The Destruction Of Fighting Joe Hooker

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The Union boys are moving on the left and on the right, The bugle call is sounding; our shelters we must strike. Joe Hooker is our leader, he takes his whiskey strong, So our knapsacks we will sling, and go marching along.

The leading columns crossed over the Rapidan, the Rappahannock’s subsidiary, and swept into and through and to the outskirts of what for generations had been called The Wilderness, a roughly hundred-mile-square patch where once iron ore had been smelted with the forests cut down for fuel. The vanished tall trees were replaced by a tangle of laurel bushes and brambles and low, stunted thickets of bristly scrub oak. To get through the undergrowth, a man had often to turn sideways. Visibility was rarely even a hundred feet. It was of the most vital necessity to get out of this gloomy morass, and the big guns were hurried forward along thin trails to open ground. Never before had the Army of the Potomac been so well positioned, never up in such strength and style, never better situated to destroy the Confederacy. For months Fighting Joe had said he would take Lee’s force in his grasp and crush it like that —and he would close his hand firmly. The Army of Northern Virginia, he had said, was his “meat and drink.” Now it seemed so. The men felt it was so. There was, wrote Gen. Daniel Sickles, “irrepressible enthusiasm of the troops for Major General Hooker, which was evidenced in hearty and prolonged cheers.”

“You are a damned liar!” Slocum told the messenger who brought him the order to retreat.

Headquarters in The Wilderness would be the Chancellor family’s house, a large brick mansion in one of the area’s few clearings. It and its outbuildings constituted the town of Chancellorsville. It was eleven miles west of Fredericksburg. Hooker had with him some seventy-five thousand men, which number, combined with the forty thousand or so with Sedgwick and the seventeen thousand cavalry rampaging about, meant he was superior to Lee by a ratio of two to one. In addition, he had the Rebel chieftain sandwiched in. His artillery was far superior, and his supplies vastly greater. They had him, said the officers, cavorting about the Chancellor house and laughing and slapping one another on the back. “All was couleur de rose !” wrote a Union general. The enlisted men agreed. When General Couch, second in command, rode into Chancellorsville, he found “hilarity pervading the camps; the soldiers, while chopping wood and lighting fires, were singing merry songs and indulging in peppery jokes.” It seemed to Couch that night, April 30, that “General Hooker had ninety chances in his favor to ten against him.” Hooker said, “Eighty chances in a hundred to win.”

In front was the Rebel army, whose leaders were uncertain where the main blow would be from—Stonewall Jackson thought it would come from Sedgwick—and behind were masses of cattle herded along to provide meat for the drive upon and occupation of Richmond, and high in the air sailed the Union observation balloons. Fighting Joe issued a proclamation to his troops: “Our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or … give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” He told a reporter: “The rebel army is the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond.”

When daylight of May 1 came, the forward units prepared to move upon Lee. But no orders came down from headquarters. The morning wore on. Then the Yankees saw they wouldn’t have to go seek the Rebels, for the Rebels were there. Lee had decided that it was Hooker to his west, not Sedgwick to his south, who constituted the main threat. Some ten thousand Confederates arrived on Hooker’s front, with others strung out on the Fredericksburg road. They attacked. (Early in the war the Confederate artilleryman E. Porter Alexander asked Col. Joseph Ives, who knew Lee, if the man possessed audacity, and Ives said, “Alexander, his very name might be Audacity!”)

The troops potted away at one another, the Union lines backing off in some cases and in others pushing the Confederates away and then giving chase. To the Yankee officers on the scene the situation seemed eminently handleable. They were dealing with hardly more than enemy skirmishers in a relatively minor battle of encounter, a meeting engagement, against a vastly outnumbered and outgunned foe. Behind them, they knew, were overwhelming resources of men and equipment. They held a commanding and favorable position on high, clear ground, from which, once they brushed aside the Rebel threat, they could surge forward and take Fredericksburg, take Richmond, end the war.

There then arrived that incomprehensible moment understood neither then nor now. Messengers came from Hooker at the Chancellor house. They bore orders from the major general commanding. Pull back. Withdraw. Retreat.