Hooker was a red-faced, big-mouthed brawler from Massachusetts with a perhaps unfair reputation for drinking and gambling. Not a fan of his nickname, he immediately set about proving to a skeptical president that he added up to more than outrageous boasts and headlong charges. (When Hooker had declared that what the country really needed, and quick, was a dictator, Lincoln dared him first to win glory on the battlefield, after which "I will risk the dictatorship.")
Hooker's first step was to reshape his army into a tighter, more disciplined, and more effective force. He rounded up the many thousands of stragglers and deserters, issued all the men tastier food, and instituted a furlough lottery so that they could go home once in awhile. He got rid of Burnside's cumbersome "Grand Divisions" and gave each of his corps distinctive insignia, which helped clear up certain battlefield confusions while nudging his men toward something like an esprit de corps. Finally, he centralized his fast-improving cavalry (while, mysteriously, not doing the same with his artillery) and put Colonel George H. Sharpe in charge of his military intelligence. For the first time in the Potomac army's history, its commander knew exactly what lay before him.
Now, as ever, that was Robert E. Lee, whose army at the end of April 1863 numbered 61,000, putting him at a more than two-to-one disadvantage. Two additional Confederate divisions, under James Longstreet, were away to the southeast, encircling Suffolk. The idea was to capture food and supplies for an army that was rich with military victories but, due to logistical hang-ups, still hungry and without nearly enough shoes. Lee was well fortified behind the Rappahannock, but, otherwise, his was not an ideal position. When the fighting started, Longstreet was still too far south to help.
An entire school of historians has called this first day decisive, suggesting that Hooker was too cautious, too much in the tradition of Union general George B. McClellan. To quote Reid, "The ghost of McClellan had materialized." Bruce Catton was harsher: "Perhaps Joe Hooker had lost his nerve." Stephen W. Sears, in contrast, has noted that Hooker "was neither disheartened nor had he lost confidence in himself or in his plan." He had always intended to fight defensively, to avoid those ugly headlong charges. And while Hooker busied Oliver O. Howard and his Eleventh Corps with shoring up the end of the line, Lee and Jackson seated themselves on fallen logs and talked late into the night.
Jackson embodied relentlessness, and with his subordinate A. P. Hill grumbling behind him, he scouted the front for a possible night attack. That is when friendly fire struck him down, also wounding Hill. The Second Corps transferred to the ranking general in the field, the cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart, who, without any other plan to work from, threw his troops at Hooker the next morning. The fighting was as hot and close as any in the war—the vast majority of the battle's casualties occurred on this day—and Hooker himself suffered a concussion when a wooden beam from the Chancellor family house fell on him. Rumors immediately circulated that he was drunk, and historians have argued for years about the extent to which the stalemate that followed was a symptom of Hooker's decision not to remove himself from command. (Or was it that he lost his nerve again? A 1910 history of the battle has Hooker telling a subordinate that "I was not hurt by a shell and I was not drunk. For once I lost confidence in Hooker, and that is all there is to it." The historian Sears has thoroughly dismissed this account, however.)
Of course, Lee's casualty total was devastating, too, adding up to more than 13,000 and weakening the army's fighting ability even at a time when morale was high. The most famous of those casualties was Stonewall Jackson. His final charge assured his place not just in history but in mythology. As Lee told the young officer who brought him the news of his general's wounding, "Captain, any victory is dearly bought that deprives us of the services of Jackson even temporarily." Lee would ride the momentum of Chancellorsville north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July, but there, his coolness would fade. The fierce and flamboyant competence of his subordinates would falter. And Jackson's absence—his corps was given to the eccentric and one-legged Richard S. Ewell, nicknamed "Old Bald Head"—would be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Historians disagree and the debate has traditionally been waged within the historically suspect parameters of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War.)
Hooker, too, would be gone. His generals revolted against him just as he had once revolted against Burnside. In his own defense, he argued that Stoneman's cavalry raid, which reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital at Richmond and caused a good bit of panic, nevertheless failed to cut Lee's supply lines. He complained that Howard's men had run rather than fight. (Howard, who was particularly religious, labeled Hooker "impure" and accused him of swearing too much. That Howard would later be promoted over him was just one more insult to Fighting Joe.) Finally, he wondered why Sedgwick had not been more aggressive at Fredericksburg. In the end, though, Lincoln demanded results and so turned to George G. Meade. The army Meade took to Pennsylvania, however, was better equipped and better organized than it had been before Hooker. And many of its men did not believe that they had truly been beaten at Chancellorsville. As one Massachusetts soldier put it, "The morale of the Army of the Potomac was better in June than it had been in January."
May 10, 1863, 3:15 p.m. - Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson dies of pneumonia at Fairfield, the home of Thomas and Mary Chandler, having spoken as his last recorded words: "Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees."
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Chancellorsville Campaign. (2012, November 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Chancellorsville_Campaign.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Chancellorsville Campaign." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Nov. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 12, 2009 | Last modified: November 29, 2012
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.