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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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In the afternoon, some federal columns ran into resistance of the sort that might be called “stiff.” Their generals, however, felt confident they could handle it.

But they were ordered to turn back and take up defensive positions around Chancellorsville. Hooker’s generals were stunned by the order and sent someone to the rear to protest it. The messenger returned saying the order stood. Fall back. One of Hooker’s generals considered outright disobedience. They were so close. From the crest of the ridge to their front, they would be able to see open country.

“If he thinks he can’t hold the top of a hill,” said George Meade, “how does he expect to hold the bottom of it?”

Still, the various columns pulled back, as ordered, and set up a line of entrenchments around the clearing at Chancellorsville.

Hooker was still brimming with confidence. And he explained to one of his subordinates, “I’ve got Lee just where I want him.”

The man listened and, as he later reported, “retired from his presence, with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.”

Several times that day and into the evening, Hooker would say, as though reciting a mantra, “The Rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac.”

Meanwhile, to the east, in a clearing in the Wilderness, Lee and his most capable lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, sat on a log studying maps and working out a solution to what seemed an insoluble problem: how to first wrest the initiative from Hooker, then go on the offensive, and finally annihilate the Union Army around Chancellorsville before turning to deal with the forces around Fredericksburg, where Lee had left a skeleton force under General Jubal Early to bluster and make noise so as to convince the Federals—who numbered some 50,000—that there were many thousands of them. Early, in truth, had only 14,000 under his command.

Lee went to the nub of the problem, saying, “How can we get at those people?”

Lee wanted to attack, which was always Jackson’s preferred course. They had done the necessary reconnaissance and knew that the attack could not come on their right, where the Union lines were anchored against the river. Or in the center, where the Union was dug in and improving an already strong position. So if it was to be at all, the attack would have to be on their left—the Union right—where it came to an end out in the Wilderness somewhere.

Lee’s cavalry commander, General J.E.B. Stuart, had been scouting the Union line and he knew where it ended. More important, he had learned that the Union flank was “in the air.” That is, not attached to any defensible terrain feature and not anchored on a strong formation facing away to the west. The Federal line simply petered out.

The attack would be made there. The rest of the night was spent on coming up with a route the Confederate infantry could take that would put them on Hooker’s flank without his troops being aware of the movement. Confederate cavalry, Jackson’s cartographer, and a local man who knew the roads had accomplished this by the time the two commanders were awake. Again, they studied the map and Lee said, “General Jackson, what do you propose to do?’

“Go around here,” Jackson said, indicating the route.

“What do you propose to make this movement with?”

“With my whole corps.”

This took even Lee, whose calm was legendary, up short. Jackson would be riding off with 30,000 men and leaving him with around half that number. One of the firmest maxims of military theory holds that a general must not divide his forces in the presence of the enemy. Lee had done that already. Now, Jackson was proposing that he do it again.

Stonewall, though, knew his man and shared his conviction that only a great and successful battle of annihilation could win the war for the South. More tidy, tactical victories would run up against what Lincoln called “the arithmetic.”

“Well, go on,” Lee said.

The flank march took all day. It was late afternoon, going on evening, before Jackson had his men in formation as he wanted them, hidden by the thick, tangled growth of the Wilderness. The Union troops idling to their front had no idea. Their first hint came when quail, then deer, and then rabbits came boiling out of the scrub in alarm. The soldiers found this funny for a while. Then, Jackson’s men were on them, filling the air with the sound of the Rebel yell, which Jackson had once called “the sweetest music I ever heard.”

Hooker’s right crumbled. Panicked men ran past his headquarters in Chancellorsville, on their way to the river where they might find safety on the other side. Union officers attempted to rally them and reposition other units to stand up to the assault.

Jackson’s men pushed on with the fervor of soldiers who have beaten the enemy and are now in pursuit. The sun went down and a fat orange moon rose and threw its weak, gloomy light over the battlefield.

“Press them,” Jackson said, again and again, riding among the confused and increasingly disorganized troops, determined to finish what had been so splendidly begun and to get to the river and cut off the enemy’s escape. Then, he and Lee would have their victory of annihilation. The arithmetic would be conquered.

In the confusion of the battle, perhaps four hours after Jackson had launched the attack, he became one of the battle’s many casualties. He was hit in the arm by musket fire from some of his own men.

He was taken to the rear and the battle died down. The firing slackened, and men slept, if they could, on the ground and in the open. One man later recalled the “weird, plaintive notes of the whippoorwills” floating over the battlefield.

Jackson had done his worst, but Hooker was not beaten. Not, anyway, in the sense that he had fled the battlefield. The divided elements of his army still outnumbered the entirety of Lee’s. He might still win this fight, and the war, if the troops around Fredericksburg could hit Lee in his rear and his new, shorter lines around Chancellorsville could hold. But he was, indeed, as his frustrated subordinate had surmised, “a whipped man.”

Hooker retreated too far, gave up too much vital, dominating ground, lost both the initiative and the determination to get it back. Lee and Stuart were maneuvering their separate commands and pushing back their enemies with the aim of uniting the divided army at Chancellorsville and then destroying the remnants of Hooker’s army that would be backed up against the river.

The junction of the armies was accomplished near mid-morning, and Lee rode into the clearing at Chancellorsville on his big, splendid horse. As one staff man later wrote, “One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle and hailed the presence of the victorious chief.”

Lee still had business to attend to. He chased the Union forces that had been at Fredericksburg and had moved to support Hooker back across the river. Then he prepared to do the same to Hooker.

But Hooker, once more, gave him the slip and got across the river before he could attack. Lee had another victory but not one that would invalidate the arithmetic. He had suffered 13,000 casualties to Hooker’s 17,000. And, as Lincoln had pointed out, the armies could fight that battle again and again and eventually only the men in blue would be left standing. That was the arithmetic.

Still, it was hard on the president, who was described by one visitor as pacing his office and saying, over and over, “My God, my God. What will the country say? What will the country say?”

But the arithmetic remained on his side. And while Lee had won an improbable victory, which historians have called his “masterpiece,” he also understood the arithmetic and was bitterly disappointed. By the missed opportunity, and even more by the fact that he no longer had the services of Stonewall Jackson, with whom it might be possible to defeat even arithmetic.

Jackson’s arm was amputated and he was moved to comfortable quarters and seemed to be recuperating before pneumonia struck. This was, often as not, a death sentence, and soon, Jackson’s doctors were telling him to prepare himself. In his last hours, he tried to comfort his wife. Then, he slipped into delirium and was calling to his adjutant to “send in and see if there is higher ground back of Chancellorsville.”

Sunday came and Jackson said, “It is the Lord’s day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.” A few hours later he called out, “Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action. .  .  . Pass the infantry to the front. Tell Major Hawks—”

Then he seemed to let go, at last, of all that and said, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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