A detailed, poignant account of Chancellorsville

November 15, 1992|By Vincent D. Fitzpatrick

CHANCELLORSVILLE 1863:

THE SOULS OF THE BRAVE.

Ernest B. Furgurson.

Knopf.

405 pages. $25.

The day before this "most terrible bloody conflict" that claimed 30,000 casualties, Federal soldiers waxed enthusiastic. The Battle of Chancellorsville, they predicted, would prove the Waterloo of the Civil War. "Fighting Joe Hooker" would play the part of Wellington, and Robert E. Lee would suffer a defeat as disastrous as Napoleon's.

Actually, Hooker bragged better than he fought, and his nickname proved wildly inaccurate. Despite outnumbering Lee more than 2 to 1, Hooker delayed and drank and fought with his subordinates as Lee masterfully moved his troops across this extended battlefield. There was huge consternation in Washington when Hooker withdrew across the Rappahannock River in early May 1863, and he was replaced the next month by General Meade.

Lee's name "might be Audacity," a colleague remarked. He divided his forces four times and, to the astonishment of the Federals, kept attacking. In the "most dramatic lightning stroke" of the war, Stonewall Jackson marched his foot cavalry 12 miles through the woods and caused "blind panic" on Hooker's unanchored right wing. To this day, Jackson's movement seems staggering in both boldness and execution.

Eleven miles west of Fredericksburg, Va., the brick house of the Chancellor family stood where five roads merged. It was, both literally and figuratively, a crossroads in the war. It marked the zenith of Lee's illustrious career. But he also lost his finest general, his "right arm"; Jackson died after being shot accidentally by his own men. Moreover, although Lee sustain fewer casualties, he could afford them far less than the Federals could.

Finally, Lee grew too confident of his soldiers' ability. "There never were such men in an army before," he remarked appreciatively. "They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led." Two months later at Gettysburg, Lee asked them to do the impossible. This was his nadir -- the price the Confederacy paid, it has been said, for Lee's command.

America's Civil War has been written about more than any other war. To the shelf-loads of commentary about Chancellorsville, Ernest B. Furgurson adds this extraordinary volume. His narrative provides a detailed, thoroughly annotated analysis of the conflict; perhaps more important, it proves an extremely moving human document.

A former reporter/columnist for The Sun, Mr. Furgurson has written books about Gen. William Westmoreland and North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. The author's great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy at Chancellorsville. This volume's subtitle, "The Souls of the Brave," announces its approach. As he explains in his preface, Mr. Furgurson wants "to add an authentic human dimension to the tactical studies of the past."

Saturated with his subject, he offers a compulsively readable story that will be accessible to the general reader and informative to the Civil War buff. He draws the conflict as a "drama" and thoroughly sketches out the principals. Much to his credit, he avoids self-righteous revisionism and shuns special pleading.

Drawing upon old material as well as new information, he weaves a variety of voices into a narrative that captures the huge range of language and deeds marking that battlefield. The reader witnesses bravery and cowardice, kindness and cruelty, piety and blasphemy, rage and resignation.

Mr. Furgurson has a practiced eye for the ironies generated not only by this battle but also by the war. He deftly wields a scalpel instead of hacking away with an ax. We see chaplains who exhort their men to be brave and then flee under fire. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; his wife spoke of "those pickaninnies."

As a stylist, the author shows considerable range. On the one hand, he knows when to be quiet. He has grasped a lesson that has eluded many others: Less can mean more. When the prose is understated, it reminds me at times of that remarkable document, Lee's Farewell to His Troops.

Other times, he writes with far less reserve. For me, the volume's most poignant episode is the final meeting between Lee and Jackson. Elegiac, conveying the sad sense of an ending -- it was the best that ever was and maybe ever would be -- the passage also captures the soldiers' feelings for their commanders.

"The generals' devotion was plain to the regiment," Mr. Furgurson explains; "the soldiers' infinite trust in their commanders was both inspiration and burden to Lee and Jackson. And so as they talked and watched their soldiers march by: as their soldiers saw Lee nod and Jackson ride forward, a genuine love moved back and forth among them. It is a feeling best understood by soldiers who have been there."

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