What was Joseph Hooker's biggest mistake in the Chancellorsville campaign?

Andy Cardinal

2nd Lieutenant
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In my opinion, Hooker's biggest mistake was that he expected Lee to do what he wanted him to do. Hooker never intended to fight a major battle. He planned and executed a brilliant campaign. He expected Lee to withdraw ("ingloriously fly") and was surprised when Lee did not. His plan was ruined Lee didn't react as he wanted and confronted him.

Even still, throughout May 2, he believwd Jackson's move was actually the retreat he had been hoping for. Although he did send a warning to Howard, his actions -- allowing Sickles to pursue, sending Barlow to support the pursuit -- belied any real expectation that the right flank was in danger.

Despite the successful flank attack on May 2, the Army of the Potomac was still in a good position to win a victory on May 3. Meade and Reynolds were positioned to strike Jackson's (Stuart's) left flank. This was before Hooker was wounded. Hooker chose to rely on Sedgwick's arrival to "save" him instead. Although Jackson's flank attack was brilliant and gets most of the attention, the battle was truly lost here on the morning of May 3.
 

Saint Jude

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As someone interested in learning about the war in the East, would you like to recommend alternatives?

I would start with one of the oldest histories of the battle. It was written by a participant, Theoroe A. Dodge, and is available on line. The Comte de Paris's account is another you might try.
 

Saint Jude

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Could you go more in depth on why you disagreed with Sears?

For all the reasons other posters have given in this thread, it's clear that Hooker was a very poor commander at the army level. Sears tries to prove the opposite by blaming Sedgwick, Howard, Stoneman, and Sickles for everything that went wrong. A good case can be made that Hooker never intended to wage an aggressive campaign against Lee.
 

cwbuff

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Location
Virginia
All excellent critiques of Hooker at Chancellorsville! Overall I would add that Hooker's plan of a double envelopment of the ANV was brilliant and was falling into place when Lee did not respond the way Hooker had hoped for. Rather than withdrawing towards Richmond and leaving his flanks exposed, Lee chose to stand and fight, and counterattack. Consequently, Hooker was caught flatfooted, stalled his offensive in the worst possible location (the Wilderness), and assumed a defensive posture which basically ended his hopes of success.

Bingo! Hooker suffered from acute confirmation bias. He believed his plan was working so much that when Jackson's troops were observed on the march, he interpreted the movement to be the ANV retreating, hat Lee's demonstration in his front was to enable the withdrawal and that his plan was working.
 

eBrowne

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Jan 12, 2016
Hooker misused his cavalry. Howard and Devens performed poorly. Sickles was foolishly allowed to attack the tail of Jackson's troops which further isolated the 11th Corps. Hooker had Lee forces split into three pieces. He should have attacked and overwhelmed one of those pieces. His withdrawal of Hazel Grove allowed Lee to join two of his forces. Hooker never used all of his troops. He had superiority of numbers and misused that advantage. Hooker stayed on the defensive and let Lee move troops to fight Sedgwick. Hooker mismanaged his artillery as Hunt had little authority. In general, Hooker had numerous opportunities to win this battle but failed miserably. He tried to scapegoat Sedgwick. Besides Hooker's opening battle plan, there was little else to like.
 

leftyhunter

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What Captain? Where and at what point in the march? Every Union written account I've ever read indicates total surprise.
Actually there was no need for Major General Howard to be surprised.
From the book "Chancellorsville" Stephen Sears Mariner Books P. 244 -247
P. 244 Union General Birney sent reports that his men saw a large number of Confederate troops who were in fact on the Flank March.
P.245
Lt. Sims Battery B New Jersey Light actually shelled Jackson's column . General Sickles inaccurately exaggerated the effectiveness of his artillery.
General Hooker actually sent General Howard a report detailing the deficiencies in Howard's defensive positions and reports of Confederate soldiers especially concerning a flank attack.
General Carl Schurz woke General Howard up at 10pm about General Hooker warning about enemy movement but Howard ignored him.
So it was not so much a case of Jackson surprising General Howard as it was General Howard ignoring warnings of an attack. Of course to he victor goes the spoils so yes General Jackson certainly deserve credit for an attack well done. Sears certainly makes a good argument that the AoP was poorly served by at least General Howard although General Stonemen also gets critiqued as well.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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los angeles ca
Bingo! Hooker suffered from acute confirmation bias. He believed his plan was working so much that when Jackson's troops were observed on the march, he interpreted the movement to be the ANV retreating, hat Lee's demonstration in his front was to enable the withdrawal and that his plan was working.
Actually has I just posted Hooker did write a formal report to General Howard warning Howard of a flank attack.
Leftyhunter
 

connecticut yankee

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 2, 2017
Hooker gets a lot of criticism from most historians today. So I'm wondering, what do you think was his biggest mistake?
Right off the bat, I can think of a number of mistakes he made that people criticize him for:

-retreating on May 1st to a defensive position around Chancellorsville, instead of pushing forward and getting out of the Wilderness

-leaving the right flank of the army (XI Corps) exposed to a flank attack

-evacuating Hazel Grove and giving the enemy a perfect artillery position (I personally think this was the most critical mistake)

-withdrawing across the river from his bridgehead

Biggest mistake was choosing to lean against that house pillar at a very wrong time...
 

MikeyB

Corporal
Joined
Sep 13, 2018
Actually there was no need for Major General Howard to be surprised.
From the book "Chancellorsville" Stephen Sears Mariner Books P. 244 -247
P. 244 Union General Birney sent reports that his men saw a large number of Confederate troops who were in fact on the Flank March.
P.245
Lt. Sims Battery B New Jersey Light actually shelled Jackson's column . General Sickles inaccurately exaggerated the effectiveness of his artillery.
General Hooker actually sent General Howard a report detailing the deficiencies in Howard's defensive positions and reports of Confederate soldiers especially concerning a flank attack.
General Carl Schurz woke General Howard up at 10pm about General Hooker warning about enemy movement but Howard ignored him.
So it was not so much a case of Jackson surprising General Howard as it was General Howard ignoring warnings of an attack. Of course to he victor goes the spoils so yes General Jackson certainly deserve credit for an attack well done. Sears certainly makes a good argument that the AoP was poorly served by at least General Howard although General Stonemen also gets critiqued as well.
Leftyhunter

Any idea for why Howard was not canned after, what seems to be pretty negligent command that changed the course of the battle? did Hooker just not have enough time, and Meade liked him?
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Hooker gets a lot of criticism from most historians today. So I'm wondering, what do you think was his biggest mistake?
Right off the bat, I can think of a number of mistakes he made that people criticize him for:

-retreating on May 1st to a defensive position around Chancellorsville, instead of pushing forward and getting out of the Wilderness

-leaving the right flank of the army (XI Corps) exposed to a flank attack

-evacuating Hazel Grove and giving the enemy a perfect artillery position (I personally think this was the most critical mistake)

-withdrawing across the river from his bridgehead
One of the best theories I have heard on this has to do with Hooker's situation and the Union communication fiasco at Chancellorsville.

While he was at his HQ on the heights opposite Fredericksburg, Hooker had an almost godlike intel picture of the campaign by 1863 standards. He was connected by wire and dispatch rider to almost all his troops. His control of high ground and the observation balloon gave him a very complete picture of Lee's dispositions and movements. Rapid communications and a good HQ staff made it all work.

Then Hooker left his HQ and rode to join the main column of attack at Chancellorsville. The second he crossed the Rappahannock he fell into darkness.

The telegraph system (civilian operators, controlled by Stanton in Washington, not the Army) flopped. The automatic machines broke down and the operators could not get messages decoded. Messages were sent without a timestamp or any means of sequencing them; they were also sent out of order. To make things worse, they were also not decoded and sent on to Hooker in the order received.

To make things even worse, sometimes it took a message 12 hours to get from the telegraph terminus on the north bank to Hooker at Chancellorsville. This is about a 30 minute ride on a horse for a courier.

South of the Rappahannock at Chancellorsville, Hooker must have felt like he had fallen from bright sunshine into the depths of a pit. Everything that had been crystal-clear hours before was now confused, hidden, and bizzare. Topping that off, the situation of the troops in the Wilderness made their own recon very limited. Some of the reports Hooker did receive can be read as saying Lee is abandoning Fredericksburg and retreating to the West (IOW, right at or past Hooker at Chancellorsville). This is the situation when Hooker orders Reynolds, Meade and the rest to pull back towards Chancellorsville.
 

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