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06/15/14

Failed Union Civil War Generals

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Civil War GeneralsThe American Civil War probably had the greatest number of failed general officers in the history of the United States. In fact, both sides saw more general officers who were either relieved of command or later investigated by various Congressional committees.

In the defense of general officers on both sides, none of them had commanded any formation larger than a regiment. Most had commanded companies, battalions or batteries. A number of these officers had been at West Point most recently.

The antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men scattered across the United States at isolated posts and forts. Many of the West Pointers, like Robert E. Lee, spent the majority of their non-Mexican War service as engineering officers building coastal defenses or supervising the maintenance of harbors and waterways.

Imagine their shock when they were assigned to command formations with thousands of soldiers. At the Battle of First Manassas the combined number of troops engaged was 36,000. The combined armies had between 60,000 and 69,000 men. In the early fighting the armies were really armed mobs. It wasn’t until 1863 that the troops and their officers became hardened veterans.

In this series we’ll start by looking at failed general officers in the Union Army. The most notable, of course, was Maj. Gen. George McClellan, General-in-chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was followed by Maj. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside.

There were a number of general officers throughout the history of the Army of the Potomac and other Eastern commands who were relieved of command. Perhaps the most notable was Maj. Gen. Gouvernour K. Warren who spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

In the Western Theater, there were Maj. Gens. Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans. Both of them were relieved of command. Rosecrans carried on a feud with his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, until his dying day.

Many of the Union Army’s failed general officers were so-called ‘political generals’ like Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler and Franz Siegal. Many of them were Democrats whose support Abraham Lincoln saw as critical to the war effort. He did not want the war to be a Republican one but rather wanted it to be a Union effort.

However, some of the ‘political generals’ were not schooled in any type of military training or if they were their experience dated from the Mexican War of 1846-1848 when they were junior officers. These officers tended to make a hash of their battle assignments.

One successful ‘political general’ was Ben Butler who precipitated the ‘contraband’ rules that the Union government adopted when he was the commander of Fortress Monroe. He was also successful when he was the military commander of occupied New Orleans. However, he was never very successful as a battle commander.

 

04/8/13

The Halfway Point: April 8, 1863

Lincoln reviews Union troops at Falmouth, VAA recollection from the the 10th Massachusetts regimental history reads: “WEDNESDAY, April 8. The infantry and light artillery of the army of the Potomac were reviewed by President Lincoln and General Hooker. Nearly the entire army was assembled, and though closely packed, covered a large area of country. It was an imposing spectacle. The army was in splendid condition, and made a fine appearance. This is the third time we have been reviewed by the President, in the field; once at Harrison’s Landing, once at Downesville, and now at Falmouth.”

April 8, 1863 was the halfway point in the American Civil War. Of course, those on each side had no idea that the war was at the halfway point. Both armies had evolved from armed mobs into semblances of the modern forces that they would become by 1864.

Behind them were the early battles in Virginia and Maryland, mostly won by Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. In the West the seeds of the Confederacy’s destruction were being sown in places like Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and along the Mississippi by a little-known Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was currently in a military chess match with his adversaries in an attempt to capture the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. With complete and utter determination the stubborn Grant would fence with his opponents for six months before his final triumph. But in April it seemed that Vicksburg was unassailable.

On January 1, 1863, the Lincoln administration had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the Army (and all segments of the Executive branch) to treat as free all those enslaved in ten states that were still in rebellion, thus applying to 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the U.S. With emancipation came the raising of regiments of black men to fight for the Union Cause. Eventually some 180,000 men would fight for the Union.

In the East, yet another Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, “Fighting Joe” Hooker was once more reorganized the oft-reorganized On to Richmond PosterUnion army. The army’s morale had been at a low point after Ambrose Burnside’s “Mud March” and Hooker needed to raise it before taking the huge army South across the Rappahannock against Lee. Hooker was planning a massive stroke against the Confederates before sending his force to Richmond.

In the East, Richmond was still the main target of the Union army. “On to Richmond” had been the rallying cry since the beginning of the war. The Union’s fixation on capturing the enemy capital played into the strategy of Lee. Using Richmond as bait, Joseph E. Johnston and Lee were able to defeat the Union army of George McClellan on the Peninsula and during the Seven Days’ Battles.

Lee then followed up his victories with the utter defeat of the Union Army of Virginia at Second Manassas or Second Bull Run. He then met McClellan once again in a bloody draw at Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This was followed by Lee’s successful defense of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

In the West, Grant was beginning to show the world his genius for the use of river transports to move his troops against his opponents. He captured Fort Henry after heavy naval bombardment from the U.S. Navy’s Western Flotilla. He then moved quickly to surround Fort Donelson and after naval bombardment failed to reduce the fort, Grant’s troops stormed the Confederate lines. Over 12,000 Confederates surrendered to the Union army.

At the halfway point, events in the West seemed to be moving in favor of the Union. With Grants skillful use of maneuver and his victorious Army of the Tennessee, the Union cause seemed to be on the upsurge. In the East, however, the Battle of Chancellorsville was yet to come. More importantly, every manpower loss by the Confederacy hurt them worse than the losses by the Union. Eventually, the South would bleed to death. It was a race against time for the South.

04/3/13

The Importance of Chancellorsville to Each Side

The Wounding of Stonewall JacksonThe Battle of Chancellorsville took place from April 30 to May 6, 1863. It was a clear Confederate victory yet it had significance for both sides.Like the waves that are created by dropping a pebble in a still pond, the battle and its aftermath would impact both sides for the balance of the Civil War.

Let’s look at the obvious results of the battle. Chancellorsville is often called Robert E. Lee’s “Perfect Battle.” He was able to defeat the much larger Union Army that had an over 2-to-1 numerical advantage. By skillfully using the terrain, both the dense forest around Chancellorsville and the hills to the east near Fredericksburg, Lee negated the larger Union numbers.

In the dense forest he was able to channel the Union forces and keep them bottled up on the restrictive road net. Meanwhile, using superior military intelligence, Stonewall Jackson was able to surprise the Union Army with a surprise flank march and deliver a mighty blow to the enemy.

In any battle, there are always conditions that need to be met for victory. In the case of Chancellorsville flank march and attack, historians have laid out four conditions that the Confederates needed for victory. In each and every case they accomplished each one successfully. This was a rare case of everything going just right for one side.

To the east around Chancellorsville, Jubal Early was able to fend of the timid attacks launched by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick who outnumbered him 4-t0-1: 40,000 to 10,000. Early was able to fend off Sedgwick’s weak attacks and protect Lee flank and rear. Again, everything went right for the Confederates.

Those are the obvious results: Lee was better than Joseph Hooker when it came to tactics and control of his troops. He repeatedly gambled and won. However, his solid victory was to have consequences beyond this battle.

On the night of May 2nd, Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s self-described right arm, went out on a scouting mission with General A.P. Hill and members of their respective staffs. In the dark they were mistaken for Union cavalry and Jackson was badly wounded by the ensuing musket fire. Jackson’s three bullet wounds were not in themselves life-threatening, but his left arm was broken and had to be amputated. He contracted pneumonia and died on May 10.

Jackson’s death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy and a corresponding gain by the Union. Some historians and participants—particularly those of the postbellum Lost Cause movement—attribute the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg two months later to Jackson’s absence. In the short term Lee was able to replace Jackson but he could replace Jackson’s audacity in the offense.

Both armies suffered severe casualties at Chancellorsville: 17,197 for the Union Army and 13,303 for the Confederacy. The difference was the considerable number of prisoners captured by the Confederates. However, based on the original 2-to-1 Union advantage, it was a distinct disadvantage for the Army of Northern Virginia with a 22% casualty rate. When comparing only the killed and wounded, there were almost no differences between the Confederate and Federal losses at Chancellorsville.  These were men that Lee would be hard-pressed to replace.

Here’s the subtlest, yet most important significance of Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville. After his greatest victory Robert E. Lee had the mistaken belief that his army was invincible. He felt that they could defeat any force that the Union could send against them. On July 3, 1863, Robert E. Lee was proved wrong when he sent 15,000 men against the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. They were crushed at great loss to the Confederacy.

 

01/22/13

The Union Withdrawal From Chancellorsville

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

While “Fighting Joe” Hooker sat ineffectually at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee felt comfortable with his position and ordered Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division to join the battle against Sedgwick. Lee ordered Early and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws to coordinate an attack against Sedgewick’s force on the afternoon of May 3rd but his orders arrived too late to be executed.

By the following morning, Sedgwick’s force was entrenched in a strong defensive position that was “u-shaped”. Both of his flanks were anchored on the Rappahannock River with his line extending south of the Orange Plank Road.  Early’s plan was to drive the Union troops off Marye’s Heights and the other high ground west of Fredericksburg. Lee ordered McLaws to engage from the west “to prevent [the enemy] concentrating on General Early.”

Map of Chancellorsville, May 4-6Early’s attack on the morning of May 4th cut off the greater portion of Sedgwick’s force from the town of Fredericksburg, leaving Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division isolated inside the town. Early’s force retook the high ground of Marye’s Heights in the attack. However, McLaws was reluctant to press his part of the attack even after Lee arrived with Anderson’s Division at about noon.

With Anderson’s arrival, Lee’s force slightly outnumbered Sedgwick’s but it took all afternoon to ready the attack. At about 6:00 PM the Confederate attack finally began. Two of Early’s brigades (under Brig. Gens. Harry T. Hays and Robert F. Hoke) pushed back Sedgwick’s left-center across the Plank Road, but Anderson’s effort was a slight one and McLaws once again contributed nothing. Throughout the day on May 4, Hooker provided no assistance or useful guidance to Sedgwick, and Sedgwick thought about little else than protecting his line of retreat.

The following morning before dawn, Sedgwick began his withdrawal across the Rappahannock River at Banks Ford. Gibbon also ordered his division back to the north side of the river. When he learned that Sedgwick had retreated back over the river, Hooker felt he was out of options to save the campaign.

He called a council of war and asked his corps commanders to vote about whether to stay and fight or to withdraw. Although a majority voted to fight, Hooker had had enough, and on the night of May 5–6, he withdrew back across the river at U.S. Ford.

It was a difficult operation. Hooker and the artillery crossed first, followed by the infantry beginning at 6 a.m. on May 6. Meade’s V Corps served as the rear guard. Rains caused the river to rise and threatened to break the pontoon bridges. Maj. Gen. Darius Couch was in command on the south bank after Hooker departed, but he was left with explicit orders not to continue the battle, which he had been tempted to do.

The surprise withdrawal frustrated Lee’s plan for one final attack against Chancellorsville. He had issued orders for his artillery to bombard the Union line in preparation for another assault, but by the time they were ready Hooker and his men were gone.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is often called Lee’s “perfect battle” but it was a costly one for the Army of Northern Virginia. “Stonewall” Jackson had been mortally wounded and would die several days after the end of the battle. With only 60,000 men engaged, he suffered 13,303 casualties (1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, 2,018 missing), losing some 22% of his force in the campaign—men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. James Longstreet was highly critical of Lee’s strategy, claiming that the Confederacy could not win a war of attrition.

The Union Army of the Potomac with 133,000 Union men engaged had 17,197 were casualties (1,606 killed, 9,672 wounded, 5,919 missing), a percentage much lower than Lee’s, particularly considering that it included 4,000 men of the XI Corps who were captured on May 2. When comparing only the killed and wounded, there were almost no differences between the Confederate and Federal losses at Chancellorsville.

The Union was shocked by the defeat. President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “My God! My God! What will the country say?” Hooker relieved Generals George Stoneman and Oliver O. Howard after the defeat. Accusations of incompetence flew left and right throughout the Union high command.

President Lincoln chose to retain Hooker in command of the army, but the friction between Lincoln, general in chief Henry W. Halleck, and Hooker became intolerable in the early days of the Gettysburg Campaign and Lincoln relieved Hooker of command on June 28, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Confederate public had mixed feelings about the result, joy at Lee’s tactical victory tempered by the loss of their most beloved general, Stonewall Jackson. Following the death of Jackson, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia from two large corps into three, under James LongstreetRichard S. Ewell, and A.P. Hill. The new assignments for the latter two generals caused some command difficulties in the upcoming Gettysburg Campaign, which began in June.

Of more consequence for Gettysburg, however, was the attitude that Lee absorbed from his great victory at Chancellorsville, that his army was virtually invincible and would succeed at anything he asked them to do. Pickett’s Charge would put paid to that belief.

01/17/13

The Third Day at Chancellorsville

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

The Battle of Chancellorsville entered the third day of combat with the two sides still facing each other in the dense woods around Chancellorsville. Despite Stonewall Jackson’s stunning victory on May 2, 1863, the Confederates forces had not gained a significant advantage on the battlefield.

Yes, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps had been routed but the Army of the Potomac still outnumbered the Confederates, 76,000 to 43,000 at the Chancellorsville front. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds I Corps had arrived on the field on the night of May 2-3, replacing Howard’s losses.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles III Corps still separated the two halves of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Sickles’ force was emplaced in a strong position on high ground at Hazel Grove. In order to have success in uniting the two halves of his army, General Lee needed to devise a way to eject Sickles from Hazel Grove.

He didn’t need to think about it too long about his tactics because “Fighting Joe” Hooker resolved the situation for him. Early on May 3rd, Hooker ordered Sickles and the III Corps to to move from Hazel Grove to a new position on the Plank Road. As they withdraw, their rearguard was attacked by the brigade of Brig. Gen.James J. Archer, which captured about 100 prisoners and four cannons. Hazel Grove was soon turned into a powerful artillery platform with 30 guns under Col. Porter Alexander.

Meanwhile, General Lee was faced with a leadership crisis in the Second Corps. With the wounding of Jackson, his senior division commander, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill had assumed command. But Hill was soon wounded and after consulting with the next senior division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes, he summoned Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to take command, notifying Lee after the fact. Brig. Gen.Henry Heth replaced Hill in division command.

Despite never having commanded infantry before, Stuart turned in a credible performance at Chancellorsville. He immediately grasped the tactical situation and began to respond to it. The Union position was a giant horseshoe. he center was held by the III, XII, and II Corps. On the left were the remnants of the XI Corps, and the right was held by the V and I Corps.

Stuart organized his three divisions, commanded by Rodes, Heth and Brig. Gen. Raleigh Colston, to straddle the Orange Plank Road. Heth’s in the advance, Colston’s 300–500 yards behind, and Rodes’s, whose men had done the hardest fighting on May 2, near the Wilderness Church.

The Confederate attack began at about 5:30 AM. Aided by the newly installed artillery at Hazel Grove and with simultaneous attacks by the divisions of Anderson and McLaws from the south and southeast, the Confederate offensive began. The Union defenders resisted mightily from behind their strong fortifications and the fighting was the heaviest of the campaign.

he initial waves of assaults by Heth and Colston gained a little ground, but were beaten back by Union counterattacks. Rodes sent his men in last. Their final push aided by the Confederate artillery won the morning battle.

Throughout the entire war, this was the one occasion where Confederate artillery bested their Union counterparts at Fairview. The Confederate guns at Hazel Grove were joined 20 more pieces on the Plank Road. Under intense bombardment, the Federals withdraw as ammunition ran low and Confederate infantrymen picked off the gun crews. Fairview was evacuated at 9:30 a.m., briefly recaptured in a counterattack, but by 10 a.m. Hooker ordered it abandoned for good.

The loss of this artillery platform doomed the Union position at the Chancellorsville crossroads as well. The Army of the Potomac began a fighting retreat to positions circling United States Ford. The soldiers of the two halves of Lee’s army reunited shortly after 10 a.m. before the Chancellor mansion, wildly triumphant as Lee arrived on Traveller to survey the scene of his victory.

Charles Marshall, Lee’s military secretary, later wrote in his memoirs, An Aide-de-Camp to Lee

Lee’s presence was the signal for one of those uncontrollable bursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who has not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers, with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle and hailed the presence of a victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked at him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from some such scene that men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of gods.

To complicate the Union situation, Hooker was injured at the height of the fighting when a cannonball struck the wooden porch support that he was leaning against. He later wrote that half of the pillar “violently [struck me] … in an erect position from my head to my feet.” He likely received a concussion, which was sufficiently severe to render him unconscious for over an hour.

Although clearly incapacitated after he arose, Hooker refused to turn over command temporarily to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, and, with Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, and Sedgwick out of communication (again due to the failure of the telegraph lines), there was no one at headquarters with sufficient rank or stature to convince Hooker otherwise. This failure affected Union performance over the next day and directly contributed to Hooker’s seeming lack of nerve and timid performance throughout the rest of the battle.

01/10/13

The Battle of Chancellorsville: May 1, 1863

This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

On the first day of the Battle of Chancellorsville, both armies began to move their units into proximity of each other.

Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson met with Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson at the Zoan Church on Plank Road before dawn on May 1st. He found that Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws had already advanced his division and emplaced it in defensive positions astride the Plank Road.

Jackson was never one to stand on the defensive so at about 11.00 AM he ordered an advance in the direction of Chancellorsville along the Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike. These two roads paralleled each other and allowed for a quicker advance west.

Jackson ordered McLaws’s division and the brigade of Brig. Gen. William Mahone to advance along the Turnpike, and Anderson’s other brigades and Jackson’s arriving units on the Plank Road.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker ordered his forces to advance east on three roads at about the same time. He ordered two divisions of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s V Corps, Brig. Gens. Charles Griffin and Andrew A. Humphreys units, to advance along the River Road and uncover or capture Banks Ford.

Meade’s third division, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Sykes, was ordered to advance on the Orange Turnpike. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum‘s XII Corps advanced on the Plank Road, with Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard‘s XI Corps in close support. Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch‘s II Corps was placed in reserve, where it would be soon joined by Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles‘s III Corps.

Map of the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1, 1863The stage was now set for a classic meeting engagement. At about 11:20 AM, soldiers from McLaws’ Division engaged those of Sykes’ Division along the Orange Turnpike. The Union troops were pushed back but Sykes quickly organized a counterattack that regained the lost ground.

South of the fighting and the Plank Road there was an unfinished railroad that Anderson used to send a brigade of Georgians commanded by Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright around the right flank of Slocum’s Corps. The Union force was saved from a flanking attack when Howard’s Corps advanced to cover its flank and prevent any damage.

Meanwhile, Sykes’ Division was now in an exposed position because they had advanced farther that Slocum’s men had. At 2:00 PM, Sykes was forced to conduct an orderly withdrawal from their exposed positions. They took up positions behind Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock‘s Division which had been ordered to advance and assist in the repulse of the Confederate attack.

Meade’s two division were making favorable progress along the River Road and were close to their objective of Banks Ford. Things were looking good for the Army of the Potomac. It was at this point in time that “Fighting Joe” Hooker halted the Union offensive.

Hooker had been an aggressive division and corps commander but the command of such a large body of troops may have been beyond his ability. His actions may have demonstrated his lack of confidence in handling the complex actions of such a large organization for the first time.

Hooker had also decided at the start of the campaign to fight a defensive battle and force General Robert E. Lee to attack his strong defensive positions. The Army of the Potomac had fought two bloody battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg in which it had suffered severe casualties due to frontal assaults. Most especially, the bloody assaults at Marye’s Heights were still fresh in Hooker’s mind.

Surmising that in the event of the reverse, Lee could not keep an army in the field after a similar defeat, Hooker ordered his commanders to withdraw to defensive positions in the Wilderness around the Chancellor house. That evening, Hooker sent a message to his corps commanders, “The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack to-day will embolden the enemy to attack him.”

Hooker’s subordinate’s were shocked and outraged with the orders to withdraw. The position they were fighting for near the Zoan Church was relatively high ground and offered an opportunity for the infantry and artillery to deploy outside the constraints of the Wilderness, an important consideration in 19th century warfare. General Meade exclaimed, “My God, if we can’t hold the top of the hill, we certainly can’t hold the bottom of it!”

Many modern historians believe that the Battle of Chancellorsville was lost with this withdrawal. However,  Stephen W. Sears, author of Chancellorsville, believes that Hooker’s concern was based on more than personal timidity.

The ground being disputed was little more than a clearing in the Wilderness, to which access was available by only two narrow roads. The aggressive Stonewall Jackson had concentrated a considerable force against Hooker’s columns.

In this area the Union forces were outnumbered about 48,000 to 30,000, and would have had difficulty maneuvering into effective lines of battle because of the narrowness of the battle space. Meade’s two divisions on the River Road were too far separated to support Slocum and Sykes, and reinforcements from the rest of the II Corps and the III Corps would be too slow in arriving.

The Union troops dug in to defensive positions around Chancellorsville, creating log breastworks, faced with abatis. Meanwhile, Lee and Jackson met met at the intersection of the Plank Road and the Furnace Road to plan their next move. Jackson believed that Hooker would retreat across the Rappahannock but Lee thought otherwise.

Robert E. Lee was aware that Lincoln and his General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck would be burning up the telegraph lines, urging Hooker to attack. Lee told Jackson that if the Union army was still in their positions on May 2nd, he would order an attack.

In the midst of this conference, cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart arrived with an intelligence report from his subordinate, Brig. Gen.Fitzhugh Lee. Robert E. Lee’s nephew. While Hooker’s left was firmly anchored on the Rappahannock with Meade’s two division, the right flank was “in the air”, without an anchor.

Howard’s XI Corps was camped on the Orange Turnpike, extending past Wilderness Church, and was vulnerable to a flanking attack. Investigations of a route to be used to reach the flank identified the proprietor of Catherine Furnace, Charles C. Wellford, who showed Jackson’s cartographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, a recently constructed road through the forest that would shield marchers from the observation of Union pickets.

Lee directed Jackson to make the flanking march, a maneuver similar to the one that had been so successful prior to the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). An account by Hotchkiss recalls that Lee asked Jackson how many men he would take on the flanking march and Jackson replied, “with my whole command.”

01/9/13

Across the Rappahannock River and Into the Wilderness

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

The Wilderness of VirginiaIn order to fully understand the Battle of Chancellorsville, one must understand the terrain that the armies encountered. The Wilderness of Virginia was then and still is today an area of dense woods along the Rappahannock River.

The Wilderness was crisscrossed with narrow roads and hidden pathways that were used by local iron furnaces for bringing in wood to make charcoal and transporting out the product of their furnaces.

Hooker’s plan called for his forces to move swiftly through the dense forest and engage the Confederates on open ground to the east. The dense undergrowth would nullify his advantage in manpower and artillery.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps had set out from their camps around Falmouth on April 13, 1863. Brig. Gen. John Buford’s Reserve Brigade headed west in order to cross the river and circle south around the Confederates.

However, heavy rains had turned the roads into quagmires and it was not until April 29th that the entire brigade was was able to completely cross at Kelly’s Ford.

Meanwhile, other elements of Stoneman’s force were able engage Confederate cavalry units at Beverly Ford. Displaying a great deal of caution, Stoneman delayed crossing the river and by the next day it had risen 7 feet, making a crossing impassable.

From that point on, Stoneman’s force devolved into a mere raiding unit and the entire point of his advance, dislocating the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, lost its objective.

On April 27th, the first three infantry corps began to cross the Rappahannock under the Artist's Depiction of the Chancellor Houseoverall command of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum. Making their way south on the narrow country roads they concentrated around the small hamlet of Chancellorsville, which was little more than a single large, brick mansion at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road.

The mansion was the home of the Frances Chancellor family. The family had owned the property until 1854 when they sold it to Samuel Pettus who had sold it to Dr. Samuel L. Guy. When Dr. Guy experienced financial difficulties, Pettus repossessed the house and rented it to the Frances Chancellor family.

Shortly before the battle, Pettus sold the property to George Guest who continued to rent it to the Chancellors. They used it as an inn and a number of prominent Confederate officers had stayed at the establishment, including Generals J.E.B. Stuart, William Mahone, Richard Anderson and Carnot Posey.

The inn was now to a visitor in a different color uniform. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker arrived late on the afternoon of April 30th and made the inn his primary headquarters.

The two II Corps divisions crossed at U.S. Ford on April 30 without opposition. By dawn on April 29, pontoon bridges spanned the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg and Sedgwick’s force began to cross.

Pleased with the success of the operation so far, and realizing that the Confederates were not vigorously opposing the river crossings, Hooker ordered Sickles to begin the movement of the III Corps from Falmouth the night of April 30–May 1. By May 1, Hooker had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville.

General Robert E. Lee in his Fredericksburg headquarters had no intelligence about the direction of the Union advance. His first thought was that Slocum’s goal was the important rail junction at Gordonsville. But J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry was able to scout around the enemy’s flanks as Stoneman’s force moved further south and east.

One of the generally accepted principles of tactical warfare is the concentration of force. However, at this juncture General Lee violated that principle and divided his force. By not not reacting as Hooker had anticipated, Lee began to foil Hooker’s plan.

Lee anticipated that Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s crossing blow Fredericksburg was merely a demonstration to freeze Jackson in position. With that in mind, Lee planned to concentrate 80% of his force against the Union Army at Chancellorsville.

He left behind a brigade under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale on heavily fortified Marye’s Heights behind Fredericksburg and one division under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, on Prospect Hill south of the town. These roughly 11,000 men and 56 guns would attempt to resist any advance by Sedgwick’s 40,000.

He ordered Stonewall Jackson to march west and link up with Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division, which had pulled back from the river crossings they were guarding and began digging earthworks on a north-south line between the Zoan and Tabernacle churches.

McLaws’s division was ordered from Fredericksburg to join Anderson. This would amass 40,000 men to confront Hooker’s movement east from Chancellorsville. Fortunately for the Confederates, heavy fog along the Rappahannock masked some of these westward movements and Sedgwick chose to wait until he could determine the enemy’s intentions.

01/3/13

Hooker’s Division Commanders

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

The Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac contained a number of division commanders who would earn their stripes during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Several of them would move up to corps command in the ensuing years.

General Winfield Scott HancockPerhaps, the best known of these division commanders was Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. The 38 year old Pennsylvanian was an 1844 graduate of West Point. At the start of the war, Hancock served as a quartermaster but was quickly promoted to brigadier general on September 23, 1861.

The army was in need of trained commanders and Hancock was given a brigade in the division of Brig. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith, Army of the Potomac. During the Peninsula Campaign, he earned the nickname, “Hancock the Superb” for his battlefield leadership.

During the Battle of Antietam, Hancock assumed command of the I Division following the mortal wounding of Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson in the horrific fighting at “Bloody Lane.”   He led the division in the bloody assaults on Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg the following month and was wounded in the abdomen.

One of the lesser-known division commanders, Brig. Gen. David Birney had a rather General David Birneycheckered career during the Civil War. After the Battle of Seven Pines he was accused of disobeying an order from his corps commander allegedly for “halting his command a mile from the enemy.”

Birney was court-martialed, but with strong positive testimony from Philip Kearny, he was acquitted and restored to command. After Kearny’s death at Chantilly, Birney assumed division command.

At Fredericksburg, he was once again accused of allegedly refusing to support Maj. Gen. George G. Meade‘s division’s attack on the left flank of the Union line. He was again exonerated and continued to command his division. Birney led his division in heavy fighting at Chancellorsville, where they suffered more casualties (1,607) than any other division in the army.

General Adolph Von SteinwehrBaron Adolph Wilhelm August Friedrich von Steinwehr was a German-Brunswick army officer who emigrated to the United States, became a geographer, cartographer, and author, and served as a Union general in the American Civil War.

He began the war as a regimental commander and progressed through brigade command to division command by Second Manassas. His division mostly included German immigrants. There first real fight was at Chancellorsville where they were in the center of Jackson’s Flank Attack on May 2, 1863.

Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams had a distinguished career during the Civil War, starting by training volunteers in Michigan. He was promoted to brigade command in October 1861 and moved up to division command in March 1862.

Williams’ Division fought in the Shenandoah Valley where they were outmaneuvered by General Alpheus WilliamsStonewall Jackson. They were defeated at Cedar Mountain by Jackson. During the Antietam Campaign, his troops discovered the famous lost orders, Special Order No. 191.

At Antietam, Williams’ corps commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield was killed and Williams assumed temporary command. The corps suffered 25% casualties in assaulting Jackson, and Brig. Gen. George S. Greene‘s division was forced to withdraw from its advanced position at the Dunker Church. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum replaced Williams as permanent corps commander immediately after the battle.

At the Battle Chancellorsville, Williams’ Division  entrenched hastily and was able to stop the Confederate advance before it overran the entire army, but it suffered 1,500 casualties in the process.

 

 

 

12/31/12

Hooker’s Corps Commanders (Part II)

This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

When Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac he changed some of his corps commanders to reflect his personal bias. Several either resigned or were reassigned. In their place, he promoted a number of division commanders to the corps command level.

General John SedgwickMaj. Gen. John Sedgwick was a division commander who had commanded first the II Corps, then the IX Corps and finally, the VI Corps of the army. His troops affectionately called him “Uncle John”.

Sedgwick was yet another West Pointer, having graduated in 1837. During the years leading up to the outbreak of the war, he fought in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War  the Utah War against the Mormons and various Indian Wars. At the start of the Civil War, Sedgwick was serving as a colonel and Assistant Inspector General of the Military Department of Washington.

He missed the early fighting due to the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. Promoted to brigadier general on August 31, 1861, he commanded a brigade in the Army of the Potomac, then his own division, which was designated the 2nd division of the II Corps for the Peninsula Campaign. In Virginia, he fought at Yorktown and Seven Pines and was wounded in the arm and leg at the Battle of Glendale. He was promoted to major general on July 4, 1862.

At the Battle of AntietamII Corps commander Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner impulsively sent Sedgwick’s division in a mass assault without proper reconnaissance. His division was engaged by Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson from three sides, resulting in 2,200 casualties. Sedgwick himself was hit by three bullets, in the wrist, leg, and shoulder, and was out of action until after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard was the young 32-year old commander of the XI Corps. General Oliver O. HowardHoward had graduated from West Point in 1854 after first graduating from Bowdoin College at the age of 19. His only antebellum service was in Florida during the Seminole Wars.

At the outbreak of the war, he commanded the 3rd Maine Infantry regiment and at First Manassas he was in temporary command of a brigade. After the Union defeat, he was promoted to brigadier general and given permanent command of a brigade.

On June 1, 1862, while commanding a Union brigade in the Fair Oaks, Howard was wounded twice in his right arm, which was subsequently amputated. He received the Medal of Honor in 1893 for his heroism at Fair Oaks. Returning to duty for the Battle of Antietam, he led a division.

In November 1862, Howard was promoted to major general and in April 1863 he was given command of the XI Corps, replacing Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel. The corps was composed largely of German immigrants, many of whom spoke no English, the soldiers were resentful of their new leader and openly called for Sigel’s reinstatement.

General Henry W. SlocumThe Union XII Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum. The 35-year old New Yorker was a 1848 graduate of West Point. Slocum only active fighting, like Howard’s, was during the Seminole Wars. In fact, by 1856 he was out of the army and was admitted to the New York State bar in 1858.

At the start of the war, Slocum was appointed colonel of the 27th New York Infantry which he led at First Manassas where he was wounded. In August 1861, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and commanded a brigade during the Peninsula Campaign and a division at the Seven Days Battles, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill.

On July 25, 1862, Slocum was appointed major general of volunteer, the second youngest man in the Army to achieve that rank. He led his division  covering the retreat of Maj. Gen. John Pope after the Second Battle of Bull Run.

At Crampton’s Gap during the Battle of South Mountain, he and his subordinate officers overrode their indecisive corps commander, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, assaulting the enemy line behind a stone wall and routing it.

On October 20, 1862, he assumed command of the XII Corps after its commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, was killed at the Battle of Antietam, a battle where Slocum’s division was kept in reserve. He led the corps in the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he fortunately arrived too late on the scene to see any real action in that Union catastrophe.

We have already met Maj. Gen. George Stoneman who commanded the Union Cavalry General George StonemanCorps. Stoneman was an 1846 graduate of West Point who was initially a dragoon. Mostly, he saw service in the West before the outbreak of the war.

At the start of the war, Stoneman was stationed in Texas where he refused to surrender to Confederate authorities there. He escaped to the North with most of his command. Stoneman served in cavalry from the beginning of the war but Maj. Gen. George McClellan had little appreciation for the use of cavalry in large formations, relegating it to assignment in small units to infantry brigades.

After the Peninsula, Stoneman was an infantry commander, commanding a division in the II Corps and the III Corps. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Stoneman commanded the III Corps. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862.

Following Fredericksburg, a new commanding general took over the Army of the Potomac: Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker had a better understanding of the strategic value of a centralized Cavalry Corps and he named Stoneman to lead it. The centralized corps could undertake long raids into enemy territory, destroying supplies, and gathering intelligence about the enemy forces. They were no longer subject to the commanders of small infantry units.

 

 

 

12/28/12

Hooker’s Corps Commanders (Part I)

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

General Daniel ButterfieldAs the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Joe Hooker exercised his prerogative to name several new subordinate commanders to staff and corps command.

As his Chief of Staff, Hooker originally asked for Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone. Unfortunately, Stone had commanded the troops at the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Stone was largely blamed for the Union defeat and was arrested but never tried on any charges. In August 1862, he was released after 189 days in confinement. When Hooker asked for Stone as his chief of staff, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton denied the request.

Hooker moved on an asked for Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield instead. He was a dapper, New York businessman who worked at American Express, a company co-founded by his father. Butterfield had almost no military experience prior to the outbreak of the war, other than serving in the militia. He enlisted as a sergeant but quickly worked his way up to brigadier general by September 1861.

Butterfield was wounded at the Battle of  Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862 where he was recognized for his bravery with the Medal of Honor, “Seized the colors of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at a critical moment and, under a galling fire of the enemy, encouraged the depleted ranks to renewed exertion.”

It was while he was recuperating from his wounds that Butterfield began experimenting with bugle calls. He is credited with the composition of Taps, probably the most famous bugle call ever written. He wrote it to replace the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the end of burials during battle. “Taps” also replaced Tattoo, the French bugle call to signal “lights out”.

By the Battle of Antietam, Butterfield had risen to division command and at Fredericksburg he commanded the V Corps where his troops made the primary assaults against Marye’s Heights.

He developed a close personal and political friendship with Hooker. The two were known for their drinking and womanizing; their headquarters being described as a combination of a “bar and brothel”. By March 1863, Butterfield had been promoted to the rank of major general.

Another key appointment was that of Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. Hooker appointed him to General Daniel E. Sicklesthe command of the III Corps, replacing Maj. Gen. George Stoneman who was transferred to command the Cavalry Corps.

Sickles was a New York lawyer and politician who was best known for killing his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key. A Member of the House, he was tried for murder but was acquitted by using the insanity defense, the first successful use of this legal tactic in United States history.

At the outbreak of the war, Sickles actively recruited volunteers in New York. He was appointed a colonel, then a brigadier general of volunteers but his commission was not approved by Congress. Using his political skills his commission was confirmed by May 1862 and he rejoined his brigade.

Despite his complete lack of military experience, Sickles was found to be a competent commander in  the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles. Promoted to division command, at the time of the Antietam Campaign his division was one of those units that protected the capital. His division was in reserve at Fredericksburg.

He was a close ally of Hookers and was given command of the III Corps in February 1863, a controversial move in the army because he became the only corps commander without a West Point education.

General John ReynoldsThe I Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, a West Point educated career officer. Reynolds had graduated in 1841 from the military academy. He had served with distinction during the Mexican War, receiving two brevet promotions in Mexico—to captain for gallantry at Monterrey and to major for Buena Vista, where his section of guns prevented the Mexican cavalry from outflanking the American left.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Reynolds was Commandant of Cadets at West Point. He was eventually appointed to the rank of brigadier general and given command of a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves.

During the Seven Days Battles, he was captured but was quickly exchanged. Promoted to command of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division, he led them at the Battle of Second Manassas where he personally led a successful counterattack waving the flag and shouting, “Now boys, give them the steel, charge bayonets, double quick!”

He missed the Antietam Campaign while on detached assignment with the Pennsylvania militia. Despite the protests of Generals George McClellan and Joseph Hooker, the governor of Pennsylvania insisted on his temporary assignment to his home state.

When he returned to the Army of the Potomac, he was given command of the I Corps which he led at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Despite his corps’ lackluster performance in the battle, After the battle, Reynolds was promoted to major general of volunteers, with a date of rank of November 29, 1862.

The II Corps had been commanded by Maj. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner until his appointment as the commander of “Right Grand Division”, one of George McClellan’s reorganizations.

In his place Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch had been appointed to command the corps. DariusGeneral Darius Couch Couch was an 1846 graduate of West point. He served in the Mexican War where he was he was brevetted a first lieutenant for “gallant and meritorious conduct” at the Battle of Buena Vista.

At the outbreak of the war he was given the command of the 7th Massachusetts Infantry on June 15, 1861. He quickly rose to brigade and then division command. He led his division at Seven Pines and then at the Battle of Oak Grove on June 25 and the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1.

Pleading failing health, he submitted his resignation but General McClellan would not accept it and Couch was promoted to major general. On November 14, 1862, Couch was assigned command of the II Corps, and he led it during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

General George Gordon MeadeMaj. Gen. George Gordon Meade was the commander of the V Corps. Meade was a West Pointer, graduating in 1835. He served in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican War where he was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey.

At the outset of the Civil War, Meade was promoted from captain to brigadier general of volunteers by August 1861. He was assigned command of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side.

He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen.Irvin McDowell’s corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army.

He was promoted to division command at the start of the Antietam Campaign. In the Battle of Antietam, Meade replaced the wounded Hooker in command of I Corps, selected personally by McClellan over other generals his superior in rank. He performed well at Antietam, but was wounded in the thigh.

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade’s division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. After the battle he was given command of the V Corps.