Some 150 years ago this week two Union armies crossed two rivers. In one case the army stayed across the river; in the other case it recrossed the river within a week. Therein lies a tale worth remembering.
We’re going to hear a great deal about what happened at Chancellorsville 150 years ago this week. Sometimes termed “Lee’s greatest victory,” it was a perfect example of what the Army of Northern Virginia could do under the right circumstances. Of course, it helped that the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker, failed to live up to expectations (including his own), and that several subordinates fell short. The daring Confederate victory came at serious cost, however: some 13,000 casualties (more than the Union lost at Fredericksburg the previous December), including the loss of Thomas J. Jackson, who fell a victim to “friendly” fire on the evening of May 2 and died eight days later. Moreover, Lee’s men were spared even more losses when a planned Confederate attack on May 6 discovered that Hooker had withdrawn overnight. Had an assault taken place, the Confederates might have encountered a foe ready to do serious damage, much as the Army of the Potomac would ponder the same what-ifs just over two months later.
Yet Chancellorsville achieved little: it is in what Hooker failed to achieved that one must find its significance. Such is usually the case in the major battles in the Eastern theater. Only in our counterfactual speculations do we glimpse the prospect of a truly decisive battlefield victory. If anything, Chancellorsville may have cost the Confederacy in the long term. Convinced of his men’s invincibility (and perhaps his own), Lee would make decisions some two months later that remain open to question and resulted in the bloodiest battle of the entire war; he would make those decisions deprived of his right arm, Jackson, and would soon discover that Stonewall’s absence had forever transformed his command structure’s effectiveness. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “what had Stonewall lived?” school of Civil War history, but neither Richard S. Ewell or A. P. Hill quite measured up to Jackson in the months to come, even if Ewell may have been unfairly and excessively abused by some for his actions on the first three days of July 1863. The fact remains that as tremendous the battlefield victory at Chancellorsville might have been, Confederate triumph there did not translate to strategic advantage, but simply perpetuated a stalemate. The termination of two-year enlistments did as much to diminish the strength of the Army of the Potomac as did the losses suffered in combat in May 1863, and two months later the army would show that it could still fight. If anything, what happened at Chancellorsville blinded Lee to that fact, although he would soon have his eyes opened.
But it is the other river crossing that truly deserves our attention as a game-changer. On April 30 Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee finally crossed the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. It had been the move Grant had waited to make for months. Since the end of January his men had wrestled with weather and wetness to find some way of getting at Vicksburg, as Grant came under more scrutiny and questions were raised about his competence. Washington authorities had sent representatives to report back on what was going on, and Grant understood their purpose. A corps commander schemed to replace him, something that would have seemed more natural had it happened in the Army of the Potomac. All the while, Grant knew that when spring came and the roads and levees dried, he could swing south of Vicksburg and cross the Mississippi. All that was needed was to make sure that the enemy did not know what he was doing and that there were enough transports to ferry his men across the river. By the end of April he had achieved both goals, for Confederate commander John Pemberton was still not yet sure of what Grant might do, while Union gunboats and transports had run past the Vicksburg batteries and were now ready to support the crossing.
On April 30 the crossing took place. Let Grant tell you how he felt once his men were on the east bank of the river:
When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equalled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.
It would take Grant just over three weeks to achieve the sort of game-changing campaign that eluded Robert E. Lee in 1863. If Chancellorsville was Lee’s greatest battle, Vicksburg was Grant’s greatest campaign … and it changed things in a way Chancellorsville never did.