Battle of Chancellorsville
by Steve Haas
The period extending from the last part of December, 1862, to the end of
January 1863, saw the spirit of the main Federal army in the East, the Army of
the Potomac, at the lowest point that it would be in the entire war. At no
point would the army be closer to complete dissolution as an effective fighting
Beginning in late June, the army had suffered three major defeats and a Pyrrhic
victory that had sapped it of its strength. First there was the Seven Days'
campaign, of June 26 through July 1, where the army had been within sight of
its ultimate goal of the Rebel Capital of Richmond, under command of Major
General George B. McClellan only to be swept back into a tiny enclave abutting
the James River by the victorious Confederate army lead by the brilliant
General, Robert Edward Lee. Then, in August, another army, under the command of
General John Pope had been routed by the same Confederate army. In September
the Confederates and the Federals, again under the command of General
McClellan, had fought to a stalemate on the banks of Antietam Creek in the
worst fighting that any army had seen in the war up to this point. Then, in
December, under General Ambrose E. Burnside, the army had suffered a disastrous
defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, suffering over 12,000 casualties while
only being able to inflict 7,000 on the enemy.
This would have been enough to sap the spirit of any army, but there was worse.
While supplies of vegetables and beef piled up in supply depots to the rear of
the army, crooked commissary agents and a bloated bureaucracy ensured that the
supplies were not reaching the troops. Cases of dysentery were rising in an
army subsisting on salt pork and hard crackers, and soldiers were even dying of
scurvy, a disease that was known to be caused by dietary deficiency.
Lastly, the army was not being paid in anything resembling a regular schedule.
Hubert Dilger, captain of Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery even wrote a
letter to President Lincoln complaining that his men had not been paid in seven
months. Not a man in General Burnside's Army could say that he had been paid on
It would not be surprising, then, that the rate of desertion was approaching
disastrous proportions. With the aid of Confederate sympathizers and their own
families, soldiers were being provided with clothes to sneak out of camps and
make their way home. One estimate has 10% of the army was in desertion or
absent without leave. 
The sad fact is, the officers were not taking care of their men. They were too
involved, themselves, with cabals and intrigues to remove the commander in
chief of the Army, Maj-Gen Ambrose E. Burnside, from his position, and replace
him with their favored candidate within the army. In return, General Burnside
was trying to remove virtually his entire Senior officer corps, for their
disloyalty to him.
Obviously this situation could not continue, if there was any hope of
maintaining a military presence in the East. On January 23, 1863, General
Burnside presented President Abraham Lincoln with an ultimatum; either accept
his General Order number 8, removing various Senior military commanders from
their position, or accept his resignation. On January 25, 1863, President
Lincoln accepted the resignation of General Burnside and appointed Major
General Joseph Hooker to the position of commander of the Army of the Potomac
of the United States.
General Hooker worked immediately to solve the worst problems of the army. He
first instituted a tighter control over entrance and exit to the army,
increasing the numbers of guards surrounding the army and moving them closer to
the army. He also instituted a system of furloughs, allowing 2 men in every
company to go home every month. This system was tied to the performance of the
regiment, so there was an incentive for the regiment to perform well. Suddenly
there was enough food in the camps, enough equipment and mail and pay were
coming on a regular basis. It doesn't take a whole lot to please a soldier, and
these changes, alone, completely changed the outlook of the soldiers towards
the army. By March of 1863, the desertion rate had dropped from 10% to less
General Hooker also made structural changes to his army. He abandoned the old
Grand Division system of organization, whereby two Corps were grouped under a
single Grand Division Commander, and made each Corps a separate unit. He
replaced most of the Corps commanders with new, more competent commanders. He
got rid of one sticky situation by transferring the IXth Corps, which was
associated with General Burnside, to Fort Monroe, on the James Peninsula. Most
of the other appointments were well received by the army, but one was to have a
large effect on the upcoming campaign.
General Hooker appointed Daniel Edward Sickles to the command of the III Corps.
In and of itself, this was not a major problem; while Sickles was a political
appointee, not a professional soldier, and his appointment raised eyebrows
among the rest of the command, General Sickles actually turned out to be a
pretty decent Corps commander.
However, his appointment rankled another officer, Major General Oliver O.
Howard, in command of a division of the II Corps. Howard pointed out that his
commission outdated Sickles' commission, and therefore, Howard should have a
command at least equal to Sickles.
A possible solution to this problem came about when the command if the XI Corps
became open. This Corps was commanded by Major General Franz Sigel. Sigel was a
German citizen who had fought in Germany during the uprisings of 1848, and was
very popular with the XI Corps, as this Corps was composed of a very large
number of German speaking Americans. Sigel was miffed because he had been one
of the grand division commanders, and his command of the XI Corps was actually
a demotion. When told that he couldn't be given command of a larger Corps, he
resigned in a huff.
The XI Corps expected one of their own to be appointed commander of that Corps
to replace Sigel. When General Howard was appointed to command the Corps, the
Corps was very disappointed. He did little to endear himself to the members of
his command, and the effects on morale would be very telling in the upcoming
The principle Confederate army facing the Federal Army of the Potomac across
the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia, was the Army of Northern
Virginia (ANV) under the command of General Robert Edward Lee. This army was in
little better shape than the opposing Federal army. While morale was not a
problem for this army, the supply situation was worse. There was only one rail
line linking this army to its main base of supply in Richmond, the Richmond,
Fredericksburg, Petersburg railroad. This railroad had only one line of rail,
so trains could only be run in one direction at a time. This limited the number
of trains which could bring supplies to the army to two trains per day. Since
the engines and cars available to the Confederates were in very poor condition,
the trains could only be composed of a few railroad cars.
The upshot was that General Lee could not provide his army with sufficient food
to keep them fed. He had, under his command, an estimated 90,000 men, and
20,000 horses. Since the men had to be provided with food, the horses were
least likely to be fed. While the men were being fed a diet that was not
sufficient to keep them healthy, the cavalry horses and those necessary to pull
the artillery batteries and supply wagons were, in many cases, starving to
death. Forage in the area had long ago been exhausted.
Strategically, this placed Lee in an impossible situation. His strength had
always been in his ability to maneuver his army into a position where he could
strike his enemy at his weakest point. Without being able to stockpile supplies
in order to make these movements, General Lee found himself immobile. He could
not move, and could only wait for the Federal army to make a move so he could
react against this.
Since there was no way to increase the rate of supply, General Lee took steps
to reduce the amount of supplies needed by the army. His first, and most
significant, step was to move the horses to areas of Virginia where they could
forage. On Christmas Eve, General Lee sent out orders for all but twelve of his
artillery batteries to move to areas South of Fredericksburg. Camps were set up
in various towns in Virginia where there was adequate grass to feed the horses.
In the same vein, the cavalry was spread out across the State, to the rear,
some of them a hundred or more miles from the army, in order to find sufficient
forage for the horses. This, of course, reduced the efficiency of the army, and
further reduced the possibility of being able to conduct an offensive movement.
General Lee would need quite a bit of advanced warning of an upcoming Federal
movement in order to get his artillery horses up to the main army, and his
cavalry in place.
His second step to solve his supply problems also solved a minor strategic
problem for the Confederacy. As stated above, the IX Corps of the Federal Army
had been transferred to the James peninsula, opposite Richmond. The
Confederates really didn't have a good idea where this body of troops were
going, and what the movement meant; ultimately, most of this Corps was headed
West, to join General Burnside, who was placed in command of the Department of
the Ohio, but the Confederates didn't know this. They were very worried about
the area around Richmond and Petersburg, and were afraid this movement presaged
active campaigning in this area. To counter this, Lieutenant General James
Longstreet was ordered South with two of his divisions, Hood's and Pickett's,
and a battery of artillery, Lane's, for a total of about 15,000 men.
Longstreet was under orders to contain the Federals, gather supplies, and be
ready at a moment's notice to return to the Army of Northern Virginia, when
called. This reduced his supply problems significantly, but also reduced
significantly Lee's initiative and available strength.
The Strategic Situation
The official returns of the Federal and Confederate army for March 31, 1863
listed the following strengths:
Federal (equipped and fit for duty) 133,868 . Included in this total were
114,000 infantrymen, broken down into seven Corps. However, 37,200 of these
were expected to leave the army within the next three months, due to their term
of service expiring. Most were expected to reenlist, but they would have to go
home, first, and probably wouldn't be available for campaigning during that
time. Thus, there was a very distinct time limit on when the Federal army had
to begin their campaign, if they wanted to make use of these troops before they
This can be broken down as follows:
I Corps - Maj. Gen. John Reynolds - 16,908
II Corps - Maj, Gen Darius N. Couch - 16893
III Corps - Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles - 18,721
V Corps - Maj. Gen. George F. Meade - 15,824
VI Corps - Maj. Gen. John F. Sedgwick - 23, 667
XI Corps - Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard - 12,977
XII Corps - Maj. Gen Henry F. Slocum - 13,450
General Artillery Reserve - 1,610
Cavalry Corps - Maj. Gen. George F. Stoneman - 11,541
Provost Guard - Maj. Gen Marsena F. Patrick - 2,217
Confederate (present for duty): 61,500. This total included the main
army on the Rappahannock, the artillery, and didn't include Longstreet's troops
that had been sent to Richmond. Lee could expect no reinforcements.
This can be broken down as follows:
I Corps - 17,755 (13,267 detached with Lieutenant General Longstreet)
II Corps - Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson - 38,199
General Artillery Reserve - 480
Cavalry Division - 4,458
An important point to note is that both sides had a pretty good idea of these
numbers; General Hooker had an excellent intelligence service that was able to
pinpoint almost exactly the strength of the Confederate army and the location
of its units. General Lee's intelligence was not as good, but he had a superb
resource in the Northern Newspapers, and from this source was able to gain a
pretty good idea of the strength of the Union army. However, from this source,
he also knew that the Union army was due to lose 30,000 to 40,000 men in the
upcoming months due to the discharge of those short-term regiments. From this
information, General Lee made some assumptions that should have been fatal to
His first assumption was that General Hooker would be no better than the other
Generals he had faced; General Hooker had been given the nickname 'Fighting Joe
Hooker' by the press, and General Lee like to refer to him as Mr. F. J. Hooker.
Lee's comment when Hooker was given the job as commander in chief of the Army
of the Potomac was that he was afraid that sometime the Federals would appoint
a General to that position that he wouldn't understand.
Second, the Confederate Army was spread rather thinly along 25 miles of the
Rappahannock River. In order to make up for the lack of forces to cover this
line, General Lee had built fortifications all along this line, facing the
River. He assumed that he would be facing the Federals from inside these
fortifications; when the Federals moved, he would simply move his troops into
the pre-prepared fortifications, and any disparity in strength would be negated
by the fortifications.
Thirdly, and probably most fatal, was his assumption that, because of the loss
to the Federal Army of those 30,000 to 40,000 troops, the relative strengths of
the two armies would be fairly equal, and the Federals wouldn't attack at all
until they got more troops. Because of this, he made no effort to ensure that
General Longstreet would be with in easy recall of the Confederate Army. He
allowed Longstreet to get bogged down in a siege of Suffolk, Virginia, and it
would take him a week to disengage and move his troops back to where the main
General Hooker, on the other hand, had excellent intelligence, and his plans
were based on hard fact. He knew that the weak point in the Confederate
position was their supply problem. If he could cut the Confederate supply line,
the Confederates would have no choice but to fall back, closer to Richmond.
Once out of their fortifications, while they were on the move, he could attack
them in detail and destroy the Confederate army.
His first attempt at this was to send his cavalry, under Brigadier General
George Stoneman, in a wide maneuver around the Confederate left flank. The
orders were to cut the Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg Railroad at Hanover
Junction. If this were done, General Lee would have to retreat. The plan was
good in theory, but, as General Stoneman was setting out, it started raining,
and rained for a week, so the cavalry never even got over the Rappahannock
With the failure of this plan, General Hooker came up with a much more
ambitious plan. That was to use three of his Corps, the Vth, the XIth and XIIth
Corps, to swing around the Confederate left and threaten the Confederate supply
lines. The cavalry would again attempt a wider swing, but it would not be as
essential as before. Two Corps, the I and the VIth would threaten the
Confederate Right flank, and two Corps, the II and the III, would act as a
mobile reserve; they could reinforce either the Federal Right flank or the
Federal Left flank, as the situation developed.
It was a masterful plan. In its conception, it left the Confederates no choice
but to retreat, as they didn't have the strength to tackle either force in the
open, and they faced being surrounded if they chose to sit and defend a
position. In practice, the plan worked flawlessly, up to a point. It failed for
three reasons. One reason was General Lee, his overwhelming confidence in
himself, and his army. The second reason was Lee's Lieutenant, Lieutenant
General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson. The third reason was General Hooker.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Haas
Written by Steve Haas.
Published online: 06/04/2000.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.