May 6, 1863 (Wednesday)
Throughout the entirety of the long battle at Chancellorsville, General Hooker kept President Lincoln in the dark. This was a calculated effort, not to hide his machinations from the Executive in Chief, but to make sure that his movements were kept as closely guarded as possible. In Hooker’s estimation, Lincoln’s curiosity was a very acceptable loss.
But throughout the battle, the President was not simply curious, he was replete with nervous anxiety. He had met with Hooker previous to the battle, on April 19, and got as close to the full description of the coming campaign as Hooker could give. On the 27th, when Hooker’s Army was on the march up the north bank of the Rappahannock, Lincoln wired, “How does it look now?” The question was answered by Hooker: “I am not sufficiently advanced to give an opinion. We are busy. Will tell you all as soon as I can, and have it satisfactory.”
And that was it. For six long days, the President had paced, frittered and did everything in his power to keep himself busy. Mostly, however, he stayed close to the telegraph office, just in case General Hooker might have something to report.
Lincoln’s telegraphs went first to the main army headquarters and were then forwarded to Hooker in the field. Chief-of-staff Daniel Butterfield handled most of the day to day items so that Hooker could focus on the task at hand. So when Lincoln, broiling over for want of any news from the front, Hooker finally decided to break the silence.
On the 3rd, Hooker reported two days of bloody fighting, “which has resulted in no success to us, having lost a portion of two lines, which had been selected for our defense.” Hooker would not predict and outcome.
That same day, Dan Butterfield, Hooker’s chief-of-staff, officed in Falmouth, believed the President should know something of what was going on. He wired Lincoln and told him much the same as Hooker said, adding that Hooker had been wounded, though not seriously.
In a fury, Lincoln quickly shot back a series of questions. “Where is General Hooker? Where is Sedgwick? Where is Stoneman?” Butterfield gave vague details, but little more. Lincoln, in turn, waited for more information, sitting in the telegraph office until late into the evening. During which, he drafted other telegrams, packed and overflowing with myriad questions. But, knowing he needed to allow Hooker to fight the battle himself, decided not to send them.
The following day, Lincoln heard rumors from the front, probably from a newspaper – the heights above Fredericksburg had fallen once more to the Rebels. He wired Hooker asking if this were true. “I am informed that it is so, but attach no importance to it,” came the reply.
For the next twenty-four hours, the wires fell silent. At a cabinet meeting on the 5th, he read Hooker’s telegram, as it was all he had to go on. In his diary, Naval Secretary, who was at the meeting, described what must have been the general feeling.
“This reply communicates nothing of operations, but the tone and whole thing — even its brevity — inspire right feelings,” he began. “It is strange, however, that no reliable intelligence reaches us from the army of what it is doing, or not doing. This fact itself forebodes no good.”
At 11am on the 5th, Butterfield had penned a dispatch to Lincoln detailing the outcome. It would not arrive in Washington until 12:30pm this date. It was not good news.
“The cavalry,” wrote Butterfield, “failed in executing their orders. General Sedgwick failed in executing his orders, and cross the river at Banks Ford last night.” As for the rest of Hooker’s Army, Butterfield explained that they were still in their entrenchments, but though the position was strong, “circumstances, which in time will be fully explained, make it expedient, in the general’s judgment, that he should retire from this position to the north bank of the Rappahannock for his defensible position.”
Before Lincoln received Butterfield’s message, he read in the Richmond newspapers that the campaign might not be as bad as it seemed. For one, the Union cavalry, which Butterfield claimed to have failed, was reported to be within five miles of Richmond. The President wired Hooker, hoping that this news would change his plans and keep him on the southern side of the Rappahannock. Ultimately, however, he told him that he (Hooker) “must be the judge” of what to do next.
Lincoln then flew into a frenzy, trying to draw every possible soldier he could to Hooker’s aid, wishing to pull men from the defenses of Washington and southeastern Virginia. But at the same time, Secretary of War William Seward seemed to know a bit more than Lincoln about the true state of affairs in Hooker’s Army.
“General Hooker has had, has now, and will have, everything he asks for by telegraph, which is always in full connection with the War Department,” wrote Seward to New York Senator Edwin Morgan on this date. “He reports confidentially that only three corps of his army, all told, have been engaged. You need not be told that this is less than half of the army in his command and actually with him.” Seward concluded that it was not more troops that Hooker needed. “Further accumulation of troops, not called for by him, would exhaust his supplies and endanger his plans.”
Around 3pm, Butterfield wired the War Department, telling them that the army had recrossed the river and would soon be safely encamped at their old grounds at Falmouth. With this, Lincoln felt the final blow.
The President had been at the telegraph office when it arrived. Reading it, his face fell, as defeated as Hooker’s Army. He walked across the street to the White House, meeting with Noah Brooks, a news correspondent he had grown to trust.
“Read it,” he spoke with a trembling voice. “News from the army.”
Brooks continues: “The appearance of the President as I read aloud these fateful words, was piteous. Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken up, so dispirited, and so ghostlike.
“Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying ‘My God, my God, what will the country say! What will the country say!'”
Unable to stand being at such a distance from unfolding events, Lincoln ordered a steamer to be made ready at the wharf. He was leaving within the hour to see Hooker himself.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p421, 434-436; Diary by Gideon Welles; Lincoln, The Cabinet, and The Generals by Chester G. Hearn; Washington in Lincoln’s Time by Noah Brooks; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest B. Furguson. [↩]