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Part 39 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
EARLY ON TUESDAY, MAY 5, 1863, Gen. R.E. Lee returned his attention to dealing with the main enemy army near Chancellorsville. "We have reoccupied Fredericksburg," Lee told President Jefferson Davis in a telegram, "and no enemy remains south [of] the Rappahannock in its vicinity." The general left Jubal Early in town to keep an eye on the Federals beyond the river, then headed back toward Chancellorsville with the two divisions he had moved toward Fredericksburg on May 3.
Confederate infantry following Lee west along the Plank Road (modern State Route 3) ran into a torrential downpour. An English observer with the army marveled at their carefree attitude, "splashing through the mud in wild, tumultuous spirits, singing, shouting, jesting, heedless of soaking rags, drenched to the skin."
Joe Hooker waited quiescently for them. This was the morning on which, the general had boasted, he would take the initiative. A colonel from New York wrote wistfully in his diary, "I can only hope that Hooker has something very wise and deep on hand." Hooker did not. Instead, he had decided to give up.
Although the Federal commander had determined to abandon the campaign and re-cross the Rappahannock, he called together his corps commanders for a conference of war, asking their advice on the matter. Three of the five generals (two did not attend, for some reason) recommended renewing the attack to take advantage of their superior numbers. Despite that counsel, Hooker announced his plans to retreat. "What was the use of calling us together," one general grumbled to another, "when he intended to retreat anyhow?" The battle's great historian John Bigelow, in his magisterial campaign study published in 1910, declared: "No greater mistake was made during the campaign than Hooker's final one of recrossing the Rappahannock. Lee was about to play into his hands by attacking him on his own ground."
The Federal commander had slipped into reverse gear on May 1 at Zoan Church, and never could escape that mode. The army absorbed his attitude and recognized the loss of control. The soldiers waited in a mood that a Northern historian described as "listlessly expectant."
Lee's intentions for finishing off Hooker have been misinterpreted over the years, by me among others. During the night of May 5-6, Lee prepared to press his enemy. Did he actually intend to assail the formidable entrenchments, behind which many more Yankees awaited him than he had Confederate attackers? How could he possibly expect to prevail? Hooker's dauntingly powerful position ran in two long lines that converged a mile north of Chancellorsville and covered his retreat route toward U.S. Mine Ford. A successful attack against that fortress seemed virtually impossible.
In a chapter about Chancellorsville, published in 1996 by the University of Nebraska Press, I pronounced the decision to attack on May 6 Lee's "worst," but admitted the cogency of a Confederate participant who suspected that only two men on the field thought it might have succeeded "in spite of all the odds." Those two, he suggested, were "Gens. Lee and Hooker." Could the spiritual hegemony that Lee had asserted over Hooker during the past week have yielded a magical result under such unfavorable circumstances? For five days, Lee had taken desperate risks, just as contrary to conventional wisdom, and had his way in every instance. Jackson's phenomenal flank march, for instance, had seemed an impossible gambit.
New evidence suggests that the question has been egregiously overstated. Two dispatches from Lee to Gen. Jeb Stuart give unmistakable indications of Lee's attitude about attacking Hooker. The documents strayed to California in the 19th century, and only recently have come to light. Early on May 5, the commanding general urged Stuart--commanding the portion of the army directly facing Hooker--to avoid assailing the entrenched enemy. Such an assault, Lee reminded Stuart, "might be beyond us." "If you have to storm entrenchments," the general admonished his subordinate, "I cannot recommend an attack." In a second note to Stuart, Lee clearly revealed that he did, however, cherish the hope that "still some damage can yet be done them while recrossing."
When Lee contemplated his options for getting at Hooker's army, he unquestionably was operating in the same spirit he had enjoined upon Stuart just a few hours earlier. Orders to prepare to advance against the enemy on the morning of May 6 seemed to some subordinates, and to subsequent auditors, to be the trigger for a forlorn attack and a dreadful bloodbath. In fact, Lee was supervising what he had urged Stuart to arrange: not "to storm entrenchments," but instead to "damage them while recrossing." A foe on the move, stretched out on narrow muddy roads, straddling a major river (its water rising steadily from the heavy rain), must not be allowed to escape unscathed.
Darkness and the continuing rain abetted Hooker's retreat on the night of May 5-6. What a Yankee captain called "one of the heaviest & longest continued rainfalls I have ever seen" muted the sound and obscured the sight of the Northerners' retirement. A Georgian across the lines wrote in the same drenched vein, calling the storm "the hardest rain that I have seen in Virginia."
The torrents of water made retreating Federals miserable, but saved them from close pursuit. Engineers struggled manfully to keep their fragile pontoon bridges from being washed away. Hooker himself had crossed the river among the first, so when the bridges and roads became nearly impassable, Gen. Couch, the ranking officer still on the south side, ordered suspension of the crossing. Crusty, dedicated, determined Gen. George Meade hoped that the weather might force the army to remain and fight, as it should have done in any case. "We all prayed that the bridges might be washed away," Alexander S. Webb of Meade's staff admitted in a seditious letter.
When Hooker learned that his subordinates had halted the crossing, he mustered a burst of the energy that had been absent all weekend long. Couch must obey at once, Hooker said, in terms that "showed plainly" his displeasure. Getting away from the accursed, unpredictable rebels was something, finally, he found worth doing energetically.
Tens of thousands of Federals stood for long, wet, hours in mud a foot deep, waiting their turns to step into the deeper mud in the roads and head across the river. They found the pontoon bridges "almost submerged by the torrent madly rushing like a mill race tumbling through a gorge." Virtually without exception, they felt puzzled and disgusted, perhaps disgraced by the unwarranted retreat, but not defeated.
"You can't make any person in this army believe we were whipped," a captain from Wisconsin wrote to his wife.
Presumably the captain was excluding from that sweeping statement his army's commander, because Joseph Hooker had been whipped for several days before the soggy morning of May 6, 1863.
Next week: Raiding through Orange, Louisa, Hanover and Fluvanna
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.