On this date of May 2nd of 1863, the second day of the Battle of Chancellorsville featured disasters for each side. The Union’s right flank would be crushed by a surprise attack, while the Confederates would mistakenly mortally wound Lee’s right arm – General Stonewall Jackson.
Confederate forces were spotted moving south of Chancellorsville, perceived by Hooker as a withdrawal. In fact, though moving south, before long they took a road to the west and thus were in a position to attack the exposed right flank of the Union Army – that of the 11th Corps of O.O. Howard. Though numerous warnings and reports were received by Howard throughout the day, for unknown reasons he did not take them seriously. Some of his lieutenants took matters into their own hands to make what preparations they could, but it was insufficient to withstand the weight of Stonewall Jackson’s entire corps rolling them over. As the 11th Corps was washed from the field, Hooker became aware of it by the flight of the men streaming past his headquarters. The action being taken late in the day made it impractical for the Confederates to follow up on it, and darkness ensconced men from both sides in utter confusion – seeking to find safety among their own. As Stonewall Jackson returned from a reconnaissance, he was mistakenly fired upon by his own men – dying eight days later.
Of this disaster of the 11th Corps, I’ll share here some excerpts from Doubleday’s book on the battle. Howard and Doubleday were certainly not pals. Howard had reported Doubleday’s well-ordered retreat at the first day of Gettysburg as a rout – contributing to Newton (Doubleday’s junior) being given a corps assignment over him. Doubleday was terribly bitter about this, and actually never fought again after Gettysburg. I believe this attitude is but scantly beneath the surface in his writing as seen in these excerpts – though Howard did (or didn’t do) plenty to earn such verbal castigations……..
Notwithstanding Hooker’s order of 9:30 a.m., calling Howard’s attention to the weakness of his right flank, and the probability that Jackson was marching to attack it, no precautions were taken against the impending danger. … So far as I can ascertain, only two companies were thrown out on picket, and they were unsupported by grand guards, so that they did not detain the enemy a moment, and the rebels and our pickets all came in together. … There was no reason other than Howard’s utter want of appreciation of the gravity of the situation to prevent him from forming a strong line of defense to protect his right flank.
The Germans were bitterly denounced for this catastrophe, I think very unjustly, for in the first place less than one-half of the Eleventh Corps were Germans, and in the second place the troops that did form line and temporarily stop Jackson’s advance were Germans; principally Colonel Adolph Buschbeck’s brigade of Steinwehr’s division, aided by a few regiments of Schurr’s division, who gave a volley or two.
In reference to this surprise, Couch remarks that no troops could have stood under such circumstances, and I fully agree with him.
The subsequent investigation of this sad business by the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War was very much of a farce, and necessarily unreliable; for so long as both Hooker and Howard were left in high command, it was absurd to suppose their subordinates would testify against them. Any officer that did so would have soon found his military career brought to a close.
Howard was in one or two instances mildly censured for not keeping a better lookout, but as a general thing the whole blame was thrown on the Germans. Hooker himself attributed the trouble to the fact that Howard did not follow up Jackson’s movements, and allowed his men to stray from their arms.
A great French military writer has said, “It is permissible for an officer to be defeated; but never to be surprised.”