The Campaign of Chancellorsville



The operations of Sunday morning, in common with many of our battles,
furnish scarcely more than a narrative of isolated combats, having more
or less remote or immediate effect upon each other.

The difficulty of the ground over which our armies were constantly
called upon to manoeuvre explains “why the numerous bloody battles
fought between the armies of the Union and of the secessionists should
have been so indecisive. A proper understanding of the country, too,
will help to relieve the Americans from the charge, so frequently made
at home and abroad, of want of generalship in handling troops in
battle,–battles that had to be fought out hand to hand in forests,
where artillery and cavalry could play no part; where the troops could
not be seen by those controlling their movements; where the echoes and
reverberations of sound from tree to tree were enough to appall the
strongest hearts engaged, and yet the noise would often be scarcely
heard beyond the immediate scene of strife. Thus the generals on either
side, shut out from sight and from hearing, had to trust to the
unyielding bravery of their men till couriers from the different parts
of the field, often extending for miles, brought word which way the
conflict was resulting, before sending the needed support. We should
not wonder that such battles often terminated from the mutual exhaustion
of both contending forces, but rather, that, in all these struggles of
Americans against Americans, no panic on either side gave victory to the
other, like that which the French under Moreau gained over the Austrians
in the Black Forest.” (Warren.)

The Confederates had their general plan of action, viz., to drive their
opponents from the Chancellor House, in order to re-unite their right
and left wings, and to obtain possession of the direct road to
Fredericksburg, where lay Early and Barksdale. To accomplish this end,
they attacked the centre of Hooker’s army,–the right centre
particularly,–which blocked their way towards both objects.

It had been no difficult task to divine their purpose. Indeed, it is
abundantly shown that Hooker understood it, in his testimony already
quoted. But, if he needed evidence of the enemy’s plans, he had
acquired full knowledge, shortly after dawn, that the bulk of Stuart’s
corps was still confronting Sickles and Williams, where they had fought
the evening before; and that Anderson and McLaws had not materially
changed their position in front of Geary and Hancock. He could have
ascertained, by an early morning reconnoissance, (indeed, his corps-
commanders did so on their own responsibility,) that there was no enemy
whatsoever confronting his right and left flanks, where three corps,
the First, Fifth, and Eleventh, lay chafing with eagerness to engage the
foe. And the obvious thing to do was to leave a curtain of troops to
hold these flanks, which were protected by almost insuperable natural
obstacles, as well as formidable intrenchments, and hold the superfluous
troops well in hand, as a central reserve, in the vicinity of
headquarters, to be launched against the attacking columns of the enemy,
wherever occasion demanded.

Hooker still had in line at Chancellorsville, counting out his losses of
Saturday, over eighty-five thousand men. Lee had not exceeding half the
number. But every musket borne by the Army of Northern Virginia was put
to good use; every round of ammunition was made to tell its story.
On the other hand, of the effective of the Army of the Potomac, barely a
quarter was fought au fond, while at least one-half the force for duty
was given no opportunity to burn a cartridge, to aid in checking the
onset of the elated champions of the South.

Almost any course would have been preferable to Hooker’s inertness.
There was a variety of opportune diversions to make. Reynolds, with his
fresh and eager corps, held the new right, protected in his front by
Hunting Run. It would have been easy at any time to project a strong
column from his front, and take Stuart’s line of battle in reverse.
Indeed, a short march of three miles by the Ely’s Ford, Haden’s Ford,
and Greenwood Gold Mines roads, none of which were held by the enemy,
would have enabled Reynolds to strike Stuart in rear of his left flank,
or seize Dowdall’s clearing by a coup de main, and absolutely negative
all Stuart’s efforts in front of Fairview. Or an advance through the
forest would have accomplished the same end. To be sure, the ground was
difficult, and cut up by many brooks and ravines; but such ground had
been, in this campaign, no obstacle to the Confederates. Nor would it
have been to Reynolds, had he been given orders to execute such a
manoeuvre. Gen. Doubleday states in his testimony: “The action raged
with the greatest fury near us on our left.” “I thought that the simple
advance of our corps would take the enemy in flank, and would be very
beneficial in its results. Gen. Reynolds once or twice contemplated
making this advance on his own responsibility. Col. Stone made a
reconnoissance, showing it to be practicable.”

The same thing applies to the Eleventh and portions of the Fifth Corps
on the left. A heavy column could have been despatched by the Mine and
River roads to attack McLaws’s right flank. Barely three miles would
have sufficed, over good roads, to bring such a column into operating
distance of McLaws. It may be said that the Eleventh Corps was not fit
for such work, after its defeat of Saturday night. But testimony is
abundant to show that the corps was fully able to do good service early
on Sunday morning, and eager to wipe off the stain with which its flight
from Dowdall’s had blotted its new and cherished colors. But, if Hooker
was apprehensive of trusting these men so soon again, he could scarcely
deem them incapable of holding the intrenchments; and this left Meade
available for the work proposed.

Instead, then, of relying upon the material ready to his hand, Hooker
conceived that his salvation lay in the efforts of his flying wing under
Sedgwick, some fifteen miles away. He fain would call on Hercules
instead of putting his own shoulder to the wheel. His calculations were
that Sedgwick, whom he supposed to be at Franklin’s and Pollock’s
crossings, three or four miles below Fredericksburg, could mobilize his
corps, pass the river, capture the heights, where in December a few
Southern brigades had held the entire Army of the Potomac at bay,
march a dozen miles, and fall upon Lee’s rear, all in the brief space of
four or five hours. And it was this plan he chose to put into execution,
deeming others equal to the performance of impossibilities, while
himself could not compass the easiest problems under his own eye.

To measure the work thus cut out for Sedgwick, by the rule of the
performances of the wing immediately commanded by Gen. Hooker, would be
but fair. But Sedgwick’s execution of his orders must stand on its own
merits. And his movements are fully detailed elsewhere.

An excuse often urged in palliation of Hooker’s sluggishness, is that he
was on Sunday morning severely disabled. Hooker was standing, between
nine and ten A.M., on the porch of the Chancellor House, listening to
the heavy firing at the Fairview crest, when a shell struck and
dislodged one of the pillars beside him, which toppled over, struck and
stunned him; and he was doubtless for a couple of hours incapacitated
for work.

But the accident was of no great moment. Hooker does not appear to have
entirely turned over the command to Couch, his superior corps-commander,
but to have merely used him as his mouthpiece, retaining the general
direction of affairs himself.

And this furnishes no real apology. Hooker’s thorough inability to
grasp the situation, and handle the conditions arising from the
responsibility of so large a command, dates from Thursday noon, or at
latest Friday morning. And from this time his enervation was steadily
on the increase. For the defeat of the Army of the Potomac in Sunday
morning’s conflict was already a settled fact, when Hooker failed at
early dawn so to dispose his forces as to sustain Sickles and Williams
if over-matched, or to broach some counter-manoeuvre to draw the enemy’s
attention to his own safety.

It is an ungracious task to heap so much blame upon any one man.
But the odium of this defeat has for years been borne by those who are
guiltless of the outcome of the campaign of Chancellorsville; and the
prime source of this fallacy has been Hooker’s ever-ready self-
exculpation by misinterpreted facts and unwarranted conclusions, while
his subordinates have held their peace. And this is not alone for the
purpose of vindicating the fair fame of the Army of the Potomac and its
corps-commanders, but truth calls for no less. And it is desired to
reiterate what has already been said,–that it is in all appreciation of
Hooker’s splendid qualities as a lieutenant, that his inactivity in this
campaign is dwelt upon. No testimony need be given to sustain Hooker’s
courage: no man ever showed more. No better general ever commanded an
army corps in our service: this is abundantly vouched for. But Hooker
could not lead an hundred thousand men; and, unlike his predecessor,
he was unable to confess it. Perhaps he did not own it to himself.
Certainly his every explanation of this campaign involved the shifting
of the onus of his defeat to the shoulders of his subordinates,–
principally Howard and Sedgwick. And the fullest estimation of Hooker’s
brilliant conduct on other fields, is in no wise incompatible with the
freest censure for the disasters of this unhappy week. For truth awards
praise and blame with equal hand; and truth in this case does ample
justice to the brave old army, ample justice to Hooker’s noble aides.

The plan summarized by Warren probably reflected accurately the
intentions of his chief, as conceived in his tent on Saturday night.
It was self-evident that Anderson and McLaws could be readily held in
check, so long as Jackson’s corps was kept sundered from them. Indeed,
they would have necessarily remained on the defensive so long as
isolated. Instead, then, of leaving the Third Corps, and one division
of the Twelfth, to confront Jackson’s magnificent infantry, had Hooker
withdrawn an entire additional corps, (he could have taken two,) and
thrown these troops in heavy masses at dawn on Stuart, while Birney
retained Hazel Grove, and employed his artillery upon the enemy’s flank;
even the dauntless men, whose victories had so often caused them to deem
themselves invincible, must have been crushed by the blows inflicted.

But there is nothing at all, on this day, in the remotest degree
resembling tactical combination. And, long before the resistance of our
brave troops had ceased, all chances of successful parrying of Lee’s
skilful thrusts had passed away.

Hooker’s testimony is to the effect that he was merely lighting on
Sunday morning to retain possession of the road by which Sedgwick was to
join him, and that his retiring to the lines at Bullock’s was

The following extract from the records of the Committee on the Conduct
of the War, illustrates both this statement, and Hooker’s method of
exculpating himself by crimination of subordinates. “Question to
Gen. Hooker.–Then I understand you to say, that, not hearing from
Gen. Sedgwick by eleven o’clock, you withdrew your troops from the
position they held at the time you ordered Gen. Sedgwick to join you.

“Answer.–Yes, sir; not wishing to hold it longer at the disadvantage I
was under. I may add here, that there is a vast difference in
corps-commanders, and that it is the commander that gives tone and
character to his corps. Some of our corps-commanders, and also officers
of other rank, appear to be unwilling to go into a fight.”

But, apart from the innuendo, all this bears the stamp of an after-
thought. If an army was ever driven from its position by fair fighting,
our troops were driven from Chancellorsville. And it would seem, that,
if there was any reasonable doubt on Saturday night that the Army of the
Potomac could hold its own next day, it would have been wiser to have at
once withdrawn to the new lines, while waiting for the arrival of
Sedgwick. For here the position was almost unassailable, and the troops
better massed; and, if Lee had made an unsuccessful assault, Hooker
would have been in better condition to make a sortie upon the arrival of
the Sixth Corps in his vicinity, than after the bloody and disheartening
work at Fairview.

Still the inactivity of Hooker, when Sedgwick did eventually arrive
within serviceable distance, is so entire a puzzle to the student of
this campaign, that speculation upon what he did then actually assume as
facts, or how he might have acted under any other given conditions,
becomes almost fruitless.



Let us return to the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where
operations now demanded Lee’s undivided skill. This was properly the
left wing of the army, which, under Sedgwick, had made the demonstration
below Fredericksburg, to enable the right wing, under Hooker, to cross
the river above, and establish itself at Chancellorsville. It had
consisted of three corps; but, so soon as the demonstration had effected
its purpose, it will be remembered that Hooker withdrew from Sedgwick’s
command both the First and Third Corps, leaving him with his own,
the Sixth, to guard the crossings of the river; while Gibbon’s division
of the Second Corps did provost duty at the camp at Falmouth, and held
itself in readiness to move in any direction at a moment’s notice.

From this time on, the Sixth Corps may be more properly considered as a
detached command, than as the left wing of the Army of the Potomac.

And, beyond some demonstrations in aid of Hooker’s manoeuvring, Sedgwick
had been called on to perform no actual service up to the evening of May 2.

On May 1, a demonstration in support of Hooker’s advance from
Chancellorsville had been ordered, and speedily countermanded, on
account of the despatch having reached Sedgwick later than the hour set
for his advance.

On the forenoon of May 2, Hooker had given Sedgwick discretionary
instructions to attack the enemy in his front, “if an opportunity
presents itself with a reasonable expectation of success.”

Then came the despatch of 4.10 P.M., May 2, already quoted, and received
by Sedgwick just before dark:–

“The general commanding directs that Gen. Sedgwick cross the river as
soon as indications will permit; capture Fredericksburg with every thing
in it, and vigorously pursue the enemy. We know the enemy is flying,
trying to save his trains: two of Sickles’s divisions are among them.”

This despatch was immediately followed by another: “The major-general
commanding directs you to pursue the enemy by the Bowling-Green road.”

In pursuance of these and previous orders, Sedgwick transferred the
balance of the Sixth Corps to the south side of the Rappahannock,
one division being already there to guard the bridge-head. Sedgwick’s
orders of May 1 contemplated the removal of the pontoons before his
advance on the Bowling-Green road, as he would be able to leave no
sufficient force to guard them. But these orders were received so late
as daylight on the 2d; and the withdrawal of the bridges could not well
be accomplished in the full view of the enemy, without prematurely
developing our plans.

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