The exhausted men of Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac concluded their crossing of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers on May 6 and began returning to their camps at Falmouth. The Confederates of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia started their return to their original camps at 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 that if the army “has not accomplished all that was expected, the reasons are well known…” But because he did not explain the reasons, they were not well known. He boasted, “Whenever we have fought, we have inflicted heavier blows than we have received,” and went on: “In withdrawing from the south bank of the Rappahannock before delivering a general battle to our adversaries, the army has given renewed evidence of its confidence in itself and its fidelity to the principles it represents.”
When Hooker returned to Falmouth, he learned that Major-General George Stoneman’s cavalry raid had produced nothing fruitful. Stoneman was supposed to cut the Confederate supply line, but he instead broke his force up into squads that raided various points on the secondary line. A cavalry trooper wrote that “our only accomplishment were the burning of a few canal boats on the upper James River, some bridges, hen roosts, and tobacco houses.” So not only had Stoneman failed in his mission, but he kept the troopers from providing intelligence Hooker could have used to turn the tide of the battle.
In addition to Stoneman’s failed raid, there were many reasons for the Federal defeat:
- Major-General Daniel Sickles did not use his full force to attack Lieutenant-General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps as it marched across his front on its way to the Federal right flank on May 2.
- Major-General Oliver O. Howard made no serious effort to strengthen his right flank prior to the surprise Confederate attack on the 2nd, despite orders from Hooker to do so.
- The tardiness of the message to Major-General John Reynolds’s First Corps to take up positions on Howard’s right meant that Reynolds did not get there in time to help fight off the overwhelming Confederate flank attack.
- A miscommunication cost the Federals an opportunity to break the Confederate defense line at Fredericksburg on the 2nd, after that line had been severely weakened; it was strengthened by the time the Federals did attack.
- Hooker suffered a serious head injury on the 3rd that left the army virtually leaderless during one of the most crucial battles of the war.
- Hooker mishandled the artillery so that it was almost impossible to concentrate his guns where they were needed most.
- Hooker allowed the Confederates to take the high ground at the Hazel Grove farm on the 3rd, where they could pour fire into the Federal lines.
- A miscommunication allowed Major-General John Sedgwick to withdraw his detached Sixth Corps across the Rappahannock.
- Hooker made no serious effort to join all his forces to deal the numerically inferior Confederates an overwhelming blow.
Despite all the failings of his subordinates, the man primarily responsible for the Federal defeat was Hooker himself. He had launched an aggressive, well-planned, and finely executed offensive, but when fighting broke out in places where he did not expect to fight, he froze. He failed to use his superior numbers to take advantage of the fact that Lee had split his army into three separate forces, each of which was vulnerable to counterattack throughout the battle. Lee was planning to renew the assault on the 6th, still with only half the manpower of Hooker. Had Hooker held his ground instead of withdrawing, he could have potentially dealt Lee a defeat on the scale of Malvern Hill or Fredericksburg.
Hooker took the loss hard. Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Fifth Corps, wrote his wife, “Poor Hooker himself after he had determined to withdraw said to me in the most desponding manner, that he was ready to turn over to me the Army of the Potomac, that he had had enough of it and almost wished he had never been born.”
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.”
Since Lincoln had not received much information on the battle, he was shocked to read a wire from Major-General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, 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.”
Lincoln was still hopeful for good news after reading some Richmond newspapers not yet aware of the full Confederate victory. That hope evaporated when Butterfield wrote “that the army has recrossed the river; that the bridges are up, and that all are under orders to return to camp.” Hooker followed up with a telegram of his own: “I saw no way of giving the enemy a general battle with the prospect of success which I desire.”
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!” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary that Senator Charles Sumner, a leading Radical Republican, came to him and cried, “Lost, lost, all is lost!” Welles went on:
“I went soon after to the War Department… I asked (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton if he knew where Hooker was. He answered, curtly, ‘No.’ I looked at him sharply, and I have no doubt with incredulity, for he, after a moment’s pause, said, ‘He is on this side of the river, but I know not where.’”
Lincoln quickly arranged for a steamer to take him and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to Hooker’s headquarters. 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.”
Despite his remarkable victory, General Lee was furious that the Federal army had escaped, even though there was a good chance that had he attacked their entrenched positions, his Confederates would have been seriously repulsed. When an officer reported that the Federals were gone, Lee angrily replied, “This is the way that you young men are always doing! You have again let these people get away. I can only tell you what to do, and if you do not do it it will not be done.”
The Confederates captured 13 guns, 19,500 stands of arms, a huge stockpile of ammunition, and 17 battle flags in this contest, during which the bulk of 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 in 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 his two divisions 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.”
Lee proposed to President Jefferson Davis that troops in South Carolina might be brought up “to increase the strength of the Army.” 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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