Friday, May 3, 2013

150-years-ago -- DAY THREE, Battle of Chancellorsville.

Capt. Murray F. Taylor of Gen. A. P. Hill's
 staff was present at the Battle of
Chancellorsville when Hill and Stonewall
Jackson were  wounded on the night of May 2.
Taylor was injured when his horse fell on his
leg.(Library of Congress)
[National Park Service]
May 3, 1863
Despite his misfortune on May 2, [Joseph] Hooker still held the advantage at Chancellorsville. He received reinforcements during the night and the Third Corps moved back from Catharine Furnace to reoccupy Hazel Grove. Sickles' troops thus divided the Confederates into separate wings controlled by Stuart and Lee. Hooker, if he chose, could defeat each fraction of his out manned enemy in detail.

The Confederate commanders understood the need to connect their divisions, and Stuart prepared an all-out assault against Hazel Grove at dawn. Hooker made it easy for him. As the Southerners approached the far crest of Hazel Grove they witnessed Sickles' men retiring in an orderly fashion. "Fighting Joe" had directed that his troops surrender the key ground and fall back to Fairview, an elevated clearing closer to Chancellorsville.

Stuart immediately exploited the opportunity by placing 31 cannon on Hazel Grove. Combined with artillery located west along the Turnpike, the gunners at Hazel Grove pounded Fairview with a spectacular bombardment. The Federals responded with 34 pieces of their own and soon the Wilderness trembled with a discordant symphony of iron.

The bloodiest fighting of the battle occurred between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. on May 3. Stuart launched brigade after brigade against entrenched Union lines on both sides of the Turnpike. Troops lost their way in the tangled underbrush and the woods caught fire, confronting the wounded with a horrible fate.

The see-saw fighting began to favor the Southerners as, one by one, Union artillery pieces dropped out of the contest. Hooker failed to resupply his cannoneers with ammunition or shift sufficient infantry reserves to critical areas. A Confederate projectile abetted this mental paralysis when it struck a pillar at Chancellorsville, throwing the Union commander violently to the ground. The impact stunned Hooker, physically removing him from a battle in which he had not materially been engaged for nearly 48 hours. Before relinquishing partial authority to Couch, Hooker instructed the army to assume a prepared position in the rear, protecting the bridgehead across the Rappahannock.

Stuart pressed forward first to Fairview and then against the remaining Union units at Chancellorsville. Lee's wing advanced simultaneously from the south and east. The Bluecoats receded at last and thousands of powder-smeared Confederates poured into the clearing, illuminated by flames from the burning Chancellorsville mansion.

Lee emerged from the smoke and elicited a long, unbroken cheer from the gray multitudes who recognized him as the architect of their improbable victory. A Confederate staff officer, watching the unbridled expression of so much admiration, reverence, and love, thought that, "it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods."

The Southern commander wasted little time on reflection. He prepared to pursue Hooker and seal the success achieved since dawn. A courier bearing news from Fredericksburg shattered Lee's plans. Sedgwick had driven Early's contingent from Marye's Heights and now threatened the Confederate rear. This changed everything. Lee assigned Stuart to watch Hooker's host and sent McLaws eastward to deal with the Sixth Corps menace.

Sedgwick, slowed by Wilcox's single Alabama brigade retreating stubbornly from Fredericksburg, came to grips with the Confederates four miles west of town at Salem Church. The Federals swept into the churchyard but a powerful counterattack drove them back and ended the day's combat. The next day Lee shoved Sedgwick across the Rappahannock at Banks Ford and once again focused on the main Union army in the Wilderness.

Hooker, however, had seen enough. Despite the objections of most of his corps commanders, he ordered a withdrawal across the river. The Federals conducted their retreat under cover of darkness and arrived back in Stafford County on May 6. Ironically, this decision may have been Hooker's most serious blunder of the campaign. Lee's impending assault on May 6 might have failed and completely reversed the outcome of the battle.

Confederate leadership during the Chancellorsville Campaign may represent the finest generalship of the Civil War, but the luster of "Lee's greatest victory" tarnishes upon examination of the battle's tangible results. In truth, the Army of the Potomac had not been so thoroughly defeated - some 40,000 Federals had done no fighting whatsoever. Although Hooker suffered more than 17,000 casualties, those losses accounted for only 13% of his total strength. Lee's 13,000 casualties amounted to 22% of his army, men difficult to replace. Of course, Jackson's death on May 10 created a vacancy that could never be filled. Finally, Lee's triumph at Chancellorsville imbued him with the belief that his army was invincible. He convinced the Richmond government to endorse his proposed offensive into Pennsylvania. Within six weeks, the Army of Northern Virginia confidently embarked on a journey northward to keep an appointment with destiny at a place called Gettysburg.

The text for this section was written by A. Wilson Green, former staff historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. It is derived from a National Park Service training booklet.

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