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The accession of General Hooker to the command communicated a glow of hope and confidence to the much-enduring soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. He had long been known as one of the most gallant, daring, and impetuous of division and corps commanders. Handsome and picturesque in the extreme, though with a fatally weak chin, his brilliant courage, his popular manners, and even the frankness of his self-assertion, had given him a large place in the soldiers' hearts. And certainly few commanders ever made a better use of an opportunity offered to refresh and refit an army after a disastrous and disheartening defeat. Every branch of the service instantly felt the influence of the new chief's energy and enthusiasm. The artillery was thoroughly reorganized and brought to the highest state of efficiency. The cavalry arm received an impulse which never ceased to actuate it down to the close of the war. The staff fairly jumped to their work in every department. Burnside's favorite “Grand Division " organization was broken up,
as clumsy and ineffective; and the infantry of the several corps was thoroughly overhauled in matters of equipment and discipline. Before the end of April Hooker was in command of a splendid army, comprising one hundred and twenty thousand men of all arms-veteran, well-appointed, brave, and believing thoroughly in their leader.
Hooker's plan of operations was clear, definite, sagacious. He purposed sending Meade, with his own corps, the Fifth, and with Howard's Eleventh and Slocum's Twelfth Corps, on a wide turning movement, to cross the Rappahannock at Kelly's ford, above the mouth of the Rapidan; then, bending southward, to cross the latter river at Germanna and Ely's fords; thence to move down along the bank of the Rappahannock, uncovering the fords below. At the United States ford was to be Couch's Second Corps, lacking Gibbon's division which was to remain at Falmouth. Couch was to cross the river and join Meade at Chancellorsville. This re-enforcement would give Meade nearly as many men as Lee had in his entire army, Longstreet's corps being in the West. Meanwhile Sedgwick, with his own corps, the Sixth, Reynolds's First and Sickles's Third Corps and Gibbon's division of the Second, was to make demonstrations at and below Fredericksburg, to induce the belief that Hooker's real object was to be found in that direction. As soon as Hooker should in person relieve Meade
in the command at Chancellorsville, it would then be for him to decide whether he would call up Sedgwick's force in whole or in part, or would use that column to cross the Rappahannock below and move into Lee's rear. Only one thing more requires to be said in such a hasty sketch as this. The splendid cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was to be sent on a great raid against Lee's communications, to threaten Richmond, intercept the Confederate supplies and re-enforcements, and prevent Lee from retreating in case of disaster. Perhaps it would have been better had Hooker kept the cavalry by him, to cover the movements of his own army and to help him win the victory of which he was, as the event proved, too well assured.
Everything at first went prosperously. Meade accomplished his turning movement promptly. Setting out on the 27th of April, he was joined at Chancellorsville, on the afternoon of the 30th, by Couch's two divisions. Here Hooker, too, arrived, full of confidence, and that evening issued a boastful general order declaring that “the enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” On the left, down the river, things had gone equally well. Sedgwick, on the 29th, crossed the Rappahannock with two divisions below Fredericksburg, causing Lee to believe that here was the real point of attack. As the success of
the turning movement was now complete, Sickles's corps was called up to Chancellorsville. Thus far Hooker's operations had been well conceived and promptly and energetically executed. But the morning of the ist of May witnessed the beginnings of the collapse, of which, indeed, the delays of the previous afternoon had given some intimation to the leading officers at Chancellorsville. Instead of moving straight on down the river, against whatever opposition, until he uncovered Banks's ford—which alone would have greatly shortened the route by which the corps below could communicate with him, or re-enforce him at need upon ground much better suited for the development of his army-precious hours were thrown away, while yet the order to march was not given. At last Slocum was sent down the plank road with the Twelfth Corps; Sykes's division of the Fifth, followed by Hancock's division, took the Fredericksburg pike; while Humphreys moved on the river road. Everything betokened hot work. But scarcely had Sykes and Slocum encountered the enemy, about two miles out, when the fatal order came to retire to Chancellorsville. That order had been issued against the earnest remonstrances of General Gouverneur K. Warren, chief topographical officer on Hooker's staff; and it was received by the several corps commanders concerned -Meade, Couch, and Slocum-with mingled amazement and indignation. So completely did the great
movement all at once collapse, so ignobly was the splendid promise of three days broken! The turning column, which had started out, with high hopes elate and in expectation of a decisive battle, suddenly found itself on the defensive, and was set to work digging intrenchments around Chancellorsville.
Painful and odious as the order was, it had to be obeyed. Hancock, who had been behind Sykes, formed line of battle to cover that officer's withdrawal. Couch, ever at the front when any part of his command was likely to be engaged, was with Hancock's division in person. Although the enemy, detecting the movement, at once assumed the aggressive, yet so prompt was Hancock's action and so gallant the bearing of his troops that it was not until he was near the Chancellorsville clearing that the Confederates were able to interfere seriously with him. Here he was beset by forces which had followed up Slocum's shorter line of retreat on the plank road, and had thus been brought upon his right flank. For a few minutes affairs were critical; but the steadiness of the skirmish line, the energetic action of the supporting regiments, and the handsome assistance rendered by Sykes's regulars, won the time necessary to bring the division into its assigned place in Hooker's new defensive line. Here the troops passed the night, disturbed somewhat by a severe shelling from the enemy's batteries, now established on the high ground which, by the in