Category Archives: Chancellorsville Campaigh

Hooker & Couch

After the crushing defeat at Chancellorsville by a greatly outnumbered enemy, the Army of the Potomac was once again in a state of confusion. Upon return to their winter camps at Falmouth and Stafford, and with no plans for another campaign, furloughs were again granted to some of the men, but all furloughs were suddenly cancelled the first week of June, when it became clear that Bobby Lee was up to something.

Major General Darius CouchMaj. Gen. Darius Couch (pronounced Coach), commanded the II Corps at Chancellorsville. He thought the initial strategy brilliant and well-executed, but on the first day of the battle, May 1, things started to unravel. The XII Corps was dug in on high open ground a mile and a half east of Chancellorsville. It was good ground for artillery and Couch and the other generals in that area believed any advance of Lee’s forces from Fredericksburg could be dealt with. However, Hooker soon ordered the position abandoned and all troops withdrawn to Chancellorsville. It wasn’t long before Confederate artillery was placed atop that ridge and the entire constricted Union line around Chancellorsville was within range.

In a report filed after the battle, Couch wrote that as early as 9:30 a.m. the morning of May 2, the western movement of Confederate troops had been reported to Hooker, and the weakness of the western flank position of the XI Corps was discussed. But nothing was done about it. Instead, Hooker boasted to Couch that “Lee is in full retreat toward Gordonsville.” The ensuing rout of the XI Corps has been well documented.

At about 10:00 a.m. the morning of Sunday, May 3, Couch found Hooker lying on a cot in a tent, recovering from his close encounter with an enemy shell. “Couch,” Hooker said, “I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map.”

Couch’s evaluation of Hooker’s handling of the army at Chancellorsville was blunt: “As to the charge that the battle was lost because the general was intoxicated, I have always stated that he probably abstained from the use of ardent spirits when it would have been far better for him to have continued in his usual habit in that respect.”

Maj. Gen. Darius Couch suffered two minor wounds at Chancellorsville and went to Washington to recover. On May 22, Couch met with President Lincoln. Couch told Lincoln that he would never serve under Thomas Hooker again. Lincoln offered command of the army to Couch, but Couch declined, citing his own poor health. Couch recommended Maj. Gen. George Meade for the position, and Couch accepted command of the Pennsylvania militia in the southern part of that state near Gettysburg.

With the departure of Gen. Couch, the valiant II Corps, of which the Fourteenth Connecticut was a part, was given a new commander: Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock.

 

Captain Fiske: Dead or Alive

When we last visited Captain Samuel Fiske (Co. G, 14th Connecticut), he had just been captured by Rebel soldiers the morning of May 3rd at Chancellorsville. Along with many other Union officers, he was forced to march under guard about ten miles to Spotsylvania Courthouse, then on to railroad depot at Guinea Station for transport to Richmond.

The Springfield, MA Republican newspaper reported in its May 16th issue that Capt. Fiske “better known to readers of The Republican as the genial correspondent Dunn Browne, was shot from his horse in the Sunday battle at Chancellorsville, and his body has not been recovered.” The paper’s obituary was a glowing tribute to Fiske. Just imagine the deep sorrow his wife, Lizzie, must have experienced when she read of her husband’s death.

Fiske was held at the famous Libby Prison in Richmond. It would be a short period of confinement, only about two weeks. Upon his arrival at Libby Prison, Fiske and the others were searched carefully and robbed of anything of the slightest value: sugar, canteens, blankets, even paper for writing letters, so that Fiske had to send out and buy more paper.

Fiske observed his captors and the activities around the prison closely. He wrote several letters to The Republican, which were published after his parole on May 22, in which he plainly expressed his belief that the rebellion could not last much longer. “Their artillery horses are poor, starved frames of beasts, tied onto their carriages and caissons with odds and ends of rope and strips of rawhide…. The men are ill-dressed, ill-equipped and ill-provided, a set of ragamuffins that a man is ashamed to be seen among, even when he is a prisoner, and can’t help it.” And after noting how little commerce was actually taking place in the enemy’s capital, Fiske wrote, “One cannot be within their lines for ever so short a time, even in such circumstances as ours, without an irresistible feeling that the secession bubble is on the point of bursting.” That victory had not yet been achieved was only the result of “our blunders,” because as Fiske put it, “our enemies are almost exhausted.”

In its next weekly issue on May 23rd, The Republican proclaimed that Captain Fiske was “alive and well, not a hair of his head harmed. Good for Dunn Browne!” Of course, Lizzie was greatly relieved to have her husband back from the dead, but imagine how odd and sobering it must have been for Fiske to read his own obituary in the paper.

 

Benjamin’s Lament

“Every preparation was made for meeting the Rebels. Our lines were rectified, and a change made in the formation of our men so as to make success certain in case the Rebels should attack us.” Such was Sgt. Benjamin Hirst’s optimistic view of things when the Army of the Potomac established the new fortified line just north of Chancellorsville. But as Ben noted, the Fourteenth Connecticut was able to assemble only about eighty men to construct their portion of the breastworks late in the evening of Sunday, May 3. Monday morning a detail of ten men from the Fourteenth Connecticut set out “to find out the missing men and skidadlers.” They returned to the regiment that evening with about thirty of the missing men.

Sgt. Hirst seemed quite aware of what was going on. On Tuesday word came that Union forces sent to occupy Fredericksburg had been driven back north of the Rappahannock, and Hirst knew before orders were given, that the line at Chancellorsville would be given up. “Directly after dinner (lunch) it commenced raining like mad, and soon we looked like a lot of drowned rats. It rained all afternoon and night, and I think if the Rebels had any notion of attacking us, it helped postpone it.” (Indeed Gen. Lee’s forces were delayed in concentrating at Chancellorsville because of muddy roads.) “The boys of our company had just got a sheltered place fixed for sleeping in, and had just got asleep or laid down when the word came…that we had to recross the river before morning. It was like a thunderbolt to many, while to others it was like renewed life.”

Given Ben’s deep belief in the honor of doing one’s duty and his low opinion of anyone who thought differently, I am fairly certain that he was shocked and disappointed that the army was retreating. According to Ben, Maj. Gen. Darius Couch was supervising the bridge crossing at dawn when the Fourteenth arrived. “What corps is this,” the general asked. One of the men blurted out, “The second skidadlers.” “No,” Gen. Couch replied, “the Second Fighting Corps.”

Sgt. Hirst summed up the actions of the regiment for his wife in this manner: “Sarah, I don’t ever claim to be brave, but I would have been shot rather than to have given way at the moment we did (morning of May 3). I do not know where the blame rests, but I think it rests with the men opening fire too soon and giving way before learning the real strength of the Rebels. The officers used no particular exertions to rally the men, or try and add anything to the reputation of the regiment. Taking everything into consideration, I think we done well, but might have done better.” 

Retreat…Again

By Monday, May 4, six corps of the Army of the Potomac (I, II, III, V, XI, XII) had formed a strong defensive line in the shape of a horseshoe, with its right and left wings anchored on the river to protect the bridges at U. S. Ford and the apex at the Bullock Farm. A total of about 75,000 men were entrenched, and hour by hour they improved and strengthened their defenses in anticipation of an all out attack by Lee’s men that might be the most decisive battle of the war. Surely the men in blue recognized the unique position they were in—within stout breastworks on enemy soil with the enemy showing every sign of preparing to attack—and surely many still had thoughts of complete victory. Perhaps with one more great battle today, or perhaps tomorrow, we can shatter Lee’s army and end the war. (Click here for a battle map.)

But Maj. Gen. Hooker had other plans. Already, he had set army engineers to rapidly clearing a new road back to U. S. Ford, a road not for ready the ready resupply of his army, but a road to make the way withdrawal and escape easier. Late that night, and into the early hours of May 5, Hooker met with all of the corps commanders. Five of the six generals urged Hooker to stay and fight it out at Chancellorsville. Only Maj. Gen. Sickles thought retreat the better option. It was his corps that had seen the heaviest fighting on May 3.

It seems the meeting was but a formality. Hooker had already decided to withdraw to the north bank of the Rappahannock, citing as his justification his general mandate to protect Washington and not endanger the army. Orders were given, and late in the day on Tuesday, May 5, under the cover of heavy rain and darkness, units of the Army of the Potomac began to cross the pontoon bridges at U. S. Ford. Fittingly, Hooker went with the artillery and was among the first to cross. During the night, the rain-swollen Rappahannock rose quickly, threatening to sweep away the bridges. Engineers worked heroically in peril of their own lives to lengthen the bridges and anchor them on higher ground, and by early morning on May 6, the entire Army of the Potomac was north of the Rappahannock and filing back into the dreary winter camps around Falmouth and Stafford.

Author’s Commentary:  In my opinion, Hooker lost one of the great opportunities of the war. Gen. Lee was indeed planning to attack the Union entrenchments at Chancellorsville, most likely on May 6, without Longstreet, and outnumbered by more than two-to-one. If not defeated outright, Lee would have suffered many casualties, perhaps extremely so, if Hooker had fought his army as he fought his corps at Antietam. I believe the Army of Northern Virginia would have been in such sad shape that offensive operations to the north would have been unthinkable and the Battle of Gettysburg never would have occurred.

 

Chancellorsville – May 3, 1863

SPECIAL EDITION: 150 Years Ago Today:

It was a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, the sort of day on which Stonewall Jackson would have seen it a deed of utmost necessity to drive the Yankee invaders from southern soil. But his left arm had been shattered by friendly fire. A surgeon amputated the arm, and Jackson would die the following Sunday. “Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right,” Gen. Lee lamented. Lee placed Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in temporary command of Jackson”s Corps, and this day Stuart would not disappoint his commander. Stuart sent his men forward as soon as there was light enough to discern friend from foe.

Of course Maj. Gen. French did not attend to the right flank west of the Chancellor House (see previous post, last paragraph). Confederates charged out of the woods and Berry’s Division of the III Corps was driven back to the second line occupied by Hay’s Brigade (French”s Division, II Corps), the right flank of which was anchored by the Fourteenth Connecticut. The line held for a short while, but the Rebels soon discovered the exposed right flank of the Fourteenth. There was no option for the Federals other than retreat in order to avoid being cut off from the rest of the army. Hay”s Brigade was scattered and ceased to be an organized combat unit for the remainder of that day.

Maj. Gen. Hooker hurried to find Maj. Gen. French and ordered him to send in his entire division. Some of the men from Hay’s Brigade about-faced and joined the rest of their division. The Confederate assault was stopped and pushed back. French”s men continued to drive the Rebels back, recovering all the lost ground until they reached the line Hay”s men had occupied at dawn.

It seems that Capt. Samuel Fiske (a.k.a. Dunn Browne) was one of many men from the Fourteenth that continued the fight. He captured several Confederates and proceeded, with revolver drawn, to march his prisoners to the rear. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by Rebels. “Doubtless,” Fiske quipped as he gave up his weapon, “it would be more disagreeable for a whole regiment to surrender to one man, than for one man to surrender to a whole regiment.”

But Federal success was fleeting. At about 9:15 a.m. Maj. Gen. Hooker was knocked senseless when a cannonball struck a column on the front porch of the Chancellor House upon which he was leaning. When Hooker regained consciousness, it seems his senses remained absent without leave. Only the III and XII Corps, and part of the II Corps had seen heavy fighting. Two corps, the I and V, had not seen any fighting, and the men of the XI Corps had recovered their wits and were itching to redeem themselves.

But Hooker had lost his nerve. Casualties had been extremely heavy. He ordered a quick, but systematic withdrawal to a new defensive perimeter about half a mile north and anchored at the Bullock farm. The fighting was mostly done by 11:00 a.m., but May 3 would go down in history as the second bloodiest day of the war, after Antietam.  (For a battle map click here.)

Fiction Connection: In An Eye for Glory, Michael Palmer is dissatisfied with how quickly the retreat was ordered. He falls in line with men from Carroll”s Brigade to renew the fight, and in so doing, Michael kills his first enemy soldier.

Chancellorsville – May 2, 1863

SPECIAL EDITION: 150 Years Ago Today

Saturday, May 2 was a critical day in the course of the war and a memorable one for the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. The fighting started afresh that morning. A relatively small force of Confederates commanded by Gen. Lee himself continued to drive the Union infantry slowly backward toward Chancellorsville.

Occupied with the construction of his own defensive perimeter, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker failed to realize that a large force of some 28,000 Confederate infantrymen under the command of Stonewall Jackson was marching from the east side of Chancellorsville all the way around to the Wilderness west of the village. Hooker, it seems, never paid any heed to a possible threat from that quarter. The troops of Maj. Gen. Howard’s XI Corps had not dug in. They were strung out along two miles of the Orange Turnpike. They had loafed about all day and as evening set in, campfires were stoked and dinner was cooked. At about 6:30 p.m. Jackson’s men exploded out of the Wilderness and the rout of the XI Corps was on. (For a battlefield map click here.)

Soon after Gen. Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac, with a depth of wisdom mere mortals may never understand, he abolished regimental bands as a waste of men and resources. All band members joined the ranks and took up instruments of death rather than music. Shortly before the spring campaign began, Hooker suddenly reversed himself and, effective May 1, the band of the Fourteenth Connecticut was back in business.

Why this digression? All day long the men of II Corps stayed in their works, waiting to be sent forward at any time. When the din of battle erupted to the west, it’s easy to imagine how quickly every man would have turned to face the threat from behind. The men of the XI Corps came rushing toward them out of the woods at the western edge of Bullock’s Farm, overrunning the line of the II Corps. Shot and shell from Rebel guns filled the air. And then a curious thing happened. In an attempt to stem the tide of the fleeing XI Corps, Charlie Merrill, the new band leader since only the previous day, led the band out in front of the dug in men of the Fourteenth. The band marched back and forth playing “The Star Spangled Banner” for about twenty minutes while shells burst overhead. Several of the musicians were struck by shell fragments, but the injuries were not serious.

Berry”s Division of the III Corps was sent into the woods just north of the turnpike where they established a new defensive line. Brig. Gen. William Hays’ Brigade (French’s Div., II Corps), including the 200 or so men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, was sent westward along the turnpike to form a second defensive line in the woods behind Berry’s men.

It was about this time, as the last of the day’s light faded and the fighting tapered off, that arguably the most critical casuality of the war occurred. Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was shot and seriously wounded by some of his own troops as he was returning from a reconnaissance along the Orange Turnpike. A monument next to the Chancellorsville Visitor Center marks the spot.

One last incident closed the day for the Fourteenth. When night fell, Maj. Ellis sent scouts into the woods to the right to see if they could establish contact with any other Union troops. There were no troops there to protect the flank of the brigade. Ellis sent Lt. Lucas racing back to report to Maj. Gen. French that the brigade was exposed to a flank attack. French kicked Lucas out of headquarters saying, “Tell Maj. Ellis that’s my business and I will attend to it.”

Chancellorsville – May 1, 1863

SPECIAL EDITION: 150 Years Ago Today

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut marched into the fields surrounding the Bullock farm (about half a mile north of the Chancellor House) about 10:00 p.m. Thursday, May 30. Now all of the Army of the Potomac was in place according to Maj. Gen. Hooker”s plans. It appears they passed a quiet night, and nobody could have foreseen the carnage that would take place over the next few days.

The following morning Maj. Gen. Hooker ordered Maj. Gen. Slocum to advance eastward toward Fredericksburg to block any Confederate advance from that direction. About two miles from the crossroads at Chancellorsville, Slocum’s Corps came upon a strong body of Rebel troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Sharp fighting broke out. Maj. Gen. Couch sent Hays’ brigade (including the Fourteenth Connecticut) of Maj. Gen. French’s division battle toward the sound of the fighting in support of the XII Corps. Having gained the position, they built some breastworks and, when the fighting soon tapered off, they were ordered back to the II Corps line near Bullocks Farm. (For a battlefield map click here.)

Later that afternoon, fighting in this sector erupted again, during which Jackson”s troops pushed Slocum”s corps back toward Chancellorsville. The Fourteenth  Connecticut was not sent forward again that day, endured occasional shelling throughout the remainder of the day. “It lulled down at sunset,” wrote Sgt. Benjamin Hirst, “and our brigade went on picket but had nothing to disturb us during the night.”