But at this point Hooker faltered. Fighting Joe had reached the
culminating desire of his life. He had come face to face with his foe,
and had a hundred and twenty thousand eager and well-disciplined men at
his back. He had come to fight, and he–retreated without crossing
THE POSITION AT CHANCELLORSVILLE.
The position at Chancellorsville was good for neither attack nor
defence. The ground was not open enough for artillery, except down the
few roads, and across an occasional clearing. Cavalry was useless.
Infantry could not advance steadily in line. The ground was such in
Hooker’s front, that Lee could manoeuvre or mass his troops unseen by
him. Our own troops were so located, that to re-enforce any portion of
the line, which might be attacked, with sufficient speed, was impossible.
Anderson (as has been stated) had been ordered by Lee to hold
Chancellorsville; but after examination of the ground, and consultation
with Mahone and Posey, he concluded to transcend his instructions,
and retired to the junction of Mine Road and the turnpike. He assumed
that the superiority of this latter ground would excuse his failure to
hold his position in the Wilderness.
Gen. Hancock says: “I consider that the position at Chancellorsville was
not a good one. It was a flat country, and had no local military
And the testimony of all our general officers is strongly to the same
The position to which Hooker retired was the same which the troops,
wearied with their march of Thursday, had taken up without any
expectation of fighting a battle there. Hooker had desired to contract
his lines somewhat after Friday’s check; but the feeling that farther
retreat would still more dishearten the men, already wondering at this
unexplained withdrawal, and the assurance of the generals on the right
that they could hold it against any force the enemy could bring against
their front, decided him in favor of leaving the line as it was, and of
strengthening it by breastworks and abattis.
Having established his troops in position, Hooker further strengthened
his right wing at Chancellorsville to the detriment of his left below
Fredericksburg; and at 1.55 A.M., Saturday, ordered all the bridges at
Franklin’s Crossing, and below, to be taken up, and Reynolds’s corps to
march at once, with pack-train, to report at headquarters.
This corps reached him Saturday night, and was deployed upon the extreme
right of the new position then being taken up by the army.
The line as now established lay as follows:–
Meade held the left, extending from a small bluff near Scott’s Dam on
the Rappahannock, and covering the roads on the river, along a crest
between Mine and Mineral Spring Runs towards and within a short mile of
This crest was, however, commanded from several points on the east, and,
according to the Confederate authorities, appeared to have been
carelessly chosen. Meade’s front, except at the extreme river-flank,
was covered by impenetrable woods. The Mine road intersected his left
flank, and the River road was parallel to and a mile in his front.
Couch joined Meade’s right, and extended southerly to Chancellorsville,
with Hancock thrown out on his front, and facing east, astride the River
road, and up to and across the old turnpike; his line being formed south
of this road and of the Chancellor clearing. The division of French,
of Couch’s corps, was held in reserve along the United-States Ford road.
From here to Dowdall’s Tavern the line made a southerly sweep outwards,
like a bent bow, of which the plank road was the string.
As far as Hazel Grove, at the centre of the bow, Slocum’s Twelfth Corps
held the line, Geary’s division joining on to Couch, and Williams on the
right. From Slocum’s right to the extreme right of the army, the
Eleventh Corps had at first been posted; but Hooker determined on
Saturday morning that the line was too thin here, and thrust Birney’s
division of the Third Corps in between Slocum and Howard. The rest of
the Third Corps was in reserve, massed in columns of battalions, in
Bullock’s clearing, north of the Chancellor house, with its batteries at
the fork of the roads leading to the United-States and Ely’s Fords.
Towards sunset of Friday, Birney had advanced a strong line of
skirmishers, and seized a commanding position in his front. Birney’s
line then lay along the crest facing Scott’s Run from Dowdall’s to
Pleasonton’s cavalry brigade was massed at headquarters, ready for duty
at any point.
Howard held the line, from Dowdall’s Tavern (Melzi Chancellor’s) to
beyond Talley’s farm on the old pike, with his right flank substantially
in the air, and with two roads, the main thoroughfares from east to west,
striking in on his right, parallel to his position.
As will be noticed from the map, the right, being along the pike,
was slightly refused from the rest of the line, considering the latter
as properly lying along the road to headquarters. From Dowdall’s west,
the rise along the pike was considerable, and at Talley’s the crest was
high. The whole corps lay on the watershed of the small tributaries of
the Rappahannock and Mattapony Rivers.
As a position to resist a southerly attack, it was as good as the
Wilderness afforded; although the extreme right rested on no obstacle
which superiority in numbers could not overcome. And a heavy force,
massed in the clearing at Dowdall’s as a point d’appui, was
indispensable to safety, inasmuch as the conformation of the ground
afforded nothing for this flank to lean upon.
Having forfeited the moral superiority gained by his advance, having
withdrawn to his intrenchments at Chancellorsville, and decided, after
surprising his enemy, upon fighting a defensive battle, Hooker, early on
Saturday morning, examined his lines, and made sundry changes in the
forces under his command.
The position he occupied, according to Gen. Lee, was one of great
natural strength, on ground covered with dense forest and tangled
under-growth, behind breastworks of logs and an impenetrable abattis,
and approached by few roads, all easily swept by artillery. And,
while it is true that the position was difficult to carry by direct
assault, full compensation existed in other tactical advantages to the
army taking the offensive. It is not probable that Lee, in Hooker’s
place, would have selected such ground. “Once in the wood, it was
difficult to tell any thing at one hundred yards. Troops could not
march without inextricable confusion.” Despite which fact, however,
the density of these very woods was the main cause of Lee’s success.
In this position, Hooker awaited the assault of his vigorous opponent.
As in all defensive battles, he was at certain disadvantages, and
peculiarly so in this case, owing to the terrain he had chosen, or been
forced to choose by Friday’s easily accepted check. There were no
debouches for throwing forces upon Lee, should he wish to assume the
offensive. There was no ground for manoeuvring. The woods were like a
heavy curtain in his front. His left wing was placed so as to be of
absolutely no value. His right flank was in the air. One of the roads
on which he must depend for retreat was readily assailable by the enemy.
And he had in his rear a treacherous river, which after a few hours’
rain might become impassable, with but a single road and ford secured to
him with reasonable certainty.
And, prone as we had always been to act upon unwarrantable over-
estimates of the strength of our adversaries, Hooker had not this reason
to allege for having retired to await Lee’s attack. For he had just
received excellent information from Richmond, to the effect that Lee’s
rations amounted to fifty-nine thousand daily; and we have seen that he
told Slocum, on Thursday, that his column of nearly forty thousand men
was much stronger than any force Lee could detach against him. Hooker
acknowledges as much in his testimony before the Committee on the
Conduct of the War, when, in answer to the question, “What portion of
the enemy lay between you and Gen. Sedgwick?” he replied:–
“Lee’s army at Fredericksburg numbered sixty thousand, not including the
artillery, cavalry, and the forces stationed up the river, occupying the
posts at Culpeper and Gordonsville. I think my information on this
point was reliable, as I had made use of unusual means to ascertain.
The enemy left eight thousand men to occupy the lines about
Fredericksburg; Jackson marched off to my right with twenty-five
thousand; and Lee had the balance between me and Sedgwick.”
It will be well to remember this acknowledgment, when we come to deal
with Hooker’s theories of the force in his own front on Sunday and
JACKSON’S MARCH, AND SICKLES’S ADVANCE.
Lee and Jackson spent Friday night under some pine-trees, on the plank
road, at the point where the Confederate line crosses it. Lee saw that
it was impossible for him to expect to carry the Federal lines by direct
assault, and his report states that he ordered a cavalry reconnoissance
towards our right flank to ascertain its position. There is, however,
no mention of such a body having felt our lines on the right, in any of
the Federal reports.
It is not improbable that Lee received information, crude but useful,
about this portion of our army, from some women belonging to Dowdall’s
Tavern. When the Eleventh Corps occupied the place on Thursday, a watch
was kept upon the family living there. But in the interval between the
corps breaking camp to move out to Slocum’s support on Friday morning,
and its return to the old position, some of the women had disappeared.
This fact was specially noted by Gen. Howard.
However the information was procured, the Federal right was doubtless
ascertained to rest on high ground, where it was capable of making a
stubborn resistance towards the south. But Lee well knew that its
position was approached from the west by two broad roads, and reasoned
justly that Hooker, in canvassing the events of Friday, would most
probably look for an attack on his left or front.
Seated on a couple of cracker-boxes, the relics of an issue of Federal
rations the day before, the two Confederate chieftains discussed the
situation. Jackson, with characteristic restless energy, suggested a
movement with his entire corps around Hooker’s right flank, to seize
United-States Ford, or fall unawares upon the Army of the Potomac.
This hazardous suggestion, which Lee in his report does not mention as
Jackson’s, but which is universally ascribed to him by Confederate
authorities, was one as much fraught with danger as it was spiced with
dash, and decidedly bears the Jacksonian flavor. It gave “the great
flanker” twenty-two thousand men (according to Col. A. S. Pendleton,
his assistant adjutant-general, but twenty-six thousand by morning
report) with which to make a march which must at best take all day,
constantly exposing his own flank to the Federal assault. It separated
for a still longer time the two wings of the Confederate army; leaving
Lee with only Anderson’s and McLaws’s divisions,–some seventeen
thousand men,–with which to resist the attack of thrice that number,
which Hooker, should he divine this division of forces, could throw
against him, the while he kept Jackson busy with the troops on his own
On the other hand, Hooker had shown clear intention of fighting a
defensive battle; and perhaps Lee measured his man better than the Army
of the Potomac had done. And he knew Jackson too. Should Hooker remain
quiet during the day, either voluntarily or by Lee’s engrossing his
attention by constant activity in his front, the stratagem might
succeed. And in case of failure, each wing had open ground and good
roads for retreat, to form a junction towards Gordonsville.
Moreover, nothing better presented itself; and though, in the presence
of a more active foe, Lee would never have hazarded so much, the very
aggressiveness of the manoeuvre, and the success of Jackson’s former
flank attacks, commended it to Lee, and he gave his lieutenant orders to
proceed to its immediate execution.
For this division of his forces in the presence of an enemy of twice his
strength, Lee is not entitled to commendation. It is justifiable
only–if at all–by the danger of the situation, which required a
desperate remedy, and peculiarly by the success which attended it.
Had it resulted disastrously, as it ought to have done, it would have
been a serious blow to Lee’s military prestige. The “nothing venture,
nothing have” principle applies to it better than any maxim of tactics.
Before daybreak Jackson sends two of his aides, in company with some
local guides, to find a practicable road, by which he may, with the
greatest speed and all possible secrecy, gain the position he aims at on
Hooker’s right and rear, and immediately sets his corps in motion,
with Rodes, commanding D. H. Hill’s division, in the advance, and
A. P. Hill bringing up the rear.
Jackson’s route lay through the woods, along the road on which rested
Lee’s line. His corps, since Friday’s manoeuvres, was on the left; and,
as he withdrew his troops at dawn, Lee deployed to the left to fill the
gap, first placing Wright where Jackson had been on the west of the
plank road, and later, when Wright was ordered to oppose Sickles at the
Furnace, Mahone’s brigade.
This wood-road led to Welford’s or Catherine’s Furnace, from which place
a better one, called the Furnace road, zigzagged over to join the Brock
(or Brook) road, the latter running northerly into Y-shaped branches,
each of which intersected the pike a couple of miles apart.
Jackson was obliged to make some repairs to the road as he advanced,
for the passage of his artillery and trains. In many places the bottom,
none too reliable at any time, was so soft with the recent rains,
that it had to be corduroyed to pull the guns through. But these men
were used to marches of unequalled severity, and their love for their
leader made no work too hard when “Old Jack” shared it with them.
And although they had already been marching and fighting continuously
for thirty hours, this circuit of well-nigh fifteen miles was cheerfully
done, with an alacrity nothing but willing and courageous hearts,
and a blind belief that they were outwitting their enemy, could impart.
His progress was masked by Stuart, who interposed his cavalry between
Jackson and the Union lines, and constantly felt of our skirmishers and
pickets as he slowly kept abreast with the marching column.
At the Furnace comes in another road, which, a short distance above,
forks so as to lead to Dowdall’s Tavern on the left, and to touch the
Union lines by several other branches on the right. It was this road
down which Wright and Stuart had advanced the evening before in their
attack on our lines.
Here, in passing Lewis’s Creek (Scott’s Run) and some elevated ground
near by, the column of Jackson had to file in full view of the Union
troops, barely a mile and a half away. The movement was thus fully
observed by us, hundreds of field-glasses pointing steadily at his
It seems somewhat strange that Jackson should have made this march,
intended to be quite disguised, across the Furnace-clearing. For there
was another equally short route, making a bend southward through the
woods, and, though possibly not so good as the one pursued, subsequently
found available for the passage of Jackson’s trains, when driven from
the Furnace by Sickles. It is probably explained, however, by the fact
that this route, selected during the night, was unfamiliar to Jackson,
and that his aides and guides had not thought of the point where the
troops were thus put en evidence. And Jackson may not have been with
the head of the column.