The Battle of Chancellorsville
Southern Historical Society Papers.
Vol. XIV. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1886
By Colonel Theodore A. Dodge, of the United States Army
In the" Lowell Institute" course of lectures, in Boston last winter, the following lecture was delivered by Colonel Theodore A. Dodge, author of the admirable book on Chancellorsville, which we had occasion to notice so favorably. In order that our readers may see clearly who it is that gives this able, clear, and very fair account of this great battle, we insert the following brief sketch of Colonel Dodge given by the Boston Herald:
"Colonel Theodore A. Dodge is one of the best known men in Boston military circles. He is now in his 43d year, having been born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1842. When quite young he went to Berlin, Prussia, where he received his military education under General von Froneich, of the Prussian army. When the civil war cloud burst in the United States he promptly returned home, enlisted and went to the front. He served constantly in the Army of the Potomac (in every volunteer regimental rank up to that of colonel) from the Peninsula, where he was with Kearney, through Pope's and Burnside's campaigns, and at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, in which latter engagement he was with Howard. He was thrice breveted for gallantry. After Gettysburg, where he lost a leg, he was ordered to duty in the war department. While there Secretary Stanton offered him a regular commission, which was accepted. Colonel Dodge remained in the war department until 1870, when he was, by reason of wounds received in the line of duty, placed on the retired list of the army, where he now is."
We insert with great pleasure the lecture, without note or comment of our own, except to say, that while possibly we might find some statements in it with which we might not fully concur, yet we hail it as a happy omen when a gallant soldier who wore the Blue can give to a Boston audience so candid and truthful an account of a great battle in which the Federal arms suffered so severe a disaster.
COLONEL DODGE'S LECTURE.
Ladies and Gentlemen :--You have listened to an eloquent and able presentation of the main issues and events of our civil war by one of our most distinguished fellow-citizens, a man upright in peace, zealous in war. You have heard a graphic narrative of a great Southern victory from one of our late antagonists, whose record, as one of Stonewall Jackson's staff officers, stamps him honest and brave, as his presence and bearing among us have stamped him thoroughly reconstructed. You have had spread before you an elaborate and brilliant view of one of our glorious victories by a gallant soldier of two wars, who has beaten into a ploughshare the sword he wielded to such good purpose in Mexico and Virginia. It has fallen to my lot to tell you about one of our most lamentable defeats. To tell the truth about Chancellorsville is an invidious task. Less than the truth no one to-day would wish to hear. Under Burnside the Army of the Potomac suffered an equal disaster. But Burnside blamed himself alone. No word but praise for his lieutenants passed his lips After Chancellorsville, on the contrary, Hooker sought to shift all the blame upon his subordinates, even to the extent of intimating that they were braggarts, who would not fight. Particularly Howard and Sedgwick were his scapegoats, and for some years Hooker's views gained credence. His course renders necessary a critical examination of the campaign. But be it remembered that every word of censure is uttered with the consciousness that Hooker's memory lies embalmed in our mausoleum of dead heroes, and that in lesser commands his career was patriotic and useful.
The disaster at Fredericksburg, in December, 1862, had left its mark upon the ever faithful Army of the Potomac. It had lost confidence in its chief, but not in itself. Burnside retired in January to the satisfaction of all, but carrying away their affectionate regard. Hooker succeeded to the command. His sobriquet of "Fighting Joe" aptly but superficially characterized him. Few men could handle a division--perhaps a corps--to better advantage under definite orders. None gloried in the act of war more than he. Lacking not conduct, yet the dramatic side of the art--military was dearest to him, and his ubiquity and handsome bearing made him better known to the army at large than many of his more efficient brothers in arms. The troops accepted Hooker with the utmost heartiness. He had been identified with their history. He was bone of their bone. He seemed the very type and harbinger of success. Men and officers alike joined in the work of rehabilitation. Under well digested orders--for Hooker was a good organizer--the lamentable laxity of discipline soon disappeared; eagerness succeeded apathy, and the Army of the Potomac once again held high its head.
On April 30, 1863, the morning report showed, "for duty equipped," 131,491 officers and men, and nearly 400 guns in the camp near Falmouth. Confronting this overwhelming body of men lay the weather-beaten Army of Northern Virginia, numbering some 60, 000 men and 170 guns. This force was posted from Banks's ford above, to Skenker's Neck below Fredericksburg, a distance of some fifteen miles. Every inch of this line was strongly and intelligently fortified. The morale of the Confederate army could not be finer. To numbers it opposed superior position and defences, and its wonderful successes had bred that contempt of danger and that hardihood which are of the very essence of discipline. Perhaps no infantry was ever, in its own peculiar way, more permeated with the instinct of pure fighting--ever felt the gaudium certaminis--than the Army of Northern Virginia at this time.
The Army of the Potomac could not well risk another front attack on Marye's Heights. To turn Lee's right flank necessitated operations quite en evidence, and the crossing of a river 1,000 feet wide in the very teeth of the enemy. Hooker matured his plans for a movement about Lee's left.
On April 12th the cavalry corps was ordered out upon a raid, via Culpeper and Gordonsville, to the rear of Lee's army, in order to cut his communications and to demoralize his troops at the moment when the main attack should fall upon him.
"Let your watchword be fight! and let all your orders be fight ! fight!! fight!!!" was Hooker's aggressive order to Stoneman. The performance of the latter, however, was in inverse ratio to the promise of these instructions. The start was delayed two weeks by a rise in the river; and the movement was so weak from its inception that the cavalry raid degenerated into an utter failure, and the first step in the campaign thus miscarried. The operations of the cavalry corps scarcely belong to the history of Chancellorsville. They in no wise affected the conduct or outcome of the campaign.
In order to conceal his real move by the right, Hooker made show of moving down the river, and a strong demonstration with the First, Third and Sixth corps on the left, under command of Sedgwick. Covered by Hunt's guns, on April 29th and 30th, pontoons were thrown at Franklin's crossing and Pollock's mills, troops were put over, and bridgeheads were constructed and held by Brooks's and Wadsworth's divisions. Lee made no serious attempt to dispute this movement, but watched the dispositions, uncertain how to gauge their value.
Meanwhile, the Eleventh and Twelfth corps, followed by the Fifth, with eight days' rations, marched up to Kelley's ford. Here all three corps crossed the Rappahannock on the night of Wednesday the 29th; and on Thursday the two former crossed the Rapidan at Germania ford, and the latter at Ely's, and all three reached Chancellorsville Thursday afternoon. Here Slocum assumed command. Gibbon's division, of the Second corps, had been left to guard the Falmouth camps and do provost duty, while French and Hancock, after United States ford had been unmasked, crossed at this point and joined the forces at Chancellorsville. The Third corps was likewise ordered from the left, by the same route, to the same point.
Thus far, everything had been admirably conceived and executed. Small criticism can be passed upon Hooker's logistics. They were uniformly good. Two of our corps had centred the enemy's attention upon his right flank, below Fredericksburg, while we had massed four corps upon his left flank, with a fifth close by, and had scarcely lost a man. Hooker's vaunting order of this day is all but justified by the situation. But one more immediate and vigorous push, and the Army of Northern Virginia would have been desperately compromised, practically defeated.
Lee had not been unaware of what the Federals had been doing, but he had been largely misled by the feint below the town, and had so little anticipated Hooker's movement by the right, that less than 3,000 of his cavalry were on hand to observe the crossing of the Rappahannock and Rapidan. Stuart had not, until Thursday, fully gauged the importance of this movement, and only on Thursday night had Lee ascertained the facts, and been able to mature his plans for parrying Hooker's thrust. Anderson had received, on Wednesday, orders to check at Chancellorsville, as long as possible, our advance, supposed to be partial only, and then to slowly retire to the Mine-Run road. This he had done, and here Lee's engineers were speedily engaged in drawing up a line of intrenchments. Early was left at Hamilton's crossing, Barksdale remained in the town, and Lee, with the bulk of his forces, hurried out to meet the Army of the Potomac. At an early hour on Friday morning Jackson arrived at the Mine-Run line and took command. Hooker's tardiness in advancing had already allowed the erection of a difficult barrier.
The headquarters of the Army of the Potomac had remained at Falmouth till Hooker personally reached Chancellorsville. After the transfer hither, the chief of staff, for ease of communication between the wings, was kept at the old camp. Hooker now announced his plan to advance Friday, in force, and uncover Banks's ford, so as to be within quicker reach of Sedgwick. It had been a grave error not to make this advance on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, after reconnoitering the ground, he accordingly ordered an advance toward the open country to the east, while Sedgwick should threaten an attack in the neighborhood of Hamilton's crossing to draw Lee's attention.
In pursuance of these orders, Meade advanced to within grasp of Banks's ford quite unopposed. Sykes and Hancock on the turnpike, on leaving the forest, ran upon the intrenched divisions of Anderson and McLaws, whom they engaged. Slocum, with the Eleventh and Twelfth corps on the plank road, was arrested by the left of this same line. The opposition was nowhere serious. The troops were there to fight. Hooker should have carried out his programme in full by ordering up fresh troops, and by driving back the largely overmatched force of the enemy.
Every reason demanded this. The Army of the Potomac had just emerged from the Wilderness, in whose confines no superiority of force could be made available as it could be on the open ground toward Fredericksburg. It was essential that the two wings should be got within easier communication. The enemy had been surprised and should be followed up. The plan had succeeded well so far; to abandon it would create a loss of morale among the troops.
Suddenly every one concerned was surprised by an order from Hooker to withdraw again into the Wilderness. Here may be said to have begun the certain loss of the campaign. The proceeding was absurd. Hooker had reached Chancellorsville Thursday noon with forty thousand men, fresh, and abundantly able to advance toward and seize Banks's ford, his first objective. To delay here until Friday noon was a grave mistake. Still, had the advance on Friday been pushed home by a concerted movement by the left, so as to seize Banks's, and cover United States ford, it was by no means too late to gather the fruits of the vigor and secrecy exhibited thus far in this flank march.
But the advance on Friday was checked by Hooker without personal examination of the situation, to the surprise of every one, and against the protest of many of his subordinates. A more fatal error cannot be conceived. Here first appeared Hooker's lack of balance. The troops retired, and Jackson at once took advantage of the situation by advancing his left to Welford's.
The Army of the Potomac on Friday night lay huddled in the chaparral around Chancellorsville, instead of occupying, as they might, a well defined position on the open ground in front of Banks's ford. Gradually, during the night, the several corps drifted, weary and disheartened at this unexplained check in the midst of success, into the position which they had taken up after crossing the river, without any idea of fighting there. The line was thus a haphazard one, on the worst conceivable ground, where cavalry was useless, artillery confined to the roads or to a few open spaces, and infantry hidden or paralyzed.
Reynolds was now ordered from the left wing to Chancellorsville. The line lay from left to right--Meade, Couch, Slocum, Sickles, Howard. Hooker determined to receive instead of delivering an attack. He knew how vastly he outnumbered Lee; he could gauge the advantage he had gained from his initiative; he could not be blind to the wretched terrain around Chancellorsville, and yet he sat down as if already worsted. Nothing but a sudden loss of moral force can explain such enigmatic conduct. Hooker had come to the end of his mental tether. The march had taxed his powers to their limit. He had no more stomach for the fight.
During this night, while the Army of Northern Virginia was moving into position in front of its gigantic, but apparently unnerved enemy, Lee and Jackson developed a plan for an attack upon our right, which, though posted on high ground, was really in the air. Lee may have originated the plan, but it bears a distinctly Jacksonian flavor; and surely without such a lieutenant to execute it, Lee would never have dreamed of making such a risky move. The plan gave Jackson about 24, 000 men with which to undertake a march around our right flank to a position where he might cut us off from United States ford. It was ultra-hazardous, for it separated a small army in the presence of a large one. It was justifiable only on the ground that Hooker evidently meant to retain the defensive; that the movement would be screened from his eye by the woods; that there seemed no more available plan; that some immediate action was demanded. Had it failed it would have met the censure of every soldier. No maxim of tactics applies to it so well as the proverb, "Nothing venture, nothing have."
Although Jackson's corps had been on foot and partially engaged for some thirty hours, the men set out on this new march with cheerful alacrity. They could always follow "Old Jack" with their eyes shut. Stuart's cavalry masked the advance. Jackson did not know that his column would have to pass some open ground in full view of our line at Dowdall's, until too late to have it follow a better concealed route. Early Saturday morning the movement was discovered by the Third corps, and a reconnoisance was pushed out to embarrass its advance. After some trouble and a slight and successful attack, Birney ascertained and reported that Jackson was moving over to our right. The conclusion which Hooker drew from this fact was, apparently, that Lee was retreating Jackson, meanwhile keeping Sickles busy with a small rear-guard, advanced along the Brock road until, toward afternoon, he was abreast and in the rear of our right flank. While he was thus massing his men to take the Army of the Potomac in reverse, Hooker continued to authorize Sickles to deplete the threatened wing by sending a large part of its available strength (Barlow, Birney, Whipple, and Geary in part--some 15,000 men) out into the woods in the hope of capturing the force which had long ago eluded his grasp and was ready to fall upon our rear. Hooker's right flank, of barely 10, 000 men, was completely isolated. And yet though scouts, pickets, and an actual attack at 3:30 P.M., proved beyond a peradventure Jackson's presence at this point, Hooker allowed this flank to be held by an untried corps, composed of the most heterogeneous and untrustworthy elements in the Army of the Potomac.
This march of Jackson's might, at first blush, have been construed by Hooker to be either a retreat or strategic march by Lee to new ground, or to be a threatened flank attack. Either would have been accompanied by the same tactical symptoms which now appeared. If the former, Hooker had his option to attack at an early or late period more or less vigorously, as might appear best to him. Hooker afterward claimed that he believed in the flank attack. But the testimony of his dispatches at the time finds him riding both horses, and he acted on the retreat theory. At 9:30 A.M., he had notified Slocum and Howard to look out and prepare for a flank attack, and to post heavy reserves to meet one. He telegraphed Sedgwick at 4:10 P.M.: "We know that the enemy is flying, trying to save his trains." In the meantime he had removed the heavy reserves in question and sent them out on Sickles's wild goose chase to the front. He made no inspection of the right except one early in the morning.
Howard, commanding on the right, misled by Hooker's orders and apathy, held to the retreat theory. He had, on the receipt of the 9:30 order, disposed Barlow's brigade and his reserve artillery so as to resist an attack along the pike, but Barlow had been ordered by Hooker to join Sickles. General Devens made several distinct attempts to impress on Howard the danger of an attack, but the latter took his color, as well as his orders, from the commander of the army. General Carl Schurz, under whom I served that day, also held strongly to the flank-attack theory, and scores of men in the Eleventh corps, after the picket fight of 3:30, fully believed that another attack would be made in the same place. Common generosity to the memory of Hooker, who was a gallant and successful corps commander, leads us to think that at the time he believed that the enemy was retreating. His neglect of the right was otherwise criminal. In him alone centered all the information of constantly occurring changes. To him alone was reported each new circumstance. His subordinates knew but the partial truth. They relied on him for the initiative.
At 6 P.M., then, the situation was this: The left and centre lay as before. Howard held the right, the "key of the position," with 10,000 men, a half brigade of Devens's only astride the pike, the rest of Devens's and Schurz's facing south, and Steinwehr massed at Dowdall's. Howard's best brigade was gone, and there was not a man to support him between Dowdall's and Chancellorsville. For this portion of the line under Sickles had been advanced into the woods nearly two miles. On the right flank of this little force lay Jackson's corps of over 20,000 men, whose wide wings, like the arms of a gigantic cuttlefish, were ready to clutch it in their fatal embrace.
To cover Jackson's march, Lee at intervals during the day tapped at the lines in his front, principally where Hancock lay.
During all this afternoon, Hooker had a chance handsomely to redeem his Friday's error in retiring into the Wilderness. Whatever the reason, the fact that Lee had divided his army remained clear. Lee, with the right wing, had but 18,000 men. Hooker knew that he could not have more than 25,000. He himself had 70,000 splendid troops. He could have crushed Lee like an egg shell, and then have turned on Jackson. But, with a knowledge of Jackson's habit of mystery, of his wonderful speed and fighting capacity, and of his presence on our right, with all the means of knowing that this same right flank was isolated by two miles of impenetrable woods from any supporting force, he sat still, folded his hands, as it were, for sleep, and waited events.
The Eleventh corps was cooking or eating supper. Arms were stacked. Breastworks looking south were but fairly substantial. Facing east were none. Some carelessness was apparent, in that ambulances, ammunition wagons, pack mules and even a drove of beeves were close behind the line. Every one was at ease, though a few were not wanting in anxiety. Little Wilderness Church, near by, endeavored to stamp a peaceful air upon the warlike scene. The general feeling seemed to be that it was too late to get up much of a fight to-day.
Jackson, in three lines, Rodes in advance, Colston next and A. P. Hill still coming up, lay close by. He had caught Hooker's right flagrante delicta. At 6 P.M. the order was given, and twenty-two thousand of the best infantry in existence closed rapidly down upon the flank of ten thousand of the least hardened of the troops of the Army of the Potomac. No division in the Army of the Potomac, not the Old Guard, not Frederick's automata, could have changed front under the staggering blow. The fight was short, sharp, deadly, but partial only. But the force on the right was swept away like a cobweb by Jackson's mighty besom. Some of Schurz's regiments made a gallant show of resistance under the terrible ordeal of friends and foes breaking through their hastily formed lines; some melted away without burning a cartridge. Buschbeck's brigade threw itself into some breastworks constructed across the road at Dowdall's and made a desperate resistance. It was here that Howard had asked leave to place his line, but had been refused. A ridge made the line well available for defence.
The whole situation was confusion worse confounded. The attack had been so sudden that the stampede of the regiments on the extreme right swept away many of those which were endeavoring to form near the fork of the roads. The drove of beeves, the frightened teamsters and ambulance drivers, officers' servants, and hundreds of camp followers were rushing blindly to and fro, seeking an escape from the murderous hail of lead. The enemy came on with remorseless steadfastness. Never was an army more completely surprised, more absolutely overwhelmed. Few, even among the old soldiers, preserved their calmness, but many did their duty. The higher officers were in the thickest of the fray. An occasional stand would be made, only to be again broken. Everywhere appeared the evidence of unpreparedness.
It is small wonder that the corps made no resistance worthy the name. Rather wonder that, under the circumstances I have detailed, the onset of Jackson was actually checked by this surprised and overmatched, this telescoped force, considerably more than an hour, at a loss of one-third its effective strength. Could more have been expected?
The worthlessness of Hooker's dispositions now became apparent.
Jackson's small rear-guard had been playing with Sickles, while his main body had extinguished Howard. Nothing now lay between Jackson and the headquarters of the army except a difficult forest, through which a mass of panic-stricken fugitives were rushing in dire confusion out of range. Happily night was approaching, and Jackson's troops had to be halted and reformed, his three lines having become inextricably mixed.
Anderson had made a serious attack on our centre so soon as the guns of Jackson's corps were heard, so that Hooker had nothing at hand to throw into the gap but Berry's division of the old Third corps. Other troops were too far away. This division was now hurried into position across the pike. The artillery of the Third corps and many guns of the Eleventh corps were assembled on the Fairview crest. Sickles faced about the fifteen thousand men he had led into the woods, and disposed himself to attack Jackson in more practical fashion. Between good use of several batteries, and a gallant charge by a handful of cavalry, a diversion upon his flank was created, which coupled to Berry's desperate resistance and the heavy artillery fire from Fairview, arrested Jackson's onset. It was after this check, while reconnoitering in front of his troops, that this noted soldier received, from his own lines, the volley which inflicted on him a mortal wound.
A midnight attack was made by Sickles upon Jackson. Sickles's claim that he drove the enemy back to Dowdall's is scarcely substantiated. The attack had no particular result. Sickles regained once more his old position at Hazel Grove, which he held until daylight Sunday morning, when he was ordered back to Chancellorsville by Hooker. The latter seemed unaware how important this height might prove in his own, how dangerous in Lee's hands. For, as his line here made a salient, it behooved him to strengthen it by just such a height, or else to abandon this line of defence.
On Sunday morning at daylight Stuart, who succeeded Jackson, ranged his twenty thousand men opposite the Fairview crest, and supported them by batteries on this same Hazel Grove. Fairview 'was crowned by our artillery and defended by about an equal infantry force on the next ridge below, consisting of the entire Third corps and Williams, of the Twelfth corps. Anderson and McLaws, with seventeen thousand men, still confronted Geary and Hancock with twelve thousand. Reynolds had arrived during the night, but was posted on the extreme right, away from the scene of actual hostilities. No other troops were brought into action. Thus the superior tactics of the enemy enabled him to outnumber us at every point of attack, while an equal number of available Union troops lay upon their arms close by, witnessing the unneeded slaughter of their comrades.
The attack of the Confederates began shortly after daylight, with "Jackson" for a watchword, and was gallant in the extreme. Anderson pushed in on our left centre, as Stuart did on the right centre, both contending for the Chancellor House, which barred their possession of the turnpike. No praise is too high for the staunchness of the attack or the stubbornness of the defence; but, after heavy fighting during the entire forenoon, the Army of the Potomac yielded to the Confederate pressure and retired to a new line already prepared by its engineers, and which had its apex at White House. Time does not allow the barest details of this struggle to be entered upon. Suffice it to say, that the loss of the Third, Twelfth and Second corps, of four thousand, three thousand and two thousand, respectively, effectually gauges the bitterness of the contest. The Confederate loss was, if anything, higher than ours during this Sunday morning. Lee was reforming for an assault upon our new line, when rumors from Fredericksburg diverted his attention.
During this fight of Sunday morning, the general plan of the Confederates was to obtain possession of the direct road, by which they could keep to themselves the communications with Fredericksburg. Hooker's plan, after failing to attack one or the other of Lee's divided wings, should have been to retain this road, the key to which was the Chancellorsville crest and plateau. But he seemed to have no conception of using the forces at hand. The First, Fifth and Eleventh corps were not put into action at all, though of their forty-seven thousand men, thirty thousand could easily have been spared from the positions they held. Reynolds could have projected a strong column upon Stuart's left flank, and was eager to render this simple service. From our left, several divisions could have made a diversion against McLaws's right. Our force at Fairview could have been doubled at any time. But all that Hooker seemed able to do was to call upon Sedgwick, a dozen miles away, to perform an impossible task in succor of his own overwhelming force.
To be sure, Hooker was disabled for some hours by the falling against him, about 10 A.M., of a column of the Chancellor House, which was dislodged by a shell. During this period Couch acted as his mouthpiece. But this disablement cannot excuse the error which preceded it, and Hooker was beaten, morally and tactically, before this accident. For he had predetermined retreat by the erection of the new lines, and had taken none of the measures, which ordinary military nous demanded, while he was able-bodied. There is no palliation to be found in this accident. There is nothing approaching tactical combination to be seen on our side in this campaign after Friday's withdrawal into the Wilderness.
It has been surmised that Hooker, during this campaign, was incapacitated by a habit of which, at times, he had been the victim. There is rather evidence that he was prostrated by too much abstemiousness, when a reasonable use of stimulants might have kept his nervous system at its normal tension. It was certainly not the use of alcohol during this time which lay at the foot of his indecision.
Let us now turn to Sedgwick, who properly formed the left wing of the Army of the Potomac, though, as the operations eventuated, his corps was rather a detached command. Sedgwick had lain on the Falmouth side, with one division across the river guarding the bridgeheads. During the afternoon of Saturday, Hooker ordered him to cross and pursue what he called the "flying enemy" "by the Bowling Green road." Sedgwick did cross, and began skirmishing with Early, to force the latter from that road back into the woods. After the Eleventh corps had been crushed, the same evening, Hooker ordered Sedgwick, at 9 P.M., to march to Chancellorsville, "destroying any force he might fall in with on the road." This order was received by Sedgwick at 11 P.M., when he was intent on pursuit in the opposite direction. Sedgwick sent out his orders to change these dispositions within fifteen minutes after receipt of Hooker's dispatch, but it was after midnight before he could get his command faced about and fairly headed in the new direction.
The Fredericksburg heights were held by Early and Barksdale with eighty-five hundred men, and plenty of artillery. In December a few brigades had here defeated the entire Army of the Potomac. Hooker himself, with his battleworn veterans, had then pronounced the task impossible. It was after midnight, Sedgwick had fifteen miles to march, after capturing this almost impregnable position, and all this to be done before daylight--that is, within three hours, if he was to carry out his orders.
So soon as his head of column reached the town four regiments were sent against the rifle-pits, but were speedily repulsed, with considerable loss. Before Sedgwick had sufficiently altered the disposition of his troops to warrant an assault, day broke. Brooks still held the left of the line, Howe the centre, and Newton the right. Gibbon, who had been left in Falmouth, threw a bridge above Fredericksburg, crossed and filed in on Sedgwick's right. Both Gibbon and Howe made demonstrations against the enemy's flanks, but the nature of the ground precluded their success.
Sedgwick was now reduced to a general assault. Two storming columns were formed, one from Howe's front and one from Newton's. These dispositions were not completed until 11 A.M., after a delay, perhaps not justifiable, in view of the stringency of the orders. But their work was well done. Without firing a shot these columns advanced, rushed upon and over the intrenchments, and carried them at the point of the bayonet, with a loss of over one thousand men. This cut the Confederate force on the heights in two, and gave Sedgwick possession of the plank road, the direct way to Chancellorsville.
If Sedgwick had captured the heights before daylight, and, leaving a strong rear-guard to occupy Early's attention, had advanced straight toward Chancellorsville, he might have reached Hooker by 9 or 10 A.M., the hour when his chief was worse pressed. And some of Sedgwick's subordinates think this could readily have been done. But while it is hard to-day to insist that this much might not have been accomplished, the probabilities certainly are that a night attack in force would have resulted either in defeat, or in giving Early, who was entirely familiar with the ground, a chance to deal some fatal blows at Sedgwick's moving column, which would be more or less disorganized by the night assault and march Be this as it may, Sedgwick's movements were certainly more speedy than those of Sickles, and his work stands out handsomely when contrasted with any done on our side in this campaign.
Another delay now occurred in giving Brooks the head of the column in the advance toward Chancellorsville. Though technically proper, Brooks not having been engaged, the nature of Sedgwick's orders certainly did not warrant this delay. Newton followed Brooks. Howe brought up the rear.
By noon word reached Lee that Sedgwick had captured the Fredericksburg heights. Wilcox, cut off from Early, alone separated Sedgwick from Lee's rear. McLaws and part of Anderson's men were at once dispatched to sustain Wilcox. These troops arrived at Salem church by 2 P.M. Brooks and Newton shortly came upon the field, and endeavored to capture the position they had taken up, but though fifteen hundred men were lost in the attempt, our troops finally recoiled.
A pontoon bridge was now thrown across at Banks's ford, and nearer communication was opened with headquarters. Up to this time, be it noted, Hooker in nowise reflected on Sedgwick's tardiness, though aware, through Warren, who had been his representative with Sedgwick, of all the Sixth corps had done or failed to do. His dispatches to Sedgwick are plainly couched in terms of approval.
During Sunday night Lee concluded that he must permanently dispose of Sedgwick before he could again assault Hooker's lines. Early had recaptured the Fredericksburg heights. Gibbon had recrossed the river. The balance of Anderson's force now joined Me-Laws. With Anderson, McLaws and Early, some twenty-five thousand men, Lee thought he could fairly expect to dispose of the Sixth corps, which was now reduced to five thousand less, and felt its lack of success. After this he could turn again upon Hooker. Jackson's corps alone was left to watch Hooker.
Here, then, we have the spectacle, happily rare in war, of a slender force of twenty thousand men, who had been continuously marching and fighting for four days, penning in their defences an army of over sixty thousand, while its commander cries for aid to a lieutenant who is miles away and beset by a larger force than he himself commands. And this slack-sinewed commander is the very same who initiated the campaign with the watchword: "Fight! Fight!! Fight!!!" and with the motto: "Celerity, audacity, and resolution are everything in war."
Despite which lamentable fact, this same commander's after wit sought to lay half the blame of his defeat upon this lieutenant's failure to come to his assistance. The other half fell upon Howard on equally invalid grounds.
So soon as Sedgwick became aware of the presence of the bulk of Lee's force in his front, he disposed his three divisions so as best to cover Banks's ford, both from east and west, and to hold a footing on the plank-road. Substantially, Newton faced west, Brooks south, Howe east. Lee, after some hours' preparation, made ready to push in Sedgwick's centre. It is worth while, perhaps, to note the fact that Lee's delay in attacking Sedgwick was fully as great as Sedgwick's in forcing Marye's Heights. And yet his haste was quite as pressing, for at any moment Hooker might decide to move toward his lieutenant.
Many dispatches passed between Hooker and Sedgwick at this time. Sedgwick must, of course, be judged by the time of their receipt.
At 4 P.M. of this day, Monday, he received word to "look well to the safety of his corps," and to cross at Banks's ford to the north side, if desirable. These dispatches he answered, but he could not be sure that the answers reached Hooker. Later, Hooker ordered him to hold on to Banks's ford, if possible. Then, again, on receiving Sedgwick's report of the insecurity of his position, Hooker ordered him to withdraw, and, still later, again to hold on. This last dispatch, however, was received by Sedgwick too late. For under the former authority to the same effect, he had determined to retire across the river as soon as night should fall. At 6 P.M. Lee attacked. McLaws fell upon the corner held by Brooks; Early assaulted Howe. The latter's onset was very hardy.
Our loss was over two thousand men, but no serious impression was made.
During the night Sedgwick withdrew and took up his pontoon bridge. The corps had lost over five thousand men Lee, having accomplished his task, sent Early back to Fredericksburg and him self returned to Hooker's front.
While Lee was considering how he might again best attack the Army of the Potomac, Hooker called his corps commanders together to ascertain their feeling relative to advance or retreat. All except Sickles were in favor of a vigorous advance. Sickles thought that political reasons favored retreat, lest the Army of the Potomac should suffer an overwhelming defeat, which, at this time, might discourage the war party of the North. Moreover the rations brought by the troops had been exhausted and the river was now rising and threatening the bridges. Here, again, it may be noted that unless retreat had been actually predetermined, the past three days should have been used to revictual the army for a possible advance. For Hooker was, as a rule, careful in these matters. Under all the circumstances, and after hearing all opinions, Hooker decided to retire.
A new line was accordingly made to protect United States ford, and during the night of May 5th the army recrossed, the last troops about 8 A.M. of May 6th. Lee did not interfere with this movement. He was glad to see an end put to his dangerous situation, for his army was absolutely exhausted. But had he known the precarious situation of our troops, huddled that night in the cul de sac at the bridgeheads, he might have inflicted terrible damage upon us.
The total loss of the Army of the Potomac was 17,200; of the Army of Northern Virginia, 12,300.
On arriving at its old camps, the Union army received an order tendering it the congratulations of its chief on the achievements of the last seven days. Lee recommended the Southern troops to unite in ascribing to the Lord of Hosts the glory due His name.
Two years later Hooker, in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, stated that, in his opinion, there was nothing to regret in regard to Chancellorsville, except that he did not accomplish all that he moved to accomplish, and that he did not consider the campaign a defeat.
Up to Thursday noon, Hooker's manuvre was a pronounced success. His subsequent defeat may be ascribed to the following tactical and logistic errors:
First--Failure to move his cavalry effectively. This is probably more Stoneman's fault than Hooker's.
Second--Failure to move the entire army out into the open country and to seize Banks's ford on Thursday afternoon.
Third--This having been neglected, failure to make a vigorous push toward the same objective point on Friday morning.
Fourth--Weakness in withdrawing into the Wilderness to fight a defensive battle after a successful offensive flank march
Fifth--Failure to order (after 9:30 A.M.) on Saturday, and personally to see, that suitable dispositions were made on the right flank to resist a threatened or possible attack at that point.
Sixth--Weakness, in allowing a partial, slow and ineffective movement against such a wily tactician as Jackson to produce a gap in his line, which robbed his right flank of all support.
Seventh--Failure to fall in force upon one or other of Lee's separated wings Saturday afternoon or early Sunday morning.
Eighth--Not having done so, failure to hold Hazel Grove as head of salient on Sunday morning.
Ninth--Failure to sustain the gallant struggle at Fairview with some of his unused divisions, which themselves outnumbered the enemy, or to attack the enemy's flank in its support.
Tenth--Failure to attack whatever was in his front in support of Sedgwick's advance and fight at Salem Church, and during Monday.
Eleventh--Failure to ration his army while his communications were open, so that he might have again advanced on Tuesday.
Twelfth--Failure to keep Sedgwick on the south side of the river, so as to aid in a new joint advance.
The direct result of Chancellorsville was the second invasion of the Northern States by Lee, which culminated in the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia, two months later, on the hills of Gettysburg.
Tried by the rule of brilliant success against vast odds, Lee's work in this campaign is scarcely open to criticism.
The hero of the campaign is Thomas J. Jackson, the most able lieutenant of our civil war.
While historical accuracy obliges us to place the onus of this lost campaign upon Hooker, and, while his own bitter perverseness toward his lieutenants may lend some asperity to our criticism, it will not do to forget Hooker's excellent services to the country. As a brigade, division and corps commander, previous to Chancellorsville, he had earned an enviable record in the army of the Potomac. Subsequently, in lieu of retiring in dudgeon, he went to Chattanooga with the Eleventh and Twelfth corps, and there did worthy service. Hooker's efficiency was always weakened by his peculiar desire to work for the public eye, and by his characteristic shortcomings. But Hooker was a brave soldier, a true patriot, and, within his limitations, a reliable general officer. He did not, however, possess that rare combination of self-reliance, intellectual vigor and military common sense which enable a man to bear the strain laid upon him by the command of an army opposed to such a captain as Robert E. Lee.
Here, for the hundredth time, American manhood grayed with steel its name upon the brazen shield of Fame. The Army of Northern Virginia, led as its valor deserved to be led, showed that resolution which can accomplish the all but impossible. The Army of the Potomac, held in the leash by blunders which bowed its head in shame, but which it could not repair, illustrated that fidelity which always shone forth from disaster with a refulgence which even a victory scarce could lend it. Every virtue which crowns the brow of the soldier was typified in the ranks of either army. The ability of the conqueror to-day elicits our admiration; the errors of the conquered leader have long since been forgiven. We hold the laurel wreath above the heads of those who fought here and still live; we lay it tenderly upon the graves of those from whose devotion to either cause has sprung that brotherly respect and love which best insures the perpetuity of the Union. Rest to their ashes! Peace to that nobler part, which dieth not!
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