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Chancellorsville: Lee Seizes the Initiative

February 10, 2001 12:00 am

Part 8 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

GEN. RICHARD Heron Anderson of South Carolina brought less aggression and energy to his duties than any other division commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Contemplation of Anderson's demeanor and record brings to mind the word "phlegmatic" to describe his persona.

Troops of his division had picketed upriver all winter, so Lee sent their commander to Zoan Church to accumulate an advance bulwark against Hooker and to entrench the heights.

Because Lee knew his subordinate's indolent tendencies, his initial directive had pointedly insisted that Anderson "go forward yourself and attend to this matter." Later he wrote again, firmly stipulating a variety of expedients that would normally have been implicitly expected of a division commander: "Set all your spades to work as vigorously as possiblePrepare your lineKeeprations cookedAll your baggagemust be immediately reduced."

Gen. Lafayette McLaws of Georgia, more reliable than Anderson but still no paragon of dynamism, reached Zoan very early on the morning of May 1 with the first modest budget of reinforcements. The two Southern generals looked west from their commanding ridge into the Wilderness, where what looked like the whole Yankee nation marched toward Zoan Church, muskets on their shoulders and cannon in tow.

The ridge straddling the Orange Turnpike where the Battle of Chancellorsville would open bore the name of a church less than a decade old. Most contemporary maps called the church "Zion"--a prevalent biblical name often bestowed on Southern Protestant congregations.

Some maps used "Zoar," also in common use as a church name, although less widely than Zion.

Cartographers passing through frequently had difficulty transcribing Virginia country accents into print (witness Dr. Durrett's house labeled "Dr. Dirt" on Spotsylvania battlefield maps).

The Baptists really did call their church Zoan, presumably after the biblical Zoan, in Egypt. That place ("Tanis" in the Greek style) turns up seven times in the Old Testament. Twice the Scriptures emphasize that Zoan's leaders were "fools," and Jehovah promised to "set fire" to the place. Apparently Zoan was one of the few Old Testament towns that somehow escaped incineration for nonconformity, since 1930's archaeology there uncovered some striking, and uncharred, remains.

The Baptists who consecrated the small wooden Zoan Church in 1854 had moved to the site because they were uncompromisingly earnest prohibitionists.

Their leader, the Rev. Joseph A. Billingsley, had left Massaponax Church to organize brand-new Salem Church in 1844. A decade later, Billingsley and about 30 angry followers left Salem because some members of that church tolerated the idea of accepting strong drink under a doctor's orders.

The rancor the schism created had not dissipated a dozen years later. In March 1866, Zoan's members petitioned their former, very faintly wet, brethren at Salem for use of the Salem sanctuary at times it was vacant. They needed this succor because war had destroyed the Zoan building.

Salem's congregation rejected the plea, and did so without a single dissenting vote.

Fighting more strenuous than quarrels over drams and tankards and snifters developed around Zoan by midmorning on May 1. Stonewall Jackson reached the ridge before the sun had risen far.

Lee accompanied Jackson, but typically did not interfere with tactical evolutions. Jackson told Gen. Anderson that it was time to attack. Anderson did not leave an account of his reaction, but it must have been something on the order of: "Yes, sir, General Jackson, you're a national phenomenon, and we will do as you say, but the whole countryside swarms with armed enemies, and we have available just you and me and our staffs and a few infantrymen, but by all means, let us attack."

So westward went the Confederate advance, using both the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3) and the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 610).

Edward Porter Alexander, a bright and perspicacious Confederate artillery colonel, described the elation with which Southern troops received the order: "We obviously were not going to wait for the enemywe were going out on the warpath after him. And the conjunction of Lee & Jackson at the head of the column meant that it was to be a supreme effort, a union of audacity & desperationHow splendidly the pair of them looked& how the happy confidence of the men in them shone in everyone's face, & rang in the cheers which everywhere greeted them."

With the impeccable hindsight available to us now, it is difficult to absorb the risk that Lee was taking. A woman who writes superb British history has aptly said: "History is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect. We know the endand we could never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only."

Joe Hooker's beginning was not unfolding as he had envisioned it. The aggressive response by his foe completely unmanned him. Lee and Jackson earlier had baffled Union officers whom Hooker probably recognized as his betters at military matters, albeit not at braggadocio.

What, therefore, might the legendary Confederates do to him? The story of May 1 on the battlefield is a tale of a large army recoiling before a small one, abandoning high open ground to be pushed steadily into a low and tangled country.

It would be foolish to blame Hooker for not knowing precisely which of his enemies was where. He did know, however, the slender strength of his opponents. The army's new intelligence system, abetted by the local spy Silver and others in Yankee pay, had resulted in an estimate of Lee's strength that came, astonishingly, within 3 percent of hitting the Confederate infantry numbers precisely.

Hooker's inflexible priority should have been to press his enemy and develop the strength in front, to find out what he faced. Instead, he simply folded.

Modern attempts to rehabilitate and fumigate Joe Hooker's reputation usually--remarkably--employ special pleading about the difficulties of moving in the Wilderness. Such arguments actually emphasize the salient factor on May 1: Getting out of that Wilderness of course was the very essence of the general's needs.

When he abandoned the chance to reach that desirable goal, Hooker at once passed the initiative, with all of its advantages, to Lee. The Confederate would make superb use of the opportunity.

The success of a Federal column on River Road that morning made Hooker's feckless collapse at Zoan Church even more flagrant. George Meade and a substantial force from his 5th Corps moved unhindered eastward to near the mouth of Mott's Run, in the low ground around where the canoe livery operates today.

There Meade and his men stood within easy reach of Banks Ford. Uncovering that crossing would vastly improve Hooker's lines of communication to the base of operations at Falmouth. Far more importantly, Meade's force, well east of Zoan's longitude, would have tied Lee to the western outskirts of Fredericksburg.

Meade would not have needed to lunge across the difficult intervening country toward Lee's rear, nor even threaten directly the Confederate rearguard in Fredericksburg. Simply staying put at Banks Ford would have left Meade in position to deny Lee the chance to function westward, where on May 2-3 the Confederates found a way to win a mighty victory.

As Hooker collapsed away from Zoan, he ordered Meade to abandon his advanced position and relocate toward Chancellorsville. When he accompanied a noted military historian to the battlefield 13 years later, Hooker announced near Banks Ford, with retrospective advantage, if not much honesty: "Here I intended to fight my battle."

In 1863, Hooker's crucial battle seethed within himself. A member of his staff asserted bitterly: "If Hooker had gone bodily over to Lee he could not have helped him more than he didHooker was simply a moral fraud. He had always posed. When it came to the supreme test, he failed utterly."

In a period of only a few hours early on May 1, Lee reversed the hegemony that Hooker had established, and Hooker let him do so. A Northerner who studied the battle extensively mused that had Joe Hooker been killed on that first day of fighting, his dramatic opening gambit "and complete out-generalling of Leewould have justified the country in claiming that it had produced a great commander."

A Joe Hooker alive and well and operating in Spotsylvania County, however, would find ample opportunity to disabuse any confused observers of such a notion.

Next week: Fighting west of
Chancellor School

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.

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