A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. — Alexander Tytler

On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill




Lee Against Burnside and Hooker

Lincoln had good reason for hesitating to change commanders, for, unsatisfactory as McClellan had proved, the President was by no means sure that any of his other generals would do better. In fact, with all his defects, there was much to be said in McClellan's favor. As an organizer of troops or chief of staff he had displayed talents of the highest possible order, transforming the armed mob which had flocked to the defense of the Union at the opening of the war into a well-drilled and disciplined army. That he had not accomplished much with this great engine of war after it had been constructed, had not been wholly his fault, for he had never been entirely free from interference at the hands of incompetent superiors, and he had had the misfortune to be pitted against a past master of the art of war. Moreover, he had been called to the chief command at a moment of panic and peril and, if he had not succeeded in defeating Lee, he had, at Antietam, given the North the only semblance of victory which it could claim in all its campaigning in the South. But that one taste of triumph had whetted the public appetite for more. Despite McClellan's continuous talk about the overpowering numbers of his foes, the supporters of the Union knew that they outmatched the Confederacy in men, arms, ships, money, and resources of every kind. They accordingly insisted that the immense army which had lain idle in its camps for almost two months after the drawn battle at Antietam should be set to work.

In response to this popular demand, General Ambrose Burnside was appointed to take McClellan's place, and a more utterly unfitted man for prosecuting a successful campaign against Lee could scarcely have been selected. He himself fully realized this. Indeed, he had already twice refused the chief command on the ground that he did not feel competent to conduct a great campaign. But the public, which had become disgusted with boasters, admired his modesty, and his preparations for carrying the war again into Virginia were followed with high hopes for his success. The officers of the army, however, did not share the popular confidence in their new chief and some of those highest in authority gave him only a half-hearted support.

But nothing could have saved Burnside's extraordinary campaign. Had he been assigned to lead a forlorn hope, regardless of consequences, his plan, if it can be called a plan, might have been justified, but under the existing circumstances it was reckless to the point of madness. His first moves, however, were characterized by an excess of caution and so slowly did he advance that before he was fairly started for the South, Lee blocked the road, concentrating his whole army on the hills behind the City of Fredericksburg in a position practically defying attack.

To attempt a direct assault against this fortress-like post was suicidal, but apparently no thought of maneuvering crossed Burnside's mind. His one idea was to brush aside the foe. But before he could even reach him his army had to cross the Rappahannock, a formidable river, and march over an open plain, absolutely at the mercy of its intrenched opponents, who could, as one of their artillery officers expressed it, "comb the ground" with their cannon. Nevertheless, into this death trap the Union troops were plunged on the 13th of December, 1862, and they advanced to destruction with a dash and courage that won the admiration of friends and foes alike. The result was, of course, inevitable. No human beings could withstand the storm of shot and shell which burst upon them, and though some of the devoted columns actually reached the foot of the Confederate breastworks, they could do no more, and over 12,000 men fell victims to the disastrous attack.

For once, Lee was at an utter loss to comprehend his adversary's plan. He could not believe that this wanton butchery of men was all there was to the contest. To his mind such an awful sacrifice of human life would never have been made unless for the purpose of paving the way for another enterprise absolutely certain of success. But nothing more was attempted and the battle of Fredericksburg, reflecting the conception of a disordered brain rather than the trained intelligence of a graduate of West Point, was added to the already long list of blunders which prolonged the war.

Burnside brought severe charges against several of his generals for their failure to support his sorry tactics, and even went so far as to demand their dismissal from the army. There was undoubtedly some ground for his complaints, but such obviously incompetent leadership was enough to demoralize any army, and not long after his crippled battalions retreated behind the Rappahannock he was relieved of his command, which was given to General Joseph Hooker, one of the officers he most seriously accused.

Hooker was familiarly known to the country as "Fighting Joe," a name he had well earned on many a hard-fought field. He, like his predecessors, was a graduate of West Point and his record, in many respects worthy of the best traditions of that famous school, inspired the army with the belief that it had, at last, found a leader who would pilot it to victory.

Certainly, the new commander was not troubled with Burnside's self-distrust. His confidence in himself and in his plans was unbounded, and there was no little justification for his hopes, for his campaign was well thought out and he had a force of over 130,000 men under his orders—fully 70,000 more than his adversary could bring into the field.

Lee still lay intrenched on the hills behind Fredericksburg, and there Hooker ordered General Sedgwick to hold him with part of the army while he himself, with another and more powerful part, crossed the Rappahannock River by a ford twenty-seven miles above. By this move he hoped to get behind Lee and then crush him, as nut-crackers would crush a nut, by closing in on him with a front and rear attack.

This was not a strikingly original plan. It was in fact merely a flanking movement on a huge scale, but compared to Burnside's performance it was highly scientific and the vast superiority of the Union forces almost insured its success. Hooker was certainly convinced that he had at last solved the great problem of the war and that Lee was practically in his power. Indeed, as his flanking army forded the river, he issued an address of congratulation in which he informed his troops that they had the Confederates in a position from which they must either "ingloriously fly" or come out in the open where certain defeat awaited them. But "Fighting Joe" was soon to learn the folly of crowing until one is out of the woods, for as he emerged from the forests sheltering the fords, he discovered that Lee's army had not remained tamely in its intrenchments, but had quietly slipped away and planted itself squarely across his path.

For a moment the Union commander was fairly astounded. He had prophesied that his adversary would fly from Fredericksburg, but he had not expected him to move so soon or in this direction. Indeed, his well-matured plans were based on the supposition that Lee would remain where he wanted him to be until he was ready to spring his trap, quite forgetting that though it is easy to catch birds after you have put salt on their tails, it is rather difficult to make them wait while you salt them. As a matter of fact, Lee had taken alarm the moment his cavalry scouts reported his opponent's movement towards the fords and, realizing that he would be caught if he remained where he was, he had rapidly departed from Fredericksburg, leaving only enough force to occupy Sedgwick's attention. Even then he was in a precarious position, for Hooker's flanking army alone outnumbered him and the force threatening Fredericksburg would certainly start in pursuit of him as soon as it discovered that the bulk of his army had withdrawn from that city. All this was equally clear to Hooker after his first gasp of astonishment, and as he hurriedly ordered Sedgwick to attack Fredericksburg with part of his forces and to send the rest as reenforcement against Lee, he confidently believed that his foe had delivered himself into his hands.

But Lee, though cornered, was not yet caught. He had to think and act quickly but though he had only 45,000 men and Hooker had 70,000 on the spot, his idea was not to escape but to attack. A close examination of the opposing lines in front and at the Federal left disclosed no weakness, but the right beyond Chancellorsville looked more hopeful. Then a brilliant idea suddenly occurred to his mind. The Union commander was evidently awaiting or meditating a direct attack and had no fear except that his prey might escape him. Might it not be possible to keep him busily occupied in front, while a force stole behind his right wing and caught it between two fires?

This was precisely what Hooker had been endeavoring to do to him, but Lee was well aware that what was safe for a large army might be ruinous for a small one and that his proposed maneuver would require him to divide his small army into two smaller parts, both of which would be annihilated if the move was discovered. But capture or destruction stared him in the face any way, so, learning from a certain Colonel Welford that a road used by him in former years for transporting materials to a local furnace could be utilized to swing a considerable force behind Hooker's right, he determined to take the desperate chance.

[Illustration] from On the Trail of Grant and Lee by Frederick T. Hill
DIAGRAM MAP SHOWING STRATEGY OF THE OPENING OF THE BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE,
MAY 1 AND 2, 1863 (NOT DRAWN TO SCALE) .


The necessary orders were accordingly issued during the night of May 1, 1863, and by daylight the next morning Jackson started off on the back trail with about 30,000 men, leaving Lee with only 15,000 to face Hooker's overwhelming array. The success of the whole enterprise depended upon the secrecy and speed with which it was conducted, but Jackson had already proved his ability in such work and his men set off at a brisk pace well screened by vigilant cavalry. It was not possible, however, wholly to conceal the march, and not long after it began several quite definite reports of its progress reached Hooker. But though he duly warned his Corps Commanders to be on their guard against a flank movement, he himself evidently interpreted it as the beginning of a retreat. Indeed, by four o'clock in the afternoon of May 2nd he became convinced that his victims were striving to escape, for he advised Sedgwick, "We know that the enemy is fleeing, trying to save his trains." But even as he dispatched this message Jackson was behind at the Union right and his men were forming in line of battle under cover of a heavy curtain of woods.

Meanwhile, some of the division commanders at the threatened position had become disquieted by the reports that a large body of Confederates was marching somewhere, though just where no one seemed to know. Two of them accordingly faced their men toward the rear in readiness for an attack from that direction. But the assurances which reached them from headquarters that the enemy was in full flight discouraged precautions of this kind, and when Jackson crept up a neighboring hill to examine the Union position, he found most of the troops had their backs turned to the point of danger. In fact, the camp, as a whole presented a most inviting spectacle, for the soldiers were scattered about it, playing cards or preparing their evening meal, with their arms stacked in the rear, little dreaming that one of their most dreaded foes was watching them from a hilltop, behind which crouched thousands of his men. Every detail of the scene was impressed on Jackson's memory when he quietly slipped back into the woods, and for the next two hours he busied himself posting his troops to the best advantage.

It was six o'clock when the order to attack was given and most of the Union soldiers were still at their suppers when deer, foxes, rabbits and other animals, alarmed by a mass of men advancing through the forest, began to tear through the camp as though fleeing from a prairie fire. But before the startled soldiers could ask an explanation of this strange stampede, the answer came in the form of a scattering musketry fire and the fearsome yells of 26,000 charging men.

The panic that followed beggars description. Regiments huddled against regiments in helpless confusion; artillery, infantry and cavalry became wedged in narrow roads and remained hopelessly jammed; officers and men fought with one another; generals were swept aside or carried forward on the human waves, hoarsely bellowing orders which no one heeded, while into the welter the Confederates poured a deadly fire and rounded up masses of bewildered prisoners. It was well-nigh dusk before even the semblance of a line of defense could be formed to cover the disorganized masses of men, but the gathering darkness increased the terror of the hapless fugitives, who, stumbling and crashing their way to safety, carried confusion in their wake.

Meanwhile Lee, advised of what was happening at the Union right, vigorously attacked Hooker's left, and a fierce conflict at that point added to the general turmoil until the contending forces could no longer distinguish each other, save by the flashing of their guns. The fighting then ceased all along the line and both sides busied themselves with preparations for renewing the struggle at the earliest possible moment. Jackson, accompanied by some of his staff, instantly began a reconnoissance of the Union position. He had just completed this and was returning to his lines when some of his own pickets, mistaking his party for Union cavalry, fired on them killing a captain and a sergeant. The Confederate commander immediately turned his horse and sought safety at another point, but he had not progressed far before he drew the fire of another picket squad and fell desperately wounded.

General A. P. Hill then assumed command, but fighting had scarcely been resumed the next morning before he was wounded and Jeb Stuart took his place. Meanwhile, Hooker had been injured and the next day Lee fiercely assailed Sedgwick. For the best part of two days the battle raged with varying success. But, little by little, the Confederates edged their opponents toward the Rappahannock, and by the night of May 5th, 1863, Hooker withdrew his exhausted forces across the river.

The battle of Chancellorsville cost Lee over 12,000 men; but with a force which never exceeded 60,000, he had not only extricated himself from a perilous position, but had inflicted a crushing blow on an army of 130,000, an achievement which has passed into history as one of the most brilliant feats of modern warfare.