Presidential Advice, a Near Coup, and a Wounded Man’s Slip

May 7, 1863 (Thursday)

Lincoln: Defeated at Chancellorsville? Nobody's to blame!
Lincoln: Defeated at Chancellorsville? Nobody’s to blame!

President Lincoln had left Washington the previous afternoon, booking a steamer to take him down the Potomac to the Federal depot at Aquia Creek. Arriving in the morning, he, along with General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, took a special train consisting of but a locomotive and a single box car to Falmouth. They had come to see General Hooker, and to decide what must be done following the defeat at Chancellorsville.

When they met, Lincoln placed no blame on Hooker. In fact, he placed no blame at all. Blame was for the past, and now they must look towards the future; the next campaign, which must come quickly. Though the President blamed nobody for the defeat, he understood that, to the nation, it would be seen as an utter disaster. The troops, however, seemed to be in good spirits. They were not demoralized or deserting in droves.

The corps commanders, on the other hand, were a different story entirely. Led by Darius Couch (II Corps) and Henry Slocum (XII Corps), they wished to bring to Lincoln’s attention the fact that they no longer thought General Hooker to be capable of leading the Army of the Potomac. Both Couch and Slocum, along with John Sedgwick (VI Corps), were pulling for George Meade (V Corps) to take command.

Meade cautiously backed away, wanting little to do with Couch and Slocum’s plot. Though he would not petition the President for Hooker’s removal, he agreed that if Lincoln would officially broach the subject in a council of war, he would vote against Hooker.

Without Meade’s involvement, the whole thing was pointless. Two days later, General Couch would try to resign, though it would not be accepted. Though nobody talked to Lincoln about it, he would learn soon enough via leaks to the press.

Hooker: That's right, Abe! Nobody's to blame! (Except maybe Howard's Corps)
Hooker: That’s right, Abe! Nobody’s to blame! (Except maybe Howard’s Corps)

The President did not tarry long and returned to Washington by nightfall. On the return trip, he penned a letter to Hooker. “If possible,” it began, “I would be very glad of another movement early enough to give us some benefit from the fact of the enemy’s communication being broken.” General Stoneman’s cavalry had finally gotten behind the Confederate lines and was doing debatable damage. But, Lincoln continued, “neither for this reason or any other do I wish anything done in desperation or rashness.”

Lincoln then asked if Hooker had a plan. “If you have, prosecute it without interference from me. If you have not, please inform me, so that I, incompetent as I may be, can try and assist in the formation of some plan for the army.”

In his reply, written the same day, General Hooker also blamed nobody (except Otis Howard’s XI Corps, which had borne the brunt of Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack). “If in the first effort we failed, it was not for want of strength or conduct of the small number of troops actually engaged, but from a cause which could not be foreseen, and could not be provided against,” wrote Hooker explaining how Jackson’s attack had doomed the army from the start.

“As to the best time for renewing our advance upon the enemy,” he continued, “I can only decide after an opportunity has been afforded to learn the feeling of the troops.” Just when this might be, he could not say. However, he already had a plan in mind, but figured that Lincoln probably didn’t want specifics at this time.

Meade: Well, Hooker's probably to blame, but I best watch how loudly I say such things...
Meade: Well, Hooker’s probably to blame, but I best watch how loudly I say such things…

“I have decided in my own mind the plan to be adopted in our next effort, if it should be your wish to have one made,” divulged Hooker. “It will be one in which the operations of all the corps… will be within my personal supervision.”

In a nutshell, that was Hooker’s take on Chancellorsville. Nobody, especially him, was to blame (except maybe the XI Corps). It was all Stonewall Jackson’s fault – who would ever think that Jackson might try something as crazy as a flank attack? Still, all that was completely necessary for victory, it seems, was that Hooker be in direct control of everything.

Though Hooker’s thoughts to Lincoln were vague and seemingly about the distant future, a little after noon, he issued a circular ordering the troops to have three days’ rations ready to cook at short notice. They were to be refitted and resupplied. Everything was to be prepared “for at once resuming active operations.”1


“I Am Very Glad to See You Looking So Bright” – Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson had been struck three times by a volley fired by his own men the night after the flank attack. He was immediately removed and his arm was amputated. To convalesce, he was taken back to his old headquarters at Guiney Station, south of Fredericksburg. For the early part of this week, he had been recuperating, getting better each day.


His doctor, Hunter McGuire was impressed with how well Jackson was doing. Each morning, his appetite was growing, as was mood and disposition were improving. Of his wounds, his lost arm, he was optimistic. “Many would regard them as a great misfortune,” he said to one of his visitors, “I regard them as one of the blessings of my life.”

But when he slept, he dreamed of the battlefield. The conflict was still raging at Chancellorsville. “Major Pendleton,” said Jackson in his sleep, “send in and see if there is higher ground back of Chancellorsville!”

But as the week progressed, Jackson seemed less and less well. On the 6th, like the days preceding, Jackson talked theology with the members of his staff who were fortunate enough to have his company. But around noon, he became tired. He sent his slave, Jim Lewis, to fetch him a glass of milk, and then went to sleep.

The house in which Jackson was convalescing.
The house in which Jackson was convalescing.

Dr. McGuire thought it understandable that Jackson should be tired now and then. He was human, after all. For the night, he left the General in the care of Jim while he finally got some rest of his own.

But around 1am of this date, Jackson woke. He was with fever and suffered acute pain all along his left side – the side of his amputation. Jim and Beverly Tucker Lacy of his staff came to his side. Jackson asked for cool, wet towels to soften the pain.

They wanted to summon the doctor, but Jackson insisted upon letting the poor man sleep. He was convinced that the towels would bring relief. But no relief came. As the sun rose, Jackson’s breathing was labored and the pain more intense. So much so that he told Jim to waken Dr. McGuire.

When the doctor arrived, he saw the wet towels and chastised Lacy for applying them without first consulting him. Upon examining Jackson, he noted that breathing came hard, that often he would gasp for air. It was now clear – Jackson’s wounds were healing, but overnight he had developed pneumonia.

At this time, the treatment for pneumonia was a hotly debated topic in the medical community. In truth, they had no idea what brought it on, but knew that when it came it followed a schedule, giving symptoms by which one might easily set a clock.

Careful with those cold towels, Lacy.
Careful with those cold towels, Lacy.

Since anti-biotics were still eight decades away, the treatments varied from physician to physician. For some, large bleedings were the trick, though by this time, most doctors had moved away from it, realizing that they often did nothing, or even harmed the patient. Others preferred antimony potassium tartrate, a salt which would cause vomiting. To shorten the schedule that pneumonia must run, a judicious employment of blood-lettings, mustard compresses, and leeches were often used.

Dr. McGuire did most of these things. He drew blood from Jackson’s chest, applied mustard compresses, and wrapped him in warm blankets. He also began a regimen of laudanum, a cocktail of opium, morphine and whiskey. This was commonly used as a painkiller, and while it did the trick, it also put Jackson into an intense delirium.

Now, he permanently entered a dream state, often seeming to believe he was on the battlefield, once again ordering divisions forward. Most of the time, however, his speech and utterances were undecipherable.

His sole moment of clarity on this day came when he asked for a glass of lemonade. When he tasted it, he found it too sweet to his liking. But upon looking up to see who made it, he saw his wife, Anna, who had been summoned from Richmond to be by her husband’s side. She leaned over his bed and gave him a kiss.

“I am very glad to see you looking so bright,” he said to her with a smile before slipping back into his near-constant delirium.

But by dawn the next day, things would seem better. He would return to full consciousness and fill a nation with the hope that he would soon return.2

  1. Sources: Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. []
  2. Sources: Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; A Complete Handbook of Treatment (1882) by William Aitken. []
Creative Commons License
Presidential Advice, a Near Coup, and a Wounded Man’s Slip by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by