The Campaign of Chancellorsville

So early as eight o’clock Birney of the Third Corps, whose division had
been thrust in between Howard and Slocum, reported to Sickles that a
movement in considerable force was being made in our front. Sickles
conveyed the information to Hooker, who instructed him to investigate
the matter in person. Sickles pushed out Clark’s rifled battery,
with a sufficient support, to shell the passing column. This, says
Sickles, obliged it to abandon the road. It was observed that the
column was a large one, and had a heavy train. Sickles considered it
either a movement for attack on our right, or else one in retreat.
If the former, he surmised at the time that he had arrested it; if the
latter, that the column had taken a more available route.

It was while Rodes was filing past the Furnace that the first attack by
Clark’s battery was made; and Col. Best, with the Twenty-third Georgia
Regiment, was sent out beyond the Furnace to hold the road. Best
subsequently took position in and about the Furnace buildings, and
placed some troops in the railroad cutting south.

Sickles, meanwhile, had again reported to Hooker, and been instructed to
strengthen his reconnoissance. But it was noon before this order was
given, and he was then advised to push out with great caution. He asked
for the whole of Birney’s division, and another one in support. With
these he thought to get possession of the road on which the enemy was
moving, and, if it was a retreat, cut him off; if a flank movement,
thrust himself in between the two bodies of the enemy. Hooker accorded
this request; and Birney was advanced a mile and a half through the
woods, bridging two or three arms of Scott’s Run, and some marshy ground,
and making his way with great difficulty. Two regiments of Berdan’s
sharpshooters were thrown out in front, and the Twentieth Indiana
Infantry led Birney’s division. Considerable opposition was encountered,
say the reports of these regiments; but after some skirmishing, Berdan
managed to surround Best’s command, and captured nearly the entire force.

Why Birney advanced through the woods is not readily understood; for
there was a good road close by his position, leading to the Furnace,
by using which many hours could have been saved.

From the prisoners of the Twenty-third Georgia, and some others
intercepted, it was clearly ascertained, by two P.M., that Jackson was
moving towards our right flank, with, as the prisoners stated, some
forty thousand men.

These facts Sickles also reported to Hooker, requesting Pleasonton’s
cavalry, and his own third division, to cooperate in a flank attack,
which he seems to have assumed he could make on Jackson. Hooker ordered
Whipple up into supporting distance to Birney, with instructions to
connect the latter with Slocum; and directed Williams (Slocum’s right
division) to cover the left of the advancing column, and if necessary
attack the enemy there. Howard received instructions from Capt. Moore,
who had been announced in general orders as on Hooker’s staff, to cover
Birney’s right; and he detached his reserve brigade, the best and
largest in the Eleventh Corps, commanded by Barlow, and led it out in
person to its position.

Hooker subsequently denied having sent Capt. Moore to Howard, alleging
the order to have emanated from Sickles; but, as Capt. Moore was on
Hooker’s staff, Howard certainly could do no less than he did, supposing
the order to be by authority from headquarters.

Sickles now imagined that every thing promised the most brilliant
success. He was preparing to make his attack, as he supposed,–to judge,
at least, from what he says,–on Jackson’s flank. “McLaws’s opposition
had all but ceased,” says he; “and it was evident that in a few moments
five or six regiments would be cut off, and fall into our hands.”

But Sickles had been deceived by a simple rear-guard of the enemy; while
Jackson, by a long circuit, was not only far beyond his reach, but in
position to crush Howard, and cut off Sickles from communication with
the rest of the army.

Pleasonton, whom Hooker had sent out to Sickles’s aid, held his three
regiments and Martin’s horse-battery, in the clearing at Scott’s Run,
being unable to operate to any advantage on the ground occupied by
Birney. Three or four other Third-Corps batteries were also here for a
similar reason.

When Sickles’s attack, leading to the capture of the Twenty-third
Georgia, was made, Col. Brown’s battalion of Confederate artillery
happened to be within reach, and was speedily ordered up by Jackson,
and placed on a cleared eminence south of the railroad cutting. Here,
gathering a few detached companies in support, he opened smartly upon
Sickles. The latter, bearing in mind his orders impressing caution in
his advance, was for the moment checked, long enough, at all events,
to enable Jackson’s trains to get out of reach by the lower road.

Birney had barely reached the Furnace when Brown’s fire became quite
annoying. He accordingly placed Livingstone’s, and afterwards
Randolph’s, batteries in position, and spent some time in silencing the
Confederate guns; after accomplishing which, he threw forward his
skirmishers, and occupied Welford’s house, while Graham, with four
regiments, got possession of the railroad cutting.

By this time Jackson’s troops had passed a couple of miles beyond the
Furnace; but on hearing of Sickles’s attack, and the capture of an
entire regiment, Archer, who commanded the rear brigade, promptly
retraced his steps with his own and Thomas’s brigades, and supported
Brown’s excellent work. So soon as the trains had got well along,
these two brigades rejoined their command; and their work as rear-guard
was undertaken by Posey, and subsequently by Wright, whom Anderson
ordered out, and threw across his own left flank to engage the attention
of Sickles’s column.

Jackson’s divisions were well out of reach, a half-dozen miles from
Sickles, before this officer was ready for an advance in force. Jackson
had marched on, or parallel to, the Brock road. When he reached the
Orange plank road, he was shown an eminence from which he could observe
the position of the Union lines. Riding up alone, so as not to attract
attention, after–as Cooke affirms–driving the Federal cavalry from the
spot, he examined our position carefully; and, seeing that he was not
yet abreast of our flank on this road, he ordered his troops farther
along the Brock road to the old turnpike.

But he sent Fitz Hugh Lee’s cavalry, supported by Paxton, along the
plank road, to hold it in case his designs were prematurely discovered
and met.

By four P.M. he had reached the right and rear of the Union line; while
Hooker complacently viewed the situation from his comfortable
headquarters at the Chancellor house, apparently in a semi-torpid state,
retaining just enough activity to initiate manoeuvres, which, under the
circumstances, were the most unfortunate possible.

For not only had he robbed his right corps of Barlow’s brigade, the only
general reserve of the “key of his position,” as himself has called it,
and despatched Birney two miles into the woods, supported by Whipple,
and protected on the left by Williams; but about five P.M. he ordered
Geary from his position on Slocum’s left, to move forward, and make an
attack down the plank road. This order Geary carried out in person with
several regiments. He had a smart skirmish with the enemy, and was
considerably advanced, when, about sundown, he was suddenly ordered to
return to his position.

Hooker’s right flank, of less than ten thousand men, was thus isolated
from the rest of the army, with no supports within two miles.

And yet the full evidence of Jackson’s whereabouts was before him.
There had been a constant feeling of the Union lines (by Stuart’s
cavalry and some infantry skirmishers) all day, gradually working from
east to west. This fact was noticed by many officers, and is
particularly referred to by Pleasonton, Warren, and Howard. Jackson’s
columns and trains had been strongly reconnoitred, their force estimated,
and their direction noted. The question as to what might be the
objective of such a movement, had been the main topic of discussion
during the day throughout the right of the army.

At noon a cavalry picket on the plank road was driven in, and gave
notice of the passing of a heavy column a mile beyond our lines.
About 3.30 P.M. the leading divisions of Jackson’s corps, arriving on
the old turnpike, sent a party forward to feel our lines, and a
ten-minutes’ skirmish resulted, when the Confederate party withdrew.
There had been a number of minor attacks on our outlying pickets,
some of them occurring when Gen. Howard was present. All these facts
were successively reported to headquarters.

About the same time two men, sent out as spies, came in, and reported
the enemy crossing the plank road on our right, in heavy columns.
These men were despatched by Howard to Hooker, with instructions to the
officer accompanying them to see that Hooker promptly received their
information. On the other hand, a half-hour before Jackson’s attack
came, Howard sent a couple of companies of cavalry out the plank road to
reconnoitre. These men, from negligence or cowardice, failed to go far
enough to ascertain the presence of Jackson, and returned and reported
all quiet. This report was, however, not forwarded to Hooker.

There was not an officer or man in the Eleventh Corps that afternoon who
did not discuss the possibility of an attack in force on our right,
and wonder how the small body thrown across the road on the extreme
flank could meet it. And yet familiar with all the facts related,
for that they were reported to him there is too much cumulative evidence
to doubt, and having inspected the line so that he was conversant with
its situation, Hooker allowed the key of his position to depend upon a
half-brigade and two guns, facing the enemy, while the balance of the
wing, absolutely in the air, turned its back upon the general whose
attack was never equalled for its terrible momentum during our war,
or excelled in any, and whose crushing blows had caused the brave old
Army of the Potomac more than once to stagger.

Moreover, the “key of the position” was confided to a corps which was
not properly part of the Army of the Potomac, and untried as yet.
For not only had the Eleventh Corps, as a corps, seen no active service,
but the most of its regiments were made up of raw troops, and the
elements of which the corps was composed were to a degree incongruous.
Of itself this fact should have caused Hooker to devote serious
attention to his right flank.



Hooker and Sickles have both stated that the plan of the former was to
allow this movement of Jackson’s to develop itself: if it was a retreat,
to attack the column at the proper time; if a tactical flank movement,
to allow it to be completed, and then thrust himself between the two
wings of Lee’s army, and beat them in detail. This admirable
generalization lacked the necessary concomitant of intelligent and
speedy execution.

Now, Hooker had his choice between two theories of this movement of
Jackson. It was a retreat from his front, either because Lee deemed
himself compromised, or for the purpose of making new strategic
combinations; or it was the massing of troops for a flank attack.
It could mean nothing else. Let us, then, do Hooker all the justice the
situation will allow.

All that had occurred during the day was fairly explainable on the
former hypothesis. If Jackson was passing towards Culpeper, he would
naturally send flanking parties out every road leading from the one his
own columns were pursuing, towards our lines, for strictly defensive
purposes. The several attacks of the day might have thus occurred.
This assumption was quite justifiable.

And this was the theory of Howard. He knew that Hooker had all the
information obtained along the entire line, from prisoners and scouts.
He naturally concluded, that if there was any reasonable supposition
that an attack from the west was intended, Hooker would in some way have
notified him. But, far from doing this, Hooker had inspected and
approved his position, and had ordered Howard’s reserve away. To be
sure, early in the morning, Hooker had told him to guard against an
attack on the right: but since then circumstances had absolutely
changed; Barlow had been taken from him, and he conjectured that the
danger of attack had passed. How could he assume otherwise?

Had he suspected an attack down the pike, had he received half an hour’s
warning, he could, and naturally would, assuming the responsibility of a
corps commander, have changed front to rear so as to occupy with his
corps the line along the east side of the Dowdall’s clearing, which he
had already intrenched, and where he had his reserve artillery. He did
not do so; and it is more easy to say that he was to blame, than to show
good cause for the stigma cast upon him for the result of this day.

However much Hooker’s after-wit may have prompted him to deny it,
his despatch of 4.10 P.M., to Sedgwick, shows conclusively that he
himself had adopted this theory of a retreat. “We know that the enemy
is flying,” says he, “trying to save his trains. Two of Sickles’s
divisions are among them.”

And it is kinder to Hooker’s memory to assume that he did not apprehend
a flank attack on this evening. If he did, his neglect of his position
was criminal. Let us glance at the map.

We know how the Eleventh Corps lay, its reserve removed, with which it
might have protected a change of front, should this become necessary,
and itself facing southerly. What was on its left, to move up to its
support in case of an attack down the pike? Absolutely not a regiment
between Dowdall’s and Chancellorsville, and near the latter place only
one division available. This was Berry’s, still luckily massed in the
open north of headquarters. And to Sickles’s very deliberate movement
alone is due the fact that Berry was still there when the attack on
Howard burst; for Sickles had bespoken Berry’s division in support of
his own advance just at this juncture.

Birney, who was the prop of Howard’s immediate left, had been advanced
nearly two miles through the thickets to the south to attack an
imaginary enemy. Whipple had followed him. Of Slocum’s corps, Williams
had been sent out “two or three miles,” to sweep the ground in his front,
and Geary despatched down the plank road “for the purpose of cutting off
the train of the enemy, who was supposed to be in retreat towards
Gordonsville.” To oppose the attack of a column of not far from
twenty-five thousand men, there was thus left a brigade front of four
small regiments, and the flank of a corps of eight thousand men more,
without reserves, and with no available force whatever for its support,
should it be overwhelmed.

Is any criticism needed upon this situation? And who should be
responsible for it?

In a defensive battle it is all-important that the general in command
should hold his troops well in hand, especially when the movements of
the enemy can be concealed by the terrain. The enemy is allowed his
choice of massing for an attack on any given point: so that the ability
to concentrate reserve troops on any threatened point is an
indispensable element of safety. It may be assumed that Hooker was,
at the moment of Jackson’s attack, actually taking the offensive.
But on this hypothesis, the feebleness of his advance is still more
worthy of criticism. For Jackson was first attacked by Sickles as early
as nine A.M.; and it was six P.M. before the latter was ready to move
upon the enemy in force. Such tardiness as this could never win a

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