A Masterpiece of War – Chancellorsville

Union soldiers at Chancellorsville awaiting orders

By April 1863, America’s Civil War was two years old and there were two more years of fighting ahead though, of course, none could know this. What everyone did know was that the war was violent and bloody beyond what anyone had expected or would have believed the nation (or two nations) could endure. Neither side was at the point of exhaustion or surrender. The war would certainly go on until .  .  . what?

Nobody quite knew, though an insight of President Abraham Lincoln’s pointed to the brutal truth. His Army of the Potomac, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, had been defeated at Fredericksburg by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in December 1862. It had been a one-sided affair, with Union soldiers making repeated assaults up a hill against Confederate infantry whose position afforded the protection of a stone wall with artillery behind in support. No Union soldier even reached the wall. The Army of the Potomac suffered more than 12,000 casualties. Lee’s casualties were slightly more than 5,000. It was the most lopsided defeat so far, for an army that had seldom experienced victory. And yet .  .  .

The Army of the Potomac still existed, was still holding its positions in Virginia, and its losses were being made good. Which could not be said for Lee’s army.

So, Lincoln noted, the “arithmetic” of slaughter worked in the Union’s favor. His army could survive a week of Fredericksburgs and the Confederacy could not. Victory would come when he found a general who understood this.

Lincoln noted this in a letter appointing Hooker to command in which he wrote, “What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”


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