May 2, 1863 (Saturday)
For General Joe Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, the night had been one of preparation. His army had entrenched around the crossroads of Chancellorsville in hopes that General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would attack, and expected one on his front, where Lee’s Army had spent the night.
The five corps of Hooker’s command were stretched out across a three mile line. George Meade’s V Corps held the left, while O.O. Howard’s XI Corps held the right. The II (Couch), III (Sickles), and XII (Slocum) Corps made up the center, where the main attack would most assuredly come.
At sunrise, General Hooker and Daniel Sickles road the length of the lines, inspecting and accepting the cheers of his men. As they rode, the Confederate artillery to their front opened and Rebel skirmishers probed the Union defenses. Both sides now knew they other was there, but nothing had developed aside from the rumblings of cannons.
After Hooker was finished inspecting the III Corps’ lines, several reports came in to General David Birney, commanding one of Sickles’ divisions. Scouts, who had taken to the trees to get a better view of the enemy position noticed a steady column of Confederates moving past an opening in an otherwise dense wilderness; heading towards the Union right. This was curious indeed, especially since they had also spotted artillery and ambulance wagons.
The scouts sent the message to Birney who forwarded it to Sickles’ headquarters, which forwarded it to Hooker. Since both Sickles and Hooker were on their tour of the lines, it took about an hour and a half for them to receive the messages. When Sickles got the word, he went to Birney’s Division and had a look for himself. By 10am, Sickles ordered one of his batteries to fire upon the exposed column with artillery.
For over an hour, a single battery of Federal artillery targeted the clearing. Sickles reported back to Hooker that the Rebels “hurried past in great confusion, vainly endeavoring to escape our well-directed and destructive fire.”
When Hooker returned to his headquarters following the inspection, he read General Birney’s messages and sent word to the Union right under O.O. Howard. While visiting Howard’s XI Corps, Hooker noted that the line was a fine one to receive the expected frontal attack, but Howard hadn’t done much at all to protect the line against a flank attack. After ordering him to “examine the ground, and determine upon the position you will take” should the Rebels attack his flank, Hooker suggested that Howard keep a larger than typical number of reserves behind the lines just in case.
“We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right,” wrote Hooker to Howard around 9:30am. “Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe in order to obtain timely information of their approach.”
With that supposedly taken care of, Hooker wired back to Falmouth for General John Sedgwick, commanding the VI Corps, to attack the remaining Rebels at Fredericksburg. He knew that the bulk of Lee’s Army was before him, and wished for Sedgwick to threaten their rear. The orders were, ultimately, discretionary, and Sedgwick had no great desire to try and take Fredericksburg again.
Back at Chancellorsville, General Birney, who had first seen the Rebel column, had again reported to Sickles, telling him that the column was still there and a whole lot of Rebels were moving towards Howard’s XI Corps on the Union right. To Sickles, this could have been one of two things. Either the Confederates were in retreat towards Gordonsville, or they were about to attack the Federal right flank.
Whichever it was, Sickles wanted to attack and asked Hooker for permission to do so. Before Hooker could respond, Howard sent a message to him. By 10:30am, Hooker’s message to Howard had arrived at Howard’s headquarters. With this in mind, Howard reported that a column of Rebels had been spotted moving west. “I am taking measures to resist an attack from the west,” he concluded.
Also around this time, Hooker received reports from the 26th Pennsylvania Infantry that captured Confederate prisoners had let slip that prior to meeting their new hosts, their destination had been the Union right.
Finally, around noon, Sickles received permission to advance, but it was to be more of a probe than an attack. Sickles ordered Birney’s Division “to follow the enemy, pierce the column, and gain possession of the road over which it was passing.”
By 1pm, Sickles’ men were moving into position. The Rebel column, still marching before them, had been passing for at least five hours. When the Federals got to within range, they were met by a small number of Confederates and caught sight of the last wagons of the column. They also took notice that the enemy was moving south, not west.
Sickles, who had been trying to figure out if the Rebels were retreating or trying to get around the Union right flank, believed he knew the answer. “I think it is a retreat,” he wrote Hooker. “Sometimes a regiment then a few wagons – then troops then wagons….”
It was around 3pm that this news reached Hooker. With the Rebels clearly in a retreat, he wanted to harass them. For this, Sickles’ Corps was perfect, but for support, he decided to take a brigade from Howard. As it turned out, Howard had an entire brigade in reserve, and since the Rebels were retreating, had no problem in giving it up, personally riding with it to Sickles’ side. Back at headquarters, Hooker had just issued an order for the entire Army to be ready to move out at dawn the following day to chase down and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.
Along the lines of the XII Corps, several Union scouts had taken to the tallest of trees and seen a mass of enemy troops gathering on General Howard’s right. They informed their commander, who informed Hooker, but nothing came of it.
Similarly, in the XI Corps itself, pickets from General Leopold Von Gilsa’s brigade heard “a queer jumble of sounds” coming from deep in the woods. A chastising reply came from General Howard (who had not yet left headquarters), telling the scouts that they “must not be scared of a few bushwhackers.”
A short time later, the officer in charge of Von Gilsa’s pickets sent a very terse message to Von Gilsa: “A large boty of the enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake make dispositions to receive him.” When Von Gilsa arrived at Howard’s headquarters, he was taunted for jumping at shadows.
But the action for Von Gilsa’s pickets was not yet over. At their posts, they were suddenly confronted by a Confederate picket line. Shots were exchanged and even some Federal artillery got in on it. The report sent back to headquarters was believed to be not credible.
Other such reports came in from all along Howard’s lines. All of these were ignored by Howard and most never reached Hooker. Any messages that had gotten through and were taken seriously were simply dovetaled into supporting the idea that the Rebels were in retreat. Any mass of enemy troops was probably a rear guard.
And speaking of rear guards, by this time, Sickle’s entire corps was duking it out with the Confederates near the clearing, only now there seemed to be more than there were before. It was as it they were coming from what had been Lee’s front. Curious. Also, Sickle’s move had left a mile-long gap in the Union lines. That would have been no great deal if the Rebels were indeed retreating.
But of course, the Rebels were not retreating. While Lee had maintained a short line in his front, he had sent Stonewall Jackson on a twelve mile flank march around the Union right. By 5:30pm, when Sickles was tied up with what was actually Lee’s front, when Howard was ignoring warning of Rebels on his right, and when Hooker was fully convinced that he had won a nearly bloodless victory, Stonewall Jackson and his 23,000 men attacked.
First came the wildlife – deer, foxes and countless rabbits – running from some unseen terror. But then it was seen. They came with a scream, a yell that froze the spine and raised the demons from hell.
Most of the Federals were caught with their rifles unloaded. Others, who were commanded by officers who never believed the Rebels were retreating, were soon overpowered and routed. First one division, and then the next were smashed, sent streaming through that mile-long gap left by Sickles in the Federal lines.
General Howard had appeared back in the fray, trying to rally his panicked corps. It was all too late. With one last brigade, Howard tried to stop the rush. At Dowdall’s Tavern, about a mile from where the Rebels first burst through, he placed Adolphus Buschbeck’s Brigade, but soon too that was rolled under. But darkness was falling and soon night would save the rest of the Union position.
That night, Stonewall Jackson figured that the Federals would, at dawn, launch a counterattack. With all their might, the Union troops outnumbered Lee’s divided army, and though the day went wildly in favor of the Confederates, the battle itself was far from decided.
Jackson wished to launch a night attack, but first decided to scout the ground for himself. He was warned of the danger, but replied that the enemy was routed. With perhaps twelve others, Jackson rode past his lines, moving about 150 yards in front of them. He and his party were out for about an hour, when Jackson decided to return to his lines. As they were making their way back, a single shot rang out. It was difficult to tell who shot it or where it came from, but it soon set off a chain reaction. A short smattering of shots came next. And then an entire, regimental-sized volley.
The balls ripped through Jackson’s party, and another scouting party to their rear led by General A.P. Hill. Men and horses were instantly killed, while other were seriously wounded. Jackson, however, was unhurt. Jackson and whomever else could follow, fled away from the firing. And then another volley was let loose, aimed at the sound of what seemed like hundreds of horses.
Following the second volley, one of Jackson’s party was thrown from his wounded horse, and he ran screaming towards the lines, “You are firing into your own men!” He ran towards General James Lane’s North Carolina troops. Having not been informed that Jackson was scouting to their front, they mistook the party for Federals. But they didn’t believe him. Thinking it was a Yankee trick, they fired again.
Stonewall Jackson had been hit three times. Twice in the left arm and once in the hand. “I fear my arm is broken,” said Jackson after the firing had stopped. He tried to walk back to his lines, accompanied by A.P. Hill. Before long, however, he needed a stretcher. And not too long after, Union artillery hurried them along.
That night, Stonewall Jackson’s left arm was amputated. Awake after the operation, he was coherent and in relatively good spirits. It was assumed, however, that he would be out of the fight for a bit.
When the news reached General Lee, it was well after 3am. He was told of Jackson’s stunning victory, but also of the wounding. Jackson had lost his left arm. “Thank God it is not worse. God be praised that he is yet alive.”1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest Furguson; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. [↩]