Battle of Chancellorsville


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Chapter XXIII
Battle of Chancellorsville
Stonewall Jackson Index | Stonewall Jackson at West Point | Stonewall Jackson and Mexican War | Stonewall Jackson Lexington | Stonewall Jackson and Secession | Stonewall Jackson and Harper's Ferry | Stonewall Jackson at Battle of Bull Run | Stonewall Jackson at Romney | Stonewall Jackson at Kernstown | Battle of McDowell | Battle of Winchester | Battle of Cross Keys and Port Republic | Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign | The Seven Days Battle | Battle of Frayser's Farm and Malvern Hill | Battle of Cedar Run | Second Battle of Bull Run | Battle of Second Bull Run Conclusion | Battle of Harper's Ferry | Battle of Sharpsburg | Battle of Fredericksburg | The Army of Northern Virginia | Stonewall Jackson's Winter Quarters | Battle of Chancellorsville | Battle of Chancellorsville Conclusion

It has already been said that while the Army of Northern Virginia lay in winter quarters the omens did not point to decisive success in the forthcoming campaign. During the same period that Lincoln and Stanton, taught by successive disasters, had ceased to interfere with their generals, Jefferson Davis and Mr. Seddon, his new Secretary of War, had taken into their own hands the complete control of military operations. The results appeared in the usual form: on the Northern side, unity of purpose and concentration; on the Southern, uncertainty of aim and dispersion. In the West the Confederate generals were fatally hampered by the orders of the President. In the East the Army of Northern Virginia, confronted by a mass of more than 130,000 foes, was deprived of three of Longstreet’s divisions; and when, at the end of April, it was reported that Hooker was advancing, it was absolutely impossible that this important detachment could rejoin in time to assist in the defence of the Rappahannock.

Hooker's Plan of Campaign.

A full discussion of the Chancellorsville campaign does not fall within the scope of this biography, but in justice to the Southern generals—to Lee who resolved to stand his ground, and to Jackson who approved the resolution—it must be explained that they were in no way responsible for the absence of 20,000 veterans. Undoubtedly the situation on the Atlantic littoral was sufficiently embarrassing to the Confederate authorities. The presence of a Federal force at New Berne, in North Carolina, threatened the main line of railway by which Wilmington and Charleston communicated with Richmond, and these two ports were of the utmost


importance to the Confederacy. So enormous were the profits arising from the exchange of munitions of war and medicines1 for cotton and tobacco that English ship-owners embarked eagerly on a lucrative if precarious traffic. Blockade-running became a recognised business. Companies were organised which possessed large fleets of swift steamers. The Bahamas and Bermuda became vast entrepôts of trade. English seamen were not to be deterred from a perilous enterprise by fear of Northern broadsides or Northern prisons, and despite the number and activity of the blockading squadrons the cordon of cruisers and gunboats was constantly broken. Many vessels were sunk, many captured, many wrecked on a treacherous coast, and yet enormous quantities of supplies found their way to the arsenals and magazines of Richmond and Atlanta. The railways, then, leading from Wilmington and Charleston, the ports most accessible to the blockade-runners, were almost essential to the existence of the Confederacy. Soon after the battle of Fredericksburg, General D. H. Hill was placed in command of the forces which protected them, and, at the beginning of the New Year, Ransom’s division2 was drawn from the Rappahannock to reinforce the local levies. A few weeks later3 General Lee was induced by Mr. Seddon to send Longstreet, with the divisions of Hood and Pickett,4 to cover Richmond, which was menaced both from Fortress Monroe and Suffolk.5

The Commander-in-Chief, however, while submitting to this detachment as a necessary evil, had warned General Longstreet so to dispose his troops that they could return to the Rappahannock at the first alarm. “The enemy’s position,” he wrote, “on the sea-coast had been probably occupied merely for purposes of defence, it was likely that they were strongly intrenched, and nothing would be gained by attacking them.”

1  Quinine sold in the South for one hundred dollars (Confederate) the ounce. O.R., vol. xxv, part ii, p. 79.
2  3,594 officers and men. Report of December 1. O.R., vol. xxi, p. 1082.
3  Middle of February.
4  Pickett, 7,165; Hood, 7,956—15,121 officers and men.
5  Lee thought Pickett was sufficient. O.R., vol. xxi, p. 623.


The warning, however, was disregarded; and that Mr. Seddon should have yielded, in the first instance, to the influence of the sea-power, exciting apprehensions of sudden attack along the whole seaboard of the Confederacy, may be forgiven him. Important lines of communication were certainly exposed. But when, in defiance of Lee’s advice that the divisions should be retained within easy reach of Fredericksburg, he suggested to Longstreet the feasibility of an attack on Suffolk, one hundred and twenty miles distant from the Rappahannock, he committed an unpardonable blunder.

Had Jackson been in Longstreet’s place, the Secretary’s proposal, however promising of personal renown, would unquestionably have been rejected. The leader who had kept the main object so steadfastly in view throughout the Valley campaign would never have overlooked the expressed wishes of the Commander-in-Chief. Longstreet, however, brilliant fighting soldier as he was, appears to have misconceived the duties of a detached force. He was already prejudiced in favour of a movement against Suffolk. Before he left for his new command, he had suggested to Lee that one army corps only should remain on the Rappahannock, while the other operated south of Richmond; and soon after his arrival he urged upon his superior that, in case Hooker moved, the Army of Northern Virginia should retire to the North Anna. In short, to his mind the operations of the main body should be made subservient to those of the detached force; Lee, with 30,000 men, holding Hooker’s 130,000 in check until Longstreet had won his victory and could march north to join him. Such strategy was not likely to find favour at headquarters. It was abundantly evident, in the first place, that the Army of Northern Virginia must be the principal objective of the Federals; and, in the second place, that the defeat of the force of Suffolk, if it were practicable, would have no effect whatever upon Hooker’s action, except insomuch that his knowledge of Longstreet’s absence might quicken his resolution to advance. Had Suffolk been a point vital to the North the question would have assumed a different


shape. As it was, the town merely covered a tract of conquered territory, the Norfolk dockyard, and the mouth of the James River. The Confederates would gain little by its capture; the Federals would hardly feel its loss. It was most improbable that a single man of Hooker’s army would be detached to defend a point of such comparative insignificance, and it was quite possible that Longstreet would be unable to get back in time to meet him, even on the North Anna. General Lee, however, anxious as ever to defer to the opinions of the man on the spot, as well as to meet the wishes of the Government, yielded to Longstreet’s insistence that a fine opportunity for an effective blow presented itself, and in the first week of April the latter marched against Suffolk.

April 17   His movement was swift and sudden. But, as Lee had anticipated, the Federal position was strongly fortified, with the flanks secure, and Longstreet had no mind to bring matters to a speedy conclusion. “He could reduce the place,” he wrote on April 17, “in two or three days, but the expenditure of ammunition would be very large; or he could take it by assault, but at a cost of 3,000 men.”

The Secretary of War agreed with him that the sacrifice would be too great, and so, at a time when Hooker was becoming active on the Rappahannock, Lee’s lieutenant was quietly investing Suffolk, one hundred and twenty miles away.

From that moment the Commander-in-Chief abandoned all hope that his missing divisions would be with him when Hooker moved. Bitterly indeed was he to suffer for his selection of a commander for his detached force. The loss of 3,000 men at Suffolk, had the works been stormed, and Hood and Pickett marched instantly to the Rappahannock, would have been more than repaid. The addition of 12,000 fine soldiers, flushed with success, and led by two of the most brilliant fighting generals in the Confederate armies, would have made the victory of Chancellorsville a decisive triumph. Better still had Longstreet adhered to his original orders. But both he and Mr. Seddon forgot, as


Jackson never did, the value of time, and the grand principle of concentration at the decisive point.

Happily for the South, Hooker, although less flagrantly, was also oblivious of the first axiom of war. As soon as the weather improved he determined to move against Richmond. His task, however, was no simple one. On the opposite bank of the Rappahannock, from Banks’ Ford to Port Royal, a distance of twenty miles, frowned line upon line of fortifications, protected by abattis, manned by a numerous artillery, against which it was difficult to find position for the Federal guns, and occupied by the victors of Fredericksburg. A frontal attack gave even less promise of success than in Burnside’s disastrous battle. But behind Lee’s earthworks were his lines of supply; the Richmond Railway, running due south, with the road to Bowling Green alongside; and second, the plank road, which, running at first due west, led past Chancellorsville, a large brick mansion, standing in a dense forest, to Orange Court House and the depôts on the Virginia Central Railroad.

At these roads and railways Hooker determined to strike, expecting that Lee would at once fall back, and give the Army of the Potomac the opportunity of delivering a heavy blow.1 To effect his object he divided his 130,000 men into three distinct bodies. The cavalry, which, with the exception of one small brigade, had moved under General Stoneman to Warrenton Junction, was to march by way of Rappahannock Station, and either capturing or passing Culpeper and Gordonsville, to cut the Confederate communications, and should Lee retreat, to hold him fast.2 General Sedgwick, with two army corps, the First and Sixth, forming the left wing of the army, was to cross the river below Fredericksburg, make a brisk demonstration of attack, and if the enemy fell back follow him rapidly down the Bowling Green and Telegraph roads. Then, while Lee’s attention was thus attracted, the right wing,

1  Hooker to Lincoln, April 12, O.R., vol.xxv, part ii, p. 199.
2  The cavalry was to take supplies for six days, food and forage, depending on the country and on captures for any further quantity that might be required.


composed of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps, with Pleasonton’s brigade of cavalry, under Hooker’s own command, would move up the Rappahannock to Kelly’s Ford, push forward to the Rapidan, cross at Ely’s and Germanna fords, and march upon Chancellorsville. The Third Corps was to remain concentrated on the Stafford Heights, ready to reinforce either wing as circumstances might require. The Second Corps was to leave one division on outpost at Falmouth, and to post two divisions on the north bank of the Rappahannock opposite Banks’ Ford.

It will be observed that this design would place a wide interval between the two wings of the Federal army, thus giving the Confederates, although much inferior in numbers, the advantage of the interior lines.1 Hooker, however, who knew the Confederate strength to a man, was confident that Lee, directly he found his position turned, and Stoneman in his rear, would at once retreat on Richmond. Yet he was not blind to the possibility that his great adversary, always daring, might assume the offensive, and attempt to crush the Federal wings in detail. Still the danger appeared small. Either wing was practically equal to the whole Confederate force. Sedgwick had 40,000, with the Third Corps, 19,000, and a division of the Second, 5,500, close at hand; Hooker 42,000, with two divisions of the Second Corps, 11,000, at Banks’ Ford; the Third Corps could reinforce him in less than four-and-twenty hours; and Stoneman’s 10,000 sabres, riding at will amongst Lee’s supply depôts, would surely prevent him from attacking. Still precaution was taken in case the attempt were made. Sedgwick, if the enemy detached any considerable part of his force towards Chancellorsville, was “to carry the works at all hazards, and establish his force on the Telegraph road.”2 The right wing, “if not strongly resisted, was to advance at all hazards, and secure a position uncovering

1  From Franklin’s Crossing below Fredericksburg, where Sedgwick’s bridges were thrown, to Kelly’s Ford is 27 miles; to Ely’s Ford 19 miles, and to Chancellorsville 11 miles.
2  O.R., vol. xxv, p. 268.


Banks’ Ford.”1 Were the Confederates found in force near Chancellorsville, it was to select a strong position and await attack on its own ground, while Sedgwick, coming up from Fredericksburg, would assail the enemy in flank and rear.

Such was the plan which, if resolutely carried out, bade fair to crush Lee’s army between the upper and the nether millstones, and it seems that the size and condition of his forces led Hooker to anticipate an easy victory. If the Army of the Potomac was not “the finest on the planet,” as in an order of the day he boastfully proclaimed it, it possessed many elements of strength. Hooker was a strict disciplinarian with a talent for organisation. He had not only done much to improve the efficiency of his troops, but his vigorous measures had gone far to restore their confidence. When he succeeded Burnside a large proportion of the soldiers had lost heart and hope. The generals who had hitherto commanded them, when compared with Lee and Jackson, were mere pigmies, and the consciousness that this was the case had affected the entire army. The Official Records contain much justification of Jackson’s anxiety that Burnside should be fought on the North Anna, where, if defeated, he might have been pursued. Although there had been no pursuit after the battle of Fredericksburg, no harassing marches, no continued retreat, with lack of supplies, abandoning of wounded, and constant alarms, the Federal regiments had suffered terribly in moral.

“The winter rains set in,” said Hooker, “and all operations were for a while suspended, the army literally finding itself buried in mud, from which there was no hope of extrication before spring.

“With this prospect before it, taken in connection with the gloom and despondency which followed the disaster of Fredericksburg, the army was in a forlorn, deplorable condition. Reference to the letters from the army at this time, public and private, affords abundant evidence of its demoralisation; and these, in their turn, had their effect upon the friends and relatives of the soldiers at

1  O.R., vol. xxv, p. 274.


home. At the time the army was turned over to me desertions were at the rate of about two hundred a day. So anxious were parents, wives, brothers and sisters, to relieve their kindred, that they filled the express trains with packages of citizens’ clothing to assist them in escaping from service. At that time, perhaps, a majority of the officers, especially those high in rank, were hostile to the policy of the Government in the conduct of the war. The emancipation proclamation had been published a short time before, and a large element of the army had taken sides antagonistic to it, declaring that they would never have embarked in the war had they anticipated the action of the Government. When rest came to the army, the disaffected, from whatever cause, began to show themselves, and make their influence felt in and out of the camps. I may also state that at the moment I was placed in command I caused a return to be made of the absentees of the army, and found the number to be 2,922 commissioned officers and 81,964 non-commissioned officers and privates. They were scattered all over, the country, and the majority were absent from causes unknown.”1

In the face of this remarkable report it is curious to read, in the pages of a brilliant military historian, that “armies composed of the citizens of a free country, who have taken up arms from patriotic motives . . . have constantly exhibited an astonishing endurance, and possessing a bond of cohesion superior to discipline, have shown their power to withstand shocks that would dislocate the structure of other military organisations.”2 A force which had lost twenty-five per cent of its strength by desertion, although it had never been pursued after defeat, would not generally be suspected of peculiar solidity. Nevertheless, the Northern soldiers must receive their due. Want of discipline made fearful ravages in the ranks, but, notwithstanding the defection of so many of their comrades, those that remained faithful displayed the best characteristics of their

Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. By William Swinton, p. 267.


race. The heart of the army was still sound, and only the influence of a strong and energetic commander was required to restore its vitality. This influence was supplied by Hooker. The cumbrous organisation of Grand Divisions was abolished. Disloyal and unsuccessful generals were removed. Salutary changes were introduced into the various departments of the staff. The cavalry, hitherto formed in independent brigades, was consolidated into a corps of three divisions and a brigade of regulars, and under a system of careful and uniform inspection made rapid improvement. Strong measures were taken to reduce the number of deserters. The ranks were filled by the return of absentees. New regiments were added to the army corps. The troops were constantly practised in field exercises, and generals of well-deserved reputation were selected for the different commands. “All were actuated,” wrote Hooker, “by feelings of confidence and devotion to the cause, and I felt that it was a living army, and one well worthy of the Republic.”

On April 27, after several demonstrations, undertaken with a view of confusing the enemy, had been made at various points, the grand movement began.

The Confederate army still held the lines it had occupied for the past four months. Jackson’s army corps extended from Hamilton’s Crossing to Port Royal. McLaws’ and Anderson’s divisions occupied Lee’s Hill and the ridge northward, and a brigade watched Banks’ Ford. Stuart was with his main body, some 2,400 strong, at Culpeper, observing the great mass of Federal horsemen at Warrenton Junction, and the line of the Rappahannock was held by cavalry pickets.

The strength of the Army of Northern Virginia, so far as can be ascertained, did not exceed 62,000 officers and men.

Second Corps

A. P. Hill’s Division
Bodes’ Division
Colston’s (Jackson’s own) Division
Early’s Division



First Corps

Anderson’s Division
McLaws’ Division



Fitzhugh Lee’s Brigade
W. H. F. Lee’s Brigade (two regiments)
Reserve Artillery
Add for reinforcements received since March 1,
    date of last return





and 170 guns.

Thus the road to Richmond, threatened by a host of 130,000 men and 428 guns, was to be defended by a force of less than half the size. Ninety-nine generals out of a hundred would have considered the situation hopeless. The Confederate lines at Fredericksburg were certainly very strong, but it was clearly impossible to prevent the Federals outflanking them. The disparity in strength was far greater than at Sharpsburg, and it seemed that by sheer weight of numbers the Southern army must inevitably be driven back. Nor did it appear, so overwhelming were the Federal numbers, that counter-attack was feasible. The usual resource of the defender, if his adversary marches round his flank, is to strike boldly at his communications. Here, however, Hooker’s communications with Aquia Creek were securely covered by the Rappahannock, and so great was his preponderance of strength, that he could easily detach a sufficient force to check the Confederates should they move against them.

Yet now, as on the Antietam, Lee and Jackson declined to take numbers into consideration. They knew that Hooker was a brave and experienced soldier, but they had no reason to anticipate that he would handle his vast masses with more skill than McClellan. That the Northern soldiers had suffered in moral they were well aware, and while they divined that the position they themselves had fortified might readily be made untenable, the fact that such was the case gave them small concern. They were agreed


that the best measures of defence, if an opening offered, lay in a resolute offensive, and with Hooker in command it was not likely that the opportunity would be long delayed.

No thought of a strategic retreat, from one position to another, was entertained. Manœuvre was to be met by manœuvre, blow by counterblow.1 If Hooker had not moved Lee would have forestalled him. On April 16 he had written to Mr. Davis: “My only anxiety arises from the condition of our horses, and the scarcity of forage and provisions. I think it is all important that we should assume the aggressive by the 1st of May. . . . If we could be placed in a condition to make a vigorous advance at that time, I think the Valley could be swept of Milroy (commanding the Federal forces at Winchester), and the army opposite [Hooker’s] be thrown north of the Potomac.”2 Jackson, too, even after Hooker’s plan was developed, indignantly repudiated the suggestion that the forthcoming campaign must be purely defensive. When some officer on his staff expressed his fear that the army would be compelled to retreat, he asked sharply, “Who said that? No, sir, we shall not fall back, we shall attack them.”

At the end of the month, however, Longstreet with his three divisions was still absent; sufficient supplies for a forward movement had not yet been accumulated;3 two brigades of cavalry, Hampton’s and Jenkins’, which had been sent respectively to South Carolina and the Valley, had not rejoined,4 and Hooker had already seized the initiative.

The first news which came to hand was that a strong force of all arms was moving up the Rappahannock in the

1  “The idea of securing the provisions, waggons, guns, of the enemy is truly tempting, and the idea has haunted me since December.” Lee to Trimble, March 8, 1862. O.R., vol.xxv, part ii, p. 658.
2  O.R., vol. xxv, p. 725.
3  “From the condition of our horses and the amount of our supplies I am unable even to act on the defensive as vigorously as circumstances might reguire.” Lee to Davis, April 27, O.R., vol.xxv, p. 752.
4  On April 20 Lee had asked that the cavalry regiments not needed in other districts might be sent to the Army of Northern Virginia. The request was not compiled with until too late. O.R., vol. xxv, pp. 740, 741.


direction of Kelly’s Ford.

April 28   This was forwarded by Stuart on the evening of April 28. The next morning the Federal movements, which might have been no more than a demonstration, became pronounced.

April 29   Under cover of a thick fog, pontoon bridges were laid at Deep Run below Fredericksburg; Sedgwick’s troops began to cross, and were soon engaged with Jackson’s outposts; while, at the same time, the report came in that a force of unknown strength had made the passage at Kelly’s Ford.

Lee displayed no perturbation. Jackson, on receiving information of Sedgwick’s movement from his outposts, had sent an aide-de-camp to acquaint the Commander-in-Chief. The latter was still in his tent, and in reply to the message said: “Well, I heard firing, and I was beginning to think that it was time some of your lazy young fellows were coming to tell me what it was about. Tell your good general he knows what to do with the enemy just as well as I do.”1

The divisions of the Second Army Corps were at once called up to their old battle-ground, and while they were on the march Jackson occupied himself with watching Sedgwick’s movements. The Federals were busily intrenching on the river bank, and on the heights behind frowned the long line of artillery that had proved at Fredericksburg so formidable an obstacle to the Confederate attack. The enemy’s position was very strong, and the time for counterstroke had not yet come. During the day the cavalry was actively engaged between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, testing the strength of the enemy’s columns. The country was wooded, the Federals active, and as usual in war, accurate information was difficult to obtain and more difficult to communicate. It was not till 6.30 p.m. that Lee received notice that troops had crossed at Ely’s and Germanna Fords at 2 p.m.

1  On March 12, before Hooker had even framed his plan of operations, Lee had received information that the Federals, as soon as the state of the roads permitted, would cross at United States, Falmouth, and some point below; the attempt at Falmouth to be a feint. O.R., vol. xxv, part ii, p. 664.


Anderson’s division was at once dispatched to Chancellorsvile.

April 30   The next message, which does not appear to have been received until the morning of the 30th, threw more light on the situation. Stuart had made prisoners from the Fifth, the Eleventh, and the Twelfth Corps, and had ascertained that the corps commanders, Meade, Howard, and Slocum, were present with the troops. Anderson, moreover, who had been instructed to select and intrench a strong position, was falling back from Chancellorsville before the enemy’s advance, and two things became clear:—

1.  That it was Hooker’s intention to turn the Confederate left.

2.  That he had divided his forces.

The question now to be decided was which wing should be attacked first. There was much to be said in favour of crushing Sedgwick. His numbers were estimated at 35,000 men, and the Confederates had over 60,000. Moreover, time is a most important consideration in the use of interior lines. The army was already concentrated in front of Sedgwick, whereas it would require a day’s march to seek Hooker in the forest round Chancellorsville. Sedgwick’s, too, was the smaller of the Federal wings, and his overthrow would certainly ruin Hooker’s combinations. “Jackson at first,” said Lee, “preferred to attack Sedgwick’s force in the plain of Fredericksburg, but I told him I feared it was as impracticable as it was at the first battle of Fredericksburg. It was hard to get at the enemy, and harder to get away if we drove him into the river, but if he thought it could be done, I would give orders for it.” Jackson asked to be allowed to examine the ground, but soon came to the conclusion that the project was too hazardous and that Lee was right. Orders were then issued for a concentration against Hooker, 10,000 men, under General Early, remaining to confront Sedgwick on the heights of Fredericksburg.

We may now turn to the movements of the Federals.

Hooker’s right wing had marched at a speed which had


been hitherto unknown in the Army of the Potomac. At nightfall, on April 30, the three army corps, although they had been delayed by the Confederate cavalry, were assembled at Chancellorsville. In three days they had marched forty-six miles over bad roads, had forded breast-high two difficult rivers, established several bridges, and captured over a hundred prisoners.1 Heavy reinforcements were in rear. The two divisions of the Second Corps had marched from Banks’ Ford to United States Ford, six miles from Chancellorsville; while the Third Corps, ordered up from the Stafford Heights, was rapidly approaching the same point of passage. Thus, 70,000 men, in the highest spirits at the success of their manœuvres, were massed in rear of Lee’s lines, and Hooker saw victory within his grasp.

”It is with heartfelt satisfaction,” ran his general order, “that the commanding general announces to his army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defences, and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him. The operations of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps have been a succession of splendid achievements.”

Hooker was skinning the lion while the beast yet lived, but he had certainly much reason for congratulation. His manœuvres had been skilfully planned and energetically executed. The two rivers which protected the Confederate position had been crossed without loss; the Second and Third Corps had been brought into close touch with the right wing; Lee’s earthworks were completely turned, and Stoneman’s cavalry divisions, driving the enemy’s patrols

1  The troops carried eight days’ supplies: three days’ cooked rations with bread and groceries in the haversacks; five days’ bread and groceries in the knapsacks; five days’ “beef on the hoof.” The total weight carried by each man, including sixty rounds of ammunition, was 45 pounds. The reserve ammunition was carried principally by pack mules, and only a small number of waggons crossed the Rappahannock. Four pontoon bridges were laid by the engineers. One bridge took three-quarters of an hour to lay; the other three, one and a half hour to lay, and an hour to take up. Each bridge was from 100 to 140 yards long. O.R., vol. xxv, pp. 215, 216.


before them, were already within reach of Orange Court House, and not more than twenty miles from Gordonsville. Best of all, the interval between the two wings—twenty-six miles on the night of the 28th—was now reduced to eleven miles by the plank road.

Two things only were unsatisfactory:—

1.  The absence of information.

2.  The fact that the whole movement had been observed by the Confederate cavalry.

Pleasonton’s brigade of horse had proved too weak for the duty assigned to it. It had been able to protect the front, but it was too small to cover the flanks; and at the flanks Stuart had persistently struck. Hooker appears to have believed that Stoneman’s advance against the Central Railroad would draw off the whole of the Confederate horse. Stuart, however, was not to be beguiled from his proper functions. Never were his squadrons more skilfully handled than in this campaign. With fine tactical insight, as soon as the great movement on Chancellorsville became pronounced, he had attacked the right flank of the Federal columns with Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, leaving only the two regiments under W. H. F. Lee to watch Stoneman’s 10,000 sabres. Then, having obtained the information he required, he moved across the Federal front, and routing one of Pleasonton’s regiments in a night affair near Spotsylvania Court House, he had regained touch with his own army. The results of his manœuvres were of the utmost importance. Lee was fully informed as to his adversary’s strength; the Confederate cavalry was in superior strength at the critical point, that is, along the front of the two armies; and Hooker had no knowledge whatever of what was going on in the space between Sedgwick and himself. He was only aware, on the night of April 30, that the Confederate position before Fredericksburg was still strongly occupied.

The want, however, of accurate information gave him no uneasiness. The most careful arrangements had been made to note and report every movement of the enemy the next day.

No less than three captive balloons, in charge of skilled


observers, looked down upon the Confederate earthworks.1 Signal stations and observatories had been established on each commanding height; a line of field telegraph had been laid from Falmouth to United States Ford, and the chief of the staff, General Butterfield, remained at the former village in communication with General Sedgwick. If the weather were clear, and the telegraph did not fail, it seemed impossible that either wing of the Federal army could fail to be fully and instantly informed of the situation of the other, or that a single Confederate battalion could change position without both Hooker and Sedgwick being at once advised.

Moreover, the Federal Commander-in-Chief was so certain that Lee would retreat that his deficiency in cavalry troubled him not at all. He had determined to carry out his original design.

May 1   The next morning—May 1—the right wing was to move by the plank road and uncover Banks’ Ford, thus still further shortening the line of communication between the two wings; and as the chief of the staff impressed on Sedgwick, it was “expected to be on the heights west of Fredericksburg at noon or shortly after, or, if opposed strongly, at night.” Sedgwick, meanwhile, was “to observe the enemy’s movements with the utmost vigilance; should he expose a weak point, to attack him in full force and destroy him; should he show any symptom of falling back, to pursue him with the utmost vigour.”2

But Hooker was to find that mere mechanical precautions are not an infallible remedy for a dangerous situation. The Confederates had not only learned long since the importance of concealment, and the advantage of night marches, but in the early morning of May 1 the river mists rendered both balloons and observatories useless. Long before the sun broke through the fog, both McLaws and Jackson had joined Anderson at Tabernacle

1  Balloons, which had been first used in the Peninsular campaign, were not much dreaded by the Confederates. “The experience of twenty months’ warfare has taught them how little formidable such engines of war are.” Special Correspondent of the Times at Fredericksburg, January 1, 1863.
2  O.R., vol. xxv, p. 306.


Church, and a strong line of battle had been established at the junction of the two roads, the pike and the plank, which led east from Chancellorsville. The position was favourable, running along a low ridge, partially covered with timber, and with open fields in front. Beyond those fields, a few hundred paces distant, rose the outskirts of a great forest, stretching far away over a gently undulating country. This forest, twenty miles in length from east to west, and fifteen in breadth from north to south, has given to the region it covers the name of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, and in its midst the Federal army was now involved. Never was ground more unfavourable for the manœuvres of a large army. The timber was unusually dense. The groves of pines were immersed in a sea of scrub-oak and luxuriant undergrowth. The soil was poor. Farms were rare, and the few clearings were seldom more than a rifle shot in width. The woodland tracks were seldom travelled; streams with marshy banks and tortuous courses were met at frequent intervals, and the only débouchée towards Fredericksburg, the pike, the plank road, an unfinished line of railway a mile south of their junction, and the river road, about two miles north, were commanded from the Confederate position.

8 a.m.   When Jackson arrived upon the scene, Anderson, with the help of Lee’s engineers, had strongly intrenched the whole front. A large force of artillery had already taken post. The flanks of the line were covered; the right, which extended to near Duerson’s Mill, by Mott’s Run and the Rappahannock; the left, which rested on the unfinished railroad not far from Tabernacle Church, by the Massaponax Creek. For the defence of this position, three miles in length, there were present 45,000 infantry, over 100 guns, and Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade of cavalry, a force ample for the purpose, and giving about nine men to the yard. On the rolling ground eastward there was excellent cover for the reserves, and from the breastworks to the front the defiles, for such, owing to the density of the wood, were the four roads by which the enemy must approach, might be so effectively swept


as to prevent him from deploying either artillery or infantry.

But Jackson was not disposed to await attack. Only 10,000 men remained in the Fredericksburg lines to confront Sedgwick, and if that officer acted vigorously, his guns would soon be heard in rear of the lines at Tabernacle Church. Work on the intrenchments was at once broken off, and the whole force was ordered to prepare for an immediate advance on Chancellorsville.

10.45 a.m.   Before eleven o’clock the rear brigades had closed up; and marching by the pike and the plank road, with a regiment of cavalry in advance, and Fitzhugh Lee upon the left, the Confederate army plunged resolutely into the gloomy depths of the great forest. Anderson’s division led the way, one brigade on the pike, and two on the plank road; a strong line of skirmishers covered his whole front, and his five batteries brought up the rear. Next in order came McLaws, together with the two remaining brigades of Anderson, moving by the pike, while Jackson’s three divisions were on the plank road. The artillery followed the infantry.

About a mile towards Chancellorsville the Federal cavalry was found in some force, and as the patrols gave way, a heavy force of infantry was discovered in movement along the pike. General McLaws, who had been placed in charge of the Confederate right, immediately deployed his four leading brigades, and after the Federal artillery, unlimbering in an open field, had fired a few rounds, their infantry advanced to the attack. The fight was spirited but short. The Northern regulars of Sykes’ division drove in the Confederate skirmishers, but were unable to make ground against the line of battle. Jackson, meanwhile, who had been at once informed of the encounter, had ordered the troops on the plank road to push briskly forward, and the Federals, finding their right in danger of being enveloped, retired on Chancellorsvile. Another hostile column was shortly afterwards met on the plank road, also marching eastward. Again there was a skirmish, and again Jackson, ordering a brigade to march


rapidly along the unfinished railroad, had recourse to a turning movement; but before the manœuvre was completed, the Federals began to yield, and all opposition gradually melted away. The following order was then sent to McLaws:—

2.30 p.m.  

Headquarters, Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia,
May 1, 1863, 2.30 p.m. (received 4 p.m.).          

“General,—The Lieutenant-General commanding directs me to say that he is pressing up the plank road; also, that you will press on up the turnpike towards Chancellorsville, as the enemy is falling back.

“Keep your skirmishers and flanking parties well out, to guard against ambuscade.

“Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

“J. G. MORRISON,          
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.”1

There was something mysterious in so easy a victory. The enemy was evidently in great strength, for, on both roads, heavy columns had been observed behind the lines of skirmishers. Several batteries had been in action; cavalry was present; and the Confederate scouts reported that a third column, of all arms, had marched by the river road toward Banks’ Ford, and had then, like the others, unaccountably withdrawn. The pursuit, therefore, was slow and circumspect. Wilcox’ brigade, on the extreme right, moved up the Mine road, in the direction of Duerson’s Mill; Wright’s brigade, on the extreme left, followed Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry on the unfinished railroad; while the main body, well closed up, still kept to the main highways.

5 p.m.   At length, late in the afternoon, Hooker’s tactics became clear. As Jackson’s advanced guards approached Chancellorsville, the resistance of the Federal skirmishers, covering the retreat, became more stubborn. From the low ridge, fringed by heavy timber, on which the mansion stands, the fire of artillery, raking every avenue of approach, grew more intense, and it was evident that the foe was standing fast on the defensive.

1  O.R., vol. xxv, p. 764.


The Confederate infantry, pushing forward through the undergrowth, made but tardy progress; the cavalry patrols found that every road and bridle-path was strongly held, and it was difficult in the extreme to discover Hooker’s exact position. Jackson himself, riding to the front to reconnoitre, nearly fell a victim to the recklessness he almost invariably displayed when in quest of information. The cavalry had been checked at Catherine Furnace, and were waiting the approach of the infantry. Wright’s brigade was close at hand, and swinging round northwards, drove back the enemy’s skirmishers, until, in its turn, it was brought up by the fire of artillery. Just at this moment Jackson galloped up, and begged Stuart to ride forward with him in order to find a point from which the enemy’s guns might be enfiladed. A bridle-path, branching off from the main road to the right, led to a hillock about half a mile distant, and the two generals, accompanied by their staffs, and followed by a battery of horse-artillery, made for this point of vantage. “On reaching the spot,” says Stuart’s adjutant-general, “so dense was the undergrowth, it was found impossible to find enough clear space to bring more than one gun at a time into position; the others closed up immediately behind, and the whole body of us completely blocked up the narrow road. Scarcely had the smoke of our first shot cleared away, when a couple of masked batteries suddenly opened on us at short range, and enveloped us in a storm of shell and canister, which, concentrated on so narrow a space, did fearful execution among our party, men and horses falling right and left, the animals kicking and plunging wildly, and everybody eager to disentangle himself from the confusion, and get out of harm’s way. Jackson, as soon as he found out his mistake, ordered the guns to retire; but the confined space so protracted the operation of turning, that the enemy’s cannon had full time to continue their havoc, covering the road with dead and wounded. That Jackson and Stuart with their staff officers escaped was nothing short of miraculous.”1

Memoirs of the Confederate War. Heros von Boreke.


Other attempts at reconnaissance were more successful. Before nightfall it was ascertained that Hooker was in strong force on the Chancellorsville ridge, along the plank road, and on a bare plateau to the southward called Hazel Grove. “Here,” in the words of General Lee, “he had assumed a position of great natural strength, surrounded on all sides by a dense forest, filled with a tangled undergrowth, in the midst of which breastworks of logs had been constructed, with trees felled in front, so as to form an almost impenetrable abattis. His artillery swept the few narrow roads, by which the position could be approached from the front, and commanded the adjacent woods. The left of his line extended from Chancellorsville towards the Rappahannock, covering the Bark Mill (United States) Ford, which communicated with the north bank of the river by a pontoon bridge. His right stretched westward along the Germanna Ford road (the pike) more than two miles. . . . As the nature of the country rendered it hazardous to attack by night, our troops were halted and formed in line of battle in front of Chancellorsville at right angles to the plank road, extending on the right to the Mine road, and to the left in the direction of the Catherine Furnace.”

As darkness falls upon the Wilderness, and the fire of the outposts, provoked by every movement of the patrols, gradually dies away, we may seek the explanation of the Federal movements. On finding that his enemy, instead of “ingloriously flying,” was advancing to meet him, and advancing with confident and aggressive vigour, Hooker’s resolution had failed him. Waiting till his force was concentrated, until the Second and Third Corps had crossed at United States Ford, and were close to Chancellorsville, it was not till eleven o’clock on the morning of May 1 that he had marched in three great columns towards Fredericksburg. His intention was to pass rapidly through the Wilderness, secure the open ground about Tabernacle Church, and there, with ample space for deployment, to form for battle, and move against the rear of Marye’s Hill.1

1  O.R., vol. xxv, p. 324.


But before his advanced guards got clear of the forest defiles they found the Confederates across their path, displaying an unmistakable purpose of pressing the attack. Hooker at once concluded that Lee was marching against him with nearly his whole force, and of the strength of that force, owing to the weakness of his cavalry, he was not aware. The news from the Stafford Heights was disquieting. As soon as the fog had lifted, about nine o’clock in the morning, the signal officers and balloonists had descried long columns of troops and trains marching rapidly towards Chancellorsville.1 This was duly reported by the telegraph,2 and it was correctly inferred to signify that Lee was concentrating against the Federal right. But at the same time various movements were observed about Hamilton’s Crossing; columns appeared marching from the direction of Gurney’s Station; there was much traffic on the railway, and several deserters from Lee’s army declared, on being examined, that Hood’s and Pickett’s divisions had arrived from Richmond.3 The statements of these men—who we may suspect were not such traitors as they appeared—were confirmed by the fact that Sedgwick, who was without cavalry, had noticed no diminution in the force which held the ridge before him.

It is easy, then, to understand Hooker’s decision to stand on the defensive. With a prudent foresight which does him much credit, before he marched in the morning he had ordered the position about Chancellorsville, covering his lines of retreat to United States and Ely’s Fords, to be reconnoitred and intrenched, and his front, as Lee said, was undoubtedly very strong. He would assuredly have done better had he attacked vigorously when he found the Confederates advancing. His sudden retrograde movement, especially as following the swift and successful manœuvres which had turned Lee’s position, could not fail to have a discouraging effect upon the troops; and

1  O.R., vol. xxv, pp. 323, 336.
Ibid., p. 326. The telegraph, however, appears to have worked badly, and dispatches took several hours to pass from Falmouth to Chancellorsville.
Ibid., p. 327.


if Sedgwick had been ordered to storm the Fredericksburg lines, the whole Federal force could have been employed, and the Confederates, assailed in front and rear simultaneously, must, to say the least, have been embarrassed. But in abandoning his design of crushing Lee between his two wings, and in retiring to the stronghold he had prepared, Hooker did what most ordinary generals would have done, especially one who had served on the losing side at Fredericksburg. He had there learned the value of intrenchments. He had seen division after division shatter itself in vain against a stone wall and a few gun-pits, and it is little wonder that he had imbibed a profound respect for defensive tactics. He omitted, however, to take into consideration two simple facts. First, that few districts contain two such positions as those of the Confederates at Fredericksburg; and, secondly, that the strength of a position is measured not by the impregnability of the front, but by the security of the flanks. The Fredericksburg lines, resting on the Rappahannock and the Massaponax, had apparently safe flanks, and yet he himself had completely turned them, rendering the whole series of works useless without firing a shot. Were Lee and Jackson the men to knock their heads, like Burnside, against stout breastworks strongly manned? Would they not rather make a wide sweep, exactly as he himself had done, and force him to come out of his works? Hooker, however, may have said that if they marched across his front, he would attack them en route, as did Napoleon at Austerlitz and Wellington at Salamanca, and cut their army in two. But here he came face to face with the fatal defect of the lines he had selected, and also of the disposition he had made of his cavalry. The country near Chancellorsville was very unlike the rolling plains of Austerlitz or the bare downs of Salamanca. From no part of the Federal position did the view extend for more than a few hundred yards. Wherever the eye turned rose the dark and impenetrable screen of close-growing trees, interlaced with wild vines and matted undergrowth, and seamed with rough roads, perfectly passable for troops, with which his


enemies were far better acquainted than himself. Had Stoneman’s cavalry been present, the squadrons, posted far out upon the flanks, and watching every track, might have given ample warning of any turning movement, exactly as Stuart’s cavalry had given Lee warning of Hooker’s own movement upon Chancellorsville. As it was, Pleasonton’s brigade was too weak to make head against Stuart’s regiments; and Hooker could expect no early information of his enemy’s movements.

He thus found himself in the dilemma which a general on the defensive, if he be weak in cavalry, has almost invariably to face, especially in a close country. He was ignorant, and must necessarily remain ignorant, of where the main attack would be made. Lee, on the other hand, by means of his superior cavalry, could reconnoitre the position at his leisure, and if he discovered a weak point could suddenly throw the greater portion of his force against it. Hooker could only hope that no weak point existed. Remembering that the Confederates were on the pike and the plank road, there certainly appeared no cause for apprehension. The Fifth Corps, with its flank on the Rappahannock, held the left, covering the river and the old Mine roads. Next in succession came the Second Corps, blocking the pike. In the centre the Twelfth Corps, under General Slocum, covered Chancellorsville. The Third Corps, under Sickles, held Hazel Grove, with Berry’s division as general reserve; and on the extreme right, his breastworks running along the plank road as far as Talley’s Clearing, was Howard with the Eleventh Corps, composed principally of German regiments. Strong outposts of infantry had been thrown out into the woods; the men were still working in the intrenchments; batteries were disposed so as to sweep every approach from the south, the south-east, or the south-west, and there were at least five men to every yard of parapet. The line, however, six miles from flank to flank, was somewhat extensive, and to make certain, so far as possible, that sufficient numbers should be forthcoming to defend the position, at 1.55 on the morning of May 2, Sedgwick was instructed to send the First Army Corps to Chancellorsville. Before


midnight, moreover, thirty-four guns, principally horse. Artillery, together with a brigade of infantry, were sent from Falmouth to Banks’ Ford.

Sedgwick, meantime, below Fredericksburg, had contented himself with engaging the outposts on the opposite ridge. An order to make a brisk demonstration, which Hooker had dispatched at 11.30 a.m., did not arrive, the telegraph having broken down, until 5.45 p.m., six hours later; and it was then too late to effect any diversion in favour of the main army.

Yet it can hardly be said that Sedgwick had risen to the height of his responsibilities. He knew that a portion at least of the Confederates had marched against Hooker, and the balloonists had early reported that a battle was in progress near Tabernacle Church. But instead of obeying Napoleon’s maxim and marching to the sound of the cannon, he had made no effort to send support to his commander. Both he and General Reynolds1 considered “that to have attacked before Hooker had accomplished some success, in view of the strong position and numbers in their front, might have failed to dislodge the enemy, and have rendered them unserviceable at the proper time.”2 That is, they were not inclined to risk their own commands in order to assist Hooker, of whose movements they were uncertain. Yet even if they had been defeated, Hooker would still have had more men than Lee.

1  The following letter (O.R., vol. xxv, p. 337) is interesting as showing the state of mind into which the commanders of detached forces are liable to be thrown by the absence of information:—

“Headquarters, First Corps, May 1, 1863.

“Major-General Sedgwick,—I think the proper view to take of affairs is this: If they have not detached more than A. P. Hill’s division from our front, they have been keeping up appearances, showing weakness, with a view of delaying Hooker, and tempting us to make an attack on their fortified position, and hoping to destroy us and strike for our depôt over our bridges. We ought therefore, in my judgment, to know something of what has transpired on our right.

“JOHN F. REYNOLDS, Major-General.

2  Dispatch of Chief of the Staff to Hooker, dated 4 p.m., May 1. O.R., vol. xxv, p. 326.



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