A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG.
III. Lee's Determination
On this night, of the 1st of May, the situation of affairs was strange indeed.
General Hooker had crossed the Rappahannock with a force of one hundred and twenty thousand infantry, and had, without obstruction, secured a position so strong, he declared, that Lee must either "ingloriously fly," or fight a battle in which "certain destruction awaited him." So absolutely convinced, indeed, was the Federal commander, of the result of the coming encounter, that he had jubilantly described the Southern army as "the legitimate property of the
Army of the Potomac," which, in the event of the retreat of the Confederates, would "be after them." There seemed just grounds for this declaration, whatever question may have arisen of the good taste displayed by General Hooker in making it. The force opposed to him was in all about forty-seven thousand men, but, as cavalry take small part in pitched battles, Lee's fighting force was only about forty thousand. To drive back forty thousand with one hundred and twenty thousand would not apparently prove difficult, and it was no doubt this conviction which had occasioned the joyous exclamation of General Hooker.
But his own act, and the nerve of his adversary, had defeated every thing. Instead of retreating with his small force upon Richmond, Lee had advanced to accept or deliver battle. This bold movement, which General Hooker does not seem to have anticipated, paralyzed his energies. He had not only crossed the two rivers without loss, but had taken up a strong position, where he could manoeuvre his army perfectly, when, in consequence of Lee's approach with the evident intent of fighting, he had ceased to advance, hesitated, and ended by retiring. This is a fair summary of events up to the night of the 1st of May. General Hooker had advanced boldly; he was now falling back. He had foretold that his adversary would "ingloriously fly;" and that adversary was pressing him closely. The Army of the Potomac, he had declared, would soon be "after" the Army of Northern Virginia; but, from the appearance of things at the moment, the Army of Northern Virginia seemed "after" the Army of the Potomac. We use General Hooker's own phrases--they are expressive, if not dignified. They are indeed suited to the subject, which contains no little of the grotesque. That anticipations and expressions so confident should have been met with a "commentary of events" so damaging, was sufficient, had the occasion not been so tragic, to cause laughter in the gravest of human beings.
Lee's intent was now unmistakable. Instead of falling back from the Rappahannock to some line of defence nearer Richmond, where the force under Longstreet, at Suffolk, might have rejoined him, with other reenforcements, he had plainly resolved, with the forty or fifty thousand men of his command, to meet General Hooker in open battle, and leave the event to Providence. A design so bold would seem to indicate in Lee a quality which at that time he was not thought to possess--the willingness to risk decisive defeat by military movements depending for their success upon good fortune alone. Such seemed now the only _deus ex machina_ that could extricate the Southern army from disaster; and a crushing defeat at that time would have had terrible results. There was no other force, save the small body under Longstreet and a few local troops, to protect Richmond. Had Lee been disabled and afterward pressed by General Hooker, it is impossible to see that any thing but the fall of the Confederate capital could have been the result.
From these speculations and comments we pass to the narrative of actual events. General Hooker had abandoned the strong position in advance of Chancellorsville, and retired to the fastnesses around that place, to receive the Southern attack. His further proceedings indicated that he anticipated an assault from Lee. The Federal troops had no sooner regained the thicket from which they had advanced in the morning, than they were ordered to erect elaborate works for the protection of infantry and artillery. This was promptly begun, and by the next morning heavy defences had sprung up as if by magic. Trees had been felled, and the trunks interwoven so as to present a formidable obstacle to the Southern attack. In front of these works the forest had been levelled, and the fallen trunks were left lying where they fell, forming thus an _abatis_ sufficient to seriously delay an assaulting force, which would thus be, at every step of the necessarily slow advance, under fire. On the roads piercing the thicket in the direction of the Confederates, cannon were posted, to rake the approaches to the Federal position. Having thus made his preparations to receive Lee's attack, General Hooker awaited that attack, no doubt confident of his ability to repulse it.
His line resembled in some degree the two sides of an oblong square--the longer side extending east and west in front, that is to say, south of Chancellorsville, and the shorter side north and south nearly, east of the place. His right, in the direction of Wilderness Tavern, was comparatively undefended, as it was not expected that Lee would venture upon a movement against that remote point. This line, it would appear, was formed with a view to the possible necessity of falling back toward the Rappahannock. A commander determined to risk everything would, it seems, have fronted Lee boldly, with a line running north and south, east of Chancellorsville. General Hooker's main front was nearly east and west, whatever may have been his object in so establishing it.
On the night of the 1st of May, as we have said, Lee and Jackson held a consultation to determine the best method of attacking the Federal forces on the next day. All the information which they had been able to obtain of the Federal positions east and south of Chancellorsville, indicated that the defences in both these quarters were such as to render an assault injudicious. Jackson had found his advance obstructed by strong works near Alrich's house, on the road running eastward from the enemy's camps; and General Stuart and General Wright, who had moved to the left, and advanced upon the enemy's front near the point called "The Furnace," had discovered the existence of powerful defences in that quarter also. They had been met by a fierce and sudden artillery-fire from Federal epaulements; and here, as to the east of Chancellorsville, the enemy had evidently fortified their position.
Under these circumstances, it was necessary to discover, if possible, some more favorable opening for an attack. There remained but one other--General Hooker's right, west of Chancellorsville; but to divide the army, as would be necessary in order to attack in that quarter, seemed an undertaking too hazardous to be thought of. To execute such a plan of assault with any thing like a hope of success, General Lee would be compelled to detach considerably more than half of his entire force. This would leave in General Hooker's front a body of troops too inconsiderable to make any resistance if he advanced his lines, and thus the movement promised to result in the certain destruction of one portion of the army, to be followed by a triumphant march of the Federal forces upon Richmond. In the council of war between Lee and Jackson, on the night of the 1st of May, these considerations were duly weighed, and the whole situation discussed. In the end, the hazardous movement against General Hooker's right, beyond Chancellorsville, was determined upon. This was first suggested, it is said, by Jackson--others have attributed the suggestion to Lee. The point is not material. The plan was adopted, and Lee determined to detach a column of about twenty-one thousand men, under Jackson, to make the attack on the next day. His plan was to await the arrival of Jackson at the point selected for attack, meanwhile engaging the enemy's attention by demonstrations in their front. When Jackson's guns gave the signal that he was engaged, the force in front of the enemy was to advance and participate in the assault; and thus, struck in front and flank at once. General Hooker, it was hoped, would be defeated and driven back across the Rappahannock.
There was another possible result, the defeat of Lee and Jackson by General Hooker. But the desperate character of the situation rendered it necessary to disregard this risk.
By midnight this plan had been determined upon, and at dawn Jackson began to move.