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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Battle of Chancellorsville, and the Death of Stonewall Jackson

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series will be published this week.

The bloody Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and the aborted “Mud March” along the Rappahannock River the following month demoralized the Army of the Potomac and caused a widespread loss of confidence in its commander, Ambrose Burnside. On January 26, 1863, President Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker, who reorganized the army’s command structure and raised its morale by improving camp conditions, providing better food, and granting furloughs. With 134,000 men under his command, on April 27 Hooker began an offensive designed to drive Lee out of his defensive positions along the Rappahannock and force him either to retreat or fight on open ground. While one wing of his army prepared to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, Hooker sent the other wing upriver to turn Lee’s left flank. By April 30 Hooker’s flanking force had crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and reached Chancellorsville, a crossroads clearing ten miles west of Fredericksburg in the midst of an area of scrub woods and dense undergrowth known as the Wilderness. Captain Charles F. Morse, a staff officer with the Twelfth Corps, recalled that when Hooker reached Chancellorsville that evening, the Union commander said “in the most extravagant, vehement terms” that “he had got the rebels, how he was going to crush them, annihilate them, etc.”1

Surprised by Hooker’s adroit movement, Lee nonetheless responded audaciously by dividing his already outnumbered army of 60,000 men. Leaving 10,000 troops to defend Fredericksburg against the Union forces that had crossed the Rappahannock just below the city, he sent Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and the remainder of his men to oppose the Union forces advancing from the west. On May 1 the two sides fought at the edge of the Wilderness, three miles east of Chancellorsville. When Hooker withdrew his men to defensive positions around the Chancellorsville clearing, Lee and Jackson decided to again divide their forces and seize the initiative. While Lee kept 14,000 men to face the 70,000 Union troops at Chancellorsville, Jackson marched 33,000 men twelve miles through the Wilderness on May 2 and struck at Hooker’s exposed right flank. “We loaded & started in run yelling & soon saw the blue rascals running like turkeys & our men—shooting, cheering, & pursuing as fast as they could,” wrote Alabama infantryman Samuel Pickens. “When Yanks got behind hill or breastwk they would stop & shoot & minute or two—but as our men would come charging upon them they’d be off again.”2 Jackson’s men drove the Union right wing back toward Chancellorsville until night fell. Seeking to continue his offensive, Jackson rode forward in the darkness and was accidentally shot by his own men.

On the morning of May 3 Lee attacked the Union forces around the Chancellorsville clearing. “The rebels came up to the attack in solid masses and got within three hundred yards, but they were slaughtered by the hundreds by the case-shot and canister, and were driven back to the woods,” Morse wrote.3 Union Captain Samuel W. Fiske was taken prisoner in the dense undergrowth. As Fiske and his guard made their way toward the Confederate rear, they had to step “among mangled corpses of friend and foe, past men without limbs and limbs without men.”4 After several hours of intense fighting Hooker withdrew to a new defensive position closer to the Rappahannock as Lee learned that Union troops under John Sedgwick had captured Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg and were advancing on Chancellorsville.

Leaving about 20,000 men to face Hooker, Lee attacked Sedgwick on May 4 at Salem Church, four miles west of Fredericksburg. After an inconclusive battle, Sedgwick withdrew across the Rappahannock on the night of May 4. Hooker retreated across the river the following night, ending a campaign in which the Union lost about 17,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, and the Confederates about 13,000. Among the dead was Stonewall Jackson, who died from his wounds on May 10. On her North Carolina plantation Catherine Edmondston mourned “the nation’s idol,” who had died in “the brightness of his glory, a Christian patriot, unselfish, untiring, with no thought but for his country, no aim but for her advancement.”5

Many in the Army of the Potomac believed that the campaign had shown Hooker to be without “the qualities necessary for a general.”6 Nevertheless, Hooker’s failure did not markedly change the strategic situation. Despite Lee’s triumph, the Army of the Potomac was still encamped on the northern bank of the Rappahannock, only sixty miles from Richmond. Lee’s desire to drive it away from the Confederate capital, and his renewed confidence in the Army of Northern Virginia, would soon cause him to look north toward Pennsylvania.

1 Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 196.
2 Samuel Pickens: Diary, May 1–3, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 175.
3 Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 200.
4 Samuel W. Fiske to the Springfield Republican, May 9, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 206–07.
5 Catherine Edmondston: Diary, May 5–7, 9, and 10–11, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 194.
6 Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 203.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Friday, April 19, 2013

Curt Meine on the powerful lyricism of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and the continuing appeal of his essays and journals

Curt Meine, author of the definitive biography Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, spoke with us about the recent publication of the latest Library of America volume, Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.

Why should people read Aldo Leopold? What’s his particular relevance today?

For decades people have read Aldo Leopold because his writing continually delights us, informs us, and challenges us. He was a gifted prose stylist, a keen thinker, a meticulous observer of the natural world, and a brilliant synthesizer of insights from literature, science, history, and philosophy. Often compared to Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson, Leopold was among the first to see the significance of the emerging science of ecology for our stewardship of the land. And he thought of “land” expansively. In his essay “Land-Use and Democracy” (1942), he defined it as the “soils, waters, plants, animals, and people.” He recognized that conservation was not just a technical or economic pursuit, but inherently a matter of ethics as well—of our relationships to one another, and our relationships to the natural world. In that sense he is the key figure bridging the early conservation movement and the modern environmental movement, and his comprehensive approach remains directly relevant to current debates involving sustainability, resilience, and community well-being.

What does Leopold mean by “thinking like a mountain”?

Leopold’s essay of that name is among his best known. In it he explores the “hidden meaning” that he found in his youthful killing of a mother wolf, a profound experience he recounts in A Sand County Almanac. The phrase memorably distilled Leopold’s mature understanding that if we are to achieve a healthier relationship with the land that supports us all, we need to reflect deeply and durably about the natural world, its evolutionary history and ecological complexity, and the changing roles and responsibilities of human beings within it. It was his call to be both humble and expansive as we do so.

What is the relationship between Leopold’s various activities—as a U.S. Forest Service ranger and land manager, hunter and fisherman, advocate and teacher, restorer of the land in Wisconsin’s sand counties—and his writing?

It was all of a piece. Throughout his life Leopold sought to connect his outdoor experience and actions to broader concepts and ideas—and to communicate his insights to varied audiences. But as he matured, and thought much more consciously about the role of the writer in gathering what he once called the “cultural harvest” of the land, the lyrical voice of Sand County emerged. That voice was the fully integrated expression of Leopold’s active personal and professional life, his commitment as a communicator, and his contemplative temperament.

What do the selections from Leopold’s journals included in the LOA collection say about him as man and writer?

In his journals, which Leopold kept from 1917 until his death in 1948, the reader finds the raw materials behind Leopold’s more finished prose. They show Leopold as an extraordinarily dedicated recorder of his outdoor activities and of natural phenomena. His journals were not primarily literary in character; they were his sportsman’s and naturalist’s notebooks. But it is hard to imagine Leopold the writer apart from Leopold the disciplined outdoorsman, observer, and naturalist!

Leopold is revered among environmentalists but somewhat less familiar to general readers. Why?

Leopold has long been labeled a “nature writer”—a term that can both connect and confine his writing to a particular reading audience. And as we as a society have become increasingly removed from the reality of the land and its history, his voice can seem more remote, even “old-fashioned.” Yet, for those seeking to explore and rethink our relationship to land and the Earth, that voice remains as relevant and fresh and provocative as ever. In his celebrated essay “The Land Ethic,” he calls upon his readers to become active participants in the “thinking community” through which an ethic evolves. That invitation remains open to us today.

The LOA collection includes a large selection of Leopold’s letters, almost all of them previously unpublished. How do these letters add to or alter our understanding of Leopold?

I think the letters give the reader what I as a Leopold biographer had: access to a more personal, more immediate, sense of the human being behind Sand County. They reveal in more intimate terms Leopold’s personal development and professional relationships. More than a few of them illustrate Leopold’s willingness to take controversial political positions on behalf of conservation. They enrich the reader’s appreciation of his talents and his flaws, his humor and his opinions, his passions and his commitments.

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

Of course that changes every time I open the cover again to read Leopold! But I have always especially appreciated a three-paragraph bit of manuscript that we have included called “Wilderness” (p. 375). Leopold wrote it in 1935 when he was visiting Germany. In it he ponders the “inevitable fusion” in our understanding of the dynamics of nature and human culture, calling it potentially “the outstanding advance of the present century.” That process of “fusion” continues, the need is as important as ever, and Leopold remains a sound and stimulating guide as we try to find our way forward.
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