Ralph Peters is one of my favorite historical fiction authors still writing today. While I disagree with many of his political positions and think he has a bit too much sympathy for the Confederates, I have a great deal of respect for his writing abilities and his research process. I have read all of his Civil War novels, except for Hell or Richmond, and I think Darkness at Chancellorsville will probably be remembered as his best work.
Like all of his Civil War novels, Darkness at Chancellorsville is a multiple protagonist novel that explores the conflict from the perspective of Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. Some of these characters are featured in his other novels—Meade, Sickles, and Lee for example—but some characters—like Jackson, Howard, and Schultz—have never appeared in Peters’ work. For the most part, the characters are engaging and lively and I can’t think of any character POV that I found disagreeable. Lest anybody accuse me of fanboy adulation, I should note I’m not a fan of all the characters included in the Battle Hymn Cycle. Neither Cobb nor Grant’s formerly enslaved aide brought much to the table, just my opinion though, and I probably would not have liked Darkness at Chancellorsville as much had these characters been included.
In terms of newcomers, Schurz’ character stuck with me the most. Peters’ has a penchant for including the POVs of fiery abolitionists in his novels and Schurz definitely fits the mold. Nonetheless, I think Schurz’ character was, in many respects, an improvement on many of those other characters. Some of this deals with Schurz’ backstory. A German revolutionary, Schurz saw firsthand how the 1848 revolutions of Europe failed and understands that kind sentiments are not enough to change the world. Whereas others might give in to bitterness and regret, Schurz resolves to fight on and travels to the United States to aid the abolitionist cause. Backstory aside, I think Schurz’ POV stands out because Peters’ does such a great job of capturing his frustration. Schurz and many of his fellow officers suspect that the Confederates are attempting a flank and bring warning to their superiors. His superiors refuse to take heed of his advice, or any advice coming from the “German quarter,” and Schurz is essentially forbidden from making proper preparations. Ultimately, Schurz’ warning proves correct and Jackson’s flanking maneuver almost destroys the Union army.
When it comes to recurring characters, Sickles’ POV packed the most punch for me. I think almost anyone who has read Cain at Gettysburg, or just knows a decent amount about the Gettysburg battle, would not be inclined to extend Sickles a great of respect and I was surprised by Peters’ portrayal of Sickles. While it wasn’t positive per se, I think Peters makes it clear that Sickles did acquit himself relatively well in the Battle of Chancellorsville and gave good insight into Sickles’ thinking. Hooker made a serious error by ordering Sickles’ to abandon the high ground, essentially ceding the best artillery position to the Confederate forces without a fight, and Sickles’ contempt toward Hooker’s decision is very easy to understand.
The information goes a long way towards explaining Sickles’ actions in the Battle of Gettysburg and makes his tragic decision to disobey Meade’s order much more understandable. I doubt any agent or editor encouraged Peters to include Sickles’ POV in Darkness at Chancellorsville but I am glad he did as I think it will encourage readers to take a more holistic view of historical figures. To judge Sherman solely by his worst performance in battle, say Shiloh, would be unfair and the same holds true for Sickles. Sickles was by no means a battlefield genius but it’s very likely he understood that Hooker’s decision to cede Hazel Grove was a serious tactical error.
Unfortunately for the Union, it was just one of Hooker’s many tactical blunders. If we are to judge Hooker solely by this one battle, his command of the Army of the Potomac was an absolute disaster. Like McClellan, Hooker deserves a great deal of credit for reorganizing the army and improving morale. He had a great deal of talent for logistics but when it came to fighting, Hooker and McClellan both proved far too timid. Worse yet, Hooker was extremely rigid when it came to battle strategy. This made for a terrible combination as Hooker proved unwilling to go on the offense when Lee was vulnerable and discouraged his subordinates from adequately preparing for flanking attacks. As a result, the Union played a poor offense and a poor defense in the battle. Fortunately, the Union army was not completely destroyed in the Battle of Chancellorsville and Lincoln relieved Hooker of command a short time later, allowing the far-more competent Meade to face off against Lee in Gettysburg.
Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg gives more insight into this battle but for readers who are mainly interested in learning about the Battle of Chancellorsville, I would highly recommend Darkness at Chancellorsville. It is an excellent read and extremely informative, and I highly recommend it Civil War buffs as well as historical fiction enthusiasts.