Where Did Joe Hooker Lose the Battle of Chancellorsville?

Joe Hooker a la Monty Python: "Run away! Run away!"

Joe Hooker a la Monty Python: “Run away! Run away!”

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the Army of the Potomac sat safely on the north side of the Rappahannock River after being manhandled by the Army of Northern Virginia during the battle of Chancellorsville. As my colleague Kris White likes to say, the Chihuahua smacked around the Rottweiler, and the Rottweiler—“Fightin’ Joe” Rottweiler, perhaps—ran off with his tail between his legs.

In fact, Fightin’ Joe seemed determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory time and time again. It’s not hard to argue that he lost the battle over and over and over despite the best efforts of his men to win. So let’s go through the battle, day by day, and ask, “Where did Joe Hooker lose the battle today?” 

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The Chancellor mansion sat at a crossroads in the middle of the Virginia Wilderness.

Joe Hooker doesn’t get enough credit for successfully maneuvering his massive army through enemy territory with relative secrecy. By the time his lead elements reached the Chancellorsville crossroads, Confederates new of his advance but didn’t know the severity of the threat. “This is splendid,” Fifth Corps commander George Meade said. “We are on Lee’s flank, and he does not know it.”

But rather than push forward while he still had the element of surprise, Hooker called a halt, ostensibly to consolidate his forces. From his perspective, he had Robert E. Lee’s army right where he wanted them. “The rebel army is the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac,” Hooker boasted.

And indeed, Lee was frozen in place in Fredericksburg. The Union I and III corps, demonstrating on the banks of the Rappahannock, had kept him distracted—but he’d been curious as to why they weren’t really doing much. As intelligence began to come in about other Federal movements to the north and west, Lee finally puzzled together the real picture. By calling a time out, Hooker gave Lee the time he needed to finally react to the unfolding situation.

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Parts of the Federal V Corps sat atop the far ridge, with open fields of fire stretched out before them.

It could have been Malvern Hill all over again. Federals held dominating high ground along the Orange Turnpike. To approach, Confederates would’ve had to cross an open field that led down into a formation-breaking stream, then up the moderate slope of another field. Federals would have had wide-open fields of fire the entire time. Fifth corps division commander George Sykes held the ground and, recognizing its strength, called for reinforcements.

Instead, he was ordered to pull back into a defensive position around the Chancellorsville mansion. To the south, along the orange Plank Road, which ran parallel to the turnpike, XII Corp commander Henry Slocum received similar orders to pull back, despite the fact that he was winning. He pulled back only under protest, but his move left Sykes open to being outflanked. Without additional forces, Sykes had no recourse but to withdraw, too. “My God, if we can’t hold the top of a hill, we certainly cannot hold the bottom of it!” protested Meade, who was Sykes’ corps commander.

Hooker thought he held all the cards, though: he had far more men at his disposal than Lee; he protected the intersection, which meant his supply and communication lines were safe, as was his route of retreat should he need it; and he had chosen the ground. He knew Confederates had to come at him, so all he needed to do was sit tight and wait.

But the one card he gave up was the one card Lee always looked to play: Hooker gave up the initiative.

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The break in the trees along Furnace Road, looking toward Hazel Grove, now obscured by trees in the distance.

It’s only a few dozen yards wide: a break in the trees along Furnace Road that allowed Union artillerists on Hazel Grove to see Jackson’s column as it set out on its now-famous flank march. But the break in the trees offered more than just a glimpse at Jackson’s lines; it offered a glimpse of insight into Hooker’s mind. When he received reports of the moving column, he convinced himself that he’d intimidated Confederates into a retreat. He therefore ignored all subsequent reports of Confederates moving across his front. Lee was ingloriously flying after all.

A few hours later, it would be his own men flying as Jackson’s column crashed into the woefully underprepared Union right flank. Many of those men were recent German immigrants who would fly in such terror they’d earn the ignoble nickname “The Flying Dutchmen.”

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Union reenactors get ready to abandon the same position their predecessors abandoned, under Hooker’s orders, 150 years prior.

Hazel Grove was the lynchpin of the battlefield: high ground, occupied by Dan Sickles’ Federal III Corps, that separated Jackson’s portion of the army from Lee’s. Even as Confederate leadership plotted to reunite the wings of the army by assaulting Hazel Grove, Hooker ordered Sickles to abandon the position because it was too exposed out at the very tip of the Federal formation. Under protest, Sickles obeyed, pulling out even as Confederates swept onto the hill.

Confederates quickly rushed more than forty guns onto their newly won artillery platform and began blasting away at Federal artillery posted a mile away at Fairview. Confederate guns placed on the Orange Turnpike joined in, and Federal gunners found themselves under bombardment from two directions. Unable to maintain the fight, the Federal artillery began to fall back, which in turn led to the collapse of the Federal infantry.

Had Hooker’s order not given Confederates an artillery platform that let them duel on equal footing with the Federal artillerists, his compact formation might have allowed him to resist Confederate infantry assaults because he had so much concentrated firepower and good interior lines in his position around the intersection. Instead, he turned that position into an easy, concentrated target.

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Salem Church

In the postwar years, Hooker tried to blame his loss at Chancellorsville, in part, on VI Corps commander John Sedgwick, who got bottled up by Confederates at Salem Church on May 3 and then shrunk under Confederate pressure on May 4. Hooker’s actually the one who failed to take advantage of the situation at Salem Church, though. While Lee personally oversaw the action there, cavalry commander Jeb Stuart kept Hooker’s vastly superior force at bay through simple bluster. The Chihuahua kept the Rottweiler at bay even though the big dog could have easily demonstrated a far, far superior bite. However, Hooker remained content to stay cowed, hoping instead for Sedgwick’s single corps to come to the rescue of the other six.

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Hooker held a council of war at his HQ near the Bullock House.

In the waning hours of May 4, Hooker held a council of war with his corps commander, who voted three to two in favor of resuming the battle. Hooker promptly overruled them and ordered a withdrawal back across the river. “What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyhow?” groused I Corps commander John Reynolds, who actually napped through part of the council.

Even as Lee shifted his focus and his troops back from Salem Church to Chancellorsville, Hooker shifted his focus and preparations back to the north bank of the Rappahannock. Once darkness fell on May 5, Hooker’s army began to cross. “[T]he men were absolutely astonished at hour move,” said a Wisconsin soldier, “for everyone felt that we had the best of the rebs and could hold our position…till hell froze over.”

And So…

We remember Chancellorsville today as “Lee’s Greatest Victory,” but we could as easily call it “Hooker’s Gift to Lee,” inadvertently determined as Hooker seemed to be to keep giving up the ground and the initiative. He kept finding ways to give up chances for victory.

“We were not defeated,” grumbled one Indiana soldier, “but we did not defeat.”

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