The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863
Chancellorsville has always been a neglected battle for its size. It is overshadowed by Gettysburg, which has the advantage that both sides actually did something. Hooker’s complete moral collapse on first contact doesn’t make a good story. The confusing ground also didn’t help. Aside from the story of Jackson’s Last Battle it slides into obscurity.
How much worse, then, does the half of the battle where Hooker, Lee, and Jackson did not participate in fare? Quite a bit worse.
But the forces involved were substantial, about 30000 men in the VI Corps under Sedgwick against a two or three Confederate divisions. Certainly books have been written about smaller portions of battles before.
When Joe Hooker executed his outflanking operation against Lee, he managed to get the bulk of the Army of the Potomac into Lee’s rear without incident. The job of Sedgwick was to distract Lee while he did that. This he did. The time was ripe for Hooker to make his move, and he pulled two Corps from the Fredericksburg forces to do so. Then he lost his nerve and stopped when Lee advanced on him rather than retreating. He then ordered VI Corps to attack and come to his aid.
Some historians, trying to boost Hooker’s historical status, claim that having the VI Corps attack was part of the original plan. If so, it would have been stupid to subtract those extra army Corps from the decisive attack force to sit idle with an inactive force. So you can imagine the surprise when the orders arrived and Sedgwick was told to improvise an attack against an unknown opponent and march into unknown territory toward Lee. And Sedgwick wasn’t the most aggressive officer in the usually reluctant Army of the Potomac.
But eventually he managed to force Early away from his road to Chancellorsville and march to Salem Church, where he was met by first Wilcox’s brigade and then the rest of McLaws’ division. Here he was brought to a halt while Hooker continued to stand idle. With Early’s division hovering in his rear, and Lee free to send Anderson’s division to join the attack Sedgwick decided to fall back on the one place he could recross the river, Banks’ Ford. He managed to do this and recross the river after taking severe losses. Many of the other Corps with Hooker had virtually no losses for the campaign.
Chancellorsville was the worst-fought battle by the Army of the Potomac in the entire war. Lee was weakened by the dispatch of Longstreet to southeast Virginia, but Hooker weakened his army even more by dividing it, and then keeping most of it entirely passive and idle. Then, in a final blunder, he retired before Lee could make a “Malvern Hill”-like mistake and attack his entrenched force at a severe disadvantage.
This book is a fine corrective in that it details the actions of the force that actually did do some fighting and attacking at the battle rather than act as a punching bag for the Army of Northern Virginia. Good work!