The huge Battle of Chancellorsville kicked off in earnest on this date of May 1st in 1863. In the last post of several days ago, I finished with this quote of a note to the Army of the Potomac from General Hooker – a note that EVERYONE who writes about Chancellorsville includes in their comments: “It is with heartfelt satisfaction the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, when certain destruction awaits him.” It is reported that Hooker also said within the hearing of a newspaper reporter that “The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond. I shall be after them.”
On the beautiful morning of this 1st day of May in 1863, Hooker ordered his men in a three-pronged attack to the east of Chancellorsville, exiting the thicket of the wilderness. The idea was to secure the high ground near Zoan Church and press any Confederates toward Fredericksburg.
At the ridge at Zoan Church were Richard Anderson’s command and the units that had retreated back from the United States Ford … along with the 5/1 morning arrival of McLaws and Jackson’s infantry and artillery. Rather than merely dig in for a defensive stand, the Confederates moved west in an offensive – therefore moving directly into the attack coming toward them. Pressed forward by the audacity of Jackson and Lee, the Union forces ran into a bee’s nest of fire.
Back at Chancellorsville, the heretofore confidant Joe Hooker completely lost his nerve – ordering a retreat back into the wilderness area to entrench. Hooker’s subordinates were flabbergasted by this. Slocum’s 12th Corps was actually gaining ground at this juncture with but few losses. Meade grudgingly complied with orders but exclaimed, “My God, if we can’t hold the top of a hill, we certainly can’t hold the bottom of it!”
Hooker tried to make the best of it with continued verbal bravado, “Lee is just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground.” But Darius Couch could see that he was in the presence of a defeated commander, writing later that “…the retrograde movement had prepared me for something of the kind, but to hear form his own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much.” Lee had gained the momentum, and it would not be relinquished … nor would Hooker revive.
My guy (of particular study) Abner Doubleday wrote a volume in the series called Campaigns of the Civil War, writing a combined work on Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. It is not considered a particularly great piece of analysis. As something of a friend of Hooker, Doubleday was not particularly harsh; in fact he may even have something of an apologetic tone of support at times. Among his remarks:
Regarding Hooker’s plans for May 1st movements: Hooker, who was a very sanguine man, expected to be able to form line of battle by 2 P.M., with his right resting near Tabernacle Church, and his left covering Banks’ Ford. It did not seem to occur to him that the enemy might be there before him and prevent the formation, or that he would have any difficulty in moving and deploying his troops; but he soon found himself hampered in every direction by dense and almost impenetrable thickets, which had a tendency to break up every organization that tried to pass through them into mere crowds of men without order or alignment. Under these circumstances concert of action became exceedingly difficult, and when attempts were made to communicate orders off of the roads, aids wandered hopelessly through the woods, struggling in the thick undergrowth, without being able to find anyone. It was worse than fighting in a dense fog.
Regarding the order to retreat: To retreat without making any adequate effort to carry out his plans made the General appear timid, and had a bad effect on the morale of the army. It would have been time enough to fall back in case of defeat; and if such a result was anticipated, the engineers with their 4,000 men, aided by Sickles’ corps, could easily have laid out a strong line in the rear for the troops to fall back upon. … After the order came to retire, Couch sent to obtain permission to remain, but it was peremptorily refused. Hooker soon afterward changed his mind and countermanded his first order, but it was then too late; our troops had left the ridge and the enemy were in possession of it. There was too much vacillation at headquarters. Slocum, who was pressing the enemy back, was very much vexed when he received the order, but obeyed it, and retreated without being molested. …
Here is where a tone of apology is heard: Chancellorsville being a great centre of communication with the plank road and turnpike leading east and west, and less important roads to the south, and southeast, Hooker desired above all things to retain it; for if it should once fall into the hands of the enemy, our army would be unable to move in any direction except to the rear.
Regarding the situation at the end of the day: The prospect for Lee as darkness closed over the scene was far from encouraging. He had examined the position of the Union army carefully, and had satisfied himself that as regards its centre and left, it was unassailable. Let any man with a musket on his shoulder, encumbered with a cartridge-box, haversack, canteen, etc., attempt to climb over a body of felled timber to get at an enemy who is coolly shooting at him from behind a log breastwork, and he will realize the difficulty of forcing a way through such obstacles. Our artillery, too, swept every avenue of approach, so that the line might be considered as almost impregnable. Before giving up the attack, however, Stuart was directed to cautiously reconnoiter on the right, where Howard was posted, and see if there was not a vulnerable point there.
Yep, there was … and that is much of the story for tomorrow!