Return to story
Part 6 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
FEDERALS POURED across the Rapidan
fords through the night of April 29 and into
the morning of April 30, 1863. Small detachments of Confederate soldiers had been posted near Eley's Ford all through the winter. A Southern bridge-building party had just begun work at Germanna Ford, obviously not intending their labors as a benefit for an enemy column they did not expect.
During the afternoon of April 29, Slocum's Federal 12th Corps had descended on the Germanna crossing. They surprised Confederates inadequately protected by skirmishers, drove them back into a road cut, and eventually captured most of them. Some troops splashed right into the Rapidan through a fast and deep current. Others awaited the cobbling together of a rude bridge and then crossed by the light of bonfires. Howard's 11th Corps troops followed close on Slocum's heels.
By dawn of April 30, most of both corps had made their way into the northeast corner of Orange County. Their supporting paraphernalia could cross the river at leisure. The infantry's route to Chancellorsville, about 10 miles away, posed no further obstacles to an easy march.
Meade's timing at Eley's Ford lagged far behind the crossing at Germanna. His corps started later and had appreciably farther to go, so Federals did not appear at Eley's until late in the day. A tiny detachment of Confederate cavalry watched the approach, then cantered away without attempting to delay the juggernaut. Northerners who waded into the Rapidan found the water very rapid (Virginians had, after all, named the river the Rapid Anne long before) and more than waist deep. A rocky, slippery stream bed tormented foot soldiers attempting to negotiate the ford.
Thousands of men shed their trousers, held their cartridge boxes up out of the water, and waded in, "yelping and yellinghorid oathes; any one would think that the devels school was out for noon." A safety line of mounted troopers downstream fished out soldiers who lost their footing.
Federals plunged confidently into the tangled Wilderness on April 30, well-aware at all levels throughout the ranks that their march had accomplished something unusual. They were well behind Lee's front, and no one stood in their path. The Germanna detachment marched southeast to Wilderness Tavern (near the modern intersection of State Routes 3 and 20), then east toward Chancellorsville.
Meade's men near Eley's Ford moved more nearly south, and this day had less ground to cover. By midafternoon on April 30, the Army of the Potomac lay in a great arc around Chancellorsville intersection. That left Hooker's men enmeshed in the dense Wilderness but precisely where they needed to be to invalidate Lee's mighty position behind Fredericksburg. After the war a thoughtful Confederate general called Hooker's initiative "decidedly the best strategy in any of the campaigns ever set on foot against us."
Forward headquarters went into the Chancellorsville Inn, a half-century-old roadside accommodation that by 1863 had become a large private dwelling. That's all there was to Chancellorsville: Despite the polysyllabic name and the "ville" suffix, Chancellorsville was just one building large. Federals herded the women of the place into a back room and forbade them to leave it. Three days later the civilians would face a deadly ordeal when the war focused squarely on their home.
The Federal march in a long, long arc upstream--already a strategic triumph--also paid a tremendous logistical dividend on April 30. With the south bank of the upper Rappahannock firmly in Yankee hands, Hooker's army gratefully abandoned the circuitous route and opened a major crossing at the United States Mine Ford (usually called just U.S. Ford). That crossing lay a few hundred yards below the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. Northern engineers quickly turned the ford and its ingress and egress corridors into an efficient network. The Army of the Potomac suddenly on April 30 had no more need to cross two rivers, and was closely and securely connected with its base of operations.
Corps commander George Meade marveled at the "splendid" success of the army's maneuver. "Hurrah for old Joe!" Meade enthused (although he really did not like Hooker). "We're on Lee's flank, and he doesn't know it."
By the afternoon of April 30, Lee really did know it, but only tardily and indistinctly. Jeb Stuart's energetic cavalry customarily gave their army commander the intelligence he needed to sculpt the tactical initiatives that won so many battles. In this instance, they only gradually penetrated Hooker's deftly woven screen.
Once Southern scouts recognized the volume of enemy infantry trooping across the rivers, they had difficulty getting east to rejoin their main army with the news. Stuart himself swung far south to get beyond the edge of hostile country before heading for Fredericksburg, but still ran into a New York cavalry regiment on the Brock Road (modern State Route 613) not far northwest of Spotsylvania Court House. Jeb sent back for reinforcements camped near Todd's Tavern and a saber-swinging mêlee ensued. The horsemen charged and yelled and fired on ground that, 53 weeks into the unknowable future, would be part of another great and bloody battlefield.
Evidence of the scope of the Federal threat reached Lee in steadily mounting volume. On April 29 he had telegraphed to President Jefferson Davis that the enemy intended "to turn our left, and probably to get into our rear." Survivors of the Germanna bridge party drifted back to the army and the picket at Eley's Ford came in with word of innumerable Federals moving purposefully toward Chancellorsville.
Early on April 30 Lee remained undecided about whether to abandon his position near Fredericksburg or fight for it. He sent Gen. Richard H. Anderson west to near Zoan Church to establish a tentative front at that longitude, and to begin entrenchments. A ruling element in the Confederate commander's reasoning was the conviction that Hooker could never uncover the political capital in Washington. Therefore, the enemy must be heading for Chancellorsville, not Gordonsville and thence on to Richmond.
During April 30 Lee's three options became unmistakably clear. A great many Yankees obviously were behind him in the Wilderness, and another noisy contingent had crossed near Fredericksburg. He obviously must fight aggressively against one or the other, not both; or else he must retire southward.
The last option surely made the most sense and by a wide margin. A contemporary military pundit, fully sensible to the armies' numbers and positions, and aware of the startling prowess of Lee and Jackson on so many fields, probably would not have forecast doom for the Confederates. Lee could extract his army and retrench somewhere southward, there to start the intricate dance of maneuver all over again on better terms. Apparently Lee never considered that option. Instead he determined to head west and take on Hooker despite the enormous odds against him. No thoughtful observer could have forecast such a reaction, and none would have dared imagine the results Lee would achieve.
The Confederate columns converging on Fredericksburg would veer west toward Anderson's thin line at Zoan Church, toward the Wilderness, toward Chancellors-ville. Lee had made his riskiest tactical decision of the war. It would lead to his greatest victory.
On the morning of April 30, Joe Hooker had central Virginia within his grasp. Twenty-four hours later his situation on the ground looked even better--but what might the indomitable Lee and Jackson be doing? They had not retreated, as it seemed obvious they should do.
Although no serious engagement had yet developed, and a great deal of bitter fighting lay ahead, the crisis of the campaign was at hand. It would unfold not amid musketry on a smoke-wreathed battlefield, but rather in the recesses of the uneasy mind of Gen. Joe Hooker.
Next week: A golden opportunity
at Zoan Church
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.