April 28, 1863: Marching Towards Chancellorsville

Hooker's Plan

One hundred and fifty-eight years ago the Army of the Potomac was en route to what would be come the battlefield of Chancellorsville.  Hooker was in fine spirits.  He outnumbered Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia 133,000 to 60,000, two of Lee’s divisions being in Southeastern Virginia on detached duty and that would take no part in the battle.  He planned to crush Lee between a Union corps at Fredericksburg led by General Sedgwick and and an attack by six corps led by him from The Wilderness, the rugged wooded terrain that surrounded Chancellorsville, that would fall on Lee’s rear.  E.P. Alexander who fought at Chancellorsville as a Confederate artillery colonel, and who would end the War as a Brigadier General and commander of First Corps artillery, in his two memoirs, Military Memoirs of a Confederate and Fighting for the Confederacy, demonstrated ability as a keen military analyst, and he thought Hooker’s plan was the best, and the best executed up to May 1, of the many plans of campaign by the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia.

And now, that my narrative may be better understood, I must give an outline of Hooker’s plan of campaign.  When Burnside was relieved, his corps, the 9th, was taken from the Army of the Potomac & he went to the West with it.  But its place was supplied by two other corps, the 11th & 12th.  This gave Hooker 7 corps-1sr, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 11th & 12th, averaging  about 18,000 men each, & his cavalry brought up his whole force to 139,000.  Gen. Lee’s force was six divisions of infantry, averaging about 8,000 each, & 2 division of cavalry, about 3,000 each.  For this campaign the most of Hooker’s cavalry force was dispatched on a raid toward Richmond & to break up our communication, & the largest part of ours were sent in pursuit of them;  & we were able to prevent their accomplishing any grievous harm.  Of his seven infantry corps, Hooker left three, the 1st, 3rd, & 6th under Gen. Sedgwick, to make a crossing just below Fredericksburg, & to make demonstrations which would hold us on the defensive;  while with the four other corps he made a circuit, crossing the river some 18 miles above us, & then moved down taking us in flank.  As he moved down & drove in our left, uncovering successive fords of the Rappahannock, he would establish short communication between the two halves of this forces, & could then, suddenly, & without our knowledge, reinforce his turning column by the 1st & 2nd Corps, giving him 6 corps upon our left flank.  On the whole I think this plan was decidedly the best strategy conceived in any of the campaigns ever set on foot against us.  And the execution of it was, also, excellently managed, up to the morning of May 1st. At that time Hooker had reached Chancellorsville on our side of the river and only about twelve miles from Fredericksburg, & had with him five corps of infantry, while two were threatening our front at Fredericksburg.

In later posts we will examine how Hooker’s plan, which got off to such a good start, ended in Lee’s Masterpiece.

4 Comments

  1. You really know your Civil War strategies! Such an incredibly fascinating (horrible, but still fascinating) time in our history. I enjoy reading about the principal players, but I struggle retaining what I read about the strategies. I don’t have a very adept military mind. This was interesting to read!

    • Thank you TWB. At bottom military strategy is not that complicated once you become familiar with the jargon and have read a bit about it. General Nathan Bedford Forrest never had much formal education but he had a natural grasp of military tactics and strategy and some of his statements are instructive:

      1. “I always make it a rule to get there first with the most men”.

      2. “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.”

      3. “Get ’em skeered, and then keep the skeer on ’em.”

      4. “Charge “em both ways.” The reaction of Forrest when he was caught in a Union ambush.

      Forrest personified what General Grant said was the essence of the art of war:

      “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

      • There are a few other principles, of which probably the most important is “strike where the enemy isn’t”. After two years of ferocious and largely successful struggle taking mountain after mountain, Italy was nearly knocked out of the First World War when the enemy thought of attacking through a valley, ignoring the mountains.

      • Agreed Fabio. One of the best of the military maxims was taught to me in R.O.T.C.: Always have a backup plan, and a backup plan for the backup plan.


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