Joe Hooker gets a bad rap. A typographical error gave him the moniker “Fighting Joe”, a nickname he almost certainly liked more than he claimed to. Among the Army of the Potomac’s leaders he was a rarity – an aggressive man who wanted to come to grips with the enemy. He was the sort of [...]
The story of the Civil War is one in which brilliant Confederate generals fought a numerically superior but incompetently led Union force to a standstill for almost four years, or so the biased East coast media would have you believe. Robert E. Lee and his immediate subordinates were undoubtedly the smartest people on the field in most of the engagements they fought, but in other theaters the Confederates were mostly led by generals who were ordinary at best, and away from the watchful eyes of northern reporters, the crafty Union generals who would eventually win the war were honing their abilities in mostly-forgotten battles.
Champion Hill is a case in point, because although it is the key battle of one of the most strategically significant campaigns in the war, almost nobody has heard of it.
Situated on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and bristling with cannon, Vicksburg, MS, was one of the last bastions denying the Union control of the great river. Control of the city was key to control of the Mississippi, and Ulysses S. Grant had spent months trying his hand at a series of schemes to take it or bypass it. Difficult terrain shielded the city from the north, and the river itself made an approach from the west impossible. East lay the heart of the Confederacy, and Grant had no way to attack from the south. Or he didn’t until he managed to use the river itself to send some boats down in a daring nighttime run. Once he had enough vessels downstream to cross, he simply marched south by the west bank, with the aim of marching back north to Vicksburg by the east.
The Rebels in the area were commanded by John Pemberton, a man who was more of a pencil-pusher than a battlefield commander. He knew well enough to concentrate his forces once he recognized Grant’s move, but his instinct was to defend Vicksburg rather than attack Grant, even though the latter was in a perilous position logistically speaking. Isolated brigades fought some delaying actions, but couldn’t truly hope to stop the advance of the three corps under Grant. Pemberton drew his forces back towards Vicksburg.
Grant, meanwhile, decided it would be foolish to leave the town Jackson at his back while attacking Vicksburg. So, he continued east to the state capital, where Joseph E. Johnston was waiting. Johnston, however, was fond of withdrawing in the face of a superior force – the only reason the war had gone on so long was that some damn fool Federal had shot him outside of Richmond the previous year, causing the more aggressive Robert E. Lee to take over command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Even though he had reinforcements coming, Johnston pulled out of Jackson after having urged Pemberton to move forward and unite with him just a few hours earlier.
Grant left the destruction of material and transportation in Jackson in the hands of William T. Sherman, who would in due course become expert at this sort of thing, and turned west with his other two divisions under James McPherson and John McClernand. As his forces fanned out along three roads towards Vicksburg, the Rebels under Pemberton were blundering towards Jackson, badly bungling the advance on the day before the battle. Baker’s Creek was swollen by rain and unfordable, so Pemberton’s men had to countermarch to a bridge further north. On the eve of the battle the men were exhausted, essentially trapped on one side of the creek, and seemingly completely unaware that Union troops were only a few miles down the road.
It ended up that Pemberton’s troops were strung out roughly north to south, with a division under William Loring on the south end along what was called the Raymond Road, and the division of Carter Stevenson and the wagon trains reaching north to what became known as the Middle Road. The last of his divisions was stopped near a crossroads just south of an elevation called Champion Hill, for the family (headed by a Confederate cavalryman) that lived there. In between these two lay John Bowen’s division.
Pemberton learned of the bluecoats soon enough. Skirmishes broke out at dawn, and shortly afterward Pemberton received the news that Johnston had evacuated Jackson on the 13th. Pemberton quickly decided to reverse course. Ordering Loring to block the Raymond road, Pemberton sent his wagons back across the northern crossing of Baker’s Creek (he also wisely sent a team of engineers to build a bridge at the crossing that had been unfordable the previous day). The wagons and their guards made it across, but before the rest of the army could withdraw, McPherson’s troops appeared north of Champion Hill.
Two rebel brigades, under Stephen D. Lee (no relation to Robert) and Alfred Cumming, swung north to try to meet the attack. Lee reached his position in good order, but Cumming’s brigade left several companies behind and got misaligned as it was trying to get in position. The Union line overlapped both ends of the Confederate position, and when they attacked things went wrong very quickly for the Rebels. Outnumbered and ill-prepared, Cummings’ men gave way, fleeing the field and putting Union men in good position to flank Lee’s line, which they promptly did, compelling him to withdraw. Another brigade passed further west and blocked the road leading to Baker’s Creek. The Rebels were now cut off from their wagons and their intended crossing back towards Vicksburg.
Had McClernand’s men on the middle road moved forward at this point it would have all been over for Pemberton, but advances on the Middle and Raymond roads were slow this day, perhaps because McClernand did not understand that a general engagement had already been joined. As it was, McPherson’s soldiers swept south without any reinforcement from McClernand, checked only briefly by Stevenson’s remaining men. Their brief pause, however, gave Bowen’s division time to line up and organize (a step that would have been impossible were they pressed by McClernand). With the Federal brigades far from any support, Bowen launched his men at them.
Now it was the bluecoats’ turn to fall back, with the pressure from Bowen’s men routing the left and pushing the right back up and over the hill. Even as they advanced, however, additional men were arriving down the Jackson road. Grant, who was on the scene, ordered them directly into the battle. Far from support and running out of ammunition, Bowen’s counterattack bogged down, then was driven back by mounting Federal pressure.
Pemberton sent for more support from Loring, but although the troops he was facing seemed content to sit still, Loring refused to obey the order. Doubtless Loring, who had lost an arm in the Mexican-American War and commanded troops in Virginia earlier, had little respect for Pemberton’s leadership or battlefield acumen. He had also once tried to go over Stonewall Jackson’s head as well, however, so his behavior must be blamed at least in part on a personality flaw. Regardless, he did not send any troops in aid until it was far too late to save the day. One of his brigades reached the crossroads and was able to hold part of the westbound road for a while, but before long the Union army cut off the route to the crossing again. With McClernand’s men finally advancing from the middle road, Pemberton was compelled to withdraw southward.
Fortunately for him, the creek had fallen in the night, and the crossing that had been unfordable the previous day could be waded. Thanks to a strong delaying effort on the Raymond road by the brigade of Lloyd Tilghman, most of Pemberton’s remaining troops were able to escape. Tilghman had been compelled to surrender Fort Henry to Grant in 1862 and fought hard to erase the stain of the defeat, but he was killed by shrapnel on the Raymond Road.
Loring never crossed Baker’s Creek. Thanks to confusion at the northern crossing, Union troops had been able to get to the other side of the creek, and from that position they pushed south. Knowing that they were flanked, the Rebels guarding the southern crossing had to withdraw. Loring had Yankees to the east, west, and north. So, he went south, taking a roundabout route back to Jackson, losing all of his guns and most of his supplies.
The rest of Pemberton’s force staggered back towards Vicksburg. An attempt to delay Grant at the Big Black River failed, and by May 18, the Union army had begun their siege of Vicksburg.
Thanks to McClernand’s slow advance, Pemberton might have driven off McPherson and escaped entirely if he’d responded promptly and had Loring’s help. Alternately, a quicker withdrawal towards the south would at least have preserved more of his army. As it was, Pemberton lost the advantage granted him by his superior internal lines of communication, failed to scout his opponent adequately, and under duress he could not produce a battle plan that could ensure his army’s survival, much less its victory. The Confederacy would soon pay the price.
Champion Hill is an almost forgotten battle. It doesn’t have the massive armies or staggering casualties of the great Eastern battles. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t have the press. However, it was the battle that made the fall of Vicksburg, and thus the loss of the Mississippi, inevitable. Gettysburg gets all the attention, but Grant’s victory at Champion Hill led directly to the completion of the encirclement that would strangle the South, the anaconda Winfield Scott had envisioned at the beginning of the war.
When the fighting died down on May 2, the Army of the Potomac still held a fairly strong position. It outnumbered the Rebels, most of its men were entrenched, and the main body had lines of fortification to fall back on if needed. The Confederate army was divided, and the VI Corps back in Fredericksburg menaced the rear of the portion under the direct command of Robert E. Lee. The Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia had lost its commanding general, leaving J.E.B. Stuart, untested as an infantry leader, in command. Hooker’s position wasn’t as strong as it had been the previous morning, but it was not yet by any means precarious.
The Army of the Potomac was now arranged in a semicircle with both flanks anchored against a river. The III Corps under Dan Sickles, however, had formed a salient on a small hill with a clearing called Hazel Grove south of Chancellorsville. This position exposed it to attack from several sides simultaneously, but was also the most commanding artillery position for miles. With a determined force defending it from an entrenched position, and the overgrown Wilderness interfering with maneuver, it would have been difficult to seize. Several Confederates later attested that they did not believe they could have taken the position.
Fortunately for the Rebels, Hooker gave it to them. Deciding that the III Corps was in danger, he ordered Sickles back into the broad arc of the main body. This gave the Confederates two great gifts. First, they received the artillery position that E. Porter Alexander had been longing for since the previous night. Second, it vastly simplified their main task for the day, which was reuniting the two wings of the army.
With Jackson off the field, Lee wanted to be back in direct control of his forces. He ordered Stuart to attack while feeling towards the right, with the aim of linking up and consolidating the Rebel army. Stuart’s response was not tactically impressive: he simply lined up his forces and had them attack. In the close quarters of the Wilderness, more subtle approaches might not have been more effective. The strategy chosen, however, had fearsome consequences.
Things went easily for the Rebels initially. They reached Hazel Grove as Sickles was withdrawing, and captured a few guns as they attacked the tail end of his column. Alexander began posting guns in the clearing as soon as Stuart told him it was open. This was a significant moment in the battle. From this position the guns could fire on a great deal of the Federal position and could also easily reach the Chancellor house itself, which was Hooker’s headquarters.
Along the rest of the line things were not so easy. The Union army had entrenched well and inflicted terrible damage on the Confederate units attacking them. There were several close moments when it seemed the Union lines would falter, but Hooker and his other generals successfully pulled new units into position to drive off the attackers. Despite everything, Hooker’s strategy appeared to be working until Stephen Ramseur made a costly attack that drove off Charles Graham’s III Corps brigade, threatening the core of the Federal position, and its artillery.
The guns were compelled to withdraw, and Sickles sent for help. As his messenger approached Hooker at the Chancellor house, a shot from Hazel Grove hit the column Hooker was leaning against, badly concussing him shortly after 9 in the morning. Due to miscommunication and poor decisions by many people at the site, he was not relieved by Darius Couch, the ranking general on the field. Instead Hooker revived, attempted to command for a time, then collapsed again and was carried to a safer position. Couch was summoned again then, but for as much as an hour, the Army of the Potomac had no leader.
It was the worst hour possible for that to happen. Ramseur’s successful attack compelled many Union units to withdraw from their breastworks, increasing the danger to them even as they were running out of ammunition. Meade realized he was in good position to come down on the Rebel flank, but Hooker, in the throes of his concussion, was either too confused or too timid to grant Meade’s request to attack. Shortly afterward, Hooker instructed Couch to withdraw the army to a defensive line that had been set up by engineers the night before. Couch was now in command, but had no discretion to do as he saw fit. The Union troops withdrew from Chancellorsville, ending most of the day’s fighting on this front.
The casualty count on May 3 at Chancellorsville was second only to the day-long fight at Sharpsburg, but the fight at Chancellorsville only went on for about 5 hours, as opposed to the day-long drama along Antietam creek. Fighting would continue along the Rappahannock until a total withdrawal of the Union army on May 6, but for all intents and purposes Hooker had by now already lost. The decision to withdraw from Hazel Grove, granting the Confederacy a superior artillery position, ruined the defensive arrangements he had made and led directly to his concussion. That, in turn, deprived the army of leadership that could have thrown reserves into the gap that Stuart’s attack had created, and prevented Meade’s proposed flank attack, which might yet have saved the day. At a great cost, the Confederates had reunited their army.
There was more to it than just Hooker’s mistake, however. The VI Corps had been commanded very poorly by John Sedgwick. At one point due to a mistaken order, Jubal Early’s forces abandoned the defenses of Marye’s Heights. It is a testament to Sedgwick’s slowness that he could not even manage to take an unmanned position before its defenders returned. When he did conquer the hill, Sedgwick kept moving slowly and allowed his force to be stymied by, essentially, a single brigade under Cadmus Wilcox. Hooker’s continued adherence to a defensive philosophy, and appallingly slow communications between the two wings of the army, prevented the VI Corps’ activities from contributing towards any victory.
Stoneman managed to undershoot even this low bar of performance. His attack, meant to cut off Lee from Richmond and force him into either a precipitous attack or flight, failed entirely. His cavalry moved slowly and managed only cosmetic damage to the railroad . Even if they had been thorough, they struck the line in the wrong place, allowing supplies to continue reaching Lee from his depot. At the cost of blinding the Army of the Potomac, Stoneman had accomplished practically nothing. Through the poor performance of his subordinates, and his own poor decisions, Hooker’s superior strategy had failed.
Interestingly, the loss at Chancellorsville did not demoralize the Union army. Except for the XI Corps, the men believed they had fought well, and they had withdrawn from the field rather than been forced from it. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the attack at Chancellorsville demonstrated that the Army of the Potomac could outmaneuver the Rebels. The men believed their leaders had let them down in a fight they could have won.
For his part, Robert E. Lee emerged with incredible confidence, believing he commanded the finest army that had ever walked the earth. Faced with tremendous success against long odds, he thought his men invincible. It was a belief that would soon cost them, and the South, dearly.
At 8:30 AM, 150 years ago today, George Meade’s division of the Union I corps advanced towards the RF&P railroad. This was to be the only successful Union attack on a day cursed, once again, by incompetence at the highest levels of command. The Union Army marched towards disaster. The delay in bringing up the [...]