Chancellorsville: Crossroads of Fire—A Review

Chancellorsville: Crossroads of Fire
Author: Chris Mackowski
Thomas Publications 2011
137 Pages (4 Maps) 2 Appendices

When many Civil War enthusiasts think of the battle of Chancellorsville, the first thought that pops to their mind is the wounding of Stonewall Jackson. For many, the battle begins and ends with the daring flank attack and wounding of Lee’s third-in-command. In his most recent work, Chancellorsville: Crossroads of Fire, author and historian Chris Mackowski clearly shows that there is more to the story of the battle than Stonewall Jackson, and he provides readers with a concise summary of the battle.

Macksowski takes readers and visitors to the battlefield and off the beaten path to tell all sides of the story. The book is set up as a combined tour book and history of the battle. According to Macksowski, “Writing about a battle that’s been so written about can be tough.” In reality, though, much that has been written about the battle has focused around Jackson, Lee and the Union 11th Corps. Therefore, there is much the story that has been overlooked. That is not to say that quality histories of the battle do not exist (see suggested readings page), but the author of this new work has a unique viewpoint regarding who comes to the battlefield, why they go there and what they actually want to see.

Mackowski started visiting battlefields years ago with his daughter Stephanie, who was fascinated by the story of Stonewall Jackson. After a visit to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Chris decided to volunteer at the park, and after a number of years of volunteering, he was hired as a ranger/historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. Therefore, Chris has had thousands of encounters with visitors and young historians. These encounters gave him an idea to pitch a series of books to park management and the Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, who enthusiastically agreed to support and fund a writing program. The hope was to help visitors understand aspects of the Civil War better and produce affordable quality works that support battlefield visits, while utilizing quality research material. This volume is actually the third in a series of books that began publishing in 2009.

Chancellorsville: Crossroads of Fire and its tour start at a point where most end the story at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitors Center: the site of Jackson’s famed wounding. To Chris this was a logical jumping off point. This is the place that most people come to see (not to mention there are restrooms on site). But where Jackson’s military career ended, the reader’s journey begins.

After setting up the story, readers embark on a 13-stop tour of Chancellorsville. They visit the most recognizable places, such as the Chancellorsville Crossroads, Lee-Jackson Bivouac and Flank Attack Area. Many out-of-the-way spots, though, are also visited, including Catherine Iron Furnace, the Unfinished Railroad Cut, and the recently acquired First Day Battlefield. At each stop, a brief history is laid before the reader, reinforced by interpretation of the site. This unique approach takes readers across the Virginia countryside with dozens of illustrations. One of the best qualities of this work is that one can read it in Washington state and still see the battlefield, or conversely a person may take it in hand and walk the fields and read the descriptions on site.

The history in the book is very well researched. Mackowski utilized the vast knowledge of the park staff, many of whom are noted historians themselves. Add to that the voluminous amount of first-hand resources, and the author has put together a short, though comprehensive history of “Lee’s Greatest Victory.”

“It was a fun challenge to write a book about the battle in a way that, I hope, is fresh,” Mackowski said. “Hopefully, the book helps people not only understand the battle better but also the battlefield itself.”

According to Mackowski, “There hasn’t been much written about the battlefield itself, so that was a real treat.” He brings up a valid point; one must truly know the battlefield to know the battle. He has literally lived on the battlefield, so he is one of those people who truly knows the battlefield at Chancellorsville, inside and out.

As a tour book and short history I would recommend this title to those who truly want to explore Chancellorsville and not focus exclusively on Jackson’s wounding.

There was only one real drawback to the book, which is that there are only four maps, which were augmented by a few other historic maps that are mixed in with the illustrations. The historical maps include a copy of a map carried by Jackson at Chancellorsville. Still, the author worked it so that the reader on the battlefield will have many maps, not in the book, but on the interpretive signage across the field.

One aspect I enjoyed was seeing names and pictures of officers that few associate with the battle. Union Generals Hiram Berry and Amiel Whipple play a role in the story. These were two 3rd Corps division commanders who fell on May 3rd. May 3rd is also explored in great detail. This was the second-bloodiest day of the war, only to be outdone by Antietam. This day is often overlooked because of the wounding of Jackson. Also to my delight, the role of JEB Stuart is explored. He went from Lee’s cavalry chief to the head of Second Corps. Stuart’s new command spearheaded the May 3rd assault. The coverage of the Day Three fight is an outstanding addition to the work.

The two appendices are nice additions to the work, too. One covers both the rivers and fords in the Wilderness of Virginia; the other offers a brief biography of Matthew Fontaine Muray. Maury, the “Father of Modern Oceanography,” was born on what would become the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The brief, well-written bio, explores the career of a man who few know is from Spotsylvania County, Virginia.

In all, this work is a worthwhile investment to those who want to learn more about the battle and the battlefield. It is a great work to take along the tour of the battlefield because it not only complements the interpretive markers on the field, it enhances them, as well as your experience, on the Chancellorsville Battlefield.

Other Titles by Chris Mackowski:

The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson

Dark Close Woods The Wilderness, Ellwood and the Battle That Defined Both

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