The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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After all these years the memory of their gallant deeds will be cherished by the whole Republic and all its people, whether the heroism of daring and endurance was shown on the one side or on the other. The men who met in battle there were fighting on the one side and on the other for liberty. Their views differed as to what would best minister to liberty, but their purpose was the same. The questions that divided them were long ago settled, and they no longer vex the Republic. The time has come when we may rejoice as citizens of one country in the devotion and courage that animated both sides in that great struggle for the decision of questions that could be settled only by the arbitrament of arms.
On Sunday, before noon, Hooker was completely driven from the Chancellorsville line and compelled to retire to a new position of extraordinary strength. Lee, with an army much smaller and considerably disorganized, but inspirited by repeated victory, confronted him. It was Lee's purpose to move again to the assault, in the conviction that the delivery of another of his tremendous blows would result in breaking Hooker's resistance and driving him across the river. It is true that Hooker still had a vastly superior force, but events had clearly shown that the Federal commander did not know how to handle his superior forces in a way to make the most of their superiority. Lee confidently believed that even with his smaller numbers he could deliver a blow that would drive his adversary out of the new lines as his previous assaults had already driven him out of the old ones.
The new position taken up by the Army of the Potomac is described by an engineer officer of high authority as "well-nigh impregnable," and the Army of Northern Virginia was very nearly worn out with the work it had done in conquering the former situation. But it was Lee's habit of mind to do and dare, and he had sufficiently tried conclusions now, to know beyond all question, that in the war game he was immeasurably more than Hooker's match.
So about noon on Sunday he began feeling of Hooker's new lines, searching for the most favorable point at which to hurl himself upon them in the hope of breaking them and driving his enemy into final retreat. For Lee's strategy no longer had any element of defensive purpose in it. He was no longer thinking of defense indeed or of securing lines of retreat. It was his bold thought to assail Hooker and destroy him with all his superior forces, or at the very least to drive him back across the river and take into his own keeping the problem of where and how the campaigning of 1863 should be done. Says Colonel Dodge:66
So much for disparity in generalship. The South had found its great and masterful commander, who knew how to utilize to the utmost such forces as were placed at his disposal. Mr. Lincoln had not yet found a general capable of employing to the full measure of its capacity, the superb army which the North had created by a lavish expenditure of treasure and by the eager volunteering of Northern youth for their country's service. Ulysses S. Grant was still the subordinate of Halleck and the Army of the Potomac was commanded by a general utterly unequal to the task of holding his own in a contest with Robert E. Lee.
In his new position Hooker stood upon the defensive and appealed to Sedgwick, who held the position below Fredericksburg, to come to his rescue and save him from disaster.
Sedgwick responded promptly, as it was his custom to do, though the task set him was a difficult one. He must assail Lee's works at Fredericksburg, drive out the 8,500 confident Confederates who were holding the trenches there, and then by a march of some weary miles fall upon Lee's right and rear, thus rescuing Hooker from the peril of the great Confederate's persistent assaults.
A whole library of controversial literature has been written in conflicting efforts to show who was to blame for the failure of Sedgwick to relieve Hooker in time to save him from the vengeance of Lee. With that controversy the present narrative of facts in no way concerns itself. Let us simply tell what happened.
Already in command of an available force twice as great as Lee's, Hooker, driven from his chosen line, had fallen back to a more concentrated one. Finding Lee disposed, with one man to his two, to assail him on this new line, he called upon Sedgwick as already stated, to come to his relief, against enormous obstacles. The order was received late at night. Its execution required a complete change in Sedgwick's dispositions, which had been made with the entirely different purpose of cutting off Lee's retreat after Hooker should have broken the Confederate resistance at Chancellorsville. So far from breaking that resistance Hooker had been forced to yield to it and retire before it.
Sedgwick changed front, drove Lee's 8,500 men out of the works at Fredericksburg, and pushed on to assail Lee's flank. Lee detached, to meet him, all of his small force except the Jackson corps of 19,000 men, with which he undertook, personally, to hold in check any movement that Hooker might make with the 80,000 or more of hardened veterans whom the Federal commander had under his immediate orders. But Hooker made no determined movement. On Sunday a fierce battle was fought between Sedgwick and those of Lee's forces which were engaged in trying to check his movement. It ended in the Confederates holding their ground and defeating Sedgwick's purpose of coming to the relief of his commander.
Early on Monday morning the Confederates succeeded in reoccupying the Fredericksburg Heights in Sedgwick's rear, which left him, in case of defeat, with no course open to him except to retreat across the river and give up the contest.
To compel this the Confederates, falling upon him at six o'clock in the evening, pressed him at every point while Hooker, with the main body of the Federal army, lay quite inert in rear of Chancellorsville. Soon after nightfall Sedgwick crossed the river, leaving the Confederates in full possession of the Fredericksburg Heights and of all the region east of the fords upon which Hooker depended for retreat in case of necessity.
Lee next set about the task of compelling that retreat. With full confidence in the willingness and the abundant ability of his men to respond to any demand he might make upon them for activity, he quickly ordered the reinforcements with which he had strengthened his right wing for the day's work, to return, and with the bulk of his force thus reunited, after having disposed of Sedgwick he was ready to fall upon Hooker.
During these operations against Sedgwick Lee's army had been for the second time divided. A great part of it had been sent half a dozen miles or more away to force Sedgwick back to the river and across it. In the meanwhile Lee, with a mere fragment of his force, had lain in front of Hooker. Why Hooker did not fall upon him and destroy him with the eighty thousand men whom he could easily have brought to bear against less than twenty thousand, is a question that can be answered only by the reminder that Hooker was not equal to the task of successfully handling the marvelous fighting machine which the North had so successfully created. Great as he was as a fighter under some other and abler man's direction, Hooker in command of 120,000 men seems to have been paralyzed by the magnitude of his task. He left it to Lee, with his greatly smaller force to determine when and where the fighting should be done. He lay still and let Lee alone while the greater part of Lee's army was detached upon the mission of driving Sedgwick across the river and recapturing the heights at Fredericksburg. He lay still while Lee was bringing back the troops thus detached and putting himself in readiness to strike that final blow that should break the Federal lines, drive them back across the river, and make an inglorious end of Hooker's superbly planned but phenomenally ill-executed campaign.
On Monday, May 4, he had 80,000 men (Dodge) under his immediate command at Chancellorsville, with more than 20,000 under Sedgwick within easy call, as an available reinforcement. At the very most Lee could bring less than 30,000 to bear against him even if every movement in concentration should be successfully made. Yet according to his own testimony, given two years later, Hooker decided on Monday to retreat across the river. He called his major generals together "not as a council of war" he says in his testimony, but merely to find out how they felt with regard to the alternative policy of making what Hooker himself regarded as "a desperate move against the enemy in our front." That "desperate move" was the assailing of less than 30,000 men by more than 80,000 of as good soldiers as ever pulled a trigger, while 20,000 more remained within call as reinforcements.
It was decided by Hooker, against the nearly unanimous advice of his lieutenants not to make that "desperate move," and the history of war records no more lame and impotent conclusion than that. It was decided by Hooker that the great army which had made a splendid strategic movement for the purpose of fighting Lee in the open and destroying him by overwhelming numbers, should run away from him and escape beyond the river if he should graciously permit it to do so.
To that end – to render possible the escape of 80,000 resolute men from the assault of less than 30,000 of the enemy, all the engineering skill that the Army of the Potomac could command was brought to bear. It protected the roads with abattis and the bridge heads with batteries which the aggressively insistent Confederates shelled persistently. A sudden rise in the river for a time threatened the retreat with failure and placed a part of the force in danger of destruction or capture. But in the end Hooker succeeded in extricating his army from its position. Early on the morning of May 6, the last battalions of the Army of the Potomac withdrew across the river.
Thus ended in failure the most brilliantly planned attempt that had yet been made to destroy Confederate resistance, conquer the Confederate capital and make a mercifully early end of a fratricidal war of stupendous proportions.
Hooker reported his losses during the campaign at 17,285 men; Lee's loss was 12,277.
If Lee could have attacked Hooker's fleeing columns when they were huddled together at the bridge ends on the river, demoralized and without organization as they were, he might easily have multiplied the Federal loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners by two or three. General Schurz once expressed to the present historian his astonishment that Lee neglected to do this. Perhaps the best answer is given in an extract from Colonel Dodge's exhaustive history of the conflict. He writes that Lee "was doubtless profoundly grateful that the Army of the Potomac should retire across the Rappahannock and leave his troops to the hard-earned rest they needed so much more than ourselves; but little thanks are due to Hooker, who was, it seems, on the north side of the river during these critical moments that the casualties of the campaign were not doubled by a final assault on the part of Lee while we lay in this perilous situation… Providentially the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia had expended almost its last round of ammunition previous to this time."
Thus accident alone saved the rear of Hooker's defeated army from a disaster and demoralization comparable with that of Manassas, at a time when, in the urgently expressed opinion of General Sickles, the conspicuous rout of the Army of the Potomac would necessarily have meant the abandonment of the struggle by the North. "If," he alleged, "this army should be destroyed, it would be the last one the country would raise."
Hooker had lost, by his own incapacity, a decisive opportunity to end the war with Federal success, and Lee, because of a lack of ammunition, had lost a still more obvious opportunity to end it by a decisive triumph of the Confederate arms.