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Battle of Chancellorsville
Battle of Chancellorsville - Part 2
by Steve Haas

Jackson's Flank Attack - May 2, 1863

General Thomas Jackson let his troops sleep late on the morning of May 2. Usually he would have them on the road well before daylight when making an important move like this, but he wanted his men well rested and well fed for whatever might happen today.

The plan for the Confederates was for General Lee stand behind and occupy the Federal army's attention while General Jackson took the majority of the troops, 26,000 men, on a long march to try and discover the Federal right flank. While the Federal left flank had been explored, and found to be unsuitable for attack, details about where the Federal right flank were very sketchy. Confederate Cavalry, under Col. Fitz Lee, General Robert E. Lee's cousin, had skirmished with Federal troops from the XI Corps on the Carpenter Homestead, which was about one mile to the south of Wilderness Church [1], so the flank had to be somewhere near there. Nothing else was known for sure.

The Confederate army had a wealth of information available to them on the area, and were able to find excellent information from people living in the area and men in the army who had lived there all their lives. It took very little time to work out a route of march that would lead General Jackson's flanking column on a path out of sight of the Federal lines. 
This flank march was a gamble on the part of General Lee, but only a gamble in the sense that he was putting himself at risk. In reality, the choice to make this move was based on a shrewd understanding of the military situation.

For one thing, General Lee knew the forces opposing him. He knew, for certain that the V, XI and XII Corps, at least, were opposing him, which put the relative number of forces on the field at least equal. He knew the VI Corps was at Fredericksburg, and was not a factor opposing him; General Early could handle whatever the VI Corps threw at him, and, if he couldn't, he could delay the VI Corps enough for the main army to do what they had to do. He also knew that the I Corps was moving towards him, but wouldn't be able to make it on May 2, so this was not a factor, either. He didn't know where the II or III Corps were but, even with their numbers, the disparity in numbers between the two forces was not that great.

Secondly, the very weak attack on the day before indicated a hesitancy on the part of the Federal commander, a hesitancy with which Lee was very familiar. He never had a terribly good opinion of his opponents, and the Federals, so far, had not disappointed him in this respect.


Lastly, and probably most important, the Federals around Chancellor house had spent the night entrenching. The noises coming from that direction were obvious, and the entrenchments were obvious when dawn broke. An army that is entrenching is not an army which is anticipating offensive movement the next day. General Lee had little fear that the Federals would come out of their entrenchments and attack his weak force before General Jackson made the attack on their flank.

The Federal forces were disposed as follows: The V Corps was on the Federal left, its lines running generally North and North east, anchoring its left flank on the Rappahannock River. Next came two divisions of the II Corps, and to their right were the XII Corps, in a line that swung in a half-circle around the Chancellor mansion, changing the direction of the line from that facing East to one facing South. To the right of the XII Corps, facing South, was Birney's division of the III Corps. To their right was the XI Corps, also facing South. The Federal line was deeply entrenched, except for the XI Corps, which relied, mostly, on the dense foliage of the Wilderness to protect them. The two other divisions, Whipple's and Berry's, of the III Corps were grouped around the Chancellor mansion in reserve.

The Confederate flank march began somewhere around 5:00 a.m. By 6:00 a.m., the leading elements were moving past Catherine furnace. Three Confederate divisions participated in the march, General Rodes', Hills and Colston's, totaling approximately 26,000 men. The movement was observed by the Federals as the sun rose enough to make the movement visible, and was reported to General Hooker. The question was, where were these troops coming from, and at 9:30, two regiments were ordered to perform a reconnaissance to the East. They reported that the Confederates were well entrenched in this direction. 

Two alternatives were proposed to explain the movement of such a large number of troops in this direction. The troops could be moving to attack the Federal right flank, and to handle this possibility, General Hooker sent a circular to General Howard, of the XI Corps, on the right flank, describing the movement, making him aware of the possibility of attack on his front and ordering him to make arrangements to meet an attack if it occurred.

The other possibility was that the Confederates were retreating. The road network in this area could, potentially, lead to the South in the direction of Gordonsville, and it was this possibility that took hold of the minds of the Federal headquarters. Why headquarters became so convinced that the Confederates were retreating, rather than moving to attack, is one of the mysteries of the battle. Certainly, it was what the Federals hoped and, perhaps, it was wishful thinking on their part. In all, a strange lethargy seemed to overtake the Federal high command, and they seemed quite content to sit and wait for developments to overtake them, instead of taking charge of developments themselves.

The exception was the commander of the III Corps, General Daniel E. Sickles. General Sickles was a political appointee, a prominent New York politician who had raised a whole brigade of troops, the 71st, 72nd, 73rd and 74th New York, called 'The Excelsior Brigade.' As a brigade commander, he had performed well, and President Lincoln had pressured to have him appointed Corps commander, as a reward, when the position became available.
General Sickles urged for a movement against this Confederate column as soon as he learned of it. Finally, at 1:00, five hours since the Confederate March had been first seen, General Hooker agreed, and General Sickles ordered General Birney's division, the division that was in the line of fortifications between the XII and XI Corps, facing just opposite Hazel Grove, to advance against the enemy, supposedly in pursuit of a retreating enemy. Why General Hooker thought that only one division was sufficient to pursue a retreating enemy is also a mystery. By 1:30, General Birney was engaged with the rear elements of Jackson's column, and was able to discern that the Confederates were turning South at Catherine Furnace. He sent word back to General Hooker that the Confederate movement was, indeed, a retreat. 

Another factor in this conclusion had to do with a mistake on General Lee's part. Early in the morning, General Lee had sent an order to General Early, at Fredericksburg, leaving, at his discretion, the possibility that, if the Federal weakened their forces in front of him, at Fredericksburg, that General Early could leave a small force behind and join General Lee. It was a sensible precaution, but the officer who delivered the order mistook the intent of the order and transmitted it as an order for General Early to join General Lee. General Early argued with the messenger, but the order seemed peremptory, and General Early made preparations to leave his works.

His movement was dutifully reported to Federal headquarters, as early as 10:45, and only enforced their opinion that the Confederates were retreating. In fact, the error was noticed eventually, and General Early's troops were returned to their entrenchments before any damage occurred, but it was a fortuitous break for the Confederates that the Federals saw this move at the time that they did.

General Sickles' advance served to suck more and more troops into the fighting. On the Confederate side, regiments were sent from the rear of General Jackson's Column to support the Confederate effort, and General Lee ordered General Anderson to send troops, also. On the Federal side, General Sickles committed a second division, Whipple's from his Corps, and asked for help from the XI and XII Corps. A messenger arrived at General Howard's headquarters at 3:00 with the request, and General Howard dispatched his only reserve, General Barlow's Brigade. He accompanied General Barlow, in order, as he says, to make sure his dispositions were properly made. This is good evidence of how the idea of a Confederate retreat had overtaken the Federal mind, the fact that the General in command of the flank that could have been attacked, was comfortable enough to leave his command. No one seemed to be concerned that the troops that were being sent to support General Hooker were leaving a hole between the XI Corps, on the right, and the rest of the army. The XI Corps was virtually isolated. 

At 2:30, General Hooker sent a circular out to all his commanders ordering them to prepare, at an early hour the next morning, to pursue the supposedly retreating Confederate army.[11]

By 3:00, the head of General Jackson's column was very close to the Federal right flank. General Fitz Lee, commanding the cavalry screen for the movement, brought General Jackson to a short rise in the ground, and was able to show General Jackson the precise position of the Federal right flank. General Jackson must have felt he was in heaven. The Federal line, as stated before, was facing South, and he was in a perfect position to attack the line from the West and roll it up. It is a soldier's dream to be able to do this, and few Generals in history have had the opportunity. It would take several hours to move his troops into line of battle facing the Federals, but they seemed to have no indication that the Confederates were there, and it looked as if the Confederates had the time to do what they had to do. 

One cannot say that the Federals didn't have warning of the presence of Confederate troops on their flanks. There were plenty of warnings from the picket lines that something was going on. Captain Castle, from his signal station on Howard's Right, sighted the enemy's column and reported it to Howard, but this was ignored. Between 11 and 12 o'clock, there had been skirmishing along the lines of McLean's Brigade (2/1/XI). The pickets of Devin's division (1/XI) had brought in two men who stated that they had been sent out from another portion of the Federal line as scouts, and that the enemy was moving a great force on towards the Federal right. General Shimmelfennig, commanding Schurz's first brigade, sent out many scouting expeditions that reported skirmishers at a distance of 1 ½ to 2 miles in heavy numbers. Colonel John C. Lee, of the 55 Ohio, of Devin's 2nd Brigade sent two reports that the enemy was moving with infantry and artillery across his front, to the right. Von Gilsa, commanding the 1st Brigade, as well as Schurz, commanding the third Division, as well as many regimental commanders expressed concern; Von Gilsa himself carried the warning to General Howard, and was repulsed with taunts and aspersions as to his courage. He was told that no enemy could penetrate the thickets in front of them.[3] Captain Dilger, commanding a battery in Howard's Corps, went out personally to reconnoiter, and actually saw Jackson's column. He was chased by cavalry and barely made his way back to headquarters to report. He was laughed at, told that the Confederates were in retreat and that Barlow had been sent to pursue them.

In fact, all these warnings to the officers in charge were completely ignored. The commander of the Third Division, General Shurz, did face three of his regiments to the West, and cut down some trees in front of his troops as a rude abattis, but it was too little and too late to have any effect on what was going to happen. For the most part, the 11,000 men of the XI Corps, with their lines facing South, spent the day lounging in camp, thinking that they were safe from the din of battle they could hear off to their East.

Somewhere around 6:00 General Jackson rode up to General Rodes, in command of his division and said, "are you ready General Rodes?" Rodes replied, "Yes SIR!" Without any ceremony, General Jackson said, quietly, "you can go forward then."[4]

The Confederate attack found the XI Corps with stacked arms, preparing dinner. They barely had time to grab their arms and occupy the positions assigned to them when the Confederate attack hit.[14]  Col. Lee, of the 75th OH rode frantically to General Devin's headquarters and asked permission to change front to face the enemy. General Devins, left alone in command when General Howard had left to accompany Barlow's division, had no idea what to do and refused permission. Von Gilsa's Brigade managed to fire two shots and then broke apart almost immediately and fell back. They joined with the 75th OH, which was coming up in support, and the three regiments managed to hold out for ten minutes, before it had to fall back, its colonel dead and 150 of its men lying on the ground. They fell back and joined a new line formed by the 25, 55 and 107 OH, and the 17th Connecticut, around the Taylor house. This position was soon enveloped and almost surrounded by three brigades of the enemy and forced to fall back.[6]

General Howard had gotten back to his headquarters before a sound of the conflict had reached him. Hearing the sound of firing to his West, he mounted his horse and rode to see what was happening…to encounter a tide of men in full retreat. He tried to rally his troops, holding the National Flag in the stump of his right arm, for ten minutes, exhorting his troops to stand, but to no avail. By 7:00, Jackson was in command of his first point of advantage, around Taylor's Farm and Hawkins' farm. He had already destroyed Devins' and Schurz's division and driven 1 ½ miles. The Chancellor house was only two miles away, and there was no knowing if the Confederate drive could be stopped before that point. Unknown to General Jackson, Birney's and Whipples' division of the Federal III Corps and Barlow's division of the XI Corps, which had advanced to cut off the supposedly retreating Confederate army near Catherine Furnace, were in danger of being cut off and surrounded by the Confederate advance. As was pointed out before, there were no Federal troops facing in a direction to oppose the Confederate drive. The sun was down, now, with only forty minutes of evening left. As Porter Alexander expressed himself, "at that point, daylight was worth a million dollars a minute to the Confederacy."[7]

By some freak of acoustics, the fighting on General Howard's flank did not reach Federal Headquarters, three and a half miles away. The first indication that anything was wrong was when a commotion was heard off to the West and the it was pointed out to the General that a mass of troops in total disarray was heading in his direction. The general immediately mounted his horse to find out what this commotion was all about. To their astonishment, they found it was the beginnings of the rout of General Devins' division. The general tried to stop, without effect, the rout, and then rode off to try to find troops to plug the hole in the line. 

The only troops he had available were General Hiram Berry's division of the III Corps. He ordered them to double-quick into the breach. These troops joined the various remnants of the XI Corps that were making a stand, with Capt. Huger 'Leatherbreeches' Dilger's artillery, which was firing his single remaining gun and then retreating 50 or so yards and firing again, significantly delaying the Confederate advance. Orders were sent out to the XII Corps to send troops to Catherine Furnace, facing West, and orders were sent out recalling General Sickles' two divisions and General Barlow's division of the XI Corps, which was furthest away and the last to return. The Federal I Corps was finally approaching the Rappahannock fords, and was ordered to come forward as soon as possible. General Meade, on his own initiative, shifted V Corps troops to secure the army's communication with the river. General Hooker's orders to all of them was to 'seize and hold at all hazards' the high ground which the Confederates could use to threaten the Federal center.[8]

By this time, the Confederates were as confused and disordered as the Federals. Finally, at 7:15, General Rodes, commanding the leading Confederate division, ordered a halt, to reorganize. He sent word to General A.P. Hill, commanding the third line, to come forward and take the lead while he re-formed his brigades.[9]

While General Hill moved his troops up into position, night had fallen and, in the dark, all was in confusion. Few could tell where the front lines began or ended, and whose troops there were ahead of them. Typical of the confusion is what happened to the 8 NY Cavalry. They had spent the day at Hazel Grove, the staging ground for the III Corps attack on the rear of Jackson's attack column, guarding the large number of cannon and wagons there. As night fell, they got orders to move back to Chancellorsville and help corral the stragglers from the rout of the XI Corps. They had little idea of the Confederate attack, and little warning to be careful so, as they made their way up the Catherine Furnace Road, they were not too concerned when they saw troops ahead of them. Suddenly they realized that the troops were Confederate. Thinking that the troops were only a scouting party that was behind the Federal lines, they drew their swords and charged, only to run into a full Brigade of Confederate troops. Many of the 8th New York made it back to Chancellorsville, but many didn't. As an additional consequence of their actions, the Confederate troops in the area were alerted to possible Cavalry actions against them.

Stonewall Jackson was impatient at the delay necessitated by the movement of A.P. Hill's troops to the front of the attack. He knew that minutes were valuable, and every fiber of his being ached to continue the attack against the Federals. He knew that they were confused, and every minute that the Confederates didn't attack gave them time to reorder their lines and erect fortifications. He kept urging the troops forward. As Albert Lane's North Carolina Brigade moved up to the head of Hill's division, Lane asked Jackson for orders. Jackson said, 'push on, push on.' 

His impatience took him down the Orange Plank Road to see what was ahead of them. He didn't have to be there, but he simply couldn't sit still while something had to be done. He perceived little danger, as he knew that Lane would be up in a short while.

Lane's troops didn't know Jackson was there, and they had heard the warnings about cavalry activities. When they heard horses in front of them, someone shouted for the horses to halt, then someone fired, and soon the whole line was firing. Jackson was hit, and he went down. While aides frantically tried to stop the firing, Jackson was carried off the field, accompanied by Federal shells reacting to the Confederate firing. 

The same volleys that struck down General Jackson had also wounded the next in command, A.P. Hill. That left the Confederate flanking force leaderless. The next in line to command was Robert Rodes, but Rodes was virtually unknown to his troops, and untested in command of a Corps. It was important to restore the confidence of the troops, as the word of the wounding of Jackson spread throughout the force. A.P. Hill sent for the only other general in the Confederate army who was well known and trusted by all the troops, Cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart.

Stuart was, at the time he learned of his elevation to command, across the Rappahannock river in the process of attacking a Federal cavalry force that had bedded down for the night. Instead of attacking, he had his men fire three volleys into the camp, and then they fell back across the river. General Stuart had absolutely no idea of the situation on the ground, didn't have a staff and didn't know the locations of the troops under his command. In these circumstances, there was nothing left to do but call off the attack for the night and try to reorganize for assault on the next day. The great Confederate flank attack was over. Though short of its goal, it had caused great damage to the Federal army.

The delay did give the Federals time to cobble together something resembling a defensive line. Sickles' two divisions made their way back to Hazel Grove, in the dark, not knowing where the enemy was or where their friends were. They established a defensive line along Hazel Grove. His position was actually outside the rest of the Federal lines, but it did face in the direction of the Confederates and served as a check against them. The actual Federal lines, at this point, actually took the shape of a cup with a handle; Berry's division of the III Corps formed the extreme right. The XII Corps had faced around and formed a line facing East, and then curving South, with parts of the line facing Sickles' III Corps line at hazel Grove. The line curved South, then curved North again, with the V Corps maintaining their position leading towards the Rappahannock River. Sykes' division of the V Corps was off to Berry's left, along the road to the United States Ford. This point was actually a crucial point. If the Federal army became cut off from this ford, it would be isolated, with no way back across the river.

Before the evening was over, General Sickles, of the III Corps, tried an aborted attack, the only real offensive action by the Federal right wing. He devised a scheme whereby, with the cooperation of the XII Corps, the Federals could drive to the orange plank road and turn the Confederate flank. The scheme came to naught, as did the cooperation with the XII Corps, but the possibilities are worthwhile to think about. Considering the state of confusion in the Confederate flanking force, a determined attack by the Federal army could have had serious consequences for the Confederates. As it turns out, nothing came of it, and the two armies remained in their positions, waiting for the light of day to begin the slaughter again.

The Confederates Triumphant

The position of the Federal army in the early morning hours was very awkward, to say the least. The Federal lines resembled a circle with two antenna coming out of the top; the right hand antenna was composed of the Federal V Corps and the Federal I Corps, extending in a line to the Rappahannock river. The left-hand antenna was composed of the Federal XI Corps, extending up to the Rappahannock river at United States Ford, the only supply link across the river. The strength of the I, V and XI Corps, combined, was approximately 32,000 men.


The circle was composed of the III Corps, the XII Corps and the II Corps, in that order, extending from the left of the V Corps, circling around the Fairview plateau, around the Chancellor Mansion and connecting with the right of the XI Corps just north of the Chancellor Mansion. The III Corps faced west, the XII Corps faced South and East, and the II Corps faced east. One brigade of the II corps was behind the III Corps in support. The strength of the II, III and XII Corps was approximately 33,000 men.

Early in the morning, two divisions of the III Corps had been occupying Hazel Grove, outside of the Federal lines outlined above, facing East. In effect, what this position did was extend the right of the III Corps line from the position held by the V Corps in a straight line South to Hazel Grove. There were advantages to this position; Hazel Grove was an excellent artillery position, about the only really good artillery position on the battlefield. Federal guns here could smash any Confederate attack against Hazel Grove; Confederate guns here would be in a perfect position to destroy the Federal lines just a half-mile away. General Sickles argued with General Hooker to maintain this line, but General Hooker ordered the III Corps into position on the Fairview plateau. It was not a very good decision on his part, but he wasn't making very many good decisions that day.

The left flank of the Federal army was composed of the Federal VI Corps, at Fredericksburg, reinforced with Gibbons' division of the II Corps, about 33,000 men, in total. We haven't dwelt too much with what was happening on this front, precisely because there was not much happening on this front. This would change on this day, and we shall catch up with the events here later on.

The Confederate army was composed of Jackson's Corps, under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart, composed of A.P. Hill's, Rodes' and Colston's division, just to the West of the III Corps position at Fairview. Two divisions of Longstreet's Corps, Anderson's and McLaws, were with General Lee, just to the East of the Federal position. The combined strength of these two forces was about 48,000 men. Facing Sedgwick at Fredericksburg was General Early's division, of approximately 16,000 men, stretched along a six-mile front, and General Wilcox's Brigade of Anderson's Division.

General Lee had two options available to him today. He could retreat or he could attack. Certainly retreat was the best option for him. It took no great counting ability on his part to know that he was heavily outnumbered on his front. Attacking a stronger enemy in a fortified position was a sure recipe for disaster under the best of circumstances.

Instead, he chose to attack. Considering the audacious risks he had chosen the previous day, splitting his army twice in the face of a numerically superior enemy, and then attacking that enemy with a part of his force, this decision would not seem to be so unusual for this man. He had a pretty good idea that the enemy general before him had lost his spirit, precisely because he was able to do what he had done the day before. Furthermore, his attacking column of Jackson's Corps (now under the command of cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart) was concentrated against a very small portion of the Federal line. In effect, Lee would be able to attack with a superior strength at the point of attack. He would NOT be attacking the entire Federal force of 65,000 men, only a small portion of the Federal line, composed of one division of the III Corps and one of the XII Corps. If he could break through, it would further dispirit the Federal commander, and there was great hope for a general rout of the Federal army.

The Confederate attack began at 5:30 A.M. against the East face of the Federal line. By 7:30, the Confederates had broken through the first Federal line, composed of Berry's division of the III Corps, and were threatening the second line of Hays' II Corps. General Hooker sent for help, and French's division of the II Corps about faced from their position facing east and restored the lines to their original position, but at a high cost to both sides.

The Confederate attack resumed and again broke the Federal line. They were aided by the tremendous Confederate artillery crossfire, arranged by Confederate artillery commander E. Porter Alexander. The Confederates had moved up to 50 guns on the Hazel Grove position, recently vacated by the III Corps, and had 14 guns on the plank road, all of which were focused on the portions of the lines being attacked. It has been said that the Confederates never again had such a concentration of artillery fire in one place again. The Federal artillery were hampered by having a smaller place to place their guns, on the Fairview plain, and the lack of unified Federal artillery command. The artillery was running out of ammunition, and there was no one to bring up new ammunition, and no one to arrange new batteries being brought in to replace those that had depleted their ammunition and had retired to the rear to replenish. The Federal artillery fire slackened.

The Federal infantry was also running out of ammunition. Again, there seemed to be no one responsible for seeing the front line troops had enough ammunition to last the day. The troops had been issued 60 rounds apiece at the beginning of the campaign, but they were rapidly running out. Many commanders simply took their troops out of the line and moved them to the rear, the most extreme example being that of Brigadier General Joseph Revere who, when his divisional commander, Major General Hiram G. Berry was killed, assumed command and marched a whole Brigade, the Excelsior Brigade of Berry's Division, of the III Corps, composed of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd and 74th and 120 NY, off the field to replenish their ammunition. The hole made in the line by this move was critical.

By 9:30, The Eastern face of the Federal line was crumbling, and the Southern face was disappearing also. General Sickles sent desperate messages to General Hooker for help…but General Hooker, by one of those freak accidents of war, was no longer available. A shell had shattered just above his head and knocked him unconscious. General Couch, of the II Corps, the next in line for command, was sent for, but by the time Couch got to Headquarters, Hooker seemed to be ok; he was sitting on his horse and trying to reassure the troops that he was ok. Couch returned to his line, and Hooker fainted, again. There was no one in command willing to take the responsibility of relieving the general from command, so, for the rest of the day, the Federal army was without an effective commander.

The battle was definitely tilting in the Confederate's favor, at this time, but it was, by no means, certain. The Federals still had more troops than the Confederates had, and these troops, the V Corps and the I Corps, were not only fresh, but were poised on the Confederate flank. There was no one to order them to attack, however, and they did not do so. In fact, they were never engaged in the battle. 

By 11:00, the Federal line had totally crumbled. General Couch was fighting a rear-guard action to protect a corridor, allowing the remnants of the II, III and XII Corps to escape to the North. He was finally handed command of the army by General Hooker, but was ordered, as a condition of his command, to move the army closer to the river along a line of fortifications that had been laid down the night before. The battle on this flank was, essentially, over.

General Lee rode up to the Chancellor mansion, which was in flames by this time, to observe the Federal position. His ride was a paean of triumph, a mile-long ride through the cheering throngs of his men who knew they had accomplished another miracle, This was to be the high point of the Confederate army, the greatest triumph in its brief history, and the last great victory for the Army of Northern Virginia, and for Robert E. Lee. It was a moment of exultation that cannot be imagined.

The day was not over, yet, and to understand the next stages, one must look towards the left flank of the Union army at Fredericksburg.

One of the reasons that General Hooker had been content to remain on the defensive was the belief that General Sedgwick, with his VI Corps, would be coming up behind General Lee's army. If Sedgwick had done this on May 2 or May 3, the story of this battle would have been completely different. Why didn't he do so?

The reasons were many. Part of it had to do with his distance from General Hooker, and the poor communication between them. His orders to attack on May 2 didn't arrive until late in the day, and it was too late for him to organize an attack.

Another reason was because of the reputation of the position he was supposed to attack. While General Sedgwick had not participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of the previous year, he well knew what had occurred there, and he was very loath to attack a position that seemed so formidable. The Confederates didn't help; though very inferior in numbers, they used every stratagem they could think of to convince the Federals opposing them that their numbers were greater than they actually were.

Ultimately, though, the failure has to be laid at the foot of the person responsible, Major General John Sedgwick. Called 'Papa John' by his troops, he was well loved by his men, and he felt the same way in return. He was a man who possessed little initiative, and, obviously, insufficient imagination to hold the independent command that he had been given.

On May 2, as has been described previously, Confederate General Early, facing Sedgwick, had received orders to join General Lee, at Chancellorsville. The movement of General Early's troops were observed by the Federals, and General Sedgwick knew that the force facing him was vastly inferior to his own. However, he had no orders to attack, and he didn't. Sedgwick had the opportunity to change the course of the battle, with little danger to himself, but lacked the initiative to take advantage of this.

The night of May 2, General Hooker sent one of his aides, Brig-Gen Gouvernor Warren, to General Sedgwick to present the urgent need for Sedgwick to come up behind the Confederates on the next day. The orders he carried were for Sedgwick to attack at first light, carry the heights above the town of Fredericksburg and be at Chancellorsville first thing in the morning.

In order to avoid a costly frontal assault, Sedgwick first tried to flank the line ahead of him. Moving General Gibbon's division of the II Corps North, they were stopped by a canal that was unfordable. Any attempt from the South faced strong artillery attacks from the entrenched Confederate positions. Reluctantly, around 10:00 a.m. on May 3, General Sedgwick came to the conclusion that a direct assault against Marye's Heights would be the only way to carry the position. He had 23,000 troops, of which 2,000 would be available for this assault.

Facing him was General Early's division of approximately 12,700 men and 46 guns. This division had 6 miles of line to defend, and General Early had to decide how best to allocate his small force. Like General Sedgwick, he felt that the best defensive position available was the Marye's Heights position, and he felt that the Federals would not attack this position, so he placed half of his troops towards the South, around Hamilton's Crossing. Left at Marye's Heights were approximately 1200 men and 8 guns. The wall itself was manned by Barksdale's Brigade of approximately 600 men.

The attack on Marye's Heights was spearheaded by Newton's division of Sedgwick's Corps and Burnham's Light division, with Burnham's division being the one to charge the Stone Wall. The troops were aligned in three lines and ordered not to fire, but to charge without stopping. Colonel Allen, of the 5th Wisconsin, told his men, "Boys, you see those Heights. You have got to take them. You think you cannot do it, but you can and you will. When the signal 'forward' is given, you will start at the double-quick - you will not fire a gun - and you will not stop until you get the order to halt. You will never get that order." [10]

At about 10:00, the assaulting force stepped out and began their charge. The wall was wreathed with fire, and the casualties were heavy, but the Federals didn't stop. Soon they were over the wall, bayoneting those behind the wall, and pushing further up the hill. By 10:30, at the same time that General Lee was clearing the Fairview position around the Chancellorsville mansion of the last of its defenders, from his observation post at Station F north of the Rappahannock River, Captain James Hall signaled headquarters, "Our troops have just carried Marye's Heights and I think captured the guns." Twenty minutes later the news was on its way to General Hooker.[2]

Casualties were very heavy; The attackers lost nearly 1100 men, two-thirds of those from the regiments which lead the charge. The toll among the two Mississippi regiments guarding the wall was 475, well over 1/3 of the Confederates defending the wall.[12]

General Sedgwick was in no hurry to push his victory. Early's Brigade had not been defeated, only a small part of it. To follow Hooker's orders and push on to Chancellorsville would have been to leave the majority of the Confederates behind him. He pushed on as far as he felt comfortable with Newton's division, while his other two divisions occupied the Confederates on his flanks; he gave no orders to General Gibbons' Second Corps division, as he felt he had no authority to do so, and General Gibbons did not advance, as he had no authority. He moved his Corps to the Toll House, and then stopped to bring up his other two divisions and await to see if he could understand the tactical situation better.

After waiting several hours at the toll house, Sedgwick pushed ahead with, Brooks' division, for Chancellorsville, leaving Newton and and Howe's division to follow. His assumption was, obviously, that there would be little opposition ahead of him, or he would have kept his divisions more closely together. As it was, when Confederates were spotted around Salem Church, Brooks deployed his division and prepared to sweep aside what he considered to be an inferior Confederate force.

He was wrong, of course. The forces ahead of him were far from inferior to this one Union division. Facing him were Wilcox's Brigade, of Anderson's division, which had been North of Fredericksburg when General Sedgwick had taken Marye's Heights, and had quickly marched to block the Federals from moving down Telegraph Road. In addition, General McLaws' division had been marching from the Chancellorsville Battlefield, and was just deploying next to Wilcox as the Federals approached. The forces opposing Brook's division were of approximately the same strength as he had on the field.[13] The attack began at 3:25 p.m.[5]

The Confederates were in an excellent defensive position, in a band of thick woods, and were prepared when the Federals attacked. The fighting was fierce, but didn't last long, and the Confederates were able to push the Federals back to Salem Church, and were only stopped by massed Union batteries at that point from causing a total route of the forces present. Soon Newton's and Howe's divisions came up and stabilized the situation. Losses for this brief fight were 1523 for the Federals, 674 for the Confederates.[15]

Sedgwick felt he had no orders, and declined to push the situation any further. He sent General Warren back to General Hooker, asking for instructions, and prepared his lines around Salem Church to wait for the next day.

Thus ended the third day of fighting, the seventh day of campaigning in the Chancellorsville campaign. Except for the Battle around Marye's Heights, the campaign had been one of unrelieved Confederate triumph. General Hooker's right wing was huddled behind entrenchments around the U.S. Ford, and showed no sign of aggressiveness. General Sedgwick was at Salem Church with little initiative on his own, and awaiting orders; should he continue to attack, or withdraw, and should he withdraw towards Banks' Ford, or towards Fredericksburg?

General Lee had a choice of attacking Hooker or attacking Sedgwick. Sedgwick was the obvious choice,, and he prepared his orders to send the rest of Anderson's division and parts of Jackson's Corps on the road the next morning for a confrontation with the VI Corps. The next day could see the destruction of a major part of the Federal army.

The Federals Retreat
May 4-6, 1863

The evening of May 3 saw the Federal army divided between a right wing and a left wing, and simply waiting to see what the Confederates were going to do. General Hooker, still suffering the effects of his wound the day before, gravitated between sleep and a sort of stupor. He gave no orders; dispositions were left up to his Corps commanders, and business was being conducted by his aides. His right wing, the majority of his army, 65,000 men, was in a fortified position surrounding their line of retreat, U.S. Ford, and their only plan was the hope that the Confederates would attack their fortified line and suffer defeat.


The Federal left wing was composed of General Sedgwick's VI Corps, encamped around Salem Church, and General Gibbon's division of the II Corps, which had fallen back and occupied the city of Fredericksburg. General Sedgwick had no idea what he was supposed to be doing, whether he was to attack or retreat, and he wanted nothing more than a clear-cut set of orders. Repeated messages to General Hooker finally resulted in a reply by General Warren, one of Hooker's Aides, that did not clarify the situation at all. Warren told him that; "General Hooker hoped the enemy would attack him on the next morning. If they will, he does not desire you to attack them again in force, unless he attacks them at the same time. He says you are too far away to direct." Sedgwick took this to mean that he was only to take the offensive if General Hooker took the offensive, without any indication of how he was supposed to know if and when General Hooker was going to take the offensive. Sedgwick had three options, to attack, to retreat by way of Banks' ford, or to retreat by way of Fredericksburg. Not being the type of person to take the initiative, Sedgwick made no plans that night, waiting for the situation to develop.

General Lee, on the other hand, was very active. His three options were to retreat, to attack Hooker, or to attack Sedgwick. In the face of an active enemy, retreat was still the best option. However, considering the utter torpidity of the Federal army, he suffered no real risks by contemplating an offense.

Early on the morning of the 4th of May, General Anderson sent a reconnaissance to the right flank of Hooker's position, to see if there was possibility of turning that flank. He came to the conclusion that the Federal line was too strong to attack, and forwarded the news to General Lee. Lee quickly decided that the possibilities were greater to destroy General Sedgwick's advance position than to attack General Hooker; if Hooker wasn't going to move, anyway, Lee could always come back and finish the job there. Anderson was ordered to take his division down the plank road, join McClaws at Salem Church and finish off General Sedgwick. He was leaving the two divisions of Jackson's Corps, about 25,000 men, to hold Hooker, with his 65,000 men, while he moved the rest of his army to face Sedgwick.

At the same time, General Early, who had realized he had been outgeneraled when the VI Corps took Marye's heights, sought to redress his embarrassment by retaking the position. At 7:00 a.m. on May 4th, Early moved his division to occupy the position, which had not been garrisoned at all by Federal troops. He captured some empty wagons, and cut off Sedgwick's retreat route through Fredericksburg in one fell swoop. General Gibbon, in the city of Fredericksburg, without orders, did nothing to oppose Early's move. Early left Barksdale's brigade, of about 1600 men, at Marye's heights to hold Gibbon, and moved his troops, about 10,000 men, in position to cooperate with General McLaws in an attack on General Sedgwick. 

It took all day to for the Confederates to move their forces in position for the attack. Lee had 21,000 men confronting Sedgwick's 19,000 men.[16]  General Early was on the Confederate right, General Anderson in the center and General McLaws' division was on the Confederate right. At 5:30, p.m. the signal was given for the attack, and General Early promptly launched his attack. Within a half hour, he had forced the Federal division under General Howe back to his second line of defense. Repeated attacks against this line forced it back further, until darkness began to fall. McLaws and Anderson advanced, also, but, due to the slow going in the heavy underbrush of the Wilderness, were not able to make contact before the fall of darkness. Finally, at 6:45, General Sedgwick ordered a general withdrawal, and the Union forces contracted to a position protecting their line of retreat to Banks' ford. A heavy fog blanketed the ground, making further advance difficult, and the fighting ceased.
General Hooker, meanwhile, allowed the day to go by without any action at all, even though he could hear the firing of the Confederate attack on Sedgwick. General Reynolds, of the I Corps, begged to be able to attack the Confederate left flank, but refused. Instead, he sent out a brigade, Stone's brigade, on a reconnaissance, hoping that it would bring on a general engagement. Unfortunately, he didn't inform Stone of his intentions, and, when Stone got close enough to hear the Confederate voices in their works, prudently withdrew in the face of stronger force, to General Reynolds' chagrin. 

At midnight on the evening of May 4-5, the Corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac gathered in a tent to discuss the situation. General Hooker, and his aides, General Butterfield and Warren were present. General Slocum and General Sedgwick were absent. Hooker presented the situation as it existed, and asked the Generals assembled whether to retreat or attack. General Hooker then withdrew, to allow the Generals go discuss the situation. 

Generals Meade, Reynolds and Howard voted to attack. General Couch and General Sickles favored retreat. The vote was, thus, to resume the offensive the next day, when General Hooker returned to the conference, and told his generals that his mind had been made up to order the retreat. General Reynolds was heard to comment, "What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyway?" At 1:00, a.m., Hooker sent a message to Sedgwick ordering him to withdraw, also. Sedgwick promptly complied with the only real definite order he had received in a very long time, and withdrew his army across Banks' ford on the morning of May 5th.

General Lee planned to attack Sedgwick, if he were still there on the morning of the 5th, but, when it became apparent that Sedgwick had retreated, Lee swung his army around to attack Hooker. He planned a two-pronged attack, his left, under Stuart, commanding Jackson's Corps, was to attack the Federal right flank, his right, composed of Anderson's, Early's and McLaws' divisions, attacking the Federal left. However, it began to rain on the 5th. His troops were tired, and the rain was torrential. It was not possible to get the troops up on line by the end of the day on May 5th, so General Lee postponed his attack to the morning of the 6th.

General Hooker's planned an orderly withdrawal, to occur on the evening of the 5th, so, if General Lee did attack, he would find a fortified line facing him. When that attack didn't occur, the withdrawal began with the 5th Corps, and proceeded along the line, each Corps withdrawing in succession. General Hooker crossed the river first, and stayed on the far, bank, leaving the details of the withdrawal to his Aides and his Corps commanders. The withdrawal was finished by 9:00 the next morning, and only discovered later by the Confederates. The great Battle of Chancellorsville was over.

A portion of the Federal army thought, during the retreat, that they were going to proceed on another great flanking movement, but most soldiers realized they had been beaten, many of them never having been in action. "The wonder of the private soldiers was great. How could they have been beaten with so little fighting? How had one half of the army been defeated while the other half had not fought at all? The muttered curses were prolonged and deep as they plodded back in the mud to their old camps." [17]

Lee was very upset to find the Federals gone. When informed by General Pender that his pickets had found the Federals gone, he exclaimed, "Why, General Pender! That is what you young men always do. You allow these people to get away. I tell you what to do, and you don't do it." [18] He was sorely disappointed at the results of the battle, because the battle had not been decisive. Pursuit across the Rappahannock was impossible, due to lack of bridging resources and lack of supplies. "At Chancellorsville, we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight. I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our losses were severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued." [19]

The reaction in the North was dramatic. Newspaperman Noah Brooks, was present when Lincoln heard the news, and described the scene. "The appearance of the President was piteous. Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken up, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying, 'My God, my God, what will the country say! What will the country say! He seemed incapable of uttering any other words, and quickly left the room."

Before the day was out, a correspondent wrote to the New York Times:
'The news that Hooker and his army had recrossed the Rappahannock flashed through Washington about 5 o'clock this afternoon. The impression produced by it was profound. Men's minds were cast from the congratulatory cheerfulness with which all had for three days discussed the events which succeeded the brilliant passages of the Rappahannock, and the Rapidan…It made men silent and thoughtful beyond anything I have ever seen in Washington."

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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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