soldier with rifle american civil warCHANCELLORSVILLE
Joe Ryan's Civil War


By: Joe Ryan



The Strategic Situation in 1863

In April 1861 Abraham Lincoln had instigated the war, because he was certain that, given their numbers, the young men of Illinois, supported by those of Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, could overwhelm the resistance of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee to Union rule. Lincoln had calculated that, deprived of these border states as recruitment territory, the Southern Confederacy could not possibly sustain military resistance to the Union in the long run—the Union's advantage in numbers of soldiers simply being too great. Though he knew this, too, Jefferson Davis had nonetheless instigated secession on the gamble that Great Britain would not tolerate the Union blocking its merchant vessels from entering Southern ports, thus giving the Confederacy a flow of war materials that could neutralize the Union's advantage in numbers long enough to induce the Northern people to give up on Lincoln's scheme of conquest.

At the outset of the war, Lincoln had shrewdly surmised that the British Government would not use its navy to force entry into Southern ports, unless its leadership was convinced that the Confederacy could sustain itself through force of arms. In the mind of the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Lincoln surmised, the ultimate proof of this would be whether the Confederate Army might occupy Washington. Certain, then, that the resistance of the Confederacy to Union rule could only be sustained if its army occupied Washington, Lincoln adopted the strategy of keeping the Union army in the East squarely between the army of Lee and Washington—for as long as Lee's army was kept away from Washington, Britain, he believed, would keep clear of the conflict between North and South, and the Union's advantage in numbers would work to grind the war to its inexorable end.

The British House of Commons

Palmerston Has The Floor; Russell Stands Behind The Speaker's Chair;
Disraeli Sits Across From Palmerston, and Gladstone Sits Behind Him.

Though Lincoln's strategy ensured ultimate victory in the East, it came at an awful human price. In the spring of 1862, when Lincoln held back McDowell's corps from McClellan's army in front of Richmond, General Lee seized upon the military concept of tactical wings to put such pressure on McClellan's line of communication with his base of supply that McClellan retreated to Harrison's Landing, inducing Lincoln to order the Union army back to Washington. Taking advantage of the confusion inherent in the transition, Lee pushed his little army northward and overwhelmed Lincoln's new Army of Virginia before it could merge with McClellan's. By September 1862, Lee's movement into Western Maryland had created the impression that Washington might be occupied, and several members of Lord Palmerston's cabinet began speaking of intervening by means of a demand the war end, and, if Lincoln refused, to recognize the Confederacy as a nation. But Lord Palmerston refused the suggestion, insisting upon seeing the result of Lee's invasion. And then the news of Antietam arrived in London and the Confederacy's chance of British recognition flagged.


Lincoln's Plan of Operations Translated into Action by Hooker

Finally rid of McClellan, in the fall of 1862, Lincoln put Ambrose Burnside in command of the Union army and proposed a plan for Burnside's effort to force his way across the Rappahannock. On November 27, 1862, Lincoln expressed the essence of his plan to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck this way:

"I have just had a long conference with General Burnside. He thinks he can cross the river in face of the enemy and drive him away, but that, to use his expression, it is somewhat risky. I wish the case to stand more favorable than this in two respects. First, I wish his crossing of the river to be nearly free from risk; and secondly, I wish the enemy to be prevented from falling back, into his entrenchments at Richmond. I therefore propose that we accumulate a force on the south bank of the Rappahannock—at say, Port Royal, as nearly up to 25,000 men. At the same time another force of about the same strength as high up the Pamunkey as can be protected by gunboats. These being ready, let all three forces move simultaneously, Burnside's force in its attempt to cross the river, the Rappahannock force moving directly up the south side of the river to his assistance, and ready to deflect off to the turnpike bridge over the Mattapony in the direction of Richmond. The Pamunkey force to move up the north side of the Pamunkey to hold the turnpike bridge north of Hanover Courthouse and the Mattapony bridge and, if possible, press higher up the streams and destroy the railroad bridges.


Thus, if Burnside drives the enemy from Fredericksburg, the enemy no longer has the road to Richmond, but we have it and can march into the city, Or, possibly, having forced the enemy from his line, we could move upon, and destroy his army." (Collected Works of Lincoln, Vol IV, pp. 514-515; edited for brevity.)

Lincoln's Plan of Operations

Note: Lincoln's plan was fantasy in several respects. First, Lincoln had no basis to believe the Army could transport 25,000 men far enough up the Pamunkey to reach a point within quick marching distance to the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad, Lee's line of communication; and secondly, assuming Burnside's force actually was able to "drive" Lee away, that the "Rappahannock force" and the "Pamunkey force" could actually cooperate to prevent Lee from reaching Richmond, if that is where he wanted to go. And, third, the suggestion that these forces might "march into Richmond" was simply ridiculous.


After Burnside had rejected Lincoln's plan as unworkable, and attempted to cross the river at Fredericksburg, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, on January 7, 1863, expressed Lincoln's revised plan of operations to Burnside this way:

"When the attempt [to cross the river] at Fredericksburg was abandoned, I advised you to renew the attempt at some other point, either to turn the enemy's works, or to threaten their wings or communications; in other words, to keep the enemy occupied until a favorable opportunity offered to strike a decisive blow. I particularly advised you to use your cavalry and light artillery upon his communications, and attempt to cut off his supplies and engage him at an advantage.


In all our interviews I have urged that our first object was, not Richmond, but the defeat or scattering of Lee's army, which threatened Washington and the upper line of the Potomac.


The chances are still in our favor to meet and defeat the enemy on the Rappahannock, if we can effect a crossing in a position where we can meet the enemy on favorable or even equal terms. If the enemy should concentrate his forces at the place you have selected for a crossing, make it a feint and try another place.


The great object is to occupy the enemy, to prevent him from making large detachments or distant raids. It will not do to keep your large army inactive. An attempt to cross the river must be made, and as early as possible." (OR, I, XXI, 953-54, edited for brevity.)


At this point in time the integrity of the military chain of command disintegrated and this resulted in Lincoln raising Hooker to the top. Several generals from Burnside's army had gone to Washington and met with Lincoln, making the statement that the Army had lost confidence in Burnside and that his plans for resuming the effort to cross the river would lead to another disaster. Lincoln listened.

Burnside tendered his resignation as army commander when Lincoln refused to sanction his discharging these generals from duty, including Joe Hooker who had been the leader; and Halleck tendered his, when Lincoln insisted he order Burnside how to cross the river. Lincoln refused to accept either resignation, but in the process Hooker ended up in command. Through Halleck, Lincoln instructed his third field commander that the judgment call was his when and where to move the army, but in doing so Hooker was to "keep in mind always the importance of covering Washington."

By April 11, using a varient of Lincoln's original plan, Hooker informed Lincoln he would turn Lee's right, by crossing the river below Fredericksburg while at the same time sending the bulk of his cavalry into Lee's rear to sever his communication with Richmond. Hooker stated the essence of the plan in a movement order sent to George Stoneman, his cavalry commander, on April 12th.

"As the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad presents the shortest line for the enemy to retire on, it is probable he will use it and the roads adjacent to it for this purpose, in which event you will select the strongest position possible in order to check it, and if unsuccessful, you will fall upon his flanks, attack his trains and harass him until he is exhausted and out of supplies. Moments of delay will be hours and days to the army in pursuit.


If the enemy should retire by Gordonsville, you will endeavor to hold your force in his front, and harass him day and night. Let your watchword be fight, and let your orders be, fight, fight, fight. It is not in the power of the rebels to oppose you with more than five thousand sabres, and those badly mounted, and after they leave Culpeper, without forage and rations."


Stoneman In His Glory

The record does not explain it, but Hooker discarded the plan of crossing the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg after the April weather delayed the movement of Stoneman's cavalry, massed at Warrenton, across the upper fords of the river. Impatient as always for action, Lincoln had wired Hooker on April 15: "I greatly fear another failure already." Hooker replied that he still hoped to turn the cavalry's movement to "some good account," as he did not think the cavalry to be out of position. With "an advance of so large an army," he said, "it [is] necessary to throw the main portion of  [Stoneman's cavalry] well on my right flank."

Note: Stoneman, with about 3,500 troopers, by way of Racoon Ford on the Rapidan, reached Lousia Courthouse on the Virginia Central Railroad and tore up several miles of track. Then, when Hooker's pursuit of Lee's retreating army did not materialize, he divided his command into squads,and sent them in different directions with orders to destroy what they could. He returned with the main body to the Rapidan while some of the squads went down the Yorktown Peninsula to Union lines.


Stoneman Causes Disruption To Lee's Communications

During the last two weeks of April, as the stormy weather continued to make movement impractical, Hooker decided to turn Lee's left by moving three of his seven corps up behind Stoneman's cavalry and, when it moved forward, follow behind it and head east to the Rapidan fords and come up in Lee's rear.

Note: This was a change in plan it seems Hooker did not think through seriously enough. By moving to turn Lee's right, Hooker would have his army marching southwest through open country on the turnpike to Bowling Green, threatening to cut off Lee's retreat south on the line of the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad. (As Lee put it, in a message to President Davis later, "if the enemy is too strong for me here I will have to fall back. I may be forced to fall back to the Orange & Alexandria Railroad or the Virginia Central, but in either case I will be in position to contest the enemy's advance upon Richmond.") But, if Hooker's army were to turn Lee's left, it would be marching southeast toward Lee's line of communication through the Wilderness, the terrain of which might have the effect of neutralizing Hooker's advantage in numbers. Still, the issue deserves critical analysis before final judgment is made, given the fact that a year later Grant chose to move the army south over the same route which resulted in the Battle of the Wilderness, a battle he did not win.


Lee's Lines of Retreat

During this period of delay caused by the weather, Henry Halleck, probably speaking for Lincoln, again raised the idea of organizing a force to use the Pamunkey and Mattapony rivers to bring pressure from the south against Lee's rear at Fredericksburg. On April 17, Halleck wrote General Dix, commanding the force at Fort Monroe this:

"Lee's army is massed between Richmond and the Rappahannock. This gives you an opportunity to operate in the direction of the Weldon Railroad connecting with the South. But would that be safe and would it not be contrary to principle?


The enemy would be between you and Hooker's army, ready to strike at either. He would have the same advantage over you, in his central position, that Lee had over Pope and McClellan.  Moreover while you were operating south of James River, the enemy might recapture Yorktown or Williamsburg.


Note: Halleck, here, appears to be referring to Longstreet's two divisions which at this time were detached from Lee's army and operating below Petersburg for the purposes of keeping the Union force at Suffolk contained while gathering, at the same time, as much supplies from the farmland as possible.


It would be more in accordance with principles for you and Hooker to operate in concert. Suppose that while Hooker operates against Lee's] front, you threaten his flank and rear by the Pamunkey and Mattapony. West Point (at the confluence of the Mattapony and York Rivers) furnishes you with an excellent base for such an operation. I want you to withdraw from the south bank of the James as soon as you can, occupy West Point and operate as here suggested."


Note: When Lincoln relieved Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, he ordered Burnside to Washington and caused the Ninth Corps, still under Burnside's command, to Fort Monroe. No doubt this was done in furtherance of his continued thinking that somehow he could bring a force up the lower rivers against Lee's rear.


Lincoln's Idea Depends On The Draft Troop Transports Draw

A Railroad Bridge Too Far

Beyond Walkerton, on the Mattapony, Gunboats cannot go

Lightest Draft Gunboat Available

At the same time Halleck wired Dix the operation order, Lincoln went to Falmouth (opposite Fredericksburg) and conferred with Hooker. Halleck the next day went to Fort Monroe to confer with Dix, spending some days going from outpost to outpost attempting to turn the order into reality. But it quickly became apparent that neither the Pamunkey nor the Mattapony were navigable high enough toward Hanover Junction (the crossroads of the Virginia Central with the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad); and even if enough boats could be found capable of carrying the Ninth Corps to Walkerton, much less provide the corps with the supplies, it would still need to march 36 miles overland to the railroad junction and sustain itself there while it waited for Hooker to drive Lee south. When the reality of this finally set in, Lincoln agreed to Hooker's change of plan to cross the Rappahannock north of Fredericksburg, and march east across the Rapidan into Lee's rear.

On April 28, after several attempts to get his army and cavalry in motion, Hooker issued an order to Henry Slocum, commander of the 12th corps, to begin the movement that would end with the Battle of Chancellorsville.

"The 11th corps (commanded by Oliver Howard) to cross the river (at Kelly's Ford) tonight and the 12th corps to cross the morning of the 29th and both corps to march directly to Germana Mills Ford. Pleasonton's cavalry will guide you. Meade (commanding 5th corps) will move on a parallel line to Ely's Ford and cross the Rapidan, and all three of you push on to Chancellorsville at which point the three corps will come together. Once the enemy abandons the U.S. Ford upon your approach, a bridge will be thrown over and a telegraph line erected.


If your cavalry (Devin's brigade of 3,500 troopers) is well advanced beyond Chancellorsville, you will be able to know whether the enemy is detaching forces from behind Fredericksburg to resist you.


If not in considerable force, you will endeavor to advance at all hazards, securing a position on the Plank Road and uncovering Banks Ford.


If the enemy should be greatly reinforced, you will then select a strong position, and compel him to attack you on your ground.


Not a moment must be lost in establishing yourself at or near Chancellorsville. From that moment all will be ours."


Hooker Marches for the Rapidan Fords

The Road Net


General Lee's Plan of Operations, Spring 1863

The primary historical evidence makes clear that, from the end of the Maryland Campaign of 1862, General Lee's mind was focused on building up his army's strength to a level that would allow him to move it to Gettysburg. The reason he focused on accomplishing this, was that he knew there was no reasonable chance the Confederacy could survive in the long run. Given the reality that, after Antietam, Britain would not intervene in the war and that Lincoln's armies occupied the border states, all that the Confederacy's armies could practically accomplish was to keep the enemy away from the Confederate Capitol and heartland as long as possible. So, through the fall of 1862 and into the winter of 1863, General Lee struggled to draw to his army as much men and material as was politically possible under the circumstances, for a movement that would draw Lincoln's army north of the Potomac.

General Lee After the War

The first obstacle in the path of his accomplishing his objective were the political pressures on the Confederate Government to defend simultaneously both its capital and its strategic points in the West: Vicksburg, which closed the Mississippi to the enemy's commerce, and Chattanooga, which closed the Confederate heartland to the enemy's invasion.

The essential problem for the Confederate Government was that politics forced it to support two widely separated armies in the West, neither one of which was strong enough alone to hold off the enemy very long. This reality meant practically that the Confederate Government had to choose between concentrating its available forces against the enemy moving to capture Vicksburg, or abandon Vicksburg and concentrate every available regiment in Tennessee to force the enemy back from Chattanooga. Instead, against Joe Johnston's advice, the government weakened Bragg's army to strengthen Pemberton's.

Note: Johnston was now supposedly in overall command of the armies in the West. In December 1862, President Davis traveled to Chattanooga and met with Johnston. Davis wanted Johnston to send troops from Bragg's army to Pemberton's, but Johnston demurred on the ground that doing so would leave Bragg to weak to hold off Rosecrans from Murfreesboro. Davis rejected Johnston's advice and one division, plus a brigade, was sent from Bragg to Pemberton.


The result of this decision was the Battle of Stone's River. As soon as Rosecrans learned that a division had been transferred from Bragg's army to Pemberton's, he marched from his base at Nashville toward Murfressboro with 43,000 men where Bragg's army, totaling now 30,000 men, was concentrated. On December 31, 1862, Rosecrans attacked Bragg and, after recovering from an initial repulse, forced Bragg to retreat across the Duck River to Shelbyville and Tullahoma. At the same time, Grant landed an army of 50,000 men at Milliken's Bend and began maneuvering against Pemberton, with 30,000 men, at Vicksburg.

General Lee's Need For Men

The consequence of the disparity in numbers between the contending armies placed President Davis upon the horns of an insoluble dilemma. The only way in the long run Vicksburg and Chattanooga could be held, was to draw strength from General Lee's army and feed it to the Western armies. But, if Lee's army were weakened, the inevitable result would be the capture of the Confederate Capitol, a disaster that would end the war almost immediately. Compounding the problem, as Lee expressed it to Secretary of War James Seddon, in February 1863, was the difficulty the Confederacy was encountering in efforts to draw more soldiers from the population.

"There is an absolute necessity for every man liable to military duty to be in the army, for, as you know, the odds against us are very great. The number of deaths and discharges in this army far exceed the number of new enlistments by conscription; yet it is necessary to recruit the army, if possible, to a number far greater than it has ever yet attained. The constant efforts now made by persons of all classes to get their friends out of the army, by detail or light duty, have made on me, I fear, the impression of waning interest on the part of the people in our cause. This should not be so, for if there were ever a time when we need every man at his post, and every musket which we can bring to bear, that time will be the campaign about to open in the spring." (General Lee to Seddon, dated February 21, 1863 [edited for brevity].)


"With the $9 billion and the 3 million of men placed by the Union Congress at the command of Lincoln, it will require every exertion on our part to keep the field. (General Lee to Seddon, dated February 28, 1863.)


"I consider it of vital importance to maintain our possession of the Mississippi River. To do this, we must hold Rosecrans in check. I can arrive at no satisfactory conclusion with regard how to reinforce our army. I believe the enemy in every department outnumbers us. If it is determined that this army remain inactive, I don't think Hooker will cooperate. By last report he was drawing 90,000 rations. This does not include the troops at Washington which, I think, number 65,000." (General Lee to Adjutant General Cooper, dated April 16, 1863 [edited for brevity].)


"While making the most we can of the means of resistance we possess, it is nevertheless the part of wisdom to carefully measure and husband our strength, and not to expect from it more than in the ordinary course of affairs it is capable of accomplishing. We should not, therefore, conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing and the disproportion between us and the enemy is steadily augmenting. The fall off of this army's aggregate shows that its ranks are growing weaker and its losses are not supplied by recruits." (General Lee to President Davis, June 10, 1863.)


Note: It is a plain fact historians tend to ignore that both governments were faced at this time with the reality that the young men of their respective jurisdictions were refusing to volunteer for service in the armies; for those already in the armies as the period of their enlistments ended the great majority refused to reenlist. Peace parties were becoming vocal on both sides of the struggle, in the North paticularly.


During the winter of 1863, Secretary of War Seddon, representing a pressure group within the Confederate Government, made repeated attempts to convince Davis to reinforce Bragg and Pemberton at the expense of Lee, going so far as to argue that Longstreet, with the two divisions then operating south of Petersburg, be sent west—a proposition Longstreet, himself, in several visits to Richmond, pushed aggressively behind Lee's back. What saved General Lee, here, was his special relationship with President Davis, a relationship of mutual respect in which each man understood perfectly the crucial importance and skill of the other.

Unlike the testy and sarcastic communications that passed routinely between Lincoln and the succession of generals he put in command of the Army of the Potomac, the communications that passed between Davis and Lee at this time reflect an extraordinary degree of deference each man showed the other in their respective spheres. As a result, by the time Lee took the offensive, in late May 1863, President Davis had increased his army by three divisions. The most poignant of these communications occurred after the Battle of Chancellorsville as Lee maneuvered into position to move to Gettysburg.

"I have been endeavoring for nearly a month to get this army into a condition to move—to anticipate an expected blow from the enemy. I fear I shall have to receive it here or retreat. The enemy will make a combined movement to drive me back, or else transfer his army to James River. If I were stronger I think I could prevent either, and force him back. Yet I fear the time has passed when I could have taken the offensive with advantage. The enemy is contemplating another movement. There may be nothing left for me to do but fall back." (General Lee to President Davis, May 30, 1863.)


"I wish I knew how to relieve you from all anxiety concerning the movements on the York or James rivers against Richmond while you are moving toward the north and west. I readily perceive the disadvantage of standing still, and sorely regret that I cannot give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire. That any advantage should have been lost by delay is sad enough where the contest is so very unequal as to give little room for the exercise of prudence." (President Davis to General Lee, May 31, 1863.)


Note: "the contest so very unequal as to give little room for the exercise of prudence." This line explains the vast difference between Lincoln's method of operation, which, given the advantage he enjoyed in numbers, gave him great room to exercise prudence, and Lee's method that required the taking time after time of very great risk.


"If I am able to move, I propose to do so cautiously, watching the result, and not to get beyond recall until I find it safe." (General Lee to President Davis, June 1, 1863.)


Note: Unlike Lincoln with McClellan, President Davis trusted his Capitol to the exercise of General Lee's discretion.


Another point about General Lee's character the historians miss is that, by the spring of 1863, knowing President Davis's gamble over British intervention had been lost, and that it was now only a matter of time before the war would be lost, General Lee encouraged President Davis, as he had done in September 1862, when he moved the army into Maryland, to think how to make peace with Lincoln.

"Should the belief [in the North] that peace will bring back the Union become general, the war would no longer be supported, and that, after all, is what we are interested in bringing about. When peace is proposed it will be time enough to discuss its terms. It is not the part of prudence to spurn the proposition in advantage merely because there are those who want to believe that it will result in bringing us back into the Union. We do not doubt that the desire of our people for a distinct and independent national existence will prove steadfast under the influence of peaceful measures as it has shown itself in the midst of war. We should at least abstain from discouraging any party (the so-called "Copperheads led by Vallidingham) whose purpose is peace." (General Lee to President Davis, June 10, 1863.)


McLaws Division McLaws Division
Wofford Wofford
Kershaw Kershaw
Semmes Semmes
Barksdale Barksdale
Anderson's division Anderson's division
Wilcox Wilcox
Wright Wright
Mahone Mahone
Posey Posey
  Perry FLA
Rodes Division Rodes Division
O'Neal O'Neal
Dole Dole
Colquitt Colquitt
Iverson Iverson
  Ramseur NC
Early's Division Early's Division
Gordon Gordon
Hoke Hoke
Smith  Smith 
Hays  Hays 
A.P. Hill's Division Picketts' Division
Lane Hood's Division
Pender Law
Colston's Division Anderson
Paxton Benning
Nicholls Now Heth's Division
  J.R. Davis
  Now Johnson's Division
  Pender's Division
  Perrin  SC
  Thomas GA
  Lane  NC
  Scales NC
Six Divisions Nine Divisions
26 Brigades 38 Brigades
Note: 3 fla reg; 10 NC reg; 5 SC reg; 4 Ga reg.

General Lee's Need For Supplies

At the same time that General Lee was competing with the West for men to strengthen his army, he was struggling to obtain the supplies necessary to feed them, not merely for the immediate day but for the long months to come. In the winter of 1863, the chief means the Confederate Government used to bring meat to Lee's army were the railroads and, for a variety of reasons, the railroads were failing to deliver it. The railroads were running passenger trains and private freight as priorities, instead of government supplies, and the difference in gauge between tracks, caused delays at interchange points. As Lee put it, in a message to Seddon, "This army is living from hand to mouth as to meat and bread, due to a want of means to get both to market. The consequence was that the daily meat ration issued to each soldier was four ounces of rancid bacon, replaced as the winter deepened with six ounces of rice.

Note: It was one thing for a soldier in winter quarters to sustain stamina with such a diet, but once the spring campaign season arrived, General Lee knew that the soldier would require a substantial daily diet of meat and bread if he was to endure the long march to the battlefield.

The Confederate Railroad Net

To build up supplies for the coming spring campaign, General Lee decided not to rely upon the Confederate Government but upon himself. In late February, 1863, he began writing to the brigadier-general, commanding Confederate forces in southwestern Virginia, encouraging him to organize cavalry and infantry expeditions, to go through the counties collecting animals. In Hardy County, for example, by March 20, 500 beef cattle, 200 sheep, and 4,200 lbs of bacon had been collected for Lee in this way. In Rockingham County 300 cattle and 3,000 lbs of bacon were collected, and cavalry forays into Culpeper and Loudoun Counties produced another 200 head of cattle. By June 1, the cavalry forays in west Virginia had produced 3,000 head of cattle, 1,000 of sheep and this process continued all through the Gettysburg Campaign, ensuring that Lee's army would be provisioned through the winter and into the spring of 1864.


General Lee's Movement Toward Gettysburg Arrested

On April 16, General Lee wrote President Davis:

"The enemy cavalry have moved up the river and attempted to cross at Kelly's Ford. They are now massed opposite the fords. My only anxiety arises from the present immobility of the army, owing to the condition or our horses and the scarcity of forage and provisions. I think it all important that we should assume the offensive by May 1, when we may expect Hooker's army to be weakened by the expiration of the term of service of many of his regiments and before new recruits can be received. (Hooker, in fact, lost 20,000 men due to expiration of term of service at this time.)


If we could be placed in a condition to make a vigorous advance at that time (May 1), I think the valley can be swept of the enemy, and the army opposite me be thrown north of the Potomac."


Then, on April 29, this came to Davis from Lee:

"The enemy crossed the Rappahannock today in large number and have taken cover under the bank (at Fredericksburg). But where their main effort will be, I cannot say. Couriers from Germana and Ely's fords report that the enemy's cavalry crossed the Rapidan about 2:00 p.m. today. Their intention, I presume, is to turn our left and get into our rear."


Upon receiving this message from Lee, President Davis wrote Secretary of War Seddon this the same day:

"The demand which was looked for has come, and requires prompt action. This, of course, involves rapid and immediate movement of troops and supplies, to enable General Lee to meet the enemy and sustain himself in whatever position it may be necessary to assume."


Query: When did Lincoln, in 1862-63, ever support George McClellan like this?



General Lee Reacts To The Union Corps Crossing The Rapidan

With six divisions of infantry in hand to hold off the enemy's nineteen, General Lee sent Wright's, Posey's, and Mahone's brigades to Chancellorsville the night of April 29th, having learned from Stuart that the Union 11th, 12th, and 5th corps had crossed the Rapidan that day. The three Confederate brigades were under the command of R.H. Anderson and arrived at Chancellorsvile in midmorning on April 30. Anderson, realizing the strength of the enemy in his front, withdrew his force from Chancellorsville and moved it back to the east about four miles, to a ridge that runs across the Turnpike and the Plank Road at Zoan and Tabernacle churches. By the afternoon, as the three Union corps converged on Chancellorsville, Anderson had his position entrenched.

Note: The divisions of Lee's army were larger than the divisions of Hooker's army, that is, there were more brigades and thus regiments organized in one of Lee's divisions than there were in Hooker's. This meant that if a fight occurred one on one by divisions, Lee's would produce the stronger punch. This fact challenged Hooker to counterpunch in a way that overcame this tactical advantage of Lee's.


Henry Slocum, commanding the three Union corps overall, arrived at Chancellorsville with the 12th corps, trailed by the 11th corps, at about 2:00 p.m. The movement uncovered U.S. Ford and the 2nd corps promptly used it to cross the Rappahannock and move south toward Chancellorsville. It would seem that Slocum, upon his arrival, did not feel justified by his orders to move the corps forward to uncover Banks Ford, though he says nothing in his report about his reasons for not advancing at that time.

It was but about six miles from Germana Ford where the corps' march began in the morning to Chancellorsville, and it was but another four miles to the point at Zoan and Tabernacle churches, on the turnpike and Plank Road, which uncovered Banks Ford. Slocum had regiments of Pleasonton's cavalry at hand which could have easily discovered the strength of the Confederates in his front.

The blame for Slocum's failure to continue his march east and push Anderson's inferior force away cannot be blamed on the text of Hooker's order. It plainly instructed Slocum that, if the enemy was not found to be "in any considerable force," he was "to endeavor to advance at all hazards, securing a position on the Plank Road and uncovering Banks Ford." It is true that it was raining on April 30, no doubt making the roads miry, but this seems no good excuse for Slocum to stop at Chancellorsville. It may be, though, that, in his personal meeting with Slocum when his movement order was discussed, Hooker may had led Slocum to think it better to fortify Chancellorsville before moving further east.

The Situation The Night Of April 30

Moreover, Hooker arrived at Chancellorsville about 6:00 p.m. on April 30, when there was still daylight left enough to push the 12th Corps forward to attempt to seize the crossroads at Zoan Church which would have resulted in uncovering Banks Ford and opening communication through that ford with Sedgwick at Falmouth. When the going gets tough, the tough get going; a principle of reaction to events that Hooker through the following days of May did not adhere to. When he arrived Hooker did order the cavalry to advance and reconnoiter, but it seems clear that he did not want to let go of Chancellorsville, because he knew Lee would have to attack him there, or retreat, and therefore saw no special urgency to establish himself at Zoan Church.

That night as Hooker issued orders which contemplated a movement forward the morning of May 1, Lee left Early's division, supported by Barksdale's brigade, at Fredericksburg, to face the Union 1st and 6th corps, and proceeded to Zoan Church with the rest of his force—McLaws's division reached Zoan Church at midnight April 30, followed by three of Jackson's divisions which arrived during the morning of May 1. Jackson, himself, arrived at Anderson's position at 8:00 a.m. on May 1 and immediately began preparations for an advance toward Chancellorsville.

Lee's Defensive Line Occupied The Position Hooker Intended to Assume

Hooker's Advance Meets Stonewall's

The first day's encounter, May 1, turns on the fact that, instead of waiting on the defensive at Anderson's position, for Hooker's advance to reach it, General Lee advanced to meet it on both the pike and the Plank Road. In the context of this, Hooker's plan of advance for May 1 appears clearly, in hindsight at least, to have been extremely faulty.

First, Hooker ordered Sykes's division of the 5th corps, supported by Hancock's division of the 2nd corps, to march east on the pike, while the two divisions of Slocum's 12th corps marched east on the Plank Road, leaving Meade, commanding the 5th corps, to march with two divisions north and then east on the River Road. Apparently, all three of these columns began marching at about 11:00 a.m. Assuming Hooker consulted a reasonably accurate map of the roads leading to Lee's position at Zoan Church, he certainly should have been aware that the mileage to that point was greater for Slocum and Meade than it was for Sykes. As a result of this, it should have come as no surprise to Hooker that Sykes—it turns out, unsupported by Hancock—arrived in front of McLaws's division moving west to meet him, before either Meade or Slocum could arrive to support his flanks. The consequence of this, was that as Sykes engaged with McLaws he found his flanks being threatened by Confederate forces and decided to fall back toward Chancellorsville.

Note: In designing his movement order, it appears that Hooker ordered Devins's division, of the 11th corps, to march south across the Plank Road to Todd's Tavern. Devens's march interrupted Slocum's march east, causing Sykes to end up unsupported on his right. Meade's two divisions, Humphrey's and Griffin's, should have marched southeast on the Mine Road that intersects the pike at Zoan Church, to support Sykes's left. This was Hooker's first experience in acting as an army commander. It was Lee's fourth.


The essence of the situation Hooker created for himself, turns on the obvious fact that he did not expect the enemy to advance against his approaching columns. Once Sykes got in trouble, Hooker might have pushed the rest of the 11th corps forward to his support, not simply attempting to support Sykes with three brigades of Hancock's division. French's division, given its position, might have supported Slocum while Howard supported Sykes, and Meade could have been ordered to march down the Mine road.

Instead, at 2:00 p.m., Hooker ordered the columns back to Chancellorsville, sending a message at that time to his chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, at Falmouth—"From character of information have suspended attack. The enemy may attack me, I will try it. Tell Sedgwick (who was at Falmouth with the 6th and 1st corps) to attack if he can succeed." And at 5:00 p.m., Hooker wrote Butterfield: "If Stoneman cuts Lee's communications he must attack me." At 8:00 p.m., Hooker wrote Butterfield, "I think the enemy in his desperation will be compelled to attack me."

Note: Why, in the first instance, Hooker did not expect Lee to take the initiative is difficult to fathom. Hooker had experienced Lee's movement against McClellan's right at Richmond, his movement against Pope's rear at Manassas, and his maneuvering McClellan into battle at Sharpsburg. For Lee's part it is obvious he operated on the assumption that the enemy would presume he was strong if he acted as if he were strong. However, once Hooker saw that Lee had indeed taken the initiative he thought he had Lee at a disadvantage and in that he was certainly right.

Joe Hooker is  severely criticized by most civil writers, for going over to the defensive at this point. However, the objective fact is that Hooker's defensive position at Chancellorsville was so formidable that General Lee decided not to attack it directly. Any other civil war general, with such an inferiority of numbers as Lee had, would have thought there was nothing that could be done but to retreat, because if he, himself, stood on the defensive in front of Hooker's position, it would be only a matter of time before he would be attacked from two directions: Hooker, now reinforced with the 3rd corps, would return to the offensive in his front as Sedgwick with the 1st and 6th corps attacked his rear. So, indeed, Hooker was correct: In General Lee's desperation not to retreat, he was compelled to attack. What Hooker failed to think through was, where?

Routes to Hooker's Rear, May 2


Hooker Reacts To Lee

General Lee, of course, knew that Hooker was right; his position at Chancellorsville as it faced to the east was too strong to attack directly. This caused Lee to immediately think of attacking it indirectly, by means of sending Jackson's corps on a long march around it to the rear. In making this decision, in the predawn hours of May 2, Lee chose for Jackson a route which would bring his column into view of the Union lines. He wanted Hooker to think he was retreating in the direction of Todd's Tavern or Gordonsville, and to strengthen the impression that a retreat was in progress he had Jackson take with him his wagon trains.

Note: The evidence, here, is plain that Lee made Jackson's flank movement look like a retreat. There were a number of roads leading to the right, bearing across the Union front, on which Jackson might have moved, materially shortening his route, where he would have been equally screened from view as upon the one he took. But, instead of taking them he moved several miles in precisely the opposite direction to that in which he needed to go. As the march was in progress, Lee sent "deserters" into Hooker's lines to report the retreat.


There was really little risk connected with the march. If Hooker seized the opportunity to attack the force Lee had left in front of Chancellorsville, by the weight of the attack forcing Lee to retreat, Jackson might have easily continued his march toward Todd's Tavern and united with Lee on a line between Fredericksburg and Richmond.


Jackson Arrives Behind Hooker's Front About 3:00 p.m., May 2

Hooker's Opportunities during Jackson's March

At 1:00 a.m., on May 2, Hooker sent a message by a courier to U.S. Ford, where a telegraph station was set up, linking him to Butterfield at Falmouth. The message read: "Tell Sedgwick to take up the pontoon bridges and tell Reynolds (1st corps) to march at once for U.S. Ford." Butterfield received this message at 5:00 a.m. As a result of the delivery of the message taking five hours to reach Butterfield, Reynolds did not arrive at U.S. Ford with his corps, until about the time Jackson attacked Hooker's rear. Apparently, Hooker had planned on Reynolds arriving earlier and meant to put his corps at right angle to Howard's, facing west.

During the morning and early afternoon of May 2, Hooker, as well as Howard holding the extreme right flank of the army, received reports of Jackson's march. Sickles, whose 3rd corps had arrived and was now in line between Howard and Slocum facing south, began pushing Hooker to release him to attack Jackson's column that was plainly seen moving past a spot at a right angle in the road called Catherine's Furnace. At 9:30 a.m., Hooker sent a message to Howard warning him to dispose his forces so as to meet an attack against his flank or rear. Then, as the morning turned into afternoon and Jackson's wagon trains began to file past Catherine's Furnace, Hooker told Sickles to advance his corps to attack that point and he ordered Slocum on Sickles's left to support him with Williams's division. He also ordered Howard to send a brigade of his corps forward to support Sickles's right.

Hooker's Concentrates On Attacking the rear of Jackson's column

Hooker Loses Track Of The Fact That The 11th Corps Is Not Supported 

By 4:00 p.m., with Sickles and Slocum, supported by Couch, commanding the 2nd corps, pressing up to Catherine Furnace, and with Diven's cavalry brigade positioned by Hooker behind them in anticipation of breaking in and cutting up Jackson's trains, Hooker sends another message to Butterfield which discloses his mindset that, indeed, the enemy is retreating: "Tell Sedgwick to cross the river as soon as indications will permit. Capture the town and pursue the enemy. We know the enemy is fleeing, trying to save his trains. Two of Sickles's divisions are among them."

General Lee could not have been happier to know this, as it meant that Hooker had left Howard alone, with 14,000 men, to ward off the impending attack of Jackson, with 28,000 men. Incredibly, being outnumbered overall by two to one, Lee had managed to create a situation at the decisive point where he outnumbered the enemy two to one. This is the mark of a general's genius and makes it easy to understand what happens next.

Note: Averell's cavalry brigade that Hooker had ordered to go to Gordonsville a week earlier, having gotten no farther than the Rapidan, was now encamped at Ely's Ford. Averell could have been sent to Howard's front well before Jackson reached his deployment point, but instead Hooker relieved him from duty and left the brigade where it was.


In pushing an attack of three of his divisions southeast from the line of the pike to break into Jackson's trains, Hooker, it seems to me, should have been pushing Meade forward against Lee's right center or flank, with the objective of enveloping Lee's force at that point, which he knew—given the fact he had been watching Jackson's column marching away all day—had to be substantially inferior to his. It is probable that the dangerHooker would do this explains why Jackson, once he had deployed his force in front of Howard's 11th corps, waited over two hours before advancing to the attack. Jackson was waiting to learn from Lee whether he was to retreat or attack, and this depended upon the security of Lee's force in front of Chancellorsville.

In His Excitement, Hooker Leaves Howard Out In The Cold

Jackson Deploys, Taking Two Hours

Here Comes Jackson

The civil war writers spend a lot of time dwelling on Oliver Howard's supposed failure to prepare his position for an attack by Jackson from the west, but the criticism heaped on Howard is beside the point. Though after the war Howard claimed he had not received Hooker's midday order to pay attention to a possible threat coming from the west, the fact of the matter is that the cause of the 11th corps' collapse was Hooker's pulling the 3rd corps out of line and pushing it, over a period of about five hours, through the dense forest to get on the Furnace Road and seize Jackson's trains, supporting Sickles in the process with divisions from the 12th and 2nd corps.

As Howard tells the story, first in a Century Magazine article written in the 1880s, and then in his autobiography published in 1907, when Jackson's column was seen moving in the afternoon, "every one said it was passing toward Orange Courthouse. I sent out scouts, who returned with reports that the enemy was not more than three or four miles off, and in motion. A few companies of cavalry came from Pleasonton and I sent them out. Hooker's order did not reach me."

In his autobiography, Howard tells the story this way:

Note: Carl Schurz, one of Howard's division commanders, takes issue with Howard's denial of the receipt of Hooker's "Watch out!" message. In his autobiography, published in 1908, Schurz writes: "Some time before noon Howard told me he wanted to sleep and asked me to open any dispatches that might arrive at headquarters. Shortly after, a courier arrived with a dispatch from Hooker calling Howard's attention to the movement of the enemy toward our right flank. At once I woke Howard, read the dispatch to him and put it in his hands. I said that Gilsa's two regiments, facing west across the pike could not stop an attack. Howard said, "Well, he will have to fight." With Howard's permission I moved two regiments to Gilsa's right. That was all that was done, except the tracing of a shallow rifle pit running north and south near Dowdall's Tavern."




The Battle of Chancellorsville

As can be easily expected under the circumstances, while Lee, with 14,000, held the line of the Furnace Road against Hooker's attack, Jackson's 28,000 men quickly overran the position held by Howard's 12,000. The battle raged on Hooker's right into the night, with Jackson's men, rushing on with curdling yells, outflanking Howard's by a long sweep on either side and pushing Hooker's right flank back over a mile to the vicinity of Chancellorsville. On Hooker's eastern front, Lee made an attack along his whole line the moment he heard Jackson's guns, and as Jackson rolled up Howard, and came dashing on with shouts, it seemed Hooker might be in danger of being crushed.

At the moment of Jackson's attack, Hooker was absorbed with the operations of Sickles upon Catherine Furnace, and had just sent forward Williams's division in support of Sickles movement. Then, realizing what was happening on Howard's front, he called back Williams and used it to organize a new line facing west perpendicular to the pike and, though fugitives from the 11th corps in wild disorder were breaking through it, advanced it to the crest of the hill beyond Fairview. Here, breastworks of logs were thrown up and the reserve artillery—thirty-eight guns—was put upon the brow bearing upon the approaches from the west and ready to open upon the enemy.

Hooker's Reorganizes His Position After Jackson's Attack

It was at this time, as the contending armies were firing blindly at each other in the darkness that Jackson made a decision that cost Lee the chance to sweep Lincoln's army away from Gettysburg. Intense to feel the location of Hooker's new line, so to find a weak spot and direct his strength to it, Jackson rode down the pike within rifle fire of the Union skirmishers and as he withdrew to reenter his own lines, he was shot from his horse in a volley fired by his own troops mistaking his cavalcade for Union cavalry.

Jackson received three balls, one in the right hand, and two in the left arm, one of which shattered the bone two inches below the shoulder, and severed the artery. Half his escort were killed or wounded. His horse, frightened by the fire, turned and rushed uncontrollably toward the Union lines, carrying Jackson through the brushwood and trees, the limbs striking Jackson as he finally was able to wrench the animal around with his bleeding hand. Jackson was now borne from the saddle by an aide and laid on the ground while a surgeon was called for to staunch the flow of blood.

At this point, A.P. Hill appeared, and, leaping from his horse, he knelt by Jackson's side and pressed his hands against the artery and bandaged the arm. Jackson was then laid in a blanket and men began to carry him down the road but a storm of canister fire broke out from the Union lines and two of the carriers were shot dead and Jackson fell to the ground. The whole party lay together on the ground, while the canister tore over them, in a sweeping arc like a search light against the night sky. As it passed, the men lifted Jackson again and carried him off the road and into the woods and came into the lines of Pender's brigade of Hill's division. They passed on and came up to an ambulance where Dr. McGuire met them. Dr. McGuire replaced the bandage Hill had made, which completely stopped the flow of blood, and Jackson was removed from the field to Wilderness Tavern. Jackson had received a mortal wound that would kill him in a few days; he had given his last order, he had fought his last battle.

Note: When Jackson died, on May 10,General Lee sent President Davis this message: "The great and good Jackson is no more. Unless God in his mercy will raise us up one, I do not know what we shall do."

Soon after Jackson was placed in the ambulance, A.P. Hill, who was next in command, received a wound from the artillery fire that incapacitated him for command. The command then passed to Rodes, the next in rank, but he relinquished it to JEB Stuart, who General Lee had sent a courier to find. Stuart was found at Ely's Ford and reached the front of Jackson's lines about 10:00 p.m., too late to attempt any further advance in the dark. During the night a courier came from General Lee, directing Stuart to extend his right to endeavor to join hands with Lee's left.

Note: Lee sent a courier to Stuart with a message timed 3:00 a.m., the morning of May 3: "We must prosecute with utmost vigor, and the enemy given no time to rally. As soon as possible they must be pressed, so we can unite the two wings of the army. I shall join you as soon as I can make arrangements on this side, but let nothing delay the completion of the plan of driving the enemy from his rear and from his positions." A half hour later, Lee sent Stuart another message: "I repeat what I said. It is all important that you still continue to press to the right, turning, if possible, all fortified positions, in order that we can unite the two wings of the army."

About the time Jackson was shot down, Hooker sent a message to Butterfield at Falmouth, to tell Sedgwick to cross the Rappahannock immediately and march to Chancellorsville and attack any enemy force he might fall upon. The order reached Sedgwick at 11:00 p.m. and it found him on the right bank of the river. Taking up the march, Sedgwick very soon encountered Early's division and, turning to the right, he moved his forces into Fredericksburg by daylight and by noon had driven away Barksdale's brigade that had been manning the heights. This done, he marched on toward Chancellorsville.

 Back at Chancellorsville, Hooker decided to reposition the point at which his flanks joined, concerned that Sickles, who held the angle and faced west toward Jackson, might be overwhelmed by an attack on his rear from Lee. He ordered Sickles to withdraw at daylight and move into entrenchments in front of Fairview. This movement left open to Lee the elevated ground at Hazel Grove a short mile southwest of Fairview where Hooker had his guns massed. Stuart was ordered to send forward thirty pieces of artillery to occupy the point and this was done just as the morning mist gave way to sunlight.

Morning May 3

As the mist cleared, Stuart's whole line advanced to the attack. Hooker's skirmish line behind the outer barricades of the Union front, by their temporary resistance to the assault, served to develop for Hooker's gunners at Fairview the position of the oncoming masses and they opened fire with solid shot that careened into the dense trees, shattering trunks and limbs, throwing fragments like shrapnel into the advancing Confederates. The shots that passed between the trees hit the ground and bounced along until they hit something. Hooker's guns were answered with Stuart's, and a furious cannonading of seventy guns hung over the infantry as they came to grapple with their Union counterparts.

Lee threw his force into this, directing his wings to close together and press against the point where Hooker's flanks came together in front of Fairview. Again, he had orchestrated a tactical situation in which his force, overall inferior to Hookers, was concentrated against the short end of Hooker's line, trying to press it back toward Fairview, while Hooker struggled to bring forward reinforcements from the extremes of his flanks. At the very height of the battle, when Lee's army was pressing with superior force at the decisive point, and the Union men were holding the position only by the most desperate work, Hooker was struck by a fragment from one of Stuart's shells, and for a time he was stunned. It was a crucial moment in the battle and some confusion ensued as Hooker sent for Couch, senior in rank, to take command.

It was now five hours into the battle; a battle being fought on a constricted field scarcely a mile in length and a few hundred yards in width. Around and over all was the gloomy, tangled wilderness. Here brave men on both sides refused to yield in the fiery ordeal, charging and countercharging with the energy of despair as, first one, then the other, swarmed over breastworks with the bayonet, only to be driven back decimated and fainting with exhaustion.


The field in places literally ran blood, and the streamlets of the forest were filmed over with a purple scum. A dense cloud of sulphurous smoke rolled and swayed upon the field like a snake alive, fed by the burning muzzles of the guns. Bursting shells and deadly missiles hurtled through the air with thunderous, screeching sounds, roaring overhead as rifle fire crashed underneath, all of this mixing with the screams of attackers and the steady cheers of the counterchargers. It sounded like a ferocious storm whipping ships at sea.

Adding to the horror were the cries that went down the lines as the men swayed back and forth with the smoke in the pressures of the battle. "The forest is on fire! The forest is on fire!" came the shouts. Lifted by the intense heat feeding off the leaf mat and brushwood of many years of annual cycle, the flames reached high into the tree canopy and carried upon their wings the charred fragments of leaves, needles of the pines, and bits of bark which the bursting shells had ignited. The fire extended its reach into the sky above the forest and its folds challenged the men below to match its ferocity with fiery actions of their own. The path of the conflagration was along the most desperately contested ground, and the course of the fight there went on recklessly without check. Scarcely had the fire spent itself in one patch and passed on to feed on new material, before the charging remnants of shattered regiments rushed over the charred remains of their pals, scorching their feet in the amber forest floor, and collided again with their foes. Of more than twenty thousand who went down in the dread fight, by far the larger part fell on this little belt of forest swept over by the blazing tide.

At some point during the five hours of battle of May 3, and with Sedgwick's corps hardly advanced from Fredericksburg, Hooker decided to abandon his position at Chancellorsville and gather his corps upon a more contracted line. As the battle waned, he swung his right back to Hunting Run and his left to the Rappahannock near U.S. Ford, leaving his center bulging as a salient in the direction of Chancellorsville.

Hooker Contracts His Front Afternoon of May 3

For General Lee's part, when he found that the heavy fighting on his front was over, and hearing that Sedgwick's corps was marching on the pike toward Chancellorsville, he ordered McLaws to go with his division to the support of Wilcox's brigade that had thrown up a line of earthworks across the pike at Salem Church.

McLaws arrived at Salem Church just before Sedgwick's column came up. McLaws put two of his brigades on the left of the pike and his other two on the right, leaving Wilcox on the road itself. This position was in a dense curtain of woods with open fields behind it, allowing for the movement of troops and artillery from left to right.

As Sedgwick's corps marched west, Early's division had been shadowing its left flank and was poised to link up with McLaws when needed.  Sedgwick supposed as his column approached Salem Church that no force was in its front, except Wilcox's brigade. (McLaws's force was out sight in the woods. Without pausing to shell the woods, or develop the strength of the force in his front by using skirmishers, Sedgwick deployed the brigades of Brooks's division on either side of the road and pushed it forward, until it came suddenly upon McLaws's massed force behind breastworks in the forest. The consequence was that Brooks was overwhelmed and driven back at the first onset. Sedgwick pushed up the troops of the corps to support him but these, after a series of charges and countercharges, went to ground in front of the woods as night came on.

The Situation By Evening May 3—Morning May 4

Sedgwick's method of attack, plunging headlong into an ambush, cost his corps dearly. The 95th Pennsylvania, for example, had present for duty about 300 men when the movement opened. At the end it had had but 150; five officers and eighteen enlisted had been killed, a hundred men had been wounded, and thirty-seven were missing. The losses in the 119th Pennsylvania were as severe, losing to duty over a fourth of its strength of 400 men.

When morning came on May 4, McLaws confined his force to skirmishing, hugging his breastworks and endeavoring to induce Sedgwick to attack. About 11:00 a.m. General Lee arrived with Anderson's division and immediately began making dispositions to attack Sedgwick. Leaving McLaws's force where it was, he pushed Anderson forward in the sector between the pike and Plank Road, and brought Early's division up to bear on Sedgwick's left flank and threaten his rear. But Lee delayed until almost sundown before releasing Anderson and Early to the attack. The reason? He had his attention attuned to the issue of what Hooker might do; Hooker might have moved to break toward the east and Lee's rear, and if he did this Lee would have little choice but to order his army to retreat toward the south.

This was the defining moment of greatness for "Fighting Joe" Hooker. At the first sign of light spreading in the sky, he could have been pressing his men up against Lee's line, feeling their depth and searching for their flanks, knowing with certainty that there must exist a weak spot. This was his great opportunity to use his superior numbers to force his way onto the Mine Road and drive east to get into contact with Sedgwick at Salem Church. At the same time he might have had a column pushing east on the River Road to uncover Bank's Ford and come down toward Lee's left, while the rest of his force moved to block Stuart's force from moving east on the pike to connect with Lee. But Hooker let the moment pass.

Sedgwick had enough force and was in a good enough position to hold his own during the day if Lee had attacked. Gouverneur Warren, Hooker's chief engineer, was with Sedgwick's corps at the time it arrived at Salem Church. After the fighting closed the evening of May 3, he had gone across the Rappahannock at Bank's Ford, where a pontoon bridge was laid, and returned by U.S. Ford to Hooker's headquarters. After spending time in conference with Hooker, Warren sent Sedgwick a message which reveals Hooker's mindset at this time.

"I find everything snug here. We contracted the line a little and repulsed the last assault with ease. General Hooker wishes them to attack tomorrow, if they will. He does not desire you to attack again in force, unless [the enemy] attacks at the same time. He says you are too far away for him to direct. Keep up communication with Bank's Ford and Fredericksburg. You can go to either place if you think best. To cross at Bank's Ford brings you in supporting distance of the main body, and would be better than falling back to Fredericksburg."


Note: What a pathetic record of Hooker's mind is this. This was the moment when Hooker could have turned the tables on Lee and forced him into a retreat, yet all he could think about was standing on the defensive, instead of moving east with all his strength to connect to Sedgwick.

Warren's message reached Sedgwick sometime around the time General Lee arrived at Salem Church with Anderson's division. Sedgwick replied to Hooker with this—Can you help me strongly if I am attacked? Another message at or near this time was sent: "I shall do my utmost to hold this position until tomorrow." Exactly when these messages were received it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty, but Hooker did send a message to Sedgwick at 11:00 a.m. that stated his desire that Sedgwick stick where he was and protect, if he could, Bank's Ford. But then, as the day progressed, Hooker appears to have lost all interest in maintaining his army's position, sending Sedgwick the message that gave Sedgwick leave to fall back to Fredericksburg. Receiving this, Sedgwick began drawing in his lines around Bank's Ford which Lee did not object to.

The Situation The Evening of May 4—Morning of May 5

At midnight Sedgwick messaged Hooker: "I am hemmed in here. I want to cross. Do your operations require me to retain my position here?" Hooker received this at 1:00 a.m. on May 5 and replied immediately: "Withdraw." Upon receiving this, Sedgwick put his troops in motion and had them moving across the pontoon bridge and had them all on the left bank of the river when another message came from Hooker—"Order to withdraw countermanded." The latter order plainly reflects Hooker's mind finally had focused on assuming the initiative at first light but it came too late.

Learning that between messages Sedgwick had crossed the river, Hooker simply gave up. He could have brought Sedgwick's corps to him by way of U.S. Ford and gone on the offensive against the small force in his front, but he found in his mind reasons that prevented it. His army was in the midst of the wilderness, he told himself, with few roads over which his artillery could move. The enemy appeared to have these avenues blocked with formidable barricades making direct approach too risky. To advance through the tangle of undergrowth would have to be made by slender columns which would at some point come up against breastworks. The army had moved across the river with eight days of rations on hand and now the haversacks were empty. And a treacherous river was behind him, liable to be flooded by rain at any time and his bridges carried away. Magnifying these obstacles to success in his mind, must have been Lincoln's overriding policy of taking no risk that endangered the existence of the army.

In Lincoln's mind, the ruling principle of military operations in the East was that the Army's mission first and foremost was to ensure the security of Washington. Lincoln had expressed the principle, directly and indirectly, since April 1862, when McClellan steamed the army down the Potomac to Chesapeake Bay. After he gave Hooker command of the army he expressed it in a memorandum he made while visiting Hooker at Falmouth, in early April 1863.

"My opinion is, with the enemy directly ahead of us, there is no route for us to Richmond; and consequently the question of route is a contest about nothing. Our prime object is the enemy's army in front of us, and is not with, or about Richmond.


When the enemy army remains intact, I do not think we should take the [chance] of attacking him in his entrenchments. . . ." (Edited for brevity.)


Apparently, before he changed his mind about Sedgwick's withdrawal, Hooker penned a message to Lincoln, informing him what was happening with the army.

"The corps are now on the south bank of the Rappahannock entrenched between Hunting Run and Scott's Ford. Trains and artillery reserve are on the north bank. Position is strong, but circumstances make it expedient that the army should retire. The danger is that the enemy will cross the Rappahannock on our flank and imperil us, plus the two year and nine month men continuing to leave weaken us. The nature of the country in which we are prevents us moving in such a way as to find and judge position and movements of the enemy."


Note: Hooker must have conjured in his mind the idea that, with Sedgwick removed to the left bank of the river, Lee would follow him across somehow and get between Hooker's main body and Washington. Yet, setting Lincoln's obession aside, had Lee done that, Hooker must have known he might easily be crushed between Heintzelman's force in front of Washington and his force coming against Lee's rear.


It appears Hooker crossed the river in the morning hours of May 6. By 4:30 p.m., with the entire army now across, he wired Lincoln—"I saw no way of giving the enemy a general battle with the prospect of success which I desire." Lincoln and Halleck immediately jumped on a steamboat and went to Acquia to meet Hooker. They returned to Washington on the 7th and reported to Burnside, then at Cincinnati, that Hooker had failed, and then Lincoln wired Hooker this.

"What next? Have you already in your mind a plan formed? If you have, prosecute it without interference from me. If you have not, I, incompetent as I may be, can try and assist in the formation of some plan for the army."


Hooker replied to this silliness with silliness in turn.

"The effort failed not for want of strength, but from a cause which could not be foreseen and could not be provided against. After its occurrence, the chances of success were so lessened that I felt another plan might be adopted more certain of result."


The only "cause" the objective record shows, is that Hooker ran up against General Lee and was paralyzed.

Fighting Joe Hooker


General Lee Moves On To Gettysburg

No sooner had Hooker recrossed the river than General Lee was writing to President Davis, pressing for support to make his planned movement to Gettysburg. On May 7th, he wrote:

"I need more cavalry. The disparity between our infantry force and that of the enemy is too large to reasonably expect success. Our effective strength with which we marched to meet the enemy, according to the returns, did not reach 40,000. This disparity of numbers is corroborated by the extent of our loss, which is always in proportion to the inequality of force engaged. I fear that our loss in killed and wounded will be 10,000."

Even before Hooker was across, Lee had written Davis that he needed two major-generals quick; Rodes, to command D.H. Hill's old division, and Elzey to command Trimble's.  Davis gave Rodes the rank but sent Edward Johnston from the valley to take command of Trimble's.

On May 10, Secretary of War Seddon again raised the idea of transferring troops from Lee to Joe Johnston's department.. Seddon wanted Picketts's division to go west, but Lee, arguing that a choice must be made between the line of Virginia and the line of Mississippi, objected and Davis concurred. The next day Lee wrote Davis that, to get the army into shape to advance beyond the Rappahannock, he needed all the troops Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia could muster.  A few days later General Lee went by train to Richmond and met privately with Davis, hammering out the requisitions he needed to move. When he returned to Fredericksburg, he had Longstreet with him and he now spilt his forces into three corps commanded by Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and Richard Ewell.

On May 30, Lee wrote President Davis:

"I have been endeavoring for nearly a month to get this army into a condition to move—to anticipate an expected blow from the enemy. I fear I shall have to receive it here or retreat. The enemy will make a combined movement to drive me back, or else transfer his army to James River (The latter threat not a reality, given Lincoln's intractable mind-set.). If I were stronger I think I could prevent either, and force (maneuver) him back."


A week later, the Army of Northern Virginia was in motion, with Ewell's corps crossing the Rapidan and heading for Culpeper Courthouse, followed Longstreet and Hill. And to Seddon General Lee wrote this.

"There is nothing to be gained by this army remaining quietly on the defensive, which it must do unless it can be reinforced. I am aware that there is difficulty and hazard in taking the initiative with so large an army in its front, entrenched behind a river, where it cannot be advantageously attacked. Unless it can be drawn out in a position to be attacked, it will take its own time to prepare and strengthen itself to renew the advance on Richmond, and force this army back within the entrenchments of that city (Something no Union general achieved against Lee). This may be the result in any event; still, I think it worth a trial to prevent such a catastrophe."  (Italics added.)


Then, as Ewell's corps was leaving Culpeper to Hill's, and marching to the Blue Ridge to cross into the Shenandoah Valley, General Lee sent President Davis a policy memorandum that summed up entirely the Confederacy's case.

"While making the most we can of the means of resistance we possess. . . it is nevertheless the part of wisdom not to expect from it more than in the ordinary course of affairs it is capable of accomplishing. We should not, therefore, conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing and the disproportion between us and the enemy is steadily augmenting. The fall off of this army's aggregate shows that its ranks are growing weaker and that its losses are not supplied by recruits. (Oh, for the young men of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee!)"


The same day Secretary of War Seddon answered Lee.

"I concur entirely with your views of the importance of offensive movements by your army. Such action is indispensable to our independence, and all attendant sacrifices and risks must be incurred. I have not hesitated, in cooperating with your plans, to leave this city almost defenseless. The President concurs in the policy of encountering risk to achieve the grand results that may be attained by your successful operations."


On June 14, Ewell's corps, trailed by Hill's, stormed through Winchester as the divisions of Longstreet's corps crossed the Rapidan heading for Culpeper. On the 19th, Lee released Ewell to cross the Potomac and head for the Mason-Dixon Line. Nothing now could stop the movement of the Army of Northern Virginia to Gettysburg.

Joe Ryan