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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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The oblivious targets of Jackson's imminent attack

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 07/13/2002

Part 19 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

ALL DAY LONG on May 2, 1863, Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson led a column on a secret march across the front of the Federal army around Chancellorsville. Late in the afternoon he reached a wonderful vantage point behind his enemy, who remained unaware of impending disaster.

For six weeks this series has followed Jackson's progress, with only occasional mention of the enemy he was sneaking past. Gen. Daniel Sickles' foray to the environs of Catharine Furnace produced the only sizable Federal ripple in the story of a successful Confederate march. What had Gen. Joseph Hooker been doing all through May 2? He had not been doing much of anything.

Hooker had led a mighty army into battle. During the last few days of April he had stolen a march on Lee, reaching Chancellorsville in good time and forcing the Confederates away from their powerful Fredericksburg position. On the night of May 1, Hooker had been full of bravado, issuing both written and verbal pronouncements dripping with gasconade.

Having achieved all of that, on May 2 Hooker spent most of a pleasant, sunny Saturday in the midst of enemy country--not making good on his boasts but instead simply dithering.

Men around the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac on May 1 observed an air of confidence in Hooker's demeanor. A colonel writing to his wife that morning described the army's commander as "in fine spirits and says our success is assured." Declaiming about such success was, of course, an entirely different thing than ensuring it.

Most of the Federal army succumbed to the lassitude emanating from headquarters. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams of Michigan, Yale-graduated and 52 years old, had served in the Mexican War and carved out a solid Civil War record. On May 2, this energetic and successful officer, posted not far from the Chancellorsville intersection, received no orders and eventually, he admitted, "I took a long nap."

At corps headquarters, Williams found other generals, including the corps commander, Henry Slocum, sprawled about and inactive. The generals and their aides and orderlies "formed a large groupall of us pretty much engaged in sleeping." While the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia put in one of the most active days in its storied history, the Federal Army of the Potomac slept.

Gen. Hooker had inspected his line early on May 2, all six miles of it. He rode to the army's left, anchored firmly on the Rappahannock, and to the right beyond Wilderness Church. Everywhere the troops showed "irrepressible enthusiasm." Hooker looked like a leader and the men responded.

Across his center, near Chancellorsville crossroads, Hooker's army had entrenched actively and enjoyed strong positions. What of his right--where Jackson's march was aimed, though the Federals did not know it?

Gen. Oliver Otis Howard's 11th Corps held a south-facing line that ran west beyond Wilderness Church to the far right flank of Hooker's army. It covered about a mile and a half, on and near the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3). There the line ended, randomly, unprotected by any natural feature. Hooker had posted Howard far from what apparently would be the center of operations because his corps seemed to be the army's least reliable, and carried the fewest men into action. A substantial number of the men of the corps came from German roots. Many of them had emigrated in the aftermath of the upheavals that shook Europe in the 1840s; others had arrived in North America only recently.

The leaders of the 11th Corps reflected the composition of its regiments and brigades. Howard's subordinate commanders included men named Schurz, von Gilsa, Buschbeck, Schimmelfennig, von Steinwehr, and Krzyzanowski. Hooker and many others mistrusted these foreign-sounding fellows, many sporting unfamiliar accents and European modes of dress and behavior. Some of them in fact deserved the mistrust, but others did not. Circumstances on May 2 would doom them all to participation in a crashing, thunderous disaster. In the aftermath, they absorbed more blame than the facts warranted.

Gen. Hooker's visit to Howard's dangling flank early on the morning of May 2 did not accomplish much of substance, but it gave him texts for post-battle sermons directed with hindsight against the 11th Corps. During his visit, the army commander suggested tightening the front where gaps intervened between units. He did not, however, direct a major adjustment to protect the dangling flank. Swinging the westernmost regiments back to their right (north), perpendicular to the main line, would have strengthened the position significantly. Howard gave no indication of feeling the need for the sturdy entrenchments of earth and wood that the center of the army had been erecting.

By the time Joe Hooker returned to headquarters, reports of Confederate movement through the woods had started to filter across the battlefield. The army commander sent a warning to Gen. Howard that perfectly presaged Jackson's attack of that evening. In a circular addressed jointly to Howard and Slocum, Hooker noted "that the disposition you have madehas been with a view to a front attack by the enemy." The message spoke of the obvious need to have plans ready for adjustments in the line if Confederates appeared from an uncomfortable direction, and to have "heavy reserves well in hand" to vector to points so threatened. Hooker also remarked upon the absence of entrenchments, and added: "We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right."

Those thoughtful, entirely appropriate, warnings went out at 9:30 a.m. Eight hours later they looked like prescience. Howard did little in response to his superior's injunctions. Hooker did nothing to ensure compliance, and apparently thought little more about the matter. In fact, in early afternoon he overrode Howard's cautious preference for keeping his corps intact and expressly ordered the detachment from the 11th Corps of reinforcements for Sickles' adventure near the furnace.

The mounting evidence that Confederates were slipping west through the thickets persuaded Hooker--and many another Federal officer--that their enemies were doing what they wanted them to do: retreat. An antique, iron-clad, military maxim suggests that a commander should always expect his enemy to do what he should do. Wishful thinking does not work well in military equations, even though it is standard practice in political discourse. Expecting an enemy to fulfill one's own fond hopes lies at the wrong extremity of the pragmatic spectrum.

At about 2:30, Hooker told one of his corps commanders that Lee was retreating "in the direction of Gordonsville." In preparation for a lively pursuit on May 3, Hooker sent around orders to replenish supplies and "be ready to start at an early hour tomorrow." He directed Howard to assist Sickles at once in pressing toward Catharine Furnace. Howard later said that he joined "all the other officers" in believing the Confederate army was leaving the battlefield.

Along the lines of Howard's 11th Corps, afternoon shadows lengthened across a scene more indolent than militant. Soldiers butchered cattle, cooked supper, played cards, indited letters home, and loafed. Chasing the retreating Confederate in the morning might lead to action, but only after a quiet night. Then some thrashing in the thickets to westward began to draw attention. Quail and rabbits dashed out of the brush. Behind them arose the spine-chilling, blood-freezing, ululating screech of the Rebel Yell. No one would be chasing Confederates in the foreseeable future.

Next week: Keeping Hooker bemused

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.