Today marks the 146th anniversary of US Major General Joseph Hooker’s Chancellorsville Campaign. After the terrible losses during the Battle of Fredericksburg, from December 11–15, 1862, the Northern populace was in a state of shock. US Major General Ambrose Burnside had hurled his juggernaut Army of the Potomac, numbering 115,000, against CS General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Entrenched above Fredericksburg, on Marye’s Heights, and extending south to Prospect Hill, Lee’s soldiers were well fortified. Burnside would send wave, after wave, of soldiers against the works. The Federal army would suffer 12,600 casualties, compared to 5,300 on the Confederate side. After a failed flanking move, called the “Mud March,” Lincoln had had enough. Burnside upset with the conduct of his lieutenants, who he felt were conspiring to have him relieved of command, offered Lincoln the choice of his resignation, or relieving the generals plotting for his removal. Lincoln would choose the former. On January 25, 1862, “Fighting” Joe Hooker took over command of the Army of the Potomac. In a letter sent to Hooker, the day after his promotion, Lincoln offered some advice, “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government need a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”(i) Now to the story of Chancellorsville – Joe Hooker’s legacy.
Battle of Chancellorsville(ii)
Abraham Lincoln, and the citizens of the United States, were ready for a change. After a terrible defeat, in front of Marye’s Heights, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the army was in disarray on the east bank of the Rappahannock River. Being further demoralized, in mid-January 1863, while searching out CS General Robert E. Lee’s left flank, in what was dubbed the “Mud March,” the Army of the Potomac was a shadow of its former self. Abraham Lincoln had had enough. Promptly after the “Mud March,” Lincoln continued his search for a commanding general, that could win battles. Unlike Irvin McDowell, George McClellan and John Pope, Burnside would continue in corps command, where he performed his best service. Lincoln tapped First Corps commander, Joe Hooker to lead his army of the Potomac.
Hooker, who had earned the nickname, “Fighting Joe,” after a punctuation error in a newspaper, was known as a brave soldier who commanded respect. Soldiers under his command, would fight for Hooker, as he would be there at their side. However, outside of the First Corps, Hooker was not well known. Hooker exhibited exemplary service, leading the First Corps, at the Corn Field, at Antietam, and the center Grand Division at Fredericksburg. While Lincoln’s promotion of Hooker was not without reservations, he believed Hooker would exhibit the tempered aggressiveness he needed to get wins, in the east.
Hooker went to work immediately, bringing order, out of chaos. He drilled his army, provided leave for soldiers, and brought pride back to an army that was demoralized, after the fiasco, in and around, Fredericksburg. During February, March and early April, Hooker’s plan began to come together. It called for a move north, along the east bank of the Rappahannock River, past Falmouth . This move would be made by six of his seven infantry corps (I Corps, II Corps, III Corps, V Corps, XI Corps and XII Corps) and his Cavalry Corps, commanded by US Brigadier General George Stoneman. His remaining infantry corps (VI Corps), commanded by US Major General John Sedgwick, would remain in the Fredericksburg area, in attempt to keep Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the ridges behind Fredericksburg.
As March gave way to April, and the roads in northern Virginia firmed up, Hooker put his tactical plans in motion. His plans called for Stoneman to go upriver, fording the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, to get behind Lee, cutting his vital supply line: the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Once this was accomplished, he would cross his six infantry corps at Kelly’s Ford, before Lee knew his intentions, and was able to challenge his crossing. To further confuse Lee, Sedgwick would cross his VI Corps into Fredericksburg, in an effort to keep Lee engaged there, while the rest of Hooker’s Army of the Potomac would fall onto the rear of Lee’s unsuspecting army.
Unfortunately, Lee quickly deduced what Hooker’s plans were. Sending a portion of his 1st Corps from Fredericksburg, Lee rushed two brigades, commanded by Brigadier Generals Carnot Posey, and William Mahone, to the area of a small crossroads tavern, Chancellorsville. They were told to hold the Union army at bay, until Hooker’s plans could be better understood. Lee was in a quandary, he could not leave Fredericksburg unguarded, as the road to Richmond would be wide open to the Federals across the river. However, he was faced with growing danger to his north. Fortunately, for Lee, the area near Chancellorsville was heavily wooded, with small scrub oaks, and other dense vegetation. This gave him the advantage of being able to plan his offensive away from the prying eyes of the quickly gathering Federal force.
Hooker’s flanking forces arrived on west side, of the Rappahannock, on April 30, most having crossed at Germanna, and Ely’s Fords. There, he deployed his army, with US Major General George Meade’s V Corps, US Major General Darius Couch’s II Corps and US Major General Henry Slocum’s XII Corps all in the vicinity of the Chancellorsville Tavern. Additionally, US Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps arrived and was deployed along the Orange Plank Road, west of Chancellorsville.
On May 1, Hooker had fully enveloped the Chancellorsville Inn, and was faced by all of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. With Lee’s army well protected by the Wilderness, the armies tangled during the afternoon, with neither side gaining a significant advantage. Additional troops had also arrived, for the action on May 1, as US Major General Dan Sickles had brought his III Corps into action, via U.S. Ford. Having probed forward, toward Fredericksburg, along the Orange Plank Road, Hooker ran into stiffer resistance than he had anticipated, from Lee’s entrenched army. As the battle sputtered to a standstill, Hooker determined to defend his position, around the Chancellor house, protecting his retreat route at U.S. Ford.
By late day, on May 1, Lee had ordered the last defenders from Fredericksburg – Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 2nd Corps division, of CS Major General Jubal Early – to join the rest of the army. Sedgwick’s VI Corps would follow them out the Orange Turnpike, with little or no energy, even after Hooker had ordered him to move with alacrity, pushing Early’s Division into Lee’s rear, now holding the rest of his army, at Chancellorsville.
Late in the evening, Lee would meet with his most trusted subordinate, Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, behind the lines in Chancellorsville. This would be their last meeting, but the outcome of the meeting would be one of the most daring military moves in history. Had it failed, Lee would be forever second guessed. If it were successful, Lee would be able to crush Hooker’s larger force (Hooker held close to a 2:1 advantage at Chancellorsville), destroying it against the banks of the Rappahannock River. In this late night conference, upon learning of a back road through the Wilderness, Lee determined to split his army, sending Jackson’s Corps on long march around Hooker’s right flank.
As May 2 dawned, Jackson put his corps in motion. It would be a long route to Hooker’s right flank, which CS Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps had determined was “in the air.” In order to ensure surprise, Jackson stayed well south of the Orange Plank Road, so far that he actually turned south along the Brock Road, heading away from the prying eyes of the Federals. This caused Hooker to believe that Lee’s army was in the process of retreating, to Richmond.
With sporadic fighting throughout the day, Hooker determined to maintain his defensive posture in the area of the Chancellor homestead. Further west, as supper was being prepared, in Howard’s XI Corps camps, the soldiers were relaxing, inevitably talking about the far off rattle of musketry, near Chancellorsville. As the soldiers rested, around 5:20 PM, some troops noticed deer running towards them, from the thicket of the Wilderness, northwest of their camps. Within moments, the “Rebel yell” was heard as their camps were stormed by Jackson’s infantry corps. The resulting panic led to a headlong retreat, towards Hooker’s headquarters near the Chancellor house. Hooker was able to rally his troops, counter attacking Jackson’s Corps, before darkness fell over the blood soaked fields, of the Wilderness.
Overnight, Hooker would contract his lines, bringing order, out of disorder. However, it was apparent that Lee had more than answered Hooker’s flanking move, neutralizing a vastly superior force, and was in position to destroy the Federal army, on May 3.
While Hooker was engaged in repairing his damaged lines, Lee suffered the most devastating loss of the entire war. After pushing the Federal XI Corps, from their camps, “Stonewall” Jackson was reconnoitering his position, between the enemy lines, to make preparations for the final “mop up,” on May 3. Riding on his trusted horse, “Little Sorrel,” Jackson would be shot, in the left shoulder, by his own troops, as he approached his lines. Jackson would have his left arm amputated and was expected to recover over the coming months. However, pneumonia would set in, and Thomas Jackson would die, at Guinea Station,on May 10, 1863. Lee would later be quoted as saying, “He lost his left arm; but I have lost my right arm.”
On May 3, Robert E Lee further tightened the vice, that Hooker found himself trapped in. After pushing Sickle’s III Corps,from the heights, near Hazel Grove, Lee’s artillery came to life, bombarding Hooker’s, ever more precarious position, at the Chancellorsville Inn. With Sickle’s retreat from the Hazel Grove position, CS Major General J.E.B Stuart, commanding Jackson’s 2nd Corps, pushed forward into the ever shrinking Union lines, from the west, while CS Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps pushed them from the east. The fighting on this day would be some of the most intense of any battle in the eastern theater, of the Civil War.
On May 4, with Stuart’s Corps holding Hooker’s main army at U.S. Ford, Lee turned his attention to US Major General John Sedgwick’s tardy VI Corps. Sedgwick would be pushed back to Fredericksburg, and was in a similar position as Hooker’s army, just a couple miles away. His lines formed a “U” shape, backed up against Scott’s Ford – the only escape route.
With very few offensive options, remaining open, Hooker withdrew his forces, on May 5 and 6, closing one of the most disastrous campaigns for the North, during the entire Civil War.
Outcome: Confederate victory
Union: 18,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 12,800 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
The Battle of Chancellorsville was considered Robert E. Lee’s most spectacular victory. Lee was able to achieve victory, dividing his much smaller army in two, in front of a very aggressive adversary. Unfortunately, Lee was never fully able to overcome the loss of his most trusted lieutenant – Stonewall Jackson. After decimating Hooker, Lee went back on the offensive, pushing north into Pennsylvania, towards a fateful meeting with the next commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac: US Major General George Gordon Meade. While this offensive move was designed to alleviate some of the pressure in western theater, where CS Lieutenant General John Pemberton, at Vicksburg, was under a siege by US Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Gettysburg, and Vicksburg would both be Confederate losses, by July 4.
(i) Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville, published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1996, Pgs. 57–58.
(ii) This entire essay is published on my website, BattlefieldPortraits.com.