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A Masterpiece of War

The battle of Chancellorsville, 150 years on

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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By April 1863, America’s Civil War was two years old and there were two more years of fighting ahead though, of course, none could know this. What everyone did know was that the war was violent and bloody beyond what anyone had expected or would have believed the nation (or two nations) could endure. Neither side was at the point of exhaustion or surrender. The war would certainly go on until .  .  . what?

Union soldiers at Chancellorsville awaiting orders

Union soldiers at Chancellorsville awaiting orders

Nobody quite knew, though an insight of President Abraham Lincoln’s pointed to the brutal truth. His Army of the Potomac, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, had been defeated at Fredericksburg by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in December 1862. It had been a one-sided affair, with Union soldiers making repeated assaults up a hill against Confederate infantry whose position afforded the protection of a stone wall with artillery behind in support. No Union soldier even reached the wall. The Army of the Potomac suffered more than 12,000 casualties. Lee’s casualties were slightly more than 5,000. It was the most lopsided defeat so far, for an army that had seldom experienced victory. And yet .  .  .

The Army of the Potomac still existed, was still holding its positions in Virginia, and its losses were being made good. Which could not be said for Lee’s army.

So, Lincoln noted, the “arithmetic” of slaughter worked in the Union’s favor. His army could survive a week of Fredericksburgs and the Confederacy could not. Victory would come when he found a general who understood this.

He had named a new commander of the Army of the Potomac: General Joseph Hooker, sometimes known as “Fighting Joe.” And, in truth, he was a fighter. He had commanded a corps at Antietam and led his men bravely on the Union right, in the battles that raged back and forth through the cornfield where he took a bullet in the foot. He was back in action at Fredericksburg, in the failed assaults against the stone wall, which he called off, finally, saying, “Finding that I had lost as many men as my order required me to lose, I suspended the attack.”

Hooker was rough goods. He liked a drink and his headquarters were frequented by ladies of the evening; hence the legend that his name gave rise to the slang term for prostitute. Lincoln was willing to overlook these flaws, among others, which included Hooker’s disloyalty to his superiors. He had undermined Burnside and had been known to say that what the country needed was a dictator. Lincoln noted this in a letter appointing Hooker to command in which he wrote, “What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

Hooker seemed like he might actually deliver. He swore off drink and went energetically to work restoring the morale of his beaten army. He improved the furlough system, secured back pay, improved rations, cleaned up the camps, and instituted rigorous drills and reviews. An army that had been in despond in January was back in fighting spirit in April, which Lincoln saw and appreciated on a five-day review. Before returning to Washington, he both cautioned Hooker against rashness and advised that when there was a fight he should be sure to “put in all your men.” George McClellan had not done this at Antietam. Nor had Burnside at Fredericksburg.

All of his men, in Hooker’s case, would amount to about 130,000 soldiers. His enemy, across the Rappahannock River, had less than half that number. And they were underfed, badly equipped, and poorly clothed. Their morale, however, was high and their confidence in themselves and their leader unshakable. Since Lee had taken over command, they had fought in 13 battles from the peninsula all the way up into Maryland. They had inflicted more than 70,000 casualties against 48,000. They had captured 75,000 small arms and 155 cannons. Since Fredericksburg, they had been in winter quarters, where their time had been taken up with regimental snowball fights and an army-wide religious revival. But they were ready to march and fight when the time came.

Soon, no doubt, after the roads dried out.

Their commander was, like Lincoln, aware of the “arithmetic” of this war, and he knew that it worked inexorably against him. He also knew that his army could be starved into submission. In March, he had detached some of his best troops under one of his senior and most-trusted generals, James Longstreet, on an expedition to procure supplies—hams, bacon, preserved fish, corn—for his hungry soldiers. This risked having fewer troops at hand when Hooker made his inevitable move. But Lee had no choice.

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