Northern Virginia: Hooker Reaches Chancellorsville

April 30, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker arrived at the Chancellor House as his Army of the Potomac moved through the Wilderness on its way to attack the left flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Gen R.E. Lee and Maj Gen J. Hooker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As one section of Hooker’s army prepared to land on Lee’s flank, the second section began diverting Lee’s attention by crossing the Rappahannock River and threatening Fredericksburg in his front. On the morning of the 29th, one of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson’s aides woke Lee and told him that Federals were advancing in force near Hamilton’s Crossing, site of the battle south of Fredericksburg last December.

Lee replied, “Tell him (Jackson) that I am sure he knows what to do. I will meet him at the front very soon.” He rode out to see that the Federals had crossed over two pontoon bridges but did not appear poised to give battle. Nevertheless, he issued orders for the Confederates to prepare to defend the ridges.

Around noon, Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, reported that nearly 15,000 Federals with cavalry and artillery had crossed Kelly’s Ford, north of Fredericksburg. Lee initially believed that this northern movement was a feint, as he reported to Richmond:

“He is certainly crossing in large force here (below Fredericksburg), and it looks as if he was in earnest. I hear of no other point at which he is crossing, except below Kelly’s Ford, where General (Oliver) Howard has crossed with his division, said to be 14,000, six pieces of artillery, and some cavalry.”

Lee later sent another message, still thinking the main thrust would not be to the north: “I have nothing to oppose to all that force up there except the two brigades of cavalry under General Stuart.” As more details trickled in, Lee began thinking that the northern movement might be toward the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville. He wrote, “If any troops can be sent by rail to Gordonsville, under a good officer, I recommend it.”

Lee then requested the return of Lieutenant General James Longstreet and his men from Suffolk, even though he did not expect Longstreet to arrive in time for action. Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper wired Longstreet that Hooker’s massive army had crossed the Rappahannock, “and it looks as if he was in earnest. Move without your delay your command to this place to effect a junction with General Lee.” This ended any hopes Longstreet had of capturing Suffolk. He left command of the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia to Major General D.H. Hill and began arranging to rejoin Lee.

News soon arrived at Lee’s headquarters that the Federals were crossing the Rapidan River at Ely’s and Germanna fords. Lee quickly guessed that the movement south of Fredericksburg was just a feint, while the real attack would come from the north and west. This was confirmed at 6:30 p.m., when Lee received confirmation that the Federals were fording the Rapidan. From there, they advanced on the roads that met at Chancellorsville, a hamlet consisting of a single house (the Chancellor House) in a clearing surrounded by woods.

Lee sent Major General Richard Anderson’s division west to guard the converging roads between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. He then began turning the rest of his troops around to meet the threat to the west.

Meanwhile, Major General George Stoneman’s Federal cavalry continued its mission to disrupt Lee’s communication and supply lines. Part of Stoneman’s force rode toward Gordonsville to wreck the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, while another part rode toward the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. This had been part of Hooker’s original plan, but it did not fit well with the revised plan underway. In fact, it deprived Hooker of much needed cavalry support in the densely wooded Wilderness around Chancellorsville.

By the morning of the 30th, the Federal vanguard had crossed the Rapidan and was marching through the forbidding Wilderness on its way to Chancellorsville. Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps began arriving in the 50-acre clearing around the Chancellor House at 11 a.m. Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps began arriving three hours later, with Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps following.

Although they were several hours behind schedule, Hooker had brilliantly moved 75,000 men 30 miles down the south bank of the Rappahannock and 10 miles behind Lee without detection. Meade enthusiastically greeted Slocum upon his arrival: “This is splendid, Slocum, hurrah for old Joe! We are on Lee’s flank and he does not know it!” It appeared that the Federals were finally poised to trap and destroy Lee’s elusive army.

The corps commanders looked to continue advancing until they were out of the Wilderness and could begin pounding Lee’s flank with artillery. But Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, sent them a message: “The general directs that no advance be made from Chancellorsville until the columns are concentrated. He expects to be at Chancellorsville tonight.”

Hooker set up headquarters in the Chancellor House around 4:30 p.m. A New York Herald correspondent reported, “It is rumored that the enemy are falling back toward Richmond, but a fight tomorrow seems more than probable. We expect it, and we also expect to be victorious.”

Hooker knew that rumors of a Confederate retreat toward Richmond were false because he received word that they were still opposing the Federal feint west and south of Fredericksburg. But by this time, Lee had determined that the Federals in his front would make no effort to attack, and therefore the main threat was to his flank and rear. This was the gravest threat that Lee faced since taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia last June.

In a desperate gamble, Lee left just one division of 10,000 men under Major General Jubal Early to face the 40,000 Federals at Fredericksburg. Lee then turned his remaining 50,000 troops to meet the Federals to the west. Riding west, he could see the Federals crossing the Rapidan beyond the Wilderness ahead. Lee resolved to attack the enemy in the Wilderness, using the dense brush to offset the superior Federal numbers and artillery.

Hooker’s decision for the advance guard to wait for the rest of the troops meant that the Federals would remain in the Wilderness, just as Lee wanted. That night, Hooker issued a proclamation to be read in the army camps:

“It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 355-57; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 297; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17744; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 279; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 260, 269-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 287; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5314-37, 5348-60; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120-24; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 343-44; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 639; Power, J. Tracy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 721; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-29

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