Friday, May 10, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXV: Objectives


In the West, we've seen that the Union Army had been working according to General Scott's Anaconda Plan, with the eventual goal of cutting the Confederacy in two, and removing its ability to trade abroad. Thus deprived of the means of modern war, the rebels would be forced to yield, eventually. It wasn't broadly trumpeted that this was their goal, but every movement made in the West since the very earliest days of the conflict could be predicted by anyone familiar with General Scott's plan. First they made sure the Union's own east-west lines of communication and supply were secure, then they began to work their way down the river valleys. It wasn't very hard to figure out.

In the East, the motto was "On to Richmond!" Except, that wasn't quite the goal Lincoln had in mind.

Oh, seizing the Rebel capital would be a fine thing to accomplish. If it proved practicable, Lincoln was all for it. But, as the months wore on, Lincoln came to the belief that in the East, the primary objective was the Army of Northern Virginia, and not any particular piece of geography. Lincoln figured that if he could remove that force from the board, the rest would sort itself out.

In a way, it was an example of a commander using the Indirect Approach: you don't go straight in at what you really want, you go by a roundabout way so your opponent has a harder time countering your moves. Except that the Union armies could march in such a way to threaten Richmond, because in that case, Lee would have no choice but to move to interpose.

And such were the instructions that President Lincoln gave to the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac in the Spring of 1863. Once again, he was giving these instructions to a new commanding general: Ambrose Burnside had been reassigned in the head-rolling that had taken place after the debacle at Fredericksburg last December. Joseph Hooker was the new top man, and for once he was a man with a plan. Another novelty: it wasn't a bad one.

Hooker drew up a campaign plan that, if it came off right, would trap the Army of Northern Virginia in a double-envelopment. Thus trapped, and surrounded by a superior force, the war in the East could then be ended by a battle of annihilation.

He would be helped by two main advantages. First, there had been a complete overhaul of the Bureau of Military Intelligence since McClellan's tenure. Allan Pinkerton was nowhere to be seen, nor were his absurd over-estimations of Confederate strength and deployment. Hooker was gifted with the most complete, and most accurate, assessment of the Army of Northern Virginia's organization and deployment that any Union commander before him had ever had. Basically, he knew where Lee was, and more or less what he was doing.

His other main advantage stems from the first, in a way: Hooker knew that his army was much larger than Lee's. And he intended to make use of that advantage.

He would detach his cavalry, under General Stoneman, to make a deep-penetration raid behind Lee. At the same time, he would detach three full Corps of infantry, nearly half his strength, to make a stealthy march down the Rappahannock, and cross over the river to surprise Lee from his rear.

It was with this plan of action that the Army of the Potomac set out in late April.

The early results were all that Hooker could have hoped for. Stoneman's cavalry were keeping the Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart busy, depriving Lee of accurate information about Hooker's deployments and line of march. Initial reports seemed to indicate that the Rappahannock force was able to cross more or less unopposed. Hooker now had full confidence that he would be able to proceed to Chancellorsville, as he intended. That was where he intended to make contact with Lee's army.

That would be the last thing that happened according to Hooker's plan.

There's a time for following the rules, and there's a time for breaking them. You spend the early part of your career hewing assiduously to the rules of your profession, because you don't know them yet well enough to know exactly why they're there. But once you attain a certain degree of mastery, you do understand the "why" behind them, and then you know when it makes sense -- when it's necessary -- to set them aside. Robert E. Lee had attained such a degree of mastery, and he was about to show why Winfield Scott had originally intended him as his replacement.

Lee found out, almost too late, what Hooker was intending to do. If he acted according to the book, keeping his whole force intact, there was no way he could react to two forced advancing from opposite directions. But Lee also knew that Hooker's cavalry division was occupied elsewhere, meaning that Hooker wouldn't necessarily be able to see what Lee was doing ... so Lee did the unthinkable. He divided his already-inferior force, detailing part of it to intercept and delay the Rappahannock force while he met Hooker's main body at Chancellorsville.

And so it was, on May 1, 1863, that part of the Army of Northern Virginia met part of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. The rest of them had a smaller-scale rematch of December's battle outside of Fredericksburg.

Much has been made of Hooker's alleged indecision, in ceding the initiative to Lee. I'm not sure it's fair to hang this entirely on Hooker. So far as he knew, all was still going according to plan. He had always intended to fight a static battle, and let Lee come to him. The plan was for the rest of his army to be the hammer to his anvil, trapping Lee in between. He had no way of knowing, just yet, that the hammer wasn't coming today, or tomorrow, or the next day. In any case, he had his men dig in, and wait for Lee's attack. It would come the next morning.

This is more or less when Lee would again do the doubly-unthinkable: having already divided his force once, he would do it again. He'd detach a force under his right-hand man Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and send them around Hooker's weaker right flank, while the rest of Lee's army attacked from the front.

Ordinarily, there's no way this would have worked. But Jeb Stuart had disengaged from Stoneman, and was again available to conduct screening duty for Lee. Stuart's cavalry was able to keep the Union from seeing Jackson's preparations for a flanking attack long enough for the attack to come as a surprise.

It was a complete surprise. Enough of a surprise that had this been the Union Army of 1861, or even 1862, they might have broken and fled, like they did at Bull Run. But this was an experienced, hardened army of veterans. The flank bent, but it didn't break. Hooker's lines bowed back upon themselves, until both ends were anchored in the river, on either side of Chancellorsville.

Fighting recommenced all along the front outside of Chancellorsville early the next morning. The Union forces were doing fairly well, right up to the point where a Confederate shell struck a wooden pillar Hooker had been leaning against at his headquarters. Hooker was injured, but not seriously, but he had definitely had his bell rung. He didn't look hurt, but he was valiantly struggling to remember his name, rank, and serial number; to say nothing of trying to remember the situation at the front. Unfortunately, he didn't transfer command, nor did anyone take it. Without effective coordination, the Union troops were pushed out of Chancellorsville.

For what it's worth, the three Corps that had been detached to Fredericksburg actually managed to win the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, and were marching towards Chancellorsville ... but the anvil was rather worse for the wear. Hooker finally ordered a general withdrawal.

The loss was as stinging as it was unexpected: the fighting on the third of May was only surpassed by the Battle of Antietam, and still stands as the second bloodiest day in American military history. Lincoln is supposed to have cried, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" at the news of the defeat and the casualties. One outcome of the battle would be the second major command shake-up in the Army of the Potomac in six months. Hooker, Stoneman, and several other generals would be relieved, either immediately or eventually. But buried in all the bad news was one very important fact.

Hooker had achieved one very important goal. It was now far too late for Lee to do anything constructive about Vicksburg.

Grant's plan was working to perfection. He had made it down the opposite bank of the Mississippi, and was able to cross without interference below Vicksburg. Now, he had good land to march upon, and no significant opposition until he reached the defensive works outside of Vicksburg itself. He would attempt to carry the works by direct assault. When that didn't work, he'd settle down into a siege. With nothing going in or out, they'd have to ask for terms eventually. It would take some time for their supplies to run low, but Grant didn't really care.

Grant could afford to wait.

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