Battle Of Chancellorsville Summary: The Battle of Chancellorsville, April 30–May 6, 1863, resulted in a Confederate victory that stopped an attempted flanking movement by Maj. Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker’s Army of the Potomac against the left of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The Southern victory was diminished by the loss of Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, mortally wounded by his own men who mistook him and his staff for Union cavalry, a loss that would have far-reaching effects on the Civil War.
Battle Of Chancellorsville Facts
Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania County, Virginia
April 30 – May 6, 1863
Union: Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker
Confederate: Gen. Robert E. Lee’s
Important Events & Figures
Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack
Stonewall Jackson mortally wounded
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Hooker left the VI Corps and a division to make a demonstration against the Confederate position at Fredericksburg to cover his movement with the rest of the army to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers at Germanna and Ely’s fords. Lee responded by dividing his army, leaving Maj. Gen. Jubal Early in charge of a force at Fredericksburg, and taking the rest to confront Hooker near a mansion that the owner had named Chancellorsville. Hooker took up defensive positions, and Lee again divided his own army, sending Jackson on march around the Union’s left flank. Around 5:30 p.m. on May 2, members of the XI Corps in the Army of the Potomac were settling down to fix supper when Jackson’s Rebels burst from the woods, routing them. The Union army counterattacked, and the day ended with both sides disorganized in an area of tangled wilderness. Jackson, riding out with his staff to reconnoiter in preparation for the next day’s battle, was wounded by his own men. He would die several days later, following amputation of his left arm.
The Confederates resumed the offensive on May 3, forcing Hooker’s army into a defensive posture near the fords that were their only means of retreat. Meanwhile, Lee received word that the Federals had crossed the Rappahannock and were advancing on him from the east. Splitting his army yet again, he met and defeated this new threat near Salem Church.
All told, the Union suffered 14,000 casualties, the Confederates 10,000—but the loss of Jackson was a high price to pay, a price that would become obvious before summer was over.
Many consider Chancellorsville to be Lee’s greatest victory. It set the stage for his second invasion of the North and the Battle of Gettysburg.
Banner image One hundred and tenth Pennsylvania regiment at Falmouth, Va., April 24, 1863, nearly annihilated at battle of Chancellorsville, created by Andrew J. Russell, Library of Congress.
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Battle of Chancellorsville: Day One
Early in the evening on April 29, 1863, Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart rode up to the Chancellor farmhouse, a well-known inn 11 miles west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, to confer with fellow Major General Richard H. Anderson and Brigadier General Carnot Posey, who commanded a brigade in Anderson’s division. The trio and their staffs met to discuss the not unexpected news that a large body of Union troops had crossed the Rappahannock River and was threatening to outflank General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
As the eight Chancellor women started to set the evening meal for the group of Confederate officers (all but one family slave had fled to the Yankees across the river), a messenger arrived informing them that the enemy was beginning to cross at United States Ford. As the men were leaving hurriedly to rejoin their respective commands, Stuart, always the ladies’ man, presented Fannie Chancellor with a ‘little gold dollar as a remembrance. After the officers had sped away, the women secured the family silverware in their multilayered hoop skirts and hid other family heirlooms about the house from the plundering Federals.
The stage was now set for the battle that the new Union commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, had been preparing for since being appointed to his post in January 1863, following the Union debacle at Fredericksburg the previous December. President Abraham Lincoln, having once again decided to replace the leader of the demoralized Army of the Potomac, had opted for Hooker, a veteran of the Peninsula campaign, the Second Battle of Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg. Hooker had acquired the nickname Fighting Joe while serving in the peninsula. Actually, it was an error caused by an editor’s leaving out a punctuation mark. The article should have read Still Fighting–Joe Hooker but was printed as Fighting Joe Hooker. Hooker hated the sobriquet, but the nickname stuck. From that day on he was called Fighting Joe Hooker by his troops.
Hooker had assumed command on January 25, 1863, and had immediately set out to reorganize the disheartened Army of the Potomac. He established the first comprehensive intelligence arm of the army under Colonel George H. Sharpe and had Sharpe report directly to him. He granted liberal furloughs and organized his soldiers into corps, with each corps having its own distinctive patch to establish unit pride. He completely changed the cavalry arm of the army as well. Prior to Hooker’s taking command, the mounted units were scattered into regiments. Hooker consolidated them into one corps and placed Brig. Gen. George Stoneman at its head. More than previous Union commanders, Hooker realized the importance of a strong cavalry and wanted to train his horsemen to equal those of Stoneman’s celebrated counterpart, Jeb Stuart.
Camped in their winter headquarters on the north side of the Rappahannock at Falmouth, Va., the Federal troops slowly began to regain the self-esteem they had lost at the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg a few months earlier. By April, Hooker felt his men were ready to commence a new offensive against Lee’s battle-hardened Army of Northern Virginia.
As snow fell on Easter Sunday, April 5, President and Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by politicians, newspaper correspondents and their 10-year-old son, Tad, boarded a train to Falmouth Station to review Hooker’s newly revitalized Army of the Potomac. On April 8, the president watched as the troops paraded past. Lincoln’s expression was kindly, yet firm and serious, even sad, noted one Union soldier of XI Corps. General Hooker beamed with satisfaction and pride, he continued. His eyes sparkled with confidence….Such a great army! Thunder and lightning! The Johnnies could never whip this army!
Upon his return to Washington, Lincoln wrote a letter to Hooker expressing his views on the upcoming spring campaign. He stated that our primary object is to menace him [Lee], that he shall have no leisure nor safety in sending away detachments. If he weakens himself, then pitch into him.
Fighting Joe had every intention of pitching into Lee’s army. On April 11, he sent Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, his chief of staff, to the capital with a top-secret letter to Lincoln detailing his plans for the upcoming offensive. Hooker’s scheme was relatively simple: The Union army would close in on the Rebels from two directions; meanwhile, Stoneman’s horsemen would encircle the Confederates and cut off their escape southward. This double envelopment had Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard’s XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps, and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s V Corps, making up Hooker’s right wing, swinging to the right and crossing at Kelly’s Ford. With that, the blue horde would traverse the Rappahannock, then the Rapidan, and march in a southeasterly direction toward the vital crossroads at Chancellorsville.
While all this was transpiring, Maj. Gen. Darius Couch was to dispatch two divisions from his corps to Banks’ Ford and United States Ford. Hooker wanted Lee’s scouts to assume that these two fords would be the Union crossing points, a logical guess since they closely followed the Union army’s harrowing retreat in January under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, later dubbed the Mud March. While Couch’s bluejackets were demonstrating at the fords, the right wing would swoop down on the unsuspecting Rebels.
On the left wing, Hooker sent Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ I Corps, and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division, from Couch’s II Corps, toward the Fredericksburg battleground. There they would cross the Rappahannock and convince Lee that this was the main thrust of the attack. If Lee held, Sedgwick would hurl his 59,000-man wing against him. If Lee withdrew toward Chancellorsville, Sedgwick would follow and carry the works at all hazards, and establish his force on the Telegraph Road.
On April 13, Stoneman’s cavalry corps, less one brigade, rode out of Falmouth to ford the Rappahannock and move on Lee’s rear. Hooker directed Stoneman to concentrate on turning the enemy’s position on his left, and of throwing your command between him and Richmond, and isolating him from his supplies, checking his retreat, and inflicting on him every possible injury which will tend to his discomfiture and defeat….Let your watchword be fight, and let all your orders be fight, fight, fight.
Unfortunately, the Union horsemen did not do much fighting on this day; Mother Nature stepped in. As Stoneman was preparing to cross, a torrential downpour began. For some inexplicable reason, Stoneman had hesitated in crossing. Now the wooden bridge that spanned the Rappahannock was under water, and the nervous brigadier decided to wait out the rain.
Earlier, Colonel Benjamin F. Davis’ brigade had splashed across the river upstream at Sulphur Spring. Angered at Stoneman’s lackadaisical attitude, Davis had no alternative but to order his troopers back across, fearing that otherwise he would be cut off from the remainder of the corps. If Stoneman had demonstrated the same boldness that Davis possessed, his cavalry would have crossed the river and sped on toward Richmond unimpeded.
Hooker, unaware of Stoneman’s delay, reassured Lincoln that, despite the rain, he was sure Stoneman had crossed. Then Fighting Joe learned that Stoneman’s cavalry had never reached the other side of the river and that his artillery was mired in ankle-deep mud. The raid was a disastrous failure.
Infuriated, Hooker quickly revised his plans. On April 28, he issued orders to Stoneman telling him to concentrate his force at Louisa Court House on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and then strike and destroy the line. Within two days, the Union horsemen had crossed the Rappahannock and were in motion. Apart from a few skirmishes with Rebel troopers, the Northern force was unimpeded as it proceeded to rip up railroad ties, burn depots and cause as much damage as possible. The only exception was Brig. Gen. William Averell’s division, which stopped at Rapidan Station. It seems that Averell thought he was vastly outnumbered and thus ordered his 3,400 troopers to halt. Disgusted, Hooker relieved him of command on May 2.
As the Federal cavalry raised havoc behind Confederate lines, Hooker’s massive pincer movement was ready to roll. Under the cover of darkness on the evening of April 28, the Union juggernaut began to move. Howard’s XI Corps took the lead. As a chilly rain fell, the Northern infantry stepped off with a spirit not felt since the beginning of the war. Foot soldiers from the 75th Ohio sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic as they slogged through the thick, oozing mud. Suddenly, Hooker rode past. His bright blue eyes sparkled with pride and confidence, remembered one infantryman. He waved his black hat high overhead. His thick blond hair jolted in rhythm to the galloping of his horse.
As Howard’s men, mostly of German descent, trudged onward, Slocum’s and Meade’s corps broke camp and followed close behind. Slocum, senior to Howard and Meade, was in command. However, Fighting Joe had, in a manner of speaking, kept his cards close to his vest. The only commanders who had received any detailed instructions were Sedgwick and Stoneman. Only when the right wing of Hooker’s pincer reached Kelly’s Ford did Slocum finally get orders telling him where he was to march; he was instructed to push across the Rapidan and past Chancellorsville if the Rebels did not offer battle. If the enemy decided to fight, Slocum was to select a strong position, and compel him to attack you on your ground. Hooker urged Slocum to push on so that not a moment be lost until our troops are established at or near Chancellorsville. From that moment all will be ours.
While the Union army crossed the river, Stuart’s seasoned troopers easily snatched prisoners from the columns. When he learned the true scope of the Yankee movement, Stuart hastily sent word to the Confederate detachment at Germanna Ford. But the rider was captured en route, and Germanna Ford, as well as Ely’s Ford, would soon be in Federal hands.
Dawn on April 29 saw Sedgwick’s and Reynolds’ corps cross at Deep Run and Pollock’s Mill, as Hooker’s left wing commenced its drive toward the Army of Northern Virginia. Brigadier General Henry W. Benham, Hooker’s chief engineer, had the responsibility for laying the bridges. He soon was embroiled in an exchange of words with Brig. Gens. William T. Brooks and James S. Wadsworth. It seems that Benham also thought he was in charge of the crossing. At 1:30 a.m. his men completed the bridges, but Brig. Gen. David A. Russell refused to allow his troops to cross in the darkness. Benham summarily ordered him arrested, but nothing came of it.
At approximately 4:30 a.m., the 95th and 119th Pennsylvania regiments boarded boats and started the crossing under cover of a dense fog to secure the riverbank on the opposite side. Suddenly out of the darkness the sharp crack of muskets was heard. Bang whiz bang–we were saluted by a volley of musketry, recalled one Pennsylvania officer. The greater portion of the balls flew too high over the men in the boats and too low to do us much damage.
Once the boats reached shore, the Pennsylvanians scurried out and in short order overran the Confederates’ rifle pits. As soon as this was accomplished, the bridge building resumed at a rapid pace.
At Fitzhugh’s Crossing, the Federals ran into stiffer resistance. As the boatmen neared the riverbank, preparing to cross, Confederate sharpshooters opened up. The boatmen fled as two regiments from the famed Iron Brigade returned the Rebel fire. When word came to load the boats, the soldiers had to race across open ground to reach the craft. While their comrades covered them, the 6th Wisconsin and 24th Michigan started toward the Rebel positions with bullets hailing around all the time.
Opposing the Iron Brigade were the 13th Georgia and 6th Louisiana. In this instance, the blue-clad attackers had the advantage. Confederate riflemen had to stand halfway out of their parapets to get a clear shot and, in so doing, exposed themselves to the Yankee infantry. Henry Walker from the 13th Georgia later wrote to his family: We fought there about two or three hours until our cartridges gave out and we never lost but one man while we was in the rifle pits but when we went to leave they swept our boys down like they was chaff.
The troopers from Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s division were fortifying their positions and awaiting the blue onslaught. While they were frantically digging in, a puzzled Robert E. Lee watched in amazement as Union infantry scampered ashore from the Union bridgehead at Fredericksburg. Lee was still unsure as to Hooker’s main thrust. He sent word to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, saying: [They are] certainly crossing in large force here…[and] below Kelley’s Ford, where General Howard has crossed with his division, said to be 14,000, six pieces of artillery, and some cavalry.
Lee was depending on day-old intelligence from Stuart and did not realize that Slocum’s and Meade’s men had accompanied Howard’s XI Corps as well. Never one to become nervous in tense situations, Lee coolly waited to hear from his trusted eyes and ears, Stuart, before making any decision. Lee knew that he must have more detailed information to determine where the main effort of the Yankee army would be.
While Lee was observing Hooker’s left wing, his most accomplished subordinate, Lt. Gen. Thomas Stonewall Jackson, was shoring up Confederate defenses around Fredericksburg. Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes’ division linked up with Early’s right flank, while Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur’s graycoats dug in along Massaponax Creek. Jackson’s two other divisions, under Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill and Brig. Gen. Raleigh E. Colston, were kept in reserve. Early anxiously watched as the Yankees deployed along a four-mile front. The question was whether they were ostentatiously displayed as a feint, or whether they were massed for crossing, he later wrote.
Finally, the word came that Lee had been eagerly awaiting. One of Stuart’s horsemen rode up at dusk and informed Lee that Howard’s corps was part of a larger force then traversing the Rapidan. Lee immediately telegraphed Davis: Their intention, I presume, is to turn our left, and probably get into our rear. Our scattered condition favors their operations.
Without hesitating, Lee sent for his artillery, which was camped at Bowling Green and Chesterfield Station. However, with the exception of a few smaller infantry units in the area, he could expect no other reinforcements. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps (less Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaw’s division already with Lee) was at Suffolk, Maj. Gen. Samuel French was stationed at Petersburg, and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill was back in North Carolina with his division. It was crystal clear to Lee that he would have to defeat the Union masses with what he had in hand–no more.
At 11 a.m. on April 30, Union General Meade, riding with Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division, was the first senior Union officer to reach the Chancellor farmhouse. Brusquely ushering the Chancellor family into one of the back rooms of the house, the crusty corps commander awaited the arrival of the remainder of the troops. About 2 that afternoon, Slocum galloped up with the forward elements of his corps.
This is splendid, Slocum! remarked a jubilant Meade. Hurrah for old Joe! We’re on Lee’s flank, and he doesn’t know it. You take the Plank Road towards Fredericksburg, and I’ll take the Pike, or vice versa, as you prefer, and we will get out of this Wilderness. Slocum, however, had discouraging news for Meade. Hooker had given directions to take up a line of battle…and not to move forward without further orders. This was extremely bleak news to Meade, but Slocum was in command and he had no choice but to follow orders. As the units approached Chancellorsville, Slocum put them into line: Howard’s corps blocked the road to the west, Meade was to his rear, Couch’s two divisions were anchored on the northeast, while Slocum’s own XII Corps was formed in a half circle of sorts to the south and west near a plateau named Hazel Grove.
At dusk, Hooker himself arrived on the scene. Amid a flurry of congratulations, he issued his grandiloquent General Order No. 47, which read in part: The operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.
Surrounded by dozens of officers, Hooker further boasted: I have the rebellion in my breeches pocket, and God Almighty himself cannot take it away from me. A few in the crowd were taken aback by this blasphemous remark. Said one Union officer: I do not like that sort of talk on the eve of battle. There is no sense in defying the Almighty when you are fighting General Lee.
The cautious officer on Hooker’s staff would prove correct. As for Lee’s Confederates ingloriously flying, Hooker was in for a rude awakening. General Anderson, after leaving the Chancellor estate, was ordered by Lee to reposition the brigades of Brig. Gens. William Mahone and Carnot Posey from United States Ford to the vicinity of Chancellorsville. While Meade was trotting up to the Chancellor house, the Rebels were already beginning to build fortifications to establish a perimeter from Zoan Church to Tabernacle Church. Anderson’s right flank was set on the river to hold Banks’ Ford, while his left was along the Plank Road. McLaws’ division was alerted to move up and support Anderson.
Once again, the fast-paced cavalry of Jeb Stuart came through. A courier brought a message confirming that three Federal corps had crossed the Rapidan at Germanna and Ely’s fords, traveling southeast, and were converging on Chancellorsville. Lee knew at this point he had no time to waste; he must attack. McLaws was ordered to leave behind Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s brigade, while Jackson would leave Early’s division to keep Sedgwick and Reynolds in check at Fredericksburg, a little over 10,000 bayonets–not a very large force, considering they were facing 59,000 Union soldiers. The remainder of Jackson’s corps would march to Chancellorsville to bolster Anderson’s men, who were already there. Even with most of his infantry and cavalry, the best Lee could muster was approximately 40,000 troops, as opposed to Hooker’s 80,000-plus. It was a daring move, but Lee felt he had no other alternative.
With the graycoats on the move, Stuart’s mounted troopers continually harassed the flanks of the Union army. While on reconnaissance the evening prior to the battle, Rebel horsemen ran pell-mell into Lt. Col. Duncan McVicar’s 6th New York Cavalry. As the two groups neared, Stuart was startled by a pistol shot and was surprised to see his point rider hurrying toward him, warning that Yankees were up ahead. Jeering, the cavalier dispatched a small scouting party to verify the information. Heading the foray was Heros von Borcke, a former officer in the Prussian army, who immediately met several horsemen on the road. Because of the darkness, von Borcke had difficulty distinguishing their uniforms and inquired what outfit they belonged to. You’ll see soon enough, you damned Rebels! the strangers snapped back. With that, they charged. Stuart and his party rode away as fast as their horses could take them. Reaching safety, Stuart sent for a regiment from Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade. The 5th Virginia Cavalry raced forward until they came to Hugh Alsop’s farm. As the Confederate horsemen attempted to enter the field through a narrow gate, Union soldiers poured carbine fire into their ranks. The Rebels tried again to enter, but were repulsed once more.
May 1 dawned clear and cool as Hooker’s weary troopers rose from their night’s sleep and assembled themselves around their morning campfires. The aroma of coffee permeated the chilly morning air as they awaited the command to march. Hooker’s corps commanders were becoming increasingly impatient. They wanted to move out of the wilderness area that surrounded Chancellorsville and onto more advantageous ground to meet Lee’s ever-menacing army.
Around 11 a.m., Hooker finally passed the word to proceed along several routes eastward. V Corps would go down River Road and the Turnpike between Mott’s Run and Colin Run; XII Corps would mass below the Plank Road and advance in small parties, to conceal themselves from the enemy, toward Tabernacle Church. XI Corps would follow about a mile to the rear of XII Corps; one division from II Corps would take up positions near Todd’s Tavern; III Corps would consolidate on the United States Ford Road about a mile from Chancellorsville; and Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton would keep his cavalry detachments
At 8 o’clock that morning, Stonewall Jackson rode up to Anderson’s breastworks, which stretched across the Turnpike and Plank Road. After being briefed by Anderson, Jackson looked around and decided to make arrangements to repulse the enemy. Jackson immediately took the offensive.
By noon his command was in motion. McLaws took one group down the Turnpike toward Chancellorsville. Mahone’s brigade was in front, McLaws’ division in trace, with Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s and Edward A. Perry’s brigades following close behind. Jackson had the other column traveling on the Plank Road, which arced southward and then swung back to Chancellorsville. In the forefront was Posey’s brigade, followed by Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright’s brigade. Right behind them were Hill’s and Rodes’ divisions, with Colston’s brigade, coming from Fredericksburg, bringing up the rear.
As McLaws’ troops neared Chancellorsville on the Turnpike, Union skirmishers opened up. Fearing he would be outflanked by the large number of Union troops, McLaws sent a rider to Jackson informing him of the situation. Telling McLaws to hold firm, Jackson dispatched Colonel E. P. Alexander’s guns to disperse the bluecoats. Alexander arrived on the scene and quickly unlimbered his cannons. As the first salvo exploded over the Wilderness area near Chancellorsville, a Federal officer looked at his watch and remarked, Twenty minutes past eleven; the first gun of the battle of Chancellorsville.
Pickets from Mahone’s brigade had run into elements from the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Immediately behind the Union horsemen were the infantry from Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ 2nd Division. The fighting raged as the 12th Virginia Infantry found cover behind a rail fence and riddled Sykes’ regulars. The determined Union soldiers regrouped and hit the Confederate line again. Exhausted, the Rebels were forced to retreat, with 80 falling into enemy hands.
As the Virginians were falling back, Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semme’s butternuts pushed ahead to drive back the blue columns. The Georgians charged, halting the Union momentum, and Sykes’ men slowly began to give ground and retreat.
On the Plank Road, meanwhile, Posey’s men encountered Slocum’s XII Corps. As the Rebels drove forward toward Catherine Furnace, they abruptly stopped when they struck the main body of infantry. With Wright’s brigade moving up to his left, Posey formed a defensive line across the Plank Road. Wright turned his men toward the left and headed for Catherine Furnace, less than two miles from Chancellorsville. As they approached, Stuart’s 1st Virginia Cavalry informed Wright that the Federals were in the forest in great numbers. Wright’s 22nd and 48th Georgia troopers stormed the woods and sent the Yankees reeling back into a pine grove. Southern gunners belched rounds into the thicket, driving the Union soldiers back to Hazel Grove. Just about that time, a Federal barrage burst all over the woods. Rebels hunkered down to escape the deadly projectiles. It was warm work certain, said one Confederate infantryman.
Meade was having a relatively easy time of it on the River Road. He had progressed to within two miles of Banks’ Ford with no opposition. If Hooker had grasped this opportunity and allowed Meade to assault what appeared to be Lee’s weak point, he could have turned the Confederate right. Mysteriously, however, Hooker’s mind-set abruptly shifted from the offensive to the defensive. Sykes was certainly worried; both flanks of his 2nd Division were at risk. The veteran officer feared that Confederate infantry could penetrate to his north and south, where thick woods dominated the terrain. Sykes told corps engineer Gouverneur K. Warren to ride to Hooker and inform him of the perilous situation. Unknown to Sykes, Couch was reinforcing him with Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s 1st Division from his corps. Couch rode along the Turnpike to see firsthand what was happening. To his utter surprise, he found Sykes pulling back. When Couch inquired why, Sykes presented the order given to him by Warren on his return from seeing Hooker: General Sykes will retire to his position of last night, and take up a line connecting his right with General Slocum, making his line as strong as he can by felling trees, etc. General Couch will then retire to his position of last night.
Couch exploded. There was some discussion among Sykes, Couch and Warren about disobeying the order. However, Slocum’s corps was also withdrawing. If Couch disobeyed, Hancock’s right flank would be vulnerable. He had to comply. By late in the afternoon, when most of the deployment had taken place, a courier delivered another message from Hooker to Couch, instructing him to hold [his] position until 5 p.m. Couch was appalled by Hooker’s indecisiveness. He gave the courier a message of his own: The enemy are on my right and rear. I am in full retreat.
Riding to the Chancellor house to voice his objection, Couch was unprepared for what Hooker then said: It is all right, Couch. I have gotten Lee just where I want him, he must fight me on my own ground.
Couch recalled later, To hear from his own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets, was too much, and I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.
With his brilliant flanking maneuver, Hooker had Lee exactly where he wanted him. Unfortunately, when the time came to press the advantage, Fighting Joe became timid and unresponsive. It is hard to reason why. Hooker certainly was not a coward; his battlefield exploits prove that. What was it then? Did he have last-minute misgivings about his plan? Did he finally realize that victory–or defeat–was his and his alone? His loud boastings about making Bobby Lee run would now come back to haunt him. Maybe the mystique of Robert E. Lee shook Hooker. Lee was an imposing figure on the battlefield–and, as Hooker was to find out, off it as well. There is no doubt that the thought of Lee preoccupied Hooker. Why he decided to stop and pull back will never be known for certain. As historian Edward J. Stackpole wrote: The conclusion is inescapable. Hooker lost his nerve! Maybe it was that simple.
Satisfied that Sedgwick’s and Reynold’s corps were just performing a feint at Fredericksburg, Lee confidently rode toward Chancellorsville on the afternoon of May 1. However, he was perplexed at the Union army’s retreat. Could it be a ruse? Lee thought Hooker’s main thrust would be toward Gordonsville. Why was he withdrawing when he certainly had the initiative? As the Federals were retreating, the Rebels pressed onward. A.P. Hill ordered Brig. Gen. Henry Heth to push three brigades from the Plank Road to the Turnpike, link up with McLaws, and move on Chancellorsville. On the Plank Road, Rode’s division, with Ramseur’s brigade in the vanguard, would advance in the same direction. Wright’s butternuts would strike at the Yankee flank and rear.
As darkness approached, both armies dug in for the night. Morale in the Army of the Potomac was sinking rapidly. One soldier in Meade’s corps remarked, All enthusiasm vanished, all the bright hopes of success disappeared. On the Confederate side, Lee and Jackson met on the Plank-Furnace crossroads. Both men moved off the main thoroughfare to confer. Lee was concerned about Sedgwick’s and Reynold’s corps near Fredericksburg; it would not be long before each of them figured there was a thin line of Early’s men holding it. Lee took tremendous risks. He was forced to when confronting a numerically superior Union army. And he was about to undertake another one. He would attack. But where? He could not conduct a frontal assault; that would be suicidal. It would have to be a flank attack.
As if by an act of providence, Jeb Stuart arrived bringing just the news Lee wanted to hear: Fitz Lee’s horsemen had discovered the Yankee right flank was unprotected. Jackson’s chaplain, Tucker Lacy, had a brother who lived nearby. He provided them with a guide, Charles Wellford’s son, to show them a passable route. Together with Jackson’s mapmaker, Jed Hotchkiss, they rode off to find the road to outflank Hooker’s army.
If Lee’s audacious plan worked, he could drive the Federals back across the Rappahannock. Everything hinged on Old Jack’s veteran infantrymen being able to march unseen around the exposed Yankee flank and strike them where they least expected it. Spreading his blanket on the ground and using his saddle as a pillow, Lee lay down to get a few hours of sleep before dawn. In the distance, the bark of occasional cannon fire could be heard. The first day of the Battle of Chancellorsville was over.
This article was written by Al Hemingway and originally appeared in the March 1996 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.
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