The Battle of Chancellorsville: Jackson Attacks

Following the action on May 1, Major-General Joseph Hooker pulled five corps of his Federal Army of the Potomac back into a strong, three-and-a-quarter-mile front near Chancellorsville:

  • Major-General George G. Meade’s Fifth Corps held the left in a line running southwest from the Rappahannock River to a clearing north of the Chancellor House.
  • Major-General Darius N. Couch’s Second Corps was to Meade’s right, covering the road to Fredericksburg in a line that ran south and then curved to the southwest.
  • Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps was to Couch’s right on the high ground southwest of the Chancellor House.
  • Major-General Daniel Sickles’s Third Corps was to Slocum’s right on the high ground around the Hazel Grove farm.
  • Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps held the extreme right in a line running west along the Orange Turnpike.

Hooker did not like the fact that his right flank was not anchored to anything, so he directed Howard to form his line in a right angle, with the part next to Sickles facing south and the end facing west. But Howard did not want to feed the low morale in his corps by making any move that might look like a retreat. Hooker then ordered his First Corps to cross the Rappahannock at United States Ford, march across the Federal rear, and extend the right flank north to the Rapidan River. But this message was delayed, and the troops of the First Corps were not put in motion until after 5 p.m.

Hooker had nearly 73,000 troops on hand. He massed the bulk of them in the left and center of his line, expecting General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to attack in that sector. It appeared that Hooker’s goal of coaxing Lee out of his defenses and forcing him to attack with inferior numbers was about to come to fruition. But Hooker did not expect Lee to defy military logic by marching across the strong Federal front to try to get to the vulnerable right flank. But that was exactly what Lee was planning to do.

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

Lee had only about 48,000 troops to face Hooker’s Federals at Chancellorsville. To the east, Lee’s remaining 12,500 men under Major-General Jubal Early held the heights at Fredericksburg against another 40,000 Federals. Having already divided his infantry in the face of superior numbers, Lee was about to divide it once more against even longer odds. Leaving just two divisions in Hooker’s front (about 15,000 men), Lee dispatched Lieutenant-General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 33,000-man corps on a long march west, around to the Federal right.

A movement across an enemy’s front was one of the most hazardous maneuvers in warfare because it left his long column highly vulnerable to easy attack. Hooker could have destroyed Lee in his front, Early at Fredericksburg, or Jackson moving toward his right if he attacked any of these three forces with superior numbers. But Hooker, whose cavalry was wrapping up its failed raid instead of providing intelligence, chose not to do so, just as Lee hoped.

May 2 dawned sunny and warm, with Hooker moving along his lines on his left and center and beaming, “How strong! How strong!” As the Federals exchanged artillery fire with the two remaining Confederate divisions, Jackson and the rest of the Confederates began their westward march. Although Jackson tried moving undetected, Sickles’s Federals observed the enemy column’s rear and fired on it through a clearing. After an hour, Sickles reported that the Confederates “hurried past in great confusion, vainly endeavoring to escape our well-directed and destructive fire.” But Sickles did not try to find out where the Confederates were going.

When Sickles received word that Confederates were moving around to the Federal right, he asked Hooker for permission to attack. Hooker finally complied in early afternoon, but he only permitted a probing action, not a full-scale assault. Sickles’s men moved up from Hazel Grove to hit the rear of the Confederate column near Catharine Furnace; they took several hundred prisoners before the Confederates repelled the attack and resumed their march.

Sickles then received intelligence that the Confederates were moving south, not west. He reported this to Hooker and concluded, “I think it is a retreat. Sometimes a regiment then a few wagons–then troops then wagons.” Hooker ultimately guess that Lee was retreating; this was based on several assumptions:

  • Sickles’s report that he had driven the enemy southward, away from the Federal positions.
  • An intercepted message to Early seemingly indicating that Early was abandoning the Fredericksburg defenses.
  • Major-General George Stoneman’s Federal Cavalry Corps was expected to have cut Lee’s main supply line, which would compel Lee to fall back (actually Stoneman had failed to cut the line, but Hooker did not know that).

At 2:30 p.m., Hooker issued orders to pursue the supposedly retreating enemy: “The Major General commanding desires that you replenish your supplies of forage, provisions and ammunition to be ready to start at an early hour tomorrow.” Hooker then directed the 40,000 Federals outside Fredericksburg under Major-General John Sedgwick to push west through Early’s defenders at Fredericksburg and join the main army. But Hooker’s orders were discretionary, and Early appeared to still be strongly entrenched, so Sedgwick chose not to attack.

Still, there was the right flank to worry about. Hooker wrote to Howard at 9:30 a.m., warning of a possible attack and urging him to have things “well in hand to meet this contingency. We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe in order to obtain timely information of their approach.” Howard answered, “I am taking measures to resist an attack from the west.”

Howard then sent a brigade to join Sickles’s pursuit of the enemy, leading the brigade himself. This left the Eleventh Corps even more isolated. When pickets from one of Howard’s brigades reported “a queer jumble of sounds” coming from the woods, Howard told them they “must not be scared of a few bushwhackers.” Other reports from the Eleventh Corps pickets about possible enemy activity went largely ignored. One man attested, “Everyone who was on the right of that line knows that he (Howard) did practically nothing for 9 hours and would not listen to, or believe the reports sent in, time and time again, about the conditions on our front & flank.”

Around 3 p.m., Jackson reported to Lee, “The enemy has made a stand at Chancellor’s which is about 2 miles from Chancellorsville. I hope as soon as practicable to attack. I trust that an ever kind Providence will bless us with great success. The leading division is up & the next two appear to be well closed.” Jackson’s medical director, Dr. Hunter Maguire, later recalled, “Never can I forget the eagerness and intensity of Jackson on that march to Hooker’s rear. His face was pale, his eyes flashing. Out from his thin compressed lips came the terse command, ‘Press forward, press forward!’”

The march took longer than expected, with the Confederates finally getting into attack position on the Orange Turnpike around 5 p.m. Deer, rabbits, and other wildlife sprang from the woods and rushed through the Federal camps, signaling that an unseen enemy force was approaching. The Confederates charged through the woods along a two-mile front, screaming the “Rebel yell.” According to a correspondent from the New York Herald:

“On the one hand, was a solid column of infantry retreating at double quick from the face of the enemy; on the other was a dense mass of beings who had lost their reasoning faculties, and were flying from a thousand fancied dangers… battery wagons, ambulances, horses, men, cannon, caissons, all jumbled and tumbled together in an apparently inextricable mass, and that murderous fire still pouring in upon them.”

The shocked men of the Eleventh Corps were knocked back into the one-mile gap that Sickles had caused by moving his men up to attack Jackson’s marching column. This crumbled Hooker’s right flank and left Sickles isolated. Meanwhile, Lee directed his two isolated divisions to step up their artillery fire into the Federal left and center to divert Hooker’s attention.

The Chancellorsville Stampede | Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Michigan soldier wrote, “Some commence to fire, others follow suit, and all blaze away, not knowing what at, and all seems to be one vast square of fire. All begin to yell and cheer, some go forward, some to the right and others to the left.” Major-General Alpheus Williams, commanding a division in the Twelfth Corps, noted “such an infernal and yet sublime combination of sound and flame and smoke, and dreadful yells of rage, of pain, of triumph, or of defiance.”

Hooker was at his headquarters at the Chancellor House, unaware of any action going on until troops began streaming out of the woods towards him in retreat. He immediately ordered Sickles’s corps and some cavalry to stem the Confederate tide; he then sent in parts of Meade’s corps and Major-General John F. Reynolds’s First Corps as well. All these forces joined to defend the area around Wilderness Church and Dowdall’s Tavern before breaking and falling back to join the main army. Sickles fought his way back to the Hazel Grove farm, where Federal artillery kept the Confederates temporarily at bay.

Other Federal guns at Fairview Cemetery stopped the Confederate advance for the night. The Federal right had been knocked back two miles into the center and left flanks. Fighting continued sporadically into the night, marking one of the few night battles of the war. A Federal cavalryman observing from high ground to the north recalled:

“A scene like a picture of hell lies below us. As far as the horizon is visible are innumerable fires from burning woods, volumes of black smoke covering the sky, cannon belching in continuous and monotonous roar; and the harsh, quick rattling of infantry firing is heard nearer at hand. It is the Army of the Potomac, on the south of the Rappahannock, engaged at night in a burning forest. At our feet, artillery and cavalry are mixed up, jammed, officers swearing, men straggling, horses expiring.”

Hooker’s right flank may have been broken, but he still held strong defensive positions on the rest of his line, and he still had the advantage in manpower. He could have used the bulk of his force to counterattack either Jackson on his right or the two divisions in his center and left, but he instead focused only on establishing a new defense line. He also ordered Sedgwick to disengage at Fredericksburg and come join the Chancellorsville line.

To make matters worse, Hooker had still received no word from his cavalry. Stoneman had been gone for four days, supposedly cutting Lee’s main supply line, but in reality he was busy wrecking track on the Virginia Central Railroad, which was Lee’s secondary line of supply. Federals who were able to get hold of Richmond newspapers saw reports that trains were running as normal on the main line. Hooker’s chief of staff, Major-General Daniel Butterfield, lamented, “Tell Gen. Hooker that we have heard nothing of the operations of our cavalry.”

Jackson planned to renew the attack the next day, hoping to cut off Hooker’s potential line of retreat north to the Rapidan River. As Jackson and his aides returned from scouting the Federal lines around 9 p.m., Confederates from the 37th and 7th North Carolina mistook them for enemy cavalry and fired on them. Several aides were shot from their horses. Jackson was shot through his right hand and left forearm, and a third shot just below his left shoulder shattered his arm.

Bleeding heavily, Jackson was helped from his horse and laid under a tree. One of his division commanders, Major-General A.P. Hill, rode up and said, “General, I hope you are not badly hurt.” Jackson replied, “It is very painful.” As Hill put Jackson’s arm in a makeshift sling, staffers laid him on a litter and carried him off. Coming under fire once more, the litter-bearers accidentally dropped Jackson onto his broken arm. A bearer wrote, “For the first time he groaned, and groaned piteously. He must have suffered excruciating agonies.”

The men put Jackson back on the litter and brought him to a nearby ambulance. By this time, Dr. Maguire had joined the party and administered whiskey and morphine before having Jackson conveyed to a field hospital at Wilderness Tavern. Maguire received Jackson’s permission to amputate his arm, just below the shoulder. Command of Jackson’s corps went to Hill, his most senior subordinate. But Hill had been wounded in both legs by the last volley, so he passed command to Brigadier-General Robert Rodes until the closest major general–Jeb Stuart–could be brought up to take over.

The Confederate attack on this day involved one of the most daring gambles in military history, resulting in a stunning victory for Lee from which Hooker would never recover. However, the right of Jackson’s attack wave had not advanced enough to link with Lee’s left as hoped, and Jackson’s left had not seized the high ground at Chandler’s Farm. And Jackson no longer commanded the attacking force. All this helped Hooker to strengthen his defenses and save his army from complete destruction.


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