The Campaign of Chancellorsville

From Saturday at 8 A.M. till Sunday noon, some twenty-eight hours,
Hooker with seventy-five thousand, and, after the arrival of the First
Corps, nearly ninety thousand men, lay between the separated wings of
Lee’s army of twenty-four thousand and seventeen thousand men
respectively, being all the while cognizant of the facts. Had ever a
general a better chance to whip his enemy in detail? And yet we were
badly beaten in this fight. Now, if loyalty to Hooker requires us to
believe that his conduct of this campaign was even respectable, it
follows that the Army of the Potomac, respectably led, could be defeated
by the Army of Northern Virginia, two to one. Will the soldiers of the
ever-faithful army accept this as an explanation of our defeat?

Again: from Sunday noon till Monday at 9 A.M., twenty-one hours, Hooker,
with over eighty thousand men, was held in the White House lines by a
force of twenty-seven thousand. If loyalty to Hooker requires us to
believe that this was even respectable generalship, it follows that the
Army of the Potomac, well led, could be defeated by the Army of Northern
Virginia, three to one. Shall we accept this as an explanation of our

Again: from Monday at 9 A.M. till Tuesday at 4 P.M., thirty-one hours,
against the advice of all his corps commanders except Sickles and Couch
(the latter agreeing to retreat only because he felt that the army would
be defeated under Hooker whatever they might do), Hooker, with eighty
thousand men, was held in the White House lines by a force of nineteen
thousand, while the rest turned upon and demolished Sedgwick. If
loyalty to Hooker requires us to believe that this was even respectable
generalship, it follows that the Army of the Potomac, well led, could be
defeated by the Army of Northern Virginia, four to one. Shall we accept
this as an explanation of our defeat?

If there is in the world’s military history a parallel to this
extraordinary generalship, for which any one who has even pretended to
study the art of war is able to find an excuse, I have failed to find
such an instance in the course of many years’ reading, and shall be
happy to have it pointed out to me. Hooker’s wound cannot be alleged in
extenuation. If he was disabled, his duty was to turn the command over
to Couch, the next in rank. If he did not do this, he was responsible
for what followed. And he retained the command himself, only using
Couch as his mouthpiece.

I have always maintained, that, man for man, the Army of the Potomac was
at any time the equal of the Army of Northern Virginia, and that,
man for man, the old Third Corps has proved itself good for Jackson’s in
its palmiest days. When, therefore, the Army of the Potomac was,
as here, defeated or bottled up by one-half, one-third, or one-quarter
its force of the enemy, my loyalty to that army demands that I seek a
reason other than Hooker’s alleged lack of heart of his subordinate
officers. And this reason is only to be found in Hooker’s inability to
handle so many men. All the resolutions in the world, passed under a
furore of misstatement and misconception, even by such a noble body of
men as Third-Corps veterans, will not re-habilitate Joseph Hooker’s
military character during these five days, nor make him other than a
morally and intellectually impotent man from May 1 to May 5, 1863.
Loyalty to Hooker, so-called, is disloyalty to the grand old army,
disloyalty to the seventeen thousand men who fell, disloyalty to every
comrade who fought at Chancellorsville. I begrudge no man the desire to
blanket facts and smother truth in order to turn a galling defeat into a
respectable campaign; I begrudge no man his acceptance of Hooker’s
theory that Chancellorsville was not a disaster; I begrudge no one his
faith in Hooker as a successful battle-field commander of the Army of
the Potomac. But let it be well understood that this faith of necessity
implies the fact that the Army of the Potomac was unable or unwilling to
fight one-quarter its number of Lee’s troops. I prefer my faith in the
stanch, patient army, in its noble rank and file, in its gallant
officers, from company to corps; and I refuse to accept Hooker’s insult
to his subordinates as any explanation for allowing the Army of the
Potomac to “be here defeated without ever being fought.”

The Army of the Potomac was better than its commanders from first to
last. It was, beyond speaking, superior to its commander during the
fighting days at Chancellorsville. As a corps commander, Joseph Hooker
will always be a type and household word. In logistics, even as
commander of the Army of the Potomac, he deserves high praise. But when
it comes to fighting the army at Chancellorsville, let whoso will keep
his loyalty to Hooker, without protest from me. I claim for myself and
the bulk of my comrades the right, equally without protest, sneers,
or resolutions, to express my loyalty to the rank and file, my loyalty
to the officers, and my loyalty to the army as a whole. And I claim,
moreover, the right, without protest, sneers, or resolutions, to show
that on this field it was the general commanding, and not the army,
whose lapses caused defeat. Not that I object to these Fast-Day
resolutions. I believe that I can still struggle onward in life,
even under the contempt of their authors. But partisanship in matters
of history is a boomerang which always flies back to whack its thrower.
And Fast Day’s performance was baldly partisan.

I am satisfied to abide the verdict of all soldiers, of all citizens,
who ever studied the facts of this campaign. What ever the action of
any meeting of old soldiers may be under partial knowledge of facts,
under the influence of heated or sectional discussion, or under the
whipping-in of a member of Hooker’s staff, I do not believe that with
the issue squarely put before them, and the facts plainly stated,
any but a very inconsiderable fraction, and that not the most
intelligent one, of the men of the Army of the Potomac, will give their
suffrage to what has been suddenly discovered to be loyalty due to
Gen. Joseph Hooker, as against loyalty to the Army of the Potomac.

The recent course of lectures at the Lowell Institute was intended to be
a purely military one. There was no intention of bringing politics or
sectional pride into the discussion, and it was thought that the
lectures could to-day be delivered without rousing a breath of ancient
animosity. If there was any campaign during our civil war which was
especially, in a military sense, a glorious one for the rebels, and an
ignominious one for us, it was Chancellorsville. It is indeed a pity
that the skill of the one side and the errors of the other cannot be
once again pointed out, that the true and only possible explanation of
Hooker’s one hundred and thirty thousand men being defeated by Lee’s
sixty thousand cannot be once again stated, without eliciting from a
body of veterans of the old Third Corps a set of condemnatory
resolutions. There has been some very heated criticism of the recent
lectures, and not a little fault-finding with the lecturers. I presume
that none of the gentlemen who participated in the course would feel
like denying the inference, so often suggested, that the censors might
have done much better than they were able to do. Such censors generally
can. These dozen lecturers have all been earnest students of our civil
war, as is abundantly testified by the twenty odd volumes on the subject
published by them since the reports of operations became available; and
they keenly feel that modesty which is always bred of study. Such as
they had, they were glad to give the public; nor do they in any wise
shrink from generous disagreement or courteous criticism. I submit,
however, that some of the carping which has been indulged in is scarcely
apt to lead to the correction of errors, or the elucidation of truth.
It is passing strange, that, at this late day, one may not criticise the
military operations without arousing the evil spirit of the war.
Can we not aim at truth, rather than self-gratulation, which will live
no longer than we do? Criticism has always been indulged in, always
will be. If a Frederick may be dissected by a Lloyd, if a Napoleon may
be sat on in judgment by a Lanfrey, may not the merest tyro in the art
of war he pardoned for reviewing Hooker? The gallant soldier who helped
make history rarely writes history. The same spirit which sent him to
the front in 1861 generally keeps him busy to-day with the material
interests of the country. Despite the certainly novel fling of Fast Day
at one who went into service as a mere boy, it remains a fact that rank,
without the devoted study of years and a single eye to truth, will not
enable any one to write history. It was proven beyond a peradventure on
Fast Day, that the command of a corps, let alone a division, will not of
itself breed a historian. Partisanship never will.

Truth will get written some day. I myself prefer to write as an
American, forgetting North and South, and to pass down to those who will
write better than any of us, as one who tried to speak the truth,
whomsoever it struck. It is not I who criticise, who condemn Joseph
Hooker: it is the maxims of every master, of every authority on the art
of war. Not one of Hooker’s apologists can turn to the history of a
master’s achievements, or to a volume of any accepted authority, without
finding his pet commander condemned, in every action, and on every page,
for the faults of the fighting days at Chancellorsville.

It was assumed on Fast Day that one should criticise only what he saw.
I have never understood that Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire” is any the less good because he did not live in the first few
centuries of the Christian era, or that Jomini could write any less well
of Frederick than of Napoleon. Service certainly helps a man in his
researches or work, but it only helps. The best critic may be one who
never served. I think I was the first officer to whom the Secretary of
War permitted free use of the rebel archives for study. I have had good
opportunities. How I have used them, I leave to others to say. It is
easy to capture a meeting of honest-hearted veterans by such lamentable
prestidigitation as was exhibited on Fast Day, and to pass any
resolutions desired, by appealing to their enthusiasm. I prefer to be
judged by the sober after-thought of men who are neither partisans,
nor ready to warp facts or make partial statements to sustain their

BOSTON, April 10, 1886.

Transcriber’s Appendix: Transcription notes:

The first edition of this book was published in 1881. The author’s
appendix was added in the second edition, in 1886, which is the source
for this etext.

The following modifications were applied while transcribing the
printed book to e-text:

chapter 4
– table on p 19, fixed typo (“McGown”, should be “McGowan”)

chapter 12
– p 71, para 1, fixed typo (“inititate”)

chapter 18
– p 111, para 1, fixed typo (“Pleasanton”)

chapter 27
– p 180, para 1, fixed “the the”

Limitations imposed by converting to plain ASCII:
– The words “manoeuvre”, “manoeuvres” and “manoeuvring” are printed in
the book using the “oe” ligature. The term “coup d’oeil” was also
printed with the “oe” ligature, “minutiae” was printed using the “ae”
ligature, and several other French terms (such as “elan” and “echelon”)
were printed with accented vowels. However, this does not seem enough
to merit an 8-bit text.
– Italics were printed for various non-English words and phrases, and
occasionally for emphasis. For the most part, these were simply
converted to plain text. However, I did use underscores to denote
two italicized phrases in the author’s appendix, where the use of
italics was more significant.

I did not modify:
– The phrases “on each side the road”, “on both sides the road”
– The first paragraph of chapter 22 contains the phrase
“angle of refusal or Archer and McGowan”
I believe “or” is incorrect and should be probably “for” or “of”, but
I don’t know which. “or” is printed in both the 1881 and 1886 editions,
so I left it as is.


This etext was retrieved by ftp from
It is also available from

This etext was produced by Ken Reeder <>

Errata and other transcription notes are included as an appendix

As companion to this etext, I recommend maps available on the Internet
from the History Department of the U. S. Military Academy:

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