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The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

THE BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE

May 1863 opened in a burst of spring glory along the Rappahannock River. Blossoms from apple, peach, and cherry trees splashed color against a background of soft green woods. Wildflowers dotted hillsides and ditches alongside rolling fields of luxuriant grasses and wheat half a foot high. Nature thus masked the scars inflicted by two huge armies over the previous months, providing a beautiful stage across which a whirlwind of action would be played out during May's first week. Armed with an excellent strategic blueprint, Union Major General Joseph Hooker and his Army of the Potomac marched into this scene of pastoral renewal. General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson reacted with a series of maneuvers that carried their fabled collaboration to its dazzling apogee. The confrontation produced a grand drama filled with memorable scenes, a vivid contrast in personalities between the respective army commanders, and clogged fighting by soldiers on both sides. Its final act brought humiliating defeat for the proud Army of the Potomac and problemactical victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.

IN 1862, ROBERT E. LEE HAD DEFEATED GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN, JOHN POPE, AND AMBROSE BURNSIDE, BUT COULD HE DEFEAT JOE HOOKER? (NPS)

The spring of 1863 marked the advent of the third year in an increasingly bloody war. Along the Mississippi River, Major General Ulysses S. Grant continued his movement against the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg with an eye toward establishing Union control of the "Father of Waters." In Middle Tennessee, Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland prepared to engage General Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee in operations that could settle the fate of Chattanooga and the Georgia hinterlands. The last major military arena lay in Virginia, where the armies of Hooker and Lee were arrayed along the Rappahannock River.

Neither government considered Virginia the most important theater. President Abraham Lincoln and Major General Henry W. Halleck, his general in chief, considered Grant's operations most important. Success there would separate the Trans-Mississippi states from the rest of the Confederacy, allow Northern vessels to cruise the river at will, and provide water-borne access to great stretches of Confederate territory. Lincoln and Halleck saw Rosecrans's movements as second in importance, judging Hooker's activities a clear third. On the Confederate side, Jefferson Davis and many of his generals believed the decisive fighting would come in Tennessee. A group that has come to be known as the "Western Concentration Bloc," which included officers such as General Joseph F. Johnston and Lieutenant General James Longstreet as well as Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas and other influential politicians, argued that Lee's army should be weakened to reinforce Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. Lee thought otherwise and hoped to keep as much strength as possible under his command. Mulling over the strategic situation in late February, he had postulated victory for the Confederacy through "systematic success" on the battlefield that would create "a revolution among [the Northern] people."

AS THE CAMPAIGN OPENED, JOE HOOKER BRIMMED WITH SELF-CONFIDENCE. "MY PLANS ARE PERFECT," HE TOLD A GROUP OF OFFICERS, "AND WHEN I START TO CARRY THEM OUT, MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON GENERAL LEE, FOR I WILL HAVE NONE." (LC)

Lee knew better than most that military success in Virginia stood the best chance of triggering such a revolution. Accused then and later of wearing Virginia blinders, the Southern commander in fact understood that the psychological power of his victories probably outweighed whatever the Confederacy might accomplish elsewhere. The eastern theater contained the respective capitals, each nation's largest army, and the Confederacy's most famous generals, Lee and Jackson. The Mississippi River or Middle Tennessee might be more crucial in a strictly military sense, but many citizens and politicians North and South, as well as virtually all foreign observers, considered the eastern theater to be transcendent. Lincoln had learned this lesson the previous year, when a series of Union victories in the West had been overshadowed by Major General George B. McClellan's failure during the Seven Days' battles. "It seems unreasonable," the frustrated president had observed, "that a series of successes, extending through half-a-year, and clearing more than a hundred thousand square miles of country, should help us so little, while a single half-defeat should hurt us so much." The campaign between Hooker and Lee—the one man new to army leadership and the other a consummate field commander—would have great significance because so many people considered it the war's centerpiece in the spring of 1863.

CHANCELLORSVILLE WAS A LARGE BRICK HOUSE IN THE WILDERNESS, RATHER THAN A TOWN AS ITS NAME MIGHT IMPLY. ORIGINALLY OPERATED AS A TAVERN, IT BECAME HOOKER'S HEADQUARTERS DURING THE BATTLE. (BL)

A PHOTOGRAPHER TOOK THIS PICTURE OF STONEWALL JACKSON AT THE YERBY HOUSE JUST DAYS BEFORE THE CAMPAIGN OPENED. JACKSON'S SOLDIERS LIKED THE IMAGE, BUT HIS WIFE, ANNA, THOUGHT IT MADE HIM LOOK TOO STERN. (NA)

The rival commanders and their armies offered a study in contrasts on the eve of the campaign. Hooker had been named to head the Army of the Potomac on January 25, 1863, through a combination of solid service and effective political maneuvering. A graduate of West Point, who ranked twenty-ninth in the class of 1837, he had left the army in the 1850s but accepted a brigadier generalcy of volunteers shortly after war erupted in 1861. He missed the battle of First Bull Run, then fought as a division and corps chief at the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. A press report of action on the Peninsula headed "Fighting-Joe Hooker" had been rendered "Fighting Joe Hooker" when it appeared in print, thus fastening on its subject a nickname that he despised but never managed to shake. Still, he did stand out as an aggressive officer in an army blessed with too little of that commodity. A shameless self promoter, Hooker worked tirelessly to supplant Major General Ambrose F. Burnside following the Union fiasco at Fredericksburg and the equally ignominious Mud March of mid-January 1863. Telling Republicans in Congress what they wanted to hear, touting his own accomplishments, and criticizing Burnside, he emerged in late January as the president's choice to lead the Army of the Potomac.

Hooker looked the part of a general and exuded self-assurance. Above medium height, blue-eyed, with light hair and a ruddy complexion, he cut a dashing figure on or off a horse. "It is no vanity in me to say I am a damned sight better general than any you had on that field," he had told Lincoln after First Bull Run. Newspapers generally liked Hooker's cockiness. One rhapsodized about him in January 1863 as "a General of the heroic stamp.... who feels the enthusiasm of a soldier and who loves battle from an innate instinct for his business."


"Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."

The president told his new commander what he expected in a remarkably perceptive and blunt letter. "I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier ...," wrote Lincoln. "You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm." But Lincoln knew Hooker had worked against Burnside—which "did a great wrong to the country"—and had spoken of the need for a military dictator if the North were to win the war. "Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command," continued the president: "Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship." In a communication dated January 31, 1863, Halleck spoke for Lincoln in reiterating to Hooker what he had told Burnside earlier that month: "Our first object was, not Richmond, but the defeat and scattering of Lee's army." The president confirmed Halleck's language some two months later, observing that "our prime object is the enemies' army in front of us, and is not with, or about, Richmond."

The Army of the Potomac in January 1863 represented a poor weapon with which Hooker might smite the Rebels. "Fighting Joe" inherited an organization buffeted by defeat, lacking confidence in leaders who engaged in bitter squabbling, plagued by breakdowns in the delivery of pay and food, and suffering a high rate of desertion. An officer in the 140th New York described an "entire army struck with melancholy. . . . The mind of the army, just now, is a sort of intellectual marsh in which False Report grows fat, and sweeps up and down with a perfect audacity and fierceness." Another soldier thought "the army is fast approaching a mob." A man in the 155th Pennsylvania spoke darkly of the dismantling of Hooker's force: "I like the idea for my part," he observed, "& I think they may as well abandon this part of Virginia's bloody soil." Many of the problems boiled down to the men's lack of faith in their generals. "From want of confidence in its leaders and from no other reason," summarized one observant New Yorker, "the army is fearfully demoralized."


LINCOLN'S LETTER TO HOOKER

Executive Mansion
Washington, January 26, 1863

Major General Hooker:

General.

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not indispensable, quality.

You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly,
A. Lincoln

Hooker took a number of steps that quickly restored morale. He named as medical director Jonathan Letterman, who oversaw improvements in food and sanitation that helped to lower the incidence of illness among the soldiers. Tackling the problem of desertion, Hooker tightened patrols while also convincing Lincoln to issue a proclamation of amnesty. A new system of furloughs for individuals and units with strong records went into effect, a measure, noted one man, that triggered "joyous anticipation" in the ranks. Known as a general who appreciated good drink, Hooker mandated a whiskey ration for soldiers returning from picket duty. Perhaps most important symbolically, the new commander instituted a system of corps badges. Initially aimed at identifying the units of shirkers, the badges soon became highly valued symbols that engendered pride in belonging to a particular corps. Hooker probably did not exaggerate when he commented after the war that this innovation "had a magical effect on the discipline and conduct of our troops. . . . The badge became very precious in the estimation of the soldier."

MORALE IN THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC WAS AT LOW EBB AT THE TIME HOOKER ASSUMED COMMAND. HE WOULD HAVE JUST THREE MONTHS TO TURN THINGS AROUND. (BL)

HOOKER'S ADOPTION OF CORPS BADGES ENABLED OFFICERS TO IDENTIFY UNITS ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND BUILT ESPRIT-DE-CORPS AMONG THE TROOPS. (BL)

The army also underwent reorganization. Hooker scrapped the Grand Divisions of Burnside's tenure, which had grouped the Union corps into larger administrative bodies. This required that he communicate with eight corps—a cumbersome arrangement at best. Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who led the Eleventh Corps, suggested that Hooker opted for this arrangement because he "enjoyed maneuvering several independent bodies." Far more pernicious was Hooker's decision to scatter the army's artillery batteries among its infantry divisions, which removed the able Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt from effective charge of the Federal long arm. Hooker believed this move would promote strong bonds between the infantry and artillery because soldiers "regarded their batteries with a feeling of devotion." But its principal effect was to deny Northern artillery the ability to mass for concentrated fire. Hooker took the opposite approach with his mounted arm, which he gathered into a Cavalry Corps under the direction of Major General George Stoneman.

A canvass of Hooker's subordinate command reveals some competence and a good deal of caution, but no brilliance. Closest to Hooker was Third Corps commander Daniel F. Sickles, a former New York congressman who had murdered his wife's lover in 1859, won acquittal, and then—to the astonishment of Washington society—accepted Mrs. Sickles back into his home. Innocent of military training and beholden to Hooker for his advancement to major general, Sickles differed from the other corps chiefs in his aggressiveness on the battlefield. The First Corps belonged to Major General John F. Reynolds, a handsome Pennsylvanian widely known then and since as the ablest corps commander in the array—but whose record offers little evidence to substantiate that lofty reputation. Major General Darius N. Couch, a Pennsylvanian who led the Second Corps, emulated his idol George B. McClellan with a conservative approach to war and politics. A third Pennsylvanian, Major General George G. Meade, quietly presided over the Fifth Corps after a solid but unspectacular record during the first two years of the conflict. A pair of strong McClellan supporters, Major General John Sedgwick and Major General Henry W. Slocum, commanded the Sixth and Twelfth corps respectively. Neither had compiled a distinguished record; indeed, Sedgwick's one memorable episode as a general consisted of leading his division to ignominious disaster in the West Woods at Antietam. Except for Sickles, all of these men had advanced partly because of their ability to mask conservative political views in the context of a war shifting to a more radical orientation concerning emancipation and other issues.

GEORGE STONEMAN COMMANDED THE UNION ARMY'S CAVALRY CORPS. "LET YOUR WATCH WORD BE FIGHT," HOOKER TOLD HIM. (BL)

GEORGE G. MEADE (BL)

O. O. Howard of the Eleventh Corps stood out as a pious Republican among predominantly Democratic peers. Hooker shared Howard's politics but not his moral code. In a postwar interview, the former army commander remarked savagely that Howard "was always a woman among troops.... If he was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them. He was always taken up with Sunday Schools and the temperance cause." Howard inspired little devotion in his corps, which counted among its ranks thousands of Germans who would have preferred Major General Carl Schurz or some other German-speaking officer as their commander. Taunted as "Dutchmen" throughout the army, the soldiers of the Eleventh Corps stood apart from their comrades—just as their commander stood apart from them. Adversity would bind them together in the wake of Chancellorsville.

Despite the uncertain quality of many of its senior generals, the Army of the Potomac approached the spring campaign as a formidable force. Well supplied and equipped and vigorously led by Hooker, the army numbered nearly 134,000 men of all arms and could carry 413 artillery pieces into battle. Hooker described this host as "the finest army on the planet." Others shared this view, including Edward Porter Alexander, a perceptive Confederate artillerist who after the war wrote of "Hooker's great army—the greatest this country had ever seen."

A series of reviews through the spring season allowed the army to display its growing confidence and power. President Lincoln joined Hooker in early April to preside over the most notable of these public showings. Scores of thousands of men marched by the admiring general and their commander in chief. After one of the reviews, a soldier in the Second Massachusetts proudly proclaimed that the "Army of the Potomac is a collection of as fine troops . . . as there are in the world." An Ohioan seemed awestruck at such a magnificent display of the Republic's martial resources: "Such a great army! Thunder and lightning! The Johnnies could never whip this army!"

E. PORTER ALEXANDER (BL)

R. E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to meet their imposing foe after enduring a very difficult winter and early spring. Lee's own health remained uncertain. In early April he complained to his wife of "a good deal of pain in my chest, back, & arms." "Some fever remains," he added, and the doctors "have been tapping me all over like an old steam boiler before condemning it." By April 11, he reported himself much improved to his daughter Agnes: "I hope I shall recover my strength," he wrote, through his pulse stood at about 90, "too quick for an old man," according to his physicians.

The winter had forced hard choices on Lee. Unable to provision his cavalry, he had dispersed it widely to secure sufficient fodder. James Longstreet, head of the First Corps and Lee's senior lieutenant, also had been detached from the army with the divisions of Major General George E. Pickett and Major General John Bell Hood. Posted in Southside Virginia near Suffolk, Longstreet's soldiers foraged on a grand scale and stood ready to block Federal thrusts from Norfolk, or the coast of North Carolina. Lee retained the divisions of Major General Richard H. Anderson and Major General Lafayette McLaws from Longstreet's corps. and Stonewall Jackson's entire Second Corps—the divisions of Major General Ambrose Powell Hill, Brigadier General Robert F. Rodes, Major General Jubal A. Early, and Brigadier General Raleigh E. Colston—stood ready to rake the field against Hooker. Lee's artillery counted 220 guns, and approximately 2,500 Confederate cavalrymen were near at hand. The Army of Northern Virginia could muster slightly fewer than 61,000 men in all—which meant it would face an enemy more than twice its strength.

IN APRIL 1863, PRESIDENT LINCOLN TRAVELED TO STAFFORD COUNTY TO REVIEW THE ARMY. HERE BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN BUFORD'S CAVALRY DIVISION PASSES IN REVIEW. (HW)

Superb leadership partially offset this daunting disparity in numbers. Lee's record since June 1862 justified his reputation as an unexcelled field commander. He had forged an unshakable bond with his soldiers, and many Confederate civilians already viewed him as the personification of their war effort. "Like [George] Washington, he is a wise man, and a good man," noted a Georgia newspaper in late 1862, "and possesses in an eminent degree those qualities which are indispensable in the great leader and champion upon whom the country rests its hopes of present success and future independence." Stonewall Jackson stood second only to Lee in the estimation of the Confederate people (in Europe he probably was more famous) and inspired similar confidence among his men. As superior and loyal subordinate, Lee and Jackson formed a partnership that accounted for much of the army's success. Major General James E. B. "Jeb" Stuart complemented Lee and Jackson beautifully. He brought unmatched skill in the arts of gathering intelligence and screening the army to his work with the cavalry—talents that would prove crucial in the upcoming campaign. Finally, the Confederate artillery boasted a group of highly intelligent, innovative, and cocky young officers who benefited from a recent reorganization that placed Southern batteries in battalions. Unlike their opponents, Confederate gunners would be able to bring several batteries to bear on different sectors of the battlefield—a tactic that diminished Union advantages in firepower and quality of ordinance.


Splendid Confederate morale brightened the prospects for Southern success. Lee's soldiers had overcome long odds in winning spectacular victories, and they believed their generals would place them in a position to do so again.

Splendid Confederate morale brightened the prospects for Southern success. Lee's soldiers had overcome long odds in winning spectacular victories, and they believed their generals would place them in a position to do so again. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, a youthful brigadier in Robert Rodes's division, spoke for many in the army when he confidently stated that the "vandal hordes of the Northern Tyrant are struck down with terror arising from their past experience. They have learned to their sorrow that this army is made up of veterans equal to those of the 'Old Guard' of Napoleon." When Hooker seemed loath to advance during one spell of dry weather in March, Ramseur confidently attributed it to Fighting Joe's desire "to postpone the day of his defeat and humiliation." Lee reciprocated this confidence, seeing in his soldiers the capacity to offset much of the North's substantial edge in men and materiel.

Hooker's preponderant strength carried with it the strategic initiative. Well aware of Burnside's costly failure to bludgeon his way through Lee's defenders at the battle of Fredericksburg, he entertained no thought of challenging entrenched Confederates head-on. His initial plan called for turning Lee's left flank with the Cavalry Corps. Stoneman would take his command across the Rappahannock well upstream from Fredericksburg, after which the troopers would strike south and southeast to disrupt communications and transportation in Lee's rear. Expecting Lee to withdraw toward the Confederate capital in the face of this threat, Hooker would push his infantry over the Rappahannock and pursue the fleeing Rebels. "I have concluded that I will have more chance of inflicting a heavier blow upon the enemy by turning his position to my right," the general informed President Lincoln on April 11, "and, if practicable, to sever his connections with Richmond with my dragoon force and such light batteries as it may be deemed advisable to send with them." The next day Hooker urged Stoneman to remember that "celerity, audacity, and resolution are everything in war," pointedly telling the cavalryman that "on you and your noble command must depend in a great measure the extent and brilliancy of our success."

JAMES E.B. STUART (LC)

The cavalry's turning march, begun promisingly enough on April 13, quickly slowed to a halt when heavy rains turned the Rappahannock into a frothing, impassable torrent. Only a single brigade made it across the river before the water rose precipitately and prompted Stoneman to abort the effort. "I greatly fear it is another failure already," an anguished Lincoln commented when Hooker explained Stoneman's problems. The president, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and General Halleck joined Hooker at Aquia on April 19 to discuss strategy.

Hooker greeted his visitors with plans for a more ambitious turning operation. Stoneman's role remained essentially the same, but now Federal infantry would march simultaneously with their mounted comrades. While the Cavalry Corps crossed the river and began its dash into the Virginia interior, the 42,000 men of the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Fifth corps would move upriver, past well-defended Banks and United States fords, to negotiate the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford. Once on the Rebel side of the river, they would hasten south to cross the Rapidan River at Germanna and Ely's fords, proceed into a heavily wooded area known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, concentrate at a crossroads called Chancellorsville, and then strike Lee's army from the west. Meanwhile, two divisions from Couch's Second Corps—another 10,000 men—would proceed to United States Ford and wait for Meade's Fifth Corps, marching east toward Lee, to drive Confederate defenders away from the river.

WHEN UNION SOLDIERS CROSSED THE RAPIDAN RIVER, THEY ENTERED A 70-SQUARE-MILE AREA OF DENSE THICKETS KNOWN AS THE WILDERNESS. MANY WOULD NEVER LEAVE ITS GLOOMY REALM. (NPS)

Hooker hoped to hold Lee's attention at Fredericksburg by shifting the Sixth and First corps, 40,000 strong and under John Sedgwick's overall command, to the Rebel side of the Rappahannock below town. Sedgwick's troops would threaten an attack against Stonewall Jackson's divisions holding the Confederate right flank. Further to mask Hooker's turning movement, Daniel Sickles's Third Corps and one division of the Second Corps, which together mustered nearly 25,000 muskets. would remain in their camps at Falmouth in plain view of watching Confederates.

THE RIGHT WING OF THE UNION ARMY BROKE CAMP ON APRIL 27 AND CONFIDENTLY HEADED UP THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER. WITHIN TWO WEEKS IT WOULD BE BACK WHERE IT STARTED. (BL)

EACH UNION SOLDIER LEFT CAMP WITH UPWARD OF 60 POUNDS OF EQUIPMENT. AS THE DAY DREW HOTTER, INDIVIDUALS CAST OFF OVERCOATS, BLANKETS, AND OTHER CUMBERSOME ITEMS. (LC)

If Hooker's grand design were to work, the three corps in the turning column should break clear of the Wilderness as quickly as possible. Covering approximately seventy square miles, the Wilderness extended south from the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers with irregular borders running some three miles south and two miles east of Chancellorsville. Few roads traversed this gloomy forest, and only a handful of farms broke its dismal hold on the countryside. No longer dominated by mature growth, it was an ugly, scrub wasteland repeatedly cut over to feed hungry little iron furnaces in the region. Dense underbrush, choking vines, thickets of blackjack and hickory, and spindly saplings posed wicked obstacles to the passage of troops and would nullify to a large degree the superior Federal artillery. Just a few miles east of Chancellorsville the Wilderness gave way to open country where Northern numbers and equipment could have full weight. That was where the turning column should seek its outnumbered and outgunned enemy.

Efficient execution of the Union plan would squeeze Lee between powerful forces in front and rear while Stoneman's cavalry wreaked havoc on Confederate lines of communication and supply. Hooker believed his opponent must either retreat, to be hounded by a pursuing Army of the Potomac, or attack the Federals on unfavorable ground. Either scenario promised victory sweeping enough to lay to rest the troubling ghosts of Fredericksburg and other Union failures against Lee. An admiring Porter Alexander awarded Hooker's design high marks: "On the whole I think this plan was decidedly the best strategy conceived in any of the campaigns ever set on foot against us," he wrote in his memoirs. "And the execution of it was, also, excellently managed, up to the morning of May 1st."

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