Chancellorsville, Continued (May 8, 1863)

In his letter of May 8, Meade continues his account of the Battle of Chancellorsville. George is his son, who was serving with the Union cavalry. Other generals shared his disappointment with the army’s commander, Joe Hooker. Rumors of Hooker’s removal from command swept through camp. Generals Couch, Slocum, and Sedgwick all sent word to Meade that they would be happy to serve under him.  I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “Col. Charles Wainwright, artillery chief of the I Corps, was talking with some fellow officers on May 6; they decided Meade would be the best replacement for Hooker, with Gouverneur Warren as his chief of staff. ‘From what I had seen of Meade during the three days I was at Chancellorsville, and from my previous knowledge of him, I had given him the preference, and was glad to find there were others, good judges, who agreed with me,’ Wainwright noted in his journal.


Alexander Webb, soon to become a brigadier general and later Meade's chief of staff (Library of Congress).

Alexander Webb, soon to become a brigadier general and later Meade’s chief of staff (Library of Congress).

“Shortly after the battle Alexander S. Webb wrote a letter home. ‘I wish you would tell all, that General Meade was head and shoulders above all out in the field,’ he said. ‘He advised the attacks which were not made, and which would have gained the day. He asked to be allowed to attack with his corps, supported by Reynolds; it was refused. He advised not to fall back. And since this battle he has received messages from three senior generals stating that they would willingly serve under him.’”

When I last wrote I could get no definite information of George’s whereabouts, but to-day Captain Newhall has returned to headquarters and reports the cavalry all back across the Rappahannock, except two regiments that continued on and have arrived at Yorktown, having succeeded in destroying several bridges on the railroads from hence and Gordonsville to Richmond. Unfortunately our withdrawal across the Rappahannock will prevent advantage being taken of the cavalry success, as they will now have time to repair damages before we can get at them again.

Just after closing my letter yesterday I was summoned to headquarters, where I found the President and General Halleck. The former said he had come down to enquire for himself as to the condition of affairs and desired to see corps commanders. He and Halleck spent a couple of hours, took lunch, and talked of all sorts of things, but nothing was said of our recent operations, or any reference made to the future, nor was any corps commander called on for an opinion. The President remarked that the result was in his judgment most unfortunate; that he did not blame any one—he believed every one had done all in his power; and that the disaster was one that could not be helped. Nevertheless he thought its effect, both at home and abroad, would be more serious and injurious than any previous act of the war. In this I agree with him; and when it comes to be known that it might and should have been avoided, I think the country will hold some one responsible. My conscience and record are fortunately clear. I opposed the withdrawal with all my influence, and I tried all I could, on Sunday morning, to be permitted to take my corps into action, and to have a general battle with the whole army engaged, but I was overruled and censured for sending in a brigade of Humphreys’s, which I did in spite of orders to the contrary. General Hooker has disappointed all his friends by failing to show his fighting qualities at the pinch. He was more cautious and took to digging quicker even than McClellan, thus proving that a man may talk very big when he has no responsibility, but that it is quite a different thing, acting when you are responsible and talking when others are. Who would have believed a few days ago that Hooker would withdraw his army, in opposition to the opinion of a majority of his corps commanders? yet such is absolutely and actually the case.

My corps did not have much of a chance. On Friday, Sykes’s division had a very handsome little affair, in which his command behaved very well and gained decided advantages, driving the enemy before them; but Sykes was recalled just as his advance was successful. In the evening he repelled an attack of the enemy. On Sunday, Humphreys’s two brigades were engaged, creditably and successfully, and on Monday a brigade of Griffin’s was sent forward to engage and feel the enemy’s position, which duty was successfully accomplished. The heavy fighting, however, of Saturday and Sunday was done by Slocum, Couch and Sickles, particularly the latter, whose losses are greater than any other corps, unless it be Sedgwick’s, which suffered very severely in his attempt to attack the enemy from Fredericksburg.

I have been a good deal flattered by the expression of opinion on the part of many officers, that they thought and wished I should be placed in command, and poor Hooker himself, after he had determined to withdraw, said to me, in the most desponding manner, that he was ready to turn over to me the Army of the Potomac; that he had enough of it, and almost wished he had never been born. Since seeing the President, however, he seems in better spirits, and I suppose, unless some strong pressure is brought to bear from external sources, he will not be disturbed. Hooker has one great advantage over his predecessors in not having any intriguer among his subordinate generals, who are working like beavers to get him out and themselves in.

For some reason or other they have prohibited bringing newspapers to camp, so that I am completely in the dark as to public opinion.

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. 371-3. Available via Google Books.

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