Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Georgia at Chancellorsville: Setting the stage for Lee’s Masterpiece

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Public Affairs Office, Georgia Dept. of Defense

A New Union commander and a new strategy

Following the debacle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln replaced Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commanding general, Army of the Potomac, with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker had achieved a reputation for brash action as a brigade, division and corps commander. He received the nickname “Fighting Joe Hooker” accidentally when a New York newspaper editor misread a headline describing the actions at the Battle of Williamsburg. Instead of printing the headline “Fighting – Joe Hooker” the editor ran the headline “Fighting Joe Hooker.”

Hooker took immediate steps to reorganize and refit an army shattered by the Fredericksburg defeat. He devised a system of unit identification badges, elements of which survive in today’s army. He established a distinctive badge for each of his corps and a distinctive color for each division within that corps. For the first time, Soldiers could be identified at the division level. This action improved unit morale and facilitated faster re-consolidation of forces following a battle.

Having invested the greater part of the winter restoring the Army of the Potomac to fighting trim, Hooker was determined to strike General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Still entrenched in strong positions, Lee’s tiny army suffered in winter quarters across the Rappahannock from Hooker’s army. Having dispatched Maj. Gen. James Longstreet and 13,000 men to obtain provisions, Lee had only 60,000 men available to face Hooker’s 135,000; however, Lee’s Soldiers had improved their defensive positions in the months since Fredericksburg. Hooker understood despite his numerical superiority, attacking Lee’s entrenchments was no option. At the same time, he could not wait and risk the return of Longstreet’s forces. Moreover, nearly 30,000 Union Soldier’s enlistments would expire in May.

Hooker positions his army

On April 27, 1863, Hooker began sending forces northwest to ford the Rappahannock upstream of Fredericksburg. Bypassing heavily guarded ford sites, Hooker sent four of his seven corps as far as 20 miles north to multiple ford sites. After the crossings, these corps concentrated near the Chancellor mansion approximately 10 miles northwest of Fredericksburg. To conceal his intentions, Hooker left two corps encamped near Falmouth, Va. and ordered Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to feign an attack on Fredericksburg with the VI and I Corps.

By 2 p.m. April 30, Hooker’s corps were in place near Chancellorsville. Hooker’s plan had heretofore been a study in flank maneuver. Unfortunately, Hooker delayed in prosecuting his flanking attack, apparently presuming that his position alone had already decided the contest.

Lee responds

Lee had already discerned the Union general’s intent. He had dispatched Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division north the day before to establish blocking positions along main avenues of approach. The brigade of Brig. Gen. A. R. Wright, composed entirely of Georgians, marched with Anderson’s column. One of these units, the 2nd Georgia Battalion was the forerunner for the 48th Brigade Combat Team.

Anderson’s scouts confirmed the Union Army was consolidating near Chancellorsville. Lee acted decisively. Despite the river crossing of Maj. Gen. John Sedwick’s troops, Lee determined that Sedgwick’s presence was a feint and correctly judged that Hooker was attempting a flanking maneuver. He ordered Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to leave one division opposite Sedgwick and move to reinforce Anderson’s Division. Jackson left the division of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early which included the six Georgia regiments of Brig. Gen. John Gordon’s brigade in position to contend with two federal corps. He then marched the remainder of his troops north. Jackson met Anderson near Zoan Church at 11 a.m. and found Anderson’s troops were entrenching. Analyzing the situation, Jackson realized that three roads led east from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg: the Mine Road, Orange Turnpike, and Plank Road. Ordering Brig. Gen. W. T. Wofford’s Georgia brigade to defend the Mine Road approach, Jackson sent the division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws west along the Orange Turnpike. Anderson was dispatched west along the Plank Road to meet the advancing enemy.

The Georgian’s strike

Jackson was correct. Hooker was advancing east from the woods surrounding Chancellorsville. Hooker needed to reach the open fields east of Chancellorsville in order to deploy his numerically superior forces to effect. Moving east along the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, Hooker’s elements encountered the lead elements of McClaw’s division at approximately ½ mile east of the Zoan Church. Deploying to deny the Union’s advance, McClaws sent the four Georgia regiments of Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes astride the Orange Turnpike. These Georgians smashed into Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ division south of the turnpike. Meanwhile, the Georgia brigades of Brig. Gens. George Doles and Alfred Colquitt maneuvered to strike Sykes’ right flank. Sykes’ division, taking fire from two sides was stunned by the offensive and fell back.

Wright meanwhile had used an unfinished railroad cut as a high speed avenue of approach west. By 2 p.m. Wright’s Georgians had flanked the division of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum forcing it to withdraw. The Georgians continued their march west and secured a vital intersection near the Catherine Furnace, a pig-iron works vital to production of iron for the Confederate war effort. This intersection would prove vital to the prosecution of the battle on the next day.

Surprised by the swift response, Hooker ordered his commanders to withdraw and consolidate near Chancellorsville. Hooker had ceded the initiative to Lee. Lee would not surrender the initiative again.

The bold gamble begins

On the evening of May 1, 1863, Lee and Jackson met near Catherine Furnace. Both generals felt that attack was the best course of action. The Federal left was unassailable because thick woods hampered approach marches and artillery support. Engineers reported dense woods, and earthworks rendered attack of the Union center impractical. As the generals mulled courses of action Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, Lee’s cavalry commander reported that his cavalry had scouted the federal right and found it vulnerable to attack. Jackson immediately dispatched his chief topographical engineer, Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss, to gather what information could be found of roads and terrain west of the Confederate position. Hotchkiss returned and reported that a concealed route existed that would allow the army to march unseen and gain position on the enemy right.

“General Jackson,” said Lee. “What do you propose to do?”

“Go around here,” said Jackson indicating the circuitous route identified by Hotchkiss

“What do you propose to make this movement with?” asked Lee. Jackson’s reply was typical. “With my whole corps.”

Lee paused again, and then spoke three simple words.

“Well, go on.”

Next month: Georgians in Jackson’s flank attack

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