Joseph Hooker was not lacking in self-confidence.
When he ordered his Potomac army to advance in late April 1863, he said full-bodied of his Confederate opponent: "May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will not be." Four days later, a desperate US President Abraham Lincoln tried also the highest authority: "Oh God, oh God, what will the country say." For the north had suffered its worst defeat in the American Civil War.
While the Union Army under Ulysses S. Grant was slowly but successfully working its way towards the southern fortress of Vicksburg in the western theater of war on the Mississippi, things remained calm in the east.
Potomac and Lee's Northern Virginia armies had recovered from the heavy casualties caused by the fighting for Fredericksburg in December 1862.
The most prominent victim was Union Commander in Chief Ambrose Burnside.
After his defeat, Lincoln had replaced him with his subordinate Hooker.
Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker (1814–1879), Commander in Chief of the Union Potomac Army
Source: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS
The 40-year-old West Point graduate had anything but an impeccable reputation.
His headquarters was a place "a self-respecting man shouldn't go and a decent woman shouldn't go," said one witness.
"It was a mixture of bar and brothel." His soldiers saw it differently, however.
Their morale rose because incompetent quartermasters were fired, supplies were improved, and home leave was granted.
Despondency gave way to a new fighting spirit.
Hooker's most effective move was to reorganize the army.
The grand divisions of his predecessor were again reduced to corps size.
Above all, however, the cavalry was combined into an independent unit, which should soon prove to be equal to the cavalry of the south.
With 110,000 men, Hooker set out on April 26th to finally take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
Then, it was said, he wanted to run for the office of president.
Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) Commander in Chief of the Northern Virginia Confederate Army
Source: picture alliance / Heritage Art /
His opponent Robert E. Lee was only able to counter this with 60,000 soldiers. And nature. Because in an abandoned cultural wasteland south of the Rappahannock River, an almost impenetrable thicket had emerged, the "Wilderness". In it, movements of larger troop formations were just as difficult as the overview of the large-scale fighting. It was in this area of all places that Hooker wanted to put his opponent to battle.
But instead of living up to his nickname "Fighting Joe" and tackling Lee directly with his overwhelming power, Hooker displayed a strange reluctance.
Perhaps he sensed a trap, perhaps the memory of his predecessors' defeats was already gnawing at him, or, as one officer put it, a trait made itself felt: “Hooker was the best poker player I knew up to that point which he should have increased by 1000 - then he went limp. "
The thicket of the "Wilderness"
Source: picture alliance / Liszt Collect
So instead of advancing, he remained in the woods with the bulk of his troops while he sent his General John Sedgwick to Fredericksburg, 15 kilometers away.
Dividing the army cost him 30,000 men - and the trust of his officers, who wanted to finally leave the Wilderness behind in order to exploit their numerical superiority.
On the other hand, Lee insisted that Hooker would continue to give the procrastinator.
When it was reported that the Union's western flank was "in the air," he opened "the most daring game Lee had ever played," writes Civil War specialist James M. McPherson.
With Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson he ordered his best general and 30,000 men to a 20 kilometer long flank march in order to bypass the enemy widely.
Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863), corps commander under Robert E. Lee
Source: picture alliance / akg-images
While Lee stopped on May 2 with 15,000 soldiers in front of Hooker's front and built on the inaction of the Union, Jackson and his troops, also known as "foot cavalry", paved their way through undergrowth and over fallen trees.
Although the march was recognized on the other side, Hooker had long been convinced that Lee was preparing the retreat and brushed off the message as a "shabby escape".
When Jackson's people, in their finally tattered uniforms, presented their attack in the early evening, they met completely unprepared Northerners.
Their 11th Corps, which had just gathered for dinner, was mainly made up of people of German origin, who had not yet been given the image of being particularly vigorous by the aura of Bismarck's victories in the “Wars of Unification”.
Your previous achievements in the civil war had entered the “Dutch Corps” with the opposite verdict.
Scene from the Battle of Chancellorsville
Source: picture alliance / Liszt Collect
“We stood in a terrible hailstorm of pointed bullets, grenades, solid bullets, caseshots and pointed projectiles from drawn cannons,” recalled Friedrich Hecker, who was known as the leader of the revolution in Baden in 1848/49 and who had become colonel in the USA as an emigrant. "No corps in the world with such a small number and such a formation could have stopped the enemy." However, this did not prevent the Union generals from portraying the Germans as "the people as a scapegoat".
At least Hooker managed to build a new line of defense that night.
Although he had three whole corps in reserve, he did not dare to take action against the Confederates the following day.
When they attacked again and Hooker briefly lost consciousness due to a detonation, his deputy gave the order to retreat.
The gains in terrain that Sedgwick had achieved 15 kilometers away near Fredericksburg were thus also wasted.
On May 4th he also ordered a retreat behind the Rappahannock.
Fallen at Fredericksburg
Source: picture-alliance / akg-images
In his favor, Hooker could argue that his army had remained reasonably intact.
But when he subsequently refused to live up to his nickname and instead lost contact with Lee, Lincoln replaced him with George Gordon Meade.
On the other hand, the southerners saw their conviction confirmed that they could take on any Union army.
That was also what Lee thought, who now came up with the plan for a decisive offensive attack.
Although he had lost almost a quarter of his army at Chancellorsville with 13,000 dead and wounded (compared to 17,000 in the Union), he wanted to march north to force the Potomac army into pursuit and finally destroy it in open battle.
Do you want to hear history too? "Assassin" is the first season of the WELT History Podcast.
Do you want to hear history too?
"Assassin" is the first season of the WELT History Podcast.
Even his victorious veterans dared to play this Vabanque game.
However, one of them was no longer there.
The charismatic "Stonewall" Jackson was shot in the smoke of his victory by his own people and died shortly afterwards in the hospital.
At Gettysburg, where the decisive meeting of the Civil War actually took place in early July, its absence would have serious consequences.
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