From John Hennessy:
One of the great benefits of milestones is this: preparing for them requires you to focus on the essentials, to articulate broad and big ideas efficiently and powerfully. We are currently at work on the Chancellorsville 150th (schedule coming soon). Chancellorsville has always been the most difficult of our four battles to convey. While it features giant personalities on both sides, and while Lee and Jackson produced unarguably an immense military achievement, the battle lacks the texture or landscapes of Fredericksburg (with its varied environments and participants) or the high drama of Wilderness and Spotsylvania (as the first clash of Lee and Grant and the evolution of a truly different way of waging war).
The recitation of why Chancellorsville matters is familiar: Lee seizes the intiative that carries him to Gettysburg, Jackson dies, Confederate faith in the Army of Northern Virginia intensifies (among the public AND Lee), while yet another Union commander suffers failure in the face of a smaller foe. Lincoln wails, “My God! What will the country say!”
All dramatic stuff, all important. But, let’s go to the last item on the list: what DID the country say about Chancellorsville?
Which leads me to my point: maybe the greatest signfiicance of Chancellorsville resides in what it tells us about the war at large. By 1863, the Civil War had become so large and so complex that even a singular, dramatic, decisive victory by R.E. Lee moved the needle of public sentiment or the tides of war very little indeed. The most unlikely, one-sided victory of the war, born of incredible risk, yielded almost nothing for the Confederate cause.
That in turn begs the question: by 1863, had the scope of the war rendered Robert E. Lee’s talents more symbolic than real? Was he the equivalent of Bobby Orr having to play for the 1972 New York Islanders (what a horrifc thought)–an immense talent trapped in a place where he might make some spectacular plays, but with little hope of affecting the larger outcome? The war, it seems to me, had become a grinding effort to accumulate or degrade, and Lee could accumulate no longer.
Authors and historians are forever trying to elevate the significance of their subjects. Maybe this is an instance where the larger importance of an event lies not in the impact it had, but in the impact it didn’t have and what that tells us.