Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mackowski & White: "CHANCELLORSVILLE'S FORGOTTEN FRONT: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863"

[ Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863 by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White (Savas Beatie, 2013) Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:363/431. ISBN:987-1-61121-136-8 $32.95 ]

While Gettysburg has entire books devoted to smaller and smaller segments of the great battle, even to the extent of documenting the conflict over a single farm, Chancellorsville struggles to get much coverage at all, let alone similar micro-historical treatment. However, this imbalance has now been favorably altered with the appearance of the first full length account of the actions of General John Sedgwick's left wing of the Army of the Potomac during the campaign, entirely appropriate given that Uncle John fought essentially an independent series of battles east of Chancellorsville. Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White's Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front offers readers easily the best available military history of the battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church.

The activities of the main body, under the direct control of army commander General Joseph Hooker, are ably recounted by Mackowski and White, providing context for newer readers and a refresher course for those already familiar with the campaign and the timing of events. A common theme throughout is poor communications, a product of both lines of communication length (a faulty telegraph system and a 25 mile courier route) and unclear content. In the latter case, Hooker kept his plans close to the vest, with only army chief of staff Daniel Butterfield fully informed. Instructions to corps commanders were parceled out on a need to know basis, not an ideal policy in the case of Sedgwick, who possessed a reputation for following orders but not for initiative. Thus, Sedgwick was both isolated and starved of clear direction, except for a series of orders that arrived during the heat of battle and were often vague, outdated, and non-situationally aware.

All of the movements and events associated with Sedgwick's augmented VI Corps command are admirably analyzed and detailed in Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front. While the book's overall focus shades more toward the Union perspective, the responses of their Confederate foes [primarily Jubal Early's reinforced division, Cadmus Wilcox's brigade, and a number of late reinforcements] are fully represented. Mackowski and White's largely regimental level battle narrative is at a scale that will please the great majority of readers drawn to books of this type.

Before describing the brief but bloody Battle of Second Fredericksburg, much attention is directed toward the initial river crossings below the city. As with many other aspects of the campaign, miscommunication made the bridging operation by no means a smooth one. However, abundant north bank Union artillery made it impossible for the Confederates to take advantage of any temporary confusion. The entrenched positions of Early's men, approximately 10,000 soldiers spread thinly over 7 miles, and the terrain problems imposed upon any attacking force are clearly laid out. The authors make note of the narrow-front columnar formations employed by many of Newton's assault regiments as being something of a progenitor to the breakthrough tactics later used by the army at Spotsylvania and Petersburg, but it's unclear if they were a major factor in capturing the heights. Either way, Sedgwick's cautious exploitation of his victory allowed the bulk of Early's division to escape unscathed to the south, where they could operate on the Union left flank.

While acknowledging the benefits of hindsight, the authors are critical of Sedgwick's caution at several points in the campaign. His two hour pursuit delay after capturing Fredericksburg, with the intention of bringing Brooks's fresh division to the advance, is perhaps the most egregious of these. Even so, Mackowski and White make a strong case that Confederate General Cadmus Wilcox deserves far more credit for delaying Sedgwick than he's ever been accorded by Chancellorsville lore. On his own initiative, Wilcox brought his brigade to Fredericksburg and blunted the breakthrough behind the town. He also selected Salem Heights as the proper rallying point for checking the Union advance, occupying the center position at Salem Church with reinforcements in the form of Lafayette McLaws's division and Mahone's brigade extending the Confederate line north and south. The authors detail how this force crushed Brooks's division and threw Sedgwick back on the defensive. Just how well crafted the defense was, with the five brigades positioned on the reverse slope of the height with the added benefit of an intervening wood to neutralize Sedgwick's massive edge in artillery, probably deserves even more acclaim than the book gives it. The slightly concave shape of the line also facilitated the concentration of converging fire upon the Union regiments entering the wood.

Overall, the book's leadership assessments comprise fair critiques of the generals of both sides. Wilcox's role as unsung hero of the battle has been mentioned already, and a reasonable balance is drawn between criticism of Sedgwick's excessive caution and the consequences of a poor communications setup between Hooker's headquarters and his own. Early was placed in a difficult position throughout, but performed his duties well. He averted a near disaster by quickly reoccupying the Fredericksburg position after a member of Lee's staff mistakenly ordered him to abandon it [although perhaps he should have refused all along]. Early also arranged his retreat from Fredericksburg with skill, preserved his division as a fresh fighting force and falling back in the correct southerly direction. This last action allowed him to reoccupy Marye's Heights in the confusion after the Union defeat at Salem Church and substantially increase the danger to Sedgwick's Banks Ford salient. Complaints are mainly tonal in nature. One might argue that some of the criticisms of Howard expressed in the book are outdated and it becomes a bit tiresome to yet again see McClellanism dredged up in some form each time the subject of slow movement and cautious leadership is raised.

As one has come to expect from this publisher, the quality of the maps more than meets expectation, although it would have been nice to see more than one for each battle and a few more to bridge some of the gaps that have no map associated with them (e.g. Wilcox's first blocking position). Appendix materials include orders of battle, numbers and casualty tables, a post-war sunken road history, and a list of Medal of Honor recipients.

Far more than a mere esoteric supplement to existing works on the campaign by Bigelow, Sears, Furgurson, etc., Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front is a completely original and essential part of the literature. It is highly recommended.


  1. I've been eagerly awaiting this one and your thoughts on it. Thanks for providing an excellent review.
    Will Hickox

  2. Great review.

    Looking at this area of the battle in detail should be very interesting for students of Chancellorsville.


  3. I've found the book pretty good, but it is quite maddening that the citations are rather useless at many places because they reference the bound volumes at FSNMP rather than the actual source of the document.


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