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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Chancellorsville: Finding fault

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 08/24/2002

Part 25 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

BEFORE THE sulfurous gun smoke blanketing the Talley and Hawkins farms had dissipated on the evening of May 2, 1863, Federal officers began to think about scapegoats. A catastrophe as deep and pervasive as the one they suffered that afternoon unquestionably would spawn blame in great sheaves. There was plenty to go around, of course, but who deserved the most? More importantly, some of them must have thought, where might it best be assigned?

Most of the army instantly, instinctively, unthinkingly blamed the foreign-talking, foreign-acting German immigrants who made up a discernible chunk of the 11th Corps, both infantry and officers. About the thoroughness of that corps' rout no one raised serious doubt. One of the participants wrote bluntly that his brigade "was picked up and dashed to pieces as a strong man would lift and hurl a child." The salient rhetorical questions became: Could the corps have done any better under the circumstances? Could anyone else have done better?

The easy answer, widely embraced, concluded that Germans (or "Dutch" as many called them, especially if referring to men of Pennsylvanian-German pedigree) simply weren't as good as other Americans. A Yankee named Miller wrote on May 12: "We think but very little of the dutch sons of bitches.They might have foght [sic] well with Sigle [former commander Franz Sigel] but they did not fight worth ---- under Howard" (expletive deleted for use in a family newspaper). Northern soldiers and civilians amused themselves with wordplay upon the popular contemporary opera by Richard Wagner, "Der Fliegende Hollander" (The Flying Dutchman). A Federal officer who shouted himself hoarse in trying to rally the fugitives croaked the next morning: "the damned Dutchmen ran away with my voice."

In fact, the troops of the Eleventh Corps deserved no special calumny. That many Confederates coming out of the woods behind them, screeching and shooting and running, constituted an irresistible tidal wave. It is difficult to disagree with the studied conclusion of Medal of Honor recipient Hubert Dilger, one of the Federal heroes in the midst of chaos: "Every other Corps would have met the same fate."

How those screeching and shooting Southerners attained that invincible upper hand remains the heart of the question. Officers of the 11th Corps certainly stand vulnerable to harsh criticism. None of them approached the performance one might expect of a modern major general, whether in the realm of Gilbert and Sullivan or the realm of Lee and Jackson.

Union army commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker won deserved disdain for superintending an army so ill-prepared and unready. Officers of the 7th Wisconsin dutifully court-martialed a private named Babcock for proclaiming loudly that Hooker "is the poorest general in the armycan only slaughter men," but some of them must have agreed covertly with that analysis. Union Gen. Henry J. Hunt, a brilliant artillerist whose absence from the field hurt his army, said scornfully of Hooker at Chancellorsville: "That was no battle--it requires two generals to meet to make a battle."

For his part, Hooker focused all of the blame on Gen. O.O. Howard--steadily, loudly, and with energetic vituperation. Many contemporaries liked the mild-mannered, deeply religious Howard, but few seem to have respected him. A member of Gen. W.S. Hancock's staff told his wife in December 1862 that Howard was "just as good-natured and pleasant as ever." Capt. Dilger simply but directly referred to Howard's "unfitness," and described the corps as "cursed from its organization." Hooker went much further.

Nine years after the battle, a San Francisco newspaper induced Hooker to give an unvarnished opinion of Howard: "He's a very bad mana very queer man.He was always a woman among troops. If he was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them. He was always taken up with Sunday Schools and the temperance cause." Hooker suggested that Howard should have led prayer meetings instead of troops. He also added the firm prediction that Horace Greeley would be elected president in 1872, since "Grant has got no more moral sense than a dog," as though such things affect national politics in America.

Although he no doubt genuinely blamed Howard (who genuinely deserved blame), Hooker clearly had slipped into culpability-shifting overdrive. A sentence from the 1872 polemic reveals the extent of Hooker's self-serving purposes. "I knew of Jackson's movements," he insisted delusionally, "and was not taken by surprise a single moment."

The ill-starred Federal 11th Corps went on from Chancellorsville to another misadventure nearly as great at Gettysburg, two months later. Once again Confederates pitched into the Germans at a bad time, from an unexpected angle--this time by fortuitous accident rather than carefully planned tactics. Again the 11th Corps ran, out of necessity. Shifted to the western theater after Gettysburg, the troops who had suffered so badly two battles in a row carved out an admirable record at such places as Missionary Ridge.

In the midst of their sweeping victory, the Confederates generated a controversy of their own, although in a much less public arena than the Northern hubbub about Hooker and Howard. Chance put the brigade of Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt, age 39, a Georgia politician of starkly limited military aptitude, on the far right of "Stonewall" Jackson's front line. The sturdy North Carolinians under Gen. S. Dodson Ramseur protected Colquitt's right and rear. Also aligned in that quarter stood the famous old Stonewall Brigade. Confederates rarely enjoyed the luxury of such reserves and depth; on May 2, with plenty of strength on hand, Jackson issued strict orders to the front line brigades to ignore everything but their duty to roar ahead over all resistance. The ample reserves would mop up behind them and watch the flanks.

Despite those crystal-clear orders, Colquitt reined in his brigade soon after the attack began. One of his staff (probably a cousin or in-law, in that era of casual nepotism) reported excitedly about movement to the right. Efficient Dodson Ramseur, watching impatiently nearby, wrote disgustedly in his official report that "not a solitary Yankee was to be seen" in that direction. Even had there been a legitimate threat, Jackson had assigned Ramseur and the Stonewall Brigade to deal with such eventualities.

Executing the army's riskiest initiative of the war, Jackson had marched all day long across the face of an enemy, and achieved a stunning surprise. In halting against orders, Colquitt had pulled his own and Ramseur's brigades out of line--thus single-handedly neutralizing 40 percent of Jackson's forward division, and 40 percent of his hard-earned advantage. How much more could five brigades have accomplished than three? No one can say, but obviously the added strength must have achieved even more for Jackson's attack.

What had Colquitt's feckless staffer spied in the woods to frighten him? Perhaps some stray cattle. Perhaps some of the ample Confederate reserves. No Federals lurked there. I had a momentary hope for new light on the question of what spooked Colquitt after I wrote an article that appeared in American Heritage in 1990. Mention of that officer's hapless performance prompted a Colquitt descendant to write angrily to the magazine denying the whole thing. I corresponded eagerly, hoping to learn of some explanation by the general in a letter or memoir, but the evidence turned out to be nothing more than a generic certainty that each Colquitt, everywhere and always, has been above reproach.

Gen. Lee sent Colquitt into a sort of Confederate exile immediately after Chancellorsville (the brigadier was fortunate that the stern Stonewall did not survive to bring charges!), but the Georgian returned to the army near Petersburg in 1864 when Lee desperately needed his brigade as reinforcements. After the war, another Confederate general (obviously not a 21st-century sort of fellow) wrote disgustedly: "Colquitt is now a howling prohibition Methodist. I want no man nor set of men to dictate to me what I shall wear, what I shall eat, what I shall drink nor what I shall smoke." Georgians seemed to like Colquitt fine, electing him to the governor's chair and to the United States Senate.

Next week: Dusk, lies, and cavalry

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & 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.

The autumn number of Military History Quarterly, which reaches newsstands and bookstores this week, contains a feature article by Robert K. Krick about rape, murder and other mistreatment of Southern civilians by Northern soldiers during the war. The article, which focuses on civilians from the Fredericksburg area, is based on a substantial body of contemporary eyewitness sources never before used in print. For information about the magazine online, see www.the historynet.com (click on Military History).