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Battle of Chancellorsville
Battle of Chancellorsville
by Steve Haas

The Federals

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 force.

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 time. 

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. [1]

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 than 4%.

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 battle.

The Confederates

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.[2] 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.[3]  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 [4]. 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 went home.
 
This can be broken down as follows:[5] 
 
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.[6]  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:[7]
 
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 efforts.
 
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 army was.
 
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 River.
 
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.
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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.
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