Symposium Spotlight: Chancellorsville—”From the place of blood and wrath his soul changed”

Welcome back to our spotlight series, highlighting speakers and topics for our upcoming symposium. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to feature previews of our speaker’s presentations for the 2023 Emerging Civil War Symposium. This week we feature Sarah Kay Bierle’s topic.

The battle of Chancellorsville—fought May 1-6, 1863—is often considered Lee’s greatest battlefield victory, but at the same it marked the beginning of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s declining strength. The casualty losses left leadership gaps both in the high ranks and among the line officers, and the fallen enlisted men could not be easily replaced. For the Union’s Army of the Potomac, the defeat at Chancellorsville came as a surprise. Their retreat and high casualties fueled disgust in the ranks with generals who failed to follow-through on promises of victory; the common soldier had fought and had nothing to show for it except the empty places of friends in the regiment.

Sunlight at Chancellorsville.

One lesser-explored aspect of the battle of Chancellorsville is the response of the common soldier. From the “Mud March” in January 1863 through the retreat at Chancellorsville, Union soldiers weathered leadership changes, growth in self-confidence, and steadily burning desire to soundly beat the Confederates on a battlefield in the east. During the same period, Confederate soldiers experienced winter hardships, nationalistic and religious revival, and a tantalizing hope that a crushing battlefield victory could still secure foreign aid to their cause. As the armies clashed in May 1863, morale was remarkably high, but how did the common soldier respond during the battle and to the outcomes?

This presentation will give a high-level overview of the battle of Chancellorsville and then delve into the writings of common soldiers on both sides, following their responses to battlefield circumstances and drawing conclusions about the morale shifts that they experienced. The results may be surprising, but will lend a deeper understand to the mindset of the soldiers in the ranks as they turned northward for the summer campaign into Pennsylvania.

Battle affects its victors, losers, and victims, and Chancellorsville was no exception. The combat in the Virginian Wilderness in May 1863 forged, tested, or broke the common soldier, and thereby had the power to alter the morale of the armies. To borrow a line from writer Stephen Crane, Chancellorsville was a “place of blood and wrath” and it changed the souls of men and their armies. Details to be explored at the 2023 Emerging Civil War Symposium!

Find more information and tickets for our 2023 Symposium by clicking here.

2 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Chancellorsville—”From the place of blood and wrath his soul changed”

  1. I find the stories of the soldiers themselves, in their own words, whether on the march, during the battle, etc., are so telling. Eric Wittenberg’s writings make liberal use of the soldiers’ stories.

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