February 17, 2008

Bigelow's Campaign of Chancellorsville

One of my favorite and most famous of all tactical battle studies is John Bigelow's The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study. In his Preface, Bigelow points out how he was assigned in 1894 to be a Professor of Military Science and Tactics at MIT. Once there, he selected Chancellorsville as the theme for a course he would be teaching. From his perspective, the Chancellorsville campaign presented a greater variety of military problems and critical situations than any other battle the United States had been in up to that point. He further writes that his goal was to not only tell what was done, but also how it was done and to relay, as best as possible, the "fog of war" that all battlefield commanders face.

Bigelow certainly had the background to accomplish his goal for he was clearly both a military man and a professional academic. He was born on May 12, 1854 in New York City and entered the military on June 15, 1877 as a second lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry after graduating from West Point. He remained in the military serving as an adjutant-general in the D. C. Militia in the late 1880's, and was promoted to captain in 1893. As mentioned above, he was the Professor of Military Science, Mass. Institute of Technology between 1894 and 1898. He saw battlefield action in the attack on San Juan, July 1, 1898 during which he was wounded. He retired as a major at his own request on September 15, 1904. Following his military retirement, he served as the Professor of French at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1904-1910, and also saw duty with the organized militia of Massachusetts. Among his other published works were Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte, 1884; Principles of Strategy, 1894; Reminiscences of the Santiago Campaign, 1899; and American Policy, the Western Hemisphere in its Relation to the Eastern, 1914.

Bigelow made wide use of the sources available to him, including the then-recently published Official Records. Like John Bachelder did with Gettysburg, Bigelow also wrote to and spoke with scores of the battle's particpants, assembling a collection of letters and papers that span over 25,000 items and are now housed at the Library of Congress.

His final result was a whale of a book, both in size and quality. The first edition ran 528 pages and was bound in full red cloth in an 8 1/2 x 11" format. Published by Yale University Press in 1910 , the first printing was limited to 1000 numbered copies priced at a very hefty $10 per copy. Factoring in inflation, that price equals $228 in 2007 dollars! Not a price point that the average reader could have afforded. Today, those copies still around command upwards of $500 when found for sale. What really made the book stand out however were the forty-four three-color maps that accompanied the book in a pocket inside the back cover. These maps showed the various troop movements in exquisite detail throughout the campaign.

Morningside Books also produced a gorgeous facsimile of this book in the early 1990's in two editions: an 8 1/2 x 11" cloth-bound replica complete with all maps (pictured) and a stunning full-leather version in matching leather slipcase at $250. I believe both editions are now out of print.

The book has been widely praised from the day it was published, including this glowing review from 1910 in the New York Times. Especially prevalent in the commentary was Bigelow's objectivity, praising and criticizing each side's commanders as warranted. According to Nevins, Robertson, and Wiley, the Campaign of Chancellorsville is "a masterful study -- one of the very finest ever written on an American campaign; thoroughly documented and noticably impartial." Truly an indispensable book for students of Chancellorsville and an extremely desirable title in the first edition for Civil War book collectors.

1 comment:

bookman16 said...

A copy in beautiful condition sold on Ebay last night for $320. This was one of the last 150 copies with a tipped in sheet from the Civil War book Club. I believe these were distributed in the late 50's. If I didn't already have a copy I would have jumped on this. Proof that there are some very good deals occasionally.