The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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General Hooker was an old army officer. He was thoroughly equipped so far as military education was concerned, and he was so ardent in the work of the soldier that his men had lovingly nicknamed him "Fighting Joe Hooker." But he had never commanded an army or planned a campaign. He had made the last and most brilliant of that series of heroic charges up Marye's Heights which Burnside had so foolishly ordered at Fredericksburg. He had made the charge under protest, correctly deeming it a needless sacrifice of men's lives in a hopeless undertaking. But he had made it with extraordinary gallantry and had persisted in it until, as he sarcastically said, "he thought he had lost as many men as he was ordered to lose."
Of his devotion as a soldier, and of his unusual capacity in subordinate command, he had given adequate proof in every battle in which the Army of the Potomac had been engaged, from Manassas to Fredericksburg. But his capacity to lead a great army against a great enemy was wholly conjectural. Mr. Lincoln suggested this in the extraordinary letter in which he announced to Hooker his selection for this supreme trust. That letter was as follows:
Thus commissioned, Hooker undertook the task in which so many predecessors had failed – the task of overcoming Lee, breaking the resisting power of his really wonderful Army of Northern Virginia, conquering the Confederate capital and adding Virginia, with her pith and substance, to the list of states reconquered to the Union.
For this task he had more adequate means than any of his predecessors or even any of his successors enjoyed until Grant, in 1864, concentrated the whole military force of the nation and co?rdinated all its operations with this one object in view.
Hooker had an army of 180,000 men, to Lee's less than 60,000 – about three men to one. He had 400 pieces of artillery to Lee's 170, and both his guns and his ammunition were superior to Lee's. He had unsurpassed quartermaster and commissary departments, a matter in which Lee was wofully deficient. The railroads in Hooker's rear were in excellent condition, while those upon which his adversary must depend were well-nigh hopeless wrecks, with nearly helpless engines and a lamentable insufficiency of cars. Still further, the Northern army was filled with skilled mechanicians and practical engineers capable of quickly meeting and overcoming any mechanical difficulty that might arise. In one case early in the war it is related that an engine in Federal service ran off the track and was badly damaged, thus threatening serious embarrassment to a military movement. When the question arose as to what could be done with the crippled engine, a private stepped from the ranks, saluted respectfully, and said: "I built that engine. I guess I can repair her."
The South had next to none of this sort of resource. Nor had it anywhere great shops capable of producing machinery. The South had been an almost exclusively agricultural country, in which the mechanic arts were scarcely at all developed.
With such advantages and others of scarcely less importance, it seemed a not very difficult task for Hooker so to employ the 180,000 hardened veterans of the Army of the Potomac as to overcome the resistance of the 58,100 composing the Army of Northern Virginia. The Government at Washington expected nothing less than this. The people of the North demanded such results as their right. The army itself stood eagerly ready to do the work required, for the Army of the Potomac believed in Hooker as it had not previously believed in any of its commanders except McClellan before that general's career was clouded by defeat. The men had seen Hooker fight. They were in love with his rough and ready ways. They repeated around their camp fires his witty sayings, and mightily rejoiced in them. They had indeed none of that filial reverence for him which the men of the Army of Northern Virginia felt for Lee – whom they affectionately called "Mas' Bob." But they had for Hooker an almost boyish enthusiasm which was without doubt an important element of strength.
Hooker began right. He was a master of the art of military organization, and he quickly brought the army under his command into a state of positively wonderful efficiency. Then he planned a brilliant campaign – a campaign far better conceived than any that Lee had yet been called upon to meet.
Fully recognizing his own superiority in numbers, in guns, in equipment, in supplies, in the materials of war and in that mobility which such superiority necessarily gives, he planned to utilize all these advantages for the certain and quick destruction of his adversary.
He could force the fighting when and where he pleased. He could choose his own battlefields and his own time for action.
He had no thought of repeating Burnside's blunder and assailing Lee in his own chosen and strongly fortified position, at Fredericksburg. It was his intention instead to force Lee out of his fortifications and compel him to fight against tremendous odds in the open field.
His plan was, with enormously superior numbers to turn both of Lee's flanks at once, compel the division of his already inferior army, overcome both wings of it in detail, and crush it completely. That done, Confederate resistance in Virginia would be at an end. Richmond would lie before him a helpless prey. Virginia would be a conquered state, and the completion of the war a mere matter of detail.
All military critics who have considered the subject, agree that this was the best planned campaign that any Northern general had as yet originated and that its promise of success, with the great superiority of means behind it, amounted almost to a certainty. Its failure in the end was disastrous in the extreme and discouraging beyond anything that had occurred since the first battle of Manassas.
These facts taken together – the brilliancy and the entire soundness of the plan of campaign, the stupendous superadequacy of the means at command for carrying it to success, and its conspicuous failure in the end – render the history of the campaign of Chancellorsville one of the most dramatic of the wonder stories of the Confederate war.
After three months of most intelligent and energetic work in perfecting organization and bringing all parts of the service into the highest condition of efficiency, Hooker was ready at last to begin his campaign. Omitting all the sick, all detachments, all forces sent to guard communications, all furloughed officers and men, he had "for duty equipped," according to his morning reports, no less than 131,491 men, with 400 pieces of highly effective artillery. Opposed to him was Lee with a total force, of all arms, of 58,100 men, of whom less than 50,000 were ready for duty, and about 170 pieces of artillery, mostly of an inferior sort. Some small reinforcements are believed to have come to Lee, swelling his force to about 60,000 men all told, or perhaps 55,000 effectives.
With numbers so overwhelming, Hooker was free to do pretty nearly whatever he might choose to do without risk of weakening himself at any point below the strength of his enemy.
His plan of campaign was simple and strategically admirable. Broadly stated it was this:
1. To push a strong force of cavalry, under Stoneman, around Lee's left and into his rear, to destroy his communications, and to harass and prevent his retreat towards Richmond – for Hooker's plans looked to nothing less than the capture of the whole Army of Northern Virginia.
2. To send a strong force of artillery and infantry under Sedgwick down the river to cross there, turn Lee's right, force whatever might be left of his army, by that time, out of their entrenchments, and mercilessly assail him in flank on his expected retreat toward Richmond, thus additionally making his surrender inevitable.
3. At the same time to march up the river with the main body of the Federal army, estimated by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore A. Dodge, U. S. A. , at 120,000 men, push the head of his column across the stream far up it, sweep down the southern bank, clear the several fords in succession and at each to send fresh columns across; then, in irresistible force to march through the Wilderness, as that tangled country is called, and emerge from it in appallingly overwhelming numbers at Chancellorsville.
This would completely turn Lee's left with the main army and force him either to retreat hurriedly toward Richmond with Sedgwick on his flank, or to give battle in the open, with utterly inadequate forces.
Never during the whole course of the war was there a campaign more brilliantly planned than this one was to compel victory; never did one fail more conspicuously. Never were the advantages of the assailant so great; never were they so completely offset by the genius of the defending commander and the resolution of an army vastly inferior in numbers and in the appliances of war, – in every element of strength indeed except high soldierliness.
Stoneman moved on the thirteenth of April. His orders were to pass up the river, keeping well out of sight and masking his movement, to wheel suddenly and cross the stream at a point west of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, destroy Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry at Culpeper, seize upon Gordonsville, where the Orange and Alexandria and the Virginia Central railroads form a junction; push on toward Richmond; cut the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroad at Hanover Junction, thus cutting off Lee's retreat; fortify himself there in strong positions and obstinately oppose any effort of Lee to retreat, until Hooker, moving from Lee's left and Sedgwick, moving from his right, should join forces with Stoneman and complete the work of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia. This culmination of the campaign was planned to occur six days after Stoneman's start.
Stoneman made the first failure. He moved up the river and crossed a part of his force. But high water soon afterwards rendered the stream unfordable, while Lee's alert cavalry lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, confronted the force already crossed, and compelled it to retreat by swimming to escape certain destruction.
This ended the cavalry part of Hooker's program. For the ford did not become passable again until the twenty-seventh and by that time the main movement had been begun. It was too late for Stoneman to do his part of the work.
In the meanwhile the crossings at and near Port Royal, about twenty miles below Fredericksburg, had been secured, and bridges had been laid. On the twenty-ninth of April, early in the morning – before daylight in fact, – General Sedgwick forced a crossing with three corps. In preparation for this, ninety-eight guns had been previously placed in position under Hooker's direction and a number more held in reserve.
Sedgwick's orders were to seize a principal road, turn Lee's right flank, and in case of serious opposition, to carry Lee's works at all costs; then to push forward on Lee's flank and harass his retreat. It was expected that Stoneman would by this time be fortified in the way of Lee's retreat, and that the main body of the Federal army under Hooker, moving from Chancellorsville, would fall upon the Confederates and crush them.
With these dispositions made, Hooker moved up the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, crossed forces at the upper fords, moved thence down the right or Confederate bank of the stream, uncovering the several fords in succession, and crossing heavy forces at each.
Once across the Rapidan he moved his army rapidly through the Wilderness, to Chancellorsville, a solitary plantation house near the Southern edge of that vast thicket.
In posting himself at Chancellorsville Hooker had placed his army far to the rear of Lee's left at Fredericksburg. It was obvious that Lee must quit his entrenchments and move southwest to meet his adversary at Chancellorsville, otherwise his army would be completely cut off, overwhelmed and conquered, and the road to Richmond would be opened to his adversary with no possibility of effective resistance anywhere.
But Lee had not been asleep. Neither was he appalled by the enormous advantages of numbers, guns and position enjoyed by his adversary.
With that calm self-possession which was the keynote of his character; with that masterful skill in the art of war which had so often served him in lieu of heavy battalions, and which then and since has commanded the admiration of military men both north and south; and, above all, with that confidence in the superb endurance of his veterans which their conduct on many fields had taught him to feel, he set to work to meet and defeat Hooker's admirably planned campaign.
He left 8,500 men and thirty guns to hold the works at Fredericksburg, so long as they could be held against Sedgwick's 30,000 men and more than 100 guns. With the remainder of his army, – in round numbers about 45,000 men, – he quickly moved to Chancellorsville to meet Hooker with his tremendously superior force.
The great Confederate had by this time completely penetrated Hooker's plan of campaign. He had no idea that the 8,500 men left in the works at and below Fredericksburg could for long hold that position against Sedgwick's superior force, but he knew the quality of the men set to that task, and he confidently reckoned that they would make such resistance – as in fact they did – as to prevent Sedgwick from forming a junction with the main army at Chancellorsville, until the struggle there should be ended.
And what a struggle it promised to be! Lee knew that at most he could hope for nothing better than to oppose one man to Hooker's three but even against such odds he decided to risk battle in the open rather than attempt a hazardous and dispiriting retreat to the defenses of Richmond.
Cautiously but rapidly, he transferred his army to Chancellorsville and after baffling various Federal attempts to strike at his stores and communications, he concentrated in Hooker's front quite all that he could of his scanty force.
By this time Hooker's ceaseless activity had uncovered all the fords above Fredericksburg, and opened short and easy lines of communication, through Falmouth opposite Fredericksburg, between Sedgwick, operating on the east of Fredericksburg, and Hooker's headquarters near Chancellorsville on the southwest. Thus the two temporarily divided wings of Hooker's army were brought again into touch with each other and the whole vast force acted as a unit under Hooker's command, while its disposition was such as to compel Lee to divide his much smaller force in preparation for the expected determined assault of the Federals upon one or the other of two faces – he could not know which.
But it was not Lee's purpose long to await attack. His all-daring thought was to become himself the assailant as soon as he could get his army corps disposed in positions favorable to such a purpose.
He first selected a strong defensive position in front of Chancellorsville and hurriedly fortified it as a means of holding Hooker in check until he should himself be ready to take the offensive.
In the meanwhile, as his orders issued at that time clearly show, Hooker regarded his campaign as already completely successful. He had succeeded in so enveloping Lee that that general, according to all the rules of the war game must surrender either after a show of fighting or without that bloody preliminary.
In these calculations Hooker had not sufficiently reckoned upon Lee's resourcefulness or his daring, or the fighting qualities of the Army of Northern Virginia. All these were factors underestimated in his statement of the equation.
The position at Chancellorsville itself was a conspicuously bad one for the Federals if they should stand on the defensive, and Hooker, seeing this, pushed his forces forward to more advantageous ground, a movement which involved a good deal of fighting in a comparatively small way, for the Confederates not only resisted stoutly but manifested a fiercely aggressive disposition wherever opportunity offered for a fight.
For reasons that have never been disclosed Hooker after a time withdrew his advance columns to their old unfavorable position at Chancellorsville and awaited his opportunity. His force was so greatly superior to that of his adversary that there seemed no risk in doing this, although it sacrificed a distinct advantage. It was obvious that if Lee should make a front attack he must be beaten off and crushed while, with his already inferior force, it would be simple madness, Hooker thought, for his opponent to divide his army and attempt any flank movement against an army outnumbering his own by three to one.
That madness Lee deliberately adopted as his strategy, and he carried it to a conclusion that must always be an astonishment to the reader of history.
Hooker's extraordinary retirement from the front of an enemy whom he had come out for the express purpose of attacking in overwhelming force, has always been inexplicable. Why he shrank from the attack after seeking opportunity for it with so much energy and skill it is impossible to understand. Why he abandoned his offensive operation just as its culmination in victory seemed certain, and, with enormously superior forces under his command fell back and assumed the defensive in an unfavorable position, even he seems never to have been able to explain. The most masterful critic and historian who has written of this campaign, says:
This was the situation: Lee had had 59,000 men at Fredericksburg. He had left 8,500 of them there and had made other compulsory detachments which reduced his fighting force in front of Hooker to no more than 39,000. He confronted Hooker, who had 120,000 securely intrenched with 11,000 or 12,000 more within reach. Obviously Lee could not hope by direct assault to carry the works and conquer a force so overwhelming. Equally he could not hope to stand on the defensive against an army which could easily and certainly overlap both his flanks and quickly crush him to a pulp. He must either retreat or play a great and most hazardous game of strategy.
In consultation with Stonewall Jackson – the two being seated upon cracker boxes abandoned in Hooker's retirement – it was decided to take a supreme risk in face of a supreme danger. With 39,000 men facing 120,000, it was decided to divide the smaller army and send Jackson, with 22,000 men upon an expedition, the purpose of which was to strike like a lightning flash at Hooker's right flank and rear, while Lee, with the little remnant of his army, 17,000 in all, should so far occupy Hooker in front as to prevent him from detaching troops for the timely reinforcement of his threatened wing.
The results that followed this operation have been and still are a subject of bitter controversy. Hooker tried afterwards to throw the blame for the disaster which ensued upon Howard, Sickles and his other lieutenants. They in turn disclaimed that responsibility and insisted that the disaster was due solely to Hooker's own orders and to his neglect of obvious duty as commanding general. The skilled military critics who have since written of the campaign have taken one side or the other of this purely personal controversy, according to their lights of knowledge, or their darkenings of prejudice. These things belong to biography. It is the function of the historian merely to tell the story of what happened and to that task alone the present writer addresses himself.
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