Say What? Saturday: Slocum Reacts to Hooker's Orders at Chancellorsville, May 1, 1863

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Andy Cardinal

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When Joseph Hooker was named commander of the Army of the Potomac in January, 1863, the officer corps was skeptical. Hooker was known to be self-promoter who had been intriguing for the top spot. But he surprised his subordinates by improving supply and restoring morale.

Hooker surprised his subordinates again, and perhaps Robert E. Lee as well, by executing one of the most brillant movements of the war. By the end of the day on April 30, Hooker had the bulk of his army concentrated around Chancellorsville. "This is splendid Slocum," 5th Corps commander George Meade exclaimed. "Hurrah for Old Joe! We are on Lee's flank and he does not know it."

The next morning (May 1) the army advanced east toward Fredericksburg. The columns got a late start that morning, but by noon were in position to seize the important high ground near Salem Church. Sykes regular division was already engaged. Sykes was seeking reinforcements when orders were received to fall back to Chancellorsville.

Washington Roebling of Hooker's staff left this account of what happened next:

"Shortly after noon Gen. Hooker sent for me, saying, "I have determined to receive the enemy on my bayonets here at Chancellorsville. I want you to ride ahead to Gen. Slocum and tell him to stop the advance and return here with his command."

Roebling rode toward the front. "When I reached Slocum the steeple of Salem Church was already in view. When I gave my orders from Hooker, Slocum turned on me with fury, saying, 'Roebling, you are a ****ed liar, nobody but a crazy man would give such an order, when we have victory in sight. I shall go to Hooker myself, and if I find that you have spoken falsely, you shall be shot on my return.' Off he went, the advance was stopped.... General Slocum returned, having labored in vain with Hooker to make him rescind his change of plan. Casting a scowl at me, he turned the head of his column."

Source of Quote:Washington Roebling's Civil War
 
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jackt62

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One of the CW's great enigmas. Why, when the AOTP had successfully crossed the Rappahanock and Rapidan Rivers, passed through the Wilderness, and was maneuvering on Lee's flank in open terrain, did Hooker suddenly call a halt to the forward movement, and withdraw to a defensive position in the vicinity of Chancellorsville. There have been various explanations for Hooker's decision (he "lost confidence in himself," he was waiting for the ANV to withdraw towards Richmond, etc., etc.) but none seem satisfactory. The only thing we know is that the AOTP lost an opportunity to catch the ANV in a double envelopment that could have been decisive.
 

Andy Cardinal

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I believe Hooker did "lose confidence" when he realized Lee had not responded to his brilliant maneuver in the way he expected. After falling back, he still wanted to believe Lee was responding the way Hooker expected. Thus, Jackson's flanking March was seen as a retreat to Gordonsville.
 
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Stone in the wall

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I believe Hooker did "lose confidence" when he realized Lee had not responded to his brilliant maneuver in the way he expected. After falling back, he still wanted to believe Lee was responding the way Hooker expected. Thus, Jackson's flanking March was seen as a retreat to Gordonsville.
Reminds me of Pope believing Jackson was really retreating at 2nd Manassas. Some only see or believe what they want too.
 
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CharlotteEMcKay

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One of the CW's great enigmas. Why, when the AOTP had successfully crossed the Rappahanock and Rapidan Rivers, passed through the Wilderness, and was maneuvering on Lee's flank in open terrain, did Hooker suddenly call a halt to the forward movement, and withdraw to a defensive position in the vicinity of Chancellorsville. There have been various explanations for Hooker's decision (he "lost confidence in himself," he was waiting for the ANV to withdraw towards Richmond, etc., etc.) but none seem satisfactory. The only thing we know is that the AOTP lost an opportunity to catch the ANV in a double envelopment that could have been decisive.
Agreeing with the posts on this thread.
Is there any weight to the possibility of Hooker suffering a traumatic brain injury( TBI) when the Chancellor house was attacked by cannon and pillar collapsed on him? I was reading in the 1968 edition of the Civil War Magazine on Chancellorsville that he suffered paralysis and was under medical care five miles north of the Chancellor house. As a nurse having worked with TBI patients, it seems he could no longer lead the army after this injury.
- Annie AKA Charlotte Elizabeth McKay
 

jackt62

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Agreeing with the posts on this thread.
Is there any weight to the possibility of Hooker suffering a traumatic brain injury( TBI) when the Chancellor house was attacked by cannon and pillar collapsed on him? I was reading in the 1968 edition of the Civil War Magazine on Chancellorsville that he suffered paralysis and was under medical care five miles north of the Chancellor house. As a nurse having worked with TBI patients, it seems he could no longer lead the army after this injury.
- Annie AKA Charlotte Elizabeth McKay
That has been another explanation for Hooker's actions. But the big problem is that Hooker suffered his concussion on May 3rd, whereas his decision to halt his advance and withdraw from the vicinity of the Zoan Church into a defensive position at the Wilderness was taken on May 1st. So while Hooker's subsequent decisions after May 3rd (and to eventually retreat back across the Rappahanock), may be related to his injury, that still doesn't answer his initial decision to basically end the offensive campaign on May 1st.
 
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Andy Cardinal

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Here is Theodore Dodge's assessment:

"And this [concussion] furnishes no real apology. Hooker's thorough inability to grasp the situation, and handle the conditions arising from the responsibility of so,large a command, dates from Thursday noon, or at latest Friday morning. And from this time his eneveration was steadily on the increase. For the defeat of the Army of the Potomac in Sunday morning's conflict was already a settled fact, when Hooker failed at early dawn so to dispose his forces so as to sustain Sickles and Williams if over-matched, or to broach some counter-matched, or to broach some counter-manoeuvre to draw the enemy's attention to his own safety. (The Campaign of Chancellorsville, P. 114)

Disclosure -- Dodge was an officer in the 11th Corps, which means he was not a fan of Hooker. But I think his point his valid, and his book is an interesting read.
 

trice

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Rarely mentioned in discussions of Chancellorsville is the total Union communications fiasco that occurred when Hooker left his HQ opposite Fredericksburg and rode forward to Chancellorsville. All of what follows is IIRR, but I think you can find it discussed in Ernst Ferguson's Chancellorsville, 1863: The Souls of the Brave.

Back at his HQ, Hooker was living in a commander'dream: secure and rapid communications to all his units on the northern side of the Rappahannock via telegraph and courier as well as command of high ground (the ridge on the north side as well as the observation balloon) that gave him excellent intelligence on enemy movements.

One problem was that Stanton had taken most communication via telegraph out of Army hands (civilian operators who reported to the War Department, not the local commanding general. while there was also some telegraph work being done by the Topographical Engineers at the front), leading to two organizations competing with one another having different bosses and goals. Another was that the War Department operators were using a mechanical device to encode and decode transmissions.

In preparation for Hooker's move to the front, the forward telegraph station had been moved to north side of US Ford (probably Ely's). The moment Hooker rode across that ford and on to Chancellorsville, he plunged into a communications abyss. It was like being dropped out of the sunshine into a deep, dark pit. Hooker, used to operating with clear knowledge of his own movements and good knowledge of his own enemy's was suddenly in The Wilderness, cut off from communications with a large part of his own force and trying to make sense of what he did receive in a chaotic manner.

Why was this so bad? The list is long.
  • You would expect that the short ride from the telegraph terminus to the forward HQ at Chancellorsville would be quick (it was thought of as a 30 minute ride for a courier), but apparently it took some couriers three hours (I am not sure why, exactly, but this was apparently the actual experience).
  • the coding machines (new technology) broke down under heavy use, jammed, and were generally too slow for the volume of traffic being handled. This led to message backlogs with stacks of not-yet-decoded transmissions piling up. It could take 12 hours for a message to be decoded and forwarded from when it was received.
  • no plan for using hand-coding/decoding to reduce the backlog or simply expand the volume capacity seems to have existed.
  • the civilian operators reported to Stanton, not the Army, and would not take orders from soldiers until told to do so.
  • the Union Army message discipline seems to have been woefully inadequate. Many reports and observations had no timestamp. Due to the confusion and backlog that now existed at both the forward telegraph station and the Army HQ opposite Fredericksburg, messages began to arrive out of order in Chancellorsville (example: different observations from the observation balloon where the 3rd arrived in Chancellorsville before the 1st, with no indication of when the message was sent).
  • on and on.
This is the status when Hooker is making his May 1st decision to pull back to Chancellorsville, the one Slocum exploded about in the OP. He has ridden forward to take personal command -- and suddenly he is deep in the woods with a broken communication system behind him. His intel situation has gone from crystal clear to confusing chaos.
 
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trice

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From an old post of mine (back in 2008):

I think that Hooker came across the river, rode to Chancellorsville, and felt like a man who'd fallen into a coal chute. Everything that was certain at Noon was unsure at 3 PM. For a while there was a complete information blackout -- no messages at all -- from his HQ. Then messages began to arrive in fits and starts, out of order. Union communication discipline is horrendous. Messages do not contain references to identify what they are referring to (Like "received your message of 1 PM" or "the rebel column in my 1:30 PM message is now ..." or they contain no time notation at all.) Even when messages do arrive, without a matrix to put them in they are often more confusing then helpful.​
Now the "best" way to resolve all this was for Hooker to continue the drive, get out of The Wilderness, and see for himself what was what. That would also re-establish more direct communications with his HQ and open up US Ford. But this is also perhaps the most dangerous thing Hooker could do if the situation is not what he thinks it is.​
Although there aren't many messages getting through from HQ, some of them (particularly the balloon reports) speak of Confederate troops moving west (i.e., towards Hooker) Some seem to imply reinforcements for the rebels are arriving. Some make little or no sense at all.​
So there's Hooker, sitting in the woods at Chancellorsville, suddenly blinded. What does all this mean? What should he do?​
If Lee is retreating west (why the heck west instead of south?) towards Hooker, then Hooker might stay where he is until Sedgwick crosses the river, then hit Lee in the flank while Sedgwick hits his rear. Sounds good, huh?​
If Lee is coming to attack Hooker, then Hooker can defend and hold him off until Sedgwick crosses and hits him in the rear. Then they can try to crush lee between them. Sounds good as well.​
If Lee is actually moving south, he might get off unscathed, but the AoP will be across the river in impressive and nearly bloodless fashion. Hooker can quickly pursue, on short supply lines. Good for morale, at least, and not to be despised after the bloodbath at Fredericksburg in December and the fiasco of the "Mud March".​
But if Lee has been reinforced (maybe one of Longstreet's divisions is suddenly arriving from Suffolk, or unknown reinforcements by RR through Richmond), then maybe Lee is about to launch one of those sledgehammer blows at the head of Hooker's columns as they emerge from The Wilderness. In that case, plunging ahead through this stuff might be exactly the wrong thing to do. Meade, over on the river road, might be particularly vulnerable, or the Corps on the right if the Confederates got around their flank. The stiffening Confederate resistance to the front might be the first sign of that.​
Hooker has to guess, and he has to guess right then and there, in this sudden isolation. He decides to play it a little safe. He stops the forward movement. He calls the leading elements back, and he orders them to entrench around Chancellorsville. If Lee wants to attack him there, dug in, with some of the little clear ground in The Wilderness, Hooker will bleed him all he can before coming out after him. If Lee doesn't, he can advance tomorrow when everything is in better order.​
This is when men like Couch and Meade blow up. They're further forward. They've been marching through this tunnel-like growth for a couple of days, anxious as soldiers are when they can't see around them well. They aren't out of this dank woods yet, but they can see the way out in another couple of hours advance. They're eager and psyched up one moment; angry and sullen the next. They pull back as ordered.​
This is the mistake everything else pivots on. There were no reinforcements, but Lee was coming to attack anyway. He and Jackson work their magic, XI Corps gets flanked, events start rolling downhill for Hooker, and then maybe he gets stunned into near insensibility by that cannonball.​
From here we see the inactivity while Lee turns on Sedgwick, and the decision to retreat when Lee is coming back. Hooker, once he started moving backwards, hit by many sudden blows, again stepped back. Facing Lee, facing Jackson, facing Stuart, facing the ANV, that was exactly the wrong thing to do.​
That, really, is what all the criticism of Hooker was about. Many commanders, thrust into the same situation, might have done something similar. It isn't about military technical knowledge or professionalism; it isn't about skill in execution. It isn't about courage -- certainly not the kind of courage it takes to go where the bullets are flying, because Hooker had that in abundance. Schofield doesn't look much different at Spring Hill and Franklin when Hood comes down on him, but Schofield had better luck when Hood smashed his own army in the assault at Franklin.​
IMHO, in Hooker's position, a Lee, a Jackson, a Grant, a Sheridan, a Thomas might have continued the advance. It fits their style and personality. A Bragg might have continued the advance out of sheer determination: he rarely changed a plan once made. Meade and Sherman might have continued the advance a bit slower than the others, or pulled back; a Hood undoubtedly would have pushed the advance to the utmost (but I can also picture him falling into a trap the easiest). I can't say I feel strongly what any of the other high commanders of the war might have done, but I can see many of them thinking like Hooker did that fateful afternoon.​
OTOH, Meade and Sherman were not retreaters. They were stubborn fighters. I can't picture them falling back across the river at the end, as Hooker did. I can see either being not-quite-aggressive-enough when Lee turns on Sedgwick.​
 

Saint Jude

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Disclosure -- Dodge was an officer in the 11th Corps, which means he was not a fan of Hooker. But I think his point his valid, and his book is an interesting read.
Even though Dodge served in the Eleventh Corps, he was only "not a fan of Hooker" after he studied the Battle of Chancellorsville in the official records (the first historian to do so). For fifty years his book was considered the best account of the battle. IMO, for anyone just starting to investigate the battle, it is still the place to begin.
 
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Andy Cardinal

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Even though Dodge served in the Eleventh Corps, he was only "not a fan of Hooker" after he studied the Battle of Chancellorsville in the official records (the first historian to do so). For fifty years his book was considered the best account of the battle. IMO, for anyone just starting to investigate the battle, it is still the place to begin.
I agree. I learned more about Chancellorsville from it that anything else I've read, and the only one I haven't read yet is Bigelow's book.
 

Saint Jude

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I agree. I learned more about Chancellorsville from it that anything else I've read, and the only one I haven't read yet is Bigelow's book.
Bigelow is okay, but he makes the mistake of quoting unreliable sources like J. Watts De Peyster. He also doesn't question the veracity of Carl Schurz's much later recollections of Chancellorsville, even though it's quite easy to prove that they were mendacious and self-serving.
 
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