May 5, 1863 (Tuesday)
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, under General Joe Hooker, stared at each other through the thickly grown wilderness near Chancellorsville. Unknown to Lee, Hooker had decided that he would withdraw his troops across the Rappahannock River and return to his old camps near Falmouth. By 4am, this had begun.
John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, which had been soundly trapped near Salem Church, separated from Hooker’s main body, began to slip across Bank’s Ford before dawn. The dark and the fog kept the Rebels from knowing exactly what was happening. Fredericksburg, just a few miles east, had been occupied by the Federal troops in John Gibbon’s Brigade. They too were ordered back to Falmouth. As they pulled back and began to cross, Confederates from Mississippi, under William Barksdale, reoccupied the town.
It had been Barksdale’s men who hotly contested the first Union troops that marched across the pontoon bridges to begin the Battle of Fredericksburg. It had been Barksdale’s men who had been left behind to protect the town after the main body of Lee’s Army marched to Chancellorsville. And now, it was Barksdale’s men who had returned.
General Hooker knew he was going to retreat the five corps that made up his main body, but simply wasn’t sure how. It had taken several days to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers as the campaign began. He had crossed at several upstream fords, but was now left with only one – US Ford.
Hooker had selected George Meade’s Corps to act as a rear guard, ordering breastworks to be dug a mile and a half behind the lines he now occupied. As for artillery, forty-four guns would be placed on the north side of the Rappahannock, overlooking the bridges at the ford. The wounded would be removed immediately, while the rest of the troops would start after dark.
Meanwhile, General Lee wanted nothing more than to attack. With Sedgwick gone and Fredericksburg again in the hands of the Southern Army, he brought together much of his force before Hooker at Chancellorsville. General Jubal Early’s Division once again occupied the high ground south of Fredericksburg.
Lee’s plan called for an attack on both flanks. Stonewall Jackson’s Corps, under the temporary command of Jeb Stuart, would hit the Union right, while the divisions of Anderson and McLaws would press the left. But getting into position was not easy. The rains had come and the roads were churned to mud.
The nagging fear that had attended Hooker in everything he did over the past week was the whereabout of Confederate troops under James Longstreet. Prior to the battle, they had been in southeast Virginia, contesting a Federal feint near Suffolk. When Hooker began his move, he thought it absolutely essential to whip Lee’s Army before Longstreet could join him. At some point, probably the previous day, Hooker fully believed that Longstreet had arrived.
In reality, Longstreet’s three divisions had left Suffolk on May 3. There was no possible way they could arrive in Chancellorsville the next day. Hooker knew Longstreet’s time of departure from the messages of the commanding Federal officer at Suffolk. But the captured Confederates told a different story. Many who were captured on the 3rd and 4th told how Longstreet’s men were close at hand or even with them now. This sent chills through the already weary general.
It was widely held that the troops facing Sedgwick at Salem Church were Longstreet’s. But through the previous night, Rebels captured in that day’s fighting were discovered to belong to McLaws’, Anderson’s and Early’s Divisions. Not a single man was under Longstreet. In the morning, when Hooker learned of this, he concluded that if Longstreet was not at Salem Church, he must be at Chancellorsville.
But James Longstreet was not at Chancellorsville, either. He was not yet even to Richmond. By nightfall of this date, he was be in Petersburg, twenty miles below the Confederate capital.
A rain harder than most had ever seen fell that day. The Confederates troops, maneuvering into position to launch the late-afternoon attack were stuck. As the hours wore on, it became clearer to the frustrated Lee that no attack could be made. He called it off, postponing it until dawn.
The rains gave General Hooker the perfect cover for escape. General Meade’s troops moved first, occupying the trenches dug for them by the Engineer Corps. Next came the artillery. To soften the sound of their turning wheels, pine branches were cut and laid across the planks of the pontoon bridges spanning the Rappahannock at US Ford. This had all the makings of an orderly retreat. But it was not to be.
General Slocum’s XII Corps was to cross after the artillery. But when it came time, he found that the rising water had slowed things to a standstill. Blocking the way was about a mile of artillery and supply wagons. Slocum sent his provost marshal to see what was holding everything up, and was told that the retreat was called off. All troops were to return to their old lines and resume the battle. Slocum could not believe it, and ordered the line to keep moving. If the army remained on this side of the Rappahannock for another day, he ordered, the army would have to surrender.
Meanwhile, Generals Reynolds, Couch, Sickles and Meade were meeting at the latter’s headquarters when the supposed order to return to the lines reached them. Meade was elated – he wanted to fight it out. “Perhaps the salvation of the country will be brought about by this,” he exclaimed. Meade then sent James Biddle of his staff to find out what exactly was to happen.
Biddle rode to the bridges, finding only one in working condition. Artillery was moving across it as if in retreat, while the roads were moving, but still fairly clogged. He crossed the river and found General Hooker a half-mile farther.
According to Biddle, the commanding General of the Union Army was wrapped in a blanket and lying upon the floor. Dan Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, told Biddle that the Army was indeed retreating, but that Hooker was not overseeing the retreat. Realizing that not a single Corps commander knew that Hooker was indisposed, Biddle raced back to Meade’s headquarters to spread the news. General Reynolds wanted to send a delegation to Hooker to “wake someone up to take command.”
When General Couch, the senior-most corps commander, learned of it, he flew to Army headquarters (which had been abandoned by Hooker), and decided to take charge. The water had risen so that Couch believed the bridges spanning the ford would be lost. And so he took it upon himself to cancel the retreat. He ordered all troops back to their lines, and many complied.
News of this reached General Hooker via Meade around 2am. He (or perhaps Butterfield) sent a terse reply ordering the retreat to continue. The men were again gathered up and re-ordered to re-cross. It was now one mass of confusion. The waters had risen and both bridges strained under the currents.
By dawn, the ford was a bottleneck, with thousands of Federals stood still and waiting, and General Lee sent skirmishers forward to begin his attack.1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; A Glorious Army by Jeffry Wert; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest Furguson; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. [↩]