Disappointments (May 12, 1863)

This photograph is titled "Removing wounded across Rappahannock River after battle of Chancellorsville - under flag of truce" (Library of Congress).

This photograph is titled “Removing wounded across Rappahannock River after battle of Chancellorsville – under flag of truce” (Library of Congress).

This analysis of the repercussions of Chancellorsville bears a small load of historical irony. Meade writes that Hooker “has on this occasion missed a brilliant opportunity of making himself,” which is what Meade’s critics would be seeing after Lee army escaped over the Potomac following Gettysburg. I have to assume that son George’s presence with Stoneman’s cavalry blinded the father to the fact that Stoneman did not perform well at all. In fact, the cavalry’s rather feeble efforts provided one reason why Hooker’s campaign failed. (Young George Meade played a limited role at Chancellorsville, having fallen ill with a severe case of measles.)

Meade’s meeting with Pennsylvania governor Andrew Gregg Curtin will have repercussions later. Meade was free with his criticisms of Hooker when he spoke with the governor and Curtin indiscreetly reported the conversation in Washington, which soon got back go Hooker.

“Forney’s Press” is a reference to the Philadelphia Press, published by John Wien Forney. “During the war, Forney spent most of his time in Washington performing his duties as Secretary of the Senate; entertaining celebrities in his commodious quarters at the Mills House on Capitol Hill; giving some attention to supervising a newspaper property which he had founded there; and contributing letters to the Press under the pseudonym of ‘Occasional,’” noted J. Cutler Andrews in The North Reports the Civil War.

I did not suppose you would credit the canard in the papers about our crossing and Lee’s retreating. This story, however, with minute details, I see is published in Forney’s Press, an Administration organ, that must have known and did know better. It has been circulated for some purpose, and is doubtless considered a great piece of strategy. There is no doubt Hooker assured the President that he would soon cross again and repair all disaster, but I fear he finds the execution of this promise more difficult than the making. The enemy have all returned to their old positions and they have been seen to-day busily engaged throwing up dirt and strengthening all the crossings by additional works, though one would suppose, from the work they had previously executed, there was no room for more.

To-day I had a visit from Governor Curtin. The Governor is very much depressed, and I tried to put him in better spirits.

I cannot write you fully in relation to all the recent operations. All I can say is that Hooker has disappointed the army and myself, in failing to show the nerve and coup d’ceil at the critical moment, which all had given him credit for before he was tried. It is another proof of what a sense of responsibility will do to modify a man’s character, and should be a warning to all of us to be very cautious how we criticise our neighbors, or predict what we would do ourselves if placed in similar circumstances. My only fear is that Hooker, goaded by the attacks that are now made on him, may be induced to take some desperate step in the hope of retrieving his waning fortunes. At the same time, as I have already told you, he was fully aware when he ordered the withdrawal of the army, that he was running the risk, and great risk, of self-sacrifice. For he said he knew his personal interests were involved in advancing. I believe he acted sincerely, and for what he considered the interests of the army and the country, but I differed with him in judgment, and I fear events will confirm my view. I was clearly in favor of tempting the hazard of the die, and letting Washington take care of itself. I am sorry for Hooker, because I like him and my relations have always been agreeable with him; but I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that he has on this occasion missed a brilliant opportunity of making himself. Our losses are terrible; they are said to exceed fifteen thousand men, greater than in any other battle or series of battles, greater than in the whole of the celebrated six days’ fighting before Richmond, and greater than McClellan’s Maryland campaign. This large loss, together with the loss of over twenty thousand nine-months’ and two-years’ men, will very materially reduce this army, and unless it be speedily reinforced will paralyze its movements.

Stoneman’s success was very complete, and his whole operation brilliant in the extreme. The enemy acknowledge he has beaten Stuart, and that the latter’s laurels are faded. Alas, that we should not have taken advantage of his success! As it is, before we can advance or press them back, they will have repaired all the damages Stoneman inflicted on them.

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. 374-5. Available via Google Books.

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