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.

Series Navigation<< Sedgwick’s Advance Against Early: Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church

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