Steve Bartman and the Battle of Chancellorsville

In the past few weeks ESPN has been re-running the Alex Gibney film Catching Hell. The film focuses on Chicago and it’s reaction to Steve Bartman in 2003 after the Cubs lost that year’s National League Championship Series (NLCS). There is also a discussion of Boston and Bill Buckner after his error in the 1986 World Series.

Watching the film, I was struck by the group reaction to the Bartman play among the Cub fans and certain players, which led directly to the team’s collapse in Game 6. As I thought about it, I realized the Bartman story can help people understand the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in 1863. 

For those who may not be familiar with the story: In 2003 the Cubs had enjoyed a magical regular season that raised hopes in Chicago. They entered the playoffs looking for the first World Series appearance since 1945 and their first title since 1908 (95 years at the time), and led the NLCS 3 games to 2 over the Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins), having lost Game 5 in Miami. Game 6 occurred in Chicago on October 14, and the Cubs led 3-0 going into the top of the 8th inning. A foul ball along the third base line was deflected by a fan (later identified as Steve Bartman), and the Cub outfielder, Moises Alou, reacted in frustration. The Marlins started a flurry of hits, helped by a flubbed shortstop play by Alex Gonzalez that would have ended the inning with the Cubs up 3-1 or 3-2; instead, Florida buried the Cubs with 8 runs in the 8th, and the Cubs could score no more. Game 7 the next night went back and forth, but the Marlins again (for the third straight game) beat the Cubs and went on to their second World Series in franchise history, eventually defeating the New York Yankees. Steve Bartman, meanwhile, became the scapegoat in Chicago, blamed for the defeat.

In the film, Cub fans going to Game 6 are seen admitting their nervousness, and one stated “I’ve never been so nervous before a game.” Steve Lyons, who called the game for Fox Sports, said the whole stadium was “waiting for something crazy to happen.” Some people felt it in the 7th Inning Stretch, when Bernie Mac sang “champs” in Take Me Out to the Ballgame. But the Bartman play in the 8th (in the words of Cubs 1st Baseman Eric Karros) “took the air out of the stadium.” The team seemed to tense up, and that explains both Gonzalez’ error and the meltdown of Chicago pitching. After Game 6 many in Chicago felt it was already over; some Cubs players even booked flights home after Game 7, expecting not to go to the World Series.

This, in broad parallel, is the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. After an energetic winter and spring during which Major General Joseph Hooker reformed, rebuilt, and re-energized the army, in late April 1863 it set off for its next contest against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The last clear-cut offensive victory the Army of the Potomac had won over the Confederates was at Williamsburg, almost exactly a year earlier. A year is a long time to an army in combat, and that record weighed on the Federals as much as the 95-year drought weighed on the Cubs in 2003. Indeed, a sense of nervous energy emanates from some of Hooker’s statements before the battle and the way some of his commanders strained to get into the fight.

Lee’s unexpected strong reaction on May 1 caused Hooker to pull back, and a strange lethargy set in among the Federals. Seizing the opening created by this passivity, Lee flanked the Army of the Potomac, launching Stonewall Jackson’s famed flank attack on the evening of May 2. Jackson’s corps routed the Union XI Corps on the army’s western flank, driving it back over 2 miles before darkness ended the fighting. The attack did not win the battle, but left the Confederates threatening to win. A strong Federal defense, and/or a resolute counterattack, would recover the Army of the Potomac’s fortunes.

Yet the Army of the Potomac was like the Cubs after Bartman – the air had gone out of them. The troops themselves fought well on May 3, but the leadership was defeated and steadily pulled back. Hooker also ordered the 20% of his army at Fredericksburg to save the other 80% at Chancellorsville – a panicked order which shows how far he had melted down mentally.

Even thought the fighting on May 3 ended with the Federals in a strong position south of U.S. Ford, the battle was all but over in the mind of Hooker and many of his commanders. After some skirmishing on May 4 and 5, the Army of the Potomac quit the field. After the battle the XI Corps became the scapegoat for the army because of its failure to hold Jackson – much like Steve Bartman became the scapegoat for the foul ball play in 2003.  In both cases, the overall group saw these events as the turning points where it all went wrong and spiraled into the inevitable defeat.

The next time Catching Hell is on, take the time to watch it, as the group dynamics among the Chicago Cubs fans and players echo those of the Army of the Potomac leadership 140 years before.

Top: Steve Bartman and Moises Alou go for a foul ball in Game 6, with one out in the Top of the 8th. 

Bottom: Jackson’s flank attack on May 2.

Notice the reorientation of the Union line and the isolated position of the XI Corps “behind” the new Union position.