Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian B. Keller

by Brett Schulte on April 24, 2008 · 5 comments

I received Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory in the mail on Tuesday from Fordham University Press.  As a German-American, this particular book has special meaning for me. Christian B. Keller ties the scapegoating of the predominantly German Union XI Corps after Chancellorsville to a slowed process of assimilation by German-Americans after May 1863.  He explores the battle and its aftermath from the German-American viewpoint, both that of the soldiers and those on the home front. I’m about halfway through this one and I’ve been very interested throughout.  Look for a review within a week or so if things go according to plan.  In addition, I’ve been on a bit of a Gettysburg kick lately, reading The Generals of Gettysburg by Larry Tagg, The Maps of Gettysburg by Bradley Gottfried, and The Brigades of Gettysburg, also by Gottfried, more or less simultaneously. I plan to review these three books together, just as I read them.

As some of you may have guessed, this will probably lead to discussion of the XI Corps’ controversial role in the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Was the XI Corps scapegoated at these battles?  Were the common soldiers at fault? Were their generals inept?  Did these men fight as well as could be expected in light of the situations they found themselves in?  I’ll try to explore this in some detail over the course of several posts.  I have some ideas rolling around in my head that I need to spit out on paper and organize before blogging on them, though.

Before I launch into this, I’d be interested in your opinion.  Who do you blame for the debacle at Chancellorsville?  Howard?  Devens?  Hooker?  The men of the XI Corps?  Someone else?


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Harry April 24, 2008 at 7:38 am

I’m looking forward to this one, though I’m not looking forward to Fordham’s typically outrageous price.

Primary blame must go to Hooker. Look at it this way. You command the troops at the very end of a long column headed east. Your CO tells you that all of the enemy is located to the EAST. Then, during the day, a Corps commander further east tells the CO that the enemy is fleeing SOUTH. The CO takes your LARGEST brigade from you and sends it south in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. HOw much of your force whould you position facing WEST? Be precise…don’t cop out and say “more than Howard had facing west.” How much more?

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Craig April 24, 2008 at 10:02 am

I’d frame the discussion of Chancellorsville in the same light as that of Gettysburg. Everyone wants to know what the Confederates did wrong at GB, the real point that should receive focus is all the things the FEDERALS did right. At GB the Federals brought their A game, the Confederates not so. Chancellorsville is very much the anti-pole of GB. Still I find it hard to fault Howard yet absolve Warren and Sedgwick, who a year later were in a similar tactical stance only a short distance geographically removed.

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Dan April 24, 2008 at 11:08 am

I’d say the blame should be apportioned to all of the high command involved: Hooker for pursuing a delusion of the Confederates’ activities; Howard for buying into that delusion hook, line and sinker, when he should have opted for “Worst Case Scenario” and prepared accordingly (two regiments and one battery doesn’t quite equal “taking measures to resist an assault from the west”); Devens for being drunk as a skunk; and a mixture of all of the above for being absent during a critical time of day and not naming an interim commander. The men shouldn’t be held to blame for their panic; enough testimony to the fact that some of them sheepishly ran away, while others doggedly resisted as much as they could, suggests that they were no worse, and no better, than the men of any of the other corps.

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Brett Schulte April 24, 2008 at 6:02 pm

Excellent comments guys.

Harry, I too was pretty shocked by the price. It looks like Fordham University Press is the “McFarland” of the University Presses. To answer your question, I would have probably placed at the very least a full brigade backed by artillery facing west, but not much more than that given what Howard knew and what he was told by Hooker.

It’s so easy to look at it today with hindsight and a paper map and come up with the correct answer. Thinking of what it would have been like to command 10,000+ men in a thickly wooded area with quite a bit of underbrush which severely limited visibility is another matter entirely.

Craig, I like your view that we need to look at Chancellorsville more for what the Confederates did right. What kind of a force size-wise was needed to face west and fend off Jackson’s attack? Probably more than anyone on the field that day would have been able to scrape together.

Dan, you pretty much summed up my initial view of who was to blame. It has to be some combination of Hooker, Howard, and Devens. You can’t blame von Gilsa because he tried to warn his superiors and was essentially laughed at and told to take a hike. And lastly, if you look at the casualty rates of the Germans and compare them to other units in the AotP, it becomes clear they fought when they could and ran when it wasn’t smart to fight any longer.

Brett

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Landser July 29, 2010 at 11:32 am

Well one way to look at it is to compare to somewhat similar situations at both 2nd Manassas and the 3rd Corps at Gettysburg. In both situations, Union soldiers were put in exposed positions only to be hammered when the battle began. Do we speak badly of the soldiers involved in those fights? Not really, the blame goes to the commanders such as Pope, Sickles, and some even blame Porter for removing his troops too early from 2nd Manassas (if I recall correctly) Anyway the 11th was just unlucky enough to have been placed to two bad situations back to back and their commanders decisons only made a bad situation even worse.
Even so there was a the social stigma attached to the 11th corps where although it wasn’t their fault they even began to feel bad about their corps reputation. Often discipline from the officers seems to be the scapegoat for the soldiers and I must say I agree with them.

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