An Interview with Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White, authors of Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Frederickburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863

Scroll down to see an interview with Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White on Simply Murder

: Why did you decide to write your book on this particular topic?

KW: As I’d mentioned in the acknowledgements, the idea for this book came after a conversation I had with my colleague, Frank O’Reilly. Frank is one of the historians at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP), and we shared an office. Frank had written a definitive study of First Fredericksburg, but told me no one had really tackled Second Fredericksburg. Once he turned me onto the topic, I ran with it.

CM: Before we tackled this book, the work Kris and I had done together had all been shorter. Magazine features, journal articles, even a conference presentation. Some of it was scholarly, but most of it came from a public history perspective geared toward broader audiences. Our other books were all relatively short and reader-friendly, too. I love that kind of writing because it really challenges us to tell great stories.

But we thought it was time to do a “big” book, too—a book where we could really dive into something in depth and indulge our research skills a bit more than we’ve typically been able to. There’s SO much great primary source material on this part of the campaign, and it’s been so under-utilized, so we had a lot of great stuff to show off.

: What makes your book unique from other books on the same topic?

KW: Most historians have folded Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church into the larger Chancellorsville campaign as an almost incidental side note, like, “Oh yeah, and over here to the east the Sixth Corps had some stuff happen to it.” It’s been treated as incidental.

CM: Most of the actions east of the Chancellorsville crossroads have been overshadowed or brushed aside because this battle was Jackson’s last hurrah. We try and tell the whole story. Yes, we include Jackson—you can’t tell the tale without him—but we place the eastern-front actions in context within the Chancellorsville larger campaign, while showing the opportunities presented to Joe Hooker, which he subsequently failed to follow through on.

KW: The one notable exception was Stephen Sears’ book, Chancellorsville, which pays a fair amount of attention to the Sixth Corps—but only so Sears can scapegoat Sedgwick. That book reads a lot like Hooker apologia, with Sedgwick, Stoneman, and Howard as the chief culprits.

CM: (laughs) It’s like Sears was on Hooker’s payroll!We hope our book gives due justice to that fuller story of the battle.

KW: The only other book that has really paid any attention to Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church was one that came out in 2006, and for a variety of reasons, it’s not really available any more.

CM: That reminds me: not long after we started this book, Kris and I found out that a few of our historian friends had started a pool over whether we’d finish the book or not. Apparently, three or four other historians have attempted to write about Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, but for various reasons, aborted those efforts. That track record made it seem like a jinxed project, so the odds were against us.

: What most interested you about writing on this topic?

KW: The story had such little to do with Stonewall Jackson. Working at a park where Jackson launched one of the most famous assaults of the war—and the park also has the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where he died—it was as if the man and the legend overshadowed all other aspects of the campaign. We got to bring to the forefront the story of those men who have been so overlooked for so long, while at the same time shedding light on an action that could have and should have turned the tide of battle.

CM: I teach in a school of communication, so the communications-related aspects of this part of the campaign were particularly fascinating to me. It’s a fantastic case study in miscommunication, for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Muddy writing, unclearly articulated intent, an overreliance on technology, unexpected interference—it was a perfect storm of communication mishaps, all the way around.

: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?

CM: Footnotes! Formatting footnotes correctly has got to be one of the most tedious bedevilments ever invented by man. I certainly know how to do them, but having this many of them to deal with all at once taxed my patience in a way few other writing projects ever have!

KW: Reconstructing the movements of two armies across three dead battlefields. What I mean by a “dead battlefield” is a place that no longer exists as it did during the time of the war. Urban sprawl has engulfed 90 percent or more of the battlefields we were writing about. For Fredericksburg, I had to rely heavily on the most detailed accounts I could find and use wartime photos and postwar photos to understand what these men may have seen. For Salem Church I relied heavily on photos from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, then I had to compare what I saw in those with what is there now and what the boys of ’63 saw. It was very tough at times.

: Were you surprised by anything you found while writing the book?

KW: How little the Confederates spoke of the defeat at Second Fredericksburg. They wrote little on the subject, and those who did left vague and passing remarks on the actions there. It was eye opening because they were not helping their cause on the memory front.

CM: For me, learning more about the history of the Salem Church battlefield was a little heartbreaking, to be honest. I had been watching for years as the area between Fredericksburg and Salem Church degenerated into parking lots and strip malls, but the Park Service actually lost that battle back in the late seventies when it declined to buy the property along Salem Ridge. Once the gas station appeared on the corner across from the church, that was it. No wonder the battles have been forgotten: no one even thought the land itself was worth saving.

: Thank you both for your time, we appreciate it.

An Interview with Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White, authors of Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862

: Why did you decide to write your book on this particular topic?

KW: The Battle of Fredericksburg is a greatly misunderstood battle. We learned this by working at Fredericksburg together as Ranger/Historians. Most visitors focus on the Battle for Marye’s Heights, while also focusing their attention on the faults and failures of Union General Ambrose Burnside. We were really drawn to the compelling story of the campaign. The story of the battle and campaign is how Burnside had the cards stacked against him from day one. He took over leadership of the Union Army of the Potomac from a popular general and close friend, George McClellan. He was tasked with engaging in a winter campaign with a strict January 1, 1863, deadline for victory. Burnside was not a great general, but he was not as bad as he has been made out to be. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong for the Federals did. Therefore, we really wanted to tell the story of a misunderstood battle and campaign in a fair and balanced way.

CM: Visitors to the battlefield come with so many preconceived misconceptions, particularly about Burnside, as Kris mentioned. The chance to invite visitors—and now readers—to rethink what they know about the battle is a nice treat.

Folks who do know something about the battle typically know Sunken Road, Stone Wall, and Marye’s Heights. It’s a dramatic story that has shown up a bit in Civil War-related pop culture, but there is SO much more to the battle than that. In fact, the fighting in front of Stone Wall was really a sideshow that took on a horrible life of its own. The main event was supposed to take place at the south end of the field, at what’s now known as the Slaughter Pen Farm. Fortunately, our friend and mentor Frank O’Reilly shed a lot of light on that story, and recent preservation efforts by the Civil War Trust have done a lot to bring further attention to that sector of the battlefield.

We hope our book gives due justice to that fuller story of the battle.

: What makes your book unique from other books on the same topic?

CM: There are really only a couple of good books on the Battle of Fredericksburg. Frank O’Reilly’s The Fredericksburg Campaign is a stunningly detailed, micro-tactical study, and George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! situates the military action within a complex, sweeping context. Both books are for serious students of the war, though. We hope our book will serve as a good way to hook readers’ interest about the battle and then lead them to something more in-depth like Frank’s or George’s book. There’s also a nifty collection of newspaper stories called War So Terrible by our friend Don Pfanz.

KW: Our book gives the reader the entire story of the battle in a condensed version. We have worked the book to be a guidebook that can be used on the field, while at the same time, those not reading on the field can sit at home, read, and follow along with the story and see the sites with the vast array of pictures included in the work. A reader that has little knowledge of the battle will be able to pick up this work and understand the battle and its effect on the war. Those seasoned buffs will be able to pick up the book and take away a better understanding of the campaign, while also learning some interesting facts not found in other works on the same topic.

: What most interested you about writing on this topic?

CM: I’ve spent a lot of time on a lot of battlefields, and I’ve told stories about those battlefields to thousands of visitors. Fewer battlefields give me greater satisfaction, though, than walking Sunken Road and hearing the crunch of gravel under my boots. The story there always feels so real and present. I know it sounds cliché, but I still literally get shivers imagining what it must’ve taken for those Union soldiers to stand shoulder to shoulder and charge that position. You hear so much about the élan of Southern soldiers, but THAT is guts.

: What kind of “invaluable” information is included in the book?

CM: As with all the books that will be included in the Emerging Civil War Series, we hope to offer a fresh perspective on the story. People malign Burnside, for instance. He was brilliantly mediocre, but he’s not really the dolt history has made him out to be (at least not for anything he did at Fredericksburg). At the south end of the field, Stonewall Jackson performed less than brilliantly, but history has generally given him a free pass and shifted blame for the Federal breakthrough to his subordinate, A. P. Hill—even though Jackson and Lee both approved Hill’s troop dispositions. We spend a lot of time looking at how and why these stories and others have been cemented in memory, and we invite readers to challenge those assumptions.

: Can you tell me about Burnside’s Folly?

CM: If you don’t really know the story, it’s easy to look at the Battle of Fredericksburg and dismiss Ambrose Burnside as a fool. After all, who would be foolish enough to send thousands of men uphill over hundreds of yards of open ground against a fortified position—

KW: Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.

CM: Exactly! And that’s why those Federal soldiers who repulsed Pickett’s Charge yelled, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” Pickett’s Charge was Fredericksburg in reverse.

KW: Lee does it and gets immortalized. Burnside does it and gets called an idiot.

CM: See, it’s so convenient for people to write off Burnside like that. But think about it critically for a moment: A man does not get chosen to command the largest army on the planet if he’s a dolt. So let’s assume then, for a minute, that Burnside is at least competent if not brilliant. If you accept that, then you have to start asking some interesting questions about what he was doing and why he was doing it.

KW: Burnside had success along the North Carolina coast earlier in the year, so he’d certainly proven himself in battle.

CM: He was no rock star, but he was no rock head either.

KW: You have to understand the larger context of the war, too. With the final Emancipation Proclamation coming out at the first of the year, Burnside was operating in a highly politicized environment. Washington, not Burnside, was really driving the entire campaign. As a result of that, it was like Burnside was set up for failure from the beginning.
The ground in front of Stone Wall tells a story that seems so obvious, so people just accept it, but that’s hardly the full story. You have to ask some questions.

: How did you both conduct your research?

CM: Kris does all the heavy lifting when it comes to research. That man can pull so many needles from any haystack, it’s amazing. (If you want to see some heavy lifting with research, wait until people see our upcoming micro-tactical study on Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front, due from Savas Beatie in the spring of 2013.) As the storyteller, I take all that great research Kris does and craft it into a catchy, easy-to-read narrative.

: What are some features of Simply Murder that you think readers will really enjoy?

KW: Readers will be able to use a specially designed driving tour of the high points of the battle. The work also includes numerous pictures—modern and historic—of the city, park, and battlefield. Civil War photography buffs will find some seldom-seen wartime photos and many rarely seen post war photos of the area. We also went out of our way to include the story of the civilians caught in the crossfire of war. Readers at home or on the field can use the book to explore the Pre-Revolutionary City of Fredericksburg.

CM: I had a tremendously good time tromping around the battlefield taking pictures! We have a lot of original photography in the book, so people who can’t come to the battlefield will still get a good idea of what a visitor might see.

: Thank you both for your time, we appreciate it.