Hot Times at Hazel Grove: The Federal Third Corps at the Battle of Chanceloorsville




By Steve Haas

May 1, 1863 saw start of the Spring campaign in the Eastern theater of the Civil War. The Federal Army of the Potomac was composed of 120,000 well-equipped, trained men with new moral and a new General, Major-General Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker.. The Federal army had a confidence and a dash that had been lacking for almost a year, since the disastrous defeat on the Peninsula of Virginia in the Spring of 1862, the Pyrrhic Victory at Antietam in September of 1862, and the disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. It was eager to come to grips with their Confederate foe.

  The Confederates facing the Federals were, at this time, at the lowest ebb in fighting capabilities than they had been since the beginning of the war. The campaign was beginning, and the Federal army facing him was crossing the river which had separated the two armies over the winter, the Rappahannock river. Yet the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under its already legendary leader,  General Robert Edward Lee, was not ready to face this Federal thrust. General Lee had only 40,000 troops with him. This was woefully little to face such a huge Federal force.  Fully a third of the Confederate army was south of Richmond, under Major-General James Longstreet, foraging for supplies. These men were not expected to return before this battle was over.

 The original Federal battle plan called for a two-pronged attack; half the Federal army was to pin the Confederates around the Confederate right flank by threatening the Confederate positions at Fredericksburg. The other half of the Federal army was to perform a wide flanking maneuver around the Confederate left flank, acting as a hammer against the Fredericksburg anvil. If the Confederates turned to face either force (either of which was larger than the whole Confederate army), the other force could attack the Confederates from the rear. The plan worked brilliantly at first. By the night of May 1, 60,000 Federal soldiers were camped at the crossroads village of Chancellorsville, poised on the next day to march against the 40,000 strong Confederate army. Sixty thousand other Federals were watching the Confederate army from across the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg, waiting to follow and attack the Confederates if they abandoned their works. The Confederates were in a seemingly impossible position, unable to flee, without enough strength to fight.  General Hooker was certainly justified in releasing a statement to his troops stating that the Confederates must “either ingloriously fly, or come out from their entrenchments to face certain defeat.”

 No other major campaign of the Civil War had started with such a disparity of numbers between the two forces facing each other. Confederate General Lee would not have been faulted for retreating in the face of overwhelming numbers, finding a good defensive position and waiting for his Second Corps under General Longstreet to come up and even the odds against him. General Lee, however, was supremely confident in the quality of his army, the quality of his subordinate leadership, in his own capabilities and the capability of his chief subordinate, Major General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson. Lee also knew the army he was facing and, especially, knew the man in charge of that Army, Joseph Hooker. Lee felt he could handle General Hooker, and anything Hooker could throw at him. So, not only was General Lee willing to face the Federal army with only 1/3 of their numbers, he was also to do something which some would say stretched the word audacity to the point of lunacy; he split his army three different times in the face of overwhelming numbers. Yet there was method to this madness. At the point of combat, he managed always to have a superiority of numbers. In no other battle in American history would one general so dominate another as General Lee dominated General Hooker.

 General Lee was successful in everything except his stated goal of destroying the Federal army, and many say it was happenstance which prevented him from doing that. On the first day of the battle, General Jackson’s flank march completely routed the XI Corps of the Federal army, driving it from the field in total disarray. Only the fall of darkness prevented the Confederates from driving on and routing the rest of the Federal army. The one blot on his victory was the mortal wounding of the famous Stonewall Jackson; some say if General Jackson had not been shot on the first day of the battle, the South would indeed have driven the Federal army into the Rappahannock River and destroyed it.

 On the second day of the battle, General Lee continued his attacks on the Federal army, pushing it into a tight defensive position. Then he took most of the army, leaving a small force to contain the main Federal army, and headed East to attack the Federal VI Corps, which had been approaching the Confederate rear from the direction of Fredericksburg. While not defeating the VI Corps, General Lee managed to force it to retreat across the Rappahannock river, ending its participation in the battle. General Lee returned west to deal with the rest of the Federal army, but that too had retreated across the Rappahannock, ending the battle.

  Chancellorsville was one of the Confederacy’s greatest victory in terms of odds overcome, risks taken and as an example of the superb fighting qualities of the Confederate army.

 The III Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the Federal army, was a major participant in the fighting. Under its commander, Major-General Daniel S. Sickles, it was initially cut off and virtually surrounded by the Confederate flank attack at the beginning of the battle. The III Corps had to find its way back to the Federal line, in the dark, without being overwhelmed by superior Confederate forces, and without being fired upon by nervous Federal troops.  On the second day of the battle, the III Corps provided the core of the opposition to repeated Confederate attacks against the Federal lines. It was hard fighting by the regiments of the III Corps which prevented the initial Federal rout from becoming a general stampede. The actions of the III Corps at Hazel Grove on the night of the first day of battle provide one of the little-known what-ifs of the war.

 The III Corps was originally assigned to the Federal left wing, that part of the force that was to demonstrate in front of Fredericksburg. It was to serve as a sort of mobile reserve; available to help the other two corps of the left wing , the I and the VI Corps if a breakthrough seemed imminent, but also available to the right wing if needed. The Left Wing (I, III and VI Corps) broke camp on April 28th, with the I Corps moving at noon, the VI Corps by three o’clock, and the III Corps by five p.m.  By 9:00 p.m. the III Corps found  itself between the I Corps at Fitzhugh’s Crossing and the VI Corps at Franklin’s crossing, below Fredericksburg.

 By April 30th, it was becoming plain to General Hooker that the enemy was concentrating against his right flank. Orders went out to the III Corps to march to United States Ford, cross and concentrate around the  crossroads village of Chancellorsville. The order was sent at 12:30 pm on the 30th, was received by General Sickles at 1:00 p.m., and the Corps was in motion by 1:30 p.m. By 11:30 pm, the Corps went into bivouac at the little hamlet of Hamet, near the United States Ford. At 7:30 am the next morning, May 1, the Corps began crossing the Rappahannock, heading for a concentration at Chancellorsville. General Sickles, at the head of his Corps, reported to General Hooker at 9:00 a.m, at the Chancellor mansion, headquarters for the Army of the Potomac.

 Initially the III Corps was placed in reserve, the Federal line having been filled. Two of its three Divisions, the Second Divisions (2/III) under Major-General Hiram Berry, and the Third Division (3/III), under Major-General Amiel W. Whipple, were massed in reserve around the Chancellorsville mansion. The First Division (1/III) under Brigadier-General David B. Birney was ordered to a position the east,  between the Federal XI Corps and XII Corps to fill a gap between the Corps. By this time General Hooker had abandoned all idea of an offensive, and had pulled all his advance units back into a defensive line, hoping the Confederates would attack him in a strong position; a pretty good bet considering his aggressive opponent, Major-General Robert E. Lee.

 The next day, May 2, General Birney’s lookouts noticed, from the top of the trees upon which they had been posted, a long line of Confederate troops stretching out along a road to the South of the Federal position, moving from left to right. This caused consternation among the Federal High Command. What were these troops doing? Was General Lee retreating? This was the immediate thought of General Hooker, reinforced by the fact that the Confederates seemed to be heading South. General Hooker was elated. He sent a note to his General on the right Wing, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard, XI Corps,  warning that a flank attack might be in the offing,  just in case, and  then prepared to take off in pursuit of the supposed retreating Confederates. About noon General Hooker sent General Sickles orders to “advance cautiously toward the road, followed by the enemy, and harass the movement as much as possible.” Hooker ordered Sickles to take General Birney’s and General Whipple’s divisions (1,3/III), but refused to let him have Berry’s (2/III), which was held in reserve around the Chancellorsville mansion.  Sickles sent orders to the commander of his first Brigade, General Birney to advance to the road and pierce the enemy column, taking possession of the road.

 General Birney (1/III) advanced a Brigade, with sharpshooters from Brigadier-General Hiram Berdan’s crack sharpshooter regiment, which cautiously crossed Scott’s run and advanced to the road upon which the Confederates were marching.  General Wipple’s division filed into an elevation to the rear of the Federal advance, known locally as Hazel’s Grove, as a reserve. General Birney managed to surround and capture a Confederate regiment, the 23 Georgia, which had been left behind as a rear guard. Additional Confederate units were coming up upon Birney’s left, sent by General Lee to disrupt General Birney’s advance.

 By 2:45, General Sickles was confident that General Birney could break the Confederate line, and notified Hooker to that effect, saying that he could expect to receive heavy resistance, and wouldn’t attack until he knew he would be supported by the two Corps on either side of him. He sent messages to these two Corps,  the XI Corps under Major-General Oliver O. Howard, on his right, and the XII Corps under General Henry W. Slocum, on his left, to support him,  and then sent his Third Brigade under General Whipple to cover the gap between the left of the III Corps and the right of the XII Corps. It took a while to organize the attack; Barlow’s Brigade of the Eleventh Corps. 2/2/XI  was ordered to support Sickles’ right flank at 4:00, and General Williams’ division of the Twelfth Corps, 1/XII was ordered to support General Sickles’ left flank at 4:30. General Sickles received orders to attack the ‘enemy’s right flank,’ whatever that meant,  at five o’clock p.m. At the same time,  about 5:00 p.m. Captain Comstock, General Hooker’s chief of engineers and General Warren, his chief of topographical engineers, started out together from army headquarters “to examine the line.” They had got to the vicinity of Hazel Grove, when a heavy fire of musketry began on the right, and caused them to hasten in that direction. Meeting fugitives of the XI corps, Warren sent his aide to inform Brigadier Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the first division of cavalry, who had joined General Sickles at Hazel Grove,  and General Sickles of the rout of the XI Corps

 This word apparently didn’t reach General Birney (1/III) until much later;  at 6:30 he received word from General Hooker to ‘advance rapidly,’ which he did, throwing a few shells at the retreating Confederates. Then, without hearing word from either General Sickles or General Hooker, General Birney prepared to put his division into bivouac, around 7:00 pm. At this point, he received word from General Sickles to withdraw to Hazel Grove, which he did. At the same time, General Whipple (3/III) received word from the same source to also return to Hazel Grove, and General Williams (1/XII) received word from General Major-General Henry W. Slocum, in command of the XII Corps, also to withdraw and to return to the XII Corps line. General Barlow (2/2/XI) retreated to Hazel’s Grove on his own initiative. Sickles hurried to Hazel Grove while his infantry was making their way to Hazel’s Grove, and formed a line of artillery to hold off the triumphant Confederates He managed to accomplish this aided by the charge of a lone cavalry regiment of 100 men, the 8th Pennsylvania, which delayed the Confederates but virtually destroyed the Cavalry regiment. As night fell, the lines on both sides seemed stable.

 Between 8:00 and 9:45, General Sickles was in a quandary. He knew a major disaster had occurred to the Federal right flank, but the extent of the disaster and the current location of the Federal right flank were completely unknown. He didn’t know where the rest of the Federal army was located, didn’t know whether General Hooker’s orders of 5:00 pm to attack were still his current orders and, if so, which direction and whom he was supposed to attack. It was night time, and an attack at night during the Civil War was a terribly chancy thing to do. It was apparent from the flashes of musketry that he was nearly surrounded, with enemy forces on his left front and right front. To do nothing, under the circumstances, seemed to court a worse risk than to do something.. At Hazel Grove at this time, General Sickles had General Birney’s Division (1/III), General Whipple’s Division (3/III), General Barlow’s Brigade (2/2/XI) and 38 artillery guns and a few cavalry regiments.

 The position of the III Corps was actually more hazardous than General Sickles was aware. Hazel Grove was the kind of good high ground that a general loves to choose as a defensive position. Unfortunately, it was not within the Federal lines. The two divisions of General Sickles’ corps actually formed a finger sticking out from the rest of the Federal line. There were Confederates on either side of the position; to the West were the 20,000 or so Confederates of General Jackson’s flanking column, now under the command of Maj-Gen J.E.B. Stuart following General Jackson’s wounding. To the east were the 16,000 men under General Robert E. Lee. Neither side knew of the vulnerability of the III Corps’ position, but it would be quite apparent as daylight occurred. General Sickles was the only force preventing the junction of  the left and right wings of the Confederate army.

 In addition, the Confederates would certainly become aware of the fact that Hazel grove was a position they had to occupy. It was only a little less elevated than the main Federal position at Fairview, and thus would provide an excellent position for Confederate artillery. Hazel Grove was situated in such a way relative to the Federal lines that the Confederates, firing from Hazel Grove, could take both the Western face and the Southern face of the Federal lines in their flanks. Lastly, if the Federals changed their lines to encompass Hazel Grove, their position would be immeasurably stronger.

 At 9:00 p.m., General Sickles received orders from General Hooker to hold his position. Sickles replied that some of General Whipple’s (3/III) wagon trains were still between him and the Plank road, and asked permission to attack in that direction, to recover the trains,  to re-establish connection with the Federal army, which he assumed to be stationed in that direction and, perhaps, to recover the Union lines along the plank road.

 This decision on General Sickles’ part to attack at night is a very controversial decision, though in the overall debacle of Chancellorsville it has been quite overlooked. As stated before, night attacks in the Civil War were very rare; they were dangerous, as communication at night was even more difficult than during the day, it was hard to keep control of the troops, hard to maintain adequate lines of advance, and the chances were just as likely that troops would fire upon themselves as upon the enemy. This attack was especially hazardous. Sickles didn’t know where his own lines were, had no idea where the enemy was, had no time at all for reconnaissance and his objectives were quite vague. An experienced officer most likely wouldn’t have suggested this attack, and would have waited until morning to see what the situation was, especially as the goals of the attack were so unclear. The possible gains to be made from the attack  were apparently, from what one could see at the time, no way as great as the potential risk for disaster.

 Yet, in a very real way, for reasons that no one at the time could have known, the attack was a very good idea, one of the lesser known lost opportunities of the war. The Confederates had the momentum, and were victorious in their part of the field. However,  they had been thrown into confusion by the wounding of two of their major officers, Brig-Gen Thomas Jackson, and Brig-Gen A.P. Hill. The Confederates were tired after marching and fighting for a whole day. This attack, even if it hadn’t succeeded, would have thrown doubts in the minds of the Confederate high command as to the location of the Federals. It could have halted the Confederate momentum and given the Federals that much more time to organize a defense for the upcoming battle on the next day. If the attack had been coordinated with the Union Twelfth Corps, as Sickles wished, the attack could very well have routed the Confederates in the same way the Federal XI Corps had been routed, and turned the battle completely around.

 Ultimately, the attack was carried out more because General Sickles was who he was anything else. General Sickles was a politician before the war, and retained the politician’s ambition to achieve recognition. He knew that if he gained a reputation during the war, his future political goals would be assured. More to the point, General Sickles was a fighter, and incapable of maintaining a defensive posture. His first thought was to go after the enemy, to hit back, even if this meant disobeying the letter of his orders.  He, alone among the rest of the Federal Corps leaders, was thinking of attacking the Confederates whether General Hooker wished to or not. Perhaps if more had followed his example, the history of the battle, and of the war would have been quite different.

The attack was formed from two brigades of Birney’s division,  Brigadier-General J.H. Hobart Ward’s (2/1/III) and Colonel Samuel B. Hayman’s (3/1/III). General Ward’s Brigade was in the front,  along with the 63rd PA of Brigadier-General Charles K. Graham’s Brigade (1/1/III) and the 17th ME of General Hayman’s Brigade (3/1/III) . General Hayman’s Brigade formed the rear echelon. General Whipple’s Division (3/III) and General Barlow’s Brigade (2/2/XI) remained at Hazel Grove, guarding the artillery. The sky was clear, and the moon glinted off the bayonets of  Birney’s men as they marched silently north along the road leading to the Plank Road, caps taken off their guns to prevent the men from firing before they reached the enemy. The orders were not to fire until the Plank road was reached. There were no skirmishers ahead of the troops, and no scouting had been done to locate the enemy ahead of time; no one knew what was ahead

 The actual attack lasted about one half an hour,  and was something close to ludicrous. The left of the Federal line met and contacted the enemy, Confederate Brigadier-General James H. Lane’s Brigade (4/1/II). The right of the Federal line brushed against the center of the Federal XII Corps, and charged a battery of General Williams’ division (1/XII) who, not knowing of the attack, fired on the Federals as if they were the enemy. The III Corps men fired on both friend and foe, not knowing who was who. The III Corps center continued straight north and  managed to attain the Plank road, briefly, and reestablish a stronger line with the rest of the Union army, as well as re-capture several guns and caissons, but did not significantly improve their position and were eventually repulsed. The men fled from their position with something resembling a panic back to the Hazel Grove position.  Though General Sickles had not taken the Plank road, he had achieved some gains in position, one from which he could cut a road to the rest of the Federal army.

 From the point of view of the common soldier, this attack had a nightmarish quality. Accounts of different soldiers give differing versions of what was going on in this attack. Some saw themselves as fighting their way through a ring of a surrounding , victorious Confederate army. Others saw themselves as running a gauntlet of fire, from their own troops on the right, who didn’t know who was moving across their front, to the enemy on their left, who also didn’t know what was happening, as the Third Corps moved North against an enemy in front of them who was also firing.  Wyman S. White, a member of Berdan’s Brigade saw this charge as a desperate attempt to avoid being cut off and surrounded.  He describes breaking through two Rebel Battlelines and taking a battery of Federal Guns, before realizing that the III Corps had broken through the Confederates to reach the Federal lines.

 General Williams (1/XII) describes the action this way:

 “A tremendous roll of infantry fire, mingled with yellings and shoutings, almost diabolical and infernal, opened the conflict on the side of Sickles’ division. For some time, my infantry and artillery kept silent, and in the intervals of the musketry, I could distinctly hear the oaths and imprecations of the rebel officers, evidently having hard work to keep their men from stampeding. In the meantime, Sickles’ artillery opened fire over the heads of the infantry, and the din of arms and inhuman yellings and cursings redoubled. All at once, Berry’s division (2/III) across the road on our right, opened fire in heavy volleys, and Knipe (1/1/XII), commanding my right brigade next to the road on the South, followed suit…”

 With the failure of the attack, General Sickles re-grouped at Hazel grove. General Sickles realized that he couldn’t improve his position, and the only action the Federal army could take in order to not lose the important position Hazel Grove represented was to change the Federal lines to include Hazel Grove. It was about 1:00 a.m., and an aide was sent to General Hooker suggesting that the lines of the Federal army be adjusted to take in this important position. When the aide arrived at General Hooker’s headquarters at the Chancellor House, General Hooker was asleep. General Van Allen, who was on duty and in charge of headquarters, refused to awaken General Hooker, and directed the aide to wait. Toward morning, General Van Allen was prevailed upon to waken General Hooker, and the message was delivered. What happened next is not clear; Sickles was sent for immediately, but whether or not General Hooker went to meet General Sickles is not known. Whatever happened, the orders were given to Sickles at dawn to abandon the Hazel Grove position and move to the Western face of the Federal position around Fairview.

 General Sickles immediately sent out a regiment (105PA/1/1/III) to cut a road through the swampy area around General Sickles’ right through the line of the XII Corps to the Fairview position. First the artillery were evacuated. Then came General Whipple’s division (3/III), then came Barlow’s Brigade (2/2/XI), followed by Birney’s division (1/III). Lastly came Graham’s Brigade (1/1/III).  At 6:00 a.m. the Confederates attacked the last regiments of Graham’s Brigade. Graham’s brigade, after firing a few volley’s, which checked their advance to some extent, retired rapidly, closely pursued, and subjected to hot fire. Huntington’s battery, with a regiment on each flank, covered this movement to the last moment, and brought up the rear, losing three pieces. Hazel Grove was in the possession of the Confederates by 7:00 a.m., May 3.

 The rest of the morning of May 3, the III Corps, as well as the rest of the right flank of the Federal army, was slowly forced back by repeated Confederate assaults on their lines. At noon, the attacks ceased, as the Confederates abandoned their attacks to march against the Federal VI Corps, which was advancing against the Confederates from Fredericksburg. The Federals on the right flank contracted their lines again, and then retreated over the Rappahannock river by the end of the day. This ended the battle of Chancellorsville.

 This battle marked the beginning of the end of the III Corps. It had suffered severely in this fight. Two months, almost to the day from this time, it would be virtually destroyed at the battle of Gettysburg, and would be disbanded by the end of the year. In its short career, lasting little more than a year, the III Corps had participated in some of the heaviest fighting against the Confederate army when that army was at its peak of fighting abilities.

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