In April, 1863, General Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, decided to attack the Army of Northern Virginia that had been entrenched on the south side of the Rappahonnock River since the battle of Fredericksburg. Hooker and his 130,000 strong army crossed the river and took up position at Chancellorsville.
Although outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee, opted to split his Confederate Army into two groups. Lee left 10,000 men under Jubal Early, while on 2nd May, he sent Thomas Stonewall Jackson to attacked the flank of Hooker's army. The attack was successful but after returning from the battlefield Jackson was accidentally shot by one of his own men. Jackson's left arm was successfully amputated but he developed pneumonia and he died eight days later.
On the 3rd May, James Jeb Stuart, who had taken command of Jackson's troops, mounted another attack and drove Joseph Hooker back further. The following day Robert E. Lee and Jubal Early and joined the attack on the Union Army. By 6th May, Hooker had lost over 11,000 men, and decided to retreat from the area.
It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him - the operations of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps have been a succession of splendid achievements
They hoped indeed that the Army of the Potomac, 130,000 strong, would prove able to beat Lee's army, only 60,000 strong. But it jarred upon their feelings as well as their good sense to hear their commanding general gasconade do boastfully of having the enemy in the hollow of his hand - that enemy being Robert E. Lee at the head of the best infancy in the world. Still we all hoped, and we explored the map for the important strategical point we would strike the next day. but the "next day" brought us a fearful disappointment.
His exterior was certainly most attractive and commanding. He was fully six feet high, finely proportioned, with a soldierly, erect carriage, handsome and noble features, a slight fringe of side-whiskers, a rosy complexion, abundant blond hair, a fine and expressive mouth, and, most striking of all, great, speaking grey-blue eyes. He looked, indeed, like the ideal soldier and captain, fit for a model of a war-god.
He had even then an unenviable notoriety for a rash tongue, to which he added lamentably in his subsequent career. He burst forth into unsparing criticism of the general conduct of the war, of the government, of Halleck, McClellan and Pope. His language was so severe and, at the same time, so infused with self-assertion as to give rise immediately to a fear on my part that he might be inclined to make use of me for his own glorification and for the detraction of others.
On Friday, May 1st, our columns, advancing toward Fredericksburg, met the opposing enemy. Hooker recoiled and ordered his army back into a defensive position, there to await Lee's attack. Thus the offensive campaign so brilliantly opened was suddenly transformed into a defensive one. hooker had surrendered the initiative of movement, and given to Lee the incalculable advantage of perfect freedom of action. Lee could fall fall back in good order upon his lines of communication with Richmond, if he wished, or he could concentrate his forces, or so much of them as he saw fit, upon any part of Hooker's defensive position which he might think most advantageous to himself to attack.
Chancellorsville was a dreadful field. The dead were strewn through forest and open farms. The wounded had often to wait for days before succor came. Sometimes it never came. One officer on my personal staff, Captain F. Dessaur, was killed while near me beside Barlow's entrenchments, endeavoring to rally the panic-stricken men. His young wife had besought him to resign and come home to Brooklyn, New York, before the battle commenced. He tendered his resignation, explaining the peculiar circumstances of the case. But we were before the enemy, and soon to be engaged in battle, so that I wrote my disapproval upon his application. Poor fellow, he was slain, and my heart was deeply pained at his loss and in sympathy with his stricken family. Dessaur is an example of that dreadful sacrifice made in the cause of our national unity and of human liberty.
It has been customary to blame me and my corps for the disaster. The imputations of neglect to obey orders; of extraordinary self-confidence; of fanatical reliance upon the God of battles; of not sending out reconnaissances; of not intrenching; of not strengthening the right dank by keeping proper reserves; of having no pickets and skirmishers; of not sending information to General Hooker, etc., etc., are far from true. My command was by positive orders riveted to that position. Though constantly threatened and made aware of hostile columns in motion, yet the woods were so dense that Stonewall Jackson was able to mass a large force a few miles off, whose exact whereabouts neither patrols, reconnaissances, nor scouts ascertained. The enemy crossing the plank road, two and a half miles off, we all saw. So the turning at the Furnace was seen by hundreds of our people; but the interpretation of these movements was certainly wrong. Yet, wherein did we neglect any precaution? It will be found that Devens kept his subordinates constantly on the qui vive; so did Schurz. Their actions and mine were identical. The Eleventh Corps detained Jackson for over an hour; part of my force was away by Hooker's orders; part of each division fought hard, as our Confederate enemies clearly show; part of it became wild with panic, like the Belgians at Waterloo, like most of our troops at Bull Run, and the Confederates, the second day, at Fair Oaks.
I may leave the whole matter to the considerate judgment of my companions in arms, simply asserting that on the terrible day of May 2, 1863, I did all which could have been done by a corps commander in the presence of that panic of men largely caused by the overwhelming attack of Jackson's 26,000 men against my isolated corps of 8,000 without its reserve thus outnumbering me 3 to 1.
There is always a theory in war which will to rest all the imputation of blame to those who do not deserve it. It is to impute the credit of one's great defeat to his enemy. I think in our hearts, as we take a candid review of everything that took place under General Hooker in the blind wilderness country around Chancellorsville, we do, indeed, impute our primary defeat to the successful effort of Stonewall Jackson, and our other checks to General Robert E. Lee.
The wounded have begun to arrive from Hooker's command from bloody Chancellorsville. I was down among the first arrivals. The men in charge told me the bad cases were yet to come. If that is so I pity them, for these are bad enough. You ought to see the scene of the wounded arriving on the landing here at the foot of Sixth Street, at night. Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night. the pale, helpless soldiers had been debarked, and lay around on the wharf and neighborhood anywhere. The rain was, probably, grateful to them; at any rate they were exposed to it. The few torches light up the spectacle. All round - on the wharf, on the ground, out on side places - the men are lying on blankets, old quilts, etc., with bloody rags bound round heads, arms, and legs.
The attendants are few, and at night few outsiders also - only a few hard-worked transportation men and drivers. The wounded are getting to be common, and people grow callous. The men, whatever their condition, lie there, and patiently wait till their turn comes to be taken up. The men generally make little or do ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppressed, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. Today, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and tomorrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.