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Battle of Chancellorsville
Battle of Chancellorsville - Part 1
by Steve Haas

The Grand Turning Movement

Before we go further on this, we have to explain a little bit of the geography of the area. You can check your maps, but there are a few points that one has to understand.

The two armies faced each other from across the Rappahannock River. This is a relatively wide river that stretches across the State of Virginia and empties into the Ocean. This river has many places where it can be forded along its length, and these fords are each named according to a farm or, in one case (the United States Ford) a mine that existed near the ford.

About 25 miles West of Fredericksburg, the Rapidan River joins the Rappahannock River, forming something resembling the letter Y on its side; if an army forded the Rappahannock above this point, it would have to then cross the Rapidan river to get behind the Confederate army. The point at which the Rapidan River joins the Rappahannock is a little West of the United States Ford.

The Confederates had troops and fortifications all along the Rappahannock; the last major concentration of troops was Anderson's Division, of Longstreet's Corps (this is the division that Longstreet left behind when he took Hood and Picket with him). West of this, the Confederates patrolled the other fords with cavalry, but didn't expect anything to happen, so weren't worried about the fords upriver from the United States Ford. The assumption was that it was too far away, and the cavalry would give them news if they saw a lot of activity at these fords.

There was one problem with this assumption; assuming those cavalry patrols weren't captured, it would take a man on a horse at least a day, maybe longer, to ride back to tell General Lee that something was going on. SO, the preferred way of giving information was to send General Lee a telegram. The Confederate telegraph system was not that developed, and the lines snaked all across Virginia in order to establish a continuous chain to General Lee. The information could get to him pretty quickly if all the links in this were available all the time. However, if one of the telegraph operators along the way had a habit of going to sleep at night, the message from him wouldn't be passed on to the next link until the next morning. In fact, probably more than one point along the telegraph line between General Stuart, at Culpepper, and General Lee, at Fredericksburg, went home for the night.


General Hooker figured that, if everything went right, he would have 36 hours[1] from the time his troops started crossing the fords upriver from the United States ford until the Confederates learned of the movement. He had to have this time, because if Anderson's division learned of his movement early, Anderson could easily block the fords along the Rapidan and it would be impossible to cross these fords in the face of a strong opposition.

In order to ensure that he had these 36 hours, absolute secrecy was essential…and this was a major problem. Most of the Federal army had been camped along the Rappahannock all winter, and the Confederates knew, pretty much, who was on the opposite side of the river from them. If the Confederates saw anything unusual in these camps, they would know something was going on, and take appropriate action.

In addition, the troops who guarded the rivers would get bored, and start talking with each other. In fact, there was an active trade of information and goods between the pickets of both lines, and all it would take is for some soldier to mention that he had been issued 8 days of rations and ammunition, and the Confederates would know something was up.

General Hooker took extraordinary measures to ensure that the Confederates didn't know that something was up. He couldn't use those troops that were along the river, so he chose, for his grand turning movement, the three Corps that had camped behind the Federal lines, the Vth, the XIth and the XIIth. These were not his best choices, but he was he had no other choice; the Vth was a veteran regiment, but the XIth was not trusted, because they were mostly German, and because of the morale problems associated with General Howard's appointment. The XIIth was the smallest Corps in the army, and had many nine month regiments (regiments which had joined up only for nine months, and were expecting to leave the army soon), which had never been in a fight and whose quality was also suspect.[2]

No one else was told of his plans but the commanders of these troops. They were issued eight days' rations (instead of the normal five) and 60 rounds of ammunition (instead of the normal 40), and were told to leave their wagons behind, and carry no personal items in their knapsacks, so they could travel as light as possible and move as fast as possible. While the troops were making their movement to the Fords, units were stationed troops at every house and building along the way to make sure that no civilians left their houses for that 36 hours, and gave advanced warning. 

Once these troops were under way, the second part of the plan went into effect. One of the aspects of the plan was that the moving column, once it got behind the Confederate troops at the Banks Ford, would force those troops to leave their fortifications on that ford, and allow those fords closer and closer to the Federal army to be used to ferry new troops across the river. The II Corps was ordered to move towards the United States Ford. They were told not to be secretive about this move, but to act normal, the idea being to fix the attention of the Confederates on these troops, so they wouldn't see the troops coming up behind them. Once the ford became clear, the II Corps would move over that ford and join the turning movement.

The third and last part of the plan had the I Corps and the VI Corps was ordered to to cross the river at Fredericksburg. The purpose of this move was not to initiate combat, but was to focus the Confederate attention on this movement, so they wouldn't be looking for anything else. The Confederates were hoping the Federals would make this move, as the Battle of Fredericksburg was fought just over this ground and the Confederates knew they could hold the fortifications against any force the Federals put against them. It was a big show, but also, if the Confederates finally had to take troops away from this line to face the turning column, then the forces at Fredericksburg would be used as a giant anvil, against which the rest of the army would hammer. The Confederates would be caught in a trap they couldn't get out of.

The III Corps was kept between the II Corps and Fredericksburg as a reserve; if the II Corps successfully got across the river, the III Corps could join them. If the Confederates attacked the I and the VI Corps, at Fredericksburg, the III Corps could go and help those troops. It was a brilliant plan, and it worked flawlessly.

The Federals started out early on the morning of April 27th, heading for the crossing of the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford. They arrived there that evening and went into camp. The next morning, on the 28th, they surprised the Confederate cavalry pickets on the other side of the ford, captured a few and started their crossing. The XI Corps was in the lead, because their objective, the Germanna ford on the Rapidan, was furthest away. The XII Corps would follow them across the Germanna Ford. The V Corps would come last, and cut across the the Ely ford, which was just West of the point where the Rapidan met with the Rappahannock, and very close to Anderson's Confederate infantry division.

The Confederate cavalry that managed to get away raced to Confederate Lieutenant-General J.E.B. Stuart, in charge of the Confederate cavalry to tell him of the activity at the ford. Stuart sent a troop of cavalry to find out what was going on there, and they captured a very willing Federal officer, who told them that the XI Corps was crossing the river at the ford. By 9:00 p.m., Stuart knew of the troop movements, and telegraphed the information to General Lee. Because of the time lag due to the sleeping telegraph operator, the information did not get to General Lee until 6:00 p.m, the next morning, April 28. Even then, General Lee didn't have much information, all he knew that there were some Federal infantry and some cavalry across the river at Kelly ford.

The next morning, on April 29, the third day of the march, the XI and XII Corps traded places in the lead. If there was any chance of opposition in crossing the fords of the Rapidan, it was expected at Germanna ford. General Hooker sent orders to lead the march with the best troops, and the XII Corps troops were considered to be more reliable.

At about 11:00 a.m., the XII Corps surprised a group of Confederates who were building a bridge across the Germanna ford and, after a brief fight, sent them running; the XII Corps began crossing the ford. By this time, General Stuart had sent out more cavalry to try to determine what was going on. He was very lucky, and hit the Federal column just at the point of the end of the XII Corps and the beginning of the XI Corps; he was able to capture prisoners from both of them, and even some troops from the V Corps; apparently General Meade, of the V Corps, had sent a party out to make contact with the XII Corps, and this party was among those who were captured. He raced back to make his report, but the report, which would have decided things for General Lee, didn't reach Lee until the 30th.[3]

Meanwhile, the bridge builders from Germanna ford, and the remnants of the pickets from Kelly's ford had made their way to Anderson's Confederate division; a fast courier was sent to General Lee, so, by the evening of the 29th, Lee knew that the Federals were crossing the Rapidan at Germanna ford. He still didn't know how many there were, or what their intention was. That information wouldn't get to him until the morning of the 30th, when the telegraph operator at Culpepper came to work reported General Stuart's findings.. General Lee sent a message to General Anderson, telling him to "fall back from his exposed position at U.S. Ford and take the strongest line he could so as to cover the road leading from Chancellorsville down the river." Anderson moved quickly, and, by midnight of the 29th, he had his forces covering the roads leading to Germanna and Ely ford, with a small force remaining at U.S. ford to deny the ford to the enemy as much as possible.[4]  Thus, the Federal column had been in motion for three days already, and the Confederates were still in the dark as to its intentions. 

The next morning, April 30, Maj. Gen Anderson decided his position was not very defensible, and moved his division three miles East of the Chancellor mansion, along a low ridge. He built fortifications and waited for the enemy.

By mid-day, all three Union Corps had met at the Chancellor mansion. The first to arrive, because it had the shorter route to travel, was the V Corps. Soon after, the XII Corps began showing up, and General Meade rushed to General Slocum, excited at having turned the Confederate flank. He urged General Slocum to continue the pursuit down one of the two roads available; Meade would take the other road.[5]

General Slocum informed General Meade that their orders were to remain at the Chancellor mansion and begin to build fortifications. General Meade was outraged; they had a jump on the Confederates and the force opposing them was much smaller than the force that they had. However the orders were quite specific. "The General (i.e. Hooker) directs that no advance be made from Chancellorsville until the columns are concentrated. He expects to be at Chancellorsville tonight." Since the V, XI and XII Corps were already at Chancellorsville, the order meant that Hooker intended the II and III Corps to join the column before an additional advance occurred. 

General Hooker has been criticized for this lack of initiative, but it made a lot of sense. True, there was plenty of daylight in order to make an advance against the numerically weaker Confederate position taken up by the Confederates at Zion Church. However, General Hooker was not there, and didn't want anything to happen without his personal supervision. In addition, there was nothing to be gained from advancing at that point, whereas, the next day, he would have two more Corps available and an overwhelming strength against the Confederates, should they try to fortify their position. If they, instead, decided to attack, even better. They would be attacking a stronger force in a fortified position and would certainly lose. Everything pointed to a Federal advantage, and Hooker didn't want to throw that away with precipitous action. The troops at Chancellorsville were ordered to built entrenchments.

The troops entrenched around the Chancellor mansion around noon of April 30th[6] in the order that they came, the V Corps built entrenchments stretching to the North and circling around the Chancellor plateau. The XII Corps built entrenchments continuing the circle around the plateau, extending the V Corps line. The XI Corps, the last in line of march, extended the XII Corps line to the West. This is a very important point; the XI Corps generals at the time did not anticipate Confederate action; they expected to be moving out to attack the next day, so they didn't make serious preparations to defend against an attack. The XI Corps, especially, being at the rear of the line, did not anticipate attack; they expected, themselves to be the attacker. The next day would be the deciding day for the entire campaign, and the Union army was impatient to finish the wonderful job they had done. The night of April 30, General Hooker issued the following order:

General Orders no. 47

      "It is with heartfelt satisfaction the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the next three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his entrenchments and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.
      The operations of the 5th, 11th and 12th Corps have been a succession of splendid achievements. "

The Confederates React

General Hooker rode up to the Chancellorsville Mansion at 6:00 p.m. on the night of April 30 and took command of his army. He was in a jubilant mood, as can bee seen by his general orders, which stated that the enemy must either 'fly, or come out from behind his fortifications and meet us on our own grounds.' He had a right to be jubilant. No one else had managed to outmaneuver Confederate General Robert E. Lee as brilliantly as he had done. For all intents and purposes, the Confederate army was in a trap from which it had no choice but run or be destroyed. The mood at headquarters was very gay that night.
 
On the morning of May 1, 1863, General Hooker resumed his offensive. He had three Corps available to him, the V, XI and XII Corps. The II and the III Corps was moving to join the army, but neither Corps was up yet. 
 
Three are three roads leading East from Chancellorsville. The River road runs north, towards Banks Ford, and then curves down South again. The Orange Turnpike Proceeds generally West. The Plank Road curves south, and then parallels the Orange Turnpike.
 
The plan was for General Meade, with his two divisions of his V Corps, to swing North along the river road, to uncover Banks' ford and make sure the II and the III Corps could cross over that ford…then swing South again and support the third division, commanded by General George Sykes in the Middle, along the Orange Turnpike. General Sykes, was to invest the Confederates (General Anderson's Division) entrenched near Zion Church General Slocum, with his XII Corps, was to support General Sykes on Sykes' right by moving along the Plank Road. The goal was General Anderson's division, but was also designed to move the army out of the dense growth of the terrain around the Chancellorsville mansion so the army could maneuver against the Confederate rear, at Chancellorsville.

The plan went awry almost immediately. General Sykes marched his troops in column and soon, after about three miles, became involved with Confederate General Lafayette McLaws' division along the Orange Plank Road. General Sykes' force was about equal to General McLaws' force, in size, and the Confederates had other divisions along the line of entrenchments. General Sykes quickly found himself in trouble, with not enough strength to push forward, and in danger of being enveloped on both flanks.
 
His support on the left never developed. General Meade was too far away, and couldn't make communication with General Sykes in the dense wilderness of growth between the two columns. Though, in fact, General Meade was in an excellent position to support General Sykes, and fall on the enemy's flank, there was nothing in his orders to suggest doing such a thing and he didn't.
 
General Slocum faced a small Confederate force in front of him when he started out. Instead of ignoring this small force, he deployed his lead divisions in line of battle, and attempted to move along the Plank road in this formation. It was virtually impossible for troops to maintain cohesion in heavy brush and woods that made up the area, and going was very slow. By the time General Sykes needed General Slocum's support, General Slocum's lead division was still two miles behind General Sykes. Suddenly, in front of him he began facing stronger and stronger opposition; there were Confederate troops in front of him which did not seem part of the force that General Slocum had been expecting to meet. In fact, they seemed to be part of Confederate General Jackson's Corps. General Slocum's advance came to a halt as he prepared to meet these new enemy forces.
 
At this point, all three Federal columns received orders to withdraw behind the fortifications established at Chancellorsville. There was consternation among the Generals in charge of each column. They saw no reason for the order, and felt that they outnumbered the Confederates ahead of them.
  
General Hooker has been condemned by history and by his subordinates for this withdrawal in the face of a force obviously inferior to him. To everyone, it seemed that, faced by the Confederate army, he had lost his nerve. However, one must understand that this was part of his plan all along; he had no intention of attacking the Confederate army in the Wilderness. The terrain favored the defender, and the Confederate army was equal in strength to either wing of the Federal army. The intention of the original plan was to either make the Confederates retreat out of the Wilderness, so they could be attacked by the entire Federal army or, if the Confederates chose to attack themselves, to hold the line against the Confederate attacks with one wing of the army and attack with the wing that wasn't being assaulted by the Confederate army.
 
What General Hooker's subordinates didn't know was that General Hooker had received information from his scouts that Jackson's Corps of the Confederate army, 36,000 strong, was moving towards him. That being the case, it was prudent for him to withdraw behind his lines and wait for the other wing, the I and VI Corps, which were at Fredericksburg, to come up from behind the Confederates. The enemy would thus be caught between two forces, each of which was equal to the strength of the enemy's force. At 11:15 a.m. on May 1, General Hooker sent orders to General Sedgwick, in command of the VI Corps,, to attack the forces in front of him.
 
Here is where the plan became unraveled. General Sedgwick didn't receive the orders for five and a half hours, until 4:30 p.m.; by the time he did get the orders, it was getting dark, and was too late to attack, much too late to help General Hooker, who was involved in one of the worst debacles the Army of the Potomac had ever faced. From this point on, nothing General Hooker did had any real effect on the course of the battle, and we can start looking at what the Confederates were doing to fulfill their role in the upcoming events.
 
General Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, commander of the Confederate 1st Corp, spent the day of April 30 observing the Federal build-up in Fredericksburg, as General Hooker had hoped they would. While Lee was concerned by what was going on with General Anderson's division to his West, he saw more opportunity available in front of him, at Fredericksburg. As mentioned previously, he was not to receive word of the true strength of the Federal force facing General Anderson until the next morning, May 1.
 
True to his nature, General Jackson wanted to attack the Federals in front of him. The Confederates outnumbered the Federals who had crossed the river up to that point, and it would have been possible for the Confederates to overwhelm those Federals in front of them. General Lee was not so sure. He was afraid of the large numbers of Federal cannon across the river, on Stafford heights, and the effect they would have on an attacking column. He told General Jackson that he preferred not to attack, but if General Jackson thought it were possible, he could agree. 
 
While General Jackson went off to examine the position, General Lee took up position on Telegraph Hill, from where he had observed the failed Federal attacks the previous December. He gazed at the Federal position for several long minutes and then turned to his aide, General Marshall, snapped his telescope shut and, in one of those moments of prescience on his part, said, "The main attack will come from above.'[7]  He returned to his headquarters and met with General Jackson, who agreed that an attack from that place would not be in the best interests of the Confederate army. 
 
Lee ordered Jackson to be prepared to move in support of General Anderson the next morning, May 1. Jackson was to leave one division, Lieutenant General Jubal Early's division, in the trenches of Fredericksburg.  Lee also ordered McLaws' division (the second of Longstreet's Corps which had remained behind) to leave one Brigade behind, Barksdale's Mississippi troops, and move immediately that afternoon to support Anderson. This would give General Early in charge of little more than 11,000 men in front of Fredericksburg, to man a line 6 miles long in the face of opposing forces totaling over 35,000 troops. General Early was to use every trick of deception that he knew to make sure the enemy didn't know the true strength of the forces opposing them.
 
The next day, May 1, Porter Alexander, commanding one of the artillery brigades with General Anderson, at Zion Church, caught the drama of the moment when the Confederate army approached. "Up the Road from Fredericksburg comes marching a dense and swarming column of our shabby gray ranks, and at the head of them rode both General Lee and Stonewall Jackson. We knew that all our care and preparation at that point was work thrown away. We were not going to wait for the enemy to come and attack us in those lines, we were going out on the warpath against them."[8]  Lee was at the head of 36.000 of the Army of Northern Virginia, a force that had never known defeat, and their confidence in their great commander and in their ability to defeat anything that faced them was overwhelming. 
 
General Jackson took charge immediately. Ordering the troops of Generals Anderson and McLaws to put down their shovels, he formed them into line and moved them out to meet the enemy along the Orange Turnpike. He, himself, led his troops down the Orange Plank Road, and it was these troops who met up with General Slocum along this road. General Hooker was prudent in withdrawing his troops at this point; General Sykes was actually behind the lines of Jackson's troops, two miles ahead of General Slocum, and faced being surrounded and overwhelmed. The Federal troops withdrew, reluctantly, back behind their lines. Withdrawal in the face of an aggressive enemy is not the easiest chore any commander is asked to perform, but this was done slowly and well on all fronts. By 4:30, the Federals were back in their original starting locations, in the lines surrounding the Chancellorsville mansion.
 
Always aggressive, General Jackson pushed his troops further West, looking for the possibility of turning the enemy's flanks. A.R. Wright's Georgia Brigade attempted an attack at Catherine Furnace, but was repulsed. Other troops were sent further west, seeking the Federal flank, but were unable to find it. By 7:00 p.m., all fighting had stopped.
 
Losses on this day were relatively light. General Sykes reported his losses as 261 dead, wounded an missing on this day. The Confederate losses were probably on the same order. It is fascinating, for the student of military history, to think of how the fortunes of battle had changed with so few losses on either side. Prior to this, General Hooker was in command of the situation. After this point, General Lee was in total charge of the events that followed.
 
The positions of the two armies on the night of May 1 is as follows:
 
The Federal right wing was entrenched around the Chancellor mansion and extending down the Orange Turnpike. The Federal V Corps was on the extreme left of the line, extending almost to the Rappahannock river. Next, Couch's division of the II Corps, then the XII Corps. Birney's division of the III Corps was inserted in the line between the XII Corps and the XI Corps, and then the XI Corps extended to the West along the Turnpike. General Hooker had ordered Generals Slocum and Howard, of the XII and XI Corps, respectively, to refuse their line, in order to have it face West instead of East and establish a firmer flank on the Rappahannock river, but both generals resisted this order. They insisted that the area was impenetrable to troops, due to the intense growth surrounding the woods, except on the roads, and they could hold their position against any force that came against them. Further, a retreat from the position, they insisted, would be demoralizing to their troops. They were ordered to entrench, which they did, but the art of field fortification was not that far advanced at this point, and none of the fortifications on this flank was anywhere near the strength of that in front of the V and II Corps. The III Corps was held near the Chancellor mansion in reserve.
 
One important change that General Hooker made was in ordering the Federal I Corps to join him. This represents a major change in the focus of his plans, and might indicate a change in his thinking. Previously, Hooker had tried to keep both wings of equal strength, in order to have the flexibility to attack on either wing. In ordering the I Corps to the Union right flank, Hooker was dramatically altering the balance of forces on his flanks. This could either mean he was gathering forces to attack the main Confederate force in front of him, or he was afraid of the Confederate attack and wanted to gather as much strength as possible in the front where the majority of Confederates were being faced. 
 
In effect, however, the I Corps was issued orders at 2:00 A.M. on May 2. It did not receive the orders until 4:30 a.m., and did not start moving until 5:30 a.m. It spent the rest of the say on the road, and was unavailable to help General Hooker on May 2, nor was it available to help General Sedgwick on May 3. General Hooker effectively took a major part of his force out of the picture, entirely.
 
As for the Confederates, Anderson's Division was bivouacked near the Orange Turnpike, and Jackson's Corps was bivouacked around the Plank Road.[9]  General Lee was faced with the choice of either withdrawing or attacking. Withdrawal would have been the prudent choice. General Lee didn't know precisely how much strength General Hooker had in front of him. He knew the V, XI and XII Corps was there, and the VI Corps was at Fredericksburg, but he didn't know where the I, the II and the III Corps were. He had to assume they were in front of him, and he was, therefore, opposed by strength greater than his.
 
For anyone who has studied the campaigns of General Robert E. Lee, the reasons for his decision to attack are obvious. Lee was aggressive. Given the choice between advance and retreat, Lee would choose advance, if any advantage were possible. He has a subordinate, General Jackson, known for his aggression and his brilliance. He commands an army has won a string of successes against long odds for over a year. While General Hooker had fooled him, he had to believe that Hooker could be beaten.
Attack towards his right was not feasible; the ground was known and there wasn't enough room to maneuver. However, cavalry scouts had indicated that there might be some advantage to attacking on the left.
 
The conference between Jackson and Lee that night, in a clearing in the woods, the two of them sitting on a log, scraping diagrams in the dirt, would be one that legends are made of. No one really knows precisely what was said there. We can very well imagine it, however. Here were two professionals, at the peak of their career, who knew and respected each other completely. They understood what they wanted to do, and they both knew what resources they had available. From that, their objective was obvious, and only the details needed to be worked out.
 
The next morning, Stonewall Jackson, with 20,000 men, would go and try to find the right flank of the Union army. He would leave his commander, Robert E. Lee with only 16,000 men to face the entire Federal army of close to 70,000 men. Most have labeled this move a desperate gamble, but neither of these men were gamblers. They were two men with an absolute belief in themselves, an absolute belief in their army….and an absolute belief in their God.

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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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