May 1, 1863 (Friday)
Union General Joseph Hooker could be excused for calling off an attack the previous day. His plan all along was to coax General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from their entrenchments at Fredericksburg, get them in the open and defeat them. Lee’s Army still manned the defenses and not all of Hooker’s men were up and ready. On this date, however, no such excuses could be made.
At the small crossroads of Chancellorsville, several miles behind the main Confederate lines, four Union Corps overseen by General Henry Slocum, were waiting orders to pounce upon the enemy’s left flank. Hooker had Lee where he wanted him. With the two corps left at Falmouth, Lee’s Army was sandwiched with seemingly no escape. That night, Hooker himself arrived and claimed that the Rebel army was “now the property of the Army of the Potomac.”
But that wasn’t quite true. Hooker’s plan had finally been discovered by Lee, who scheduled most of his army to move out at dawn of this date. Stonewall Jackson, however, got an early start, leaving at 3am to join General Richard Anderson, holding the left of the Confederate lines, facing west rather than east. Jackson’s men arrived around 9am, and discovered that Anderson had prepared a fine array of breastworks.
These were impressive and absolutely necessary. Anderson’s only job was to keep the Yankees from attack the main body from behind. Now that Jackson’s men, which included most of the main body, were on the scene, things took on a different light.
Jackson had no desire at all to remain on the defensive. From Anderson’s line it was three and a half miles to the Union horde at Chancellorsville. Two divergent roads led towards the intersection and Jackson, along with Anderson’s, and most of Lafayette McLaw’s Divisions, took both.
The most direct route was the turnpike , while Plank Road looped south. McLaws, decided Jackson, would take the direct route, while he advanced along Plank Road. Their columns would separate for a time, divided by a thick woods, but would be close enough that McLaws could keep in communication with Jackson.
McLaws ran into the Federals within fifteen minutes of starting out. General Meade had thrown a division two miles in advance of the intersection at Chancellorsville, and before noon, the fight was on. Soon, in Jackson’s front, he too was faced with Union skirmishers, hotly contesting every inch of ground.
General Hooker’s objective for the day – a day in which he did not expect a full blown battle – was to capture the heights near Bank’s Ford and Salem Church. This would indeed mean attacking General Anderson’s defenses, but with overwhelming numbers, how could it fail? All of Hooker’s officers agreed that by nightfall they would have General Lee trapped inside Fredericksburg.
Instead, he was about to receive Jackson’s attack. The Union resistance before McLaws’ troops grew stiffer and Jackson ordered him to halt while artillery was brought up to blast away the Federals. In the meantime, Jackson would try to find the enemy’s right flank and pry them out of McLaw’s way.
Under division commander George Sykes, the Federals before McLaws were dangling in midair. The rest of General Meade’s V Corps was somewhere on their left, while Henry Slocum’s XII Corps was somewhere on their right. Just where they were was completely unknown to Sykes and he was getting more than a little nervous. Though the Union Army greatly outnumbered the Confederates, in this small battle, Sykes had many fewer men than Jackson and McLaws.
At 1:30pm, both Jackson and McLaws were in a standup battle with Slocum and Sykes, respectively. Hooker had expected none of this. How did things go so wrong? Sykes was in dire trouble, outflanked and giving ground. Slocum was stopped in his tracks. Meade was, well, Hooker had no idea where Meade was. Though Meade was well beyond McLaw’s right flank, and could have saved the day had he only been able to hit that flank, it was not to be.
And so, at 2pm, Hooker called it all off. He had roughly 70,000 troops on hand at and near Chancellorsville. Jackson’s forces numbered 48,000, only 12,000 of which had been expected. Messengers were dispatched to Slocum, Meade and Sykes. While Slocum agreed to withdraw, but would do so in disgust. Meade, who had not been engaged at all, just figured that something went horribly wrong and obeyed. Sykes, on the other hand had been joined by General Darius Couch, commander of the II Corps, who was about to reinforce the faltering Sykes. Couch simply refused the order, telling Hooker, “In no event should we give up our ground.” When again ordered with withdraw, Couch and Sykes had little choice in the matter.
But then, at 5pm, Hooker seemed to change his mind and ordered his lines to hold. Now, however, it was far too late. Sykes had been completely outflanked and was in full retreat. Jackson and McLaws pursued the fleeing enemy, coming to their own halt at a road leading south to Catharine Furnace as night fell.
Generals Lee and Jackson met at this intersection. Jackson was convinced that Hooker had lost his nerve and, by the next morning, would be across the Rappahannock in fully retreat. Lee was not so sure. They talked for a few more minutes until Jeb Stuart arrived with some very interesting news. As it happened, his cavalry had reported that Hooker’s right flank was dangling and unsupported. They had been trying to figure out a way to get at Hooker and this was it.
Tracing his finger along a map seen only by candlelight, Lee connected one road to another until he arrived at Hooker’s precarious right flank. Jackson loved it, and agreed to step off at 4am. But the roads had not been scouted, the way was not yet clear. The general idea was there, but the means to make it reality were not.
Jackson turned to Beverly Tucker Lacy, a staff member and minister, who was familiar with the Wilderness area. Lacy was able to give Jackson the precise directions he needed. Returning to Lee, Jackson informed him that he would take his entire corps, leaving only McLaws and Anderson’s Divisions behind.
Jackson would take his 28,000, leaving Lee with but 14,000 to face down Hooker’s 70,000. After much thought, Lee acquiesced. “Well, go on.” The sun was just now rising. As he was parting, Jackson stood and assured Lee: “My troops will move at once, sir!”1
The Battle of Port Gibson
Thirty miles south of Vicksburg, Confederate General John Bowen had nearly evacuated the Mississippi River stronghold of Grand Gulf. General Grant had outflanked him, landing troops at Bruinsburg and marching them towards Port Gibson. Sensing that he might be able to hold up the invading Yankees by making smart use of the broken terrain, Bowen hurried men towards the town and prepared to put up a stout defense with his 5,000 or so troops.
Leading Grant’s advance Corps was John McClernand. Throughout the night, he had skirmished with the Rebels, but decided to hold off attacking until daybreak. But come dawn, McClernand found himself at a fork in the road. Fortunately for him, an escaped slave let him know that both roads lead to the Confederate defenses.
Unsure of which road the Federals would use, Confederate General Martin Green, in command of the troops at Port Gibson, had defended both. They would have to fight on both roads and, due to the lay of the uneven land, would find it nearly impossible to send support from one road to the other.
McClernand, knowing that he would need to cover his flanks, sent troops down both roads. What evolved was essentially two battles. To the north, a Union division under Peter Osterhaus hit the Rebels who simply retreated to the next of many ridges. Another division, commanded by Eugene Carr, proceeded forward towards the more southerly battle.
In either battle, the terrain proved difficult at best. Maintaining order was nearly impossible. The Rebels to the north slowly retreated, but to the south, they counterattacked in a vicious charge, causing General Carr to call to McClernand for reinforcements. These came in the form of two brigades, and plugged a hole which was about to be filled by screaming Confederates.
His dander up, McClernand decided to throw everything he had at them – tactics be damned. In one grand charge, with the shear weight of numbers on their side, the Federals through back the Confederate defenders. Things were going very well indeed, but it was not yet concluded.
General Grant arrived on the scene just as McClernand was reorganizing his corps for a final push forward. About a half mile ahead of them, they discovered yet another Confederate line of defense. McClernand picked at it for awhile, but found no success. As he was about to order another full scale assault, the Confederates under General Bowen surprised him with a sudden attack upon the right Federal flank. After much killing and dying, McClernand’s men were able to withstand the Rebe assault.
This threw the Federal line into complete confusion, causing McClernand to stop everything and sort it out. Just as he was again about to launch yet another attack, Bowen hit him again. The Confederates gave it their all, but were quickly hurled back.
The light was fading and Grant had little choice but to call off the attack, hoping to be at the Rebels again the following day. But come the next dawn, Port Gibson would be empty. Bowen’s troops, soon to be under the command of William Wing Loring, retreated to Warrenton, closer to Vicksburg. Meanwhile, Grant set his sights not on Vicksburg, but on the state capital of Jackson.2
- Sources: Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest B. Furguson; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears. [↩]
- Sources: Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Northing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. [↩]