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Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville

In April, 1863, General Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, decided to attack the Army of Northern Virginia that had been entrenched on the south side of the Rappahonnock River since the battle of Fredericksburg. Hooker and his 130,000 strong army crossed the river and took up position at Chancellorsville.

Although outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee, opted to split his Confederate Army into two groups. Lee left 10,000 men under Jubal Early, while on 2nd May, he sent Thomas Stonewall Jackson to attacked the flank of Hooker's army. The attack was successful but after returning from the battlefield Jackson was accidentally shot by one of his own men. Jackson's left arm was successfully amputated but he developed pneumonia and he died eight days later.

On the 3rd May, James Jeb Stuart, who had taken command of Jackson's troops, mounted another attack and drove Joseph Hooker back further. The following day Robert E. Lee and Jubal Early and joined the attack on the Union Army. By 6th May, Hooker had lost over 11,000 men, and decided to retreat from the area.

It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to the army that 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 - the operations of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps have been a succession of splendid achievements

They hoped indeed that the Army of the Potomac, 130,000 strong, would prove able to beat Lee's army, only 60,000 strong. But it jarred upon their feelings as well as their good sense to hear their commanding general gasconade do boastfully of having the enemy in the hollow of his hand - that enemy being Robert E. Lee at the head of the best infancy in the world. Still we all hoped, and we explored the map for the important strategical point we would strike the next day. but the "next day" brought us a fearful disappointment.

His exterior was certainly most attractive and commanding. He was fully six feet high, finely proportioned, with a soldierly, erect carriage, handsome and noble features, a slight fringe of side-whiskers, a rosy complexion, abundant blond hair, a fine and expressive mouth, and, most striking of all, great, speaking grey-blue eyes. He looked, indeed, like the ideal soldier and captain, fit for a model of a war-god.

He had even then an unenviable notoriety for a rash tongue, to which he added lamentably in his subsequent career. He burst forth into unsparing criticism of the general conduct of the war, of the government, of Halleck, McClellan and Pope. His language was so severe and, at the same time, so infused with self-assertion as to give rise immediately to a fear on my part that he might be inclined to make use of me for his own glorification and for the detraction of others.

On Friday, May 1st, our columns, advancing toward Fredericksburg, met the opposing enemy. Hooker recoiled and ordered his army back into a defensive position, there to await Lee's attack. Thus the offensive campaign so brilliantly opened was suddenly transformed into a defensive one. hooker had surrendered the initiative of movement, and given to Lee the incalculable advantage of perfect freedom of action. Lee could fall fall back in good order upon his lines of communication with Richmond, if he wished, or he could concentrate his forces, or so much of them as he saw fit, upon any part of Hooker's defensive position which he might think most advantageous to himself to attack.

Chancellorsville was a dreadful field. The dead were strewn through forest and open farms. The wounded had often to wait for days before succor came. Sometimes it never came. One officer on my personal staff, Captain F. Dessaur, was killed while near me beside Barlow's entrenchments, endeavoring to rally the panic-stricken men. His young wife had besought him to resign and come home to Brooklyn, New York, before the battle commenced. He tendered his resignation, explaining the peculiar circumstances of the case. But we were before the enemy, and soon to be engaged in battle, so that I wrote my disapproval upon his application. Poor fellow, he was slain, and my heart was deeply pained at his loss and in sympathy with his stricken family. Dessaur is an example of that dreadful sacrifice made in the cause of our national unity and of human liberty.

It has been customary to blame me and my corps for the disaster. The imputations of neglect to obey orders; of extraordinary self-confidence; of fanatical reliance upon the God of battles; of not sending out reconnaissances; of not intrenching; of not strengthening the right dank by keeping proper reserves; of having no pickets and skirmishers; of not sending information to General Hooker, etc., etc., are far from true. My command was by positive orders riveted to that position. Though constantly threatened and made aware of hostile columns in motion, yet the woods were so dense that Stonewall Jackson was able to mass a large force a few miles off, whose exact whereabouts neither patrols, reconnaissances, nor scouts ascertained. The enemy crossing the plank road, two and a half miles off, we all saw. So the turning at the Furnace was seen by hundreds of our people; but the interpretation of these movements was certainly wrong. Yet, wherein did we neglect any precaution? It will be found that Devens kept his subordinates constantly on the qui vive; so did Schurz. Their actions and mine were identical. The Eleventh Corps detained Jackson for over an hour; part of my force was away by Hooker's orders; part of each division fought hard, as our Confederate enemies clearly show; part of it became wild with panic, like the Belgians at Waterloo, like most of our troops at Bull Run, and the Confederates, the second day, at Fair Oaks.

I may leave the whole matter to the considerate judgment of my companions in arms, simply asserting that on the terrible day of May 2, 1863, I did all which could have been done by a corps commander in the presence of that panic of men largely caused by the overwhelming attack of Jackson's 26,000 men against my isolated corps of 8,000 without its reserve thus outnumbering me 3 to 1.

There is always a theory in war which will to rest all the imputation of blame to those who do not deserve it. It is to impute the credit of one's great defeat to his enemy. I think in our hearts, as we take a candid review of everything that took place under General Hooker in the blind wilderness country around Chancellorsville, we do, indeed, impute our primary defeat to the successful effort of Stonewall Jackson, and our other checks to General Robert E. Lee.

The wounded have begun to arrive from Hooker's command from bloody Chancellorsville. I was down among the first arrivals. The men in charge told me the bad cases were yet to come. If that is so I pity them, for these are bad enough. You ought to see the scene of the wounded arriving on the landing here at the foot of Sixth Street, at night. Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night. the pale, helpless soldiers had been debarked, and lay around on the wharf and neighborhood anywhere. The rain was, probably, grateful to them; at any rate they were exposed to it. The few torches light up the spectacle. All round - on the wharf, on the ground, out on side places - the men are lying on blankets, old quilts, etc., with bloody rags bound round heads, arms, and legs.

The attendants are few, and at night few outsiders also - only a few hard-worked transportation men and drivers. The wounded are getting to be common, and people grow callous. The men, whatever their condition, lie there, and patiently wait till their turn comes to be taken up. The men generally make little or do ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppressed, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. Today, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and tomorrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.


Battle of Chancellorsville

The locomotive ground to a halt at a little depot amidst a drenching downpour. An eager figure scanned the cars for two passengers who meant more to him than anyone else on earth.

The legendary "Stonewall" Jackson, renowned as the quintessential grim warrior, revealed his gentler nature on April 20, 1863, at Guinea Station, 12 miles south of Fredericksburg as he greeted his beloved wife and saw his infant daughter for the first time. The blissful family repaired to a nearby house and passed the next nine days enjoying the only domestic contentment they would ever share. In less than three weeks, at a small frame building near Guinea, Jackson would be dead.


The campaign that resulted in Jackson's demise, paradoxically remembered as "Lee's greatest victory," emerged from the backwash of the Battle of Fredericksburg. That Federal debacle and subsequent political intrigue at army headquarters prompted a change of command in the Army of the Potomac. Major General Joseph Hooker, a 48-year-old Massachusetts native endowed with high courage and low morals, replaced Burnside in January. Within weeks, Hooker's able administrative skills restored the health and morale of his troops, whom he proudly proclaimed "the finest army on the planet."

The new commander crafted a brilliant plan for the spring that he expected would at least compel General Robert E. Lee to abandon his Fredericksburg entrenchments, and, possibly, prove fatal to the Army of Northern Virginia. First, Hooker would detach his cavalry, 10,000 strong, on a flying raid toward Richmond to sever Lee's communications with the Confederate capital. Then, he would send most of his infantry 40 miles upstream to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers beyond the Confederate defenses, and sweep east against Lee's left flank. The rest of "Fighting Joe's" army would cross the river at Fredericksburg and menace the Confederate front as the second blade of a great pincers. "My plans are perfect," boasted Hooker "and when I start to carry them out may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none."


The condition of the Confederate army lent credence to Hooker's confidence. In February, Lee detached his stalwart lieutenant, James Longstreet, with two strong divisions to gather food and supplies in southeastern Virginia. The gray commander cherished the offensive, but could not hope to move north without Longstreet. In the meantime, Lee's 60,000 veterans at Fredericksburg would guard their long river line against 130,000 well-equipped Yankees.

Hooker began the campaign on April 27 and within three days some 40,000 Federals had splashed through the upriver fords, their presence detected by Confederate cavalry. On April 29, a sizable Union force led by Major General John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps erected pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg and also moved to Lee's side of the river.


With both wings of the enemy across the Rappahannock, Lee faced a serious dilemma. Conventional military wisdom dictated that the understrength Army of Northern Virginia retreat south and escape Hooker's trap. Lee opted instead to meet the Federal challenge head-on. Correctly deducing that Hooker's primary threat lay to the west, "Marse Robert" assigned 10,000 troops under Major General Jubal A. Early to man the old Fredericksburg entrenchments. The balance of the army would turn west toward the tangled Wilderness to confront Hooker's flanking column.

By mid afternoon of April 30, that column, now containing 50,000 men and 108 artillery pieces, rendezvoused at the most important road junction in the Wilderness. A large brick tavern named Chancellorsville dominated this intersection of the Orange Turnpike with the Orange Plank, Ely's Ford, and River roads. "This is splendid," exulted one of Hooker's corps commanders, "Hurrah for Old Joe."

The Federals had encountered virtually no opposition to this point. Moreover, they could now press eastward, break clear of the Wilderness, and uncover Banks Ford downstream, thus significantly shortening the distance between their two wings. Hooker, however, decided to halt at Chancellorsville and await the arrival of additional Union troops. This fateful decision disheartened the Federal officers on the scene who recognized the urgency of maintaining the momentum they had thus far sustained.

"Stonewall" Jackson, gladly seizing the initiative that Hooker needlessly surrendered, left the Fredericksburg lines at 3:00 a.m., on May I and arrived at Zoan Church five hours later. There he found two divisions of Confederate infantry, Major General Richard H. Anderson's and Major General Lafayette McLaws', fortifying a prominent ridge covering the Turnpike and Plank Road. Although his corps had not yet appeared, Jackson ordered Anderson and McLaws to drop their shovels, pick up their rifles, and advance to the attack.

Jackson's audacity dictated the shape of the Battle of Chancellorsville. When Hooker at last authorized an eastward movement late in the morning of May 1, his troops on the Turnpike and Plank Road ran flush against "Stonewall's", outgunned but aggressive brigades. Union front-line commanders had not expected this kind of resistance. They sent anxious messages to Hooker, who quickly ordered his generals to fall back to the Wilderness and assume a defensive posture. The Federal columns on the River Road marched almost to Bank's Ford without seeing a Rebel. They returned to Chancellorsville fuming, fully realizing the opportunity that had slipped through their fingers.

Late in the day, as the blue infantry threw up entrenchments encircling Hooker's Chancellorsville headquarters, Major General Darius N. Couch approached his superior. As the army's senior corps commander, Couch had advocated an offensive strategy and shared his comrades' disappointment with "Fighting Joe's" judgment. "It is all right, Couch," Hooker reassured him, "I have got Lee just where I want him he must fight me on my own ground."


Couch could barely believe his ears. "To hear from his own lip 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."

Hooker's confidence had faded to caution, but whether he was "whipped" depended upon Lee and Jackson. Those two officers reined up along the Plank Road at its intersection with a byway call the Furnace Road on the evening of May 1. Transforming discarded Federal cracker boxes into camp stools, the generals examined their options.

Confederate scouts verified the Federals' strong positions extending from the Rappahannock River, around Chancellorsville, to the high, open ground at Hazel Grove. This was the bad news. The Southern army could not afford a costly frontal attack against prepared fortifications.

Then, about midnight, Lee's cavalry chief, "Jeb" Stuart, galloped up to the little campfire. The flamboyant Virginian carried thrilling intelligence. The Union right flank was "in the air" -- that is, resting on no natural or artificial obstacle! From that moment on, the generals thought of nothing but how to gain access to Hooker's vulnerable flank. Jackson consulted with staff officers familiar with the area, dispatched his topographical engineer to explore the roads to the west, and tried to snatch a few hours rest at the chilly bivouac.

Before dawn, Lee and Jackson studied a hastily drawn map and decided to undertake one of the biggest gambles in American military history. Jackson's corps, about 30,000 troops, would follow a series of country roads and woods paths to reach the Union right. Lee, with the remaining 14,000 infantry, would occupy a position more than three miles long and divert Hooker's attention during Jackson's dangerous trek. Once in position, "Stonewall" would smash the Federals with his full strength while Lee cooperated as best he could. The Army of Northern Virginia would thus be fractured into three pieces, counting Early's contingent at Fredericksburg, any one of which might be subject to rout or annihilation if the Yankees resumed the offensive. To learn more about the role of McLaws' men on May 2 see a folder for McLaws' Trail.

Jackson led his column past the bivouac early on the morning of May 2. He conferred briefly with Lee, then trotted down the Furnace Road with the fire of battle kindled in his eyes. After about one mile, as the Confederates traversed a small clearing, Union scouts perched in treetops at Hazel Grove spotted the marchers. The Federals lobbed artillery shells at Jackson's men and notified Hooker of the enemy movement.

"Fighting Joe" correctly identified Jackson's maneuver as an effort to reach his right flank. He advised the area commander, Major General Oliver 0. Howard, to be on the lookout for an attack from the west. As the morning progressed, however, the Union chief grew to believe that Lee was actually withdrawing - the course of events Hooker most preferred. Worries about his right disappeared. Instead, he ordered his Third Corps to harass the tail end of Lee's "retreating" army.

Colorful Major General Daniel E. Sickles commanded the Third Corps. He probed cautiously from Hazel Grove toward a local iron manufactory called Catharine Furnace. In mid-afternoon the Federals overwhelmed Jackson's rearguard beyond the furnace along the cut of an unfinished railroad, capturing nearly an entire Georgia regiment. The action at Catharine Furnace, however, eventually attracted some 20,000 Bluecoats onto the scene thus effectively isolating Howard's Eleventh Corps on the right with no nearby support.

Meanwhile the bulk of Jackson's column snaked its way along uncharted trails barely wide enough to accommodate four men abreast. "Stonewall" contributed to Hooker's faith in a Confederate retreat by twice turning away from the Union line - first at Catharine Furnace, then again at the Brock Road. After making the desired impression, Jackson ducked under the Wilderness canopy and continued his march toward Howard's insensible soldiers.

Acting upon a personal reconnaissance recommended by cavalry general Fitzhugh Lee, Jackson kept his column northbound on the Brock Road to the Orange Turnpike where the Confederates would at last be beyond the Union right. The exhausting march, which altogether traversed more, than 12 miles, ended about 3 p.m. when "Old Jack's" warriors began deploying into battle lines astride the Turnpike. Jackson, however, did not authorize an attack for some two hours, providing 11 of his 15 brigades time to take position in the silent forest. The awe-inspiring Confederate front measured nearly two miles across.

Although individual Northern officers and men warned of Jackson's approach, Eleventh Corps headquarters dismissed the reports as frightened exaggerations from alarmists or cowards. Hooker's shortage of cavalry hampered the Federals's ability to penetrate the Wilderness and uncover the Confederate presence with certainty. Only two small regiments and half a New York battery faced west in the direction of Jackson's corps.

Suddenly, a bugle rang out in the afternoon shadows. Bugles everywhere echoed the notes up and down the line. As waves of sweat-soaked soldiers rolled forward, the high defiance of the Rebel Yell pierced the gloomy woods. Jackson's Corps erupted from the trees and sent the astonished Unionists reeling. "Along the road it was pandemonium," recalled a Massachusetts soldier, "and on the side of the road it was chaos."

Most of Howard's men fought bravely, drawing three additional battle lines across Jackson's path. But the overmatched Federals occupied an untenable position. The screaming gray legions overwhelmed each Union stand and eventually drove the Eleventh Corps completely from the field.

Sunset and the inevitable intermingling of "Stonewall's" brigades compelled Jackson to call a reluctant halt to the advance about 7:15. He summoned Major General A.P. Hill's division to the front and, typically, determined to renew his attack despite the darkness. Jackson hoped to maneuver between Hooker and his escape routes across the rivers and then, with Lee's help, grind the Army of the Potomac into oblivion.


While Hill brought his brigades forward, Jackson rode ahead of his men to reconnoiter. When he attempted to return, a North Carolina regiment mistook his small party for Union cavalry. Two volleys burst forth in the blackness and Jackson tottered in his saddle, suffering from three wounds. Shortly thereafter a Federal shell struck Hill, incapacitating him, and direction of the corps devolved upon Stuart. The cavalryman wisely canceled "Stonewall's" plans for a night attack. See text for Wounding of Stonewall Jackson Trail.

Despite his misfortune on May 2, Hooker still held the advantage at Chancellorsville. He received reinforcements during the night and the Third Corps moved back from Catharine Furnace to reoccupy Hazel Grove. Sickles' troops thus divided the Confederates into separate wings controlled by Stuart and Lee. Hooker, if he chose, could defeat each fraction of his out manned enemy in detail.

The Confederate commanders understood the need to connect their divisions, and Stuart prepared an all-out assault against Hazel Grove at dawn. Hooker made it easy for him. As the Southerners approached the far crest of Hazel Grove they witnessed Sickles' men retiring in an orderly fashion. "Fighting Joe" had directed that his troops surrender the key ground and fall back to Fairview, an elevated clearing closer to Chancellorsville.

Stuart immediately exploited the opportunity by placing 31 cannon on Hazel Grove. Combined with artillery located west along the Turnpike, the gunners at Hazel Grove pounded Fairview with a spectacular bombardment. The Federals responded with 34 pieces of their own and soon the Wilderness trembled with a discordant symphony of iron. See folder for Hazel Grove to Fairview walking trail.


The bloodiest fighting of the battle occurred between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. on May 3. Stuart launched brigade after brigade against entrenched Union lines on both sides of the Turnpike. Troops lost their way in the tangled underbrush and the woods caught fire, confronting the wounded with a horrible fate.

The see-saw fighting began to favor the Southerners as, one by one, Union artillery pieces dropped out of the contest. Hooker failed to resupply his cannoneers with ammunition or shift sufficient infantry reserves to critical areas. A Confederate projectile abetted this mental paralysis when it struck a pillar at Chancellorsville, throwing the Union commander violently to the ground. The impact stunned Hooker, physically removing him from a battle in which he had not materially been engaged for nearly 48 hours. Before relinquishing partial authority to Couch, Hooker instructed the army to assume a prepared position in the rear, protecting the bridgehead across the Rappahannock.

Stuart pressed forward first to Fairview and then against the remaining Union units at Chancellorsville. Lee's wing advanced simultaneously from the south and east. The Bluecoats receded at last and thousands of powder-smeared Confederates poured into the clearing, illuminated by flames from the burning Chancellorsville mansion.

Lee emerged from the smoke and elicited a long, unbroken cheer from the gray multitudes who recognized him as the architect of their improbable victory. A Confederate staff officer, watching the unbridled expression of so much admiration, reverence, and love, thought that, "it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods."

The Southern commander wasted little time on reflection. He prepared to pursue Hooker and seal the success achieved since dawn. A courier bearing news from Fredericksburg shattered Lee's plans. Sedgwick had driven Early's contingent from Marye's Heights and now threatened the Confederate rear. This changed everything. Lee assigned Stuart to watch Hooker's host and sent McLaws eastward to deal with the Sixth Corps menace. See a folder for a driving tour of 2nd Fredericksburg & Salem Church.


Sedgwick, slowed by Wilcox's single Alabama brigade retreating stubbornly from Fredericksburg, came to grips with the Confederates four miles west of town at Salem Church. The Federals swept into the churchyard but a powerful counterattack drove them back and ended the day's combat. The next day Lee shoved Sedgwick across the Rappahannock at Banks Ford and once again focused on the main Union army in the Wilderness.

Hooker, however, had seen enough. Despite the objections of most of his corps commanders, he ordered a withdrawal across the river. The Federals conducted their retreat under cover of darkness and arrived back in Stafford County on May 6. Ironically, this decision may have been Hooker's most serious blunder of the campaign. Lee's impending assault on May 6 might have failed and completely reversed the outcome of the battle.

Confederate leadership during the Chancellorsville Campaign may represent the finest generalship of the Civil War, but the luster of "Lee's greatest victory" tarnishes upon examination of the battle's tangible results. In truth, the Army of the Potomac had not been so thoroughly defeated - some 40,000 Federals had done no fighting whatsoever. Although Hooker suffered more than 17,000 casualties, those losses accounted for only 13% of his total strength. Lee's 13,000 casualties amounted to 22% of his army, men difficult to replace. Of course, Jackson's death on May 10 created a vacancy that could never be filled. Finally, Lee's triumph at Chancellorsville imbued him with the belief that his army was invincible. He convinced the Richmond government to endorse his proposed offensive into Pennsylvania. Within six weeks, the Army of Northern Virginia confidently embarked on a journey northward to keep an appointment with destiny at a place called Gettysburg.

The text for this section was written by A. Wilson Green, former staff historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. It is derived from a National Park Service training booklet.

Lee-Jackson Meeting at Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville

Despite the heavy casualties sustained there, the Battle of Chancellorsville is considered Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest military victory. It was the last battle for Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who was mortally wounded by friendly fire.

How it ended

Confederate victory. General Robert E. Lee’s audacious decision to take on Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac, though he had less than half the number of men, resulted in an improbable win for the South. Hooker’s timidity in battle led to poor choices and a huge disappointment for the North.

In context

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside lasted only a single campaign as the head of the Army of the Potomac. His abject failure at Fredericksburg in December 1862, followed by further fumbling on January's "Mud March," convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make another change in army commanders. He appointed 48-year-old Massachusetts native Joseph Hooker to take charge.

Hooker's energetic make-over polished the Union army into tip-top condition, and he declared them “the finest army on the planet.” With complete confidence, Hooker orchestrated a “perfect” plan to confront Lee and drive him from his camp at Fredericksburg. Though outmanned, Lee did not retreat. He met Hooker’s challenge head on, engaging him in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Brilliant tactics by Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson thwarted Hooker’s ambitions and resulted in a victory for the South. Buoyed by the outcome, Lee later launched an offensive into Pennsylvania, where the opposing armies met on the battlefield in Gettysburg in July 1863.

Seizing the initiative, Hooker develops a plan to trap Lee’s army around Fredericksburg between two pincers of his force. The calvary will ride toward Richmond and sever Lee’s communication with the Confederate capital. The infantry will cross the Rappahannock River, get behind the Confederate defenses, and sweep east against Lee’s left flank. “My plans are perfect,” Hooker boasts, “and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.” Part of Hooker’s confidence may be due to the fact that Lee’s valuable officer, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, is away on a resupply mission, leaving Lee with only 60,000 troops to confront Hooker’s 130,000 men.

Hooker starts his campaign on April 27 and marches his men toward the Rappahannock. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corp erects pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg. By April 29, the Federals are on Lee’s side of the river.

April 30. With his Fifth, Ninth and Twelfth Corps. Hooker approaches the intersection of Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road, which is dominated by the Chancellorsville tavern and is located in the Wilderness — a tangled, brush-choked thicket that covers the area.

May 1. Lee hurriedly gathers his army. The general hopes to stall Hooker in the Wilderness, where the Union advantage in manpower will be negated. Lee divides his smaller army and pushes his main body west along the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road toward Hooker, leaving Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division to watch Sedgwick at Fredericksburg.

The two forces meet near the Zoan Church, three miles east of Chancellorsville, late that morning. On the turnpike, the Union Fifth Corps encounters Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’s division and is pushed back after three hours of fighting. Elements of the Twelfth Corps are likewise stopped by Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division on the Plank Road to the south. Then, inexplicably, Hooker orders his corps commanders to fall back to Chancellorsville, believing it better to have Lee to attack him there. Lee will oblige him. That evening, Lee and Jackson conceive a battle plan for the next day.

May 2. Jackson takes nearly 30,000 men off on a march that clandestinely crosses the front of the enemy army and swings around behind it. Jackson’s objective is the right flank of the Union line that rests “in the air” along the Orange Turnpike near Wilderness Tavern. That leaves Lee with only about 15,000 men to hold off Hooker's army around the Chancellorsville crossroads. He skillfully manages the formidable task by feigning attacks with a thin line of skirmishers.

At about 5:00 p.m. Jackson, having completed his circuit around the enemy, unleashes his men in a violent attack on Hooker's right and rear. His men burst out of the thickets screaming the “Rebel Yell.” They shatter the Federal Eleventh Corps and push the Northern army back more than two miles. Yet three hours later, the army suffers a nadir as low as the afternoon's zenith, when Jackson falls, mortally wounded by the fire of his own men. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart is now in temporary command. Both sides settle in for an anxious night, with pickets occasionally exchanging musket fire in the dark.

May 3. The long marches and daring tactics of the last two days give way to a slugging match in the impenetrable woods on three sides of Chancellorsville intersection. The fighting is intense and the casualties mount on both sides. Hooker abandons key ground in a further display of timidity. Confederate artillery roars from Hazel Grove, and Southern infantry doggedly pushes ahead. When a Confederate artillery round smashes into a pillar against which Hooker leans, the Federal leader is knocked unconscious for a half hour. His return to semi-sentience disappoints the veteran corps commanders who had hoped that without him they would be free to employ their army's considerable untapped might.

By mid-morning, Southern infantry smashes through the final resistance and unites in the Chancellorsville clearing. Their boisterous, well-earned, celebration does not last long. Word comes from the direction of Fredericksburg that the Northern rearguard threatens the army’s rear.

Sedgwick has crossed the Rappahannock and broken through Early’s battle line on Marye’s Heights. Pressing west to join Hooker, he meets resistance by more Confederates from McLaws’s division at Salem Church on the Plank Road, sent there by Lee who has divided his army a third time.

May 4. McLaws and Early counterattack Sedgwick and push him back across the river, halting the Union threat from the east.

May 5. Hooker holds a council of war with his corps commanders, who want to continue the fight. But the general has had enough and initiates the army’s retreat.

May 6. Hooker’s army re-crosses the Rappahannock to its north bank.


Timeline of the Battle of Chancellorsville

In the final days of April 1863 the Union Army of the Potomac once again crossed the Rappahannock River to find and fight the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and, hopefully, make its way to Richmond and end the Civil War. Major General Joseph Hooker, its new commander, had restored the army’s confidence and spirit after the dark days of Ambrose Burnside, who had nearly destroyed the army in the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Mud March.

Hooker’s campaign started brilliantly. He was able to surprise Lee and move four army corps across the river and onto the Confederate flank. It was done so rapidly that Lee would have no time to return the two temporarily detached divisions under Longstreet – a quarter of his army – in time to take part in the battle. Outnumbered and outflanked, by all rights Lee should have fallen back from his fortifications at Fredericksburg and been gobbled up by the much larger Union army in the open country to the south.

But that’s not what happened.

Lee instead split his smaller army into three parts – and attacked. A small force was left in the defensive lines at Fredericksburg. Two divisions under Lee’s personal command held back Hooker’s army. Meanwhile “Stonewall” Jackson with 30,000 men made an all-day march around the Union army to fall on Hooker’s unsuspecting and unprepared flank. It was absurdly risky – but it worked. Hooker’s flank crumpled, he contracted his lines, and Lee never let him take back the initiative. By May 6 every Federal infantryman was back north of the Rappahannock.

Monday, April 27

At first light Howard’s Eleventh Corps led Hooker’s flanking column west out of the camps at Brooke’s Station. The Federal Second, Fifth and Twelfth Corps follow.

Tuesday April 28

Buschbeck’s Brigade of Howard’s Eleventh Corps crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford at 6 in the evening. A pontoon bridge was laid by 10:30 pm and the rest of the Eleventh Corps began crossing. They were followed by Slocum’s Twelfth Corps and Meade’s Fifth Corps.

Wednesday, April 29

The Sixth Corps and First Corps crossed the Rappahannock downstream from Fredericksburg. At the Sixth Corps crossing three Pennsylvania regiments of Russell’s brigade lost one man killed and ten wounded. The defending 54th North Carolina lost 2 men captured.

After a delay in getting pontoon boats to the river’s edge, the First Corps’ Iron Brigade crossed the river by boat under a barrage of artillery support. They storm the far bank. The westerners lost 57 casualties, while the defending 6th Louisiana lost 7 killed, 12 wounded and 78 captured and the 13th Georgia lost 28 captured.

The two Fredericksburg bridgeheads united on the north side of the Old Richmond Road, faced by Early’s Division of Jackson’s Corps.

“Stonewall” Jackson sent his wife and infant daughter to safety on the Richmond train after seeing them off the station. It was the last time they would see each other.

Far upstream at Kelly’s Ford, the three Union infantry corps finished their crossing under the command of General Slocum. Stoneman’s Cavalry followed them across. Most of them are ordered to strike out independently for a raid on the Confederate supply line. Meade’s Fifth Corps marched for Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan while Slocum’s Twelfth Corps (under Alpheus Williams while Slocum acts as wing commander) led Howard’s Eleventh Corps to Germanna Ford.

Hooker anticipated the biggest Confederate threat to the flanking column to be at Germanna ford. He told Slocum to lead with his best troops. Slocum selected Ruger’s Brigade. It rushed the Confederate detachment at the ford, capturing 125 Confederates at the cost of one man killed and 4 wounded. Two more men drowned fording the deep and rushing current, but a bridge was thrown across within two hours. Geary’s Division and the Eleventh Corps crossed without getting their feet wet.

Meade’s Fifth Corps waited for the Eleventh Corps to clear the roads, then started for Ely’s Ford. It was undefended. The men waded the deep and rocky ford, a line of lifeguard cavalry placed downstream to rescue those swept away.

Back at Kelly’s Ford, Stoneman’s cavalry finished crossing and made a slow start to their raid, moving four miles south of the ford before bedding down for the night.

Thursday, April 30

Meade’s Fifth Corps reached the Chancellorsville clearing.

Richard Anderson’s Confederate Division dug in at Zoan Church.

Most of Jackson’s Corps began its march from the Fredericksburg area.

Early’s Division and Barksdale’s Brigade from McLaws’ Division were left behind to cover the Fredericksburg crossings, 10,000 men to defend against 60,000.

Friday, May 1

Hooker moved the main body out of Chancellorsville on three routes. Meade’s Fifth Corps advanced along the River Road.

The first clash of the main bodies of infantry of both armies occured southeast of Chancellorsville. After Hooker’s advance troops met Anderson’s men, he pulled back to a defensive line around Chancellorsville. That night, Lee and Jackson met and planned a daring flank attack.

Saturday May 2

While Lee with two divisions held Hooker back southeast of Chancellorsville, Jackson began his march around the Union right flank. By late afternoon Jackson was in place. He launched a devastating attack on the unprepared men of Howard’s Eleventh Corps which caused their complete collapse. As he tried to push his now disorganized forces forward in the darkness to cut the entire Union army off from its river crossing Jackson was badly wounded by his own men. A.P. Hill was wounded at the same time, leaving no experienced division commander to take over Jackson’s Corps. J.E.B. Stuart was quickly brought in to take over.

Sunday May 3

The heaviest fighting of the battle occured on May 3. Hooker’s men were slowly pushed out of the clearings at Hazel Grove, Fairview, and finally around Chancellorsville itself. Hooker was nearly killed by an artillery shot that left him stunned and unresponsive for some time. By the end of the day Union forces were compressed into a defensive perimeter around the Rappahannock River ford.

Around Fredericksburg the Union Sixth Corps under Sedgwick made two assaults on the Confederate force on Marye’s Heights, successfully seizing the position.

Monday May 4

After fighting the Battle of Salem Church Sedgwick failed to break through to Hooker, and was in danger of being surrounded. But he fought his way north and escaped back across the river. Meanwhile, Hooker began his retreat across the Rappahannock.


The Scapegoats at Chancellorsville

“There is no doubt of the fact that our army was at last accounts in the most cheerful and hopeful condition, and Gen. Hooker, it is represented, had issued an address, paying a high compliment to the army for their conduct thus far in this important movement.” The New York Times voiced this optimism on May 3—reporting, two days behind the actual events, on the beginning of the Battle of Chancellorsville, which everybody hoped would be the end of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the war.

The next morning Times readers got a very different story. “Another bloody day has been added to the calendar of this rebellion,” wrote L.L. Crounse for the Times. “At 5 o’clock a terrific crash of musketry on our extreme right announced that Jackson had commenced his operations. This had been anticipated, but it was supposed that after his column was cut, the corps of Maj. Gen. [Oliver Otis] Howard, (formerly Gen. [Franz] Sigel’s corps) with its supports, would be sufficient to resist his approach…. But to the disgrace of the Eleventh Corps be it said, that the division of Gen. [Carl] Schurz, which was the first assailed, almost instantly gave way. Threats, entreaties and orders of commanders were of no avail. Thousands of these cowards threw down their guns and soon streamed down the road toward headquarters.”

Such was May 2, 1863, the day things fell apart at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the most embarrassing engagement ever fought by the Army of the Potomac, if you believe The New York Times. Or you can just take the word of Union Private Darwin Cody, a May 2 survivor with an English-speaking unit, the 1st Ohio Artillery. He wrote: “Our support was all germans. They run without firing a gun…I say dam the DUTCH.”

The defeat at Chancellorsville gave birth to the legend of the Flying Dutchmen—the Germans of the XI Corps who supposedly broke and ran at the first sight of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 26,000 Confederates bearing down on two understrength Union regiments with 700 soldiers and two cannons. The Flying Dutchmen—merging the name of a mythical ghost ship with a corruption of Deutsche, for “German”— fled all the way down the Orange Turnpike. Tumbling in a chain reaction of compulsive cowardice, they took some of the American-born troops down with them—until nightfall when the accidental shooting of Stonewall Jackson by his own pickets ended the rout on a more hopeful note for the Federals. But was that really what happened on May 2?

The performance of German troops in the American Civil War is one of history’s enigmas. Despite an accomplished heritage, the 180,000 Germans in Abraham Lincoln’s army—the largest contingent of any foreign-born group— are remembered as a liability, even something of a disgrace.

“I think the reason the German regiments so seldom turned out well was that their officers were so often men without character,” Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan wrote in 1887. But McClellan also had praise for a top German officer, Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker, who had fought with McClellan in earlier battles. Blenker’s division—without its commander, who was home dying of injuries suffered in a fall from his horse—was numbered among the Flying Dutchmen of Chancellorsville. A native of Hesse-Darmstadt, Ludwig (later Louis) Blenker fought in the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 on the side of the democratic rebels, then escaped to Switzerland and, after being banished, emigrated to Rockland County, N.Y., where he became a successful farmer and businessman. When the Civil War broke out, Blenker and Hungarian émigré Julius Stahel organized the 8th New York, a two-year regiment, and became its colonel and lieutenant colonel, respectively. “[Blenker] was in many respects an excellent soldier, had his command in excellent drill, was very fond of display,” McClellan wrote. “It would be difficult to find a more soldierly looking set of men than he had under his command.”

Many German commanders of Civil War units—men like Franz Sigel, Carl Schurz, and Hubert Dilger—were also former rebels from 1848. Others had served as officers in the Prussian army that put down the rebellions under the auspices of the German Confederation. This past internal conflict may have been at the core of the almost habitually disappointing conduct of German troops in the Union Army.

Through the 1850s, Prussian-hating radicals were followed to America by a different type of emigrant—members of the Prussian officer caste of minor nobility called Junkers—whose own army didn’t have jobs for them. Career officers who lost out in the promotion shuffle from captain or major to the cherished lifetime position of colonel often made a very shaky transition to civilian life: Detlev von Liliencron, an undoubted nobleman and decorated hero of the Franco-Prussian War, eked out a postmilitary living sweeping out taverns while he wrote some of Germany’s best-loved poetry.

Such a man, minus the poetic talent, was Leopold von Gilsa, a former major in the Prussian Army who had seen service in the brief war against Denmark before he emigrated with his wife from Prussia to the United States in 1850. Gilsa was living in New York City, lecturing and playing the piano in Bowery saloons, when the American Civil War erupted. When patriotic German Americans formed the 41st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment in June 1861, he was appointed colonel. Of the 33 officers in the 41st New York, 23 had experience in various German armies, and quite a few of the enlisted men were also German military veterans. Many were in their late 20s or early 30s, some pushing 40. They remembered 1848. The command structure was stratified: At the brigade level were former radicals such as Sigel and Schurz, heroes of the radical faction in the revolution of 1848 at the regimental level, Gilsa, the conservative Junker from a proud military tradition but ill-suited to a life of commerce and free enterprise and in the ranks, tradesmen like most of the 300 victims of the Berlin massacre of March 1848, men who came to America to get away from arbitrary Prussian rule.

The 41st arrived too late to fight at the First Battle of Bull Run but helped cover the Federals’ panicky retreat. The regiment worked on fortifications around Washington, D.C., and Gilsa was served with papers for the first of several courts-martial after reportedly pushing an enlisted man against a tent and insulting him. The matter never came to trial. Over in the 45th New York, things were no better: Lieutenant Joseph Spangenberg, already wounded in the chest in an early engagement, was served with court-martial papers when he called a fellow officer on parade a Schweinhund, a dirty dog, and a Schuf, a gentile hired to clean up after Jews on the Sabbath. Spangenberg’s court-martial never took place either, and he was later promoted to captain, but a collision between these two temperamental Teutonic thunderheads, officers in the same brigade, was only a matter of time.

Colonel von Gilsa was wounded in the leg leading the 41st in the regiment’s first battle at Cross Keys on June 8, 1862. The regiment and the rest of Blenker’s and Stahel’s divisions were repulsed making an attack over an open field against Confederates firing from thick woods they retired in good order with one man killed, eight wounded and 12 missing. Sigel took over the division. The 41st and 45th again faced the Confederates at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 28-30, 1862. On Chinn Ridge on August 30, the 41st attacked alone in a vain attempt to recover an abandoned Federal battery but was driven back.

In the battle the 41st lost 103 men Lieutenant Richard Kurz and 26 enlisted men were killed, 60 were wounded (seven later died), and 12 men were missing or captured. Lieutenant Richard Kurz was among the dead. Gilsa returned after recovering from his wound at Cross Keys and was given command of the entire brigade but without being promoted to the rank of general, which rankled him. The new corps commander, replacing Sigel, was Oliver O. Howard, who had lost an arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks. He was an unknown quantity in the XI Corps, where most of the German regiments of the Army of the Potomac were concentrated. The 41st and 45th New York—the 41st now augmented by soldiers left over when the enlistments of Blenker’s old 8th New York expired on April 22, 1863— became the first two regiments of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division. This may have been why the regiments found themselves on the extreme right of the Union line at Chancellorsville. Gilsa, an arrogantly outspoken professional, didn’t like the position and said so. His right flank was hanging in the air, just waiting to be turned, and the underbrush made surveillance impossible. He anchored his flank with the only two cannons he had available and sent out pickets a quarter to half a mile.

Shortly, the German pickets reported that Confederates appeared to be moving along their front in considerable numbers. Gilsa sent a courier to General Howard (several other German officers had also reported unexpected activity), but the courier was ignored. Gilsa then rode to Howard’s headquarters and reported Confederate movements across his front. He was rebuffed and all but accused of cowardice.

Hubert Dilger, another Baden revolutionary in the Union Army, was commanding Battery I of the 1st Ohio Artillery, a mixed unit of American-born German Americans in support of the XI Corps infantry. A fearless swashbuckler and a splendid horseman, Dilger was known as “Old Leatherbreeches” because he favored tailormade buckskin riding trousers after wearing out several sets of kersey blue. Dilger got so close to the Confederates moving through the woods that he had to ride like mad and duck under tree limbs to avoid being captured. When he barely made it back alive to Howard’s headquarters, he too was ignored.

What the Prussian professionals and the Baden swashbuckler alike had reported to the Americans, of course, was Stonewall Jackson’s famous flanking march while it was still in progress. Neither General Howard nor Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the Union commander, would believe that they were being outflanked, despite repeated warnings from Gilsa, Dilger and several other Germans. At about 4:30 p.m., Gilsa sent out a squad from the 45th New York, commanded by Captain Spangenberg. The hot-tempered but fearless Spangenberg bumped into the Confederates and got close enough to see their overwhelming numbers. Shots were exchanged, and Spangenberg, unwilling to pit a half-dozen Germans against the entire Army of Northern Virginia, rushed back and bumped into Gilsa at the hanging flank of the 41st. Gilsa, mistaking prudence for panic, struck Spangenberg with the flat of his sword in rebuke—a dueling offense back in Germany—and ordered the brigade to arms. The 41st, 45th, and 54th New York and the 153rd Pennsylvania stood to face the woods and were ready for battle when 26,000 of the Confederate army’s best soldiers broke cover and advanced on them.

Compounding Howard’s and Hooker’s deafness to the dispatches and warnings they had received was a natural anomaly: an “acoustic shadow.” This atmospheric phenomenon essentially put a lid on sound waves from the battle, preventing the generals from hearing the fighting.

Gilsa’s soldiers stood their ground and fired three volleys into the charging Confederates. They were loading for a fourth—no doubt with shaking fingers—when Gilsa saw he was being outflanked. He called one orderly to order a withdrawal, and the orderly was shot right before his eyes. He called a second orderly, also shot before his eyes. Gilsa himself rode up and down the ranks roaring the orders to pull back. Some of the enlisted men backed away in fighting stance, and others simply broke and ran. The brigade pulled back to the next supporting position, the 75th Ohio, and made a stand that lasted about 10 minutes.

At this point, many of the bravest soldiers had already been shot, and more and more fugitives were headed for the rear. Gilsa rode back, shouting at the men to stand, and bumped into Spangenberg, also calling for a rally. This confrontation flared into an argument that climaxed when Gilsa brought the flat of his sword down on Spangenberg’s head and knocked him out. The 41st and 45th continued to shed fugitives, but the bulk of both regiments remained intact and kept firing while pulling back. The 41st alone lost 61 men— about 20 percent casualties, enough to break any nonelite unit. The regiment had stopped with the rest of the brigade at General Hooker’s headquarters, about two miles from the point of contact where Jackson broke out of the woods. Losses from the 45th (Spangenberg was carried away and later regained consciousness) were on the same level.

Just behind the two flank regiments, the 54th New York also put up a good fight. “The conflict was a fierce one, and several times the flag was almost captured, three color bearers being successively wounded,” historian William F. Fox wrote. “However, the regiment held its own until almost surrounded by the enemy when, to avoid capture, it fell back fighting bravely. The casualties were 1 killed, 23 wounded, and 17 missing, a total of 42.” The 153rd Pennsylvania, a largely American-born, nine-month regiment that had never seen combat before, simply crumbled when it took fire from both sides.

The Ohio Brigade, whose divisional commander was Brig. Gen. Charles Devens Jr., was next in line. These troops were not German immigrants but mostly American-born—the 17th Connecticut had been assimilated somehow into the Ohio Brigade. General Devens heard the noise up the Orange Turnpike—perhaps later than he should have due to the acoustic shadow—but he took no action. Two of his own colonels said later that he appeared to be drunk. When Stonewall’s Confederates pushed the remnants of Gilsa’s Brigade into Devens’ Ohio Brigade, the American-born troops fell into the same pattern:They stood and fought briefly, pulled back 500 yards, stood again, and then broke and made for the rear as their regiments were cut to pieces. Four out of five colonels were killed, wounded, or captured, and the Ohio Brigade lost 688 men. Some of the American-born soldiers stuck by their officers and regrouped at headquarters. Others brought panic to units that had not yet made contact.

Gilsa’s Brigade—the first of the Flying Dutchmen—actually maintained better unit cohesion than the long-time Americans. Gilsa said in his report that most of his men fought well but that many of his officers hadn’t shown the proper spirit of cooperation.

Stonewall’s ax then fell on Carl Schurz’s brigade, the next in line as Gilsa’s men pulled back in good order or, in some cases, ran for it, joined by their American- born counterparts in the Ohio Brigade. The 58th New York, a mixed unit made up mostly of Germans and Poles, had also attempted to warn headquarters about Stonewall’s flanking maneuver and also had been ignored.

Historian Fox later described the action: “Schurz’s regiments held the ground for half an hour or more, and then finding that the enemy overlapped their line on either flank fell back, stopping from time to time to deliver their fire.” The 58th counted 31 casualties out of 239 officers and men engaged. Its commanding officer, Captain Frederick Braun, was shot off his horse and mortally wounded leading his men. Another mixed-heritage regiment with a large number of Germans, the 119th, also lost its commander, Colonel Elias Peissner, when he, too, was shot off his horse. “Notwith – standing the loss of its gallant colonel and one third of its entire rank and file, the regiment retired from the field in good order,” Fox recorded of the 119th New York. Schurz noted that every regiment in his brigade had its colonel killed or wounded by enemy gunfire.

Captain Dilger now brought his six cannons into action, placing them on a rise and firing over the heads of the Union infantry. The Confederates captured one of his guns and two guns of Captain Michael Wiedrich when these two redoubtable Germans waited too long to pull back. Once again, Dilger narrowly escaped capture.

While Gilsa’s Brigade, the Ohio Brigade, and then Schurz’s Brigade were being chewed up and spat out, troops farther down the Orange Turnpike, where the acoustic shadow pervaded, apparently were oblivious to the carnage. When spectators first heard the gunfire, they saw crowds of American-born and Germanborn men fleeing toward the main troop body, some without their muskets. The rout included not only infantry but also “battery wagons, ambulances, horses, men, cannon, caissons, all jumbled and tumbled together in an apparently inextricable mass, and that murderous fire still pouring on them,” wrote Thomas Cook for the New York Herald.

Bolstered by their artillery and the approach of darkness, the Union army finally stopped Stonewall’s advance. The wounding of Jackson later that night enabled Hooker to disengage and head back home after being defeated by an army half the size of his own. The much-maligned XI Corps— later disbanded—had inflicted about 1,000 casualties on Stonewall Jackson’s men and held up the Confederate advance for two hours. The corps lost 217 killed, 1,218 wounded, and 972 captured or missing.

Nonetheless, even before Stonewall Jackson died, his humbled Union adversaries began weaving the Legend of the Flying Dutchmen. In the process, careers were tainted: Gilsa never made general, much to his own disgust, and he resigned when the bulk of his men left the service at the end of their three-year hitch. He died in 1870, at 45, while working as a government clerk, his health damaged by wounds and war service. Dilger received the Medal of Honor for Chancellorsville and later service at Gettysburg, but he remained a captain while less distinguished soldiers were promoted over his head. Spangenberg, whose warning could have staved off the rout, was promoted to major and to colonel on the same day—after the war was over.

The Federals’ disaster at Chancellorsville may have been due in part to the abrasive relationship between Prussian conservatives and South German radicals among the German-born officers in Lincoln’s army. And the rolling shock of Stonewall Jackson’s sudden arrival on the flank of three Union brigades was due in part to the acoustic shadow and the strange failure of Howard, Hooker, and Devens to listen to warnings delivered in ample time. Neither the fighting qualities of the German enlisted men nor the capability of their officers—leaving out some problems in personality clashes—led to the black day of the Army of the Potomac. But the Legend of the Flying Dutchmen as the culprits of Chancellorsville lives on. Everybody needs a scapegoat.

John Koster recently contributed “Survivor Frank Finkel’s Lasting Stand” to the Weider History Group’s Wild West (June 2007). Minjae Kim provided research for this article.

Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.


Contents

Military situation Edit

Union attempts against Richmond Edit

In the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, the objective of the Union had been to advance and seize the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. In the first two years of the war, four major attempts had failed: the first foundered just miles away from Washington, D.C., at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) in July 1861. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign took an amphibious approach, landing his Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862 and coming within 6 miles (9.7 km) of Richmond before being turned back by Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days Battles. [14]

That summer, Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia was defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run. In December 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside commanded the Army of the Potomac and attempted to reach Richmond by way of Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg. This string of Union defeats was interrupted in September 1862 when Lee moved into Maryland and his campaign was turned back by McClellan at the Battle of Antietam, but this represented no threat to Richmond. [15]

Shakeup in the Army of the Potomac Edit

In January 1863, the Army of the Potomac, following the Battle of Fredericksburg and the humiliating Mud March, suffered from rising desertions and plunging morale. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside decided to conduct a mass purge of the Army of the Potomac's leadership, eliminating a number of generals who he felt were responsible for the disaster at Fredericksburg. In reality, he had no power to dismiss anyone without the approval of Congress. [16]

Predictably, Burnside's purge went nowhere, and he offered President Abraham Lincoln his resignation from command of the Army of the Potomac. He even offered to resign entirely from the Army, but the president persuaded him to stay, transferring him to the Western Theater, where he became commander of the Department of the Ohio. Burnside's former command, the IX Corps, was transferred to the Virginia Peninsula, a movement that prompted the Confederates to detach troops from Lee's army under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, a decision that would be consequential in the upcoming campaign. [17]

Abraham Lincoln had become convinced that the appropriate objective for his Eastern army was the army of Robert E. Lee, not any geographic features such as a capital city, [18] but he and his generals knew that the most reliable way to bring Lee to a decisive battle was to threaten his capital. Lincoln tried a fifth time with a new general on January 25, 1863—Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a man with a pugnacious reputation who had performed well in previous subordinate commands. [19]

With Burnside's departure, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin left as well. Franklin had been a staunch supporter of George B. McClellan and refused to serve under Hooker, because he disliked him personally and also because he was senior to Hooker in rank. Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner stepped down due to old age (he was 65) and poor health. He was reassigned to a command in Missouri, but died before he could assume it. Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield was reassigned from command of the V Corps to be Hooker's chief of staff. [20]

Hooker embarked on a much-needed reorganization of the army, doing away with Burnside's grand division system, which had proved unwieldy he also no longer had sufficient senior officers on hand that he could trust to command multi-corps operations. [21] He organized the cavalry into a separate corps under the command of Brig. Gen. George Stoneman (who had commanded the III Corps at Fredericksburg). But while he concentrated the cavalry into a single organization, he dispersed his artillery battalions to the control of the infantry division commanders, removing the coordinating influence of the army's artillery chief, Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt. [22]

Hooker established a reputation as an outstanding administrator and restored the morale of his soldiers, which had plummeted to a new low under Burnside. Among his changes were fixes to the daily diet of the troops, camp sanitary changes, improvements and accountability of the quartermaster system, addition of and monitoring of company cooks, several hospital reforms, an improved furlough system, orders to stem rising desertion, improved drills, and stronger officer training. [23]

Intelligence and plans Edit

Hooker took advantage of improved military intelligence about the positioning and capabilities of the opposing army, superior to that available to his predecessors in army command. His chief of staff, Butterfield, commissioned Col. George H. Sharpe from the 120th New York Infantry to organize a new Bureau of Military Information in the Army of the Potomac, part of the provost marshal function under Brig. Gen. Marsena R. Patrick. Previously, intelligence gatherers, such as Allan Pinkerton and his detective agency, gathered information only by interrogating prisoners, deserters, "contrabands" (slaves), and refugees. [25]

The new BMI added other sources including infantry and cavalry reconnaissance, spies, scouts, signal stations, and an aerial balloon corps. As he received the more complete information correlated from these additional sources, Hooker realized that if he were to avoid the bloodbath of direct frontal attacks, which were features of the battles of Antietam and, more recently, Fredericksburg, he could not succeed in his crossing of the Rappahannock "except by stratagem." [26]

Hooker's army faced Lee across the Rappahannock from its winter quarters in Falmouth and around Fredericksburg. Hooker developed a strategy that was, on paper, superior to those of his predecessors. He planned to send his 10,000 cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman to cross the Rappahannock far upstream and raid deep into the Confederate rear areas, destroying crucial supply depots along the railroad from the Confederate capital in Richmond to Fredericksburg, which would cut Lee's lines of communication and supply. [27]

Hooker reasoned that Lee would react to this threat by abandoning his fortified positions on the Rappahannock and withdrawing toward his capital. At that time, Hooker's infantry would cross the Rappahannock in pursuit, attacking Lee when he was moving and vulnerable. Stoneman attempted to execute this turning movement on April 13, but heavy rains made the river crossing site at Sulphur Spring impassable. President Lincoln lamented, "I greatly fear it is another failure already." Hooker was forced to create a new plan for a meeting with Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and general in chief Henry W. Halleck in Aquia on April 19. [28]

Hooker's second plan was to launch both his cavalry and infantry simultaneously in a bold double envelopment of Lee's army. Stoneman's cavalry would make a second attempt at its deep strategic raid, but at the same time, 42,000 men in three corps (V, XI, XII Corps) would stealthily march to cross the Rappahannock upriver at Kelly's Ford. They would then proceed south and cross the Rapidan at Germanna and Ely's Ford, concentrate at the Chancellorsville crossroads, and attack Lee's army from the west. [29]

While they were under way, 10,000 men in two divisions from the II Corps would cross at the U.S. Ford and join with the V Corps in pushing the Confederates away from the river. The second half of the double envelopment was to come from the east: 40,000 men in two corps (I and VI Corps, under the overall command of John Sedgwick) would cross the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg and threaten to attack Stonewall Jackson's position on the Confederate right flank. [30]

The remaining 25,000 men (III Corps and one division of the II Corps) would remain visible in their camps at Falmouth to divert Confederate attention from the turning movement. Hooker anticipated that Lee would either be forced to retreat, in which case he would be vigorously pursued, or he would be forced to attack the Union Army on unfavorable terrain. [31]

One of the defining characteristics of the battlefield was a dense woodland south of the Rapidan known locally as the "Wilderness of Spotsylvania". The area had once been an open broadleaf forest, but during colonial times the trees were gradually cut down to make charcoal for local pig iron furnaces. When the supply of wood was exhausted, the furnaces were abandoned and secondary forest growth developed, creating a dense mass of brambles, thickets, vines, and low-lying vegetation. [32]

Catharine Furnace, abandoned in the 1840s, had recently been reactivated to produce iron for the Confederate war effort. This area was largely unsuitable for the deployment of artillery and the control of large infantry formations, which would nullify some of the Union advantage in military power. It was important for Hooker's plan that his men move quickly out of this area and attack Lee in the open ground to the east. There were three primary roads available for this west-to-east movement: the Orange Plank Road, the Orange Turnpike, and the River Road. [33]

The Confederate dispositions were as follows: the Rappahannock line at Fredericksburg was occupied by Longstreet's First Corps division of Lafayette McLaws on Marye's Heights, with Jackson's entire Second Corps to their right. Early's division was at Prospect Hill and the divisions of Rodes, Hill, and Colston extended the Confederate right flank along the river almost to Skinker's Neck. The other division present from Longstreet's Corps, Anderson's, guarded the river crossings on the left flank. Stuart's cavalry was largely in Culpeper County near Kelly's Ford, beyond the infantry's left flank. [34]

Initial movements Edit

April 27–30: Movement to battle Edit

On April 27–28, the initial three corps of the Army of the Potomac began their march under the leadership of Slocum. They crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers as planned and began to concentrate on April 30 around the hamlet of Chancellorsville, which was little more than a single large, brick mansion at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road. Built in the early 19th century, it had been used as an inn on the turnpike for many years, but now served as a home for the Frances Chancellor family. Some of the family remained in the house during the battle. [35]

Hooker arrived late in the afternoon on April 30 and made the mansion his headquarters. Stoneman's cavalry began on April 30 its second attempt to reach Lee's rear areas. Two divisions of II Corps crossed at U.S. Ford on April 30 without opposition. By dawn on April 29, pontoon bridges spanned the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg and Sedgwick's force began to cross. [36]

Pleased with the success of the operation so far, and realizing that the Confederates were not vigorously opposing the river crossings, Hooker ordered Sickles to begin the movement of the III Corps from Falmouth the night of April 30 – May 1. By May 1, Hooker had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville. [37]

In his Fredericksburg headquarters, Lee was initially in the dark about the Union intentions and he suspected that the main column under Slocum was heading towards Gordonsville. Jeb Stuart's cavalry was cut off at first by Stoneman's departure on April 30, but they were soon able to move freely around the army's flanks on their reconnaissance missions after almost all their Union counterparts had left the area. [38]

As Stuart's intelligence information about the Union river crossings began to arrive, Lee did not react as Hooker had anticipated. He decided to violate one of the generally accepted principles of war and divide his force in the face of a superior enemy, hoping that aggressive action would allow him to attack and defeat a portion of Hooker's army before it could be fully concentrated against him. He became convinced that Sedgwick's force would demonstrate against him, but not become a serious threat, so he ordered about 4/5 of his army to meet the challenge from Chancellorsville. He left behind a brigade under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale on heavily fortified Marye's Heights behind Fredericksburg and one division under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, on Prospect Hill south of the town. [39]

These roughly 11,000 men and 56 guns would attempt to resist any advance by Sedgwick's 40,000. He ordered Stonewall Jackson to march west and link up with Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division, which had pulled back from the river crossings they were guarding and began digging earthworks on a north-south line between the Zoan and Tabernacle churches. McLaws's division was ordered from Fredericksburg to join Anderson. This would amass 40,000 men to confront Hooker's movement east from Chancellorsville. Heavy fog along the Rappahannock masked some of these westward movements and Sedgwick chose to wait until he could determine the enemy's intentions. [40]

Union Edit

The Army of the Potomac, [4] commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, had 133,868 men [7] [8] and 413 guns [7] [41] organized as follows: [42]

    , commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. James S. Wadsworth, John C. Robinson, and Abner Doubleday. , commanded by Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, with the divisions of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and William H. French, and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon. , commanded by Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, with the divisions of Brig. Gen. David B. Birney, and Maj. Gens. Hiram G. Berry and Amiel W. Whipple. , commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Charles Griffin and Andrew A. Humphreys, and Maj. Gen. George Sykes. , commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. William T. H. Brooks and Albion P. Howe, Maj. Gen. John Newton, and Col. Hiram Burnham. , commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, with the divisions of Brig. Gen. Charles Devens, Jr., and Adolph von Steinwehr, and Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz. , commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Alpheus S. Williams and John W. Geary. , commanded by Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Alfred Pleasonton, William W. Averell, and David M. Gregg.

Confederate Edit

Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia [6] fielded 60,298 men [8] [9] and 220 guns, [43] organized as follows: [44]

    , commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet and the majority of his corps (the divisions of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood and Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and two artillery battalions) were detached for duty in southeastern Virginia. The divisions present at Chancellorsville were those of Maj. Gens. Lafayette McLaws and Richard H. Anderson. , commanded by Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson, with the divisions of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, Brig. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, and Brig. Gen. Raleigh E. Colston. , commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. (Stuart's corps had only two brigades at Chancellorsville, those of Brig. Gens. Fitzhugh Lee and W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee. The brigades of Brig. Gens. Wade Hampton and William E. "Grumble" Jones were detached.)

The Chancellorsville campaign was one of the most lopsided clashes of the war, with the Union's effective fighting force more than twice the Confederates', the greatest imbalance during the war in Virginia. Hooker's army was much better supplied and was well-rested after several months of inactivity. Lee's forces, on the other hand, were poorly provisioned and were scattered all over the state of Virginia. Some 15,000 men of Longstreet's Corps had previously been detached and stationed near Norfolk in order to block a potential threat to Richmond from Federal troops stationed at Fort Monroe and Newport News on the Peninsula, as well as at Norfolk and Suffolk. [45]

In light of the continued Federal inactivity, by late March Longstreet's primary assignment became that of requisitioning provisions for Lee's forces from the farmers and planters of North Carolina and Virginia. As a result of this the two divisions of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood and Maj. Gen. George Pickett were 130 miles (210 km) away from Lee's army and would take a week or more of marching to reach it in an emergency. After nearly a year of campaigning, allowing these troops to slip away from his immediate control was Lee's gravest miscalculation. Although he hoped to be able to call on them, these men would not arrive in time to aid his outnumbered forces. [46]

May 1: Hooker passes on opportunity Edit

Jackson's men began marching west to join with Anderson before dawn on May 1. Jackson himself met with Anderson near Zoan Church at 8 a.m., finding that McLaws's division had already arrived to join the defensive position. But Stonewall Jackson was not in a defensive mood. He ordered an advance at 11 a.m. along two roads toward Chancellorsville: McLaws's division and the brigade of Brig. Gen. William Mahone on the Turnpike, and Anderson's other brigades and Jackson's arriving units on the Plank Road. [47]

At about the same time, Hooker ordered his men to advance on three roads to the east: two divisions of Meade's V Corps (Griffin and Humphreys) on the River Road to uncover Banks's Ford, and the remaining division (Sykes) on the Turnpike and Slocum's XII Corps on the Plank Road, with Howard's XI Corps in close support. Couch's II Corps was placed in reserve, where it would be soon joined by Sickles's III Corps. [48]

The first shots of the Battle of Chancellorsville were fired at 11:20 a.m. as the armies collided. McLaws's initial attack pushed back Sykes's division. The Union general organized a counterattack that recovered the lost ground. Anderson then sent a brigade under Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright up an unfinished railroad south of the Plank Road, around the right flank of Slocum's corps. This would normally be a serious problem, but Howard's XI Corps was advancing from the rear and could deal with Wright. [49]

Sykes's division had proceeded farther forward than Slocum on his right, leaving him in an exposed position. This forced him to conduct an orderly withdrawal at 2 p.m. to take up a position behind Hancock's division of the II Corps, which was ordered by Hooker to advance and help repulse the Confederate attack. Meade's other two divisions made good progress on the River Road and were approaching their objective, Banks's Ford. [50]

Robert K. Krick, Lee's Greatest Victory [51]

Despite being in a potentially favorable situation, Hooker halted his brief offensive. His actions may have demonstrated his lack of confidence in handling the complex actions of such a large organization for the first time (he had been an effective and aggressive division and corps commander in previous battles), but he had also decided before beginning the campaign that he would fight the battle defensively, forcing Lee, with his small army, to attack his own, larger one. At the [First] Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862), the Union army had done the attacking and met with a bloody defeat. [52]

Hooker knew Lee could not sustain such a defeat and keep an effective army in the field, so he ordered his men to withdraw back into the Wilderness and take a defensive position around Chancellorsville, daring Lee to attack him or retreat with superior forces at his back. He confused matters by issuing a second order to his subordinates to hold their positions until 5 p.m., but by the time it was received, most of the Union units had begun their rearward movements. That evening, Hooker sent a message to his corps commanders, "The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack to-day will embolden the enemy to attack him." [53]

Hooker's subordinates were surprised and outraged by the change in plans. They saw that the position they were fighting for near the Zoan Church was relatively high ground and offered an opportunity for the infantry and artillery to deploy outside the constraints of the Wilderness. Meade exclaimed, "My God, if we can't hold the top of the hill, we certainly can't hold the bottom of it!" Viewing through the lens of hindsight, some of the participants and many modern historians judged that Hooker effectively lost the campaign on May 1. Stephen W. Sears observed, however, that Hooker's concern was based on more than personal timidity. [55]

The ground being disputed was little more than a clearing in the Wilderness, to which access was available by only two narrow roads. The Confederate response had swiftly concentrated the aggressive Stonewall Jackson's corps against his advancing columns such that the Federal army was outnumbered in that area, about 48,000 to 30,000, and would have difficulty maneuvering into effective lines of battle. Meade's two divisions on the River Road were too far separated to support Slocum and Sykes, and reinforcements from the rest of the II Corps and the III Corps would be too slow in arriving. [56]

As the Union troops dug in around Chancellorsville that night, creating log breastworks, faced with abatis, Lee and Stonewall Jackson met at the intersection of the Plank Road and the Furnace Road to plan their next move. Jackson believed that Hooker would retreat across the Rappahannock, but Lee assumed that the Union general had invested too much in the campaign to withdraw so precipitously. If the Federal troops were still in position on May 2, Lee would attack them. As they discussed their options, cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart arrived with an intelligence report from his subordinate, Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. [57]

Although Hooker's left flank was firmly anchored by Meade's V Corps on the Rappahannock, and his center was strongly fortified, his right flank was "in the air." Howard's XI Corps was camped on the Orange Turnpike, extending past Wilderness Church, and was vulnerable to a flanking attack. Investigations of a route to be used to reach the flank identified the proprietor of Catharine Furnace, Charles C. Wellford, who showed Jackson's cartographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, a recently constructed road through the forest that would shield marchers from the observation of Union pickets. Lee directed Jackson to make the flanking march, a maneuver similar to the one that had been so successful prior to the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). An account by Hotchkiss recalls that Lee asked Jackson how many men he would take on the flanking march and Jackson replied, "my whole command." [58]

May 2: Jackson's flank attack Edit

Early on the morning of May 2, Hooker began to realize that Lee's actions on May 1 had not been constrained by the threat of Sedgwick's force at Fredericksburg, so no further deception was needed on that front. He decided to summon the I Corps of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds to reinforce his lines at Chancellorsville. His intent was that Reynolds would form up to the right of the XI Corps and anchor the Union right flank on the Rapidan River. [59]

Given the communications chaos of May 1, Hooker was under the mistaken impression that Sedgwick had withdrawn back across the Rappahannock and, based on this, that the VI Corps should remain on the north bank of the river across from the town, where it could protect the army's supplies and supply line. In fact, both Reynolds and Sedgwick were still west of the Rappahannock, south of the town. [60]

Hooker sent his orders at 1:55 a.m., expecting that Reynolds would be able to start marching before daylight, but problems with his telegraph communications delayed the order to Fredericksburg until just before sunrise. Reynolds was forced to make a risky daylight march. By the afternoon of May 2, when Hooker expected him to be digging in on the Union right at Chancellorsville, Reynolds was still marching to the Rappahannock. [61]

Meanwhile, for the second time, Lee was dividing his army. Jackson would lead his Second Corps of 28,000 men around to attack the Union right flank while Lee exercised personal command of the remaining two divisions, about 13,000 men and 24 guns facing the 70,000 Union troops at Chancellorsville. For the plan to work, several things had to happen. First, Jackson had to make a 12-mile (19 km) march via roundabout roads to reach the Union right, and he had to do it undetected. Second, Hooker had to stay tamely on the defensive. Third, Early would have to keep Sedgwick bottled up at Fredericksburg, despite the four-to-one Union advantage there. And when Jackson launched his attack, he had to hope that the Union forces were unprepared. [62]

Confederate cavalry under Stuart kept most Union forces from spotting Jackson on his long flank march, which started between 7 and 8 a.m. and lasted until midafternoon. Several Confederate soldiers saw the Union observation balloon Eagle soaring overhead and assumed that they could likewise be seen, but no such report was sent to headquarters. When men of the III Corps spotted a Confederate column moving through the woods, their division commander, Brig. Gen. David B. Birney, ordered his artillery to open fire, but this proved little more than harassment. The corps commander, Sickles, rode to Hazel Grove to see for himself and he reported after the battle that his men observed the Confederates passing for over three hours. [63]

When Hooker received the report about the Confederate movement, he thought that Lee might be starting a retreat, but he also realized that a flanking march might be in progress. He took two actions. First, he sent a message at 9:30 a.m. to the commander of the XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard on his right flank: "We have good reason to suppose the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe in order to obtain timely information of their approach." [64]

At 10:50 a.m., Howard replied that he was "taking measures to resist an attack from the west." Hooker's second action was to send orders to Sedgwick – "attack the enemy in his front" at Fredericksburg if "an opportunity presents itself with a reasonable expectation of success" – and Sickles – "advance cautiously toward the road followed by the enemy, and harass the movement as much as possible". Sedgwick did not take action from the discretionary orders. Sickles, however, was enthusiastic when he received the order at noon. He sent Birney's division, flanked by two battalions of Col. Hiram Berdan's U.S. sharpshooters, south from Hazel Grove with orders to pierce the column and gain possession of the road. [65]

But the action came too late. Jackson had ordered the 23rd Georgia Infantry to guard the rear of the column and they resisted the advance of Birney and Berdan at Catherine Furnace. The Georgians were driven south and made a stand at the same unfinished railroad bed used by Wright's Brigade the day before. They were overwhelmed by 5 p.m. and most were captured. Two brigades from A.P. Hill's division turned back from the flanking march and prevented any further damage to Jackson's column, which by now had left the area. [66]

Most of Jackson's men were unaware of the small action at the rear of their column. As they marched north on Brock Road, Jackson was prepared to turn right on the Orange Plank Road, from which his men would attack the Union lines at around Wilderness Church. However, it became apparent that this direction would lead to essentially a frontal assault against Howard's line. Fitzhugh Lee met Jackson and they ascended a hill with a sweeping view of the Union position. Jackson was delighted to see that Howard's men were resting, unaware of the impending Confederate threat. [67]

Although by now it was 3 p.m., Jackson decided to march his men two miles farther and turn right on the Turnpike instead, allowing him to strike the unprotected flank directly. The attack formation consisted of two lines—the divisions of Brig. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Raleigh E. Colston—stretching almost a mile on either side of the turnpike, separated by 200 yards, followed by a partial line with the arriving division of A.P. Hill. [68]

Significant contributions to the impending Union disaster were the nature of the Union XI Corps and the incompetent performance of its commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. Howard failed to make any provision for defending against a surprise attack, even though Hooker had ordered him to do so. The Union right flank was not anchored on any natural obstacle, and the only defenses against a flank attack consisted of two cannons pointing out into the Wilderness. [69]

Also, the XI Corps was not well respected – an outfit with poor morale and no history of battlefield success. Many of its officers and enlisted men were immigrants from Germany and other parts of Central Europe, including a number of political refugees from the 1848 revolutions. The corps had been formed in the spring of 1862 by merging Brig. Gen Louis Blenker's division with Maj. Gen John C. Frémont's Mountain Department in West Virginia. After a miserable trek across Virginia in which Blenker's troops were provisioned inadequately and suffered from widespread hunger, disease, and desertion, they joined with Fremont in a campaign that resulted in them being soundly defeated by Stonewall Jackson. [70]

Fremont's army became part of Maj. Gen John Pope's Army of Virginia in the summer. Fremont had refused to serve under Pope and was replaced by Maj. Gen Franz Sigel, an inept political general who, however, was much beloved by his German troops. Louis Blenker fell from a horse during the northern Virginia campaign and suffered injuries that would claim his life later in 1863. The corps suffered heavy casualties at Second Bull Run and was left behind in Washington D.C. during the Maryland campaign. During the Fredericksburg campaign, it did not join the rest of the army until after the battle was over. [71]

After Hooker took command, Sigel was the ranking general behind him. The XI Corps was the smallest in the army and Sigel's requests to general-in-chief Henry Halleck to have it enlarged were refused, so he resigned his command in March 1863 and was replaced by Maj. Gen Oliver O. Howard, who was widely unpopular with the enlisted men and brought in several new generals, such as Brig. Gen Francis Barlow, who had a reputation of being aggressive martinets. Eight of the 27 regiments in the corps had never been in battle before, while the remaining 21 had never been on the winning side of a battle. The German soldiers suffered from widespread ethnic friction with the rest of the army although a number of the regiments in the XI Corps consisted of native-born Americans. [72]

Hooker had no major plans for the corps except for mopping up after the main battle was over, and it was placed out on the army's right flank where it was not expected to be involved in any fighting, and the woods to the west were assumed to be so thick that enemy troops could not possibly move through them and form a line of battle. As far as Hooker knew, the only possible route for a Confederate attack was along the turnpike, which would cause them to run right into the II and XII Corps, both elite outfits and well-entrenched. Further north, the Union line was held by the V Corps, also first-rate troops occupying an almost impregnable position. [73]

As the day wore on, the men of the XI Corps became increasingly aware that something was going on in the woods to the west of them, but were unable to get any higher-ups to pay attention. Col. John C. Lee of the 55th Ohio received numerous reports of a Confederate presence out there, and Col. William Richardson of the 25th Ohio reported that huge numbers of Confederates were massing to the west. Col. Leopold von Gilsa, who commanded one of two brigades in Brig. Gen Charles Devens' division, went to Howard's headquarters warning him that an all-out enemy assault was imminent, but Howard insisted that it was impossible for the Confederates to get through the dense woods.

Maj. Gen Carl Schurz, who commanded the 3rd Division of the corps, began rearranging his troops into a line of battle. Captain Hubert Dilger, who commanded Battery I of the 1st Ohio Artillery, rode out on a reconnaissance mission, narrowly missed being captured by the Confederates, and rode far north, almost to the banks of the Rapidan, and back south to Hooker's headquarters, but a haughty cavalry officer dismissed his concerns and would not let him in to see the general. Dilger next went to Howard's headquarters, but was merely told that the Confederate army was retreating and that it was not acceptable to make scouting expeditions without permission of higher-ups. As the sun started to go down, all remained quiet on the XI Corps's front, the noises of the III and XII Corps engaging Lee's rear guard coming from off in the distance.

Around 5:30 p.m., [74] Jackson turned to Robert Rodes and asked him "General, are you ready?" When Rodes nodded, Jackson replied "You may go forward then." [75] Most of the men of the XI Corps were encamped and sitting down for supper and had their rifles unloaded and stacked. Their first clue to the impending onslaught was the observation of numerous animals, such as rabbits and foxes, fleeing in their direction out of the western woods. This was followed by the crackle of musket fire, and then the unmistakable scream of the "Rebel Yell".

Two of von Gilsa's regiments, the 153rd Pennsylvania and 54th New York, had been placed up as a heavy skirmish line and the massive Confederate assault rolled completely over them. A few men managed to get off a shot or two before fleeing. The pair of artillery pieces at the very end of the XI Corps line were captured by the Confederates and promptly turned on their former owners. Devens's division collapsed in a matter of minutes, slammed on three sides by almost 30,000 Confederates. Col. Robert Reily and his 75th Ohio managed to resist for about ten minutes before the regiment disintegrated with 150 casualties, including Reily himself, and joined the rest of the fleeing mob.

Col. Lee would later write sarcastically, "A rifle pit is useless when the enemy is on the same side and in rear of your line." Some men tried to stand and resist, but they were knocked over by their fleeing comrades and a hail of Confederate bullets. Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz ordered his division to shift from an east-west alignment to north-south, which they did with amazing precision and speed. They resisted for about 20 minutes and "Leatherbreeches" Dilger managed to drive the Confederates off the turnpike for a bit with his guns, but the sheer weight of Jackson's assault overwhelmed them, too, and they soon had to flee.

Dilger for a time stood alone with a gun firing double-shotted canister at the attackers, then limbered up to flee as the Confederates closed in on him. Three of his artillery horses were shot dead, and when he realized that the gun could not be moved, he had to abandon it. General Howard partially redeemed his inadequate performance prior to the battle by his personal bravery in attempting to rally the troops. He stood shouting and waving a flag held under the stump of his amputated arm lost at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862, ignoring the danger of the heavy rifle fire, but he could only gather small pockets of soldiers to resist before his corps disintegrated. Col. Adolf Buschbeck's brigade put up a last-ditch stand along with Dilger's guns. They too had to retreat, but maintained good order as they went.

The chaos unfurling on the Union right had gone unnoticed at Hooker's headquarters until at last the sound of gunfire could be heard in the distance, followed by a panic-stricken mob of men and horses pouring into the Chancellorsville clearing. A staff officer yelled "My God, here they come!" as the mob ran to and past the Chancellor mansion. Hooker jumped onto his horse and frantically tried to take action. He ordered Maj. Gen Hiram Berry's division of the III Corps, once his own division, forward, yelling "Receive them on your bayonets!" Artillerymen around the clearing began moving guns into position around Fairview Cemetery. [76]

Meanwhile, down at Hazel Grove, the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry were relaxing and awaiting orders to chase after Confederate wagon trains, also oblivious to the collapse of the XI Corps. The regiment's commander, Maj. Pennock Huey, received a notice that General Howard was requesting some cavalry. Huey saddled up his men and headed west along the turnpike, where they ran straight into Robert Rodes's division. After a confused fight, the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry retreated to the safety of the Chancellorsville clearing with the loss of 30 men and three officers. [77]


The Chancellorsville History Trail

In this month’s Emerging Civil War newsletter, I mentioned my time over the last month and a half exercising on Chancellorsville History Trail. For folks who can’t make it out into the woods, I thought I’d take you on a really basic “virtual tour” by sharing the signs posted along the way.

The trail begins at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center and runs in a 3.2-mile loop. The first leg of the trail, from the parking lot to the main loop, runs 0.2 miles and joins with the larger loop at a junction of earthworks.

Bearing to the right, the path extends for a mile to the clearing where the Chancellorsville mansion once stood. Three signs stand along this stretch of trail–and area that saw intense fighting on the morning of May 3, 1863. A fourth signs in the clearing where the path exits the woods.

On the far side of the road opposite the parking area, the path branches into two forks. The right fork crosses the field, goes through a narrow finger of woods, and then deposits walkers on Hooker Drive. On the opposite side of Hooker Drive is the next sign.

From there, the path parallels Hooker Drive until it reunites with the other branch of the path near the park’s maintenance facility. This loop is 0.7 miles.

Meanwhile, back at the fork in the path opposite the Chancellorsville clearing, the left fork skirts the edge of the field and quickly goes back into the forest. This shorter way, 0.4 miles, comes out near the maintenance facility on Hooker drive, where it reunites with the other branch of the path. There are no signs along the shorter branch of the trail.

The path crosses Hooker Drive and soon plunges down into a swale. After 0.6 miles, it comes out near the apex of Hooker’s last line and the next sign.

Across the road, the park’s Bullock Road extends back toward the visitor center. On the south side of the road is the former site of the Bullock house on the north side of the road, the trail winds off into the woods. This section of the trail is 0.7 miles and has two signs along the way.

The trail crosses Bullock Road and extends for another 0.1 miles, with a final sign, before finally reaching the junction of earthworks and the trail spur that heads back to the parking lot.

Congratulations–you just done 3.2 miles! A 0.5-mile mini-loop sits on the far side of the visitor center, showing off Federal Third Corps earthworks. I’ll take you over there on a different day.


Battle of Chancellorsville History: The Opening of the Campaign

Hooker began the campaign on April 27 and within three days some 40,000 Federals had splashed through the upriver fords, their presence detected by Confederate cavalry. On April 29, a sizable Union force led by Major General John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps erected pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg and also moved to Lee's side of the river.

With both wings of the enemy across the Rappahannock, Lee faced a serious dilemma. Conventional military wisdom dictated that the understrength Army of Northern Virginia retreat south and escape Hooker's trap. Lee opted instead to meet the Federal challenge head-on. Correctly deducing that Hooker's primary threat lay to the west, "Marse Robert" assigned 10,000 troops under Major General Jubal A. Early to man the old Fredericksburg entrenchments. The balance of the army would turn west toward the tangled Wilderness to confront Hooker's flanking column.

By mid afternoon of April 30, that column, now containing 50,000 men and 108 artillery pieces, rendezvoused at the most important road junction in the Wilderness. A large brick tavern named Chancellorsville dominated this intersection of the Orange Turnpike with the Orange Plank, Ely's Ford, and River roads. "This is splendid," exulted one of Hooker's corps commanders, "Hurrah for Old Joe."
The Federals had encountered virtually no opposition to this point. Moreover, they could now press eastward, break clear of the Wilderness, and uncover Banks Ford downstream, thus significantly shortening the distance between their two wings. Hooker, however, decided to halt at Chancellorsville and await the arrival of additional Union troops. This fateful decision disheartened the Federal officers on the scene who recognized the urgency of maintaining the momentum they had thus far sustained.

"Stonewall" Jackson, gladly seizing the initiative that Hooker needlessly surrendered, left the Fredericksburg lines at 3:00 a.m., on May I and arrived at Zoan Church five hours later. There he found two divisions of Confederate infantry, Major General Richard H. Anderson's and Major General Lafayette McLaws', fortifying a prominent ridge covering the Turnpike and Plank Road. Although his corps had not yet appeared, Jackson ordered Anderson and McLaws to drop their shovels, pick up their rifles, and advance to the attack.

Jackson's audacity dictated the shape of the Battle of Chancellorsville. When Hooker at last authorized an eastward movement late in the morning of May 1, his troops on the Turnpike and Plank Road ran flush against "Stonewall's", outgunned but aggressive brigades. Union front-line commanders had not expected this kind of resistance. They sent anxious messages to Hooker, who quickly ordered his generals to fall back to the Wilderness and assume a defensive posture. The Federal columns on the River Road marched almost to Bank's Ford without seeing a Rebel. They returned to Chancellorsville fuming, fully realizing the opportunity that had slipped through their fingers.

Late in the day, as the blue infantry threw up entrenchments encircling Hooker's Chancellorsville headquarters, Major General Darius N. Couch approached his superior. As the army's senior corps commander, Couch had advocated an offensive strategy and shared his comrades' disappointment with "Fighting Joe's" judgment. "It is all right, Couch," Hooker reassured him, "I have got Lee just where I want him he must fight me on my own ground."

Couch could barely believe his ears. "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."


Chancellorsville Battlefield, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Chancellorsville Battlefield is one component of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. This small area west of Fredericksburg witnessed the heaviest and most brutal fighting in American history. The casualties from these battles number in the thousands and many lie buried and unknown beneath these hills. Chancellorsville marked the beginning of these battles when Joseph Hooker and his Union soldiers crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to threaten Robert E. Lee’s troops camped on the highland defending Fredericksburg. Lee quickly caught on to Hooker’s maneuver and advanced to meet him. Hooker, surprised by Lee, assumed a defensive position near the crossroads of Chancellorsville but left his right flank vulnerable. This provided an opportunity to Stonewall Jackson and his troops to stage a spectacular surprise attack and force the Union troops to retreat back across the river. Although technically a win for the Confederates, they suffered a terrible blow when Jackson was mortally wounded by conflicting fire among his own troops.

Chancellorsville now hosts a visitor’s center as well as driving and walking tours through the battlefield. Historical interpretive signs are placed throughout the park detailing the events of the battle. These same trails provide an excellent opportunity to wander through extensive deciduous forests and open meadows in search of wildlife. Check the open fields in fall and winter for sparrows such as savannah, vesper and white-throated, in addition to the possible northern harrier hunting overhead. A walk into the extensive woodland will reveal numerous woodland species including red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and eastern towhees. Of course almost anything could turn up during migration, so be on the lookout for surprises.


Battle of Chancellorsville History: The Flank Attack

Hooker's confidence had faded to caution, but whether he was "whipped" depended upon Lee and Jackson. Those two officers reined up along the Plank Road at its intersection with a byway call the Furnace Road on the evening of May 1. Transforming discarded Federal cracker boxes into camp stools, the generals examined their options.

Confederate scouts verified the Federals' strong positions extending from the Rappahannock River, around Chancellorsville, to the high, open ground at Hazel Grove. This was the bad news. The Southern army could not afford a costly frontal attack against prepared fortifications.

Then, about midnight, Lee's cavalry chief, "Jeb" Stuart, galloped up to the little campfire. The flamboyant Virginian carried thrilling intelligence. The Union right flank was "in the air" -- that is, resting on no natural or artificial obstacle. From that moment on, the generals thought of nothing but how to gain access to Hooker's vulnerable flank. Jackson consulted with staff officers familiar with the area, dispatched his topographical engineer to explore the roads to the west, and tried to snatch a few hours rest at the chilly bivouac.

Before dawn, Lee and Jackson studied a hastily drawn map and decided to undertake one of the biggest gambles in American military history. Jackson's corps, about 30,000 troops, would follow a series of country roads and woods paths to reach the Union right. Lee, with the remaining 14,000 infantry, would occupy a position more than three miles long and divert Hooker's attention during Jackson's dangerous trek. Once in position, "Stonewall" would smash the Federals with his full strength while Lee cooperated as best he could. The Army of Northern Virginia would thus be fractured into three pieces, counting Early's contingent at Fredericksburg, any one of which might be subject to rout or annihilation if the Yankees resumed the offensive. To learn more about the role of McLaws' men on May 2 see a folder for McLaws' Trail.

Jackson led his column past the bivouac early on the morning of May 2. He conferred briefly with Lee, then trotted down the Furnace Road with the fire of battle kindled in his eyes. After about one mile, as the Confederates traversed a small clearing, Union scouts perched in treetops at Hazel Grove spotted the marchers. The Federals lobbed artillery shells at Jackson's men and notified Hooker of the enemy movement.

"Fighting Joe" correctly identified Jackson's maneuver as an effort to reach his right flank. He advised the area commander, Major General Oliver 0. Howard, to be on the lookout for an attack from the west. As the morning progressed, however, the Union chief grew to believe that Lee was actually withdrawing - the course of events Hooker most preferred. Worries about his right disappeared. Instead, he ordered his Third Corps to harass the tail end of Lee's "retreating" army.

Colorful Major General Daniel E. Sickles commanded the Third Corps. He probed cautiously from Hazel Grove toward a local iron manufactory called Catharine Furnace. In mid-afternoon the Federals overwhelmed Jackson's rearguard beyond the furnace along the cut of an unfinished railroad, capturing nearly an entire Georgia regiment. The action at Catharine Furnace, however, eventually attracted some 20,000 Bluecoats onto the scene thus effectively isolating Howard's Eleventh Corps on the right with no nearby support.

Meanwhile the bulk of Jackson's column snaked its way along uncharted trails barely wide enough to accommodate four men abreast. "Stonewall" contributed to Hooker's faith in a Confederate retreat by twice turning away from the Union line - first at Catharine Furnace, then again at the Brock Road. After making the desired impression, Jackson ducked under the Wilderness canopy and continued his march toward Howard's insensible soldiers.

Acting upon a personal reconnaissance recommended by cavalry general Fitzhugh Lee, Jackson kept his column northbound on the Brock Road to the Orange Turnpike where the Confederates would at last be beyond the Union right. The exhausting march, which altogether traversed more, than 12 miles, ended about 3 p.m. when "Old Jack's" warriors began deploying into battle lines astride the Turnpike. Jackson, however, did not authorize an attack for some two hours, providing 11 of his 15 brigades time to take position in the silent forest. The awe-inspiring Confederate front measured nearly two miles across.

Although individual Northern officers and men warned of Jackson's approach, Eleventh Corps headquarters dismissed the reports as frightened exaggerations from alarmists or cowards. Hooker's shortage of cavalry hampered the Federals's ability to penetrate the Wilderness and uncover the Confederate presence with certainty. Only two small regiments and half a New York battery faced west in the direction of Jackson's corps.

Suddenly, a bugle rang out in the afternoon shadows. Bugles everywhere echoed the notes up and down the line. As waves of sweat-soaked soldiers rolled forward, the high defiance of the Rebel Yell pierced the gloomy woods. Jackson's Corps erupted from the trees and sent the astonished Unionists reeling. "Along the road it was pandemonium," recalled a Massachusetts soldier, "and on the side of the road it was chaos."

Most of Howard's men fought bravely, drawing three additional battle lines across Jackson's path. But the overmatched Federals occupied an untenable position. The screaming gray legions overwhelmed each Union stand and eventually drove the Eleventh Corps completely from the field.

Sunset and the inevitable intermingling of "Stonewall's" brigades compelled Jackson to call a reluctant halt to the advance about 7:15. He summoned Major General A.P. Hill's division to the front and, typically, determined to renew his attack despite the darkness. Jackson hoped to maneuver between Hooker and his escape routes across the rivers and then, with Lee's help, grind the Army of the Potomac into oblivion.

While Hill brought his brigades forward, Jackson rode ahead of his men to reconnoiter. When he attempted to return, a North Carolina regiment mistook his small party for Union cavalry. Two volleys burst forth in the blackness and Jackson tottered in his saddle, suffering from three wounds. Shortly thereafter a Federal shell struck Hill, incapacitating him, and direction of the corps devolved upon Stuart. The cavalryman wisely canceled "Stonewall's" plans for a night attack. See text for Wounding of Stonewall Jackson Trail .

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Watch the video: Antietam Documentary with James Earl Jones (January 2022).