The Campaign of Chancellorsville

“Question.–Is it your opinion as a military man, that, if our army had
been ordered to take the offensive vigorously, we would have gained a
victory there? Answer.–I think we should have taken the offensive when
the enemy attacked Gen. Sedgwick.”

Again Hooker: “During the 3d and 4th, reconnoissances were made on the
right,” (i. e., at Chancellorsville,) “from one end of the line to the
other, to feel the enemy’s strength, and find a way and place to attack
him successfully; but it was ascertained that it could only be made on
him behind his defences, and with slender columns, which I believed he
could destroy as fast as they could be thrown on to his works.
Subsequent campaigns have only confirmed the opinion I then ascertained.”

Now, Hooker, at the time of giving this testimony, (March 11, 1865),
had had nearly two years in which to become familiar with the true state
of facts. He must have known these facts from the reports of his
subordinates, if not from the accounts of the action in the Southern
press. He must have known that all day Monday, he had only Jackson’s
corps opposed to him. He must have known that these troops had time
enough to erect none but very ordinary intrenchments. And yet he
excuses himself from not attacking his opponents, when he outnumbered
them four to one. Would not his testimony tell better for him, if he
had said that at the time he supposed he had more than eighteen thousand
men before him? It is a thankless task to pursue criticism upon such
capricious and revocatory evidence.

Sickles also, in his testimony, states that from our new lines we felt
the enemy everywhere in his front, and that Gen. Griffin with his entire
division made a reconnoissance, and developed the enemy in great force
on our right flank. This work of reconnoitring can scarcely have been
done with great thoroughness, for we know to a certainty what force Lee
left behind. It would be well to say little about it. But it is not
strange that the purposelessness of the commander should result in
half-hearted work by the subordinates.

The following extract from the evidence of Gen. Sedgwick before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War, compared with Hooker’s and the
actual facts, shows palpably who is in the right.

“At nine A.M., May 4, I sent this despatch to Gen. Hooker: ‘I am
occupying the same position as last night. I have secured my
communication with Banks’s Ford. The enemy are in possession of the
heights of Fredericksburg in force. They appear strongly in our front,
and are making efforts to drive us back. My strength yesterday, A.M.,
was twenty-two thousand men: I do not know my losses, but they were
large, probably five thousand men. I can’t use the cavalry. It depends
upon the condition and position of your force whether I can sustain
myself here. Howe reports the enemy advancing from Fredericksburg.’

“Question.–When you were in the position on the 4th, to which you have
referred, were you where you could have co-operated with the army at
Chancellorsville in an attack upon the enemy?

“Answer.–I could not proceed in that direction. I think Gen. Hooker
might have probably relieved me if he had made an attack at that time.
I think I had a much larger force of the enemy around me than Gen. Hooker
had in front of him. There were two divisions of the enemy on the
heights of Fredericksburg, which was in my rear; and they would have
attacked me the moment I undertook to proceed towards Chancellorsville.
About one A.M. of May 5, Gen. Hooker telegraphed me to cross the river,
and take up the bridges. This is the despatch: ‘Despatch this moment
received. Withdraw; cover the river, and prevent any force crossing.
Acknowledge receipt.’

“This was immediately done: as the last of the column was crossing,
between three and four o’clock, the orders to cross were countermanded,
and I was directed to hold a position on the south bank. The despatch
was dated 1.20 A.M., and was received at 3.20, as follows:–

“‘Yours received, saying you could hold position. Order to withdraw
countermanded. Acknowledge both.’

“In explanation of this I should say that I had telegraphed to Gen. Hooker
that I could hold the position. He received it after he had ordered me
to cross over. But, receiving his despatch to cross, I had commenced
the movement; and, as I have said, I had very nearly taken my force over,
when the order to cross was countermanded. To return at that time was
wholly impracticable, and I telegraphed that fact to Gen. Hooker.”

To place in juxtaposition Hooker’s testimony and Sedgwick’s, in no wise
militates against the latter.

There is one broad criticism which may fairly he passed upon Sedgwick’s
withdrawal across the Rappahannock. It is that, with the knowledge that
his remaining in position might be of some assistance to his chief,
instead of exhibiting a perhaps undue anxiety to place himself beyond
danger, he could with his nineteen thousand men, by dint of stubborn
flghting, have held the intrenchments at Banks’s Ford, against even Lee
with his twenty-four thousand.

But if he attempted this course, and was beaten, Lee could have
destroyed his corps. And this risk he was bound to weigh, as he did,
with the advantages Hooker could probably derive from his holding on.
Moreover, to demand thus much of Sedgwick, is to hold him to a defence,
which, in this campaign, no other officer of the Army of the Potomac was
able to make.

Not but what, under equally pressing conditions, other generals have,
or himself, if he had not received instructions to withdraw, might have,
accomplished so much. But if we assume, that having an eye to the
numbers and losses of his corps, and to his instructions, as well as to
the character and strength of the enemy opposed to him, Sedgwick was
bound to dispute further the possession of Banks’s Ford, in order to
lend a questionable aid to Hooker, how lamentable will appear by
comparison the conduct of the other corps of the Army of the Potomac,
under the general commanding, bottled up behind their defences at



Hooker states: “Gen. Warren represented to me that Gen. Sedgwick had
said he could do no more; then it was I wanted him to take some position,
and hold it, that I might turn the enemy in my immediate front. I
proposed to leave troops enough where I was, to occupy the enemy there,
and throw the rest of my force down the river, and re-enforce Sedgwick;
then the whole of Lee’s army, except that which had been left in front
of Sedgwick, would be thrown off the road to Richmond, and my army would
be on it.

“As soon as I heard that Gen. Sedgwick had re-crossed the river, seeing
no object in maintaining my position where I was, and believing it would
be more to my advantage to hazard an engagement with the enemy at
Franklin’s Crossing, where I had elbow-room, than where I was, the army
on the right was directed to re-cross the river, and did so on the night
between the 5th and 6th of May.”

Now, the Franklin’s Crossing plan, or its equivalent, had been tried by
Burnside, in December, with a loss of twelve thousand men; and it had
been fully canvassed and condemned as impracticable, before beginning
the Chancellorsville manoeuvre. To resuscitate it can therefore serve
no purpose but as an idle excuse. And the argument of elbow-room,
if made, is the one Hooker should have used against withdrawing from the
open country he had reached, to the Wilderness, on Friday, May 1.

“Being resolved on re-crossing the river on the night between the 4th
and 5th, I called the corps commanders together, not as a council of war,
but to ascertain how they felt in regard to making what I considered a
desperate move against the enemy in our front.” Be it remembered that
the “desperate move” was one of eighty thousand men, with twenty
thousand more (Sedgwick) close at hand as a reserve, against at the
outside forty-five thousand men, if Early should be ordered up to
re-enforce Lee. And Hooker knew the force of Lee, or had as good
authority for knowing it as he had for most of the facts he assumed,
in condemning Sedgwick. Moreover, from the statements of prisoners we
had taken, very nearly an exact estimate could be made of the then
numbers of the Army of Northern Virginia.

All the corps commanders were present at this conference, except Slocum,
who afterwards came in. All were in favor of an advance, except
Sickles; while Couch wavered, fearing that no advance could be made to
advantage under Hooker. Hancock, (testimony before the Committee on the
Conduct of the War,) says: “I understood from him” (Couch) “always that
he was in favor of fighting then.” Hooker claims Couch to have been for
retreat; but the testimony of the generals present, as far as available,
goes to show the council to have been substantially as will now be

Hooker retired for a while, to allow free expression of opinion; and,
with one exception, all present manifested a desire for another attack,
in full force,–Howard, Meade, and Reynolds being especially urgent to
this purpose. The one dissentient voice was Sickles; and he expressed
himself, confessedly, more from a political than a strategic standpoint.
He allowed the military reasons to be sound for an advance, and modestly
refrained from putting his opinion against that of men trained to the
profession of arms; though all allowed his right to a valid judgment.
But he claimed, with some reason, that the political horizon was dark;
that success by the Army of the Potomac was secondary to the avoidance
of disaster. If, he alleged, this army should be destroyed, it would be
the last one the country would raise. Washington might be captured; and
the effect of this loss upon the country, and upon Europe, was to be
greatly dreaded. The enemies of the administration were strong, and
daily gaining ground. It was necessary that the Army of the Potomac
should not run the risk of destruction. It was the last hold of the
Republican party in Virginia. Better re-cross and recuperate, and then
attempt another campaign, than run any serious risk now. These grounds
largely influenced him in agreeing with the general-in-chief’s
determination to retire across the river. But there were other reasons,
which Sickles states in his testimony. The rations with which the men
had started had given out, and there had been no considerable issue
since. Singularly enough, too, (for Hooker was, as a rule, unusually
careful in such matters,) there had been no provision made for supplying
the troops against a possible advance; and yet, from Sunday noon till
Tuesday night, we had lain still behind our intrenchments, with
communications open, and with all facilities at hand to prepare for a
ten-days’ absence from our base. This circumstance wears the look of
almost a predetermination to accept defeat.

Now, at the last moment, difficulties began to arise in bringing over
supplies. The river had rapidly risen from the effects of the storm.
Parts of the bridges had been carried away by the torrent. The ends of
the others were under water, and their entire structure was liable at
any moment to give way. It was not certain that Lee, fully aware of
these circumstances, would, for the moment, accept battle, as he might
judge it better to lure the Army of the Potomac away from the
possibility of victualling. Perhaps Sedgwick would be unable to cross
again so as to join the right wing. The Eleventh Corps might not be in
condition to count on for heavy service. The Richmond papers, received
almost daily through channels more or less irregular, showed that
communications were still open, and that the operations of the Cavalry
Corps had not succeeded in interrupting them in any serious manner.
On the coming Sunday, the time of service of thirty-eight regiments was
up. Many of these conditions could have been eliminated from the
problem, if measures had been seasonably taken; but they now became
critical elements in the decision to be made. And Hooker, despite his
well-earned reputation as a fighting man, was unable to arrive at any
other than the conclusion which Falstaff so cautiously enunciated,
from beneath his shield, at the battle of Shrewsbury, that “the better
part of valor is discretion.”



Orders were accordingly issued with a view to re-crossing the river; and
during the 5th, Gen. Warren and Capt. Comstock of the engineers prepared
a new and shorter line, in the rear of the one then held by the army,
to secure it against any attempt by the enemy to interrupt the retreat.
Capt. Comstock supervised the labor on the west side, and Gen. Warren on
the east, of the United-States Ford road. “A continuous cover and
abattis was constructed from the Rappahannock at Scott’s Dam, around to
the mouth of Hunting Run on the Rapidan. The roads were put in good
order, and a third bridge laid. A heavy rain set in about 4.30 P.M.,
and lasted till late at night. The movement to re-cross was begun by
the artillery, as per order, at 7.30 and was suddenly interrupted by a
rise in the river so great as to submerge the banks at the ends of the
bridges on the north bank, and the velocity of the current threatened to
sweep them away.” “The upper bridge was speedily taken up, and used to
piece out the ends of the other two, and the passage was again made
practicable. Considerable delays, however, resulted from this cause.”
“No troops took up position in the new line except the rearguard,
composed of the Fifth Corps, under Gen. Meade, which was done about
daylight on the 6th.” “The proper dispositions were made for holding
this line till all but the rearguard was past the river; and then it
quietly withdrew, no enemy pursuing.” (Warren.) The last of the army
re-crossed about eight A.M., May 6.

Testimony of Gen. Henry J. Hunt:–

“A storm arose soon after. Just before sunset, the general and his
staff re-crossed the river to the north side. I separated from him in
order to see to the destruction of some works of the enemy on the south
side of the river, which perfectly commanded our bridges. Whilst I was
looking after them, in the darkness, to see that they had been destroyed
as directed, an engineer officer reported to me that our bridges had
been carried away, or were being carried away, by the flood. I found
the chief engineer, Capt. Comstock; and we proceeded together to examine
the bridges, and we found that they were all utterly impassable.
I then proceeded to Gen. Meade’s camp, and reported the condition of
affairs to him. All communication with Gen. Hooker being cut off,
Gen. Meade called the corps commanders together; and, as the result of
that conference, I believe, by order of Gen. Couch at any rate, I was
directed to stop the movement of the artillery, which was withdrawn from
the lines, and let them resume their positions, thus suspending the
crossing. On my return to the bridges, I found that one had been
re-established, and the batteries that were down there had commenced
re-crossing the river. I then sought Gen. Hooker up, on the north side
of the river, and proposed to him to postpone the movement for one day,
as it was certain we could not all cross over in a night. I stated to
him that I doubted whether we could more than get the artillery, which
was ordered to cross first, over before daylight: he refused to postpone
the movement, and it proceeded. No opposition was made by the enemy,
nor was the movement disturbed, except by the attempt to place batteries
on the points from which our bridges could be reached, and to command
which I had already posted the necessary batteries on my own
responsibility. A cannonade ensued, and they were driven off with loss,
and one of their caissons exploded: we lost three or four men killed,
and a few horses, in this affair. That is about all that I remember.”

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