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troop movements
May 1, 1863, was a day of maneuvering for both armies. Here the Federals concentrate at Chancellorsville, the home of the chancellor family at the important road junction of the Orange Turnpike and Ely's Ford Road. The house standing at right was Hooker's headquarters and a hospital during the battle. It later burned.
Courtesy, Library of Congress.


Surprisingly, there was some truth in Hooker's statement. Lee had been outflanked. He had not believed that Hooker would move his army that far up the Rappahannock, knowing he would have to cross two rivers instead of one. By April 29, however, his cavalry commander, Gen. J. E. B. ( "Jeb") Stuart, had captured enough Federal stragglers to inform Lee that Hooker had undoubtedly split his army into two wings, either of which could be as large as the total Confederate force. Longstreet, with Pickett's and Hood's divisions, was on a foraging expedition down on the Peninsula. This left Lee with only Jackson's corps and the divisions of Gens. R. H. Anderson and McLaws, for a total of about 60,000 men. At least three Federal corps were on his left and rear. Heavily outnumbered, the logical move seemed to be to retreat and join Longstreet somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond, probably at the North Anna River.

But Lee undoubtedly realized that that was exactly what Hooker expected him to do, so he refused even to consider retreat. The only question in his mind was which of the Federal wings to attack. Finally convinced that the troops in front of Fredericksburg were merely a diversion, he decided to attack the force at Chancellorsville. Consequently, on May 1 Jackson was ordered to Chancellorsville to join Anderson and McLaws. Gen. Jubal Early's division was left to hold the heights at Fredericksburg.

That morning the Federal corps commanders at Chancellorsville were impatiently awaiting the order to advance. They realized Hooker had outflanked Lee, but a delay now could lose all the advantages gained by the maneuver. Most of their men were still in the Wilderness, a dense forest of second-growth pine and scrub oak, with numerous creeks, gullies, swamps, heavy tanglefoot underbrush, and few farms or open spaces. Two or three miles east on the Orange Turnpike toward Fredericksburg, however, would bring them to open areas where they could maneuver effectively.

Finally, late in the morning, Hooker ordered Meade and Slocum forward. Meade sent two divisions down the River Road and one down the turnpike. Slocum took the Orange Plank Road farther south. The only force in front was Anderson's and McLaws' divisions near Zoan Church, about 3 miles east of Chancellorsville. But when they made contact with the Confederate force, Hooker suddenly abandoned the whole idea and ordered them back, despite the strong protests of his corps commanders. "The position thus abandoned was high ground," Couch reported, "more or less open in front, over which an army might move and artillery be used advantageously." Meade grumbled disgustedly, "If he can't hold the top of the hill, how does he expect to hold the bottom of it."

A well known fact of military history is that by the faulty disposition of troops a battle can be lost before it starts. Hooker not only committed this error, but by dropping the offense and assuming a defensive attitude, he voluntarily surrendered the initiative to his opponent. This despite the fact that the one clear lesson from all the campaigns of the great military commanders was that a defensive posture should never be assumed except as a means of passing to the offensive under more favorable conditions. The strength of the offensive lies in maneuvering at will, screening forces for surprise, and, the primary duty of a good strategist, massing superior power at the opponent's weak point.

Lee quickly decided to take full advantage of the opportunity Hooker had given him. The Federal right flank extended just west of Wilderness Church on the Turnpike. When Stuart reported that it was not resting on a natural obstacle and seemed ill-prepared to resist, Lee decided this would be the main point of his attack. The risk was high, for the attacking force would have to make a flanking march of some 12 miles across the front of the Union Army, the most dangerous military maneuver in the book.


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