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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

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LEE ACCEPTS HOOKER'S CHALLENGE: MAY 1
Lee reacts to Hooker's opening move by boldly dividing his army. He sends Jackson's corps to reinforce McLaws and Anderson at Zoan Church, while leaving Early to hold the Fredericksburg line against Reynolds, Sedgwick, and Gibbon. The Confederates attack Syke's division on the Orange Turnpike and are about to come to grips with Slocum's corps on the Orange Plank Road when Hooker orders the Union army to withdraw to Chancellorsville.

Jackson's infantry and artillery were on the move under a memorably bright moon before dawn on Friday, May 1. With adrenaline pumping in anticipation of battle, the Confederates devoured the miles separating them from their blue-clad enemy. Jackson arrived at Anderson's position near Zoan Church by 8:00 A.M. McLaw's brigades had preceded them by a few hours. The men at Zoan who greeted Jackson assumed they would be fighting on the defensive, but they soon discovered that Stonewall harbored only offensive thoughts. Orders swiftly revealed his intention—Mahone's brigade and McLaws's division would move west on the turnpike, while Anderson's other brigades, supported by Jackson's arriving men, would push toward Chancellorsville on the plank road. By eleven o'clock the Confederates were in motion. A Confederate artillerist, watching Jackson's infantry pour westward, recalled the scene as Lee joined Jackson to observe the developing action: "Up the road from Fredericksburg comes marching a dense & swarming column of our shabby gray ranks, and at the head of them rode both General Lee & Stonewall Jackson.... We were not going to wait for the enemy to come & attack us... we were going out on the warpath after him." The presence of Lee and Jackson, he added, "meant that it was to be a supreme effort, a union of audacity & desperation."

GEORGE SYKES LED THE UNION ADVANCE DOWN THE ORANGE TURNIPKE. U.S. ARMY REGULAR TROOPS COMPRISED TWO OF HIS THREE BRIGADES. (NA)

BEFORE NOON, SYKES'S DIVISION COLLIDED WITH THE CONFEDERATE ARMY WEST OF ZOAN CHURCH. THE BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE WAS ON. (HW)

Joseph Hooker also entertained offensive thoughts on the morning of May 1. A beautiful day beckoned. Light breezes played among the army's uncased banners, and the men sensed important work ahead. Many officers had been unhappy with Hooker's decision to bivouac the turning column near Chancellorsville instead of moving on during the afternoon and evening of April 30. Now they heard with relief that the army would seek to regain its forward momentum. With 70,000 soldiers and 184 guns on hand, Hooker ordered a three-pronged advance toward Fredericksburg. George Meade took two divisions of his Fifth Corps out the River Road and sent Major General George Sykes's division, which boasted two brigades of U.S. Regulars, east on the turnpike. Farther south, Slocum's Twelfth Corps filled the plank road, with Howard's Eleventh Corps in close support. Couch's divisions, soon to be reinforced by the Third Corps then crossing United States Ford, would stand in reserve. Hooker envisioned a rapid march to take his troops out of the Wilderness, seize control of the ridge at Zoan Church, and permit him to stage a final strike against Fredericksburg.

Headed toward each other on the same roads, thousands of Federals and Confederates rapidly approached an inevitable collision. On the plank road, a captain in Slocum's corps instinctively looked at his watch when he noticed the first shell burst: "Twenty minutes past eleven," he remarked. The first gun of the battle of Chancellorsville. Fighting soon flared along the turnpike and plank road and almost immediately illuminated a stark contrast in leadership. Stonewall Jackson urged his men forward, directing new units to either the turnpike or plank road and seeking to press the enemy. Back at Chancellorsville Hooker shrank from the prospect of battle, issuing instructions at 2:00 P. M. for his corps commanders to suspend their advances and fall back to the crossroads.

HENRY SLOCUM'S TWELFTH CORPS LED THE UNION ADVANCE DOWN THE ORANGE PLANK ROAD. HE WAS JUST COMING TO GRIPS WITH THE CONFEDERATES WHEN HE RECEIVED ORDERS TO RETURN TO CHANCELLORSVILLE. (LC)

Much hard fighting lay ahead. Thousands of men would he killed or maimed, but any real hope for Union victory slowly receded as puzzled Federal veterans retreated away from the bright sunlight into the Wilderness.

The decisive moment of the campaign had arrived. Hooker's troops on the turnpike were nearing the vital ridge at Zoan Church. Slocum's units had made similar progress on the plank road. From the Zoan high ground eastward the landscape steadily descended toward Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock. Possession of the ridge would open the way to possible victory. But Hooker pulled his soldiers off the rising ground, back into the clutching forest. With every yard his soldiers trod into the woods, Hooker relinquished a measure of his numerical superiority. He had come face to face with R. E. Lee and had lost his nerve. In effect, the Chancellorsville campaign ended on the morning of May 1 because Hooker lacked the will to commit his army to a decisive confrontation with Lee. Much hard fighting lay ahead. Thousands of men would be killed or maimed, but any real hope for Union victory slowly receded as puzzled Federal veterans retreated away from the bright sunlight into the Wilderness.

Some of Hooker's subordinates reacted angrily. Slocum's report for the campaign implicitly criticized the commanding general by noting that the Twelfth Corps was gaining ground and had lost just ten men when the order to retreat arrived. On the River Road, Meade had encountered only the lightest opposition in reaching a point within sight of Banks Ford. Possession of that vital crossing would greatly shorten the distance between the two wings of Hooker's army. But Hooker's orders allowed no discretion. Grudgingly reversing direction, Meade betrayed frustration and wrath: "My God," he exclaimed, "if we can't hold the top of a hill, we certainly can't hold the bottom of it!"

By mid-afternoon Hooker's troops had begun entrenching along a defensive line centered on Chancellorsville. They originally deployed north to south facing east, but shortly after Hooker's order to withdraw Federals detected a threat on their right flank about a mile south of the plank road. A. R. Wright's Georgians had deployed in the bed of an unfinished railroad that roughly paralleled the plank road and turnpike, following it west through the woods and forcing the Federals to readjust. Hooker drew his new line to protect against Confederates to the south and east. Shaped like a broad, flat V with the apex near Chancellorsville, it consisted of Meade's corps and Couch's two divisions on the left, anchored on the Rappahannock and facing east and southeast; Slocum's corps in the center facing south; and Howard's corps holding the right along the turnpike, extending past Wilderness Church and also facing south. Sickles's troops, who had arrived about noon boosted the number of men under Hooker's direct control.

DARIUS COUCH VISITED HOOKER ON THE EVENING OF MAY 1 AND CAME AWAY WITH THE BELIEF THAT THE COMMANDING GENERAL WAS "A WHIPPED MAN." (LC)

Lee's army was arrayed to the east and southeast, its advance units within a mile of Chancellorsville. McLaws's brigades straddled the turnpike, while Anderson's and Jackson's divisions deployed along the plank road. Musketry and cannon fire died away as evening came on. Another bright moon "filled the heavens with light," noted a South Carolinian, casting weird shadows in the forest. A damp chill settled over the Wilderness, the night's silence broken by the axes of Union pioneers laboring to strengthen Hooker's works.

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