The Battle of Chancellorsville: Federal Withdrawal

May 5, 1863 – The Federal Army of the Potomac retreated across the Rappahannock River to regroup in their original camps at Falmouth, Virginia.

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit:

Both Major General Joseph Hooker’s main Federal army and Major General John Sedgwick’s separated VI Corps withdrew on the 5th. Sedgwick led his men across Banks’s Ford, partially concealed by thick fog. Hooker, who had been so boastful of victory, led the retreat of the rest of his army at United States Ford. The corps commanders were left behind to work out the logistics of such a complex withdrawal. That afternoon, rain began falling, which escalated into a violent thunderstorm that raised the river levels six feet by midnight.

The retreat grew disorderly in the rain and dark, during which time rumors spread that Hooker was incapacitated. Major General Darius N. Couch, the ranking officer behind Hooker, found his II Corps unable to cross the rising river and announced, “We will stay where we are and fight it out.” Hooker learned of this around 2 a.m. on the 6th and quickly ordered Couch to find a way to cross. The Federals struggled to cross on a hastily erected bridge.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, prepared to renew his attacks in hopes of destroying Hooker’s army, but he soon learned that the enemy was falling back across the river. Lee chose not to pursue, reporting that the Federals “had sought safety beyond the Rappahannock.”

The exhausted Federals concluded their river crossing on the 6th and began returning to their camps at Falmouth. The Confederates returned to their old camps near Fredericksburg. This ended the Battles of Chancellorsville, Second Fredericksburg, and Salem Church. In the fighting from the 1st through the 4th, the Federals sustained 17,287 casualties (1,606 killed, 9,762 wounded, and 5,919 missing or captured). Federal wounded were taken to Aquia Creek, where they were loaded on steamers and sent to Washington.

Hooker issued a proclamation to his troops declaring that the troops did all they could under the circumstances, even though over 40,000 men did not see any combat. Hooker added, “Whenever we have fought, we have inflicted heavier blows than we have received.” When Hooker returned to Falmouth, he learned that Major General George Stoneman’s cavalry raid had not only failed, but it kept the troopers from providing intelligence Hooker could have used to turn the tide of the battle.

At Washington, President Abraham Lincoln was still trying to piece together all that was happening, mostly from newspaper accounts on both sides. In a cabinet meeting on the 5th, Lincoln shared Hooker’s message that the Confederates had most likely taken back the Fredericksburg heights. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles recalled in his diary:

“This reply communicates nothing of operations, but the tone and whole thing–even its brevity–inspire right feelings. It is strange, however, that no reliable intelligence reaches us from the army of what it is doing, or not doing. This fact itself forebodes no good.”

A wire from Major General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, reached Washington at 12:30 p.m. on the 5th stating, “The cavalry failed in executing their orders. General Sedgwick failed in executing his orders, and cross the river at Banks Ford last night.” Regarding the rest of the army, “circumstances, which in time will be fully explained, make it expedient, in the general’s judgment, that he should retire from this position to the north bank of the Rappahannock for his defensible position.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward responded to Senator Edwin Morgan of New York, who speculated that Hooker may need reinforcements:

“General Hooker has had, has now, and will have, everything he asks for by telegraph, which is always in full connection with the War Department. He reports confidentially that only three corps of his army, all told, have been engaged. You need not be told that this is less than half of the army in his command and actually with him. Further accumulation of troops, not called for by him, would exhaust his supplies and endanger his plans.”

Lincoln was still hopeful for good news after reading some Richmond newspapers not yet aware of the full Confederate victory. That hope evaporated with Butterfield’s wire at 3 p.m. reporting that the army had re-crossed the Rappahannock and would soon return to Falmouth.

News of another Federal defeat horrified Lincoln. He brought the telegram from the War Department to the White House. He gave it to Springfield friend Dr. Anson G. Henry and Sacramento Union reporter Noah Brooks and said, “Read it–news from the Army.” As the men read the message, Brooks later recalled:

“The appearance of the President as I read aloud these fateful words, was piteous. Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken up, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying ‘My God, my God, what will the country say! What will the country say!’”

Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune, wrote, “My God, it is horrible. Horrible. And to think of it–130,000 magnificent soldiers so cut to pieces by less than 60,000 half-starved ragamuffins!” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts spoke for the Radical Republicans when he cried, “Lost, lost, all is lost!” upon hearing the news. Lincoln quickly arranged for a steamer to take him to Hooker’s headquarters.

The Confederates captured 13 guns, 19,500 stands of arms, a huge stockpile of ammunition, and 17 battle flags in this remarkable victory, during which Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps was not even available (Longstreet abandoned the siege of Suffolk on the 3rd). But they also lost 12,764 men (1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, and 2,018 missing or captured), or over 20 percent of their total. This included 11 brigade commanders, two division commanders (A.P. Hill and Henry Heth), and one corps commander (Thomas J. Jackson). Many Confederate wounded were taken aboard springless ambulances on the rutted roads to Fredericksburg, and then to Richmond.

Part of Longstreet’s command arrived at Richmond on the 6th, where Longstreet arranged to hurry the divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and George Pickett to Lee. However, Lee notified Longstreet:

“The emergency that made your presence so desirable has passed for the present, so far as I can see, and I desire that you will not distress your troops by a forced movement to join me, or sacrifice for that purpose any public interest that your sudden departure might make it necessary to abandon.”

The heavy losses, along with confidence that he could defeat the Federal army, prompted Lee to make another daring gamble, one that threatened to finally exceed his capabilities.



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