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 , 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
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
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.
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. 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
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. 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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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." 
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.
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.
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
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
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. The attack began at 3:25 p.m.
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.
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
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
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.
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." 
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."  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." 
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."
Show Footnotes and
. Fitz Lee, Chancellorsville, p. 567.
. OR 40; several
. Bigelow, Chancellorsville, pp. 287-288;
Publications of Loyal Legion, Ohio Commandery,1888, I p. 370.
. Battles and Leaders 3, p. 208.
. OR 39, p. 1050.
Chancellorsville, pp. 296-297.
. E. Porter Alexander, Fighting
for the Confederacy, p. 201.
. OR 25:1, pp. 670, 387, 255, 507.
. OR 25:1 p. 941.
. Shaler, Newton reports, OR supplement 4. pp 646, 633-34.
. Hooker Papers, Huntington Library.
. Confederate casualties are from OR 25:1, p. 806. Federal casualties are
from the compiled records of the individual regiments.
. OR 25:1 pp. 581-582.
. Bigelow, p 398.
. Union losses are for Brown's and Bartlett's Brigades, plus the 95th and
119th PA of Russel's Brigade and the 2nd Rhode Island and 10th MA of Newton's
division, that helped halt the counterattack. Confederate losses are for
Wilcox's and Semme's Brigades. Bartlett reported a loss of 580 out of its four
regiments numbering less than 1500 (OR 39. p. 582). The 121st NY, having never
been in action before, lost 276 out of an aggregate of 453 (OR pp. 189, 589).
. Bigelow, "Chancellorsville," p. 413.
. Goss, "Recollections of a Private, p. 163.
. Confederate Military History, III p. 392.
. Address of Colonel Chapman Biddle, Hist. Soc. Of Pa., March 8, 1880.
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.