Author Albert Conner found inspiration for his new book in the usually forgotten transitional period between two well-known battles. It’s an unconventional approach among typically battle-focused Civil War scholarship.
But that forgotten history, Conner contends, was one of the most transformational periods in the history of the Army of the Potomac—and a major turning point of the war. He lays out that argument in Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s “Valley Forge” and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union, co-written with Chris Mackowski. The book is now available from Savas Beatie.
“The [book’s] defining quality is that it’s an expertly researched and written book on a period of time that’s never been covered before,” said publisher Ted Savas.
According to co-author Mackowski, this period—between the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg and May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville—serves as an explanation for the Union army’s strong showing in the latter battle and their eventual win two months later in Gettysburg.
Mackowski said the work focuses on the winter between the two prominent battles—a time in which army’s morale underwent a complete change.
As the men settled into their winter quarters, post-Fredericksburg defeat, their outlooks plummeted to an all-time low. They grappled with bitter winter weather, widespread illnesses, and seemingly undefeatable depression—until Major General Joseph Hooker’s leadership, that is.
Nicknamed “Fighting Joe,” Hooker took command of the army with a surprisingly sympathetic approach that focused on the soldiers’ well-being, ultimately transforming the army’s broken morale into one fit for victory.
According to Mackowski, these events have never before been analyzed in-depth, though.
“People tend to look at the battle of Fredericksburg and the battle of Chancellorsville, and they kind of skip over this middle part—except to maybe talk about ‘Oh, morale was awful,’” said Mackowski. “You have to look at the middle part of transformation to understand how the army got itself back into fighting shape again.”
Publisher Ted Savas elaborated on the lack of scholarship surrounding this three- to four- month period.
“It’s not a great battle,” said Savas. “People write on Gettysburg, people write on Antietam [and] they write on Shiloh. This is that sort of interim period where, to a lot of people, it’s not ‘sexy.’ What Al has done is show that it’s a fascinating period, and you absolutely can’t understand the war in 1863 unless you understand those first three and a half to four months of the year.”
Although people tend to gravitate towards battle stories due to the excitement they offer, Mackowski said that Seizing Destiny looks at the human experience in a different kind of high-stakes time.
“Even if you think about a reality T.V. show like Survivor, every week you see a week’s worth of highlights—but there was an awful amount of time they spent just sitting around the campfire doing nothing,” said Mackowski. “It’s not that exciting, so they edited it all out of the best stuff. And it’s the same thing with history. People like to just skip to the action.
“Al’s book really demonstrates that all that ‘edited out’ stuff in the winter of ‘62-‘63 was actually really, really important,” he said.
Savas added that Conner’s extensive research backing up Seizing Destiny is possibly its most impressive feature. According to Savas, Conner gathered and sorted through nearly 100 primary sources for Seizing Destiny—including soldiers’ private letter collections, diaries and journals. These types of sources, Savas said, allowed Conner to accurately communicate the soldiers’ perspectives. Conner also drew upon historic maps and local newspaper articles for the piece.
“It’s just this fabulous piece of research,” Mackowski said of Conner’s work.
It helped that Conner, a Stafford County resident, is steeped in the area’s history. “Al lives where these soldiers lived during that period,” said Savas. “Walking the ground and reflecting was a part of his writing process.”
Seizing Destiny is now available for purchase on amazon.com and from savasbeatie.com. Read an excerpt from the book about the army’s observation of Washington’s birthday as they camped near his boyhood home.
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[EDITOR’S NOTE: At press time, Mr. Conner was unavailable to talk with Mr. McGurl, but we hope to bring readers a conversation with him at Mr. Conner’s earliest possible convenience.]