Open War (May 19, 1863)

Edwin Forbes drew this sketch of the Chancellorsville house, where Hooker had his headquarters during the battle. He was on the front porch when a cannonball hit the house, striking Hooker with debris. The general although knocked unconscious and probably severely concussed, retained command after awakening. (Library of Congress)

Edwin Forbes drew this sketch of the Chancellorsville house, where Hooker had his headquarters during the battle. He was on the front porch when a cannonball hit the house, striking Hooker with debris. The general although knocked unconscious and probably severely concussed, retained command after awakening. (Library of Congress)

The rupture between Meade and Hooker is now complete. Meade wasn’t the only person harboring serious doubts about Fighting Joe’s abilities, though. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

After Chancellorsville the New York Tribune sent George W. Smalley to Virginia to determine what had gone wrong. “If I am to be investigated, it might as well be by you as anybody,” Hooker told him. Smalley like Hooker, but he put his personal feelings aside. During the course of his investigation decided that the general had lost his army’s confidence. Several staff officers even urged Smalley to tell Meade he was their choice to command. Smalley agreed to speak to him and found Meade just as the general was getting on his horse. The general invited the reporter to ride along with him.

As Smalley began to explain his mission, Meade turned and looked sharply at him. “I don’t know that I ought to listen to you,” he said. Smalley told the general that he was not acting in any official capacity; he intended only to explain what he had heard. Meade allowed him to continue. “I said my say,” Smalley related. “From beginning to end, General Meade listened with an impassive face. He did not interrupt. He never asked a question. He never made a comment. When I had finished I had not the least notion what impression my narrative had made on him; nor whether it had made any impression. He was a model of military discretion. Then we talked a little about other things. I said good-bye, rode away, and never again saw General Meade.”

 I am sorry to tell you I am at open war with Hooker. He yesterday came to see me and referred to an article in the Herald, stating that four of his corps commanders were opposed to the withdrawal of the army. He said this was not so, and that Reynolds and myself had determined him to withdraw. I expressed the utmost surprise at this statement; when he said that I had expressed the opinion that it was impracticable to withdraw the army, and therefore I had favored an advance, and as he knew it was perfectly practicable to withdraw, he did not consider my opinion as being in favor of an advance. I replied to him that this was a very ingenious way of stating what I had said; that my opinion was clear and emphatic for an advance; that I had gone so far as to say that I would not be governed by any consideration regarding the safety of Washington, for I thought that argument had paralyzed this army too long. I further said that if the enemy were considered so strong that the safety of the army might be jeopardized in attacking them, then I considered a withdrawal impracticable without running greater risk of destroying the army than by advancing, and that it seemed rather singular that he should set me down as the advocate of a measure which he acknowledged I asserted to be impracticable. He reiterated his opinion and said he should proclaim it. I answered I should deny it, and should call on those who were present to testify as to whether he or I was right. The fact is, he now finds he has committed a grave error, which at the time he was prepared to assume the responsibility of, but now desires to cast it off on to the shoulders of others; but I rather think he will find himself mistaken. At any rate, the entente cordiale is destroyed between us, and I don’t regret it, as it makes me more independent and free. I also told him that it was my impression at the time, but that of course it could only be known to himself and his God, that he had made up his mind to withdraw the army before he had heard the opinions of his corps commanders. To this he did not make any reply, and I am satisfied that such was the case. I have not seen Reynolds, or any of the others present on the occasion, since I had this conversation with him, but I intend to address each a letter and ask for their impressions of what I did say. Such things are very painful and embarrassing, but I have always feared the time would come when they would be inevitable with Hooker; for I knew no one would be permitted to stand in his way. I suppose he has heard some of the stories flying round camp in regard to my having the command, and these, in connection with what George Cadwalader told him Governor Curtin said, have induced him to believe that I am manoeuvering to get him relieved, that I may step in his shoes. God knows the injustice he does me, and that I have never spoken a word to any one except Governor Curtin, and to him I never referred to Hooker’s being relieved, but only criticised his recent operations, saying nothing more, or if as much, as I have written to you. I can tell him that if he had no stronger enemy than I am, he might rest much more secure than he can, knowing all that I do. I wish he could hear what some others say; he would look on me very differently.

There are two English officers on a visit to the camp. One of them, Lord Abinger (formerly Mr. Scarlett), Lieutenant Colonel of the Scots Fusileer Guards, brought me a letter from George Ramsay. I am going to-morrow to review my corps, and have invited them to be present. Lord Abinger seems a very nice fellow. He was in Philadelphia in 1857, and speaks a great deal about his visit and the people there. He recognized Major Biddle, asked after his mother, and altogether appears quite at home in Philadelphia society.

I have lost nearly a division by the expiration of service of the two-years’ and nine-months’ men, so that I have had to break up Humphreys’s division, and he is going to take command of the division recently commanded by General Berry, in Sickles’s corps. I am very sorry to lose Humphreys. He is a most valuable officer, besides being an associate of the most agreeable character.

My relations with Hooker are such that I cannot ask for the necessary leave to go up to Washington, to receive my sword; so unless they take some action and get the Secretary to authorize my going up, I fear it will be some time before I come into possession.

Just think, it is nearly two years, indeed over two years, since we have been separated.

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. 377-379. Available via Google Books.

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Reports (May 13, 1863)

Report croppedMeade did not have a great deal to communicate on May 13, but since he mentions his official report on Chancellorsville this seems like a good place to post it. I’ve downloaded the page images from Cornell University’s online version of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol 25, pages 505-512. Simply click on each thumbnail below to see the full-size image.

I have not been a great deal at headquarters, being occupied with my command, particularly writing my official report. I have completed this and gotten it off my hands, which is a great relief. There is much talking in the army, but I doubt very much whether Hooker is in any danger of losing his command. The Government seems to be satisfied with him, judging from the tone of those papers known to be connected with it.

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), p. 375. Available via Google Books.

Meade's Chancellorsville Page 1

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 1

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 2

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 2

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 3

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 3

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 4

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 4

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 5

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 5

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 6

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 6

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 7

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 7

Meade's Chancellorsville Report, Page 8

Meade’s Chancellorsville Report, Page 8

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.