The Battle of Chancellorsville has been described as both General Lee’s greatest triumph (total domination of the Union forces) and lowest point in the Civil War prior to surrender (loss of General Thomas Jackson). Although much has been written about the battle around Chancellorsville, not much attention has been given to the clashes around and in Fredericksburg and Salem Church. However, a much-needed book by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863, has brought new light to these two battles.
Here is a synopsis of the book from the publisher Savas Beatie:
By May of 1863, the Stone Wall at the base of Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg loomed large over the Army of the Potomac, haunting its men with memories of slaughter from their crushing defeat there the previous December. They would assault it again with a very different result the following spring when General Joe Hooker, bogged down in bloody battle with the Army of Northern Virginia around the crossroads of Chancellorsville, ordered John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps to assault the heights and move to his assistance. This time the Union troops wrested the wall and high ground from the Confederates and drove west into the enemy’s rear. The inland drive stalled in heavy fighting at Salem Church. Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863 is the first book-length study of these overlooked engagements and the central roles they played in the final Southern victory.
Once Hooker opened the campaign with a brilliant march around General Lee’s left flank, the Confederate commander violated military principles by dividing his under-strength army in the face of superior numbers. He shuttled most of his men west from around Fredericksburg under Stonewall Jackson to meet Hooker in the tangles of the Wilderness, leaving behind a small portion to watch Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps. Jackson’s devastating attack against Hooker’s exposed right flank on May 2, however, convinced the Union army commander to order Sedgwick’s large, unused corps to break through and march against Lee’s rear. From that point on, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front tightens the lens for a thorough examination of the decision-making, movements, and fighting that led to the breakthrough, inland thrust, and ultimate bloody stalemate at Salem Church.
As with all of the books that I have read from Savas Beatie, this book is an example of great research and wonderful writing. The authors do justice to the soldiers and leaders of both sides. They discuss the aggressiveness of the Union forces to take the hills above Fredericksburg and the equally aggressive defense/offense of the Confederates at Salem Church.
The authors have a perfect balance between discussing strategy and tactics. They explain General Hooker’s overall goal of trying to flank General Lee, but describe how General Sedgwick’s troops tried to succeed in that task.
I particularly like the brief biographies, including photographs, of the leaders in the battles from both sides. These biographies help you understand why the leaders did what they did in the battle based on their history. The authors also include an extensive amount of maps to allow you to see the movements of the troops as you read the text. As I have said in the past, not many authors include enough maps to help the reader understand what is going on.
One final note, I want to encourage people to read the book’s Prologue. The authors describe how some parts of the battlefields of second Fredericksburg and Salem Church have disappeared due to development. Much of the ground described in the Battle of Salem Church cannot be seen today because of the construction of such things as a gas station or a parking lot. It can never be stressed enough that Civil War battlefields are our heritage that must be protected.
This book is a must-read for any person wanting to fully understand how the Confederates were able to dominate the Union at Chancellorsville.