Question of the Week—January 12, 2015

This week’s question of the week comes from ECW reader Dwight Hughes:

I have a question for you experts: Everyone talks about Jackson’s brilliance at Chancellorsville. What about Second Manassas? The flanking movement at Chancellorsville was excellently conceived and executed, but wasn’t it after all reactive, ad hoc, almost a “hail Mary”?

Hooker had taken the initiative, flanked Lee, and pulled him out of his strong position at Fredericksburg into the Wilderness. Lee was in trouble and was saved by Hooker’s hesitance as well as by Jackson.

However, for Second Manassas, Jackson had the initiative throughout the campaign: He got way behind Pope between him and Washington, captured a major depot, disrupted Union supply lines, fell back into a strong defensive position, waited for Pope to find him, and then held him off until Lee and Longstreet snuck up on Pope’s flank and almost destroyed him.

I’m not clear how much of that was Lee’s thinking and how much Jackson (or just a great team), or how much was planned or just good decisions at each point. But as a campaign, it seems near perfect and better than Chancellorsville.

What do you think?


5 Responses to Question of the Week—January 12, 2015

  1. Chancellorsville is regarded as a more spectacular victory because of two reasons: (1) Lee (and Jackson) defeated an army twice the size of the ANV, and (2) Lee’s audacity in achieving victory by violating one of the most basic principles of war – never divide your force in the face of the enemy, which he did twice (a) at Fredericksburg leaving behind Barksdale’s brigade at Marye’s Heights and Early’s Division to confront Sedgwick’s much larger reinforced corps, and (b) dividing his remaining force by sending Jackson on the flank march leaving a token force under McLaws and Anderson to confront the rest of Hooker’s army. After Jackson’s attack pushed other five corps back across the Rappahannock River, Lee consolidated his divided forces and attacked Sedgwick who then retreated back across the Rappahannock as well.

    I do agree that Second Manassas was also brilliant, but without the sex appeal of a David v. Goliath battle and winning by breaking the rules. Jackson holding Pope’s army in place allowing Longstreet to deliver the schwerpunkt against Pope’s flank is a classic, but without the flair of Lee’s audacity shown at Chancellorsville.

    1. I’m going to disagree and say Second Manassas is Lee’s greatest victory during the war. Why? Because…
      1) Following Second Manassas the Army of Virginia no longer existed. The remnant’s of Pope’s forces were divided up and folded into the Army of the Potomac. Still, an entire Federal army no longer functioned. At Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac *wanted* to stay and fight– they were not beaten by a long shot. The First and Fifth Corps were barely engaged and after the bloodletting at Fairview, the AOP simply pulled into their new lines, which can still be walked today. Had Hooker stuck to, like his officers begged, Lee’s men did not have a chance of breaking that line (shameless plug, I have an appendix in the ECW’S Chancellorsville book that discusses this).
      2) Second Manassas is more impressive simply because Chancellorsville was Hooker’s battle to lose. As I mentioned above, Hooker still had 2 whole corps un-engaged, and if he had wanted to, he could have stayed on the field. Pope did not have that choice: he was driven, pushed, and shattered completely off the battlefield.

      1. I second what Ryan said – to me, Second Manassas is Lee’s greatest victory. Add in the strategic envelopment, which ranged beyond immediate support (unlike the flank march on May 2), and the time pressure because McClellan’s army was coming up from the Peninsula and starting to join Pope. It is also the only time Lee’s army drives a Federal army off the field in disorder.

        Chancellorsville, for all of its brilliance, is a Pyrrhic victory because of the loss of Jackson and a corps’ worth of irreplaceable men.

    2. Lee and Jackson could never be accused of lacking audacity, unlike most of their contemporaries. However, audacity in the face of possible disaster, with a touch of desperation along with good fortune as at Chancellorsville is not necessarily to be valued over audacity with full planning and intent as at Second Manassas.

  2. John Hennessy had some great comments about Second Manassas in a piece I did on the battle for the sesquicentennial:

    As well-honed as Lee’s senior commanders were as a team in that battle, though, much of the credit for their victory goes to Pope, who almost willfully deluded himself about the Confederates’ position and intentions for the first two days of the battle. So, one can’t dismiss Chancellorsville as being Hooker’s fault without giving the Federal leadership that same kind of scrutiny at Second Manassas.

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