Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: Calamity at Chancellorsville

So I went to the new Barnes & Noble at Keystone at the Crossing last week. Not as happy with it as I was with the old Borders at that location or the old Barnes & Noble at Clearwater, inasmuch as their history section overall, and especially their world history section, seems to be smaller. But I did stumble across and pick up Calamity at Chancellorsville: The Wounding and Death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, by Mathew W. Lively. It seemed amazong to me that there would be an entire book on Jackson's death, but there it was. Naturally, I had to grab it.

For the uninitiated, the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville took place between April 30 and May 6, 1863, mostly in a wooded area known as, curiously enough, the Wilderness, in Spotsylvania County, Virgina, focusing on a crossroads known as, curiously enough, Chancellorsville, although it was more an aspiration than an actual "ville" inasmuch as it consisted of one large mansion.

The 133,000-man Union Army of the Potomac, led by General Joseph Hooker (who in my opinion was one of the best Union generals of the war) was trying to outflank and envelop General Robert E. Lee's 60,000-man Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, dug in at a nearly unassailable position (as the Army of the Potomac had found oout a few months previously) at Fredericksburg. When Hooker stole a march on Lee and occupied Chancellorsville, Lee had to keep some forces in a blocking position in Fredericksburg while moving the bulk of his army to the Wilderness.

The key phase of the battle took place on May 2. General Lee had been informed by his scouts that the Union right flank was unsecured, basically hanging "in mid air," with fortifications that faced to the south and Lee's army. Lee had General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and his Confederate II Corps engange in a flanking movement, marching 12 miles around a pig iron foundry known as Catharine Furnace and through the Wilderness toward the exposed Union right. If the move was to succeed, it had to be undetected.

General Hooker was, in fact, concerned about his right flank. He had tried to move several of his units to support it but comunication problems meant they could not reach it in time. Union scouts had spotted General Jackson's corps moving through the woods, and Hooker ordered the Geneal Oliver Howard, commander of the XI Corps on the Union right, to take precautions against an attack from the west. Howard reported that he was doing so; in fact he had done nothing. The only Union forces facing the west were a few pickets and two cannons. The troops of the XI Corps, considered among the worst in the Army of the Potomac and therefore plced on the Union right where combat was not expected, had sat down to dinner with their rifles stacked and unloaded.

Around 5:30 pm, those Union troops were startled to see foxes, rabbits, and deer fleeing the Wilderness in terror towards them. Shortly thereafter, General Jackson's 21,500 men exploded out of the woods screaming the Rebel Yell. The XI Corps disintegrated. Jackson's troops advanced to within sight of Chancellors-"ville" before darkness, Union artillery, and the very speed of their advance halted it for the night.

Though it was now dark, Jackson wanted to press on, and scouted down what was called the Orange Plank Road (because, you see, it had wooden planks, though they were not orange) ahead of his troops. Behind him was another scouting party led by General A.P. Hill. Jackson's staff warned him he was in danger but he did not listen.

As his party was returning, there was an exchange of gunfire between Union and Confederate pickets. Fearful of a moonlight Union counter attack, the rebel 18th North Carolina Infantry Regiment saw about two dozen cavalry galloping towards them and opened fire. The "cavalry" turned out to be the scouting parties of Generals Hill and Jackson. The fusillade of fire was devastating. While Hill was unhurt, almost all of his staff was killed. Of Jackson's party, which was further away, only one was wounded -- Jackson himself, who took two bullets in his left arm and one in his right hand.

The wounds to Jackson's left arm were so severe he could not continue. He was placed on a stretcher to carry back to a field hospital, but en route one of the stretcher bearers tripped and fell, dumping Jackson, who landed on his shattered left arm. He groaned in agony. His left arm had to be amputated at the field hospital. He seemed to be recovering well and was sent behind the front to be with his wife, but he contracted pneumonia and died on May 10.

Author Mathew W. Lively is actually a medical doctor with a lifelong interest in the Civil War (not unlike a lawyer with a lifelong interest in the Battle of the Java Sea) so Calamity at Chancellorsville is a sort of forensic analysis of General Jackson's death, but is mostly a description of its circumstances and a discussion of its mysteries. I had previously read Stephen W. Sears' Chancellorsville, in which he expresses the belief that the critical injury to Jackson was not the bullet wounds to his arm, but the fall from the stretcher. Lively concurs with that analysis and goes further, saying that the fall from the stretcher bruised Jackson's right lung (though he doesn't explain how landing on his left arm could have damaged his right lung). It was this bruise that caused the pneumonia, with its onset delayed by the shock of Jackson's arm injury.

For a narrowly focused book, Lively's has an interesting discussion of Jackson's flank attack and, in a general way, the Chancellorsville setting. He goes into Jackson's motif as "a good man fighting for an evil cause." He also explains precisely where and how Jackson was shot, debunking several myths in the process. Finally, Lively examines the mysterious fate of Jackson's (now missing) amputated arm.

Most interesting for me is the discussion of the Wilderness and Catharine Furnace. When I was growing up I read The Golden Book of The Civil War, Adpated for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. Even back then I did not find the narrative itself all that great, but it is chock full of beautifully illustrated maps of almost all the major battles. These remain the best maps I have seen of any Civil War publication.

The maps of the Chancellorsville and later Wilderness battles (I can't find an online version of them) always intrigued me. I never understood how Chancellorsville could consist of one building; The Golden Book of The Civil War never explained it. Its image of Catharine Furnace (often misspelled as Catherine") consisted of a single brick building that appeared to be rubbled and abandoned. Except Chancellorsville and now Calamity at Chancellorsville made clear Catharine Furnace was in operation. How could the furnace operate when it was a single rubbled building?

As the National Parks Service makes clear, it was much more than that:

The strangely mysterious Catharine Furnace.
As they explain the drawing:
Recent archaeological work reveals the extent of the industry at this site. Hundreds of people worked and lived here. The artist depiction shows only a small portion of the vast area occupied by the complex. 
Catharine Furnace, like many of the iron furnaces in the area, closed in the late 1840's. It was the shutting down of the iron industry that allowed a young second growth forest to develop by 1863 that the local civilians called The Wilderness. Catharine Furnace was reactivated during the war for use by the Confederacy. It was destroyed by George Custer's cavalry during the Wilderness Campaign in May of 1864. Today one stone stack remains.
The remaining single stone smokestack of Catharine Furnace.

The Catharine Furnace Monument.
So there appear to be no contemporary pictures of Catharine Furnace, nor apparently do any plans remain. The drawing from the Park Service is the result of archaeological work. Interesting to see our own American history becoming more and more dependent on archaeological work like ancient Greece and Rome.

It was Lively's book that first put me onto the connection between the Wilderness and Catharine Furnace, which was something else not explained by The Golden Book of The Civil War. The original forest was mostly torn down to fuel the furnaces. The furnaces were shut down in the 1840's. Only some 20 years later in 1863, the forest had grown back to such an extent that it was (and is) now called the Wilderness.

Anyone claiming how damaging logging is needs to examine the history of the Wilderness and Catharine Furnace. But I digress.

Given that he is a medical doctor used to writing for scientific journals, Lively has a surprisingly easy and engaging writing style. Calamity at Chancellorsville is not long (173 pages) and is so well-written that it reads shorter than even that. I was able to finish it in a weekend.

If you have an interest in the Civil War and Stonewall Jackson, I must say this book is for you. I highly recommend it.


  1. As the author of Calamity at Chancellorsville, I would like to thank you for the kind words and placing an image of the book on your blog. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.

    I’ll also give a little more insight into the question of how Jackson’s right lung may have been bruised during his fall from the litter. There are two possibilities. First, Jackson commented through others that he struck that side on a stump or a sapling while falling. If so, his right side could have struck the more elevated object first, sending him into a roll and hitting the ground on his left side. The second possibility is more medically technical. Injuries to body organs can result from a mechanism known as a “contrecoup injury.” In this case, as a deceleration force on one side is transmitted through the body, it causes the side of the organ opposite the impact to strike the internal cavity, thus bruising the opposite side. During blunt chest trauma, such a force can result in the lung opposite the side of impact being bruised by striking the inside of the chest cavity.

    Thanks again for the nice review of my book.

  2. The arm is "missing"?

  3. Vari,

    Dr. Lively details the issue with Jackson's arm in his book. There is a marker for the arm, but the arm is not there. They performed an excavation and found no trace of it. It's probably in the cemetery but they don't know where.

  4. Dr. Lively,

    My kind words were well-earned. Your book is well-written and thoughtful. Litrally my only quibble (and that a minor one) was the ambiguity over the injury to Jackson's right lung. Thank you for visiting here and clarifying that issue. I hope you will be able to write more such historical analyses.

  5. Thank you for mentioning our book, Calamity at Chancellorsville. If you would like more information about the book, including an excerpt, or its author, please check at
    Savas Beatie LLC
    Publisher of Historical Titles of Distinction