The Battle of Chancellorsville: Fighting Resumes

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, 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 arm 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 and Rappahannock rivers. Lee said, “Those people must be pressed today.”

Lee’s army was still separated, with Jackson’s corps (now commanded by Major-General Jeb Stuart) on the left, and two divisions meant to be a diversionary force on the right. Lee wrote Stuart, “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 May 3, Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had received 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; he instead planned to stay on the defensive and fend off any attack. 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.

Hooker quickly directed his engineers to prepare a new defensive line protecting his retreat across the Rappahannock River at United States Ford. Hooker’s forces were positioned as follows:

  • Major-General John Reynolds’s First Corps held the right flank, facing northwest, with the extreme right anchored on the Rapidan.
  • Major-General George G. Meade’s Fifth Corps was on Reynolds’s left, at almost a right angle to Reynolds, facing southwest.
  • A salient jutted out from Meade’s line to the left, consisting of Major-General Daniel Sickles’s Third Corps (facing northwest), Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps (facing southwest), and Major-General Darius N. Couch’s Second Corps (facing southeast and northeast).
  • Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps held the left flank, facing southeast (at a right angle to Couch’s line), with the extreme left anchored on the Rappahannock.

Both of Hooker’s flanks–Reynolds on the right and Howard on the left–were anchored on the rivers. The Sixth Corps, led by Major-General John Sedgwick, remained detached in front of the Confederate force defending Fredericksburg to the east. Major-General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff stationed at Hooker’s old Falmouth headquarters, was given the situation: “Lee is massed on our left front, Jackson on our right (so prisoners say) intended to attack at day break. Genl. Hooker made his dispositions accordingly and intends to flank and destroy Jackson. Lee was to be held in check and Sedgwick was to come up and fall on his rear…”

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 Sedgwick to push through the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg with his 40,000 Federals and move west to join the main army. He also ordered Sickles to withdraw from the high ground at the Hazel Grove farm and reposition himself 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 attacked both there and the Federal entrenchments west of Chancellorsville with great intensity. But while Jackson had intended to advance north to the Rapidan, Stuart was shifting to the south and east to reunite with the rest of Lee’s army. Stuart’s Confederates slammed into Sickles’s line, and the Federal retreat from Hazel Grove soon became a rout. Troops from Howard’s nearby corps, who were widely criticized for fleeing the battlefield the previous day, noted that the men of Sickles’s corps were “apparently as much panic-stricken, and as much stampeded, as any of Howard’s men had been.”

During the heaviest part of the fighting, a laundress of the Third Corps named Annie Etheridge delivered hardtack and coffee to the men while dressed in a black riding habit and sergeant’s stripes. She urged the Federal artillerists to keep up the fire, prompting one gunner to later write that no officer in the whole army could have had as much influence on them as “that brave little sergeant in petticoats.”

The Confederates briefly penetrated the enemy line around 7:30 a.m., but a Federal counterattack pushed them back. The Confederates came on again and hit a line commanded by Brigadier-General John W. Geary. Geary held firm at first but finally had to withdraw after enduring fire “of the most terrific character I ever remember to have witnessed.” In addition to Sickles’s corps, men of Slocum’s Twelfth Corps and elements of Couch’s Second Corps were also involved. Major-General Hiram Berry, commanding Hooker’s old division, was killed in action.

Fighting on May 3 | Image Credit:

Hooker ordered his men to withdraw to more compact defenses near the Chancellor House as Stuart seized Hazel Grove. Stuart soon discovered that this was an excellent spot from which to pour artillery fire into the Federal lines. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, commanding the Confederate artillery, placed 50 guns and opened a murderous fire. Stuart rode among his troops singing, “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out and fight?” Hooker could not counter because he had not centralized command of his artillery.

Hooker was consulting with his staff on the porch of the Chancellor House, when around 9 a.m. a Confederate shell split a nearby pillar in two and hit him on the head. Hooker recalled that the pillar hit “violently against me… which struck me in an erect position from my head to my feet.” Hooker was laid down on a blanket, where he was unconscious for over 30 minutes; some nearby officers thought he had been killed. As Hooker came to and walked away, a shell hit the blanket he was laying on. William Chandler of Hooker’s staff wrote, “The blow which the General received seems to have knocked all the sense out of him. For the remainder of the day he was wandering, and was unable to get any ideas into his head.”

The injury prevented Hooker from giving orders or direction for nearly two hours, during which his army was fighting one of the most intense battles of the war. According to military protocol, if the commanding general was incapacitated, the chief of staff was to arrange for the second-in-command (Couch) to replace him. But Butterfield was at Falmouth and unable to do so, and the staffer next in line had no experience with protocol and did nothing.

Trying to mount his horse, Hooker nearly lost consciousness again. He was brought to a safe spot behind the lines where he summoned Couch. Almost an hour had gone by since he had been injured. Hooker told Couch, “I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map.” The position was to a more compact line that continued to protect the line of retreat across United States Ford.

Had Couch been given the authority to act as he saw fit, he might have authorized Meade and Reynolds to counterattack Stuart’s vulnerable left flank. 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. Hooker refused pleas from both Meade and Reynolds to attack but did not give a reason why. Three of Hooker’s corps saw no action on this day.

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.

Lee was determined to destroy the Federal army before it had a chance to get across the river. The Confederates advanced against the center of the new Federal defense line, which consisted of Meade’s Fifth Corps. Meade directed one of his division commanders, Major-General Charles Griffin, to stop the enemy advance using his artillery if necessary. Griffin replied, “I’ll make ‘em think hell isn’t half a mile off!” Griffin’s Federals held firm, and nightfall ended the fighting.

Quartermaster General Rufus Ingalls wrote to Butterfield, “I think we have had the most terrible battle ever witnessed on earth. I think our victory will be certain, but the general told me he would say nothing just yet to Washington, except that he is doing well. In an hour or two the matter will be a fixed fact. I believe the enemy is in flight now, but we are not sure.”

The Federals had staved off destruction, but it was hardly a victory. This day saw some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war. In terms of casualties, it ranked second-highest behind the Battle of Antietam. But while Antietam lasted 12 hours, this battle lasted just five. Hooker lost 8,623 men killed, wounded, or missing; this was a remarkable number considering that most Federals were fighting from entrenched positions. The fact that a third of this number consisted of prisoners taken reflected many Federals’ reluctance to fight.

Hooker wrote to Lincoln at 1:30 p.m., explaining that two days of fighting had “resulted in no success to us, having lost a position of two lines, which had been selected for our defense.” Nevertheless, “I do not despair of success. If Sedgwick could have gotten up, there could have been but one result.” And the troops deserved recognition: “No general ever commanded a more devoted army.”

Lee lost 8,912 men, the highest loss by the Army of Northern Virginia for any single day of fighting except for Antietam. 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.” Lee, knowing that the Federals were still dangerous, resolved to attack again the next day and finish them off.


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