The Campaign of Chancellorsville

Immediately after (11.30 A.M., Friday,) Sedgwick is directed to threaten
an attack at one P.M., in the direction of Hamilton’s Crossing, to
ascertain whether the enemy is hugging his defences in full force.
A corps is to be used with proper supports, but nothing more than a
demonstration to be made. If certain that the enemy is there in force,
Sedgwick is to make no attack.

Sedgwick did not receive this order until about five P. M., but
nevertheless made a display in force of Reynolds’s corps, with Newton
and Brooks in support. But a countermand was soon received, and the
troops withdrawn.

As Hooker supposed his enemy to be in line somewhere midway between
Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, the purpose of these orders to
Sedgwick is not plain. Meade, Sykes, and Slocum were ordered to attack
the enemy when met. Sedgwick could aid such an attack by pushing the
force in his front at Hamilton’s. But a mere demonstration to find out
whether the heights were strongly held could have no effect upon the
real advance, nor procure Hooker any timely information.

The movement of the three columns out of the Wilderness begins at eleven
A.M. It is in accordance with the declared plans of Hooker, and with
sound policy. For Chancellorsville is of all places the worst in which
to deliver or accept a general engagement, and every mile’s advance
towards Fredericksburg brings the army into more open ground.

Meade, with Griffin and Humphreys, advances on the river road to within
a short distance of Banks’s Ford, near Decker’s farm. He can easily
seize the ford, the possession of which lessens the distance between the
wings by six miles. It is the objective Hooker has had in view ever
since the movement began. He is preparing to deploy towards Sykes.

Sykes,–to quote Warren,–“on gaining the ridge about a mile and a
quarter from Chancellorsville, found the enemy advancing, and driving
back our cavalry. This small force resisted handsomely, riding up and
firing almost in the faces of the Eleventh Virginia Infantry, which
formed the enemy’s advance. Gen. Sykes moved forward in double-quick
time, attacked the enemy vigorously, and drove him back with loss,
till he had gained the position assigned him.”

This is a crest in front of the heavy forest, and in range of Anderson’s
rifle-pits. The Federal skirmishers are the Seventeenth United-States
Infantry, supported by Burbank’s brigade.

McLaws is in his front, and deploys across the pike, Semmes on the left
of the road, Mahone, Perry, and Wofford on the right. Jordan’s battery
is posted on the Mine road.

Sykes brings up Weed’s battery, and opens on Semmes, and drives in his
skirmishers, but can make no serious impression on his line. McLaws
sends word to Jackson that Sykes is attacking in force, and that the
country is favorable for a flank attack.

Jackson orders Kershaw through the woods to join Semmes’s left, and
sends Wilcox up the Mine road to extend the Confederate right, and head
off a Federal advance from this direction.

Sykes thus finds himself overlapped on both flanks. He throws Ayres’s
regular brigade out on his left, and the One Hundred and Forty-sixth New
York on his right. His position is difficult, but he determines to hold
it as long as possible.

It is noon. No sounds are heard from the parallel columns. Sykes has
to make his line very thin, but holds his ground. If supported, he can
maintain himself.

But at this juncture he receives orders to fall back on Chancellorsville,
and slowly retires to McGee’s; later to his old position, Hancock taking
his place in the front line; and he next morning at daylight is also
withdrawn, and takes up the line he retains until Sunday morning.

Slocum, in like manner on the plank road, meets Posey and Wright,
and a small affair occurs. But Wright is sent along the unfinished
railroad, and outflanks him. He is also at this moment ordered to
retire.

Meade has had similar orders, and has likewise withdrawn; and Wilcox is
sent to Banks’s Ford to hold it.

Wright continues his movement along the railroad, as far as Welford’s or
Catherine’s Furnace, when, finding himself beyond communication with his
superior, he, in connection with Stuart, who has been holding this point,
determines to feel the Union line. Two regiments and a battery are
thrown in along the road to Dowdall’s Tavern, preceded by skirmishers.
Our pickets fall back, and through the dense wood the Confederates reach
our line. But they are warmly received, and retire. This is six P.M.
Wright now joins his division.

Lee has arrived, and assumes command.

Jackson’s divisions, thus following up our retiring columns, by
nightfall occupy a line from Mine road to Welford’s Furnace. A regiment
of cavalry is on the Mine road, and another on the river road as
outposts. Stuart remains at the Furnace. McLaws occupies the crest
east of Big-Meadow Swamp, and Anderson prolongs his lines westwardly.

Let us now examine into these operations of Friday.

This movement towards Fredericksburg was not a sudden idea of Hooker’s,
but the result of a carefully studied plan. In his order of April 3,
to Sedgwick, he says that he proposes to assume the initiative, advance
along the plank road, and uncover Banks’s Ford, and at once throw
bridges across. Gen. Butterfield, in a communication to Sedgwick of
April 30, says, “He (Hooker) expected when he left here, if he met with
no serious opposition, to be on the heights west of Fredericksburg
to-morrow noon or shortly after, and, if opposed strongly, to-morrow
night.” In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,
Hooker says, “The problem was, to throw a sufficient force of infantry
across at Kelley’s Ford, descend the Rappahannock, and knock away the
enemy’s forces, holding the United-States and Banks’s Ford, by attacking
them in the rear, and as soon as these fords were opened, to re-enforce
the marching column sufficiently for them to continue the march upon the
flank of the rebel army until his whole force was routed, and, if
successful, his retreat intercepted. Simultaneous with this movement on
the right, the left was to cross the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg,
and threaten the enemy in that quarter, including his depot of supplies,
to prevent his detaching an overwhelming force to his left.”

Hooker, moreover, not only told Hunt that he expected to fight near
Banks’s Ford, but instructed him to get all his artillery to that point
from below, where it had been massed to cover Sedgwick’s crossing.

There was every reason why the army should be got out of the Wilderness,
in the midst of which lies Chancellorsville. This is, of all places in
that section, the least fit for an engagement in which the general
commanding expects to secure the best tactical results. But out towards
Fredericksburg the ground opens, showing a large number of clearings,
woods of less density, and a field suited to the operations of all arms.

Every thing should have been done to get the two wings within easier
communication; and more than all, having once surprised the enemy,
and advanced against him, a retreat should have been made from
imperative reasons alone.

Hooker explains this falling back in after-days, before the Committee on
the Conduct of the War, thus: “They”–the forces on the turnpike and
plank road–“had proceeded but a short distance when the head of the
column emerged from the heavy forest, and discovered the enemy to be
advancing in line of battle. Nearly all the Twelfth Corps had emerged
from the forest at that moment” (this is a very imperfect statement of
the facts); “but, as the passage-way through the forest was narrow,
I was satisfied that I could not throw troops through it fast enough to
resist the advance of Gen. Lee, and was apprehensive of being whipped in
detail.” And in another place, “When I marched out on the morning of
the 1st of May I could get but few troops into position: the column had
to march through narrow roads, and could not be thrown forward fast
enough to prevent their being overwhelmed by the enemy in his advance.
On assuming my position, Lee advanced on me in that manner, and was soon
repulsed, the column thrown back in confusion into the open ground.
It could not live there. The roads through the forest were not unlike
bridges to pass. A mile or more in advance of the position I had would
have placed me beyond the forest, where, with my superior forces,
the enemy would in all probability have been beaten.”

This was not a valid conclusion from the actual facts. Listen to his
subordinates’ statements.

Gen. Humphreys testifies before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,
with reference to this falling-back: “It was totally unexpected to me: I
thought it was part of the plan to attack him as quickly as possible.
We had surprised them, and were strong enough to attack them.” “After
Friday I was apprehensive we should not have the success we had
expected.” “I think it was a mistake to fight a defensive battle after
surprising the enemy.” “I think we should have attacked the enemy
immediately.” “I must give my opinion, since you ask me; for I have an
opinion, as a military man, from the general facts I know, and that I
suppose I am obliged to express. My opinion is that we should not have
been withdrawn, called back, on Friday afternoon. We had advanced along
the road to Fredericksburg to attack the enemy: the troops were in fine
spirits, and we wanted to fight a battle. I think we ought to have
fought the enemy there. They came out, and attacked one division of the
corps I belonged to, just at the time we returned to Chancellorsville.
What caused Gen. Hooker to return after advancing some miles on this
general position, which was about perpendicular to the plank road
leading to Fredericksburg, I am not able to say, because, being only a
division commander, the facts were not stated to me. But I have heard
it said that he received some erroneous information about the enemy’s
advancing on his flank from the direction of Orange Court House.
It was my opinion, we should have attacked the enemy, instead of
withdrawing, and awaiting an attack from the enemy.”

He also testifies, that, after the troops were ordered back to
Chancellorsville, they were for many hours massed there in considerable
confusion, until, after a deal of counter-marching, they were got into
place.

Pleasonton states that the retreat from open ground “produced among the
soldiers a feeling of uncertainty.”

Hancock testified before the Committee on the Conduct of the War: “I
consider the mistake in the matter was in even stopping at
Chancellorsville. . . . I believe, if all . . . had pushed right down
to Banks’s Ford, the whole movement would have been a perfect success.
But I have no doubt that we ought to have held our advance positions,
and still kept pushing on, and attempt to make a junction with
Gen. Sedgwick.”

Gen. Warren, whose whole testimony and report are the clearest and most
useful of all the evidence obtainable from any single source, on this
campaign, suggested to Couch, who was supporting Sykes on Friday,
when the latter was attacked by Jackson, to delay carrying out Hooker’s
orders to retire, while he (Warren) galloped back to headquarters to
explain the importance of holding the position, which was formidable and
had great tactical advantages. Hooker yielded; but, before Warren could
get back to the front, the previous orders had been obeyed, and the
position lost. He says: “I never should have stopped at Chancellorsville.
I should have advanced and fought the enemy, instead of waiting for him
to attack me. The character of the country was the great reason for
advancing.”

And it is thought that every one engaged in this campaign with the Army
of the Potomac will remember the feeling of confusion and uncertainty
engendered by the withdrawal from Jackson’s front on this unlucky day.

A council of general officers was held at Chancellorsville on Friday
evening, in which many were still strongly in favor of making the
advance again. Warren says: “I was in favor of advancing, and urged it
with more zeal than convincing argument.” But Hooker held to his own
opinion. He could not appreciate the weakness of assuming the defensive
in the midst of the elan of a successful advance.

It is not difficult to state what Hooker should have done. He had a
definite plan, which was to uncover and use Banks’s Ford. He should
have gone on in the execution of this plan until arrested by superior
force, or until something occurred to show that his plan was
inexpedient. To retire from an enemy whom you have gone out to attack,
and whom you have already placed at a disadvantage, before striking a
blow, is weak generalship indeed.

Hooker had arrived at Chancellorsville at noon Thursday. Lee was still
in Fredericksburg. The troops were able to march many miles farther
without undue taxing. They should have been pushed out that afternoon
to the open ground and to Banks’s Ford. To fail in this, was the first
great error of the campaign. There had not been a moment’s delay
allowed from the time the troops reached the river until they were
massed at Chancellorsville, and the proposed movement nearly completed.
One continued pressure, never let up, had constantly been exerted by the
headquarters of the army. The troops had been kept in constant movement
towards Banks’s Ford. Hooker had all but reached his goal. Suddenly
occurred a useless, unexplained pause of twenty-four hours. And it was
during this unlucky gap of time that Lee occupied the ground which
Hooker’s cavalry could have seized, and which should have been held at
all hazards.

Nor is this error excusable from ignorance of the terrain. For Hooker
had shown his knowledge of the importance of celerity; and his own
declared plan made Banks’s Ford, still a half-dozen miles distant,
his one objective. In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct
of the War, he thus refers to his plan: “As soon as Couch’s divisions
and Sykes’s corps came up, I directed an advance for the purpose,
in the first instance, of driving the enemy away from Banks’s Ford,
which was six miles down the river, in order that we might be in closer
communication with the left wing of the army.” And if the troops had
needed repose, a few hours would have sufficed; and, the succeeding
night being clear moonlight, a forward movement was then entirely
feasible.

Dating from this delay of Thursday, every thing seemed to go wrong.

More curious still is Hooker’s conduct on Friday, when his three columns
came into presence of the enemy. What every one would have expected of
Fighting Joe was, that at this supreme moment his energy would have
risen to its highest pitch. It was a slight task to hold the enemy for
a few hours. Before ordering the columns back, Hooker should have gone
in person to Sykes’s front. Here he would have shortly ascertained that
Jackson was moving around his right. What easier than to leave a strong
enough force at the edge of the Wilderness, and to move by his left
towards Banks’s Ford, where he already had Meade’s heavy column?
This would have kept his line of communication with United-States Ford
open, and, while uncovering Banks’s Ford, would at the same time turn
Jackson’s right. It is not as if such a movement carried him away from
his base, or uncovered his communications. It was the direct way to
preserve both.

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