THE COMMANDING GENERAL
by Richard H. Allison
Copyright © 2011 Richard H. Allison
Friday, 10:00 p.m., May 1, 1863
Chancellor House – Headquarters, Army of the Potomac
Having finished with the chamber pot and buttoned up, the commanding general reached into his breast pocket and groped for the envelope he knew would be there. Finding it, and being reassured, he withdrew an empty hand. “In just a few days,” the general hissed, addressing the piece of paper in his pocket, “you will be answered.” The general glowered into a mirror and then, sneering, turned abruptly to face a closed door leading to the parlor. “You, and the bastards in there,” he added.
For more than three months the commanding general had massaged the envelope in this peculiar fashion, touching and rubbing it so often that the paper had become discolored where the postage stamp normally would be affixed. There was no postage-stamp on this envelope, however, only the hand-written name of its addressee, and the words, “Private Correspondence — Military Courier.” As dirty as the envelope now was, its content was still crisp and new and consisted of a single page of high quality stationary. Very few eyes had seen this letter, and the commanding general himself had only read it twice, which explained the document’s well-preserved condition. Certainly no one in the adjacent room had seen it — save for one who had rendered the country a great service.
The general gazed at the visage of his person in a dresser mirror and again placed his hand into his blouse, his fingers and thumb instinctively re-grasping the envelope. “I look like Napoleon,” he said, laughing at his mirror-pose. “A good affectation for any commanding general.” Did not his men cheer joyously when he passed by on his white war-horse? He winked into the reflecting glass and joked, “I am Napoleon!”
Thinking again of the letter and his army of 115,000, the largest army ever fielded in America, the commanding general’s mood changed from giddy to serious. Had he not also in fact restored army morale? Had he not in fact re-organized the Army of the Potomac for better military efficiency? Had he not – just yesterday — successfully concluded a three-day, sixty-mile march, the most daring of the war? Had he not placed the better part of his army, 70,000 men, south of the Rappanannock River putting Lee in a precarious position? Had he not fooled Lee by his “demonstrations” at Fredericksburg? Was he not in fact the epitome of what that newspaper dubbed a “Fighting Joe?”
The muffled sound of voices in the next room caught the general’s attention. In spite of all he accomplished, in his heart of hearts he knew that at least two of the flag officers in the adjacent room, and perhaps others, conspired against him, and would use the events of this afternoon as a basis for criticism. “It was an organized withdrawal today and not a retreat!” the general protested, looking sharply into mirror.
On the commode before him lay a copy of the General Order he had promulgated thirty hours earlier upon arriving at Chancellor house, when all had cheered him, including those in the next room. The commanding general picked it up and read what he had written:
The operations of the last three days have determined
that the enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out
from behind his entrenchments and give us battle on our
own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.
The general shook his fist at the mirror. “The tactical situation remains unchanged,” he seethed, “Lee is enveloped!” Snapping to attention, he did a right face and tiptoed to the closed door. Placing an ear to a panel he said quietly to himself, “Please to God, Dan.”
Heart pounding, the general overheard the shrill voice of the man he knew would be his most severe critic, Major General George G. Meade, the commander of V Corps. Known by his men alternatively as “Old Snapping Turtle” and “the Great Peppery”, Meade was at this moment at the acme of his infamous ill temper. “Malfeasance bordering on cowardice, I say,” he heard Meade shriek. “I saw Bank’s Ford undefended, with my own eyes, and it was mine for the taking! I could have linked with Sedgwick this very afternoon, I tell you, but instead got ordered back. We squandered a great military opportunity, gentlemen, squandered, I say!”
The commanding general cringed and bit a knuckle hard. “Cowardice?” he repeated in disbelief. “This is worse than…” The general dropped a knee to the floor and peered through the keyhole. Mopping his brow with a handkerchief, it took a moment for the general’s eye to adjust, but when it did he was able to recognize three of his five Corps commanders — Meade, Slocum and Couch. A fourth corps commander was also in the room, but visible only by a pant leg. Did the pant leg belong to General Howard or to General Sickles? “Please to God,” the commanding general whispered to himself “let him be Dan Sickles.”
Through the keyhole the amber light from the parlor lanterns made Meade appear more Lucifer-like than usual. Meade’s raptor like nose, cast iron posture and burning eyes imported meaning to the vice-like grip he maintained on his battle sword.
Major General Darius N. Couch, the commander of II Corps, spoke next. “I sent a message begging him to call off his pull-back this afternoon,” Couch complained bitterly. “I agree with you totally, General Meade.”
Upon hearing this, the commanding general fell to the floor on hands and knees. “Traitors!” he hissed. “Mutinous jealousy!”
Returning to the keyhole, the general observed that the room had lapsed into a tense silence. Undoubtedly the other corps commanders weighed heavily what they could add, if anything. Agonizing moments passed and the commanding general witnessed the sartorial resplendent Couch fastidiously examine the front of his uniform tunic, looking to pluck an elusive piece of lint, which of course, he did not find. “Peacock,” the commanding general hissed.
Finally, mercifully for the commanding general, a handclap exploded: “I absolutely disagree, gentlemen.” Major General Daniel E. Sickles, commander of III Corps and owner of the pant leg had made his presence known. Breathing a quiet sigh, the commanding general rubbed his upper nose to relieve his eyes and resumed his kneeling spy-station. Three cheers for Dan Sickles! As a congressman before the war, Sickles murdered his wife’s lover the son of Frances Scott Key and was acquitted with the first successful plea of temporary insanity. The scandal helped his career and ultimately Sickles was selected as one of a handful of non-U.S. Military Academy graduates to hold high command. It had been Sickles, some five months earlier, who arranged for the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War to be fully informed about the Union Army debacle at Fredericksburg. A fellow drinker and ladies-man, the commanding general viewed Sickles, a former Tammany Hall politician, as an ally — a man to be trusted. And Sickles was a big power in the Democratic Party!
“Henry, what is your assessment of today?” asked Sickles, turning to the boyish-looking commander of XII Corps, Major General Henry Slocum, who advanced approximately one mile towards Fredericksburg from Chancellorsville before he too received orders from the commanding general to withdraw.
Good technique, the commanding general thought – that is, Sickles asking the opinion of an officer who might be sympathetic.
“I was ordered to take Tabernacle Church by way of Plank Road,” Slocum responded dryly. “I engaged the enemy and advanced before receiving the order directing me to turn back.”
Hearing this, the commanding general swallowed hard.
“Darius?” Sickles asked, turning to the commander of II Corps “What caused you to beg our commander to call off his withdrawal this afternoon?” The commanding general witnessed Couch glare at Sickles. The two disliked each other intently, and it was apparent that Couch took affront to Sickles now addressing him by his first name and not his military rank.
“General Warren warned the general-in-chief against abandoning the high ground,” Couch said forcefully. Couch curled his lip and pointed an arm upwards and in an easterly direction. “He told him Lee would use those hills to rain artillery on Chancellorsville.” After a pause Couch added, “I also was making progress in the fighting today when ordered to retreat. Had I been permitted to continue my advance, I believe I could have broken out of the Wilderness and taken the Turnpike all the way to the objective, Tabernacle Church. Those are my thoughts on today’s events, sir.”
“But you were in the Wilderness when the order arrived, unable to ascertain with certainty the Rebel forces you faced, correct? Did you know that Lee advanced with four full corps?”
“Damn!” Couch exploded.
Sickles held up his hands, palms forward. “Gentlemen, I submit…”
“You weren’t out there today, Mr. Sickles,” retorted the snapping turtle.
Sickles, who’s III Corps had been held in reserve, ignored Meade’s taunt. “I submit the Army of the Potomac is intact at this moment, gentlemen,” Sickles opined, “and now occupies a good defensive position. The enemy must either attack or retreat tomorrow, and this situation is tenfold better than what we faced at Frederickburg. Let me ask you a question, General Meade.”
“When you fought at Frederickburg, were you required to charge fortified and reinforced positions?” Meade glared at Sickles, remained silent and Sickles answered for him: “Yes, you most certainly were,” he said, “and it turned out to be a military disaster. Tomorrow, sir, if the enemy chooses to fight, he must charge your entrenchments.”
“This ground is low,” Meade complained. “And we’ve surrendered the initiative.”
“With all due respect general, I submit that is unimportant,” Sickles replied. “We have 70,000 men against Lee’s 50,000. At Fredricksburg, Sedgwick has 45,000 men with the means to cross the Rappahannock and strike Early’s 10,000 defenders and Sedgwick has standing orders to attack should a weak point be exposed. We have 400 cannon and Lee has approximately 100. Finally, Lee is out of his damned fortress town and on the march! It took us five months, gentlemen, but we finally did it. Lee’s the one in the pinch, not us.” Sickles added a final poke: “And I submit, George, what you’re observed today is strategy and not… what word did you use to characterize our leader’s performance? `Timidity?’ Is that the word you used?”
Overhearing Sickles commentary, the commanding general drew away from the keyhole, chuckled quietly, and stood. “Good job, Dan,” he whispered, returning to the mirror to adjust his cravat. “Thank you.”
The commanding general appreciated that soon the gospel-spewing Major General Oliver Otis Howard would arrive signaling the start of the official meeting, and it would be time for him to commence his role-play. Also not in the fight this afternoon, Howard used the spare time to inflict temperance lectures on his mostly German and Dutch immigrant XI Corps. Lord, the commanding general thought, what a children’s crusade I must run.
“Only one friend in a group of five,” the general observed sardonically, “and in a week’s time they’ll all brag to have served under me.” The commanding general reached into his breast pocket and fingered the envelope. He squared his jaw and looked intently at his image. “You will find, sir,” he said, addressing the paper in his pocket, “that if I would be a dictator, I would be more formidable than Napoleon.” Scowling, he withdrew the envelope and swore at it. “Damn the impudence! I was correct to tell that reporter of the malfeasance,” he hissed, waving a pointed finger in the air for extra emphasis. “How else could the public ever know? What happened at that wall at Fredericksburg was military incompetence and Burnside is responsible.” The commanding general shook violently. “I had no choice but to tell that newsman.” Then he added, “I owed it to my country.” Posturing before the mirror, he recited his favorite Napoleonic quote: “God is on the side of the large battalions.” He laughed and added: “And mine are about to get much, much larger!”
A knock on the parlor room door brought an end to the commanding general’s soliloquy. “General Hooker, sir,” an aide announced loudly through the door. “The corps commanders are assembled, sir, waiting for you.”
“Very well. Bring in their aides and the members of my staff,” the commanding general ordered. General Hooker smiled as he uttered these words; he and Sickles had planned, beforehand, for the presence of multiple witnesses to temper the vehemence of any opinions that might be expressed.
The occupants of the parlor room sprang to attention at the sight of their leader. “At ease, gentlemen. First, I wish to inform you that I intend to order General Reynolds and his entire corps here to Chancellorsville, and he will arrive in time for the battle tomorrow. This means we will have six full corps, or 90,000 men, to fight an enemy estimated at four corps, or 50,000 men. I like this prospect very much!”
“Second,” the commanding general continued, speaking rapidly, “I wish to congratulate you on the orderliness of your withdrawal today. And General Slocum, I saw your low casualty report. Only ten killed and wounded. Very well done, sir! Very well, indeed!” Before Slocum could reply to the compliment, the commanding general turned to the assemblage. “Gentlemen, please join me at the situation map.”
Unlike Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville was not a town. The “ville” of Chancellorsville consisted only of a large brick farmhouse (now Union Army headquarters) and a couple of outbuildings clustered at a crossroads in the middle of a clearing approximately 100 acres in size. The farm was completely surrounded by the Wilderness – a name given by the locals to a thick forest of scrub pine, blackjack oak and thickets that blanketed a truly God-forsaken section of Virginia.
General Hooker looked intently at a drawing he had prepared that afternoon for the defense of the open acreage and additionally part of the forest to the west, and was about to speak when an aide to General Couch preempted him. “Sir, do you think our five corps, soon to be six, will be able to effectively utilize all its force…in such a small open area?”
The commanding general stared coolly at the young officer who had spoken without being requested to speak, and more aggravating, expressed a military opinion — contrary to his own opinion — in the form of a question. He noted the young man was the one he mentally nicknamed “Proper Boston”. A few months earlier this young officer had written a letter (the commanding general later learned from an informant) stating that Headquarters, Army of the Potomac “was run as a combination brothel-tavern”. At the time the commanding general decided not to do anything about this affront, as he did not possess the letter, the young man was from a prominent family and Couch would undoubtedly shield him.
Hooker decided to make light of the question. “I am certainly aware of the military maxim you refer to, ” he responded in a fatherly-like voice. Lord God Joshua hat, Hooker thought, no less than the tea-totaling letter writer himself had preached to him endlessly about this maxim, and now he had to suffer this from an upstart straight-laced prig? “We will entrench skillfully tonight,” the commanding general continued, “and I do believe our infantry can maneuver over this area in such a fashion as to put in all of our men.” The commanding general placed his right hand into his breast pocket and his left on the young man’s shoulder. “We will do nothing rash tomorrow,” he admonished Proper Boston, laughing, looking directly into his eyes. “Remember you are advised of this by a well known military expert. Nothing rash, nothing rash whatsoever!”
The officers in the room looked quizzically at one another and shifted uneasily. “I assure you I have got Lee just where I want him,” General Hooker said, this time addressing all present. “ He must flee or fight me on my own ground, and if he chooses to fight, we have eighty chances in a hundred to win.” The commanding general then repeated a boast he had often made before, a blasphemy he particularly enjoyed making when in the presence of the religious. “God Almighty cannot stop me from destroying the Rebel army.”
Three Corps commanders stood rock-still at attention, General Howard fidgeted visibly, and General Sickles added to the sacrilege, “Well said, sir! Hallelujah!”
The following morning, Saturday, May 2nd, the commanding general exulted, “How strong! How strong!” as he peered into the distance from the veranda of his headquarters, admiring his work product. He had uttered these words countless times the night before when he rode the full length of his line and personally inspected each entrenchment, even dismounting at times to dig with — and be cheered by — his men. And today, despite an almost sleepless night, the commanding general felt refreshed, even invigorated. All preparations had been made and what was left to do was to give the Army of Northern Virginia a reverse reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The Union line extended a distance of approximately six miles in the rough shape of a crescent moon with its tips pointing northwards. Its strength was in its middle of the crescent, near Chancellor house, where the corps belonging to Sickles, Couch and Slocum were compacted, but not so tightly as to preclude their re-deploying when and where needed. To the west, the Union right flank was protected by the vast Wilderness, but nevertheless still defended by XI Corps under the command of General Howard; to the east and left, General Meade had his three divisions extended on the banks of Mineral Spring Run at a distance of two miles all the way northwards to the Rappahannock River, which waterway provided a complete natural defense against an enemy flanking maneuver. If Meade’s line were to become seriously threatened (or even pierced) reserves from the center could be rushed in quickly for support. General Reynolds and his corps had yet to arrive, but advance riders reported Reynolds was making satisfactory progress on the march and that he would definitely be on hand in time for the main event.
Strolling alone in the vicinity of his headquarters, the commanding general placed his hand on the envelope and laughed mean-spiritedly. “Mr. President, I will be President, and I will do it with energy and sleepless vigilance!”
The appearance of a galloping dispatch rider approaching from the southwest caught the commanding general’s attention. He waited until the rider was close enough to spot the gold on his uniform, and waved him over. “Compliments of General Birney, sir,” the rider said, holding a straightened right hand to his brim-cap, and masterfully controlling his excited mount with his left. Birney was one of Sickles’ division commanders. “From our vantage point on Hazel Grove a large enemy column has been spotted moving from left to right across our front.”
The commanding general eyed the rider intently. “Anything else?” he asked.
“No, sir, other than again, it is large and we are counting companies as they pass. ”
“Very well. Return my compliments to General Birney and tell him you delivered his message to me…” General Hooker paused to look at his pocket watch. “… at 8:55 o’clock. Request him to keep me advised as more becomes known.” The commanding general returned a sharp salute. “Dismissed.”
Rushing to the situation room in Chancellor house, the commanding general informed his staff of what the courier had told him and proceeded immediately to the map table. He was alarmed at what he first saw: the road the Confederate column was now on headed south then turned west. “Send a message to General Howard,” he exclaimed. “Tell him we have good reason to suppose the enemy is moving to our right. Tell him to advance his pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe to obtain timely information of their approach.”
This cautionary directive accomplished, the commanding general again viewed the map and this time, with his finger, physically traced the course of every junction and road the Rebel column might take. “An attack on our western flank?” he asked, addressing no one in particular. “Or is Lee up to something else?” He pointed to a possible escape route for the enemy: the road leading to the train-stop for Gordonsville. His staff responded with silence; there was nothing to be said to illuminate the tactical situation. More intelligence was clearly needed.
Five minutes passed and then ten. The commanding general paced the veranda, so he would be among the first to spot the rider. The wait was excruciating and finally a courier appeared. “The Reb column is at least six miles long, sir,” the rider gasped. “It has infantry, artillery, ambulances and wagons. General Sickles requests permission to…”
“Stop!” the commanding general roared, holding up his hand for emphasis. “Ambulances and wagons? How many?”
“Many, sir. I suppose pretty much most of what they’ve got.”
A smile grew on Fighting Joe Hooker’s face. Turning to his staff, the commanding general looked like a college professor in front of eager-to-please sophomores. He asked, “Gentlemen, what does this suggest to you?”
It was Proper Boston who first spoke the magic word. “Retreat, sir. An assault force would not take wagons.”
A young Colonel cried for joy: “The Rebs are skedaddling with everything they’ve got!”
“Our march’s the thing!” a Brigadier General exclaimed, referring to the military showpiece, their three-day, sixty-mile odyssey. “We flanked ‘em, sure enough!”
The courier finally spoke again: “General Sickles believes there is a distinct possibility the Rebs are pulling out, sir, and he requests permission to advance his entire corps southwards to attack the rear of their column. He proposes to engage at Catherine’s Furnace.”
Euphoria had overtaken headquarters, Army of the Potomac, drunkenness the likes of which it had never experienced since the eve of the first battle of Bull Run and the commanding general now did nothing to temper it. “By all means, yes,” General Hooker said smiling broadly, not looking at the map to see where Catherine’s Furnace was located. “And wish General Sickles my best for the chase!”
Word-of-mouth passed quickly to the entire army: Lee was on the run!
At 10 a.m. a dispatch rider arrived at Headquarters from XI Corps: General Howard had independently sighted the Reb column. “I am taking measures to resist an attack from the west,” Howard reported.
At noon, news arrived that III Corps, commanded by General Sickles, had advanced a full two miles south through a gap in the thickets to the ruins of the pig-iron works known as Catherine’s Furnace, and engaged a unit of rear-guard Georgians. The battle had largely gone the Union way, and Sickles quickly captured 300 prisoners. The Reb column, now under duress, re-routed a substantial number of its wagons and artillery another two miles farther south. Unsupported, Sickles dare not pursue them, nor could he safely withdraw and return to his position on the line, as combat was still ongoing.
XI Corps, the slender western tip of the moon-crescent Union battle line which was supposed to be supported by Sickles, now stood alone in the Wilderness at a distance of three miles from headquarters. XI Corps was now also reduced in strength, some of its troops having been siphoned off by the commanding general to support the advance of General Sickles.
Save for the occasional explosion of enemy artillery rained down from the heights the Union held the day before the situation at Chancellorsville remained relatively quiet throughout the afternoon. Officers from the 8th Pennsylvania Calvary lounged on the grass near headquarters, their mounts tied nearby, waiting for orders and playing a friendly game of poker.
Prisoners had been interrogated, and three of them had made statements to the effect that their column would press an attack later that day. One bitter prisoner even went so far as to state, “You think you’ve done a big thing just now, but wait until Stonewall Jackson gets around on your flank.” How reliable were these prisoner reports? Not very, the commanding general determined. Indeed, earlier prisoner reports placing Longstreet at Culpepper (in a position behind Union lines) had proven to be false. Why should these new reports be trusted?
The only angst experienced by headquarters came late in the afternoon, starting when a frenzied captain of artillery showed up and demanded an audience with the commanding general. He told of riding out in front of the lines and spotting thousands of Confederates massing for an attack on the Union right. The captain was informed that the commanding general already knew this intelligence and he was summarily turned away. Thereafter word of corroborating sightings started arriving in the form of urgent dispatches, and even a few unit commanders arrived at Chancellor house to personally convey the same alarming assessment. There was no convincing the commanding general, however. Sickles continued to report that Lee was in full retreat, and Sickles was, after all, in a position to know.
At 4:30 p.m., instead of warning General Howard that an attack on his flank might be imminent, the commanding general sent an all out attack message to General Sedgwick: “We know the enemy is fleeing, trying to save his trains. Two of Sickles’ divisions are among them. Capture Fredericksburg and everything in it, and vigorously pursue the enemy.”
Deep in the woods, Sergeant Otto Stultzmann, formerly of Bonn, Germany, most recently of the brigade commanded by Colonel Leopold von Gilsa, First Division, XI Corps, bent over the campfire and helped himself to another cup of coffee. A satisfactory military encampment had been accomplished in spite of the incredibly dense forest. Thickets had been hacked away, tents pitched, sleeping rolls put down and the evening meal cooked, ready to serve. Rifles were stacked in neat clusters with bayonets affixed, per army regulation, and the cannons were unmanned. Suddenly a deer charged directly into camp, followed quickly by a fox and then several rabbits. “Vat is dis?” the sergeant blurted.
Back at headquarters, the commanding general enjoyed a brief respite in his private parlor. Sitting at a writing table, he removed the envelope from his pocket, withdrew the letter from within and placed it on the table. He exhaled a sigh of relief. Perhaps it was too early, but then again…perhaps not? He reached for a pen and paper, only to be interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by a voice suggesting urgency. “General, sir, you best get out here.”
“What’s wrong?” the commanding general exclaimed, retrieving the letter to its customary place.
“We’re not sure, sir, but there’s something you should hear.”
The commanding general followed the aide onto the grounds of Chancellor house where practically his entire staff stood. To a man, they faced west and no one spoke. Stopping a moment to listen, the commanding general heard the faint sound of musketry coming from the south. It was Sickle’s III Corps, there could be no doubt. “What is it?” he asked. “Why did you bring me here?”
“It might be acoustics playing tricks, sir, but the sound of battle now seems to also at times come from the west. Proper Boston pointed to the Orange Turnpike, the road leading to XI Corps. “Listen, sir. It’s very faint, and it comes and it goes.”
The general listened for a full minute and heard the unmistakable distant rattle of musketry, but try as he might, he was unable to ascertain this time from what direction the sound emanated. Was it from the south, or the west or perhaps somewhere in between? Something did seem different but what?
“General Sickles may be renewing his offensive in another location and we’re getting echo effect, sir,” someone suggested. “It could be the hills.”
“Or even the wind,” observed another. “That can carry sound too.”
Several staff officers murmured affirmatively and the commanding general concurred. “Let’s sit on the porch,” he said, addressing two of his favorite junior aides. “We’ll listen.”
The three officers gazed at the setting sun, and quietly enjoyed the beauty of the budding Virginia countryside, taking in the freshness of a balmy spring evening. They talked for forty-five minutes about the pursuit of Lee by the entire army, an event that was scheduled to commence early the next day.
At 6:05 p.m., the rumble of war in the west became distinct again and, this time, it was loud and unabated. Alarmed, the officers on the porch stood and peered down the Orange Turnpike. One of the aides, Captain Harry Russell advanced a few feet down the pike and then used his field glasses. “My God!” he screamed. “Here they come!”
The commanding general was next to use the glasses, and what he saw sickened him. Scores at first, then hundreds, and then thousands of bluecoats raced in panic towards where he stood. He watched in horror, helpless, as wagons collided with ambulances, and cavalrymen road over the backs of infantrymen. The commanding general had witnessed similar behavior before in other battles, but never anything of this magnitude. The better part of an entire army corps, consisting of 20 regiments and 4 batteries had been overrun. 8,000 soldiers had been killed, captured or were now fleeing for their lives. They fled over a field that was supposed to be occupied by reserve divisions, but now stood precariously empty. The vast majority of retreating soldiers had abandoned their weapons; they had thrown them down in the interest of increased foot speed or, if ultimately overtaken, to improve their chances for surrender. Artillery shells from the heights to the east started falling en masse on the entire front, including the horrified fleeing soldiers; in their haste to escape, all had rushed headlong into a trap, a killing field. The master plan of the master tactician was now fully revealed.
The commanding general reflexively reached into his pocket and grasped the thing. Tears welled in his eyes and he wanted to scream! He wanted to cry like a school child and keep on crying until someone hugged and consoled him. He himself wanted to turn and run, to shield himself from the God-awful specter. In an instant, everything he aspired for, everything he dreamed to achieve had been taken away. And every criticism he ever laid on a fellow officer now belonged on him.
“General, sir?” an aide asked.
The commanding general looked through the field glasses and did not respond.
“Sir! What are we to do?”
The commanding general continued to look through the glass, but he no longer saw the pandemonium; rather he looked into the fabric of his being. And the voice of wise inner counsel did speak to him: What happens to you, Joe Hooker, does not matter. Defend the men who love you.
“Sir! What are your orders?”
“We need a new battle line,” the commanding general responded, pointing exactly to where he wanted it laid out. “Captain Candler, fetch General Berry’s division and get them entrenching. Captain Russell, you and I are going to ride into that.” The commanding general pointed to XI Corps. “We are going to restore order.”
Three days later the Army of the Potomac, both at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg had been forced by Lee to retreat northwards across the Rappahannock. 17,000 Union and 13,000 Confederate casualties resulted from the battle. The Union army had fought gallantly after its disaster of May 2nd, but Lee, having gained the initial advantage, was not one to give it up. Less than one-half of the soldiers under the command of General Hooker engaged in combat.
The commanding general sat at a table in his tent and worked on another report to the President of the United States; the one he had sent two days earlier admitted to no success, and ended with the statement, “No general ever commanded a more devoted army.” The communication today would be more of the same – far different than what the commanding general envisioned writing when he started the campaign.
His reporting duties done, the commanding general withdrew, for the last time, the envelope from his breast pocket. Resolving to put the matter behind him forever, he placed the letter on the tray for filing and tossed its grimy envelope into the waste paper basket.
January 26, 1863
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.
I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse in the army, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of the army, while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.
Yours very truly,
1. Lincoln’s letter to Hooker is undoubtedly one of the most incredible communications ever made by a political to a military leader. It is remarkable because it is without parallel in history. When has a President or a Prime Minister ever scolded a commanding general as a father might an errant son? Three days before Lincoln sent his letter, he received a General Order issued by the then commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, Ambrose Burnside, dismissing Hooker (and several other flag officers) from the U.S Army. Burnside declared Hooker guilty of, “…unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of superior officers,” and he characterized Hooker as, “…a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration, and patriotism are due from every soldier in the field.” Burnside’s General Order concluded, “This order is issued subject to the approval of the President of the United States.” When Lincoln received Burnside’s communiqué on January 23, 1863, what was he to do? Burnside had botched the battle of Fredericksburg, that was common knowledge, and afterwards Hooker and other senior officers unabashedly encouraged dissention in the ranks. Lincoln reacted by putting the monkey squarely on Hooker’s back, and at the same time he tried to motivate Hooker with his letter. The truth is, at this point in the war – two years into it (with little to show) Lincoln was fed up with all of his eastern command generals and their continuous political infighting. In spite of overwhelming manpower and material, these generals had delivered no solid Union victories. Indeed, prior to relieving General Burnside, Lincoln had relieved a string of commanders who had been either defeated or proven ineffective:
Irvin McDowell – Battle of Bull Run (July 1861)
George B. McClellan – Peninsular Campaign (March – July 1862)
John Pope – Second Battle of Bull Run (August 1862)
George B. McClellan – Antietam — failure to follow-up on September victory (November 1862)
Not all generals in the Union Army were political in-fighters. Consider this remarkable letter written from Chattanooga, Tennessee, on December 17, 1863, just four days after the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg:
To Barnabas Burns, Esq.
Chairman Democratic Central Committee
Your letter of the 7th inst. asking if you will be at liberty to use my name before the convention of the “War Democracy”, as candidate for the office of the Presidency is just received – The question astonishes me. I do not know of anything I have ever done or said which would indicate that I could be a candidate for any office whatsoever within the gift of the people.
I shall continue to do my duty, to the best of my ability, so long as permitted to remain in the Army, supporting whatever Administration may be in power, in their endeavor to suppress the rebellion and maintain National unity, and never desert it because my vote, if I had one, might have been cast for different candidates.
Nothing likely to happen would pain me so much as to see my name used in connection with a political office. I am not a candidate for any office nor for favors from any party. Let us succeed in crushing the rebellion. In the shortest possible time, and I will be content with whatever credit may then be given me, feeling assured that a just public will award all that is due.
Your letter I take to be private. Mine is also private. I wish to avoid notoriety as far as possible, and above all things desire to be spared the pain of seeing my name mixed with politics. Do not therefore publish this letter but wherever, and by whatever party, you hear my name mentioned in connection with the candidacy for any office, say that you know from me direct that I am not “in the field” and cannot allow my name to be used before any convention.
I am with great respect,
Your obt. Svt.
2. Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville is heralded by military historians as his greatest. In the face of a vastly numerically superior foe, Lee split his army not once, but twice, and went on the attack – a strategy that violated every military textbook of the time. Lee left a force of 10,000 to defend Fredericksburg against Sedgwick, and roughly split equally his remaining 50,000-man assault force – 25,000 each – at a dangerous distance of 12 miles. Thirteen years later General Custer would employ a similar tactic, only with lesser men and a shorter distance, to achieve a different result.
Undoubtedly one of the cagiest generals to ever command a field, Lee ordered empty freight cars ferried back and forth over a section of rail to create the impression that Fredericksburg was still supplied by Richmond, when the line had in fact been cut. It was Lee who directed Jackson to take the supply wagons with his flanking attack force, creating the impression of retreat. Finally, Lee’s misinformation placing Longstreet in Culpepper, until exposed, caused fits for the Union command.
Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville was not without great cost to the Confederacy. At 9:00 p.m. on the eventful evening of May 2nd, while reconnoitering the front, Stonewall Jackson was wounded by friendly fire; he died eight days later. Also, the South simply could not afford to lose the 13,000 soldiers it lost at Chancellorsville. Lastly, the result at Chancellorsville may have convinced General Lee that his Army of Northern Virginia could have its way with the Army of the Potomac, whenever and wherever it chose. If this is true – well, everyone knows the rest of the story. Lee always hoped for the Waterloo type ending, but never achieved one.
3. Until the publication of the meticulously researched work Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears in 1996, military historians uniformly criticized General Hooker for withdrawing on the first day of battle, that being May 1st. Until Sears’ publication, the consensus had been that it was folly for Hooker to surrender the initiative at the onset to Robert E. Lee. Sears argued that Hooker made the correct decision on that first day; that he was greatly outnumbered at the places where the two armies first collided and unable to ascertain the tactical situation from a far away and largely unworkable command post.
The Union corps commanders who were in the actual vanguard on that day had this to say about Hooker’s decision to withdraw:
Major General Darius N. Couch (upon recollecting the conference the evening of May 1st where Hooker said, “I have Lee just where he want him”) wrote:
“The retrograde movement had prepared me for something of this kind, but to hear this from his [General Hooker’s] own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much, and I retired from his presence in the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.”
Major General George G. Meade’s penultimate observation, reportedly exclaimed as he received the order to withdraw, was more succinct:
“If he [Hooker] thinks he can’t hold the top of the hill, how does he expect to hold the bottom of it?”
Major General Henry Slocum simply objected: “I had had hardly begun to fight,” he said. The official report he completed and submitted on May 17, 1863, reads as follows:
“On Friday, at 11: a.m., pursuant to orders, I moved the Twelfth Corps from Chancellorsville toward Fredericksburg, on the Plank Road. We met the skirmishers of the enemy about a mile from Chancellor house; formed in line of battle and advanced, the enemy falling back towards the heights of Fredericksburg. At 1 p.m. orders were received to return to our original line. In this movement our loss was only 10 killed and wounded.”
As for the commanding general’s own assessment of his decision to withdraw that day, shortly before his death in 1879, Major General Hooker wrote:
“And here again my reputation has been attacked because I did not undertake to accomplish an impossibility, but turned back at this point; and every history of the war that has been written has soundly berated me because I did not fight here in the forest with my hands tied behind me, and allow my army to be sacrificed. I have always believed that impartial history would vindicate my conduct in this emergency.”
4. With respect to the debacle that XI Corps experienced on May 2nd, after the war, General Hooker had this to say:
“This failure of Howard to hold his ground cost us our position, and I was forced, in the presence of the enemy, to take up a new one. Upon investigation I found that Howard had failed properly to obey my instructions to prepare to meet the enemy from the west.”
General Howard had a different opinion as to how he performed his duties that day:
“It has been customary to blame me and my corps for the disaster. The imputations of neglect to obey orders; of extraordinary self-confidence; of fanatical reliance upon the God of battles; of not sending out reconnaissances; of not intrenching; of not strengthening the right flank by keeping proper reserves; of having no pickets or skirmishers; of not sending information to General Hooker, etc., etc., are far from true. My command was by positive orders riveted to that position. Though constantly threatened and made aware of hostile columns in motion, yet the woods were so dense that Stonewall Jackson was able to mass a large force a few miles off, whose exact whereabouts neither patrols, reconnaissances, nor scouts ascertained. The enemy crossing the plank road, two and a half miles off, we all saw. So the turning at the Furnance was seen by hundreds of our people; but the interpretation of these movements was certainly wrong. Yet, wherein did we neglect any precaution?”
Howard continues, claiming that his actions were identical to those of other generals that day, that parts of the XI Corps did fight hard, that a portion of his force had been previously taken away on Hookers orders, that his men detained Jackson for over an hour, and finally that the panic of XI Corps was no worse than other units in other Civil War battles or, for that matter, “the Belgians at Waterloo.”
The author believes that a fair reading of the record suggests that both General Hooker and General Howard are at blame for the result on May 2nd. Of the 8,000 defenders at Howard’s disposal, only 900, or two regiments, faced westward toward the 25,000 attackers at the fateful hour, and they did so without the benefit of breastworks, trenches or abatis. Hooker, who was in overall command, never initiated an inspection tour during the course of the day to determine what preparations were actually made to protect his west flank — and he clearly had time to do so. As a consequence, Hooker suffered XI Corps to be, “caught in the air.”
5. General Hooker was relieved as commanding general Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln on June 28, 1863, but not before he put into motion the highly successful march into southern Pennsylvania. Tactically, Joe Hooker was wanting, but organizationally, he did have skills. General Hooker later served with valor at Lookout Mountain, and he finished the war in charge of a mid-west regional (i.e., non-combat) command. He led the burial detail for President Lincoln.
6. Confederate sharpshooters picked off Major General Reynolds at Gettysburg and ten months after that, Major General Sedgwick at Spotsylvania. Ironically, just before General Sedgwick was shot in the head he exclaimed, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The other corps commanders depicted in this story survived the war. Major General Sickles suffered a leg amputated at Gettysburg; he ordered its flesh boiled off and bones bleached, retaining the latter as a souvenir.
Sickles is one of the most intriguing, if not endearing, cads in American history. The following is redacted from his obituary appearing in the New York Times, May 14, 1914:
At his bedside were Mrs. Sickles and his son, Stanton Sickles, who had been with him constantly for nearly two weeks, following a reconciliation that ended an estrangement of twenty-nine years. The reconciliation between Gen. Sickles and his wife and son was brought about, it was said, through the efforts of one of the General’s Negro servants. Before they went to his bedside, Mrs. Sickles and Stanton Sickles were living at the Hotel Albert. They were unwilling to live with the General as long as Gen. Sickles’s secretary, Miss Eleanora Earle Wilmerding, lived in his home. Miss Wilmerding died recently, and that may have hastened the reconciliation.
Although estranged from her husband, Mrs. Sickles had lived near him with her son. In 1912, when she learned through the newspapers that the General was in financial straits, and that his household goods were about to be disposed of at a Sheriff’s sale, she went to his rescue with $8,000 she obtained by pawning her jewelry. A few days after Mrs. Sickles had rendered her husband this service, he issued a statement attacking her motives for doing so, and asserting that it was not necessary for her to pawn her jewels.
Mrs. Sickles, as Senorita Carmina Creagh, the daughter of Chevalier de Creagh of Madrid, a Spanish Councillor of State, was married to Gen. Sickles on November 28, 1871, at the American Legation in Madrid, when the General was Minister to Spain. She was brought up in the Court, and was the niece of the Marchioness of Novaliches, the Mistress of the Robes of the Court of Queen Isabella. At the Court of Spain Sickles became a dominating figure. Four years of brilliant diplomacy brought him the title: “The Yankee King of Spain”.
The estrangement between Gen. Sickles and his wife has never been fully explained. Their marriage seemed to be a happy one until Gen. Sickles resigned as Minister to Spain and prepared to return to this country. His wife, however, without any explanation whatsoever, suddenly refused to accompany him. It was in 1908 that she returned to New York and took up her abode near the home of Gen. Sickles.
General Daniel E. Sickles was the last of that galaxy of corps commanders who made possible the achievement of Grant and brought our great civil war strife to a triumphant close. Fighter, lawyer, politician and diplomat, his life was a crowded one, and in his closing years he looked back through a vista of decades in which strife and trouble were mixed in greater proportion than triumph.
Daniel Edgar Sickles was born in New York City on October 20, 1823. His grandfather, who was of Knickerbocker stock, retained the name of Van Sickles, but the father of Gen. Sickles dropped the Dutch prefix. Young Sickles was educated in the University of New York. Though his father was wealthy the young man preferred to strike out on his own for himself. He took up the printer’s trade, at which he worked for several years. Then he entered the law office of Benjamin F. Butler, who was at that time Attorney General in President Van Buren’s Cabinet. He was admitted to the bar in 1846. He served in Congress from 1857 to 1861 and again 1893-94.
Butler was a leading Democrat, and he imbued the young law student with the enthusiastic devotion to that party. For several years he was a member of the Tammany Hall General Committee and in 1855 he went to the State Senate. It was he who obtained for the City its great Central Park.
The life of a soldier appealed to the young Sickles, and he joined the Twelfth Regiment, National Guard, in 1849, as a private. In three years he retired from the organization as a major. He rose to be a Major General in the United States Army later.
In the fall of 1853 Sickles was commissioned Secretary of Legation in London, under Minister James Buchanan. After serving two years abroad he returned to enter a bitter political fight that sent him to the State Senate. Before his Senatorial term was out Sickles was elected to Congress.
It was during his stay in Washington that an event occurred which became the sensation of the day. His ambition to fit himself for the diplomatic service had led him to take up the study of French and Italian, and this way he met Therese Bagioli, daughter of an Italian music teacher. She was 17 when he married her. Their daughter, Laura, was born in 1854. When her husband went to Congress Mrs. Sickles accompanied him. Phillip Barton Key, United State Attorney for the District of Columbia, son of Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star Spangled Banner,” paid attention to Mrs. Sickles, and Sickles shot and killed Key on the street in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27, 1859.
Sickles declared Key had misled Mrs. Sickles. His trial, which lasted 20 days, ended in the acquittal of Sickles, the defense being temporary aberration of mind, and this was the first case in which that plea was set up as defense. After his acquittal Sickles took his wife back.
“I am not aware of any statute or code of morals,” said Sickles to his critics, “which makes it infamous to forgive a woman. I can now see in the almost universal denunciation with which she is followed to my threshold the misery and peril from which I have rescued the mother of my daughter. I shall strive to prove to all that an erring wife and mother may be forgiven and redeemed.”
Mrs. Sickles died a few years later.
Retiring from Congress in 1861, Sickles was one of the first to anticipate the need for soldiers. At the outbreak of the civil war, the young politician, then 38 years old, went to Lincoln to offer his services.
“You have been a leader in New York Democratic politics,” said the President. “If you kept up end up at that game surely you’ll do to take command of men in the field.”
The retired Congressman returned to this city and organized the Excelsior Brigade of Volunteers in New York, and was commissioned Colonel of one of the five regiments. He was nominated Brigadier General in September, 1861, but was not confirmed by the Senate until March, 1862. Gen.. Sickles served under Gen. Hooker with distinction at Fair Oaks, and Malvern Hill. He was in the seven days’ fighting before Richmond and also participated at Antietam. He succeeded Gen. Hooker in command of the division, and took a conspicuous part in the engagement at Fredericksburg. He was appointed Major General of Volunteers in 1862, but his commission dated from the year previous.
At Chancellorsville, commanding the Third Army Corps, to which he had been promoted, he was highly commended for gallant conduct, and his courage and activity at Gettysburg are a matter of history. All authorities accord him a very important part in that great battle, some contending that his was the master stroke that saved the day. It was a Gettysburg that he lost a leg.
Following the war he was selected to play an important part in the task of reconstruction. He commanded the Military Department of the Carolinas in 1865-7 that elicited the cordial commendation of Secretary Stanton and Gen. Grant. The views of President Johnson differed from those of Gen. Sickles, however, and the President relieved Sickles of his command. He was placed on the retired list with the full rank of Major General April 14, 1869, and following that came to appointment by President Grant to the Court of Spain.
The General returned to New York alone in 1879 and re-entered politics. He served as sheriff of New York County and at the age of 67 was re-elected to Congress. Trouble came to him in his last years. In 1911, his daughter sued to prevent a disposal of certain properties to which she believed she was entitled. In December, 1912, the General was deposed as Chairman of the New York Monuments Commission, which he had headed during the twenty-six years of its existence. There was a shortage of $27,000, and there was some talk of arresting the old soldier, but nothing came of it. Another trouble came in 1911, when the New York Commandery of the Loyal Legion refused to admit Gen, Sickles to membership.
He faced bankruptcy in the last years of his life, and several attempts were made to seize the art treasures in his Fifth Avenue home because of debt. It was in this extremity that his estranged wife and son came to his aid on several occasions.
His last days were spent at 23 Fifth Avenue, surrounded by war relics and attended by his faithful Negro servant.
The following is an excerpt from the Chancellorsville Campaign official battle report filed by Major General Sickles for the morning of May 2, 1863:
It is impossible to pass over without mention the irrepressible enthusiasm of the troops for Major-General Hooker, which was evinced in hearty and prolonged cheers as he road along the lines of the Third, Eleventh and Twelfth Corps.
7. In order to enhance the entertainment value of this narrative, the author has taken certain liberties with the historical record. To the author’s knowledge, there is no evidence of General Hooker carrying President Lincoln’s letter on his person, talking to himself before a mirror, effecting Napoleonic poses, or listening at the keyhole of a closed door. Many of the Hooker quotes appearing in the story, however (“I have Lee just where I want him” “God almighty cannot stop me” “Let’s sit on the porch,” etc.) are from eyewitness accounts.
With respect to how General Hooker reacted to Lincoln’s letter, the authorities are split. Some argue that Hooker took the President’s criticism in stride and even with grace, while others suggest the opposite. Having read Joe Hooker’s own words written after the war (which more often than not assign blame to others) and also other accounts of his behaviors, the author believes it highly likely that General Hooker received President Lincoln’s letter with the enmity portrayed in this story.
Bibliography — Books, Reports and Articles
Collins, John L. When Stonewall Jackson Turned Our Right, “The Century” Magazine, 1887
Couch, Darius, N. The Chancellorsville Campaign – Out Generaled By Lee! (publisher and date unknown; found at www.civilwarhome.com battechancellorsville.htm)
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1963
Goolrick, William K. Rebels Resurgent – Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, Time-Life Books, 1985
Johnson, Curt and McLaughlin, Mark. Civil War Battles, Roxby Productions Limited, 1977
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville, Mariner Books, Houghton Miffin Company, 1996
Sickles, Daniel E. Report of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Third Army Corps, 1863
Slocum, Henry W. Report of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Twelfth Army Corps, 1863
The author further made extensive use of the Internet, using “Battle of Chancellorsville” and the names of known combatants to drive search engines.