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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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).

 

 

The Calm Before the Storm (May 2, 1863)

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Meade’s short note to his wife, written on May 2, is laced with unintentional irony. Indeed, as he noted, some Union officers did believe that the Confederates were evacuating their positions while the Army of the Potomac waited in the Wilderness around Chancellorsville. However, the rebels they saw moving off in the distance, glimpsed through a gap in the trees, were actually the men under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, making a 17-mile march on their way to fall on the unsuspecting Union right. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

“Lee and Jackson intended to end the Union swaggering, and the battlefield’s driving tour takes me to the Lee-Jackson Bivouac, the place where they determined how they would do it. This quiet spot in the woods at the intersection of the Old Plank and Furnace Roads is holy ground in Southern Civil War lore. On the night of May 1 Lee and Jackson met here to plot the destruction of Joe Hooker’s army. As they consulted their maps and talked with their scouts, they realized the Federals appeared vulnerable on their right, where Howard’s XI Corps rested with its flank “in the air,” meaning it had no solid anchor. All Howard had shielding the right of the Union line was the thick, tangled forest of the Wilderness. Howard thought this was protection enough, but Lee and Jackson, sitting on cracker boxes as they talked into the night, believed otherwise.

“Lee never lacked audacity, and the plan he hatched on the night of May 1 may have been his most audacious move yet. Although badly outnumbered, and with part of his army still confronting Sedgwick behind Fredericksburg, he decided to divide his army even more by sending Jackson and thirty thousand men on a wide swing against the Union right while he remained in place only about fifteen thousand men to distract the rest of the Federals.

“Jackson set out the next morning, his long column of men marching four abreast down narrow trails through the forest. The line stretched for almost ten miles–two hours after the head of the column began marching the tail end had yet to move. It was a huge, gray-clad, and tattered serpent snaking through the Virginia woods, making slow but steady progress to pounce on unsuspecting prey. At the ironworks of Catharine Furnace, of which only a single chimney remains today, the column veered south on its roundabout course. Once it reached the Brock Road it turned north, heading for the Plank Road and the unsuspecting men of the XI Corps.

“Jackson’s movement did not remain a secret from Hooker’s army, though. The marching troops were clearly visible off in the distance as they passed a clearing. Union artillery took the opportunity to send some shells their way. Hooker sent a message to Howard and Slocum. ‘We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right,’ it warned. ‘Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe, in order to obtain timely information of their approach.’ He warned Howard that he was not in position to withstand a flank attack. In response Howard did pretty much nothing.”

Meade’s short note, written from a then-quiet battlefield, is his last communication home before the Battle of Chancellorsville began in earnest.

We have had no great fighting as yet, though Sykes’s division, of my corps, had quite a skirmish yesterday. It is doubtful what the enemy are going to do, but many believe they are evacuating.

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. Available via Google Books.