Four Days in July: Chancellorsville

After Antietam the initiative in the east was entirely on the Union’s side. September and October passed and McClellan wasted the opportunity. Lincoln was angry.

On October 8 Don Carlos Buell finally brought Braxton Bragg to battle at Perryville four days after Bragg and Kirby Smith’s attempt to install a Confederate Governor in Frankfort, Kentucky was interrupted by Union artillery fire. The day at Perryville was a tactical victory for Bragg but it didn’t matter. Buell’s Army of the Ohio outnumbered Bragg’s Army of Mississippi, which had not yet merged with Smith’s army to form the Army of Tennessee.  Bragg withdrew, which forced Smith to withdraw and ultimately resulted in the second loss of Kentucky to the Southern cause.

Buell followed Bragg with only slightly more verve than McClellan was pursuing Lee.  At the end of the month command of Buell’s Army of the Ohio was given to William Rosecrans and the command’s name was changed to the Army of the Cumberland.  Rosecrans had defeated Van Dorn at the Second Battle of Corinth on the same day Bragg and Smith were installing a Confederate government in Frankfort and was supposed to be more aggressive. He wasn’t.

With Rosecrans in Nashville and Grant preparing the initial stages of a move on Vicksburg all that was left was to get the Army of the Potomac moving again. Lincoln fired McClellan and legend has it the President said of his general, “He is an admirable engineer, but he seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine.”  Whether or not this is a true quote is open for debate.  It does, however, sum up McClellan as well as the words, “I cannot spare this man, he fights,” summed up Grant. In an inspection of the Army of the Potomac Lincoln also derisively referred to his premier army as “McClellan’s bodyguard.”

Ambrose Burnside was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac, an honor Burnside neither wanted nor felt he deserved.  As already mentioned, Burnside was an unimaginative general and his talents certainly lay in corps command instead of full army command.  He tried to invade Virginia in December and was repulsed at Fredericksburg.  There’s not much to learn from that battle, save the fact that attacking uphill against an enemy entrenched behind a stone wall is a bad idea.

Burnside tried again in January but got nowhere in the most literal possible sense.  Unseasonably warm weather and rain turned the roads to mud and his troops could barely get out of camp.  Burnside resigned his command and was ordered to take his old IX Corps west to Ohio.  Fighting Joe Hooker was the next through the revolving door that regularly deposited corps commanders in the top spot before they were booted off in ignominy after a new abysmal failure.

Hooker had a good reputation and was a fine judge of the shortcomings of his superiors.  He had nothing good to say about McClellan and openly mocked Burnside’s assault up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg.  Burnside tried to get Hooker court-martialed.  Lincoln promoted him to command of the Army of the Potomac.

Hooker was an interesting character.  He openly advocated for a Union dictator. Lincoln invited him to try for the position since only winning generals become dictators.  The word “brothel” was applied to his headquarters, which is how “hooker” became one of our synonyms for prostitute.  Burnside’s etymological legacy is for facial hair, Hooker’s for whores, further proof that the Civil War altered history forever in ways large and small.

Unfortunately for Joe Hooker the war continued unabated.  He was required to take the war to the Confederacy with the added burden of an already exasperated Lincoln watching his every move.  During the spring of 1863 it seemed that Hooker was the man for the job.  He re-equipped the army and was prepared to move aggressively against Lee.  He also had more resources than McClellan or Burnside and his opponent had not been able to replenish all his losses.

In addition, Hooker wasn’t afraid of bold action or engaging in battle with less than every single soldier he could find.  His goal was to pin Lee in place and outflank the Army of Northern Virginia.  In service of this plan he left about 30,000 troops at Fredericksburg under Sedgwick and looped to the north and west with a force of 70,000.  He crossed the Rapidan River and then…stopped.

It seems that Fighting Joe Hooker’s nerves had failed him.  He pulled up short at Chancellorsville at the edges of an area known as The Wilderness.  The forces under his direct command outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia and were moving to trap Lee against the Rappahannock, where the forces under Sedgwick would then be able to play the role of anvil to Hooker’s hammer.

But in the middle of his move Hooker surrendered the initiative and put his forces in to defensive position around Chancellorsville.  This did severe damage to his resume as a would-be dictator.

To be fair to Hooker, Lee wasn’t just waiting for the hammer to fall.  He left Jubal Early in Fredericksburg with enough troops to discourage the Federals from getting adventurous and took 45,000 troops to meet Hooker.  He also deployed JEB Stuart’s cavalry to control the roads and lines of communication.

Weather played a role in the developing battle.  Hooker’s plan relied on the re-organized Federal cavalry under George Stoneman raiding through Virginia and down towards Richmond.  Rains and swollen rivers largely kept them out of the fight.  It also meant that they weren’t in position to provide Hooker with data on Lee’s movements.

Lee had no such problems.  He knew where Hooker was and knew what he was preparing to do.  Already heavily outnumbered, Lee split his forces a second time and sent Jackson around the Union right with 26,000 of his 45,000 troops.

Oliver O. Howard was holding the Union right and doing a terrible job of it.  One of Napoleon’s military maxims was that a corps needed to anchor its flanks against some impassable terrain, lest the enemy get around its edges.  Napoleon’s maxim deserves a corollary: should there be no impassable cliffs or rivers handy, at least try to avoid anchoring your flank against a road screened by forests, then point a couple of field guns out to the side and call it a day.

Sadly, Oliver O. Howard neglected to consult with me before Chancellorsville.  When Jackson’s troops boiled out of the forest just before dusk on May 2 they caught Howard’s corps completely by surprise.  As the right flank routed the forces under Lee mounted a frontal assault and only the onset of night allowed the Union to stay in the field.

Even though Lee won convincingly on the field at Chancellorsville he lost his war that night.  Jackson went out to scout the Union lines after nightfall and was shot by his own picket on the way back.  Stonewall Jackson died a week later.

The people out in the battlefield making history matter as much as any gun or troop count.  When Lee lost Jackson he didn’t just lose a general or a corps commander.  He lost the single most irreplaceable person in his army.  Richard Ewell would take over Jackson’s troops, but would prove to be no Stonewall Jackson, much to the detriment of the Army of Northern Virginia.

War is a complicated business that often relies on timing and luck.  Commanders on the modern battlefield with radio communications, aerial observation, and satellite cameras can manufacture their own good timing to a certain extent.  The generals of the Civil War had no such advantages.  When Lee sent Jackson on his wild ride around the Union flank he effectively sent more than half his forces in to a black hole and hoped that his flank attack would materialize.

Those attacks didn’t always occur.  Compare Chancellorsville to Pope’s fruitless feints on Jackson’s left at Second Bull Run after Porter and McDowell didn’t attack the Confederate right.  Of course had Pope not been a terrible general and Longstreet not been approaching from his left the mistakes at Bull Run probably would not have cost the Army of Virginia too dearly.  Jackson’s end run at Chancellorsville could have cost Lee his army.

But Lee and Jackson had been working together since the Shenandoah Valley campaign of early 1862 and been a dangerous team ever since.  They knew and trusted each other and when working together could pull off the impossible on a regular basis.  The invincible Army of Northern Virginia didn’t die with Jackson on May 10, 1863 but it was severely wounded.

Lee’s war continued, however.  He had beat back McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.  But with each Union incursion in to Virginia irreplaceable Confederate supplies and manpower were lost while the Union troops withdrew, refit, and returned as strong as, if not stronger than, before.

Lee needed to do something and he decided that the key to the war lay in Pennsylvania.

The stage was now set for Gettysburg.

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