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While most Civil War buffs focus on the big battles, St. Bonaventure University journalism professor Chris Mackowski is taking a look at a quieter phase of the war — one that is, he says, as important as anything that happened on a battlefield.
Mackowski’s new book, “Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s ‘Valley Forge’ and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union,” is a collaborative project with historian Albert Conner, Jr. The hardcover book, released this week by Savas Beatie, LLC, covers the winter of 1862-’63 — a period of the war that has largely been ignored by historians.
“Soldiers made comparisons to Valley Forge because their spirits were so low and the winter was so hard, just like it was for George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War,” Mackowski explained. “And just like that earlier army, the Army of the Potomac underwent a stunning turnaround.”
The Army of the Potomac had suffered its worst defeat of the war at the battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862, Mackowski said, and morale was at its lowest point ever. “Yet by spring,” he added, “the army was somehow operating at almost peak efficiency. This book looks at how that happened.”
A new army commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, made the turnaround possible, but Mackowski said Hooker gets little credit for his significant reforms and improvements.
“Hooker rebuilt an army that was on the verge of dissolving and turned it into a formidable fighting force,” he said. “The problem is, even though Hooker rebuilt the army, he wasn’t the right guy to lead it into battle.”
In May of 1863, Hooker lost the battle of Chancellorsville. “Chancellorsville was a failure of leadership, not the failure of the Union army,” Mackowski said. “Hooker was outgeneralled, but the army itself performed well. “ After another change in command, the army was able to win decisively at Gettysburg just two months later.
“Most people who look at the Civil War like to concentrate on the battles because that’s where the action is, but Al [Conner] is the one who really saw the downtime between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as being so important,” Mackowski said. “As Al’s research demonstrates, it’s actually a major turning point of the war, but one that has largely gone unrecognized.”
Publisher Theodore Savas said “Seizing Destiny” breaks new ground in Civil War research.
“The [book’s] defining quality is that it’s an expertly researched and written book on a period of time that’s never been covered before,” he explained.
Conner spent years researching the book, drawing on hundreds of accounts from soldiers’ letters, diaries, and journals. He also used historic maps and newspaper maps. “Al lives where these soldiers lived during that period,” Savas added. “Walking the ground and reflecting was a part of his writing process.”
Savas explained that he brought Mackowski on board to “help finish a wonderful manuscript.”
“Chris has a writing style that’s very engaging,” Savas said. “With this much information, this much research, the challenge was ensuring that the book was still easy to read and understand. That’s Chris’s real strength as a writer. He’s a great storyteller, and this is a great story.”
The book is a bit different than most of Mackowski’s other recent work.
“I think of this as ‘Al’s book.’ It is his vision, his interpretation and, most importantly, his incredible research,” Mackowski said. “I fleshed out chapters with some additional research that I was able to bring to the project, but mostly I concentrated on the writing. This is an incredible tale of transformation and, in a way, vindication and redemption. It was an incredible story to tell.”
“Seizing Destiny” runs 370 pages with eight original maps. It’s available from Savas Beatie, Amazon, and other major book retailers.
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