The Campaign of Chancellorsville

“The night was so bright that . . . no special difficulty was
apprehended in executing the order.” In the vicinity of Fredericksburg,
shortly after midnight, a fog appears to have arisen from the river,
which considerably impeded the movements of the Sixth Corps. This
Hooker knew from Sedgwick’s report, which he was bound to believe,
unless evidence existed to show the contrary. “As will be seen, the
order was peremptory, and would have justified him in losing every man
of his command in its execution.”

Hooker also states that Warren was sent to Sedgwick on account of his
familiarity with the ground, and to impress upon the latter the
necessity of strict compliance with the order.

“I supposed, and am still of the opinion, that, if Gen. Sedgwick’s men
had shouldered arms and advanced at the time named, he would have
encountered less resistance and suffered less loss; but, as it was,
it was late when he went into Fredericksburg, and before he was in
readiness to attack the heights in rear of the town, which was about
eleven o’clock A.M. on the 3d, the enemy had observed his movement,
and concentrated almost their entire force at that point to oppose him.”
“He had the whole force of the enemy there to run against in carrying
the heights beyond Fredericksburg, but he carried them with ease; and,
by his movements after that, I think no one would infer that he was
confident in himself, and the enemy took advantage of it. I knew
Gen. Sedgwick very well: he was a classmate of mine, and I had been
through a great deal of service with him. He was a perfectly brave man,
and a good one; but when it came to manoeuvring troops, or judging of
positions for them, in my judgment he was not able or expert.
Had Gen. Reynolds been left with that independent command, I have no
doubt the result would have been very different.” “When the attack
was made, it had to be upon the greater part of the enemy’s force left
on the right: nevertheless the troops advanced, carried the heights
without heavy loss, and leisurely took up their line of march on the
plank road, advancing two or three miles that day.”

Now, this is scarcely a fair statement of facts. And yet they were all
spread before Hooker, in the reports of the Sixth Corps and of Gibbon.
No doubt Sedgwick was bound, as far as was humanly possible, to obey
that order; but, as in “losing every man in his command” in its
execution, he would scarcely have been of great eventual utility to his
chief, he did the only wise thing, in exercising ordinary discretion as
to the method of attacking the enemy in his path. Hooker’s assumption
that Sedgwick was on the north side of the Rappahannock was his own,
and not Sedgwick’s fault. Hooker might certainly have supposed that
Sedgwick had obeyed his previous orders, in part at least.

Sedgwick testified before the Committee on the Conduct of the War: “I
have understood that evidence has appeared before the Committee
censuring me very much for not being at Chancellorsville at daylight,
in accordance with the order of Gen. Hooker. I now affirm that it was
impossible to have made the movement, if there had not been a rebel
soldier in front of me.”

“I lost a thousand men in less than ten minutes time in taking the
heights of Fredericksburg.”

Sedgwick did “shoulder arms and advance” as soon as he received the
order; but the reports show plainly enough that he encountered annoying
opposition so soon as he struck the outskirts of the town; that he threw
forward assaulting columns at once; and that these fought as well as the
conditions warranted, but were repulsed.

It is not intended to convey the impression that there was no loss of
time on Sedgwick’s part. On the contrary, he might certainly have been
more active in some of his movements. No doubt there were other general
officers who would have been. But it is no exaggeration to insist that
his dispositions were fully as speedy as those of any other portion of
the army in this campaign.

Hooker not only alleges that “in his judgment, Gen. Sedgwick did not
obey the spirit of his order, and made no sufficient effort to obey it,”
but quotes Warren as saying that Sedgwick “would not have moved at all
if he [Warren] had not been there; and that, when he did move, it was
not with sufficient confidence or ability on his part to manoeuvre his
troops.” It is very doubtful whether Warren ever put his opinion in so
strong a way as thus quoted by Hooker from memory. His report does
speak of Gibbon’s slowness in coming up, and of his thus losing the
chance of crossing the canals and taking the breastworks before the
Confederates filed into them. But beyond a word to the effect that
giving the advance to Brooks’s division, after the capture of the
heights, “necessarily consumed a considerable time,” Warren does not in
his report particularly criticise Sedgwick’s movements. And in another
place he does speak of the order of ten P.M. as an “impossible” one.

Gen. Warren’s testimony on this subject is of the highest importance,
as representing Gen. Hooker in person. As before stated, he carried a
duplicate of Hooker’s order of ten P.M., to Sedgwick, with instructions
from the general to urge upon Sedgwick the importance of the utmost
celerity. Moreover, Warren knew the country better than any one else,
and was more generally conversant with Hooker’s plans, ideas, and
methods, being constantly at his side. “Gen. Sedgwick was ordered to be
in his position by daylight: of course that implied, if he could be

“If Sedgwick had got to Chancellorsville by daylight, I think we ought
to have destroyed Lee’s army. But it would depend a great deal upon how
hard the other part of the army fought; for Gen. Sedgwick, with his
twenty thousand men, was in great danger of being destroyed if he became

Moreover, Hooker in this testimony says: “Early in the campaign I had
come to the conclusion that with the arms now in use it would be
impossible to carry works by an assault in front, provided they were
properly constructed and properly manned;” and refers to the
Fredericksburg assault of Dec. 13, to illustrate this position, saying
that they (the enemy) “could destroy men faster than I could throw them
on the works;” and, “I do not know of an instance when rifle-pits,
properly constructed and properly manned, have been taken by front
assaults alone.”

And yet his order to Sedgwick was (as he construes it), blindly to throw
himself into this impossible situation, and lose every man in his
command rather than not make the attempt at once, and without waiting
properly to dispose his men, or feel the enemy.

As to the leisurely marching of two or three miles on Sunday, we have
seen how Brooks’s march was summarily arrested at Salem Church, and how
his attempt to force a passage, cost him alone some fifteen hundred men.

There is a good deal of evidence difficult to deal with in this movement
of the Sixth Corps. The report of Gen. Howe, written immediately after
the campaign, states facts dispassionately, and is to the point and
nothing more. This is as it should be in the report of a general to his
superior. It has but one error of consequence, viz., the assumption
that the three divisions of Anderson, McLaws, and Early, all under
command of Gen. Lee, attacked his line, leaving no force in front of
Brooks and Newton. It was Early alone, or Early assisted by a brigade
of Anderson, who attacked Howe.

But his testimony a year later, before the Committee on the Conduct of
the War, cannot be commended as dispassionate, and contains serious
errors. Gen. Howe states that the order to advance towards
Chancellorsville was received “just after dark, say eight o’clock,”
whereas it was not sent until nine P.M. from Chancellorsville, and ten
P.M. from Falmouth; nor did Sedgwick receive it until eleven P.M.
Howe evidently remembered the order to pursue by the Bowling-Green road,
as the one to march to Chancellorsville,–when speaking of time of
delivery. The deductions Gen. Howe makes from errors like this are
necessarily somewhat warped. But let us give all due weight to the
testimony of an able soldier. He states that his attack on Marye’s
heights was made on a mere notice from Sedgwick, that he was about to
attack, and desired Howe to assist; that he received on Sunday evening a
bare intimation only from Sedgwick, that the left of the corps must be
protected, and that he consequently moved his own left round to the
river; and later, that Sedgwick sent him word to strengthen his position
for defence; but complains that Sedgwick did not properly look after his
division. “Not receiving any instruction or assistance from Gen. Sedgwick,
I felt that we were left to take care of ourselves. It seemed to me,
from the movements or arrangements made during the day, that there was
a want of appreciation or a misunderstanding of the position which we
held.” Sedgwick’s entire confidence in Howe’s ability to handle his
division, upon general instructions of the object to be attained,
might account fully for a large part of this apparent vagueness.
But Howe does not look at it in this light. His opinion was, that no
necessity existed for the Sixth Corps to fall back across the river.

Gen. Howe’s testimony is very positive as to the possibility of the
Sixth Corps complying with Hooker’s order as given. He thinks a night
attack could have been made on the Fredericksburg heights, and that they
could have been speedily carried, and the corps have been well on the
road to Chancellorsville long before daylight. He also is of opinion
that Brooks’s division could have forced its way beyond Salem Church,
with proper support. But we also know how gallant an attempt Brooks
made to do this very thing, and how hard he struggled before yielding to

It is in no wise intended to begrudge Gen. Howe his opinion; but he has
certainly arrived at some of his conclusions, from premises founded on
errors of fact.

The testimony of Col. Johns, which follows Gen. Howe’s before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War, bears only the weight to which the
report of the commander of a brigade is entitled, whose duties allowed
him to have but a partial view of the general features of the march.
Though his opinion agrees with Gen. Howe’s, he, too, mistakes the hour
of the urgent order; and it is difficult to see why he was summoned
before the Committee, unless as a partisan.

“My object” (continues Hooker) “in ordering Gen. Sedgwick forward at the
time named, was to relieve me from the position in which I found myself
at Chancellorsville on the night of the 2d of May.” This statement is
not only characteristic of Hooker’s illogical method, but disingenuous
to the degree of mockery. For this position, it will be remembered,
was a strongly intrenched line, held by eighty thousand men, well armed
and equipped, having in their front less than half their number of
Confederates. In view of Hooker’s above-quoted opinion about rifle-
pits; of the fact that in his testimony he says: “Throughout the
Rebellion I have acted on the principle that if I had as large a force
as the enemy, I had no apprehensions of the result of an encounter;”
of the fact that the enemy in his front had been cut in two, and would
so remain if he only kept the salient, just seized by Sickles and
Pleasonton, at the angle south-west of Fairview, well manned; and of the
fact that he had unused reserves greater in number than the entire force
of the enemy,–is it not remarkable that, in Hooker’s opinion, nothing
short of a countermarch of three miles by the Sixth Corps, the capture
of formidable and sufficiently manned intrenchments, (the work of the
Army of Northern Virginia during an entire half year,) and an advance of
nearly twelve miles,–all of which was to be accomplished between eleven
and daylight of a day in May,–could operate to “relieve him from the
position in which he found himself on the night of the 2d of May”?

“I was of the opinion, that if a portion of the army advanced on Lee’s
rear, sooner than allow his troops to remain between me and Sedgwick,
Lee would take the road Jackson had marched over on the morning of the
2d, and thus open for me a short road to Richmond, while the enemy,
severed from his depot, would have to retire by way of Gordonsville.”
Well enough, but was Sedgwick’s corps the only one to accomplish this?
Where were Reynolds, and Meade, and Howard, forsooth?

There is no particular criticism by Hooker upon Sedgwick’s authority to
withdraw to the north side of the river, or upon the necessity for his
so doing. And we have seen how hard-pressed and overmatched Sedgwick
had really been, and that he only withdrew when good military reasons
existed, and the latest-received despatch of his superior advised him to
do so. But Hooker states that “my desire was to have Gen. Sedgwick
retain a position on the south side of the river, in order that I might
leave a sufficient force to hold the position I was in, and with the
balance of my force re-cross the river, march down to Banks’s Ford,
and turn the enemy’s position in my front by so doing. In this, too,
I was thwarted, because the messenger who bore the despatch to Sedgwick
to withdraw and cover Banks’s Ford, reached Sedgwick before the one who
bore the order countermanding the withdrawal.”

Hooker had indicated to Sedgwick that he wished him to take and hold a
position at Taylor’s, the point where the Fredericksburg heights
approach the river, above the town, and terminate. But as these heights
were by that time held by Early, and there were no pontoon-bridges there,
the proposal was one Sedgwick knew could not be seriously entertained,
with two-thirds of Lee’s whole army surrounding his one corps, though he
did reconnoitre the ground in a vain effort to carry out his chief’s

But was it not simpler for Hooker, who had now only Jackson’s corps in
his front,–some eighteen thousand men to eighty thousand,–to move upon
his enemy, “attack and destroy him,” and himself fall upon Lee’s rear,
while Sedgwick kept him occupied at Banks’s Ford? And Hooker had all
Sunday afternoon and night, and all day Monday, to ponder and arrange
for attempting this simplest of manoeuvres.

It is hard to understand how the man, who could cut out such a gigantic
piece of work for his lieutenant, as Hooker did for Sedgwick, could lack
the enterprise to execute so trivial a tactical movement as the one
indicated. From the stirring words, “Let your watchword be Fight,
and let all your orders be Fight, Fight, FIGHT!” of April 12, to the
inertia and daze of the 4th of May, is indeed a bewildering step.
And yet Hooker, to judge from his testimony, seems to have fully
satisfied himself that he did all that was to be expected of an active
and intelligent commander.

The impression that an attack should have been made, prevailed among
many of his subordinates. Gen. Wadsworth thus testified before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War: “Question.–Can you tell why it was
not ordered to attack the enemy at the time Gen. Sickles with his Third
Corps was driven back; or why it was not ordered to attack the next day,
when you heard the sound of Gen. Sedgwick’s engagement with the enemy?
Answer.–I have no means of knowing; at the time we were ordered to
re-cross the river, so far as I could judge of the temper and spirit of
the officers and men of the army, they were ready to take the offensive.
I do not know why we were withdrawn then; I think we should not have
withdrawn. I think the enemy were whipped; although they had gained
certain advantages, they were so severely handled that they were weaker
than we were.”

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