The Battle of Chancellorsville: Hooker Pulls Back

May 1, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee rushed to trap the Federal Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, while portions of the two armies clashed outside Fredericksburg to the east.

By this time, Lee had correctly guessed that the 40,000 Federals at Fredericksburg were merely a diversion to Major General Joseph Hooker’s main attack to the west, near Chancellorsville. Lee left just 10,000 men to defend Fredericksburg and sent his remaining 46,000 troops west to confront Hooker’s 75,000 Federals.

As Lee supervised artillery emplacements at Fredericksburg, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began assembling the Confederate divisions under Generals Lafayette McLaws and Richard H. Anderson. By 11 a.m., their men were moving west on the Orange Turnpike and Plank Road to face Hooker’s Federals heading east from Chancellorsville.

Artillery opened around 11:20 a.m., and heavy skirmishing began between Chancellorsville and the Tabernacle Church. The Federals surged forward into a clearing outside the Wilderness and seized high ground, from which they could launch a strong counterattack.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, the Federal army aeronautics chief, reported from an observation balloon that Lee’s entire army was coming from Fredericksburg to stop the Federal advance. At 2 p.m., Hooker, who had sworn that God Almighty could not save Lee from destruction, ordered his men to immediately disengage and fall back to their previous positions around the Chancellorsville crossroads.

Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, the Federal army chief engineer, saw that the Federals had gained a major advantage and pleaded with Hooker to reconsider. Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding II Corps, also sent a messenger to headquarters saying, “In no event should we give up our ground.” Hooker revised his order to, “Hold on until 5 o’clock.” But by the time the message reached Couch, he told the courier, “Tell General Hooker he is too late. The enemy are already on my right and rear. I am in full retreat.”

Federal Major General Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Sonofthesouth.net

Hooker’s decision to surrender the initiative dumbfounded his subordinates and gave Lee the opportunity to launch an offensive of his own. The decision may have been prompted by the fact that Lee had used Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to command all roads leading out of Chancellorsville. This prevented Hooker from getting an accurate idea of where Lee’s army truly was.

Some officers thought that Hooker might have been drunk, but others later testified before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that he had not been drinking that day. Some even believed that alcohol might have actually improved Hooker’s performance. Hooker later explained his decision by saying, “For once, I lost confidence in Hooker.”

Nevertheless, Hooker’s confidence seemed restored by day’s end, when he sent a message to his subordinates: “The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack today will embolden the enemy to attack him.” But his troops were back where they started that morning, in the woods and not the clearing where the Confederates had stopped them. The heavy brush of the Wilderness offset Hooker’s advantage in both numbers and artillery.

Lee, who had arrived from Fredericksburg that afternoon, met with Jackson just after nightfall southeast of Chancellorsville. They sat on hardtack boxes in front of a fire and discussed upcoming strategy. Jackson reported that the Federals had stopped withdrawing and were now stationed behind defenses.

Stuart reported that General Fitzhugh Lee, one of his cavalry commanders who had scouted the Orange Turnpike, found that the Federal right flank was “in the air” and vulnerable to attack. The troops on the Federal right consisted of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps, which was largely disliked by the rest of the army because its men were predominantly German immigrants who spoke little English. Having not yet proved themselves in battle, they were placed on the right, believed to be farthest from any upcoming action.

With Lee’s army already divided between Fredericksburg and the Wilderness outside Chancellorsville, Jackson proposed splitting it a third time by moving his corps on a 14-mile march around to attack the Federal right flank. A local resident showed one of Jackson’s aides a path that could be used, off the main road, to get to the Federal flank without detection.

Lee told Jackson, “General Stuart will cover your movement with his cavalry.” Jackson said, “My troops will move at 4 o’clock.” While Jackson led his corps around Hooker’s right, Lee would demonstrate against Hooker’s front with the divisions of Anderson and McLaws.

This defied all military logic and was the greatest gamble ever yet attempted by Lee. Facing an army of nearly 130,000 men, Lee would send 28,000 to assail the right while holding the front with 18,000 and Fredericksburg with just 10,000. But believing that Hooker had lost his nerve by withdrawing, Lee told Jackson, “Well, go on.”

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 357; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 292, 299; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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. 276-81, 281-83; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 288; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5360-95; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-26; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 62-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 344-46; 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. 639-40; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 203-210; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-27

Advertisements

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

One thought on “The Battle of Chancellorsville: Hooker Pulls Back

  1. […] The Battle of Chancellorsville: Hooker Pulls Back […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: