Since we are so close to publishing the print version of An Eternity of Four Years, I thought another teaser to get your interest up might be helpful. This scene takes place during the early days of the Battle of Chancellorsville as Stonewall Jackson’s staff considers the options for the Confederates facing a much superior force.
Since re-crossing the Rappahannock and making another frontal attack at Fredericksburg was not an option for Hooker, in Late April 1863 he deployed 70,000 of his men to the west and moved them quickly across the river upstream in an attempt to flank Fredericksburg. Lee parried the move but left Early with the 1st Louisiana to hold Fredericksburg. Some skirmishes between Lee and Hooker resulted, but Fighting Joe suddenly drew back to defensive positions around Chancellorsville on the south side of the Rappahannock and sat there.
I was present when Jackson was studying a map with his staff, and one man quietly mused to himself, “What’s Hooker doing?”
Though deep in thought, Jackson must have heard him and looked up. He jabbed his finger at the map. “He wants to draw us out. He wants to choose the ground and have us come to him, so he can fight from a strong defensive position; thinks he can beat Lee that way.” Jackson looked around at his staff to observe their reaction to what he had just said and stopped when he got to me. “Captain, I have seen that expression on your face before back at the Institute. Something on your mind?”
I was somewhat startled but tried to quickly recover. “Yes, sir. I would have thought Hooker would understand that wars are not won fighting from the defensive. One must go on the offensive to completely defeat the enemy.”
Old Jack smiled. “As I recall, you were one of the few who remained awake during my lectures. You’re right. It is possible that Hooker could win the battle but only if he inflicts unsustainable casualties on us. But he’ll not win the war this way, and why will he not, Captain?”
I shook my head in the negative and replied softly. “Lee won’t fall into that trap.”
“And you would be correct. Lee is no fool. If you were Lee what would you do?”
I looked closer at the map and the dispositions of the two forces. “Well, sir, if a frontal attack is out of the question, then the alternative is a flanking maneuver.” I looked to Hooker’s left flank, the preferred choice to flank him, since it would sever his avenues of supply and retreat. “Hooker’s left flank is anchored on the Rappahannock, so we can’t get around that way; we would have to punch through it, which is almost the same as a frontal attack against the center.” My focus shifted to the western end of Hooker’s line. “His right flank appears to be in the air. If so, and he hasn’t reinforced it in anticipation of a flanking move, we might be able to move a large force undetected through the Wilderness and get around him that way.”
Old Jack nodded. “You did pay attention in class. See any problems with that maneuver?” I felt like I was back at VMI and being tested by Jackson. All eyes were on me to see how well I would do in this exam. “Yes, I do. Longstreet’s Corp is still detached, and Early is holding at Fredericksburg, so the Army of Northern Virginia has already been divided into thirds.” I pointed to Chancellorsville on the map. “To take this largest third here before Hooker’s much superior force—and divide it again—is something any text on military strategy would advise against.” Several nodded in agreement. I looked to Jackson and smiled. “But that’s precisely what you have in mind to do.”
Though the Battle of Chancellorsville ended in a victory for the Confederates, it was at an enormous cost, one that would haunt the Army of Northern Virginia for the rest of the war, especially during the coming fight at Gettysburg: General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, perhaps Lee’s most able and talented commander, was killed.