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.”

Series Navigation<< Across the Rappahannock River and Into the WildernessJackson’s Flank Attack: The Advance >>

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