On this rainy day of May 5th, 150 years ago, the Army of the Potomac was retreating to the north across the Rappahannock River at the United States Ford. Though a midnight council of war had met to consider the matter and had voted 3-2 to stay and continue the fight, Hooker had decided to pull back … and that is what happened throughout this day and into the morning of the 6th.
But to quickly summarize the 3rd and 4th (since the last post of 3 days ago on the 2nd) … Relentless and bold Confederate attacks pounded the Union lines on the 3rd, using the advantage of the recently captured high ground called Hazel Grove. Hooker issued few orders this morning, while watching and standing on the veranda of the Chancellor house. A Confederate round shot split the wooden pillar on which he was leaning, leaving him stunned for 30 minutes. Though he mounted his horse and attempted to take charge, varied symptoms consistent with a traumatic brain injury overcame his efforts. He ordered a pullback, which stunned Couch and Meade, though they implemented his command by establishing a bridgehead around the U.S. Ford.
Over at Fredericksburg, Sedgwick was assaulting Marye’s Heights – being repulsed on the first two attempts. A third more audacious advance with orders to simply rush the hill without pausing to load and fire proved successful, as General John Newton’s division seized the hill and scattered the rebel defenders. Sedgwick quickly gathered his men into columns and pushed them westward toward Hooker at Chancellorsville, leaving John Gibbon’s division of the 2nd Corps to garrison Fredericksburg. Sedgwick’s men encountered opposition at Salem Church – just about 5-6 miles east of Chancellorsville. Lee correctly surmised that Hooker would not come out from behind his trenches near the U.S. Ford, and Sedgwick correctly surmised that Lee was going to bring his heaviest force against him – therefore Sedgwick dug in. The time required for Lee to make these dispositions delayed his attack until late on the 4th, with Sedgwick successfully defending his lines. Sedgwick was told to also retreat north across the Rappahannock, which he too accomplished on the 5th via pontoon bridges downstream from the Banks Ford.
When Lincoln heard of these retreats he exclaimed, “My God, my God, what will the country say? What will the country say?” Likewise in similar terms, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune wrote, “My God, it is horrible—horrible; and to think of it, 130,000 magnificent soldiers so cut to pieces by less than 60,000 half-starved ragamuffins!”
So what are we to make of Hooker’s curious behavior? It really is such a mixed bag of good and bad. He had done a wonderful job of resuscitating the army after the Fredericksburg disaster. His battle plan was excellent, and he maneuvered his forces into place on a fine schedule. But when it came time to actually fight the battle, he mysteriously changed personality into a passive person not previously seen. Some blamed his reputation for drinking, while others said it was his cessation from drinking that changed him. And still others said it was a righteous retribution for his arrogant and bombastic speech. Whatever, it was a mess.
John Gibbon wrote of this in his Recollections of the Civil War, “There was a bad influence pervading Hooker’s Headquarters whilst he was in command and this began to crop out immediately after the battle of Chancellorsville. An idea gained ground in the army that by insinuations, innuendoes and intrigues, Hooker and those about him were seeking some “scape-goat” on whom to saddle the responsibility of his failure, a course not without precedent in the army in front of Washington, and when such an impression gets abroad, confidence is soon lost in the officer who attempts it, for no one can ever feel safe in following the dictates of his judgment.”