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May, 2007

With thanks to Jon Morrison (I’ve borrowed part of his description of this episode and the poem from Jon), here’s an extremely funny account of an episode from the siege of Chattanooga in the fall of 1863.  With Chattanooga cut off and in danger of having Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland starve, Geary’s division of the 12th Corps marched to Brown’s Ferry, which forced open a supply line for the beleaguered army.  Bragg and Longstreet watched this from atop Lookout Mountain, and decided to act.

On the night of October 29th, 1863, the division of Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins undertook a rare night assault.  During the course of the battle, the Federals were able to hold their positions and drive off the Southerners.  “An amusing incident of this struggle occurred. When it began, about two hundred mules, frightened by the noise, broke from their tethers and dashed into the ranks of Wade Hampton’s legion, and produced a great panic. The Confederates supposed it to be a charge of Hooker’s cavalry, and fell back, at first, in great confusion.”  General Grant was so amused over this incident that the mules were supposedly given the rank of “brevet-horse”.

With apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, I present to you:

The charge of the mule brigade

Author Unknown

Half a mile, half a mile,
Half a mile onward,
Right through the Georgia troops
Broke the two hundred.
“Forward the Mule Brigade!
Charge for the Rebs,” they neighed.
Straight for the Georgia troops
Broke the two hundred.

“Forward the Mule Brigade!”
Was there a mule dismayed?
Not when their long ears felt
All their ropes sundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to make Rebs fly.
On! to the Georgia troops
Broke the two hundred.

Mules to the right of them,
Mules to the left of them,
Mules behind them
Pawed, neighed, and thundered.
Breaking their own confines
Breaking through Longstreet’s lines
Into the Georgia troops
Stormed the two hundred.

Wild all their eyes did glare,
Whisked all their tails in air
Scattering the chivalry there,
While all the world wondered.
Not a mule back bestraddled,
Yet how they all skedaddled —
Fled every Georgian,
Unsabred, unsaddled,
Scattered and sundered!
How they were routed there
By the two hundred!

Mules to the right of them,
Mules to the left of them,
Mules behind them
Pawed, neighed, and thundered;
Followed by hoof and head
Full many a hero fled,
Fain in the last ditch dead,
Back from an ass’s jaw
All that was left of them, —
Left by the two hundred.

When can their glory fade?
Oh, what a wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Mule Brigade,
Long-eared two hundred!

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Tonight, in the final installment of this series, I will address the many connections between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. I’ve long believed that nobody can ever truly understand Gettysburg without having a good understanding of Chancellorsville. The two are inexorably linked.

First, and foremost, Hooker had two full infantry corps that really didn’t even fire a shot in anger at Chancellorsville. Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds’ I Corps was one of them. Reynolds was very aggressive, and it had to have driven him crazy to be held out of a large fight. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Reynolds pitched in so eagerly at Gettysburg on July 1? His aggressiveness cost him his life that morning, but not before validating John Buford’s decision to stand and fight at Gettysburg.

George Meade’s V Corps also didn’t do much fighting at Chancellorsville after the first day. Hooker held a council of war and didn’t listen to his corps commanders, who encouraged him to hold the good high ground the army occupied on May 1. Hooker withdrew and his army got clobbered. Again, is it any wonder that George Meade was so determined to hold the good high ground at Gettysburg?

Dan Sickles and III Corps were ordered to give up high ground and got clobbered by Confederate artillery when the Southern gunners took up the position Sickles had abandoned. As a result, Sickles was determined not to give up high ground where Confederate artillery could then be employed to hammer his men. Consequently, Sickles disobeyed orders and moved his entire corps forward to high ground along the Emmitsburg Road that he liked better, creating a salient that caused the sacrifice of his corps. The die for Sickles’ move forward at Gettysburg was cast at Chancellorsville.

Hooker sent his entire Cavalry Corps, save for one brigade, off on an extended raid behind enemy lines, thereby leaving his army blind and without any sort of an effective screen. That, in turn, meant that the Eleventh Corps flank was uncovered and in the air, setting it up to take the brunt of Jackson’s flank attack. Although Meade did a better job of using his cavalry at Gettysburg, there were similar problems, particularly when Pleasonton sent Buford’s two brigades to Maryland to guard wagon trains and left Sickles’ flank in the air

O. O. Howard’s performance at Chancellorsvile was atrocious. He ignored reports of a large enemy force operating on his flank and did nothing to prepare his men for an onslaught. Consequently, the XI Corps was overwhelmed and driven from the field. It never had a chance. The same thing happened at Gettysburg. Howard sent the XI Corps out onto flat ground on a plain below high ground held by Confederate artillery with no support and its flank in the air, and a savage enemy flank attack crashed into the position and rolled up the XI Corps, sending it flying in the face of an attack it never really had a chance to stop. The men of the XI Corps fought well in both instances, but became the scapegoats of the army because they happened to be the command that broke and ran on both occasions. Those men deserved better.

Lee’s audacity at Chancellorsville in defying every accepted rule of warfare caused the unlikely Confederate victory there. Lee divided his much smaller army in the face of the enemy and took the offensive even though it was outnumbered more than two to one. He left only 13,000 men in place to hold the body of the Army of the Potomac while sending the bulk of his army off on a daring flank march. The success of this audacious plan set the stage for the debacle that befell the Army of Northern Virginia on July 3, 1863. The success at Chancellorsville apparently persuaded Lee that his army could not be beaten and that his men could do the impossible as they were asked to do during the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge on July 3.

Finally, there’s the point raised by Ian Duncanson in a comment to last night’s post. Ian pointed out that Darius Couch was the senior subordinate officer in the Army of the Potomac. When Hooker was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac at his own request, Couch would have been next in line for command of the army. However, Couch, who was utterly disgusted by Hooker’s terrible performance at Chancellorsville, refused to serve under Hooker’s command any longer, and requested a transfer. He was sent to assume command of the Department of the Susquehanna at Harrisburg. How Couch would have done in command of the army–instead of George Gordon Meade–is one of those daunting “what if’s” that we will never be able to answer. Couch’s transfer made it possible for Meade to end up in command of the army, and, fortunately for the Union, Meade was the right man in the right place at the right time.

These are just a few of the similarities. As indicated, nobody can ever truly understand the Battle of Gettysburg without understanding the Battle of Chancellorsville, because events at Chancellorsville set the stage for what occurred eight weeks later in Pennsylvania.

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Tonight, the anniversary of second day of the battle, which was the day of Jackson’s flank march and devastating flank attack, I will address the implications of the Battle of Chancellorsville for the Army of the Potomac.

The Chancellorsville Campaign was Joseph Hooker’s single battle in command of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker had a lot of strong points. He was an able administrator, and he instituted some real reforms in the Army of the Potomac. Among the reforms were furloughs for soldiers, corps badges, improved supplies, and he did away with Burnside’s cumbersome and unmanageable Grand Division scheme. He took a badly beaten and terribly demoralized army and turned it into a fearsome fighting machine in a matter of just weeks.

Hooker also designed and implemented a superb campaign plan that actually stole a march on Robert E. Lee. And that’s where it ended.

Once the guns began to roar, Hooker completely lost his nerve. Instead of proceeding aggressively, Hooker instead gave up critical high ground, turned passive, and assumed a defensive posture. In so doing, he gave up a more than two-to-one numeric advantage and ceded the initiative to Robert E. Lee. Hooker demonstrated, beyond doubt, that he was not suited to command a large army in the field, and set back the Army of the Potomac once again. To put it in Hooker’s own words, “I lost faith in Joe Hooker.” His loss of faith cost a lot of good men their lives.

In the process, Hooker gave a superb demonstration of how NOT to use cavalry. Instead of using his 12,000 man Cavalry Corps to scout, screen, and lead the army’s advance into the tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness, Hooker instead sent his entire Cavalry Corps off on a long and ill-fated raid deep behind enemy lines. Hooker had only a single brigade of cavalry–the smallest in the Cavalry Corps–with him as he went into battle at Chancellorsville. That, in turn, left the Union right flank uncovered and set the stage for Jackson’s flank attack. Incredibly, the Union high command never learned a lesson from this failure–Grant did exactly the same thing on almost the same ground a year and a couple of days later when he sent Sheridan off on a raid toward Richmond with the entire Cavalry Corps, with pretty much the same results.

Daniel E. Sickles, commander of the Third Corps, demonstrated that he was not inclined to do what the army command expected of him. Sickles set the stage for his insubordination at Gettysburg. His experience at Hazel Grove convinced him that he should never willingly give up what he believed was good ground. This set the stage for a disaster at Gettysburg. Perhaps Sickles should have been relieved of command after Chancellorsville.

Likewise, O. O. Howard amply demonstrated that he was not competent to hold corps command at Chancellorsville. He simply ignored multiple reports of a large Confederate force moving on his flank and did little to prepare for a flank attack beyond refusing a single brigade. In spite of hard fighting, his corps was swept from the field.

Howard’s command, the Eleventh Corps, in addition to being the unfortunate target of Jackson’s flank attack, ended up getting a bad rap because of Chancellorsville. Its men fought hard–in some pockets, long, hard, and as well as any unit in the Army of the Potomac–but because of the impossible position in which they were put, they became scapegoats for the Union defeat at Chancellorsville and were called the Flying Dutchmen for breaking under the onslaught of Jackson’s attack. It was grossly unfair to men who were good fighters.

Alfred Pleasonton showed his true colors early. Pleasonton, a notorious liar and toady, wrongly claimed credit for saving Hooker’s army from destruction at Chancellorsville. Pleasonton claimed that he alone had the foresight to place artillery at the key spot to halt Jackson’s momentum, for which he improperly received credit for saving the army when he did no such thing. However, because he was the ranking subordinate in the Cavalry Corps after George Stoneman went on medical leave and W. W. Averell was fired by Hooker, Pleasonton ended up in command of the Corps even though he was not competent to command a corps.

Finally, Chancellorsville cost the Army of the Potomac the services of Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, the capable commander of the II Corps. Couch, utterly disgusted by Hooker’s terrible performance, refused to serve under Hooker’s command again after Chancellorsville and was sent to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to assume command of the Department of the Susquehanna. While he performed good service during the Gettysburg Campaign, Couch never again commanded troops in the Army of the Potomac, meaning that wretched corps commanders such as Sickles, Howard, and Slocum in place. Allow me to suggest that had Couch remained with the army, one of these other incompetents might have been removed from command.

Fortunately, the Army of the Potomac did not suffer permanent harm from the crushing defeat that its commander inflicted upon it at Chancellorsville. It recovered quickly and fought superbly at Gettysburg in spite of what it had been through at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, a testament to the fighting spirit of the men who made up its ranks.

Tomorrow night, I will wrap up this series of posts by discussing the links between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

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1 May 2007, by

Chancellorsville

Today is the 144th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1, 1863. Over the course of the last six or seven years, Chancellorsville has become one of my very favorite battles of the war. It has so many layers, so many sub-stories, that one could easily devote a lifetime of study to it. I’m going to do several posts on the importance of Chancellorsville over the course of the next couple of days. I hope that you enjoy them. Tonight, I’m going to focus on the Army of Northern Virginia.

With only about 45,000 men, Robert E. Lee thoroughly whipped Joseph Hooker’s 100,000+ man strong Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. There are lots of reasons for it, and those reasons, in turn, have great import to the rest of the Civil War in the east.

First, and foremost, of course is the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson. When Jackson was shot by his own men, it meant that there would be tremendous changes ahead for the Army of Northern Virginia. At the time of the battle, the ANV consisted of two extremely large corps, commanded by Jackson and James Longstreet. Most of Longstreet’s command was not at Chancellorsville; all but McLaws’ division were besieging Suffolk. After Jackson was mortally wounded, the entire Army of Northern Virginia was restructured. Instead of two corps, there were now three. Only one of those three corps was commanded by a man with any experience in command of such a large body of men, Longstreet. The other two, Richard S. Ewell and A. P. Hill were both coming off of serious wounds (Hill was wounded with Jackson by friendly fire), both were in questionable states of health, and neither had any experience leading such large bodies of men. Hill was almost a non-factor at Gettysburg, and Ewell proved not to have the aggressive nature of Jackson. Some argue that with the passing of Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia lost its offensive punch. While I don’t necessarily agree, there is no disputing the fact that the ANV would never again be the same.

At the same time, the lopsided Confederate victory had one very real and unforeseen consequence. It made both Robert E. Lee and the men who followed him into battle believe that they were invincible. Lee’s plan violated virtually every conventional rule of war: he was outnumbered more than two to one, he divided his army in the face of the enemy, and he took the offensive against the accepted odds. Incredibly, those gambles paid off, and his army thrashed Hooker, even if it came at a frightful toll. Such success inevitably made both Lee and his troops believe that they were invincible, and those men paid the price for that arrogance eight weeks later at Gettysburg, especially those who led the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge on July 3, 1863.

When both Jackson and Hill were wounded, the next ranking officer in the corps, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, had just been promoted to divisional command and was in no way prepared to assume command of a very large corps. Instead, Lee turned to J.E.B. Stuart, his cavalry chief, and put Stuart in temporary command of Jackson’s corps. To Stuart’s undying credit, he performed magnificently in that role, leading Jackson’s battered men in a hard day of fighting on May 3. Stuart wanted permanent command of the corps and felt he had earned it by virtue of his fine performance at Chancellorsville. Lee, however, evidently felt that the army was better served by having Stuart remain as the eyes and ears of the army, and returned the cavalier to his regular command after the battle. Some armchair psychologists have speculated that Stuart’s disappointment over not being given permanent command of Jackson’s corps caused him to become determined to do something spectacular in order to prove that Lee was wrong. Personally, I don’t buy this theory for a moment, but it’s very persistent and it’s worthy of attention.

Chancellorsville also demonstrated that shortcomings in the organization of the Confederate artillery structure, prompting Lee to completely reorganize his artillery as part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s restructuring. Although the Union artillerists outgunned their Southern counterparts at Gettysburg, we can only imagine how bad it would have been had Lee not restructured his artillery. This was a positive change that came about as a direct result of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Although I remain convinced that Second Bull Run was Lee’s greatest victory, as it did not entail any significant losses in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps and caused an entire army to cease to exist within a few days, Chancellorsville was nevertheless critical to the mystique of both Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Its significance and long-lasting impact should never be underestimated.

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