Four Years With General Lee, by Walter H. Taylor, Chapter 7

Four Years With General Lee

Battle of Fredericksburg.—Federal Army One Hundred Thousand strong: Confederate Army Seventy-eight Thousand strong.—Battle of Chancellorsville.—Federal Army One Hundred and Thirty-two Thousand strong: Confederate Army Fifty-seven Thousand strong.

IN the latter part of October, 1862, General McClellan moved his army to the south side of the Potomac, east of the mountains. On the 4th of November he occupied Ashby’s Gap. His entire army was now concentrated in the neighborhood of Warrenton. He was at this time again relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac, and General Burnside was appointed to succeed him. After a conference with General-in-chief Halleck, the new commander determined by a rapid movement to secure possession of Fredericksburg, from which point as a base he proposed to renew the advance upon the Confederate capital. General Lee, whose army at the commencement of these movements was concentrated in the lower Valley of Virginia, had not been meanwhile inactive. Closely scrutinizing every movement of the enemy, he seemed, by intuition, to divine his purpose, and promptly made such disposition as was necessary to forestall him.

When General Burnside’s intention to move upon Fredericksburg was fully developed, General Lee ordered Longstreet to that point, and directed Jackson, who was still in the Valley, to move rapidly on Orange Court-House.

Sumner’s grand division led the van of the Federal army, and its advance arrived opposite Fredericksburg on the afternoon of the 17th of November. No serious effort was made by General Sumner to cross the river and occupy the town, and time was thus afforded for the advance divisions of the Confederates to reach the point threatened; so that when the Federal commander arrived opposite, doubtless to his surprise he found no despicable array of Confederate bayonets prepared to dispute his passage of the river. With his entire army he soon occupied Stafford Heights; and, casting his eye southward beyond the level plain or belt which skirts the south bank of the river, he saw the Army of Northern Virginia strongly posted upon the range of hills overlooking the intervening plain. Again General Lee gave “check!”

The nature of the ground rendered it an easy matter for the Federal commander to control the southern bank of the river. On the 11th of December he threw a force across, and occupied the town. The entire army, with the exception of one corps, under General Hooker, followed, and by the evening of the 12th was well established on the south side.1 As the fog lifted on the morning of the 13th, the Confederates beheld the Army of the Potomac drawn up in most imposing array, fully one hundred thousand strong,[2] stretching from above Fredericksburg to Deep Run. It was a grand and beautiful sight; rarely is one more glorious vouchsafed to mortal eye. And now, as the command is given to the Federal troops to advance, a new interest, a spirit of intense excitement, is added to the scene; and as the whole line of blue—solid and regular, bristling with the glittering bayonets—moves steadily forward, accompanied by the deafening roar of the artillery, the eye taking in the whole panorama at a glance, men hold their breath, and realize that was is indeed as glorious as it is terrible.

The Federal soldiers advanced right gallantly to the desperate work assigned them; time and again was the assault renewed on the right and on the left of the Confederate line, but all in vain. The cool, steady veterans of Lee, under the protection of their hastily-constructed or extemporized works, made terrible havoc in the ranks of the assailing columns; and division after division recoiled from the terrible shock, shattered, discomfited, and demoralized. Their allotted task exceeded human endeavor; and no shame to them that, after such courageous and brilliant conduct, their efforts lacked success. Less than twenty thousand Confederate troops (about one-fourth of the army under General Lee)[3] were actively engaged. It was certainly the most easily won of all the grand battles of the war, and it was, indeed, the most exhilarating and inspiring to look upon, as beheld from the summit of one of the hills occupied by our troops, where army headquarters were temporarily established.

Contrary to the expectation of General Lee, the assault was not renewed,[4] and, on the night of the 15th, General Burnside retired his army from the south side of the river, and resumed his former position on Stafford Heights.

Much has been said and written about a proposition having been made to General Lee by General Jackson, that he be allowed to make a night-attack on the enemy after his repulse. Some of the features of this alleged proposition, as published some years ago, are so absurd as to carry in themselves evidence of their fictitious character. I can only say that I never heard of any such proposition, and I have excellent authority for asserting, as I do, that none such was ever made.

In speaking of the engagement, General Jackson has the following in his official report: “Repulsed on the right, left, and centre, the enemy soon after reformed his lines, and gave some indications of a purpose to renew the attack. I waited some time to receive it; but he making no forward movement, I determined, if prudent, to do so myself. The artillery of the enemy was so judiciously posted as to make an advance of our troops across the plain very hazardous; yet it was so promising of good results, if successfully executed, as to induce me to make preparations for the attempt. In order to guard against disaster, the infantry was to be preceded by artillery, and the movement postponed until late in the evening, so that, if compelled to retire, it would be under the cover of night. Owing to unexpected delay, the movement could not be gotten ready until late in the evening. The first gun had hardly moved forward from the wood a hundred yards, when the enemy’s artillery reopened, and so completely swept our front as to satisfy me that the proposed movement should be abandoned.” In this, perhaps, is to be found the explanation of, and all of truth there is in, the report referred to.

For several months after this the army rested in winter-quarters, and nothing of special interest occurred, save an abortive attempt made in the midst of winter by General Burnside to cross the river at United States Ford, in which attempt he was completely foiled by the execrable condition of the roads, and his troops, after floundering in the mud for several days, returned to their camps.

The Confederate artillery, or a large portion thereof, which was parked in the rear, near the railroad, for greater convenience in supplying the animals with food, was ordered forward by General Jackson—General Lee being in Richmond at the time—as soon as intimation of the purpose of General Burnside was disclosed, and was much damaged in its hasty but (as events proved) unnecessary efforts to get to the front. General Burnside was compelled to relinquish whatever design he had entertained, and quiet was again established in the two opposing armies.

Active operations were resumed in the spring. General Hooker, whose turn it now was, under Federal dispensation, to wrestle with General Lee, crossed the Rappahannock in the latter part of April, 1863; took position at Chancellorsville, and constructed a formidable line of earthworks, from which secure position he proposed to move on General Lee’s flank.

Of all the battles fought by the Army of Northern Virginia, that of Chancellorsville stands first, as illustrating the consummate audacity and military skill of commanders, and the valor and determination of the men. General Lee, with fifty-seven thousand troops of all arms, intrenched along the line of hills south of the Rappahannock, near Fredericksburg, was confronted by General Hooker, with the Army of the Potomac, one hundred and thirty-two thousand strong, occupying the bluffs on the opposite side of the river.

On the 29th of April the Federal commander essayed to put into execution an admirably-conceived plan of operations, from which he doubtless concluded that he could compel either the evacuation by General Lee of his strongly-fortified position, or else his utter discomfiture when unexpectedly and vigorously assailed upon his left flank and rear by the “finest army on the planet”—really more than twice the size of his own.

A formidable force, under General Sedgwick, was thrown across the river below Fredericksburg, and made demonstrations of an intention to assail the Confederate front. Meanwhile, with great celerity and secrecy, General Hooker, with the bulk of his army, crossed at the upper fords, and, in an able manner and wonderfully short time, had concentrated four of his seven army-corps,[5] numbering fifty-six thousand men, at Chancellorsville, about ten miles west of Fredericksburg. His purpose was now fully developed to General Lee who, instead of awaiting its further prosecution, immediately determined on the movement the least expected by his opponent. He neither proceeded to make strong his left against attack from the direction of Chancellorsville, nor did he move southward, so as to put his army between that of General Hooker and the Confederate capital; but, leaving General Early, with about nine thousand men, to take care of General Sedgwick, he moved with the remainder of his army, numbering forty-eight thousand men, toward Chancellorsville. As soon as the advance of the enemy was encountered, it was attacked with vigor, and very soon the Federal army was on the defensive in its apparently impregnable position. It was not the part of wisdom to attempt to storm this stronghold; but Sedgwick would certainly soon be at work in the rear, and Early, with his inadequate force, could not do more than delay and harass him. It was, therefore, imperatively necessary to strike to strike boldly, effectively, and at once. There could be no delay. Meanwhile two more army-corps had joined General Hooker, who now had about Chancellorsville ninety-one thousand men six corps, except one division of the Second Corps (Couch’s), which had been left with Sedgwick, at Fredericksburg. It was a critical position for the Confederate commander, but his confidence in his trusted lieutenant and brave men was such that he did not long hesitate. Encouraged by the counsel and confidence of General Jackson, he determined still further to divide his army; and while he, with the divisions of Anderson and McLaws, less than fourteen thousand men, should hold the enemy in his front, he would hurl Jackson upon his flank and rear, and crush and crumble him as between the upper and nether millstone. The very boldness of the movement contributed much to insure its success.

This battle illustrates most admirably the peculiar talent and individual excellence of Lee and Jackson. For quickness of perception, boldness in planning, and skill in directing, General Lee had no superior: for celerity in his movements, audacity in the execution of bold designs and impetuosity in attacking, General Jackson had not his peer.

The flank movement of Jackson’s wing was attended with extraordinary success. On the afternoon of the 2d of May he struck such a blow to the enemy on their extreme right as to cause dismay and demoralizatian to their entire army; this advantage was promptly and vigorously followed up the next day, when Generals Lee and Stuart (the latter then in command of Jackson’s wing)[6] joined elbows; and after most heroic and determined effort, their now united forces finally succeeded in storming and capturing the works of the enemy.

Meantime Sedgwick had forced Early out of the heights at Fredericksburg, and had advanced toward Chancellorsville, thus threatening the Confederate rear. General Lee having defeated the greater force, and driven it from its stronghold, now gathered up a few of the most available of his victorious brigades, and turned upon the lesser.

On the 3d of May Sedgwick’s force was encountered in the vicinity of Salem Church, and its further progress checked by General McLaws, with the five brigades detached by General Lee for this service—including Wilcox’s, which had been stationed at Banks’s Ford. On the next day General Anderson was sent to reënforce McLaws with three additional brigades. Meanwhile, General Early had connected with these troops, and in the afternoon, so soon as dispositions could be made for attack, Sedgwick’s lines were promptly assailed and broken the main assault being made on the enemy’s left by Early’s troops. The situation was now a critical one for the Federal lieutenant. Darkness came to his rescue, and on the night of the 4th he crossed to the north side of the river.

On the 5th General Lee concentrated for another assault on the new line taken up by General Hooker; but on the morning of the 6th it was ascertained that the enemy, in General Lee’s language, “had sought safety beyond the Rappahannock,” and the river flowed again between the hostile hosts.

Glorious as was the result of this battle to the Confederate arms, it was accompanied by a calamity in the contemplation of which the most brilliant victory of that incomparable army must ever be regarded as a supreme disaster. The star of Confederate destiny reached its zenith on the 2d day of May, when Jackson fell wounded at the head of his victorious troops; it began to set on the 10th of May, when Jackson was no more.


In confirmation of the figures just given as representing the strength of the two armies, I submit the following: General Longstreet with a portion of his corps was at this time operating on the south side of James River, in the neighborhood of Suffolk. Of his command there remained with General Lee but the two divisions of Generals McLaws and Anderson. The official return of the Army of Northern Virginia, of March 31, 1863, after a long period of rest and recruiting, and when perhaps the several commands attained their greatest strength, shows, as present for duty:

Anderson’s and McLaws’s divisions 15,649
Jackson’s command 33,833
Cavalry   6,509
Reserve artillery (parked in rear)   1,621
Total of all arms 57,112

I exclude the troops serving in the Valley district—thirty-one hundred and eighty-six—included hi the departmental return, but not available at Fredericksburg. This return is the nearest to the date of the battle of Chancellorsville of all those in the archive-office at Washington, and of all now in existence known to me.[7] General Early had with him at Fredericksburg his own division, and one brigade of another—in all, according to his statement, nine thousand men. General Lee remained in front of General Hooker at Chancellorsville with fourteen thousand men, viz., the two divisions of McLaws and Anderson, with the exception of Barksdale’s brigade left with General Early; this estimate includes Wilcox’s brigade at Banks’s Ford. General Jackson had with him in his flanking movement his command, less Early’s division, in round numbers say twenty-six thousand men. General Stuart had six thousand five hundred and nine sabres with which to oppose the cavalry column of the Federals, numbering twelve thousand men.

In regard to the Federal strength, I have adopted the figures given in the book of Mr. Swinton, confirmed by the evidence given before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the “War. The Army of the Potomac, under General Hooker, consisted of seven army-corps and a body of horse, numbering one hundred and thirty-two thousand[8] present for duty, as follows:

The Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Army-Corps   44,661
The Sixth Army-Corps   22,000
The First and Third Army-Corps   35,000
The Second Army-Corps   18,000
Total infantry and artillery 119,661
And the corps of cavalry   12,000
Total of all arms 131,661

General Sedgwick’s force at Falmouth and Fredericksburg originally consisted of the First, Third, and Sixth Army-Corps, and one division of the Second Corps, and numbered sixty-three thousand men, though only a portion crossed the river; it was subsequently reduced to twenty-eight thousand by the withdrawal of the First and Third Corps, which joined General Hooker. The latter, when he first moved to Chancellorsville, had with him the Fifth, Eleventh, Twelfth, and Second Corps (save one division with Sedgwick), numbering, according to the returns, fifty-six thousand men; and when he was subsequently joined by the First and Third Corps—thirty-five thousand strong (that is, previous to the assault by General Lee at Chancellorsville)—he must have had with him nearly ninety thousand men. It has already been shown that in the assault General Lee had but forty thousand men.

In this comparative statement of strength I have followed the official returns as to both armies. It is proper to state that General Hooker in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War (second series, vol. i., p. 120) puts the effective strength of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps, at Chancellorsville, at thirty-six thousand men. He explains the discrepancy between this and the strength of these corps on the 30th of April, viz., forty-four thousand six hundred and sixty-one, by stating that the returns included the artillery, and that the greater portion of the latter did not march with the corps; he also excludes heavy detachments left with the trains, “as well as regiments left behind for discharge” (from service?). Now, the same necessity existed for General Lee to guard his trains; and, of his strength, quite as large a proportion of the artillery was not up. None of the reserve artillery which I have included in my estimate of the Confederate strength was engaged, being some miles in rear at the time. But even adopting General Hooker’s estimate of the three corps mentioned, then adding twelve thousand for that portion of the Second which joined him (all but Gibbon’s division), and the First and Third Corps—thirty-five thousand, as given by General Sedgwick—and his strength at Chancellorsville, exclusive of Pleasanton’s cavalry, was eighty-three thousand. The testimony of General Hancock and General Sedgwick confirms this estimate.


1 Three divisions of Hooker’s corps followed on the 13th, and are included in the estimate of the Federal strength.

[2] General Burnside testified before the Committee on the Conduct of the War that he had a hundred thousand men on the south side of the river, and in action.—“Report on the Conduct of the War,” Part I., p. 656.

[3] The returns of the Army of Northern Virginia show that on the 10th December, 1862, General Lee had present for duty seventy-eight thousand two hundred and twenty-eight, and, on the 20th December, seventy-five thousand five hundred and twenty-four of all arms, including the reserve artillery, parked some distance in the rear.

[4] “The attack on the 13th had been so easily repulsed, and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to one attempt, which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations and the extent of his force, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. Believing, therefore, that he would attack us, it was not deemed expedient to lose the advantages of our position, and expose the troops to the fire of his inaccessible batteries beyond the river, by advancing against him.”—General Lee’s “Report.”

[5] Except one division.

[6] General Jackson fell mortally wounded late in the evening of the 2d; General A. P. Hill, who would have succeeded to the command of Jackson’s wing, was also wounded, and General Stuart assumed the command.

[7] On the 20th of May, 1863, two weeks after the battle, and when Pickett’s and Hood’s divisions had rejoined the array, the total infantry force numbered but fifty-five thousand two hundred and sixty-one effective, from which if the strength of Pickett’s and Hood’s divisions is deducted, there would remain forty-one thousand three hundred and fifty-eight as the strength of the commands that participated in the battle of Chancellorsville, on the 20th of May.—See “Return” of the 20th of May, 1863, chapter xiv.

[8] “It” (the Army of the Potomac) “numbered one hundred and twenty thousand men, infantry and artillery, with a body of twelve thousand well-equipped cavalry, and a powerful artillery force of above four hundred guns.”—Swinton’s “Army of the Potomac,” p. 269. In a foot-note Mr. Swinton thus substantiates his estimate of the infantry and artillery: “This estimate is approximate; the data are as follows: the effective of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps was put by General Hooker, just before Chancellorsville, at forty-four thousand six hundred and sixty-one (‘Report on the Conduct of the War,’ second series, vol. i., p. 120). The effective of the Sixth Corps is given by General Sedgwick (ibid., p. 95) as twenty-two thousand; and the effective of the First and Third Corps, by the same authority, was thirty-five thousand. There remains the Second Corps, to which if we give a minimum of eighteen thousand, there will result the aggregate of one hundred and nineteen thousand six hundred and sixty-one.”

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