into their understanding of the battlefield.

We drive the entire route of Stonewall’s 12-mile march up to the right flank of the Army of the Potomac.


View larger map

The drive is predominately a dirt road surrounding by trees, with the occasional sign offering some anecdote about the march.

When we arrive at the spot where Stonewall’s men emerged from the forest, there is plenty to discuss about the German unit stationed there, how they spoke little English, and how Hooker put his weakest unit in the spot he believed he was least likely to be attacked.

flankattack

It is easy to assume that Jackson’s flanking attack was what defeated the Army of the Potomac, but we have to stress that Hooker was wounded as soon as the attack began and he was out of commission. With no head, the AOTP stalled.

The day after the flank attack, with Jackson wounded, J.E.B. Stuart took command of Jackson’s men. Here is a view of the spot Confederate artillery occupied, as they bombarded Union positions in the distance. The park keeps a clear path of their target.

chancelorsville cannons

Finally, nowhere is there clearer evidence of the impact of Stonewall’s attack than the two rows of Union cannon trenches, each facing a different direction.

chancelorsville cannons 2

Although costly, Lee’s victory inspired him to move north in Pennsylvania.

Of the many battlefields out there, Chancellorsville is unique and well worth the experience. If you have not visited, you should make the effort.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob May 2, 2013 at 1:27 PM

Very nice presentation. Good job.

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2 Alota May 2, 2013 at 3:56 PM

I have that same map. I like your addition to it.

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3 Rick Hooker July 10, 2013 at 9:45 AM

When reading about this battle, or other actions involving the Union 11th Corps, it is always a little surprising to encounter the low opinions expressed by most at the time of the Germans as a people, and especially as soldiers. They seem to be the “Pollocks” of the mid-nineteenth century by most accounts, while the French are seen as paragons of military accomplishment, even though Napoleon had been defeated. Our uniforms showed French influence (kepis, gold braided sleeves, etc.) and any success made one “the New Napoleon.” This would begin to change in 1870. Looking back to this view of the Germans (and the French) past to World Wars makes it hard to understand.

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4 Scott Manning July 10, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Hi Rick, World War II certainly has distorted our perspective of the French history of warfare. Yes, Napoleon was defeated, but consider that more often than not, he was the victor. In addition, his defeats came at the hands of multiple armies. In addition, his victories often came about from appeared to be brilliance. His method of recruiting, drilling, training, campaigning, and fighting battles changed warfare. Thus, the would-be Civil War generals studied him.

However, for the larger discussion, I think the poor views on the Germans at Chancellorsville came about for a variety of reasons, including their commanding general spending time degrading them. It was not necessary the prevalent view.

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