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Chancellorsville (The Civil War Library) by…
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Chancellorsville (The Civil War Library)

by John Bigelow

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This book is very well researched and informative, but it is not one of those history books that reads like an exciting novel. It has its dramatic moments--an author would have to be a far worse writer than Bigelow to rob this story of its drama--but it is not an easy read.

One problem with Bigelow's writing style is that he does not organize the narrative in a way that helps the reader digest all the information. For example, there were seven infantry corps in the Union army, and each corps had three or four divisions, each with its own commander. In addition, there were also the brigade commanders, the cavalry and artillery commanders, and the various aides-de-camp. That's quite a list of players on just one side of the drama, and it is difficult to keep them straight under the best of circumstances. Once Bigelow introduces them, though, he expects the reader to remember who they are through the rest of the book, and will often refer to them only by last name.

He has a confusing nomenclature that he employs at times to indicate, parenthetically, the brigade, division and corps of an officer. It is a cipher that has to be decoded, however, as opposed to simply reading "commander of the second brigade, first division of XI Corps." His code shortens the text, but lengthens the reading time, and forces a break in the reader's focus. It is better than nothing, though, and nothing is often what one gets. At one point, I had reached the conclusion that there was a particular officer who had switched sides in the middle of the war. Consulting the index, I discovered that there was a Capt. Best commanding the artillery of the Federal XII Corps, and a Col. Best commanding the Confederate 23rd Ga. Aha!

This confusion of players is exacerbated by the fact that Bigelow does not always use his turn signal when he switches from talking about one side in the conflict to the other. There is no "meanwhile, in the Confederate ranks" to let you know he has dropped one thread of the tale and is picking up another. This can cause whiplash when it is noticed and bafflement when it is not.

In spite of these problems with Bigelow's style, though, I still recommend reading the book for those with more than a casual interest in the Civil War. Bigelow did meticulous research on the conflict, and much of the raw data that he gathered is included in the text, footnotes, and appendices. As another reviewer noted, he goes into great detail on the movements of the different armies. (Unfortunately, my copy did not come with the detailed maps, and that made it harder to follow.) His analysis of the failures in command is also very intelligent. For that, I give the book four stars, but be warned that it is tough sledding unless you are highly motivated and patient. ( )
1 vote Ardsgaine | Apr 4, 2012 |
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