I simply took advantage of circumstances as they were presented to me in the providence of God. I feel that His hand led me–let us give Him the glory.
–Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
At sundown on May 1, 1863, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee sat on a log near Catherine’s Furnace, south of Chancellorsville, to confer with Stonewall Jackson. “How can we get at those people?” he asked. (With the rarest exceptions, Lee referred to the Federals as “those people” who must be “driven.” To the Cromwellian Jackson, they were always “the enemy” who must be “killed.”) As Lee and his chief lieutenant studied the maps and considered, Fitzhugh Lee, the general’s nephew, rode up with what proved to be the answer. His troopers had been scouting the Yankee line westward along the turnpike and knew now that Hooker’s right was indeed in the air and vulnerable to attack–if Lee could somehow get through the Wilderness on his flank with a large force. Turning to Jackson again, he said, “You know best. Show me what to do, and we will do it.” What Jackson proposed now must have given even a gambler like Lee pause. Though Lee had divided his smaller army once already, Jackson planned to divide it once more–directly in front of more than 70,000 Yankees. Two divisions, 15,000 men, would stay where they were opposite Hooker’s center, McLaws’ on the turnpike and Anderson’s on the plank road. Screened by Stuart’s cavalry, the rest of the army–Jackson’s whole corps, 30,000 men–would swing south and west across Hooker’s front and come down hard on the exposed Federal right. To say the least, it was not a textbook solution to the problem of how to get at those people. Indeed, it had the potential for an immense disaster for Lee and presented two rich opportunities to Joe Hooker. One was for Hooker to strike Jackson hard with his right while he was strung out in column on that wilderness road. Or, while Jackson was making his day-long march westward, he could easily send three or four corps down on two divisions in grey. Federal success in the center would leave Jackson dangling to the west and Early back in Fredericksburg, both to be destroyed at leisure. But Lee, like Couch, believed that Hooker was already a whipped man. Jackson’s corps, guided by a local man, would march early on the morning of May 2.
About eight o’clock that morning Lee and Jackson met briefly once more near Catherine’s Furnace; then Jackson rode off to the west and Lee turned toward the front. It was to be their last meeting. In the Union camp Hooker that morning was as blustery and buoyant as ever, more so in fact. In the night he had learned that Longstreet was still south of the James, not at Culpeper in his rear. He had also acted to strengthen his own position. Learning that only Early’s division remained in Fredericksburg, in the middle of the night he called for Reynold’s corps as well.
When Reynolds reached him, he would have 80,000 men in line–twice Lee’s entire force in the Wilderness. He was eager to be attacked. So confident now in his own strength, Hooker made a fatal misjudgment. About nine o’clock a message came from one of Daniel Sickles’ brigadiers, posted on high ground at Hazel Grove, just up a wilderness road from Catherine’s Furnace. From there he could see a heavy grey column–infantry, artillery, wagons–disappearing into the woods to the west. It was of course Jackson’s men on their twelve-mile hike to the Union right. But this was not how Hooker saw it. To him it seemed that Lee, with a powerful army on his front, a whole corps on his right at Fredericksburg, and Stoneman’s cavalry raiding in his rear, was in full retreat, perhaps headed for the railroad at Orange to the west. Having planned to fight a great defensive battle today, he now drew up plans for a vigorous pursuit. He sent two of Sickles’ divisions forward toward Catherine’s Furnace, and they got there just in time to capture some men and wagons from the rear-most of Jackson’s three divisions. (It happened to be Powell Hill’s.) To Sedgwick back in Fredericksburg he sent orders to attack and drive Early off the heights. The rest of the army was preparing to chase Lee. Some in the army knew better and told Hooker so. Increasingly anxious reports arrived all day of a real and heavy Rebel movement toward the right. Still convinced, however, that this movement was an army withdrawing, Hooker was satisfied simply to tell Oliver Howard on the extreme right to post his pickets in that direction. Howard answered that he was “taking measures to resist an attack from the west.”
Howard was a capable West Pointer who had lost an arm at Fair Oaks. He had a reputation for sobriety and piety that had earned him the title of the Christian Soldier. Today he commanded the XI Corps, an outfit he didn’t much like nor did they much like him. They were mainly German-American immigrants from New York and Pennsylvania, many still mastering English as well as soldiering. Their combat record thus far was not good. They had been whipped in the Shenandoah under John C. Fremont and routed at Second Bull Run under Pope. Their entrenched front extended a mile or so along the Orange Turnpike facing south. Like Hooker, Howard had sufficient warning to look to trouble on his right. As early as 2:45 he received this frantic message from a major on the picket line: “A large body of the enemy is massing on my front. For God’s sake make dispositions to receive him!” Howard, again like Hooker, dismissed the report as exaggerated. It would be enough, he thought, to post two guns on the old turnpike itself and two regiments across the road. No human creatures, he believed, could penetrate that second-growth jungle to the west. About 5:15 Howard’s men, with their arms stacked, were enjoying an easy hour, playing cards, fixing supper, relaxing. Just then, into their camps bounded woodland creatures from the west, deer and rabbits in flight before invisible hunters. Then the hunters appeared: Stonewall’s men, more tattered than ever after their push through the briars, in a line two miles wide and three divisions deep, coming on with a rush and a Rebel yell. “It was a perfect whirlwind of men,” one Yankee remembered. The only two blue regiments facing the right direction to receive an attack were swept away at once, the two guns on the pike itself immediately turned on them. So sudden and so savage was the attack that Howard’s right-most division broke up in twenty minutes. In an hour most of his corps was streaming eastward despite stubborn yet doomed efforts of scattered outfits to stand. By seven o’clock, as darkness drew on, Jackson had driven Howard’s corps in confusion two miles through the forest, nearly to the village itself.
Old Blue Light Jackson had been in the saddle all day, riding along the wave of the assault, urging “press them, press them, press on.” Like Lee, nothing short of destruction would fully satisfy Jackson even in the midst of this astonishing success. Now he wanted to drive this attack home in the dark and cut Hooker’s whole army from United States Ford in his rear. With his back to the river, Hooker could be hammered to pieces by Jackson’s corps on the left and the two divisions with Lee on the right. The first two waves of Jackson’s late-afternoon attack were Robert Rodes’ division in the lead with Raleigh Colston’s behind. Powell Hill’s division had been still forming up when the attack jumped off. Now Rodes and Colston’s commands were strung out in a disorganized single line, exhausted by their furious two-mile fight. Hill’s division, however, was intact and on hand. Now that he had Yankees on the run, Jackson had no intention of letting up until he had pushed them into the river. It was to be a flank attack and a continuous drive, or as Bedford Forrest might put it: hit ’em on the end and keep up the skeer. To Jackson, always alive to the revelation of God’s designs, the bright full moon of May 2nd must have seemed providential. Riding east up the pike, he found Hill and ordered him to make a night attack. About 9:30 the two rode forward together with their staffs to study the ground and determine the likeliest way to cut the bluecoats off from the ford. Up ahead in the dark were the pickets of a North Carolina outfit. They had just beaten back an attack by Yankee troopers, and now they heard more horsemen coming close. The pickets banged away and then, despite Hill’s warning that they were firing on their own men, the battalion behind them fired a volley. As Jackson’s mount, Little Sorrel, whirled in panic, his rider was struck three times, once through the palm of his right hand and twice in the left arm. Staff officers lifted him from his horse and laid him under a tree. Shortly thereafter an ambulance carried Jackson, dazed and bleeding, from his last battlefield. In a field hospital near Wilderness Tavern, Jackson’s chief medical officer, Dr. Hunter McGuire, amputated the general’s arm just under the left shoulder. Jackson awoke from the chloroform about 3:00 a.m. only to learn that A. P. Hill, too, was now a casualty, out of the battle with shell fragments in both legs. Command of the corps had passed to Jeb Stuart. In his headquarters Lee felt deeply the loss of these two bold fighters, but he was resolved to finish the fight they had begun with such success. In the morning, he decided, those people must be pressed once more.
In his headquarters at the Chancellor House, Hooker was slow to realize what was happening on his collapsing right wing. He could hear the rumble of battle off in those tangled thickets somewhere but supposed that it came from Hazel Grove to the south where Sickle’s two divisions had gone to fall on what he believed to be Lee’s retreating rear guard. In the last light of day, however, one of Hooker’s staff officers looked to the west and shouted, “My God–here they come!” They were not Rebels; they were Howard’s demoralized “Dutchmen” fleeing in panic from the shock of Stonewall’s surprise attack. Howard had tried to rally them, sitting his horse with a regimental flag under the stump of his amputated arm, but the Rebel thrust had been too sudden and too heavy. Now Hooker would do what he could to stem the grey tide. The third of Sickles’ three divisions was at hand, and they wheeled right in an effort to check both retreating Yankees and attacking Rebels. Off to the south Sickles’ other two divisions now realized they were in a world of trouble and turned to try to make their way back to the turnpike. But as they marched north toward the Chancellor House, they collided in the darkness with Rebels on their left and, ironically, with Yankees–one of Slocum’s divisions–on their right. A savage firefight ensued in which Sickles’ men shot it out with friend and foe. Eventually, though some units reached the pike, the main body was forced to retreat southward the way they came, where they spent what remained of this fitful night–it was midnight now–at Hazel Grove. To the north Hooker, under cover of artillery massed on high ground at Fairview Cemetery, managed to get Couch and Slocum’s four divisions with Sickle’s reserve division drawn back and in line facing west near Dowdall’s Tavern. Jackson’s juggernaut was finally halted as the flames of the burning Wilderness made the scene, as one remembered, “a picture of hell.”
Although May 2nd had been hell’s own day for Joe Hooker, his situation at dawn the next day was actually promising. Reynold’s corps had come up in the night, and Hooker had established a new line, a long tight curve with his right on the Rapidan and his left on the Rappahannock. Its center was held by Sickles’ two divisions supported by artillery at Hazel Grove. More promising yet, Hooker’s center was between the two wings of Lee’s army–Jackson’s three divisions, now under Stuart, on his right and McLaws and Anderson’s with Lee on the left. Sickles’ men could be the thin edge of the wedge if Hooker would go back on the offensive. Lee certainly recognized the importance of reuniting the wings of his army. Indeed, he had written to Stuart the night before: “Endeavor to dispossess [the Federals] from Chancellorsville, which will permit the union of the army.” In this endeavor Stuart and Lee would be substantially assisted by Hooker himself. Over Sickles’ objections he withdrew his divisions from the high ground at Hazel Grove just as Stuart’s sunrise attack was going forward south of the turnpike on his right. So swift was Stuart’s advance that its first wave reached the grove before the last of the Yankees were out. As soon as they were driven out or captured, Confederate guns came up and went to work. With 60 guns on the high ground and another two dozen down the Plank Road to the right, they were in a position to send shells down both flanks of Hooker’s army. Hazel Grove was the key to the battlefield that morning, and Hooker had surrendered it without a fight.
Chancellorsville was certainly one of the great days for Confederate artillery. Their deadly crossfire put Hooker in deep trouble again, as Stuart’s attack pressed hard from the west and McLaws and Anderson struck hard from the east. About nine o’clock Hooker himself became a witness to the effectiveness of Rebel gunnery. He was leaning against a pillar of the Chancellor House when it was struck by a solid shot, and he was knocked down dazed. Some in the Union camp thought this blow was rather a good thing because it would put aggressive Darius Couch in command, but that was not to be. Incredibly, while his army was fighting for its life, Hooker, groggy with shock, would fail to make use of three whole corps. In any event, the commander actually in control of the battle was Robert E. Lee. He had made up his mind last night to reunite the wings of his army by taking Chancellorsville, and while Joe Hooker lay numb across the way, he was about to do it. This morning may have been the Army of Northern Virginia’s finest hour. Rodes, Colston, and Henry Heth (succeeding the wounded Hill) were driving east up the turnpike. Stuart was riding with them singing a new song to an old tune: “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out the Wilderness?” McLaws and Anderson were driving relentlessly west along the pike and plank road. Everywhere the blue lines were collapsing before them and falling back toward the river. At 10:30 both wings, Lee on horseback among them, were united on the heights of Fairview. The Army of Northern Virginia had battered an army twice its size and driven it to the banks of the Rappahannock River.
With the jubilant cheers of his soldiers still ringing in the morning air, Lee was already plotting his next move. Hooker had been driven splendidly; now one more attack would destroy him. But before Lee could reorganize and reform for the assault, news arrived from Fredericksburg. That morning as Lee’s attack at Chancellorsville was going forward, John Sedgwick, following Hooker’s urgent order, attacked Early and drove him off Marye’s Heights. Despite an advantage of four divisions to one, it had been a near thing for Sedgwick. In the sunken road behind that same stone wall that Burnside’s men had smashed up on were two Georgia regiments under William Barksdale; behind them on the Heights were four batteries of the first-rate Washington Artillery. Sedgwick feinted left, feinted right, then sent ten regiments headlong against the wall. They were driven back into the same swale that Burnside’s men had lain in back in December. A second attack met the same fate. Now a Wisconsin colonel with uncommon grit stood up and gave his regiment this unflinching order: “When the signal forward is given you will advance at double-quick. You will not fire a gun and you will not stop until you get the order to halt. You will never get that order.” They went forward in a rush followed by the other nine regiments and overwhelmed Barksdale’s thin line at the stone wall, then charged breathlessly up the slope to drive the gunners off. Sedgwick’s attack added 1,500 casualties to the nine thousand Burnside lost there, but the ridge was now Federal property. It was one of the very few positions carried by a bayonet attack in the entire war. With his line broken there was nothing for Early to do but to follow Lee’s instructions and retreat south down the Telegraph Road. Sedgwick, following Hooker’s instructions, was not to pursue but instead move immediately west to Chancellorsville: “You will hurry up your column. The enemy’s right flank now rests near the plank road… all exposed. You will attack at once.” Apparently Hooker supposed that Sedgwick’s single corps would march to the rescue of the six embattled at Chancellorsville.
Lee, who had managed his affairs masterfully thus far, now responded calmly to this threat to his rear. Holding Hooker’s legions on his front, he detached McLaws’ division and send it east up the Plank Road to check Sedgwick. Again, the Confederates would be short-handed: Sedgwick’s corps would be coming down the road with 20,000 fresh troops; McLaws’ 7,000 had been in combat for two days now. Sedgwick, however, had troubles of his own. A thirty-year veteran who had fought Mexicans in Mexico, Border Ruffians in Kansas, and Indians on the Great Plains, “Uncle John” Sedgwick was good-natured, capable, and reliable. But now he was having difficulty getting his wildly celebrating men formed in column to “hurry up” west to Chancellorsville. Not until two o’clock did the first division step out, and then it only covered a mile from the Heights before it ran into a line of Rebel skirmishers and had to shake out battle lines and roll up guns to drive them in. These men in grey were not McLaws’; he was still well to the west. They were an Alabama brigade under Cadmus Wilcox, who had been covering Banks Ford on the Rappahannock. Upon discovering that Early had been driven from Fredericksburg, Wilcox stretched his brigade in a long skirmish line across the Plank Road, determined to check Sedgwick’s advance long enough for help to come up in his rear. In a long running fight from ridge to ridge, the Alabamans backed up the road slowly and stubbornly. By late afternoon the Federals had got only as far as Salem Church, still six miles shy of Chancellorsville. There Sedgwick discovered that he was dealing with more than a brigade of stubborn skirmishers; McLaws was up now and across the Plank Road, too. As the last light of May 3rd faded out, Sedgwick got the last of his three divisions up and made plans to continue his advance the next morning.
Lee, however, was making plans of his own to “attend to Mr. Sedgwick,” as he put it. Convinced that Hooker’s 80,000 would remain passively entrenched in their Chancellorsville lines, he would hold them with just the three divisions of Jackson’s corps, or rather the survivors of two days of fighting, first under Jackson, then Stuart. Then he would detach Anderson and send him east to join McLaws. Early, seeing that there was no Yankee pursuit, had retreated only a few miles down the Telegraph Road and would be back on Marye’s Heights the morning of May 4. Lee would be able to fight with equal numbers at Salem Church and assail Sedgwick from three points of the compass: Early would strike from the east, Anderson from the south, and McLaws from the west. It was a good plan, but the execution of it left a good deal to be desired. First, it took all day just to get the three columns in position to attack. There was scarcely an hour of daylight left on May 4 when the assaults went forward, and when they did, they were disjointed and uncoordinated. McLaws struck only a glancing blow on his front, then, groping for the Yankee line, bumped into Anderson in the foggy dusk and there was a sharp little exchange of friendly fire. Early did a little better, but it was not the crushing blow Lee intended. Lee, still determined to destroy this piece of the Federal army, called for a night attack, but this had no more success than the one made at last light. There was nothing to be done but wait for dawn to make a more effective effort. Sedgwick, however, who lost 4,600 men in the fighting, had had enough. Under cover of darkness, he withdrew his three divisions across the Rappahannock on a pontoon bridge thrown up below Banks Ford. His fourth, John Gibbon’s posted in Fredericksburg, was likewise withdrawn. Now the only Yankees south of the river were penned up in a tight loop at Chancellorsville.
One has to feel a good measure of sympathy for the soldiers under McLaws and Anderson. They had endured a wearing two day’s fight at Chancellorsville on May 2nd and 3rd, then made a hard march up the road to fight Sedgwick’s men at Salem Church at dusk on the 4th. Now Lee ordered them directly back to Chancellorsville where he hoped to pitch into Hooker once more, intent as ever on his destruction. But Hooker, who had lost his nerve at the first collision of the armies near Tabernacle Church, never regained it. He called his corps commanders to a council of war on the night of the 5th, but it appears that he had already made up his mind to withdraw across the river. Sickles, Couch, Meade, Howard, and Reynolds were at hand. (Slocum never reached them until the meeting was over.) Meade and Reynolds voted emphatically in favor of staying on to make a fight of it, at least in part because their men had hardly been in the fight at all up to this point. (In truth, a fundamental cause of Hooker’s disaster was his failure to use the men he had.) Howard, whose Dutchmen had been routed by Jackson’s shock wave, wanted to stay on and get even if he could. Couch had a combative nature and could normally be depended on to favor action, but he’d seen too much of Joe Hooker’s blundering and was unwilling to continue the fight with him in command. Sickles, whose three divisions had been fiercely mauled at Hazel Grove and then in the clearing in front of the Chancellor House, had had enough. That made it three-to-two in favor of action. Hooker considered briefly, then announced that the army would contract its defensive perimeter and withdraw over U. S. Ford. “What was the use of calling us together at this time of night,” Reynolds exploded, “when he intended to retreat anyhow?” In a cold, driving rain on the 5th Hooker’s beaten army started over the pontoon bridges, and by mid-morning on the 6th its survivors were safely on the north bank of the Rappahannock once more. Some 17,000 of their comrades were dead, wounded, or missing.
When Lee returned from Salem Church to discover Hooker had escaped across the river, he was furious and gave rare expression to his volatile temper to the luckless brigadier who brought the news: “That is the way you young men always do. You allow those people to get away…. Go after them, and damage them all you can!” But there could be no pursuit now over the rain-swollen river, and nothing for Lee to do but march his army back to Fredericksburg, even as Hooker’s men slogged wearily back to their camps at Falmouth. After a week in the Wilderness, the antagonists were both back where they started. To Joe Hooker now came news of one more blunder. Stoneman, whose assignment was to raise havoc in Lee’s rear, had accomplished virtually nothing. He had scattered his command all over the countryside, burned a few bridges on the upper James, and ridden back the way he came. Hooker, perhaps understandably, blamed Stoneman and soon relieved him. But the raid had been his own idea, and at the crucial point in the battle when cavalry might have given him eyes–Jackson’s flank attack–he had been blind. When news of the Chancellorsville disaster reached the North, there was of course outrage and despair. Influential newspaperman Horace Greeley fumed, “My God, it is horrible…. And to think of it–130,000 magnificent soldiers so cut to pieces by 60,000 half-starved ragamuffins.” Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner thought frankly “all is lost!” In the White House, Lincoln, ashen with grief, paced the floor and wondered: “My God, my God, what will the country say?”
If Joe Hooker had accomplished anything at all at the Battle of Chancellorsville, it must be that he inflicted 13,000 casualties on the Army of Northern Virginia. Among them one, as Lee knew, was irreplaceable: Stonewall Jackson, his right arm. Jackson lay now in safety at Guinea Station to the south. Lee had sent a note attributing the Chancellorsville victory to Jackson’s “skill and energy.” Ever the holy warrior, Jackson returned: “General Lee is very kind, but he should give the praise to God.” It looked at first as if Stonewall would recover from the amputation, but on May 7 Dr. McGuire discovered his patient had contracted pneumonia, for which nineteenth-century medicine had no effective treatment. The celebrated general began slipping in and out of a sleepy delirium, now speaking clearly and calmly to his wife at his side, now barking orders intended for the battlefield at Chancellorsville. On Sunday, May 10, McGuire told Anna Jackson that her husband would die this day. She in turn told her husband. “Very good. Very good,” Jackson said. “It is all right.” Then, after reflection: “It is the Lord’s day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.” This eccentric and inspired warrior, whose blue eyes burned in battle and who took frank satisfaction in killing his enemies, now took deep pleasure in the prospect of being this day with his Savior in glory. A little after three o’clock in the afternoon, failing fast now, General Jackson gave his last battle order: “Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front…. Tell Major Hawks–” Then, quietly but clearly: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Stonewall Jackson was making his last bivouac on the far side of the River Jordan.