the most catastrophic battle of the civil war -- 1/30/23

Today's selection -- from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In 1863, the Union and Confederate armies commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker and Robert E. Lee met at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Hooker commanded an army of 134,000 men and had the tactical advantage to Lee's army of 61,000 Confederate soldiers. Despite having the upper hand, Hooker suffered a devastating defeat:

"One of the most famous battles of the American Civil War took place in the spring of 1863 in the northern Virginia town of Chancellorsville. It pitted the legendary Con­federate general Robert E. Lee against 'Fighting Joe' Hooker, commander of the Union's Army of the Poto­mac. Lee was by then well into his fifties and of uncertain health. He was a devout and principled man, with a long, somber face and a full gray beard. He was revered by his troops and had demonstrated by that point in the war an unmatched tactical genius. His opponent, Hooker, was his antithesis. Hooker was young, tall, and fair. 'He was a bachelor and liked the company of women,' the historian Gary Gallagher says. 'Charles Francis Adams has a famous quotation that Hooker's headquarters was part barroom and part brothel and no decent person would have busi­ness there.' Under his command, the Army of the Potomac had been transformed from a ragged, ill-disciplined group into what Hooker called 'the finest body of soldiers the sun ever shone on.' That was typical Hooker. He did not lack for self-confidence. 'It is no vanity in me to say I am a damned sight better general than you had on that field,' he told Lincoln after the Battle of Bull Run. And when he confronted Lee in the spring of 1863, he was even more sure of himself. 'My plans are perfect,' he said before committing his troops to battle. 'And when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on Bobby Lee, for I shall have none.'

"The situation at Chancellorsville was quite simple.

"The top half of Virginia is bisected by the Rappahannock River, which meanders from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north and empties into Chesapeake Bay. In 1863, in the third year of the Civil War, Lee had dug in along the southern banks of the Rappahannock, midway between Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and, to the north, Washington, D.C., where President Lincoln anx­iously awaited news of the war's progress. Lee had 61,000 men in his army and was assisted by another of the Con­federacy's legendary commanders, Stonewall Jackson. Hooker faced Lee across the river, and he had under his command 134,000 men and twice as many artillery pieces. One obvious option for Hooker would have been to charge across the river at Lee directly, hoping to over­whelm him with superior numbers. But Hooker decided on something far more elegant. He took about half of his troops and had them march fifteen miles upriver, then stealthily cross the Rappahannock and march back, until they were massed directly behind Lee's army at a cross­roads known as Chancellorsville. Hooker's position was unassailable. He had Lee in a vise: Lee had a larger army in front of him and a larger army behind him.

Soldiers of the VI Corps, Army of the Potomac, in trenches before storming Marye's Heights at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville campaign, Virginia, May 1863.

"Hooker also had intelligence that was vastly superior to Lee's. He had a network of spies throughout the Con­federate army, whose intelligence allowed him to do what even today seems extraordinary -- that is, move 70,000 troops into position behind his enemy's army without his enemy's knowledge. What's more, he had two hot-air balloons at his disposal, which he sent up periodically to provide almost perfect aerial reconnaissance of Lee's posi­tions. The Battle of Chancellorsville was a fight that, by any normal measure, ought to have been won by the Union army in a rout. When Hooker joined his troops at Chancellorsville, he gathered them around and read to them his final orders: 'It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from be­hind his own defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits.'

"But when the battle began, what had seemed perfectly clear-cut in the planning stage quickly turned murky. Hooker thought that Lee, faced with such a dire situation, would retreat in the only direction he could -- back to Richmond -- and that in the chaos of retreat, his army would be a sitting duck for the pursuing Union forces. This is the scenario that he had thought about and talked about and that had hardened in his mind. But Lee did not retreat. Instead, he divided his forces and turned, unex­pectedly, to face Hooker at Chancellorsville. Hooker had the advantage of position and numbers. But now he was thrown into confusion. Lee was not acting like a man heavily outnumbered. He was acting like a man with a nu­merical advantage. A number of Confederate deserters were captured by the Union forces, and they said that another Confederate general, James Longstreet, had come to Lee's defense with massive reinforcements. Was this true? The fact is that it wasn't, but Hooker was confused. On paper, he had an insurmountable advantage over Lee. But the battle was not being fought on paper. It was being fought in the moment. He told his troops to halt, then to withdraw. He ceded his battlefield advantage. 'It's all right,' Hooker told Darius Couch, one of his generals, in an attempt to put a brave face on the situation. 'I've got Lee just where I want him. He must fight me on my own ground.' But Couch was not fooled. 'I retired from his presence,' he would say later, 'with the belief that my commander was a whipped man.'

"Lee sensed that weakness as well. So he acted without hesitation. He divided his army again and set Stonewall Jackson, under cover of darkness and fog, to creep far around Hooker's flank and attack at the farthest edge of Hooker's position, where the Union army felt it was most invulnerable. At just after five o'clock in the afternoon, Lee's forces attacked. Hooker's troops were eating supper. Their rifles were off to the side, stacked in piles. Lee's troops came screaming out of the surrounding forest, bay­onets drawn, and Hooker's army turned and ran. It was one of the most devastating defeats of the Civil War."



Malcolm Gladwell


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


Back Bay Books


Copyright 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell


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