Tag Archives: Chancellorsville

The Chancellorsville Aftermath: Lincoln Visits Hooker

May 7, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck arrived at Aquia Creek to meet with Major General Joseph Hooker regarding the Army of the Potomac’s latest defeat.

The president had arranged for a steamer to take him to Hooker’s headquarters after learning the extent of the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville. Lincoln and Halleck debarked on the morning of the 7th and took a special train to Falmouth, where they met with Hooker to discuss current and future operations.

Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lincoln expressed relief to find that the “troops are none the worse for the campaign,” as evidenced by generally high morale and few desertions. He also said he was “agreeably surprised with the situation.” Lincoln did not assign blame for the defeat, but, knowing the indignation the defeat would cause throughout the North, he urged Hooker to begin a new offensive as soon as possible.

The meeting lasted just a few hours, after which Lincoln and Halleck left for Washington. As he left, Lincoln handed Hooker a letter:

“If possible I would be very glad of another movement early enough to give us some benefit from the fact of the enemies communications being broken, but neither for this reason or any other, do I wish anything done in desperation or rashness. If you have (a plan), prosecute it without interference from me. If you have not, please inform me, so that I, incompetent as I may be, can try and assist in the formation of some plan for the army.”

Lincoln told newspaper reporters at Falmouth that he was returning to Washington with “his confidence in Gen. Hooker and his army unshaken.” When a correspondent asked him if he would remove Hooker from command, Lincoln said that because he had stuck with George B. McClellan “a number of times, he saw no reason why he should not try General Hooker twice.”

Hooker responded the same day, writing:

“If in the first effort we failed, it was not for want of strength or conduct of the small number of troops actually engaged, but from a cause which could not be foreseen (i.e., the Confederate flank attack on May 2), and could not be provided against. As to the best time for renewing our advance upon the enemy, I can only decide after an opportunity has been afforded to learn the feeling of the troops. I have decided in my own mind the plan to be adopted in our next effort, if it should be your wish to have one made. It will be one in which the operations of all the corps… will be within my personal supervision.”

As the Federals returned to their old camps at Falmouth and resumed the daily routines of army life, northern newspapers spread blame among nearly everybody for the Chancellorsville debacle. Hooker reported that his present force totaled 136,704 officers and men, but many problems within the army delayed his plans to start another offensive.

From the White House, Lincoln responded with skepticism that Hooker could launch another offensive so quickly. He wrote that he would allow Hooker to stay put for now but would not object to Hooker putting the army in motion once more.

Lincoln then shifted focus to another concern: Hooker’s attitude. This bothered the president because it reflected a “cool, clear, and satisfied” air that refused to acknowledge responsibility for failure or willingness to learn from mistakes. Lincoln guessed that this attitude led to many of Hooker’s subordinates no longer wanting to serve under him.

Major General Darius N. Couch, Hooker’s second-in-command, was so disgusted by Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville that he demanded to be transferred out of the army, away from Hooker. He joined with Major General Henry W. Slocum to urge Lincoln to replace Hooker with Major General George G. Meade. Major General John F. Reynolds had met with Lincoln at the White House and also recommended that Meade take Hooker’s place.

When Meade learned this, he told Lincoln he had no ambition to command the army, but he joined with Major General John Sedgwick in quietly expressing dissatisfaction with Hooker’s leadership. Only three of Hooker’s corps commanders–Major Generals Oliver O. Howard, George Stoneman, and Daniel Sickles–supported Hooker, but Hooker alienated Stoneman and Howard by asserting that they were the most responsible for the defeat.

Lincoln warned Hooker that “some of your corps and Division Commanders are not giving you their entire confidence.” This brought back memories of Hooker blatantly undermining Ambrose E. Burnside five months ago when Burnside commanded the army. Rather than fire back, Hooker left it up to Lincoln to decide what to do about it.

Lincoln rejected the calls to remove Hooker, saying that he was “not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once,” but instead “would pick the lock and try it again.” But he did approve Couch’s transfer, with Major General Winfield Scott Hancock taking over Couch’s II Corps. Major General Alfred Pleasonton also took over for Stoneman as cavalry corps commander.

Lincoln then met with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to discuss Hooker’s fate. They agreed that the atmosphere was too politically charged to remove Hooker at this time, but if Hooker submitted his resignation some time in the future, they would accept.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14-16, 34; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18962; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 282-84; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9275, 9318; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 300; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 520-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 350, 353, 356-57

Fighting at Fredericksburg and Salem Church Continues

May 4, 1863 – Confederates regained Marye’s Heights outside Fredericksburg, as Federals retreated across the Rappahannock River.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates, who had been driven out of their defenses outside Fredericksburg yesterday, now had reinforcements from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to the west. Federal Major General John Sedgwick, commanding VI Corps in the Army of the Potomac, broke through the Confederates to join Major General Joseph Hooker’s main Federal army, but today Early planned to counterattack.

As Lee guessed, Hooker made no effort to take the offensive, instead holding defensive positions with his back to the Rappahannock River. Hooker sent Sedgwick a message at 6:30 a.m. expressing hope that Lee would attack his impregnable defenses. Lee of course would not. Hooker then advised Sedgwick to fall back to Banks’s Ford on the Rappahannock if the Confederates put up too much resistance. He sent Sedgwick no reinforcements to fend off the pending enemy counterattack.

That morning, Sedgwick renewed his attacks in an effort to break through the Confederate defenses and join forces with Hooker. The Federals fought well under Sedgwick; they generally respected their commander, whom they nicknamed “Uncle John.” Lee dispatched General Richard Anderson’s division to reinforce the Confederate defenders. This gave Lee just 25,000 men to face Hooker’s 75,000 Federals.

Confederate counterattacks pushed Sedgwick’s left flank inward, thus cutting him off from Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Early’s Confederates advanced and regained Marye’s Heights west of Fredericksburg. Early stationed a detachment on the high ground and led his remaining force to reinforce the Confederates on the ridge near Salem Church, five miles west.

As the 21,000 Confederates began surrounding Sedgwick’s 20,000 men on three sides, Sedgwick called off trying to reach Hooker and instead fell back toward the Rappahannock. Federal engineers hurried to build pontoon bridges for Sedgwick’s men to cross. Hooker rejected pleas from his subordinates to send troops to Sedgwick’s aid. Hooker’s lack of activity enabled Lee to focus mainly on Sedgwick, but the size of Hooker’s remaining army prevented Lee from doing him any further damage.

The Confederates failed to cut Sedgwick off from Banks’s Ford, which his men used (along with Scott’s Ford farther upriver) to cross the Rappahannock that night. The fighting at Salem Church was another Confederate victory, as Hooker remained seemingly unable to do anything against Lee’s smaller, divided army. But Lee had failed to destroy either Hooker or Sedgwick, and now they were both in nearly impregnable positions still holding superior numbers.

Salem Church became a field hospital; an observer wrote that “the floors, the benches, even the chancel and pulpit were all packed almost to suffocation” with wounded troops. President Jefferson Davis received Lee’s victory message and thanked him on behalf of the Confederate people “reverently united with you in giving praise to God for the success with which He has crowned your arms.” He then acknowledged reports of heavy losses and expressed grief for “the good and the brave who are numbered among the killed and the wounded.”

President Abraham Lincoln, who had heard nothing from army headquarters since Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, vaguely reported on yesterday’s fighting, wrote Hooker asking him to confirm a report, possibly from a Confederate newspaper, that the Confederates took back the Fredericksburg heights. Hooker replied, “I am informed that it is so, but attach no importance to it.” He offered no further details.

Hooker held a council of war with five of his corps commanders (John F. Reynolds, Darius N. Couch, Daniel Sickles, George G. Meade, and Oliver O. Howard) near midnight on the 4th. He described the army’s condition as best he knew it and reminded the men of the general orders from his superiors to not risk destroying the army or its ability to “cover Washington.” He and Butterfield then left the room to allow the corps commanders to decide what they wanted to do.

Reynolds, Meade, and Howard voted to continue fighting. Sickles, whose command had sustained heavy losses, wanted to withdraw. Couch wanted to stay and fight, but because he had no confidence in Hooker’s leadership, he ultimately sided with Sickles. Thus, three commanders wanted to fight and two wanted to retire. Hooker returned, asked for the generals’ opinions, and then announced that he had already decided to retreat. It would begin at 5 a.m.

Hooker then received a message from Sedgwick asking what he should do. Hooker told him to withdraw across the Rappahannock, but before Sedgwick received this directive, he had consulted with his engineer and informed Hooker that he would hold firm where he was. Hooker read this message and tried countermanding his order to fall back, but Sedgwick had already received Hooker’s first order. When the second order arrived, Sedgwick replied, “Yours just received, countermanding order to withdraw. Almost my entire command has crossed over.”

This communication symbolized the confusion that plagued the Federal army throughout this battle.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 287-88; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17829; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 281; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 313, 316-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 292; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5525; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-59; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 348-49; 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. 644; Robertson, James I., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 652; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 171; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-27

The Battle of Chancellorsville: Fighting Resumes

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.

Fighting on May 3 | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.”

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References

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

The Battle of Chancellorsville: Jackson Attacks

May 2, 1863 – Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates attacked the unsuspecting Federal right flank, but Jackson was seriously wounded in the aftermath.

After the previous day’s engagement, Major General Joseph Hooker placed five Federal corps across a three-and-a-quarter-mile front near Chancellorsville:

  • Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps held the left
  • Three corps (Major General Darius N. Couch’s II, Major General Daniel Sickles’s III, and Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII) held the center
  • Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps held the right

Hooker placed three corps in the center because he expected the bulk of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to attack there.

Lee held Hooker’s front in place all day with just two divisions under Generals Richard Anderson and Lafayette McLaws. A division of just 10,000 men under Major General Jubal Early held the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg to the east against a Federal diversionary force. Two Confederate cavalry regiments held Major General George Stoneman’s Federal troopers in check, while Jackson’s corps marched west, around to the Federal right flank.

Movements on May 2 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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.

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.

After inspecting his forces and receiving reports of Sickles’s supposed victory, Hooker determined that the Confederates were retreating. Even so, he alerted Howard to stay on guard to the right. Hooker wrote, “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.”

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. Hooker planned to pursue Lee, whom he thought was now in full retreat. Since Hooker’s orders to attack Early were discretionary, Sedgwick chose not to follow them.

Meanwhile, Sickles continued receiving word that Confederates were moving around to the Federal right, and 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.

When Sickles received word that the Confederates had been caught marching south, not west, he reported to Hooker, “I think it is a retreat. Sometimes a regiment then a few wagons–then troops then wagons.” Hooker issued orders for the entire Army of the Potomac to be ready to pursue Lee’s army the next day. 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 XI Corps pickets about possible enemy activity went largely ignored.

Jackson’s 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.”

They shocked the unsuspecting XI Corps, sending most of the men fleeing into the one-mile gap that Sickles had caused by moving his men up to attack the marching column. This crumbled Hooker’s right flank. Meanwhile, Lee directed Confederates to fire into the defenses on the Federal front and left to divert Hooker’s attention.

Hooker ordered Sickles’s corps and some cavalry to try stemming the Confederate tide; he then sent in parts of Meade’s corps and Major General John F. Reynolds’s I 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 fell back to Hazel Grove, where Federal artillery kept the Confederates at bay for now.

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.

Jackson planned to renew the attack the next day, hoping to cut off Hooker’s potential line of retreat to the Rapidan River. As Jackson and his aides returned from scouting the Federal lines around 9 p.m., Confederate pickets of the 18th North Carolina mistook them for Federal cavalry and fired on them. Several aides were shot from their horses. Jackson was shot through his right hand and twice in his left shoulder, which shattered his arm. Bleeding heavily, he was helped from his horse and laid on a litter, which litter-bearers dropped when a Federal shell exploded nearby, throwing Jackson onto his broken arm.

The men put Jackson back on the litter and brought him to a nearby ambulance, which conveyed him to a field hospital at Wilderness Tavern. Dr. Hunter Maguire, Jackson’s medical director, received Jackson’s permission to amputate his arm, just below the shoulder. Command of his corps initially passed to Major General A.P. Hill, his most senior subordinate, but Hill had been wounded in both legs by shell fragments. So it went to Major General Jeb Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander.

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 358; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 302-03; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 280; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 286-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 289; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5395-5407; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-40; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 391-92; 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. 346-47; 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. 640-43; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 203-10; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-27

The Battle of Chancellorsville: Hooker Pulls Back

May 1, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee rushed to trap the Federal Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, while portions of the two armies clashed outside Fredericksburg to the east.

By this time, Lee had correctly guessed that the 40,000 Federals at Fredericksburg were merely a diversion to Major General Joseph Hooker’s main attack to the west, near Chancellorsville. Lee left just 10,000 men to defend Fredericksburg and sent his remaining 46,000 troops west to confront Hooker’s 75,000 Federals.

As Lee supervised artillery emplacements at Fredericksburg, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began assembling the Confederate divisions under Generals Lafayette McLaws and Richard H. Anderson. By 11 a.m., their men were moving west on the Orange Turnpike and Plank Road to face Hooker’s Federals heading east from Chancellorsville.

Artillery opened around 11:20 a.m., and heavy skirmishing began between Chancellorsville and the Tabernacle Church. The Federals surged forward into a clearing outside the Wilderness and seized high ground, from which they could launch a strong counterattack.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, the Federal army aeronautics chief, reported from an observation balloon that Lee’s entire army was coming from Fredericksburg to stop the Federal advance. At 2 p.m., Hooker, who had sworn that God Almighty could not save Lee from destruction, ordered his men to immediately disengage and fall back to their previous positions around the Chancellorsville crossroads.

Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, the Federal army chief engineer, saw that the Federals had gained a major advantage and pleaded with Hooker to reconsider. Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding II Corps, also sent a messenger to headquarters saying, “In no event should we give up our ground.” Hooker revised his order to, “Hold on until 5 o’clock.” But by the time the message reached Couch, he told the courier, “Tell General Hooker he is too late. The enemy are already on my right and rear. I am in full retreat.”

Federal Major General Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Sonofthesouth.net

Hooker’s decision to surrender the initiative dumbfounded his subordinates and gave Lee the opportunity to launch an offensive of his own. The decision may have been prompted by the fact that Lee had used Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to command all roads leading out of Chancellorsville. This prevented Hooker from getting an accurate idea of where Lee’s army truly was.

Some officers thought that Hooker might have been drunk, but others later testified before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that he had not been drinking that day. Some even believed that alcohol might have actually improved Hooker’s performance. Hooker later explained his decision by saying, “For once, I lost confidence in Hooker.”

Nevertheless, Hooker’s confidence seemed restored by day’s end, when he sent a message to his subordinates: “The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack today will embolden the enemy to attack him.” But his troops were back where they started that morning, in the woods and not the clearing where the Confederates had stopped them. The heavy brush of the Wilderness offset Hooker’s advantage in both numbers and artillery.

Lee, who had arrived from Fredericksburg that afternoon, met with Jackson just after nightfall southeast of Chancellorsville. They sat on hardtack boxes in front of a fire and discussed upcoming strategy. Jackson reported that the Federals had stopped withdrawing and were now stationed behind defenses.

Stuart reported that General Fitzhugh Lee, one of his cavalry commanders who had scouted the Orange Turnpike, found that the Federal right flank was “in the air” and vulnerable to attack. The troops on the Federal right consisted of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps, which was largely disliked by the rest of the army because its men were predominantly German immigrants who spoke little English. Having not yet proved themselves in battle, they were placed on the right, believed to be farthest from any upcoming action.

With Lee’s army already divided between Fredericksburg and the Wilderness outside Chancellorsville, Jackson proposed splitting it a third time by moving his corps on a 14-mile march around to attack the Federal right flank. A local resident showed one of Jackson’s aides a path that could be used, off the main road, to get to the Federal flank without detection.

Lee told Jackson, “General Stuart will cover your movement with his cavalry.” Jackson said, “My troops will move at 4 o’clock.” While Jackson led his corps around Hooker’s right, Lee would demonstrate against Hooker’s front with the divisions of Anderson and McLaws.

This defied all military logic and was the greatest gamble ever yet attempted by Lee. Facing an army of nearly 130,000 men, Lee would send 28,000 to assail the right while holding the front with 18,000 and Fredericksburg with just 10,000. But believing that Hooker had lost his nerve by withdrawing, Lee told Jackson, “Well, go on.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 357; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 292, 299; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 279; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 276-81, 281-83; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 288; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5360-95; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-26; 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. 344-46; 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. 639-40; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 203-210; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-27