After the Storm (May 7, 1863)

"The troops on the center 3rd & 5th Corps repelling a rebel assalt [sic]--Sunday May 3rd 1863" by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

“The troops on the center 3rd & 5th Corps repelling a rebel assalt [sic]–Sunday May 3rd 1863” by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

The Battle of Chancellorsville is over. It is another Union defeat and one of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories. Meade does not know it, but it has also helped set the stage for his eventual promotion to command of the Army of the Potomac. Over the next two days he attempts to explain the battle to his wife back in Philadelphia.

I reached here last evening, fatigued and exhausted with a ten days’ campaign, pained and humiliated at its unsatisfactory result, but grateful to our heavenly Father that, in His infinite goodness, He permitted me to escape all the dangers I had to pass through.1 The papers will give you all the details of the movement, so that I shall confine myself to a general account of my own doings. General Hooker’s plan was well conceived and its early part well executed. It was briefly thus: A portion of the army were to make a forced march, cross the Rappahannock so high up as to preclude opposition, cross the Rapidan at the lower fords, drive away the defenders of the works placed at the crossings of the Rappahannock nearest to Fredericksburg, and when one of these was opened, the rest of the army was to join the advanced corps, be concentrated, and push the enemy away from Fredericksburg.

I have advised you that on Monday, the 27th ulto., my corps, the Fifth, together with the Eleventh and Twelfth, left camp and reached Kelly’s Ford on the 28th. That night and early next morning we crossed the Rappahannock, the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps moving on one road to Germanna Ford and I on another to Ely’s ford, of the Rapidan. These fords were reached and crossed by the evening of the 29th. On the 30th we advanced and concentrated at Chancellorsville, a small place on the plank road from Fredericksburg to Gordonsville, and distant some ten miles from Fredericksburg. In this movement we uncovered the United States ford and established communication with our left wing opposite Fredericksburg; thus far the movement was successful. On the 1st inst. two more corps were brought over to Chancellorsville, and the Fifth and Twelfth corps advanced from Chancellorsville towards Fredericksburg; but just as we reached the enemy we were recalled. On our retiring the enemy attacked Sykes’s division of my corps and we had a smart fight till dark. The next day, May 2d, the enemy attacked in force, and after a day’s hard fighting, owing to the bad behavior of a portion of our troops, the Eleventh Corps, we had to fall back and draw in our lines.

I ought to have mentioned that, simultaneously with our crossing the Rappahannock above, Sedgwick and Reynolds crossed below Fredericksburg, and after occupying the attention of the enemy, so soon as we were established at Chancellorsville, they were withdrawn, and Reynolds joined us on the 30th. When the force of the enemy was perceived, Sedgwick was ordered to recross at Fredericksburg and attack in their rear, which he did, on the 2d inst. On the 3d we had a very heavy fight, in which we held our own, but did not advance, awaiting Sedgwick’s operations. On the 4th remained quiet, and in the evening learned that Sedgwick was held in check by superior forces, and his position critical. The enemy not attacking us on the 5th, as we hoped, and finding him too strong to attack without danger of sacrificing the army in case of defeat, Hooker determined to withdraw to this side of the river, which we did without pursuit, on the night of the 5th.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 370-1. Available via Google Books.

 

An 1865 photo shows skulls that still remained on the Chancellorsville battlefield, a grim reminder of what had happened here (Library of Congress).

An 1865 photo shows skulls that still remained on the Chancellorsville battlefield, a grim reminder of what had happened here (Library of Congress).

 

 

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