by Stephen W. Sears


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Sears describes the series of controversial events that define this crucial battle, including General Robert E. Lee's radical decision to divide his small army--a violation of basic military rules--sending Stonewall Jackson on his famous march around the Union army flank. Jackson's death--accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers--is one of the many fascinating stories included in this definitive account of the battle of Chancellorsville.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395877449
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/22/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 315,683
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.44(d)

About the Author

STEPHEN W. SEARS is the author of many award-winning books on the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Landscape Turned Red. A former editor at American Heritage, he lives in Connecticut.

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The Revolt of the Generals

The two generals were ushered into the president's office on the second floor of the east wing of the White House in midafternoon. It was Tuesday, December 30, 1862, and the purpose of their interview with Mr. Lincoln was, to say the least, highly irregular. It was their considered opinion that General Burnside was about to lead the Army of the Potomac to disaster, and they saw it as their duty to prevent this from happening.

The two made a decidedly odd pairing. Brigadier General John Newton looked the very picture of a professional soldier. He was forty, tall and stiffly erect and with a determined look about him. Descended from a First Family of Virginia, Newton had graduated from West Point second in class twenty years before, entered the elite Corps of Engineers, and stayed resolutely at his post when Virginia left the Union in 1861. In the Army of the Potomac he had compiled a careful combat record, rising to the command of a division in William F. Smith's Sixth Corps of William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division. While Newton was not entirely unfamiliar with the ways of Washington — his father had been a congressman from Virginia for twenty-nine years — he would express himself uncomfortable about approaching the president this way. Indeed, when he came up to the capital that morning from army headquarters on the Rappahannock, General Newton had not had the least thought of going anywhere near the White House.

His companion, by contrast, was quite at home in this setting. Brigadier General John Cochrane, commander of a brigade under Newton, forty-nine years old and entirely lacking in soldierly bearing, was a political operator to his fingertips. Where John Newton was F.F.V., John Cochrane was Mozart Hall politico. He had served two terms as a congressman from New York City just before the war. A conservative Democrat, he raised a regiment in 1861 and rode into the army on the coattails of the Republican administration's call for bipartisan support of the war effort. Cochrane soon enough rose from political colonel to political general and proved adept at wire-pulling in Washington. As recently as October he had been sent to the capital by the then commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan, to lobby for McClellan's reappointment as general-in-chief of the Union armies. In this cause Cochrane enlisted a Cabinet secretary, Salmon P. Chase, and the country's largest newspaper, the New York Herald, and spoke directly to Mr. Lincoln on the subject. In the event, his efforts were unavailing, and within a month McClellan was displaced as army commander by Ambrose Burnside. Now, on this December afternoon call at the White House, Cochrane, with Newton in tow, was conspiring to see Burnside displaced as army commander.

Cochrane and Newton had not concocted this intrigue by themselves. They merely represented the latest — and boldest — evidence of a generals' revolt in the Army of the Potomac aimed at Burnside's overthrow. The two ringleaders of the revolt were Cochrane's and Newton's immediate superiors, Major Generals William Franklin and William Smith.

Ten days earlier, on December 20, Franklin and Smith, going without scruple over Burnside's head, had opened a private correspondence with the president on the subject of grand strategy. Disdaining the army's current campaigning on the Rappahannock (General Burnside's approach, said Franklin and Smith, "cannot possibly be successful"), they argued for a return to McClellan's approach to Richmond by way of the Virginia Peninsula — a campaign that had consumed five months that spring and summer and been sharply repulsed by the Confederates. Lincoln had never cared for McClellan's approach, and he told the two dissident generals that he could not see how their proposed return to the Peninsula would overcome what he called "the old difficulty."

In due course General Burnside would turn up the names of seven of his officers conspiring to overthrow him, but in truth just then there were thousands more in the Army of the Potomac who had lost faith in the commanding general. This was an army scarred by repeated failures on the battlefield, yet no previous failure had seemed so senseless and so pointless as Fredericksburg, fought on December 13. Never had the troops fought more gallantly than in their repeated stormings of Marye's Heights behind the town; never was gallantry so obviously and so visibly wasted. On Marye's Heights the Rebel general Longstreet remarked that so long as his ammunition held out and they kept coming, he would kill every Yankee soldier in Burnside's army, and for a time, until darkness intervened, it seemed that he might. Federal casualties were 12,653, greater even than on that terrible day at Antietam Creek in September, and nothing whatever was gained. December 13, 1862, was beyond doubt the worst day in the experience of the Army of the Potomac.

It was General Burnside announcing his intention to resume the campaign that had sent Newton and Cochrane hurrying to Washington. From army headquarters at Falmouth on December 29 came orders for the troops to prepare to march, carrying three days' rations and sixty rounds of ammunition. No details of Burnside's plan were given, but clearly it would mean another crossing of the Rappahannock and another battle at or near Fredericksburg. Later Generals Franklin and Smith would have difficulty recalling the purpose of Newton's and Cochrane's trip to the capital. Franklin testified that he "had no idea … the President, or anybody else who had any power" would be visited; Smith said he simply could not remember what his two subordinates had in mind. Yet the fact that with the army under marching orders a general of division and a general of brigade were granted leaves by their superiors to travel to Washington suggests these memory lapses were more convenient than real. The far more credible assumption is that William B. Franklin and William F. Smith knew exactly what their two generals were planning, and in fact had put them up to it.

On reaching the capital that morning of December 30, Cochrane had Newton wait at the Metropolitan Hotel while he hunted up someone of influence to listen to their tale. He went first in search of the head of the Senate's Committee on Military Affairs, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, and Congressman Moses F. Odell of New York, member of the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. But Congress was in recess for the holidays and both men had left town. Nothing daunted, Cochrane determined to take his case directly to the top, to the White House. When he arrived there he encountered an old New York acquaintance, Secretary of State William H. Seward. He told enough of his story to Seward to persuade him to get them in to see the president. While Seward was arranging the appointment, Cochrane hurried back to the Metropolitan to collect the no doubt startled Newton. Now, in midafternoon, the two generals found themselves face to face with their commander-in-chief.

Poor Newton was in a dilemma. As the senior officer he had to take the lead, and what he wanted to say — what he truly believed — was that the Army of the Potomac was demoralized because it had lost all confidence in General Burnside. Should it again suffer defeat on the Rappahannock, which he believed was imminent, it would not be (as he later told the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War) "a mere defeat, as before, but it would be a destruction." Newton would have been comfortable enough saying this to a civilian, say an influential member of Congress, but "to come square out" to his commander-in- chief was a very different matter. Should he appear to be criticizing his superior with intent to have him relieved (which was just what he and his fellow dissidents devoutly hoped would happen), he could be charged with "manifestly improper" conduct and cashiered. As Newton later confessed, he found himself "in a very delicate position in this conversation." He hemmed and hawed and talked all around the subject and hoped that somehow the president would understand that the army was indeed dispirited and would then investigate matters for himself.

Lincoln saw quickly enough what was really on Newton's mind, and wondered out loud if there might be some intent here "to injure" General Burnside. Quickly, desperately, Newton said that was the furthest thing from his mind. It was his intent only to stress "the condition of the army." At this point Cochrane weighed in to smooth things over. This was not unlike the give-and-take of political negotiation, an art John Cochrane was entirely familiar with, and he soon steered the conversation to the higher plane of selfless duty, with motives of purest patriotism. He confirmed by "personal observation" what General Newton had said of the condition of the army; surely the president could see such testimony as evidence "of patriotism and of my loyalty to the government. ..." Mr. Lincoln recognized a practiced political hand at work, and no doubt with a sigh "resumed his ordinary manner." By Cochrane's account, the president said he was glad they had visited him, "and that good would come of the interview." With that the two generals took their leave.

From the perspective of those in the army plotting to overthrow General Burnside, something good did indeed emerge from the interview. At 3:30 that afternoon a telegram went out from the War Department to General Burnside on the Rappahannock. "I have good reason for saying you must not make a general movement of the army without letting me know," it read, and it was signed, "A. Lincoln."

Ambrose Everett Burnside was not chosen to replace General McClellan, back in November, because he displayed any obviously striking military talents. Other generals had served in the Army of the Potomac longer than he, and much more capably. His only sustained fighting record with this army, before commanding it, was in the Maryland campaign that September, in which he hardly distinguished himself. Before agreeing to accept the post, on November 7, Burnside had earlier twice rejected Lincoln's efforts to put him in McClellan's place. He told the president he was simply not qualified to lead a great army — certainly not as qualified as his friend General McClellan.

Such frankness was one of the attractions of this appealing man. He not only accepted full responsibility for the Fredericksburg disaster, but sent his statement to the newspapers to ensure its wide circulation. A fellow Potomac army general, Gouverneur K. Warren, rendered a widely accepted verdict on General Burnside: "A good fellow certainly, manly, honest, and comely." In addition to his personable nature, Burnside was without political connections or ambitions — an important consideration in this highly politicized army — and was well liked by the men in the ranks. This latter was a most important consideration, for there was real concern in Washington about how the troops would react to the dismissal of their beloved "Little Mac." Ambrose Burnside might not have been the best man for the job of commanding general, but he was surely the safest one in the peculiar circumstances of wrenching General McClellan out of the army he was so much a part of.

Having praise for Burnside the man, Gouverneur Warren went on to take the measure of Burnside the soldier, and found him wanting: "But of only moderate mind and attainments, who has made our cause suffer more in battle than any other Genl. …" Observers concluded that Burnside's humility, which he displayed publicly so often that it was played up by the newspapers, amounted to self-fulfilling prophecy. George Gordon Meade, commanding the Fifth Corps, thought this trait a major factor in Burnside's troubles. "Another drawback," he told Mrs. Meade, "was a very general opinion among officers and men, brought about by his own assertions, that the command was too much for him. This greatly weakened his position." Neither Warren nor Meade was part of the cabal formed against Burnside, yet they saw clearly the army commander's wounds, and the sharks circling for the kill.

Burnside was startled by Lincoln's telegraphed order to make no advance without first consulting him. He believed no one outside the high command of the Army of the Potomac knew his plans; the telegram must mean there were military operations elsewhere requiring his cooperation. He replied that he was rescinding orders already issued, and would come up to Washington the next day to consult. Morning of the last day of the year 1862 found him in the president's office.

Lincoln came directly to the point. Certain general officers of the Army of the Potomac had called on him — he did not reveal their names — to say that the army was moving to the attack, and that the attack "would result in disaster." By Burnside's testimony, he was too surprised at this to remember everything the president told him of the visitors' story, yet he did record one very important element of that story that Newton and Cochrane would neglect to mention in recounting their December 30 call on the president. According to Burnside, the president "said that he had understood that no prominent officer of my command had any faith in my proposed movement." It is highly unlikely that Generals Newton and Cochrane had sufficient contact with every "prominent officer" in the army to risk making such a ringing judgment on their own. But generals of the station of William Franklin and William Smith certainly had those contacts — and would have been glad enough to offer this glittering nugget to their two subordinates before sending them off to Washington on their mission.

Burnside launched into an earnest explanation of his planned movement. In the December 13 battle he had thrown pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock directly in front of Fredericksburg. This time he planned to cross a flanking column a half-dozen miles downstream from the town, and to make a show of crossing above the town as well. All this would be combined with a powerful raiding force of cavalry slicing in behind the Confederates from the west to cut their communications with Richmond. The plan displayed a good deal more imagination than Burnside's earlier head-on lurch across the river, yet the president was uneasy about it. What he had been told of the attitude of Burnside's generals troubled him, and Burnside provided small comfort with the admission that "some of my general officers" did indeed have what he termed "misgivings" about the operation.

Lincoln said he wanted to hear what his advisers, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, had to say on the subject. Unveiling his streak of humility, Burnside said that if both his officers and his men lacked confidence in him, he thought he should resign his command. And since he was on the subject, he added that as far as he could tell, there was a definite lack of confidence in the army toward both Secretary Stanton and General Halleck. Taken all together, there was very little in this conversation to give Mr. Lincoln much encouragement about the military picture.

The day's events had generated in General Burnside a rising anger, and that evening, in his room at Willard's Hotel, he composed a forthright letter to the president. What he had said that morning ought to be on the record, he thought. He began by asserting that Secretary of War Stanton "has not the confidence of the country." To which he added, "The same opinion applies with equal force in regard to General Halleck." It was, he observed pointedly, "of the utmost importance" that both secretary of war and general-in-chief possess "the confidence of the people and the army." From that it was but a tiny step to the inference that General Burnside thought both men should resign.

As for himself, Burnside left no doubt about what he thought. Because he was so out of step with his general officers, brought on no doubt by their "lack of confidence in me," it would be in the best interests of the president and the country that he resign. "In this case it is highly necessary that this army should be commanded by some other officer, to whom I will most cheerfully give way."

January 1, 1863, New Year's Day, promised to be a milestone for Abraham Lincoln. The Emancipation Proclamation, with his signature that day, would mark out a new direction for the war and for the country. The signing ceremony was scheduled for noon. First, however, the president had to meet with Burnside, Stanton, and Halleck at the War Department to discuss what was to be done, if anything, with the Army of the Potomac.

This strategy meeting deeply disappointed him. Burnside began by handing his newly written letter of resignation (and comment) to the president, who read it and without a word returned it to him. That was not enough for Burnside. He was Burnside the Honest, believing he owed it to Stanton and Halleck to tell the whole truth of what he had told the president. He announced his opinion that neither they (nor he) had the confidence of the army and of the country. The anti-Burnside cabal would claim that Burnside brazenly told Stanton and Halleck to their faces that they should resign. Halleck blandly denied that any such thing was said in his presence, which was true enough but evasive. No one at this conference was so obtuse as to miss Burnside's unsubtle hint that they as well as he ought to resign.


Excerpted from "Chancellorsville"
by .
Copyright © 1996 Stephen W. Sears.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
The Revolt of the Generals,
General Lee Knows His Business,
Joe Hooker Takes Command,
The Highest Expectations,
My Plans Are Perfect,
Army on the March,
Day of Decisions,
To Repulse the Enemy,
Photos I,
My Troops Will Move at Once,
They Were Flying in Great Disorder,
The Fate of Stonewall Jackson,
A Most Terribly Bloody Conflict,
Cavalcade of Triumph,
Calling Upon General Sedgwick,
Photos II,
Time the Yankees Were Leaving,
Appendix I,
Appendix II,
Appendix III,
About the Author,

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Chancellorsville 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
timbrennan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sears is a master. This reads like a top notch thriller.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I began reading Chancellorville on an airplane ride back to Texas after visiting Gettysburg and reading Sear's Gettysburg book. Sears details the events of the week long battle, which has become known as Robert E. Lee's masterpiece campaign. Sears focusses primarily on command decisions and mistakes within the Northern command and how they were most responsible for their defeat. It is another great Sear's campaign study intended for the military history lover, not the general reader. Sears does a great job of mapping the thinking of Hooker, Meade, Sedwick, and the other Union generals of the campaign, but rich lively description is not his style. I enjoyed the book, and I think all in all its a pretty balanced account. One criticism that I would offer though, Sears seems to draw much more heavily from Northern sources in his campaign studies than from Southern ones. You get a great sense of the battle from the Northern perspective, but I feel like he doesn't do as good of a job putting you in the minds of the Southern generals and command. Perhaps he feels that there is already plenty written of Lee and Jackson's strategies and conceptions of Chancellorsville, and he has a job to set the record straight on Hooker's perspectives of the campaign. I don't think his book suffers as a result, but I would not call his account the definitive version of Chancellorsville. Indeed, such a definitive version may not exist. In the final analysis, if you are interested in this great battle of the Civil War, you will not go wrong with this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sears clarifies a number of military issues related to this battle including communications, intelligence, cavalry, chain-of-command, and timing. General Hooker receives an impartial review from the author and changes my impression of Hooker's impact on the Army of the Potomac and the US military. Union and Confederate perspectives equally and fully presented. Very readable and understandable.