Chancellorsville is often called Lee’s “perfect battle”… facing the longest odds, using the boldest tactics, and winning the ultimate triumph- but a closer examination of the battle’s casualty statistics reveal a very different picture. Far from perfect, Lee’s victory over Hooker was a costly, bloody gamble with marginal payoff.
Myth becomes fact all too often
Twice dividing his outnumbered force before a superior foe… and executing a bold flanking maneuver clouds the true cost of the battle. Hooker’s inaction is far more striking than Lee’s tactical decisions. By surrendering the initiative to Lee, Hooker allowed his opponent tactical discretion, thus making the flank attack possible. Union reinforcements nullified Confederate gains on May 2. Hooker’s refusal to counterattack with those additional troops only accentuated the modest Confederate gains.
Keep fighting Joe!
Lee went into battle with just under 60,000 effectives… and suffered nearly 13,000 casualties- of which, over 10,000 were wounded or killed. Almost a quarter of his men were gone at a time when the Confederacy was increasingly unable to replace such loss. Comparatively, Hooker entered the battle with well over 130,000 troops, and suffered over 17,000 casualties. But, of this number, nearly 6,000 were captured(11th Corps victims of Jackson’s attack.) Factoring the captured, Hooker’s loss was a much smaller figure of just over 11,000. The statistics show that Lee’s army actually took the worst of the fighting- His action, and Hooker’s inaction have permanently altered the history of the battle. Far from the great army “cut to pieces” as remembered by Horace Greeley, Hooker’s men fought well and proved their mettle in battle.
Robert E. Lee played a vital role… in bringing the Civil War to a conciliatory close. Though he compared his surrender to Grant to “dying a thousand deaths” Lee understood that the two men were doing more than just ending battlefield hostilities; they were working to bring the nation back together. The loyal and dependable Army of Northern Virginia would have followed Lee into hell, he had to convince them to join in the noble crusade of rebuilding.
“After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them: but, feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain there until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Lee did not carry misguided doctrines with him… following the war. He accepted the Confederate defeat and always looked to the future. He lived out his years chastising fellow former Confederates who argued with Federal authority, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.”
Stonewall Jackson summoned AP Hill…during his final, delirious moments on May 10, 1863. The two men had often been at odds during the war (not that difficult to be in Jackson’s doghouse, especially when he had his own reputation to consider.) But the memory of Hill’s soldiers always being prepared stuck with Jackson even on his deathbed.
Beneath the shade of the trees
Robert E. Lee called upon Hill’s bravery… as he passed in and out of conscienceness on October 12, 1870. Lee insisted “Hill MUST come up” before passing away. The Confederacy’s two most revered commanders remembered the contributions of the Light Division (even if it was in fever induced delirium.)
Whose name could Ambrose Powell Hill call…as he lay dying near Petersburg, Virginia on April 2, 1865? Hill had been struck down while leading what was left of his division to the front. AP Hill often claimed he did not want to live to see the Confederacy fall. He died seven days before Lee’s surrender.
“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” – US Grant
With that observation in his best-selling memoir… Grant started the historical firestorm around the second-to-last battle of the Overland Campaign. Through the years and volumes documenting every facet of the war, Cold Harbor has come to symbolize the carnage and suffering endured by the fighting men. Writers have elevated the battle to the conclusive example of obsolete tactics brutishly utilized during an ill-conceived campaign. Images of doomed soldiers pinning name tags to their uniforms and ranks of men mowed down in place haunt students of the Civil War. But does the Battle of Cold Harbor truly measure up to the perception of needless slaughter?
The reputed butcher…
Battlefield historian Gordon Rhea… takes this and other misconceptions to task in his multi-volume study of the Overland campaign. The facts simply do not support the popular reputation of June 3, 1864 being a day of unspeakable slaughter. Grant’s forces suffered between 5,500-6,000 casualties- making it only the 5th bloodiest day of that Summer. Every day of the Wilderness battle saw more casualties- Spotsylvania stands as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Rhea smartly points out that there were bloodier days in the two years preceding the Overland Campaign. What happened to our Remembrance?
The truth stays in the trenches
The Summer of relentless combat… that marked the Overland Campaign took a drastic toll on the Army of the Potomac. The soldiers remembering June 3, 1864 were tired and weary of combat- particularly massed frontal assaults against entrenched Confederates. “Fog of War” is a concept bordering on cliche, but clearly, the judgement of many of the battle’s participants was clouded. Grant’s own recollection of the day only solidified the misapprehensions and flawed narrative.
Three days of indecisive movements by Union forces… allowed Robert E. Lee’s army to strengthen its positions near Bethesda Church and New Cold Harbor. The delay muted the Federal assaults of June 1-2. The troops in blue knew exactly what awaited them the following day. The carnage of Grant’s Overland campaign had taken its toll.
Jefferson Truitt was one of the Union soldiers… who knew exactly what was going to happen on June 3rd. The all-to-familiar pattern could again be seen; Confederates controlled the thoroughfares to Richmond, and Union troops would try bludgeon them open. War-weary troops began pinning names to their uniform coats for easier identification; many penned one final diary entry- “Killed at Cold Harbor.” Jefferson Truitt, and his regiment, the 62nd PA. were due to leave the service on July 1. He had survived the bloodiest conflicts of the war: Malvern Hill, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania… now, with just weeks to serve, he would meet his end near the intersection of Old Church and Walnut Grove roads.
Last full measure
Filed under Ephemera, News
History will never know why Joe Hooker… surrendered the initiative to Lee at Chancellorsville. Popular history records Hooker as saying “I just lost faith in Joe Hooker.” Further speculation centers on the projectile which nearly killed Hooker on the porch of the Chancellor house, leaving him with a concussion. Historian Stephen Sears’ extensive research has uncovered no evidence that Hooker ever publicly claimed he lost faith in himself. The famous quote came from elderly veterans exchanging stories years after Hooker’s death. The shell struck the pillar on the Chancellor porch on May 3. Hooker was obviously affected by the blow, refusing to relinquish command after being prompted by subordinates. Trouble is the battle had been decided by this point. Hooker chose to go on the defensive on May 1, long before his bell was rung.
Lee and Jackson deciding Hooker’s fate
What we know about the Chancellorsville campaign… is the Union high command was plagued by poor tactical decisions and a lack of leadership from Hooker.
Mr. Lincoln’s Army endures another defeat
- Hooker surrendered the initiative to Lee on May 1
- Lee seized the initiative and decided to take the battle to Hooker
- Maj. General Oliver Otis Howard ignored Hooker’s orders to fortify his position on the Union right flank
- Jackson’s flank attack crushed Howard’s men but gained no real strategic advantage
- Jackson’s wounding left a serious hole in the Confederate command structure
- Hooker missed several key opportunities to counterattack on May 3
- Hooker should have stepped aside after suffering a concussion
- Nearly 40,000 Union troops failed to fire a shot during the battle….they were never put into fight
- Of the 17,200 Union casualties, nearly 6,000 of them were captured members of the XI corps
- Lee’s army sustained more actual battle casualties (13,300) than Hooker’s