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.

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