What Next, General? Hooker at Chancellorsville, 1863 | HistoryNet MENU

What Next, General? Hooker at Chancellorsville, 1863

By Richard N. Armstrong
7/20/2017 • HistoryNet

As Major General Joseph Hooker, can YOU defeat General Robert E. Lee and win a stunning Union victory?

It is May 1, 1863, as you assume the role of Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. Known as “Fighting Joe,” you were appointed army commander on January 26 by President Abraham Lincoln in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. (December 11-15, 1862), during which Confederate General Robert E. Lee won yet another victory over the army now under your leadership. Lincoln fervently hopes that you – the fourth general to command the Army of the Potomac – can find a way to beat Lee at last.

After reorganizing and training your army for more than three months, you are confident it is now ready to take on Lee’s outnumbered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia still occupying positions at Fredericksburg. Seeking to avoid the mistake made by previous Union commanders – launching costly frontal attacks against strong Rebel defenses – you have developed a bold strategy to move the main portion of the Army of the Potomac around Lee’s left flank while a part of it holds the Confederates in place at Fredericksburg.

By midday today, your flanking maneuver appears successful. However, you realize you must not become complacent. The wily Lee has often fought outnumbered, yet he has seldom been outgeneraled. You must be prepared to react immediately to defeat his inevitable countermoves.

THE ROAD TO CHANCELLORSVILLE

When your Army of the Potomac reached the Rappahannock River April 27, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia occupied a 25-mile stretch of the river, with his largest troop concentration entrenched at or near Fredericksburg.  Lee has 53,000 Soldiers in six infantry divisions, plus Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry division. With Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s I Corps, less two divisions, remaining detached in southeast Virginia, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is Lee’s principal subordinate commander, leading II Corps and the two divisions Longstreet left behind at Fredericksburg.

Your 130,000 men outnumber Lee’s Soldiers by over 2-to-1, and your strategy seeks to make the most of this advantage. To mask the turning movement of your main force, you ordered 40,000 Soldiers under Major General John Sedgwick (including his VI Corps, Major General John Reynolds’ I Corps and Major General Daniel Sickles’ III Corps) into position along the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg to hold the Confederates’ attention.

Meanwhile, on April 27 you ordered the wide turning maneuver on Lee’s flank by Major General George Meade’s V Corps, Major General Oliver Howard’s XI Corps and Major General Henry Slocum’s XII Corps. During the night of April 28 and the next morning, the three corps crossed the Rappahannock River, divided into two columns to quickly cross the Rapidan River, and then moved on parallel roads toward Chancellorsville. The force reached Chancellorsville on the afternoon of April 30. That night, Major General Darius Couch’s II Corps finally arrived to join the other three corps and your Army of the Potomac headquarters in bivouac there.

By the night of April 30-May 1, you had successfully positioned 54,000 troops behind the left flank of Lee’s entire fortified river line.

LEE REACTS

Chancellorsville is merely a house at a minor crossroads in a densely wooded area known as “the Wilderness.” The terrain is so thickly covered with trees and underbrush that fields of fire are blocked and any movement off the few available roads is greatly inhibited. Moreover, visibility in the Wilderness is severely limited. Large armies could be only hundreds of yards apart yet remain unaware of each other’s presence.

This morning at 9 a.m., Sickles’ III Corps, released from Sedgwick’s Fredericksburg force, arrived and took up position near your right flank. With its arrival, you had five infantry corps and a cavalry brigade near Chancellorsville. At 11 a.m., you ordered Meade’s V Corps and Slocum’s XII Corps to advance east from Chancellorsville while you held in place the remaining three corps and the cavalry brigade.

At midday, you began receiving reports that your leading units moving from Chancellorsville were encountering increasingly stiff Confederate resistance. When the sound of cannon fire reached your headquarters, you realized that your forward-most units were meeting much more than merely handfuls of Rebel skirmishers manning outposts. Lee is reacting to your flanking maneuver and moving aggressively in an attempt to counter it.

Now, early afternoon on May 1, you face a critical decision: Given Lee’s aggressive reaction, how should your army respond? Although you do not yet have complete knowledge of the developing tactical situation, you consider three possible courses of action.

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DEFEND IN PLACE. Defending in place puts your units in position to inflict high casualties on the Confederates as they attack your army’s superior numbers. This plan allows your army to hold the ground it has already won through its flanking maneuver and forward movements, leaving it in position to continue its advance against Lee once his Rebels are weakened by their costly frontal attacks.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: WITHDRAW AND DEFEND. Pulling back your leading units from their exposed positions to rejoin the corps at Chancellorsville allows your army to concentrate its defenses and prevents the Confederates from massing against these exposed units. This plan facilitates a defense in depth and provides adequate reserves for launching counterattacks against Lee’s men after they have been weakened by their attacks against strong Union defenses.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ATTACK. Attacking the Confederate units as they redeploy from Fredericksburg maintains the momentum your army has gained through its flanking maneuver and prevents Lee from seizing the initiative. Striking his men as they move into the open, outside their Fredericksburg fortifications, puts your army’s superior numbers in position to win a decisive victory.

Lee has reacted to your successful flanking maneuver. Now, you must decide what your countermove will be.

What next, Major General Hooker?

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DEFEND IN PLACE

Since your leading units have moved through the dense Wilderness and into more open terrain, you decide to defend in place. This will allow Confederate forces to exhaust themselves in costly frontal attacks against Union units possessing good fields of fire for their massed rifles and concentrated artillery.

You order Meade to seize Bank’s Ford, since it provides a much closer crossing point for moving units from Sedgwick’s force at Fredericksburg and anchors the army’s left flank firmly on the Rappahannock. Meanwhile, Meade and Slocum, commanding the forward units, slightly adjust the positions of their flank units to present a continuous forward defensive line across the army’s front. To protect Slocum’s right flank against a Confederate threat, you direct Sickles to send two divisions to the right rear of XII Corps.

To further boost your forward line, you move several artillery batteries to high ground in a central location with good fields of fire. As a hedge against a Confederate breakthrough, you order two of Couch’s II Corps divisions into position behind the massed artillery, prepared to reinforce Meade or Slocum if necessary.

However, you remain concerned about your rear corps in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville. Since both Lee and Jackson have well-earned reputations for acting boldly, you are worried that the Confederates could use the dense Wilderness to move against your right flank unobserved. In particular, you are anxious about XI Corps, as it is your weakest corps and Howard is an inexperienced commander. Thus you send the cavalry brigade to cover Howard’s right flank and to provide early warning in the event of an approaching enemy force.

As you refine your troop dispositions during the afternoon, Lee – as expected – launches an attack. Amid Rebel yells, Confederate infantrymen advance across the open terrain toward Slocum’s units. Although the Confederates tentatively probe Meade’s portion of the line, it is clear that Lee’s intent is to turn your forward line’s right flank by overrunning Slocum’s men. If Lee can destroy XII Corps or force it back into the Wilderness, he will have a clear route to move thousands of troops around your flank to strike your corps near Chancellorsville. Yet your massed artillery batteries with their clear fields of fire wreak havoc among the ranks of the attacking Confederates.

The slaughter is horrific. Within an hour, Lee’s attack fails and the survivors retreat. Your right flank line has held – but Lee is far from finished.

From your position near the artillery batteries, you observe fresh Confederate infantry divisions maneuvering north. Clearly, Lee now intends to attack Meade’s line on your left. You immediately order Couch to move a division to reinforce Meade’s position, and you send a galloper via Bank’s Ford with orders for Sedgwick to send Reynolds’ corps at once, as well. You hope his I Corps arrives in time.

Expecting a Confederate strike at any moment, you are puzzled when nearly two hours pass before Lee launches his attack against your left. Yet when the offensive finally begins, it delivers a powerful blow to Meade’s line. Hitting beyond the range of your massed artillery batteries, the Confederates break through but are momentarily pushed back by Couch’s division. They again attack, this time smashing through Couch’s men, only to be met and turned back by the lead units of I Corps. Lee’s uncharacteristic delay in making his move has allowed Reynolds and his men to arrive.

Feeling confident the battle is now won, you are suddenly amazed to see Confederate units, perhaps 15,000 Rebels, again massing to attack. Lee simply refuses to quit.

As the Rebels move into position, it is obvious they intend to attack the center of your forward line. After hitting your flanks, Lee apparently assumes you must have weakened your center. However, he has made a fatal mistake. Not only has your center remained strong, you now quickly reinforce it with reserve units from Couch’s third division and Sickles’ III Corps. You are certain that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take your position.

You are proved right. The Confederates’ frontal attack on your center collapses under a storm of Union fire. Lee has no choice but to pull back his shattered army and attempt to withdraw toward Richmond. But you do not intend to let the broken Army of Northern Virginia escape. Ordering forward all your corps, including Sedgwick’s Fredericksburg force, you intend to trap Lee and his men and finish this war now.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: WITHDRAW AND DEFEND

With visions of the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg weighing heavily on your mind, you firmly resolve not to throw away your army in futile attacks against Confederate positions. Thus you order your leading corps to retreat into the Wilderness to concentrate the army around Chancellorsville. You hope the withdrawal encourages Lee to attack. Let the Confederates waste their strength in costly frontal attacks this time.

Your corps commanders are reluctant to give up the ground they have gained and are concerned about defending in the tangled Wilderness, yet they obey your orders. In the fading sunlight of May 1, your army digs in and cuts timber to build fortified positions. Your line is more than five miles long and faces east and south, the directions from which you expect Lee to attack. You inform Sedgwick that you are suspending the advance and that he is to attack if he thinks he can succeed.

Although you have five corps concentrated around Chancellorsville, you order Reynolds’ I Corps to march from Fredericksburg and take up position in the army’s rear along the Rappahannock. In particular, you want his men to protect U.S. Ford to ensure your army’s line of communications – and possible route of retreat – remains open.

At sunrise on May 2, you ride to inspect your army’s positions. From north to south, your defensive line consists of Meade’s V Corps, with its flank anchored on the Rappahannock; Couch’s II Corps, deployed in an arc southeast of Chancellorsville; and Slocum’s XII Corps, with one of Sickles’ III Corps divisions on its right. Concerned about Howard’s XI Corps – your weakest corps under an inexperienced commander – you leave it well back out of harm’s way, west of Chancellorsville.

Although you recognize your right flank could be vulnerable to a Confederate turning maneuver that moves around your flank and attacks your rear, you doubt Lee would take such a risk. His greatly outnumbered troops face strong Union forces on two fronts (your five corps around Chancellorsville and Sedgwick’s Fredericksburg force). Not even Lee would be audacious enough to split an inferior force in the face of such formidable odds.

At 8 a.m., Sickles’ forward division reports observing a large body of Confederate troops moving southwest across its front. Sickles assumes the Rebels are retreating, and you agree. There seems to be no other explanation for so many Confederate troops moving in that direction. Nevertheless, you send an order to Howard at 9:30 a.m. directing him to ensure that he posts pickets to provide early warning in the unlikely event of a Confederate flank envelopment. Howard acknowledges your order at 10:30 a.m. At midday, Sickles requests permission to attack the Confederates moving across his front and you approve. He strikes with one division, and the fighting continues for several hours.

At 5:15 p.m., you suddenly hear rifle and artillery fire erupt in the direction of XI Corps. You soon discover that a powerful Confederate force concealing its movement behind the dense cover of the Wilderness has swept around your right flank and launched a surprise assault on Howard’s corps. The Rebel attack scatters XI Corps’ panicked Soldiers and then surges through your rear toward Chancellorsville.

You desperately gather troops from four different corps and try to form a new line to halt the Rebel advance. The dense terrain, however, greatly restricts your men’s fields of fire, largely negating your advantage in numbers and artillery. By sunset, the Confederate attack has broken XI Corps and rolled up your right flank to a depth of two miles. Yet your army is now in a more compact defensive position and you hold the ground separating Lee’s main body from his flank attacking force. Your casualties are heavy, however, and the surprise offensive has battered your troops’ morale.

Taking advantage of Lee splitting his army, that night you order Sedgwick to seize Fredericksburg and advance on the enemy’s rear at Chancellorsville. The next morning, May 3, Sedgwick attacks, carries the Fredericksburg heights and sends the Confederate covering force in retreat.

Meanwhile, midmorning at Chancellorsville a cannonball hits your headquarters, knocking you out. Although you drift in and out of consciousness, you retain command and order a general withdrawal a mile northward to contract your defenses. This decision, likely made due to a concussion impairing your judgment, is a grave mistake. It gives up key terrain to the Confederates and permits Lee to reunite his army. Moreover, the withdrawal frees Confederate troops to oppose Sedgwick’s advance from Fredericksburg.

Despite most of your corps commanders voting to counterattack, you decide to order your army to retreat across the river. Sedgwick, informed of your withdrawal, heads back over during the night. Your troops safely withdraw across the Rappahannock the following night, conceding the battlefield to Lee.

Once again, Lee has defied the odds by out generaling an Army of the Potomac commander. Lincoln is unlikely to leave you in command. Who the embattled president might choose to replace you remains to be seen.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ATTACK

Although you had resolved not to waste your army in futile attacks, your flanking maneuver and subsequent forward movements have created an excellent opportunity to smash Lee’s army once and for all. Your advance units of Meade’s and Slocum’s corps have cleared the dense Wilderness and have moved into more open terrain with good fields of fire. Moreover, with the main part of Lee’s army out in the open and no longer behind defensive works at Fredericksburg, his men are outnumbered and vulnerable. You decide to attack with everything you have.

In past battles your predecessors have wasted your army’s numerical advantage by launching piecemeal, uncoordinated attacks that allowed the Confederates to concentrate against and defeat each attack in turn. This time, however, you intend to deliver a powerful blow to split Lee’s army and destroy it.

After ordering Meade to seize Bank’s Ford, a move that more closely links Sedgwick’s force at Fredericksburg with the rest of the army, you direct Sedgwick to send Reynolds’ I Corps to join Meade as quickly as possible. You also order Sedgwick to attack Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg, ensuring that Lee’s men there remain fixed in place and unable to join the main Rebel force. Next, you move Couch’s II Corps to a position behind Meade’s right flank. Once joined by Reynolds and Couch, Meade will have a powerful attack force of three corps. Finally, you mass numerous corps artillery batteries at a central location near the juncture of Meade’s V Corps and Slocum’s XII Corps. Situated on terrain offering good fields of fire, the massed artillery can support Meade’s attack or, if necessary, help Slocum repel any Rebel assault on your right.

To ensure that your right flank is secure from a Confederate attack or any attempt to maneuver around it to reach your army’s rear, you order Sickles’ III Corps to a position on the right of Slocum’s XII Corps. Unsure of the fighting ability of Howard’s XI Corps – your weakest corps under your most inexperienced commander – you keep it in a reserve position near Chancellorsville.

At 2 p.m., as your men prepare to launch their attack, Lee strikes first. Amid a chorus of Rebel yells, thousands of Confederate infantrymen supported by artillery hit the right of your line. Striking Slocum’s corps, the Confederates surge forward, seemingly oblivious to the storm of cannon fire pounding them from your massed batteries. Clearly, Lee’s intent is to turn your right flank, sweep around your line and strike your army’s rear. The Confederates fiercely press their attack, and XII Corps’ line wavers. Yet just as leading Rebel units begin to break through Slocum’s defenses, they are overcome and turned back by a flood of Union troops in a timely counterattack by Sickles’ III Corps. Lee’s attack fails and its survivors stream in retreat.

With Lee’s assault on your right beaten back and his force at Fredericksburg engaged by Sedgwick’s men, the Confederates are in serious trouble. This seems the perfect moment to launch Meade’s three corps in an attack to fatally split the Army of Northern Virginia. However, you still have not received word that Reynolds’ men have arrived. You cannot order Meade’s attack to proceed piecemeal. To be decisive, it must be delivered by all three corps en masse. All you can do now is await news that Reynolds has arrived and is ready to join the attack.

From your position near the massed artillery batteries, you observe Confederate units maneuvering. Lee is obviously up to something, but it is unclear what he plans to do next. Based on his past behavior, however, you judge that he will likely attempt another attack, seeking a weak spot to break your line. It is only a matter of time before more Rebel yells split the air and waves of Confederate infantrymen rush forward.

Before the Confederates can strike, however, an officer on a sweat-lathered horse gallops up to you. You recognize him as one of Reynolds’ aides-de-camp. Out of breath from a hard ride, the officer jumps down, salutes you and reports: “General Reynolds’ compliments, sir. I Corps is in position and ready to advance.” You immediately order Meade to launch his attack, and you direct your artillery batteries to begin hammering the enemy ranks.

Supported by a storm of artillery fire, waves of blue-clad infantrymen of I, II and V corps rush forward. The attack strikes Lee’s Confederates while they are still in the process of organizing for their assault, and therefore they are in poor position to defend. Meade’s attack smashes Lee’s army, splitting it in two and sending the remnants into a headlong retreat south toward Richmond.

Through your brilliant opening strategic maneuver followed by a mass attack, the Army of the Potomac has finally beaten Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS

Hooker chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: WITHDRAW AND DEFEND, and the fighting unfolded as described in the COA Two narrative. Despite a brilliant opening maneuver that placed his army in position to cut off and destroy Lee’s army, Hooker surrendered the battlefield initiative to the Confederate leader. By withdrawing into the tangled Wilderness and concentrating at Chancellorsville, Hooker helped Lee turn the tables through a Confederate flanking march and surprise attack by Jackson’s men that shattered Howard’s XI Corps and destroyed Union morale – including Hooker’s. The result was another victory for Lee and another defeat for the Union Army of the Potomac.

Yet despite what is considered Lee’s most stunning triumph of the war, the fatal wounding of Jackson on May 2 might constitute the most decisive result of the Battle of Chancellorsville. But whether killing Stonewall was worth 17,000 Union casualties remains a question for historians to ponder. And although Lee’s aggressiveness won the battle, his army lost 22 percent of its troops (compared to Union losses of 13 percent) – manpower the South was hard-pressed to replace.

On June 28, 1863, Lincoln replaced Hooker with Major General George G. Meade, who went on to defeat Lee in the decisive July 1-3 Battle of Gettysburg. Meade remained commander of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war.

Hooker reverted to corps command – a position to which he proved better suited – and provided solid service in the Civil War’s Western Theater (Chattanooga and Atlanta campaigns, November 1863-August 1864). Hooker ended the war in an administrative post, commanding the Northern Department (October 1864-April 1865).

 

 Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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