Pointing fingers at Chancellorsville

War is a blame game. Who should be held to account for a bad strategy or a battle lost? Who ran when they should have stood their ground? Who should take the blame for the tragic death of an irreplaceable leader? One day at Chancellorsville makes for a perfect case in point.

On the 2nd of May, 145 years ago, Stonewall Jackson made a series of brilliant and terrible choices that showed his genius and flaws as a commander—and ignited firestorms of blame that smolder to this day. (p.26) In a feat that is still studied by armies everywhere, Jackson maneuvered his corps around the Army of the Potomac to attack the Federals’ unsupported and unprepared right flank. First to be swarmed by the Rebels were the German-American volunteer soldiers of the XI Corps. Forced to flee for their lives, they became easy targets of blame for the rout, even though they comprised only a fraction of the corps’ 11,000-man strength and their corps commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, had repeatedly ignored warnings that his position was in danger. Howard largely escaped sanction, not so the “Dutchmen.” (p.46)

In contrast, veteran riflemen of the 18th North Carolina largely escaped the sanction of their fellow Confederates for their accidental after-dark shooting of Stonewall Jackson. They were not singled out as a cursed group, as were the German-American Yankees. Perhaps that was because their comrades, largely from the same background, could identify with them and imagine the shoe on the other foot. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels mourned and blamed themselves the rest of their lives,

And then there was Jackson himself. He began the day making a late start, then made two tactically smart but time-consuming decisions, and finally rode out to reconnoiter Union positions—without a proper map. Not that he couldn’t have had one: After all, his star mapmaker, Jed Hotchkiss, was right there on the scene. Instead, Jackson made do with a miserable, inaccurate map of his own making. For that he had no one to blame but himself.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here