Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Battle of Chancellorsville – May 1, First Blood

See all posts on the Battle of Chancellorsville

On May 1, 150 years ago today, Lee's Confederates got moving to meet the Union force which had positioned themselves on their flank. Waiting for them in the thick woods around Chancellorsville was the main Union force under Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker, much larger than the Confederates in numbers. The rebels were leaving behind in Fredericksburg just a token force to resist the powerful Union detachment under John Sedgwick.

Already facing Hooker were the divisions of Anderson and McLaws, the remnant of Longstreet's corps which had been detached to southern Virginia. Since their corps commander was absent, Lee was directing these divisions personally. These greybacks were joined by the corps of Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Together they advanced to meet the Federals, who were also moving forward in a general advance under orders from Hooker. Fighting broke out around 11:30 am, but it wasn't long before Hooker called a halt.

Up to this point in the campaign he had been successful. He had boldly moved around the Confederate position, and was admirably positioned to drive back the smaller Confederate force opposing him. But at this point he lost his nerve. Instead of continuing to pursue an active attack, he ordered his troops back before they reached their objectives, having determined on taking up a defensive position around Chancellorsville. Hooker's subordinates were disgusted with this decision. They were abandoning the high ground for little reason. In a few hours Hooker had completely changed his plans from a bold offensive to waiting to receive Lee's attack. Perhaps he thought that he had made to much progress against Lee, and that he was falling into a trap. On the other hand he may have simply been scared and unprepared too control the huge army.

Union Corps commander Darius Couch made his way to headquarters to report on his movements. He later wrote:
Proceeding to the Chancellor House, I narrated my operations in front to Hooker, which were seemingly satisfactory, as he said: 'It is all right, Couch, I have got Lee just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground.' The retrograde movement had prepared me for something of this kind, but to hear from his own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much, and I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.
Couch was right. Hooker's decision to halt the advance was one of the major turning points of the campaign. He was giving Lee the opportunity he needed to launch one of the greatest attacks of his career.



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