Complacency endangers history. The first plausible answer is not always the correct or solitary one, yet all too often we content ourselves with simplistic solutions to murky questions. Civil War historians have grappled with the Battle of Chancellorsville for nearly 150 years, and still we have very simple rejoinders for why Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac could have lost a struggle which they entered into with every advantage. Joe Hooker lost the Battle of Chancellorsville because of his own arrogance and errors. Joe Hooker lost Chancellorsville because he was no match for the Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Fighting Joe Hooker lost Chancellorsville simply because Fighting Joe Hooker lost confidence in himself.
In all likelihood, there are grains of truth to all these theories. Yet one should be careful of placing too much emphasis on anyone of them singularly. Instead, I wish to focus on a forgotten answer to the age old question of what went wrong for the Union army and Joe Hooker in May of 1863. On the morning of May 3rd, General Hooker was wounded, probably suffering a severe concussion received from Confederate artillery fire. This event, minimized and overlooked in many accounts of the battle, perhaps played a far greater role at Chancellorsville than history has given credit for.
The first two days of the Battle of Chancellorsville had been a nightmare for Union army commander Major General Joseph Hooker. May 1st had seen his offensive strike towards Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg stymied, and May 2nd of course brought Stonewall Jackson’s famous (infamous?) flank attack. By nightfall on May 2nd, the Union found itself squarely on the defensive with the enemy on both flanks…and unenviable position to say the least.
Despite the incredibly successful flank attack on May 2nd, however, the battle was far from decided. Indeed, the tactical position of the Confederate army was precarious following the attack. Jackson’s march had separated the Confederate army, with Jackson’s crops to the west and Lee’s force to the east, with Joseph Hooker’s large and angry army in between. Fate had intervened in a more personal way as well. “Stonewall” Jackson had been wounded by friendly fire on the night of the 2nd, making a personal night reconnaissance of the Union positions in front of him. Jackson would be dead eight days later, a victim of pneumonia (leaving the inevitable what-ifs). J.E.B. Stuart, a brilliant cavalry commander but with no infantry experience, was now in command of Jackson’s corps; he would lead them into action the next day.
Joseph Hooker, too, was not yet resigned to the outcome of this battle. He apparently had plans of his own, ready to redeem himself and his army the next day. On the night of May 2nd, Hooker had discussed the possibility of assaulting Jackson’s (now Stuart’s) corps, or flanking the flankers, with General Warren. Warren himself noted that “Genl. Hooker made his dispositions accordingly and intends to flank and destroy Jackson.” A quick glance at the map tells us that Joseph Hooker had two corps, the First and Fifth under Generals Reynolds (whose record ECW has explored) and Meade respectively, in perfect striking distance of General Stuart’s left flank. Considering the tremendous success of Jackson’s flank assault on May 2nd, who knows how crippling a similar attack on Jackson’s old corps the very next day may have been? The answer remains a mystery, for fate intervened again on May 3rd.
As the curtains of mist and dew rose on May 3rd, 1863, the Confederates launched strong assaults all along the Union line. Blood ran freely and the morning became increasingly expensive. General Hooker, in an attempt to restrict his lines into a more defensible position, ordered the evacuation of Hazel Grove, a bare piece of high ground that formed a southern salient within his lines. By 7 A.M. the position was evacuated. The move proved to be a poor one; the evacuation allowed the separated halves of the Confederate army to link hands. Worse, it wasn’t long before Rebel artillery was posted along the heights of Hazel Grove and pouring shot and explosive shell down into the compact Union lines.
This was the ugly scene over which Joseph Hooker presided over as he leaned on a pillar of the Chancellor porch 9 A.M. that May morning. A cacophony of sounds barraged Hooker’s ears. Across the Orange Turnpike that bisected the fields in front of him, sweaty Union artillerymen, U.S. Regulars and New York Volunteers, dueled with their Confederate counterparts from Louisiana and Virginia atop Hazel Grove. The roar of their cannons didn’t manage to drown out the crackle of musketry that came in from all sides. There was now an almost audible outline to the Confederate assaults pounding in from three sides. Dead and wounded littered the ground. May 3rd was proving very expensive indeed, and the fate of the Battle of Chancellorsville and its two combatants—Hooker’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia—hung in the balance.
Nine o’clock in the morning, as Hooker watched the hellish-scenes before him from the porch of the Chancellor House, Major Tremain of General Sickles’ staff arrived with a dispatch requesting support. Leaning over to grasp the message, a Confederate solid shot slammed into the wooden pillar upon which Hooker was leaning. As Hooker recalled, the pillar split lengthwise and was thrown “violently against me…which struck me in an erect position from my head to my feet”. Joseph Hooker crashed to the floor and was presumed dead, and the mayhem of the May 3rd battle raged on around him.
Joe Hooker was not dead, but lay unconscious for some time, probably thirty to forty minutes. Hooker’s medical director, Dr. Letterman, doubted the general would live. But Hooker awoke and, with some difficulty, mounted his horse and headed to the rear. The second-in-command of the Army of the Potomac was Darius Couch of the Second Corps. Couch had heard the false rumor of Hooker’s death and was overwhelmed with the thought of assuming command. Years later, Couch himself recalled his thoughts that morning: “If he was killed, what shall I do with the disjointed army?” Finding Hooker mounted and apparently well, Couch congratulated Hooker on his escape and hurried back to the front of the army to direct the fighting efforts of his corps. “It was not time to blubber or use soft expressions,” Couch bluntly recounted. It was now approximately 9:30, and while Hooker was alive, not a single order or directive had been issued to the Union army struggling to repulse ferocious Confederate assaults from three sides. Indeed, this was the last time Gen. Couch would see Hooker near the front lines.
While Couch scurried back to command his troops, however, Hooker succumbed to dizziness and was forced to dismount. Shortly thereafter, he vomited. Hooker’s recollection of the incident is vivid. “The pain from my hurt became so intense that I was likely to fall, when I was assisted to dismount, and was laid upon a blanket spread out upon the ground, and was given some brandy. This revived me, and I was assisted to remount.” Moments after remounting his horse, another Confederate artillery shot plowed into the blanket Hooker had been resting upon moments before, as if to emphasize the need to retreat to safety. Hooker and his staff quickly complied, completing their flight to the rear.
Meanwhile, General Couch was in the thick of battle. While directing the efforts of his corps, a staff officer from General Hooker rode up and requested Couch’s presence with Hooker. Leaving the able General Hancock in charge, Couch rode to the rear to see the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Passing by the Chancellor House, Hooker’s former headquarters, he noted that it was ablaze, “having been fired in several places by the enemy’s shells.” It was now roughly 9:45-10:00 AM.
While Couch was being sought out and brought back to headquarters, General Hooker, whose headquarters were now roughly half a mile behind the front lines, was clearly not well. Abner Doubleday, commanding a division in John Reynolds’ First Corps, recounted that General Hooker “suffered a great deal from paroxysms of pain, and was manifestly unfit to give orders, although he soon resumed the command [following his injury].” Several days later, one of Hooker’s aide-de-camps, Captain Candler, would write home, “The blow which the General received seems to have knocked all the sense out of him. For the remainder of the day he was wandering, and was unable to get any ideas into his head… In fact, at no time of trip after Sunday did he seem to be compos mentis [of sound mind]”.
Before General Couch’s arrival at headquarters, General Meade, commander of the Fifth Corps, approached Hooker in hopes of throwing both his own Fifth Corps and General Reynolds’ First Corps into the battle. Meade’s desire to attack matched perfectly with the plans of Joseph Hooker’s made the night previous. A flank attack against Stuart’s tired corps could shift the momentum of the battle tremendously. Meade and Reynolds’ corps were the perfect force to execute that counterattack now that the moment had arrived. “A large part of this force—the First and Fifth Corps—stood with arms in their hands, as spectators, directly on the left flank of the enemy; so that their mere advance would have swept everything before it” wrote division commander Abner Doubleday. Relatively fresh and eager, these two corps were in an excellent position to attack the Confederates’ left flank, now commanded by the untried J.E.B. Stuart since Jackson’s wounding the night before.
“I tried all I could, on Sunday morning, to be permitted to take my corps into action, and to have a general battle with the whole army engaged, but I was overruled and censured…” General Meade would write his wife. “Hooker never lost his head, nor did he ever allow himself to be influenced by me or my advice. The objection I have to Hooker is that he did not and would not listen to those around him…” (emphasis in the original). Despite Meade’s best arguments, Hooker refused him the chance to bring his or Reynolds’ corps into the engagement. Lieutenant Colonel Webb, one of General Meade’s aides, wrote that “Meade begged to go in with our Corps and Reynolds’ (5th and 1st) fresh, confident and anxious to fight, but no, it could not be, just at the moment when any cool soldier felt that it must be done…This was a grevious [sic] error, I think.” Another request for reinforcements arrived about this time, and General Hooker directed the request to be handed to General Meade, who refused to send in the troops without General Hooker or Couch’s consent.
Writing after the war, General Abner Doubleday was still incredulous as to the events of that day. “The historian almost refuses to chronicle the startling fact that 37,000 men were kept out of the fight, most of whom had not fired a shot, and all of whom were eager to go in. The whole of the First Corps and three-fourths of the Fifth Corps had not been engaged.”
It was shortly after this plea for battle by General Meade that General Couch, second-in-command, arrived at Hooker’s behest. Couch stated that he “came upon a few tents (three or four) pitched, around which, mostly dismounted, were a large number of staff officers. General Meade was also present, and perhaps other generals.” These spectators clearly expected some positive action to be taken, either Couch being given orders to advance or being given command altogether. General Couch strolled into the tent. “General Hooker was lying down I think in a soldier’s tent by himself. Raising himself a little as I entered, he said, ‘Couch, I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on the map,’ as he pointed to a line traced on a field-sketch…He seemed rather dull, but possessed of his mental faculties.”
As Couch left the tent with his orders, General Meade looked at him inquiringly. A colonel present, N. H. Davis, exclaimed excitedly “We shall have some fighting now!” But it was not to be. General Hooker had clearly given his second-in-command an order to retreat, however poor or illogical, and General Couch was not in a position to defy it. As Walter Hebert, Joseph Hooker’s biographer, highlights, “This order really made Couch only the temporary executive officer of the army, not its commander, since he was not permitted full discretion to handle it as he saw fit.”
In many ways, this was the inglorious end to the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the Army of the Potomac was dealt a cruel hand of defeat. Joseph Hooker handled the army deftly at the beginning of the campaign, outmaneuvering the Army of Northern Virginia and forcing Robert E. Lee out of his trenches to fight. Yet far from meeting “certain destruction,” Lee responded with a brilliant, daring flank attack that resulted in the crushing of the Union right flank on May 2nd. Despite this disaster, the battle was still very much in the balance on the morning of May 3rd. While the Union army enjoyed a significant numerical advantage, nearly two full corps of the army would not be engaged. The wounding of Hooker was followed by the eventual order to withdraw across the Rappahannock River, with a late council of war on the night of May 4-5 failing to overturn this decision. In the simplest terms, why? Was Hooker’s wounding so serious that it clouded his judgment in ordering the retreat? If so, why didn’t he relinquish command? These questions cut to the core of the confusing mayhem of May 3rd, 1863.
Although the jury is still out, it seems rather clear to me that Joseph Hooker was seriously wounded mentally by his wounding on May 3rd. In fact, he exhibits a number of signs of a major concussion, especially his vomiting shortly after being wounded. Although Meade claimed that “Hooker never lost his head” and Couch thought “he seemed rather dull, but possessed of his mental faculties”, many others thought he was in far worse shape. Captain Candler, his aide, called Hooker “wandering,” “unable to get any ideas into his head” and “at no time…did he seem to be compos mentis” or of sound mind. General Doubleday highlights Hooker’s pain and thought him “unfit to give orders.” If Hooker truly suffered a serious concussion, he hardly would have been in a mental state to deal with the incredibly stressful situation around him. The most damning evidence, in my eyes, was Hooker’s inability to allow Generals Meade and Reynold to enter the fray. This was at direct odds with his sentiments the evening before, and suggests that he was unable to comprehend the situation or the actions required of him.
The result was fearful. The Union Army of the Potomac was leaderless for much of May 3rd, unable to strike back against the Confederate army. Hooker, in a very questionable mental state, made no decisions until finally relinquishing command to General Couch, along with the express order to retreat (again, a questionable order). Should Hooker have relinquished command? Probably. But his own mental state, or perhaps pride, prevented him from doing so in a timely manner. Should someone have taken command from General Hooker, then? Probably. But considering the intensely political high-command of the Union army, no one was about to wrench control of the army from a military commander who wasn’t bleeding.
Hooker’s wounding may have shaped the Battle of Chancellorsville more than any other event (yes, even Jackson’s wounding). His head trauma came early on the pivotal, final day of the battle and left the Union army completely leaderless and on the defensive. The resulting Confederate victory encouraged General Lee to invade the North again, heading towards Gettysburg. So maybe the great ‘what-if” of Chancellorsville isn’t what would have happened if Jackson hadn’t been wounded, but what would have happened if Hooker hadn’t been wounded.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Further Reading and Sources:
Bates, Samuel P. “Hooker’s Comments on Chancellorville.” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: The Tide Shifts. Vol. 3. Ed. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1883.
Bigelow, Jr. John. The Campaign of Chancellorsville. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1910.
Couch, Darius. “The Chancellorsville Campaign.” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: The Tide Shifts. Vol. 3. Ed. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1883.
Doubleday, Abner. Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882.
Hamlin, Augustus. The Battle of Chancellorsville: Jackson’s Attack. Bangor, ME: 1896.
Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker. New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944.
Hooker, Joseph. “Joe Hooker’s Chancellorsville.” Ed. Joseph Pierro. Civil War Times. May, 2007.
Mackowski, Chris and Kristopher D. White. The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2009.
Meade, George G. The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
Neely, Jr. Mark E. “Wilderness and the Cult of Manliness: Hooker, Lincoln, and Defeat” in Lincoln’s Generals. Ed. Gabor S. Boritt. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
—. “In Defense of Fighting Joe Hooker,” Civil War Generals in Defeat. Ed. Steven E. Woodworth. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1999.
Stackpole, Gen. Edward J. Chancellorsville: Lee’s Greatest Victory. 2nd ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1958.
Warner, Ezra. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. 1964.
*A quick note: This post stems from a research paper I wrote during my intern summer with the National Park Service at Fredericksburg and Spotslyvania NMP. I wish to give credit to the park, as I utilized a number of its academic resources for this work. Although I have not cited this post’s text, I can provide reference citations for any given piece of information or quote as needed.