Hooker’s Plan at Chancellorsville

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

General Joseph HookerMaj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was appointed to command the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. While resting and refitting his army he worked on the plan for a spring offensive south of the Rappahannock River.

The Rappahannock was a main east-west river that divided the two adversaries. General Robert E. Lee had dispersed his Army of Northern Virginia along its southern bank in order to defend the various fords and bridges from Union incursions. This dispersion also allowed his army to settle into winter camps where they too rested for the coming fighting season.

Up until this point in the war, the main Union objective was the capture of the Confederate Capital of Richmond. Four attempts had been made by Union armies against the city but all had ended in failure.

Two of the attempts had foundered in abject defeat at First and Second Manassas. Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles had also ended in failure, although the Army of the Potomac had achieved several victories.

Finally, Burnside’s unsuccessful assault at Fredericksburg and his infamous Mud March had ended the fourth attempt with his removal from command. It was time for a different approach.

President Abraham Lincoln had become convinced that the objective had to be the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s army rather than the capture of the Confederate capital. Destroy Lee’s army and Richmond would inevitably fall, ending the war. In order to bring Lee into a decisive battle, threatening the capital was the bait.

Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac by doing away with Burnside’s Grand-Division system. Under that system, several corps were grouped under a commanding general who reported to the army commander. It was unwieldy and the Army did not have a sufficient number of veteran generals to implement it.

Hooker returned to the previous system with several divisions in each corps. The Army of the Potomac had seven infantry corps and one cavalry corps. In total the army had 133,868 men and 413 guns at the start of the campaign.

Facing them was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with two infantry corps and General Robert E. Leeone cavalry corps. His force numbered 60,892 men and 220 guns.

However, Lt.  Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the majority of his corps (the divisions of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood and Brig. Gen. George E. Pickett, and two artillery battalions) were detached for duty in southeastern Virginia. The divisions present at Chancellorsville were those of Maj. Gens. Lafayette McLaws and Richard H. Anderson.

The forces on detached duty were 130 miles away and unavailable to Lee in time for the battle, taking more than a week of marching to reach the area.

In addition, General Hooker had better intelligence available to him than any of his predecessors. A complete overhaul of the army’s Bureau of Military Intelligence, which was commanded by Col. G. H. Sharpe, meant that for once the army’s commander had a much more accurate appraisal of the number of troops in Lee’s army, of how they were organized, and where they were stationed.

For the first time Sharpe’s bureau coordinated intelligence that was received from a variety of sources: escaped slaves, infantry and cavalry reconnaissance, local residents and the aerial balloon corps.

Using all of this intelligence, Hooker realized that any plan that called for direct frontal assaults was bound to fail in a bloodbath. The army had seen the results of these tactics in bloody repulses at Antietam and Fredericksburg. He could not succeed in his crossing of the Rappahannock “except by stratagem.”

The Union army was based in winter camps at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. Hooker’s initial plan was to send Stoneman’s 10,000-man cavalry corps far upstream to cross the river and circle into Lee’s rear.

Hooker's Chancellorsville PlanTheir goal was to destroy his base of supplies and draw him away from the river. Then Hooker would cross the river in pursuit. This plan came to naught when heavy rains made the river crossing site at Sulphur Spring impassable.

Hooker’s second plan was more complicated, requiring timing that up to now the Union army had been unable to accomplish. This plan was to launch both the cavalry and infantry simultaneously in a bold double envelopment of Lee’s army.

Stoneman’s cavalry would make a second attempt at its deep strategic raid, but at the same time, 42,000 men in three corps (V, XI, XII Corps) would stealthily march to cross the Rappahannock upriver at Kelly’s Ford. They would then proceed south and cross the Rapidan at Germanna and Ely’s Ford, concentrate at the Chancellorsville crossroads, and attack Lee’s army from the west.

While they were under way, 10,000 men in two divisions from the II Corps would cross at the U.S. Ford and join with the V Corps in pushing the Confederates away from the river.

The second half of the double envelopment was to come from the east: 40,000 men in two corps (I and VI Corps, under the overall command of John Sedgwick) would cross the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg and threatened to attack Stonewall Jackson’s position on the Confederate right flank.

The remaining 25,000 men (III Corps and one division of the II Corps) would remain visible in their camps at Falmouth to divert Confederate attention from the turning movement. Hooker anticipated that Lee would either be forced to retreat, in which case he would be vigorously pursued, or he would be forced to attack the Union Army on unfavorable terrain.

One of the defining characteristics of the battlefield was a dense woodland south of the Rapidan known locally as the “Wilderness of Spotsylvania”. The area had once been an open broadleaf forest, but during colonial times the trees were gradually cut down to make charcoal for local pig iron furnaces.

When the supply of wood was exhausted, the furnaces were abandoned and secondary forest growth developed, creating a dense mass of brambles, thickets, vines, and low-lying vegetation. Catherine Furnace, abandoned in the 1840s, had recently been reactivated to produce iron for the Confederate war effort.

This area was largely unsuitable for the deployment of artillery and the control of large infantry formations, which would nullify some of the Union advantage in military power. It was important for Hooker’s plan that his men move quickly out of this area and attack Lee in the open ground to the east. There were three primary roads available for this west-to-east movement: the Orange Plank Road, the Orange Turnpike, and the River Road.

The Confederate dispositions were as follows: the Rappahannock line at Fredericksburg was occupied by Longstreet’s First Corps division of Lafayette McLaws on Marye’s Heights, with Jackson’s entire Second Corps to their right.

Early’s division was at Prospect Hill and the divisions of Rodes, Hill, and Colston extended the Confederate right flank along the river almost to Skinker’s Neck. The other division present from Longstreet’s Corps, Anderson’s, guarded the river crossings on the left flank. Stuart’s cavalry was largely in Culpeper County near Kelly’s Ford, beyond the infantry’s left flank.

The Chancellorsville Campaign was one of the most lopsided clashes of the entire war with the Union army have more than twice as many troops and guns as the Confederates. The Union forces were better provisioned and well rested. The Union had all of the advantages, yet they suffered a decisive defeat.

The story of the Confederate victory is one of superior generalship and tactical skill. Yet, Chancellorsville was to be lamented by the Confederates for its most significant loss: the mortal wounding of “Stonewall” Jackson.






Series Navigation<< Hooker’s Division CommandersPrelude to Chancellorsville: Stoneman’s 1863 Raid >>

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