May 3, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates resumed their attacks in hopes of cutting off the Army of the Potomac before it could reach the Rapidan River.
Lee was awoken at 2:30 a.m. by Captain R.E. Wilbourn, signal officer to Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Wilbourn reported on yesterday’s fighting, as well as Jackson’s wounding and amputation. Lee said, “Thank God it is not worse. God be praised that he is yet alive.” Lee asked about the Federal positions and was told that the enemy’s back was to the Rapidan. Lee said, “Those people must be pressed today.”
Lee wrote Major General Jeb Stuart, who now commanded Jackson’s corps:
“It is necessary that the glorious victory thus far achieved be prosecuted with the utmost vigor, and the enemy given no time to rally. As soon, therefore, as it is possible, they must be pressed, so that we may unite the two wings of the army.”
Lee instructed Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s topographer, to ensure that Stuart would “press the enemy vigorously.”
By the morning of the 3rd, Major General Joseph Hooker had received Federal reinforcements from Fredericksburg, giving him 76,000 men to face an enemy of about 43,000 separated by a day’s march. But Hooker had no intention of attacking Lee before he could unite his two wings; he instead planned to stay on the defensive and fend off attacks on his new, compact lines. Had Hooker brought his entire force to bear at any one time, he could have overwhelmed Lee’s smaller, divided army with sheer numbers alone.
Commanding from the Chancellor House, Hooker finally responded to a long line of telegrams from Washington asking for a status report; he had not notified his superiors of any activity since April 27. Hooker informed President Abraham Lincoln that the fighting so far “has resulted in no success to us, having lost a portion of two lines, which had been selected for our defense.”
Hooker ordered Major General John Sedgwick, commanding 40,000 Federals threatening the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg, to push through the enemy and move west to join the main army. He also ordered Major General Daniel Sickles, holding the salient of a “V”-shaped line at Hazel Grove, to pull back a mile west of the Chancellorsville crossroads. Hooker feared that Sickles was vulnerable to attack on three sides, but he would not move up any additional troops to support him. Thus, Hooker gave up an ideal position from which to keep Lee’s army divided.
Sickles’s Federals began withdrawing from Hazel Grove around 6 a.m., just as Stuart, shifting right to try reuniting with Lee, attacked both there and the Federal entrenchments west of Chancellorsville. The Confederates briefly penetrated the enemy line around 7:30 a.m., but a Federal counterattack pushed them back.
Hooker ordered his men to withdraw to more compact defenses near the Chancellor House as Stuart seized Hazel Grove, one of the few places in the Wilderness where artillery could be used effectively. Stuart placed 50 cannon on the high ground and began a heavy bombardment. He then rode among the troops, singing, “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out and fight?”
Hooker consulted with his staff on the porch of the Chancellor House. Around 9 a.m., a Confederate shell split a nearby pillar in two, with one part hitting Hooker on the head and knocking him unconscious. Some nearby officers thought he had been killed. Hooker quickly came to and refused pleas from both Major Generals George G. Meade (commanding V Corps) and John F. Reynolds (commanding I Corps) to counterattack Stuart’s vulnerable left flank.
Trying to mount his horse, Hooker nearly lost consciousness again. He relinquished army command to Major General Darius N. Couch around 9:30, saying, “I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map.” Had Couch been given the authority to act as he saw fit, he might have authorized Meade and Reynolds to attack. But Couch only had authority to order a withdrawal. He reluctantly complied and informed all the other disappointed corps commanders to prepare for yet another retreat.
The Federals began falling back across the Rapidan, toward U.S. Ford. Three of Hooker’s corps had seen no action on this day. Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, reported to Washington on the results of the day’s fighting and Hooker’s injury.
Lee advanced with his army and arrived at the Chancellor House that afternoon, where he was cheered by nearby residents. The Confederates seized the Chancellorsville crossroads and worked to reunite their two wings. A courier delivered a message from Jackson congratulating Lee on his tremendous victory.
By day’s end, the Federal army had pulled back into the shape of a “U,” with both ends on the Rappahannock guarding the fords. Lee prepared to attack this new position when he received word that Sedgwick had broken through the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg and was approaching his rear from the east.
Nightfall ended the fighting, some of which was the fiercest of the entire war. Lee wired President Jefferson Davis, “We have again to thank Almighty God for a great victory.” However, he also acknowledged Jackson’s wounding, saying, “Any victory is a dear one that deprives us of the services of Jackson, even for a short time.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 358; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 125-27; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 304, 306; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 280-81; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 302-06; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 290-91; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5433-45, 5491-515; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-39, 147-56, 160-61; 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. 347-48; 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. 643-44; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-27