How To Lose The Civil War

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Table of Contents

 

No Rebels in D.C. 1
King Cotton’s Tarnished Crown 7
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Feds! 15
The Imperfect Art of the Ironclad 23
Buy American: Colonel Ripley
and the English Enfield Rifles 31
Christmas in April 37
Grant’s Rough River Road to the South 45
Lee Looks Smart Beating a Stupid General 57
When Not Losing Is Victory 67
The Campaign for the Big Muddy 77
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Habeas Corpus! 83
Against a Rock and a Hard Place 91
When Second-Best Generals Fight 101
Fighting Joe Hooker Does Everything
Except, um, Fight 109
Take Nothing for Granted 119
Five Generals in Two Years 129
Lee Gambles at the Right Time, in the Wrong Place 137
Two Brigades Wasted 147

Confederate Command Failure 155
General Dan Sickles Proves
to Be an Independent Thinker 163
The Amazing Mystery of Billy Mahone 173
Where in the World Is J.E.B. Stuart? 181
Futile Gallantry on Cemetery Ridge 189
Vainglory: Kilpatrick Orders
Farnsworth’s Charge 197
Meade Goes Nowhere 205
The Roof Is on Fire! 213
Fight to the Finish at the River of Death 219
Götterdämmerung in Tennessee 227
Jubal Early’s Pile of Mistakes 237
Throwing a Mule Shoe 245
Grant Smashes Against the New Era of War 251
Butler Gets Lost in the Bermuda Hundred 259
Throw Courage into a Hole 265
The South’s Last Stand on the Gulf 273
Horsing Around: The (F)utility of the Cavalry Raid 281
“Useless, Useless” 287
Four Great Mistakes and Their Matrices 295

Fighting Joe Hooker Does
Everything Except, um, Fight

May 1–6, 1863: The Battle of Chancellorsville

 

After the Fredericksburg debacle, President Lincoln wasted
little time in removing the clearly overmatched Burnside
from command of the Army of the Potomac. On January
26, 1863, that exalted position was awarded to another of the army’s
veteran corps commanders, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker.
Unlike his predecessor, however, Hooker had actively campaigned for
the job, scheming with other corps commanders to undermine first
McClellan’s, and then Burnside’s, performance.
This subterfuge had reached the point, by mid-January, that
Burnside traveled to Washington and demanded that Lincoln
remove corps commanders Hooker and Franklin, and a host of other
ranking leaders from the army, or else replace Burnside himself. The
president opted for the latter choice, and it is doubtful that Burnside
was very disappointed—and it is certain that Hooker embraced
the promotion with all the delight of a very ambitious and confident
commander of men.
In some respects, the promotion was surprising. Hooker had a
somewhat unsavory reputation, with one observer referring to his
headquarters as “a combination of barroom and brothel.” Still, the
seasoned veterans of the army, bitterly resenting the lives wasted at
Fredericksburg, reacted to Hooker’s appointment with a modicum of
hope. The Army of the Potomac was proving to be a very resilient
army indeed, filled with soldiers who seemed determined to prevail
in battle not so much because of their leaders as in spite of them. In
Hooker, with his bellicose reputation and proven aggressiveness, they
felt at least a common desire for success.
The new army commander took immediate steps to improve the
lot of his soldiers, and these steps did much to further improve morale.
He aggressively cracked down on corrupt quartermasters, men who
had been growing rich by skimming profits off supplies that were intended
for the army. He saw that rations for the common soldier were
improved, opening up warehouses stocked with fresh vegetables and
other delicacies that had been essentially lost in the ranks of the vast
army bureaucracy. For the first time in months, the troops had fresh,
soft bread instead of tough, dried hardtack.
Hooker granted furloughs, offered amnesty to AWOL soldiers—
many of whom returned to the ranks—and had distinctive badges
designed for each corps. These insignia, apparently trifling though
they might be, went a long way toward improving unit cohesion and
instilling soldiers’ pride in formations that went beyond their immediate
regiment, brigade, or home state. Finally, he reorganized the
Union cavalry arm, melding the many small formations attached
to the various Yankee corps into an independent force. There were
enough troopers to form an entire corps of cavalry, and Hooker, based
on the Confederate model, determined to use his riders as a single,
powerful entity. This latter step went a long way toward propelling
the Union horsemen into an arm of service
that would soon match,
and eventually surpass, the southern foe.
By contrast, Robert E. Lee’s men were in bad shape as the winter
of 1863 warmed into spring. General Longstreet, with two of his veteran
divisions, was detached southward to support Rebel positions
along the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. It was hoped that
he could also garner some fresh provisions from those prosperous regions
that had yet to feel the scourge of war. The troops remaining
along the Rappahannock numbered only about 60,000 men, or about
half the size of Hooker’s army. With supplies running out throughout
the region, troops ate wild onions and sassafras buds to avoid scurvy.
Many horses starved because of a lack of forage.
But like their opponents across the river, the soldiers of the Army of
Northern Virginia retained a very high morale, with an almost spiritual
belief in the infallibility of their legendary army commander and his
chief lieutenant, Major General Stonewall Jackson. From his position
in unspoiled territory, Longstreet was soon able to send grain and hogs
to replenish the army’s commissary, strengthening the men and further
improving morale. Still anchored around Fredericksburg, the army occupied
a strongly fortified position that now reached some twenty-five
miles in length. When Hooker’s army began to stir, Lee was ready to
watch, wait, and eventually to counter his opponent’s activities.
Hooker possessed a confidence that was so sublime as to worry
President Lincoln, who warned that his army commander was just a
trifle too cocky. When Hooker boasted that the question was not “if”
he would take Richmond, but “when,” Lincoln pointedly remarked:
“the hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never
cackles until the egg is laid.” Still, Hooker’s enthusiasm was unabated.
As he began to put a plan of campaign together he was heard
to say, “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”
As the plan took shape, Hooker continued to prove himself a
master of military events. He had a clear objective: he wanted to maneuver
Lee out of his entrenchments and force him to accept battle
in the field, where the Union superiority in numbers should prevail.
To this end, he divided his army into three large detachments. Some
40,000 men under Major General John Sedgwick would remain in
the Union positions opposite Fredericksburg, there to demonstrate
against the entrenched Rebels, hopefully to hold them in place.
Hooker also dispatched 10,000 Union cavalry, the largest such
force yet to take the field, under the command of Major General
George Stoneman. Their assignment was to raid far to the south in
an effort to break Lee’s lines of supply and communications with
Richmond. While sound in concept, this task proved a little too audacious
for the recently expanded cavalry. In the event, this proved
to be an early mistake by the commanding general—though he had
created a strong and concentrated cavalry arm, in its first action he
sent it so far away from the main engagement that Stoneman’s riders
were unable to provide the traditional screening and scouting roles
performed by the horsemen. Lee, on the other hand, refused to let Jeb
Stuart’s cavalry be drawn away by the distraction, and thus he gained
much better intelligence about his enemy’s movements. At the same
time, the Rebel horsemen were able to screen Confederate operations
very effectively and provide accurate intelligence about Federal deployments
during the imminent action.
Finally, Hooker himself took command of the bulk of his army,
some 70,000 men—a force that, on its own, outnumbered Lee’s entire
army. He intended to march them upstream, well beyond the left
flank of the Rebel lines, and then cross first the Rappahannock and
then the Rapidan River, placing his large force squarely on Lee’s flank,
where the southerner’s entrenchments would be useless. He expected
that the Army of Northern Virginia, thus outwitted, would pull out
of its prepared positions and begin a southward march—whereupon
the Army of the Potomac would advance, face its foe in a mobile fight
on an open battlefield, and attain the battle of annihilation that had
thus far eluded both sides.
This was a complicated plan, but the Army of the Potomac executed
the movement with precision and speed. Though Lee’s scouts
informed him that much of Hooker’s army was on the move, Hooker
moved well beyond Lee’s left flank and was able to cross first the
Rappahannock and then the Rapidan before the Rebels could react.
He moved into a region known locally as the Wilderness, a relatively
tangled forest of new-growth trees, dense underbrush, and frequent
swamps. Only two known roads traversed the Wilderness, and
Hooker planned to use both of them to converge his forces at a remote
crossroads known as the Chancellor Plantation.
By the end of April, Hooker’s plan was very near to a dramatic
payoff. The four corps under his direct command were advancing
through the Wilderness toward Chancellorsville, though passage
through the dense woods was a little more difficult than anyone on the
Union side had expected. Still, all units were able to move into their
assigned positions, and in his wing alone Hooker possessed more men
than in the entire army arrayed against him.
Back at Fredericksburg, Lee and Jackson kept a wary eye on Sedgwick’s
40,000 men, who sidled downriver on their bank, and made as
if to cross and attack the Confederate right. However, neither of these
veteran Rebel leaders was fooled, and together they concluded that
they were watching a feint. Stuart’s cavalry, meanwhile, had brought
them news of the Federal presence in the Wilderness. Lee, ever the
gambler, decided to violate one of the basic tenets of warfare by dividing
his force in the face of a larger enemy army. It was a gamble that
would pay off, in spades.
He left Major General Jubal Early with 10,000 men at Fredericksburg,
well entrenched on Marye’s Heights, with orders to keep an
eye on Sedgwick. With the rest of his men, some 43,000, he marched
swiftly westward, reaching the edge of the Wilderness on April
30. The Rebels plunged into the woods and, on May 1, met the advance
elements of Hooker’s force, General George Sykes’s division of
Meade’s corps.
The resulting clash became a sharp little firefight, with Union
General Darius Couch bringing up reinforcements at Hooker’s command.
The Rebels on the front seemed to be growing in strength, but
so were the Yankees. It seemed to Couch, Meade, and most of the rest
of Hooker’s command group that things were developing according
to plan. After all, if each side kept pouring men into the fight, lengthening
the front, the simple law of arithmetic meant that the Federals
would soon outstretch their foe and the victory would be won.
But they had not taken into consideration the army commander.
Now, as the battle was beginning, Fighting Joe Hooker seemed to be
getting very cold feet indeed. After another hour or so of the growing
skirmish, he abruptly ordered Couch and the rest of his advance
units to fall back to Chancellorsville, ceding the bit of contested high
ground to the Rebels. Couch and Meade both protested vigorously,
but Hooker’s mind was made up—the men were to retreat, now!
“If he thinks he can’t hold the top of the hill, how does he expect to
hold the bottom of it?” Couch grumbled as he glumly obeyed orders,
bringing his men as a rear guard back to Chancellorsville. That night
Hooker tried to reassure his subordinate, boasting that he had Lee
right where he wanted him. The reassurance didn’t work, and later
Couch would say, “I retired from [Hooker’s] presence with the belief
that my commanding general was a whipped man.”
For their part, Lee and Jackson let the Yankees retreat unmolested,
and paused to consider a plan of action. Thanks to a topographical
engineer and some help from locals, Jackson learned of some narrow
back roads that theoretically would allow him to move a force across
the face of Hooker’s army and come upon the Yankees from the
west—that is, from the rear of Hooker’s eastward-facing army. Lee
approved the plan, and Jackson put it into motion as quickly as possible
on May 2. This meant that, once again, the Army of Northern
Virginia would divide itself in the face of a stronger foe, as Lee
retained about 16,000 men to face Hooker while Jackson took some
25,000 for the flanking maneuver.
But, as usual, Robert E. Lee had taken accurate measure of his
foe. Even as his corps commanders chafed at the inaction, Hooker
seemed like a changed man, now determined to simply wait and see
what developed. When III Corps commander Daniel Sickles located
a relatively open bit of high ground in his front, Hooker allowed him
to advance to the place, called Hazel Grove, with some of his corps.
But for the rest, the army would stay in place.
On the right (westernmost) flank of Hooker’s force was posted
General Oliver Howard’s XI Corps, composed mostly of German
immigrants—commonly called Dutchmen in the vernacular of the
time. These men had received little respect and affection from the rest
of the army, and perhaps this prejudice was reflected in their being
posted at what was assumed to be the far rear. Howard had recently
replaced the previous commander, Franz Sigel, a fellow Dutchman.
Howard had little affection for his men, and they reciprocated.
On May 2, Sickles reported large columns of Rebels moving past
his position. He and Hooker assumed that this indicated that Lee was
retreating, though Hooker did send one message to Howard warning
him to watch his flank. There is no record that Howard passed
this warning on to his men. Indeed, as more and more signs of activity
began to stir in the woods to the west of XI Corps, many junior
officers went to Howard’s headquarters to warn of enemy activity.
Howard and his non-German staff officers dismissed these men as
worrywarts, even implying cowardice in some cases. The general
would not authorize a change in his corps’ facing, or anything more
than a couple of lonely artillery pieces swiveled to face west.
By 5:30 in the afternoon, Jackson had his men in position, and
they came swarming out of the woods like a hurricane. Though some
individual units fought gallantly, Howard’s corps was soon shattered,
survivors streaming back to the Chancellorsville plantation in confusion
and dismay. It was only the late hour that saved Hooker’s force
from complete disaster, as darkness finally broke the impetus of the
attack and gave the weary Yankees a chance to catch their breath and
reorient their lines.
Disaster did come in the darkness, but in a capricious act of cruel
fate it struck the Rebels very sharply indeed. Stonewall Jackson, determined
to keep the offensive moving, rode forward in the twilight to
try to spur his men on to greater efforts. As he was returning with his
staff to the Confederate lines, a group of pickets mistook his mounted
party for Yankee cavalry and unleashed a volley of musketry. Stonewall
was badly wounded by several shots that shattered his arm. He
fell from the saddle and was carried to the rear, wrapped in blankets.
The arm was amputated later that night. Though Jackson would
show signs of recovery in the immediate aftermath of the battle, the
wounded general would fall victim to pneumonia and die on May 10.
On May 3, Jeb Stuart took command of Jackson’s corps and resumed
the attack. By then Hooker’s men had established a fairly
strong defensive perimeter and, in fact, still possessed superiority in
numbers that would have allowed the Federals to assume the attack
in any direction that they chose. But Fighting Joe seemed to be all
fought out. Much to Sickles’s disgust, Hooker ordered him to fall back
from his “exposed” position at Hazel Grove. The Rebels immediately
claimed the spot, which was about the only good artillery ground in
all the Wilderness, and used it to relentlessly hammer the Yankees for
the rest of the battle. One of those cannonballs struck a pillar of the
Chancellor mansion while Hooker was leaning against it, the resulting
concussion knocking him out for several minutes. Fortunately for
the Rebels, he recovered soon enough to prevent any of his subordinates
from taking decisive action.
In the meantime, Sedgwick was moving aggressively at Fredericksburg,
and this time the Yankees drove the Rebels from their
trenches on Marye’s Heights. Early, outnumbered by four to one,
was pushed westward, and once more the Army of the Potomac
had a chance to close on a portion of the enemy force. But again Lee
acted quickly, virtually abandoning his position before the immobile
Hooker and sending reinforcements eastward. On May 4 they clashed
with Sedgwick’s corps at Salem Church, sending the Yankees reeling
backward.
Over the next two days, the Army of the Potomac withdrew carefully
back across the Rappahannock until, by the end of May 6, that
deep river once again divided the two armies. “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s
ambitious plan had come to naught, not for lack of a good plan but for
a simple lack of fight.

 

Written by: Doug Niles

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