Monday, September 11, 2006
Battle Timeline: Chancellorsville
Union: Major General Joseph Hooker commanding the Army of the Potomac.
Confederate: General Robert E. Lee commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.
Prelude: After the debacle at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and the abortive “Mud March” in early 1863, Major General Ambrose Burnside was relieved as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The position was offered to General Hooker, who assumed command on January 25, 1863.
One of the first things Hooker did was to reorganize the army back to the structure it used to have, removing the “Grand Division” level of command. This structure placed several corps under a commander, who then answered to the Army commander. Hooker then changed it back to having the Army commander directly oversee the corps commanders.
Other changes, live granting leave to soldiers soon brought up the morale of the Union army. After rest and refit, it was time to get back to business.
Public opinion in the North was that since spring had come to Virginia, it was time for another “On to Richmond” offensive. Problem was, the Confederates were solidly entrenched at Fredericksburg and they barred the way to the Confederate capital, or did they?
Hooker’s plan was simple and had a good chance to work; keep the Confederates at Fredericksburg with a diversionary attack while the bulk of the army went around and hit the Confederate’s flank. Then it was “On to Richmond.”
April 26, 1863: The Federal I Corps, under Major General John Reynolds, and VI Corps, under Major General John Sedgwick, cross the Rappahannock River and engage Confederate troops south of Fredericksburg.
April 27, 1863: The main Federal force, consisting of the V (Major General George Meade, recently promoted after Fredericksburg), XI (Major General Oliver Howard), and XII (Major General Henry Slocum) Corps begin to move northwest with cavalry support.
April 29, 1863: Union cavalry secure Kelly’s Ford, on the Rappahannock and the three corps crosses the ford despite slight opposition. At a fork in the road, V Corps takes the left while the other two go straight ahead. That evening, V Corps crosses Ely’s Ford, on the Rapidan, and the other two cross at Germanna Ford, up river from Ely’s Ford.
April 30, 1863: Meade sends a division under Major General George Sykes downstream to secure United States Ford so that II (Major General Daruis Couch) and III (Major General Daniel Sickles) corps can cross. Little do they know that the whole thing was observed by Confederate cavalry, who were sending regular reports to General Lee. Figuring that something was up, He orders 10,000 troops under General Jubal Early to remain at Fredericksburg while the rest of the army marches west. Meanwhile, the entire Union right wing reunites at the Chancellorsville cross roads.
May 1, 1863: 10:00 a.m. A Confederate division under Major General Richard Anderson digs in at Zoan Church, four miles east of the Chancellorsville crossroads. The bulk of the force, under Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, pushes on toward the cross roads. Word of this reaches Hooker, who interprets them as a retreat, despite some skirmishing. However, he orders his troops into defensive positions.
Afternoon: As the Federal forces move into defensive positions at Chancellorsville, Jackson makes an attack that convinces Hooker that the Confederates were not retreating. He forms his army using Chancellorsville as the center. XII Corps has the center with II and V taking the left. III and XI has the right, with XI at the end of the line in what turned out to be a weak position.
Late Evening: Armed with this intelligence, Lee and Jackson meet to formulate a plan that will exploit the weakness of the Federal right. Jackson proposes to take his troops, march them around the Federals, and strike the Union flank. Lee agrees. They do not know that this will be the last time Lee and Jackson will talk to each other.
May 2, 1863: 7:00 a.m. Upon finding a road suitable to move his troops, Jackson takes 27,000 and begins to move west. Some of the movement was seen by Federal troops of III Corps, who report it to Sickles, who reports it to Hooker, who dismisses it.
12:00 noon: Sickles decides to take things into his own hands and attack Jackson. He ends up fighting Lee instead while Jackson continues his movement.
5:00 p.m. Jackson completes his maneuver and can see the Federals of XI Corps encamped and settling down for the evening. At his signal, all of Jackson’s force ran out of the woods and launched an assault on XI Corps positions, driving them back. They continued the push as night fell.
9:30 p.m. Jackson wanted to push the attack even into nightfall, but the various Confederate units were entangled and needed to be sorted out before the Federals could regroup. Jackson reluctantly agrees and conducts a reconnaissance with his staff. After scouting out what seemed to be Federal positions, he returns to his lines. While doing so, a South Carolina unit saw the mounted men and mistook them for Federal cavalry. Quickly they moved into line formation and fired a volley at the horsemen. Jackson was hit in the right wrist and the left shoulder. A stretcher was brought up and Jackson was carried to the field hospital where the left arm was amputated.
May 3, 1863: 5:00 a.m. Major General J.E.B. Stuart takes command of Jackson’s troops and proceeds to push forward to reunite with Lee’s force. Fighting is fierce all morning but the two groups manage to come together around 10:00 a.m. Hooker, on the other hand, is making a strong defense.
12:30 p.m. Lee plans to make a push to throw Hooker off the field when a message comes in from Early that the Federals have broken through at Fredericksburg. This was VI Corps that made the breakthrough and was coming to assist Hooker. Lee responds with sending the division of Brigadier General Lafayette McLaws to Salem Church.
May 4, 1863: McLaws forms his troops in a C shape around VI Corps, forcing Sedgwick to pull back across the Rappahannock at Scott’s Ford, ending any chance to assist Hooker. McLaws was pulled back to assist Lee, but Hooker decided to pull his army back across the Rappahannock that night.
May 6, 1863: Hooker completes his withdrawal, ending another attempt to take Richmond.
May 10, 1863: Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson dies of pneumonia that was a complication of his wounds suffered at Chancellorsville. This deprives the Confederacy of its ablest general besides Lee.
The battle was considered Lee’s greatest victory but it could be attested to Hooker’s incompetence. The Union was now no closer to Richmond. Lee now wanted to take the momentum, now on his side, and use it in another try at invading the North.
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