(Because this battle – just one front, mind you – is so massive, I’ve split this blog into two parts for reading convenience)
After the failed “Mud March” of late January, 1863, the Army of the Potomac was put under the command of Joseph Hooker. The man who replaced Ambrose Burnside was the same man Burnside didn’t want to be given the job in the first place. Abraham Lincoln’s decision to put the man who had been acclaimed “Fighting Joe” – a name which the general didn’t particularly like, but exploited – was for the man’s aggressive and resolute command style. At this point in the war, Lincoln needed a man like Hooker to take charge and give the north a victory.
Morale certainly did improve for the Union army under Hooker in the months leading up to April. Supplies were expedited as warmer spring weather chased away the winter cold. Soldiers even gave accounts that they were given champagne while in camp as part of Hooker’s attempts to bolster the mood of his fighting force.
The same couldn’t be said for Lee. Though he had defended his position along the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg the previous December, and watched Burnside flounder in his attempt to cross that January, the Confederate Army wasn’t in the best condition. Supplies were being funneled down the Richmond & Potomac Railroad by way of Guinea and Hanover Station. The traffic moved slow due to the station’s inefficiency to deal with the heavy burden of moving supplies north to the army. As a result, Lee was forced to send his cavalry and General James Longstreet further south to forage. With part of his army as far away as North Carolina, Lee would be at a severe disadvantage if “Fighting Joe” decided to make a move.
On top of that, Lee was bedridden for a spell. Diagnosed with a heart condition, the leader of the Confederate Army fell ill and collapsed. This condition plagued him throughout the wartime years, but for now, it called his competency into question. If he wasn’t able to move with his army or rise from his bed to give orders to his subordinates, could he still prove an effective leader? More importantly, did he need to delegate? It would be a similar ultimatum proposed the following year on the banks of the North Anna River.
The time spent building up the morale of the Union army gave Lee the time he needed to recover, however. By the time Hooker was ready to enact his plan, the Confederates would be ready.
The strategy for this next assault upon the Rebels was very similar to what Burnside had intended months earlier. Hooker ordered the division under John Sedgwick to stay in front of Fredericksburg in the face of the enemy and distract them by attempting a crossing into the town, just as they had in December. But unlike that disaster, Sedgwick would not bring on a general engagement. He was only ordered to hold the Confederate’s attention with his 25,000 men.
Meanwhile, Hooker took his remaining divisions and told them to swing around to the west to cross the Rappahannock River toward Lee’s rear, just as Burnside wanted to do during the winter. This time, however, his goal was not Banks Ford, but even further west and north to Kelly’s Ford near Rappahannock Station. Then, his troops would march south to the Rapidan River and cross at Germanna Ford and Ely’s Ford, the army splitting momentarily to expedite the crossing of 42,000 soldiers. Cavalry units under George Stoneman would swing even further south and harass the railroads and supply lines that leak into Fredericksburg and ideally damage the effectiveness of the Confederate Army.
It was a bold move to separate his army into these three columns and expect them to reunite later after marching for forty miles. The objective was to catch Lee off guard by slamming into the exposed Confederate rear and left flank. With Sedgwick pinning him down in Fredericksburg, Hooker hoped to completely sandwich the Rebel army. It’s a hammer-and-anvil move that’s proven effective before. In another scenario, Hooker hoped that this attack upon Lee’s flank would provoke the commander to retreat away from his river defenses where he could attack him in the open.
On April 30th, at a crossroads just outside what was called “The Wilderness”, George Gordon Meade and his V Corps arrived at a place named Chancellorsville. It wasn’t a town, but more like an Inn for travelers looking for a bed and a hot meal before carrying on their way. The Union troops were not openly welcomed by the pro-Confederate family who lived there. But this cold reception was compensated by the sight of Major General Henry Slocum and his XII Corps arriving on the scene. Usually known for his quick temper, Slocum was shocked by Meade’s giddy greeting. “This is splendid, Slocum!” he exclaimed. “Hurrah for old Joe! He’s done it! We’re on Lee’s flank and he does not know it!” Some give accounts that the “goggle-eyed snapping turtle” was dancing in the yard of the Chancellorsville home.
Despite successfully pulling off this monumental task, Hooker doesn’t order his men to advance just yet. He orders them to wait and concentrate before moving onward. Hooker sent the message to his troops saying, “It is with heartfelt satisfaction 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 ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”
Hooker was in no hurry to move, but Lee was. Thanks to the tipoffs from loyal Confederates in the area, the general was able to piece together a rough idea of what the new commander of the Union army was doing. Lee wrote to his wife, “I owe Mr. F.J. Hooker no thanks for keeping me here in this state of expectancy.”
To counter this state, Lee conferred with his second in command, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Three divisions were at Lee’s disposal, thanks to Longstreet’s absence. He placed General Jubal Early with his 10,000 around Fredericksburg to defend their position on the Rappahannock against Sedgwick’s forces, which had been skirmishing with them for a few days now. That left Robert Anderson and Lafayette McLaws – who was still in route to reinforce by the time Meade had arrived at Chancellorsville – to counter this massive force coming up on his left flank.
The big thought in Lee’s mind was to defend the last bit of high ground on his left. That was a tiny area known as Zoan Baptist Church. Lee wanted to defend, but Jackson had another idea. As we’ve seen during the Fredericksburg battle in December, Jackson has never been one to just sit and wait for the enemy. He wanted to meet Hooker head on.
On the morning of May 1st, he would do just that. Jackson sent McLaws with his 7,600 down the Orange Turnpike, directly west from Zoan Church leading away from Fredericksburg. Just a little south of the Turnpike was the Plank Road, which Anderson and his 8,500 would stream down in a parallel march. One soldier wrote that it was “a supreme effort, a union of audacity and desperation”. Jackson would defend the high ground by going on the offensive.
Hooker, too, was ready for an offensive movement, but he was still completely unaware that Lee knew what he was up to. Once more, he split his army. Meade would be sent along the River Road in the direction of Banks’ Ford toward Fredericksburg while Slocum with his XII Corps and one division of the V Corps under “Tardy George” Sykes would go along the Orange Turnpike in the same direction. The gray and blue clashed spectacularly about half-past eleven.
Thus began the battle of Chancellorsville, but some believe that the battle was also lost on that day.
The Battle – Part 1
Jackson collided with Sykes along the Orange Turnpike, effectively cutting him off from the rest of the XII Corps just to the south. Despite having the element of surprise and the advantage of the “dark close woods” of the Wilderness, Jackson knew he was outnumbered. The Union gained ground and pushed the Confederates back toward their fortifications in the east along Motts River – known today as Lick Run. This piece of open ground they now stood upon was ideal for both armies. The wide expanse of unencumbered battlefield allowed Hooker to use his superior numbers against the Confederates. Likewise, the Rebel artillery had a clear shot upon the blue troops from their defensive works on the high ground. It’d be like another Maryes Heights if they played it right – or wrong.
The Army of the Potomac was doing well, until Hooker called off the advance. He decided now to take the defensive stance instead of the offensive. While he could have pushed toward Fredericksburg to meet the enemy, he saw that Lee had to come to him and on the ground of his choosing – The Wilderness. He had the numbers, the roads, and the environment to help him in gaining the victory, but not everyone saw it that way.
Meade, who had gone nearly unopposed down the River Road to the north, was furious to hear the orders and looked like a very different man than the one the previous day who danced and cheered on the lawn at Chancellorsville. “My God, if we can’t hold the top of the hill, we certainly cannot hold the bottom of it!” the general argued. There was much grumbling amongst the bluecoats as well as they retreated back down the turnpike to where they had started. Slocum, equally outraged, put the officer – George Washington Roebling – who had relayed the order from Hooker under arrest and nearly court marshalled him until he learned that it wasn’t “fake news”. Division commander Darius Couch, who was directly under Hooker in the chain of command, was equally surprised.
Jackson, back in the Confederate camp, was not. He had to admit that Hooker did have the advantage, now that they fully understood the situation. The Union line fell back and anchored its position to the north near the intersection of Bullock Road and Ely’s Ford Road, looping in a wide arc out around Chancellorsville and back up into something like a half-circle to meet with the Orange Turnpike, then extended westward. The whole thing looks like a question mark on the map.
Confederates moved forward to compensate for the ground lost and began to probe along the Union line, specifically around a high piece of ground Jackson was eyeing called Hazel Grove. Union artillery had already been set up there, but he wanted to dislodge them. J.E.B Stuart was ordered to have some of his guns harass Hazel Grove and the Federals responded back in kind for a while before they both gave up for the day. Confederate infantry also made two attempts to break the three Union lines atop the ridge, but were firmly resisted.
That evening, both armies gained practically no ground, but also lost none. Lee set up his headquarters at the junction between Plank Road and Furnace Road to confer with his officers. What took place became the famed “Cracker Box” meeting where Lee and Jackson sat on two crates left behind by the XII Corps that had passed through that area earlier. Lee was scratching his head to figure out “How can we get at those people?” He sent out reconnaissance efforts to find someone who at least understood the ground they were fighting on. Stuart came back to him with some intel that would spawn a plan that many have declared both brilliant and foolhardy.
He reported to Lee that the Union right flank was completely vulnerable. Hooker’s left flank was anchored upon the Rappahannock River, so it would be near impossible to dislodge him that way. The right flank was their best bet, but there was no way to get around it without the Union army detecting their movements. They needed another route. Jackson sent his chaplain, Reverend Beverly Tucker Lacy (brother to the Lacy family who owned Ellwood Manor not a handful of miles away) and his mapmaker, Jedidiah Hotchkiss to find someone who knew all the ways in and out of this Wilderness. They found Charles Wellford, a local and owner of the Catharine Furnace that had cut down much of the forests for his iron smelting enterprise. He came to Jackson and told him of a road that he himself had cut – which branched off from Brock Road – that would take him around the Catharine Furnace, going south then west and then north again, toward the Union right flank. The best part was that the 12-mile trail didn’t appear on any maps because it was so new.
That was their ticket. With Lee’s blessing, Jackson would take his 28,000 men along this road and sneak upon the enemy’s flank. It would split the army again, which sounds absolutely bonkers to most military experts. Lee was already outnumbered and he was going to break off a massive chunk of his army again, weakening the position he currently held. But it was a risk he was willing to take. (Historian’s take: Hooker had been caught off guard on May 1st when Lee’s forces met him head on, and Lee might have been aiming on dishing out another surprise to throw him further off balance. He might have wanted to capitalize on a method that seemed to work and if it worked once, it could work again.)
So, on May 2nd, Jackson assembled his 28,000 men and put them into four-by-four marching formation to start down this back country road. Brigadier General Robert Rhodes led the caravan with Brig. Gen. Raleigh Colston following, and Major General A.P. Hill bringing up the rear. Lee would have to hold Hooker’s attention with just 14,000 men while Jackson executed this stealthy move. McLaws with his artillery aided in helping to keep the Union II and XII Corps occupied in front of him, driving back their pickets nearly a dozen times in the course of the day.
But, this distraction wasn’t fool-proof. The column of troops funneling down this twisting, winding back road marched as quietly as they could to avoid detection. As they descended in their route toward Catharine Furnace, three-quarters of a mile away, the Union artillerists upon Hazel Grove spotted them. That was at about eight in the morning, just a half hour into their march, but it took nearly two hours for the news to make it up to Major General Dan Sickles of the III Corps. Once it did, orders were given to open fire. The 1st New Jersey Light Artillery plus four other guns – some 10-pound Parrott Rifled guns – harassed the gray coats, but no harm was done as they moved quickly out of the gap. However, the damage had been done and it would prove to their advantage as the events of the afternoon unfolded.
Jackson made a few cautious calls. The first being to send his wagons on a more southernly route to avoid the artillery. The second was to deploy the 23rd Georgia about 300 yards north of the intersection around Catharine Furnace to help screen the rest of the army’s movements as it continued on west. The commander was concerned about the Federals sending scouts or pickets to investigate their moving column of troops.
Blue coats would come, but by the time Sickles had gotten the green light from Hooker to “advance cautiously”, all of Jackson’s men apart from the 23rd Georgia had already moved on past the Furnace. Sickles took his orders a step further and instead of simply harassing the line, he poured the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters and a full brigade from his corps under Birny down onto Catharine Furnace. The Georgians hardly knew what hit them. All around the half-dozen or so outbuildings, the battle raged, one regiment attempting to hold off an entire brigade and then some. The position was ultimately lost and the Georgians pulled back to an unfinished railroad cut around the Wellford Farm – home of Charles Wellford who owned the Furnace and had tipped Jackson off about the road he was now using. But it was no use. 269 of the 23rd Georgia were captured, their commander Emory Best having fled the scene after giving the order to fall back. He would be later court marshalled for his actions here.
Jackson realized he had lost his Georgians and sent brigades under Edward Thomas and James Archer to cover his rear, thinking Sickles would be on his tail in short order. Sickles, however, misconstrued much of the events and saw this as a retreat. He still had no idea that the Confederate division was well on its way to the Union right flank. As a result, he called for reinforcements to strengthen his position along the line. Elements (10,000) from the XI Corps that was entrenched on the very flank Jackson was about to attack, were called over to bulk up the III Corps efforts near the Furnace. Altogether, they had about 20,000 troops to fortify that spot. This left a nice three-mile gap between Major General Oliver Otis Howard’s XI Corps and Sickles’ III Corps.
All the while, Jackson and his men never turned back as Charles Wellford led them all down the road he had made, taking them further west and north toward the Union right flank that was now barely protected. They covered about a mile every 25 minutes and were given the occasional 15 minute break to rest. Officers brought up the rear of their regiments to reduce straggling. Not that they had much room to straggle. The road was just wide enough for the four men to march abreast, with the tangle mass of forest and wilderness closing in on either side. Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, Jackson’s surgeon, would recall the intensity of his commander. “Never will I forget the eagerness and intensity of Jackson on that march to Hooker’s rear. His face was pale, his eyes flashing. Out from his thin, compressed lips came the terse command: ‘Press forward, press forward.’ In his eagerness, as he rode, he leaned over the neck of his horse as if in that way the march might be hurried.”
By about 3 o’clock, Jackson’s men were nearly in position to form their lines of battle and sweep down the Orange Plank Road to attack the Union flank. However, a quick reconnaissance with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee – Robert Lee’s nephew – revealed that if they deployed now, they would be driving right into Union entrenchments rather than the flank of the army. It wasn’t feasible to attack the earthworks, so Jackson took his army further around and reach the flank about a mile or so to the west. Leaving Brig. Gen. Frank Paxton of the Stonewall Brigade to guard his flank, Jackson took Fitzhugh’s suggestion to alter his plans.
Jackson arrived to the launching site at about 5 o’clock and though A.P. Hill was still on his way, no time was wasted. Rhodes in the lead and then Colston behind him, they formed for attack, centering themselves along the axis of the Orange Turnpike which would lead them straight into the Union right flank. What was left of the XI Corps under Howard had once had plenty of men and artillery at this point to at least stall an attack, if one should come. But orders were handed down from Hooker to send a portion of his corps to strengthen Sickles further south, and that brigade was still there.
Hooker was still under the misconception that the Confederate army was in retreat to protect their railroads. This was contrary to the information Union pickets fed him, saying that a large mass of gray was moving in front of them (Jackson’s division). Likewise, the superior officers within the XI Corps didn’t see the danger coming. Still, many of the soldiers braced themselves for an attack from the west when they had been ordered to forage and get supplies ready to pursue the “retreating” Confederates the next day.
(to be continued next week…)