Old Joe Hooker, Won’t You Come on Out the Wilderness? – Chancellorsville, Day Three

May 3, 1863 (Sunday)

Fending off the Rebel attack.
Fending off the Rebel attack.

All through the long night into the dawn, General Joe Hooker completely reorganized his defenses at Chancellorsville. Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack had smashed his right flank and compressed his lines to a piece of high ground called Hazel Grove. John Reynold’s newly-arrived I Corps now held his fully refused right, while O.O. Howard’s routed XI Corps held the left. In the center was a hodge podge of four different corps, with General Dan Sickle’s III Corps holding Hazel Grove.

The Rebel Army was fully divided with two divisions personally commanded by Robert E. Lee on the right and Stonewall Jackson’s entire corps, now under Jeb Stuart on the left. Stuart had been selected to take over by Jackson at the field hospital where his arm had been amputated. Jackson would soon be taken to his old headquarters at Guinea Station, south of Fredericksburg.

General Lee, knowing that his divided army was extremely vulnerable, wanted more than anything to combine the two wings. In the early morning, he called upon Jackson’s topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to tell Stuart to “press the enemy vigorously.”

Approximate map showing  approximate positions in the morning.
Approximate map showing approximate positions in the morning.

Meanwhile, Union Generals Hooker and Sickles were examining Hazel Grove. The problem with this bit of high ground was that it was a salient. It could be attacked from three sides and, Hooker believed, would fall – so why defend it? Sickles, on the other hand, wanted very much to defend it, suggesting Hooker move forward his lines so that it wouldn’t be the salient that it was. Hooker wouldn’t budge and ordered Sickles to fall back.

As they fell back, the Rebels under Stuart attacked. They had targeted Hazel Grove and were willing to pay a bloody price for it, but thanks to Joe Hooker, all they met was Sickles’ small rear guard. As soon as the hill was in Rebel hands, Stuart called for the artillery, which placed fifty guns atop the bluff. And now Stuart could the assault in earnest.

Gloriously taking Marye's Heights.
Gloriously taking Marye’s Heights.

Back at Fredericksburg, General Lee had left William Barksdale’s Brigade atop Marye’s Heights, above the town, with Jubal Early’s spread out division to the south. Joe Hooker had called upon John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to take the town, carry the heights and attack up the Plank Road towards Chancellorsville. This would bring him in behind Lee’s army.

Somehow or another, Barksdale’s men held as Sedgwick made first one assault, and then another. Seeing that the Rebel flank was dangling in the open, a Federal commander called for a flag of truce under the pretense of collecting the wounded. However, the true reason was to see exactly what they were up against. With the information of just how few Rebels remained, the Yankees renewed the attack, sweeping the Southerners out of their entrenchments by assaulting the flank and the front.

With the fall of Marye’s Heights, Jubal Early’s entire line was in peril. But General Sedgwick wasn’t interested in fighting Early’s entire division. He had orders to make a run for Chancellorsville and the rear of Lee’s Confederate Army.

Upturned Rebel battery atop Marye's Heights, taken on this date.
Upturned Rebel battery atop Marye’s Heights, taken on this date.

While Sedgwick was overrunning Barksdale, around Chancellorsville, things were getting hot for Joe Hooker. Now, with the two divisions under Lee’s command joining in with Jeb Stuart’s assault, he was penned in. Hooker wanted to counterattack, but he had left himself no such room. The ground of his choosing was only good for defense.

Stuart seemed to be everywhere at once. He was bold and maintained not a doubt in his ability to lead an entire corps of infantry. As he rode the lines, his men could hear him singing, “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come on out the wilderness” to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare.” His dashing and bravery emboldened the men. With the artillery in Hazel Grove pounding away at the Union lines, he sent forward everything he had, and the Southerners screamed ferociously into the Union lines.

General Hooker, commanding his army from the Chancellor House, was standing on the pillared porch, about to receive a call for reinforcements from Sickles, when a Rebel artillery shell struck the pillar next to where he was standing. It split down the center, throwing one half into Hooker’s head and side, knocking him to the ground.

Almost immediately, the rumor spread that Hooker had been killed. But he was not dead, only dazed. He insisted upon being lifted onto a horse and began to ride. Soon, the pain became so intense that he nearly fell off his mount. Helped to the ground, he was given brandy, which seemed to do the trick, and before long was back in command. But the shock had taken something out of him.

Repelling a Rebel attack.
Repelling a Rebel attack.

In trying to find a way to stem Stuart’s Confederate attack, George Meade, commanding the V Corps, saw that his corps and John Reynolds’ I Corps were positioned on Stuart’s left flank. He found Hooker and asked for permission to launch an attack that would derail the Rebel assault. Hooker denied it. Reynolds saw the same thing, but was also denied.

Hooker, suffering from the wound, retired to his tent and called together Generals Couch, Meade, and others. To Couch, his second in command, he said, “I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map.”

Had Hooker simply placed Couch in charge, giving him full discretion to do as he saw fit, Meade and Reynolds would probably have been able to attack. But Couch followed Hooker’s orders, and called for Sickle’s III Corps to fall back, contracting the Union center.

At Chancellorsville, the victory for General Lee was complete. But, through messengers, he learned that Jubal Early’s lines had been broken at Fredericksburg. Sedgwick’s Federal VI Corps was streaming towards him, threatening to ruin it all.

Approximate map of the coming meeting engagement at Salem's Church.
Approximate map of the coming meeting engagement at Salem’s Church.

Quickly, Lee dispatched McLaw’s Division, sending them east towards Fredericksburg and Sedgwick’s coming troops. Meanwhile, Early had put up a successful delaying action, while the brigade of Cadmus Wilcox, which had been severed from Early’s line when the Federals attacked, played upon Sedgwick’s marching column, slowing it up even more.

Wilcox was able to get in front of Sedgwick’s Corps at Salem Church, halfway between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. There, they were joined by McLaws’ Division. Both sides unlimbered artillery and pounded each other until the Federals attacked in the late afternoon.

The assault pushed the Rebels back, some regiments wavered, and others began to retreat, until a counter charge was ordered for a single Alabama regiment. Seeing their comrades surging forward, soon, the bulk of McLaws’ Division joined in. The Yankees reeled back and finally gave. There was no general route for John Sedgwick, but there didn’t need to be. All McLaws and Wilcox had to do was stop him. And with dusk and darkness swiftly approaching, Sedgwick’s Yankees weren’t going any place anytime soon.

As evening crawled across the ground, writhing thick with the wounded and dead, General Lee and Jeb Stuart rode down Orange Plank Road towards the Chancellor House – Hooker’s former headquarters. They were greeted with cheers and salutes along the way.

But the battle was not yet won. The Union army greatly outnumbered them, and there was nothing stopping the foe from making an all out assault upon Lee’s Army come morning. Nothing aside from General Hooker, of course.1



  1. Sources: Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; A Glorious Army by Jeffry Wert; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest Furguson; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. []
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Old Joe Hooker, Won’t You Come on Out the Wilderness? – Chancellorsville, Day Three by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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One thought on “Old Joe Hooker, Won’t You Come on Out the Wilderness? – Chancellorsville, Day Three

  1. I really think Hooker’s head wound deserves more attention than it has gotten, then & now. With what we know about traumatic head injury, I think it possible that Hooker was incompos mentos (sp?). Couch should never have obeyed the order, other than to take command. Woulda, shoulda, coulda–I know, but still . . .

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