The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Chancellorsville, Battle of

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The American Cyclopædia
Chancellorsville, Battle of
Edition of 1879. Written by Alfred H. GuernseySee also Battle of Chancellorsville on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CHANCELLORSVILLE, Battle of, fought in Spottsylvania county, E. Virginia, May 2-4, 1863, between the Union army of the Potomac under Gen. Hooker, and the confederate army of North Virginia under Gen. Lee. Hooker replaced Burnside in command of the army of the Potomac, Jan. 26, 1863. He found it somewhat demoralized by the defeat at Fredericksburg and by dissensions among its principal officers, but by the middle of April he had brought it to a high state of efficiency. It numbered 132,000 men, of whom 13,000 were cavalry. It was divided into seven corps, under Reynolds, Couch, Sickles, Meade, Sedgwick, Howard, and Slocum, the cavalry being under Stoneman. It lay in camp on the left bank of the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg. The confederate army was intrenched on the heights across the river. It was divided into the corps of Longstreet and Jackson, but Longstreet himself, with three of his five divisions, had been sent to North Carolina, so that there remained 62,000 men, of whom 3,000 were cavalry under Stuart. The position was thought to be unassailable in front, and Hooker undertook to turn its left flank, and so fall upon its rear. In the mean while he sent all his cavalry, with the exception of 1,000, upon an expedition to cut the communications of the enemy with Richmond. On the morning of April 27 a column 36,000 strong, which comprised the greater part of the corps of Meade, Howard, and Slocum, moved up the left bank of the Rappahannock 27 m. to Kelly's ford, beyond the extreme confederate left, where they crossed without opposition. Meade then moved down the opposite bank 10 m. toward the United States ford, brushed away three brigades which defended it, so that Couch, who was waiting on the other side with 12,000 men, crossed, and the four corps moved by different roads toward Chancellorsville, which had been designated as the place of rendezvous. They were in light marching order, encumbered with little artillery or baggage, the ammunition being carried by mules; and before the night of the 30th 48,000 men had reached Chancellorsville, and Sickles with 18,000 more was only a few hours' march behind. So successfully had the movement been conducted, that Hooker was justified by every military consideration in declaring that "the enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his intrenchments and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him." Chancellorsville was a solitary brick mansion, surrounded by a few outbuildings, standing in a clearing on the verge of a wild region known as the Wilderness. The tract, 10 or 15 m. in extent each way, had formerly been covered with a heavy forest. This had been cut down to supply fuel for the iron furnaces, and the soil being too poor to repay cultivation, a dense growth of dwarf pines, scrub oak, chinquapins, and brambles had sprung up. The surface was varied by low ridges, swampy intervales, and muddy brooks. Here and there was a solitary church, tavern, or farm house, each in a little clearing. Two main roads traverse the Wilderness from E. to W. These, coming from Culpeper and Orange Court House, unite near Chancellorsville, and after two or three miles again diverge, both running toward Fredericksburg, 11 m. E. of Chancellorsville. The other roads are little more than wood paths. The battle of Chancellorsville was fought near the eastern border of this tract; that of the Wilderness, a year later, about 10 m. to the west. Sedgwick and Reynolds had crossed the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg, and were making a threatening demonstration on the confederate front, and it was not till the evening of the 30th that Lee was aware that his left flank had been turned, and that Hooker was in his rear, with a force fully equal to his own. Directing Early with 10,000 men to hold the heights of Fredericksburg, he at once called up Anderson from the left, and ordered Jackson to march from the extreme right. Jackson's main force was 20 m. distant. He began to move at midnight; at 8 o'clock the head of his column began to come up to Anderson, and by 11 on Friday morning, May 1, all had arrived, and were drawn up in line of battle in front of the Wilderness, out of which the enemy was now beginning to move. Hooker had done much, but he had omitted the one thing which would have insured success. An hour's march, the evening before or this morning, would have taken him unopposed out of the Wilderness and into the open country. But now, at noon, as his columns debouched by different roads, they found the enemy advancing in force; and, in opposition to the opinion of every one of his generals who had touched the enemy, he fell back again into the Wilderness. “The passageway,” he says, “was narrow; I was satisfied that I could not throw troops through it fast enough to resist the advance of Gen. Lee, and was apprehensive of being whipped in detail. Accordingly, instructions were given for the troops in advance to return and establish themselves on the line they had just left, and to hold themselves in readiness to receive the enemy.” The enemy, barely 50,000 strong, had come out of his intrenchments, and Hooker with more than 60,000 retreated before them from the ground which he himself had chosen, abandoned the offensive and assumed the defensive, while at the same time he had, 15 m. away, 56,000 more who were only hindered from falling upon what was now Lee's rear by the 10,000 left with Early. Hooker's defensive line was nearly in the shape of the letter C, the main front facing southward, the upper and lower curves looking west and east. The corps and. divisions were somewhat broken up. Meade was on the left, nearest Fredericksburg, Slocum in the centre, Howard on the right. The corps of Couch and Sickles were mainly in reserve, but a division from each was thrust forward into the front line. Howard's position was weakly posted, being in military phrase “in the air;” but as the enemy were wholly on the left; hardly reaching to the centre, it was thought safe. Skirmishers pushed into the woods informed Lee that the Union front was unassailable; but a cavalry reconnoissance disclosed the exposed situation of the Union right, and during the night Lee and Jackson resolved to attack there. To do this the confederate force must be divided. Jackson with 30,000 men was to move by a forest road around the Union position, while Lee with 20,000 kept up a show in front. Jackson moved at daybreak; a mile of dense forest shut him from the view of the enemy; only about 9 o'clock the road crossed a bare hill, over which the long column was plainly seen moving. It was clearly a movement in force, but its object was uncertain. The road just there ran southward, the direction which a retreat would probably take; but it might be for offence upon the right, and Howard was ordered to be on the alert, and especially to throw out pickets in his front. At 3 o'clock Jackson had accomplished his circuit of 15 m., which brought him within 6 m. of the point from which he had set out. He halted to form his men in an open space 2 m. to the west of Howard's position. Scouts creeping through the woods discovered the Union intrenchments unguarded; the arms were stacked, the men preparing their dinner. At 5 o'clock Jackson burst upon them down the road and through the woods on each side. The regiments on whom the shock first fell scattered without firing a shot, and the whole corps broke in disorder, and swarmed down the road to within half a mile of Chancellorsville. But the pursuers were checked from two quarters. All day Lee kept up a noisy demonstration on Hooker's front. Pleasonton, with two regiments of cavalry and a horse battery, had pushed a little into the woods, and finding nothing for cavalry to do was riding leisurely back. He came upon an open space, now filled with men, ambulances, and guns, the debris of a part of Howard's corps. The low underwood was swarming with the enemy. He ordered one regiment to charge into the woods to check the pursuit for a few minutes, while with the other he brought up his horse battery, got a score of other guns into position, and had all of them double-shotted with canister and pointed low. The check given by the cavalry to the confederates was but momentary; they dashed straight toward the guns, but their line was swept back by the artillery; again and again they pressed on, and were again repelled, and at last fell back into the cover of the forest. As the Union line had been placed, Hooker had at Chancellorsville only Berry's division of Sickles's corps and a brigade of Couch's. With Berry's division he vainly tried to check the fugitives, some of whom were shot down by his staff. Berry's division then pressed straight through the flying crowd, and poured a fire of artillery up the road and into the woods. This brought the pursuers to a stand. Jackson, with a small escort, had ridden out to reconnoitre. Turning back, he was fired upon by his own men, who mistook the company for enemies. He received several wounds, from which he died a week later. Hill, the next in rank, was also wounded soon after, and the command devolved upon Stuart. In this action Hooker had suffered nothing beyond the partial disorganization of Howard's corps, the weakest in the army; the ground lost was of no consequence; and moreover Reynolds's large corps arrived during the night from Fredericksburg. — On Sunday morning, May 3, Hooker still stood on the defensive; he indeed ordered a new line to be drawn up, to which he might fall back in case of need. Lee had in the mean time communicated with Stuart, and given orders that “those people should be pressed.” Hooker now had at and about Chancellorsville fully 78,000 effective men; Lee proposed to press him in his intrenchments with barely 50,000. The Union force was all together; the confederates were separated by six miles of almost pathless forest, and it depended upon the chances of battle whether these could be reunited. Moreover, Sedgwick, who had with him 27,000, might fairly be expected to be able to drive off the 10,000 of Early, and appear on the field, as he was now ordered to do. Then, could both commanders concentrate their whole force, Hooker would have 95,000, Lee at most 60,000. Hooker's line now formed three sides of an irregular square. The left, facing eastward, was held by Hancock's division of Couch's corps; the centre by Slocum; the right, facing westward, by Sickles and French's division of Couch's corps. Reynolds was halted two miles in the rear of the extreme right; Meade was partly in reserve, and partly guarding the road leading to the river; Howard was on the extreme left, where no attack was anticipated. These last three corps took no part in the action of the day. Sickles's extreme left had been at Hazle Grove, apparently pushed beyond the general line, and exposed to attack. Hooker directed him to withdraw from that position, which was immediately seized by Stuart, who planted there a battery of 30 guns. This was the most important point on the field, for the artillery there commanded Chancellorsville and completely enfiladed the whole Union centre. As the morning fog lifted, Stuart moved to attack Sickles; the attack was hotly made and fiercely repelled. At length Sickles's ammunition fell short, and he asked for support. His demand came at an unpropitious moment. Hooker had been leaning against a pillar at Chancellorsville; a half-spent shot from Hazle Grove struck this, and Hooker fell insensible from the concussion. There was no one to send support to Sickles, though the two corps of Reynolds and Meade, together outnumbering Stuart's whole force, were wholly disengaged. Half of either of these would have been enough to insure victory; for, Stuart's attack repelled, the remainder of Hooker's disengaged force sweeping around would have enveloped the broken corps. They could not have carried off a gun, or got away except by creeping in squads through the forest. This seems to have been Hooker's plan; but if so, no attempt was made to carry it out. Sickles, having exhausted his ammunition, sent his now useless artillery to the rear, and fell back a little to a line which he would hold by the bayonet. To his surprise he was not at once followed, and looking to his front, the enemy seemed to be broken up and defeated. Just at this moment French, with a single division, had struck Stuart's left and forced it back for a space. This was the only offensive movement made on that day by any part of Hooker's force. Stuart then rallied his whole force, and in turn repelled French. All this time Lee, with the divisions of Anderson and McLaws, had assailed the Union centre, which Slocum was holding under the enfilading fire from the 30 guns at Hazle Grove, but always edging to the right to unite with Stuart. This junction was effected at 10 o'clock, when the battle there still hung in even scale. Both sides had suffered severely. Stuart, out of the 29,000 which he had in the morning, had lost 6,000 killed and wounded, and 1,500 prisoners; Sickles and French had lost 5,000 out of 22,000. The united confederate force, about 42,000 strong after its losses, converged toward Chancellorsville. In their way stood Sickles, French, and Slocum, with 10,000 less, while not two miles distant on either hand were Reynolds, Meade, and Howard, with 42,000, not a regiment of which moved at this extreme moment toward the scene of conflict. The stress of the combined attack fell upon Sickles. Five times the assault was repelled; then all at once the whole Union line melted away, Sickles's corps first yielding the position. Couch had by this time assumed some sort of command, and in obedience to his orders the whole army fell back to the position which had been marked out during the previous night. As a defensive position to be held against a superior force, it was an excellent one. It formed a sharp curve, the apex nearly a mile back of Chancellorsville, and the sides stretching to the river and covering the fords. Each flank was protected by a small stream, with densely wooded banks. The front could be approached only by a few rough roads. Lee was on the point of ordering an attack, when he received tidings that Sedgwick had carried the heights at Fredericksburg, and Early was unable to hold the new position which he had taken up. Lee sent four brigades which had suffered least, and a series of sharp conflicts ensued, neither side gaining any important advantage. Night coming on, both armies slept upon the field. — No army ever stood in greater peril than did that of the confederates on Monday morning. All counted, it numbered less than 50,000 effective men. Stuart and Anderson at Chancellorsville, with 30,000, confronted Hooker with 70,000; six miles to the east was McLaws with 10,000; three miles southward was Early with 9,000. Sedgwick had lost heavily, but he still had as many as McLaws and Early together. It was hardly possible that Hooker would not discover the situation, and either attack Stuart with more than two-fold numbers, or, leaving enough to hold him in check, fall upon McLaws, who would thus be crushed between two superior forces. Lee's only hope lay in dislodging Sedgwick, so he still further weakened Stuart by detaching Anderson with 10,000 men to the support of McLaws and Early, who had now effected a junction. The whole force, 27,000 strong, was at noon directed against Sedgwick, who with 18,000 assumed a defensive position. There was some skirmishing during the afternoon, but no serious action took place till 6 o'clock, when Anderson forced Sedgwick's right, under Howe, back to a strong position near the Rappahannock. Hooker meanwhile had sent contradictory orders to Sedgwick. In the morning he was told to recross the Rappahannock, if he thought best; at 11 o'clock he was directed to remain where he was. During the night he was again told to cross; a few minutes later an order countermanding this was sent; but it was not received until the former one had been obeyed, and it was too late to return, for the enemy had taken a position whicn commanded the bridge. But during the night Hooker had made up his mind to abandon his own position, and threw up new intrenchments to cover the bridges. Lee moved toward these, apparently intending to assault. But on Tuesday afternoon a fierce storm arose. The river rose rapidly, submerging the approaches to the bridges; one of these was taken down to piece out the other, and over this the Union army retreated during the night without being perceived. An analysis of the official reports on both sides shows that the Union loss in this series of actions was about 17,000, of which there were 12,000 killed and wounded and 6,000 missing; that of the confederates about 13,000, of which 10,300 were killed and wounded, and 2,700 missing. Of the Union loss in killed and wounded, about 7,000 were in the two corps of Sickles and Sedgwick; 4,400 in those of Slocum, Couch, and Howard; and only 600 in those of Meade and Reynolds. Of the missing, 2,000 were from the corps of Howard, which numbered only 11,000. Of the confederate killed and wounded, 6,800 were in the three divisions under Stuart, which originally numbered 30,000. Hooker himself said that he had more men than he could use; that he “had fought no battle,” because he could not get his men into position to do so; and that he had failed in the enterprise which had been so brilliantly begun from causes “of a character not to be foreseen or prevented by any human sagacity or resources.” — The cavalry expedition under Stoneman was equally abortive. The main body went to within 30 m. N. W. of Richmond, where it was separated into six. One struck the James River canal, and made an ineffectual attempt to destroy the aqueduct across the Rivanna river; one rode to within two miles of Richmond, passing clear through the outer defences, and destroying a railroad station; four others tore up a few rails on the Fredericksburg railroad, which was the main purpose of the expedition, but doing so little injury that in three days the trains were again running. The scattered bodies at length made their way back, crossing the Rappahannock May 8.