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HOOKER'S THEORIES AND CHANCES.
OOKER and Sickles have both stated that the plan H of the former was to allow this movement of Jackson's to develop itself: if it was a retreat, to attack the column at the proper time; if a tactical flank movement, to allow it to be completed, and then thrust himself between the two wings of Lee's army, and beat them in detail. This admirable generalization lacked the necessary concomitant of intelligent and speedy execution.
Now, Hooker had his choice between two theories of this movement of Jackson. It was a retreat from his front, either because Lee deemed himself compromised, or for the purpose of making new strategic combinations; or it was the massing of troops for a flank attack. It could mean nothing else. Let us, then, do Hooker all the justice the situation will allow.
All that had occurred during the day was fairly explainable on the former hypothesis. If Jackson was passing towards Culpeper, he would naturally send flanking parties out every road leading from the one his own columns were pursuing, towards our lines, for strictly defensive
purposes. The several attacks of the day might have thus occurred. This assumption was quite justifiable.
And this was the theory of Howard. He knew that Hooker had all the information obtained along the entire line, from prisoners and scouts. He naturally concluded, that if there was any reasonable supposition that an attack from the west was intended, Hooker would in some way have notified him. But, far from doing this, Hooker had inspected and approved his position, and had ordered Howard's reserve away. To be sure, early in the morning, Hooker had told him to guard against an attack on the right: but since then circumstances had absolutely changed; Barlow had been taken from him, and he conjectured that the danger of attack had passed. How could he assume otherwise ?
Had he suspected an attack down the pike, had he received half an hour's warning, he could, and naturally would, assuming the responsibility of a corps commander, have changed front to rear so as to occupy with his corps the line along the east side of the Dowdall's clearing, which he had already intrenched, and where he had his reserve artillery. He did not do so; and it is more easy to say that he was to blame, than to show good cause for the stigma cast upon him for the result of this day.
However much Hooker's after-wit may have prompted him to deny it, his despatch of 4.10 P.M., to Sedgwick, shows conclusively that he himself had adopted this theory of a retreat. “We know that the enemy is Aying," says he, “ trying to save his trains. Two of Sickles's divisions are among them.”
And it is kinder to Hooker's memory to assume that he did not apprehend a flank attack on this evening. If he did, his neglect of his position was criminal. Let us glance
at the map.
We know how the Eleventh Corps lay, its reserve removed, with which it might have protected a change of front, should this become necessary, and itself facing southerly. What was on its left, to move up to its support in case of an attack down the pike? Absolutely not a regiment between Dowdall's and Chancellorsville, and near the latter place only one division available. This was Berry's, still luckily massed in the open north of headquarters. And to Sickles's very deliberate movement alone is due the fact that Berry was still there when the attack on Howard burst; for Sickles had bespoken Berry's division in support of his own advance just at this juncture.
Birney, who was the prop of Howard's immediate left, had been advanced nearly two miles through the thickets to the south to attack an imaginary enemy. Whipple had followed him. Of Slocum's corps, Williams had been sent out “two or three miles,” to sweep the ground in his front, and Geary despatched down the plank road " for the purpose of cutting off the train of the enemy, who was supposed to be in retreat towards Gordonsville." To oppose the attack of a column of not far from twenty-five thousand men, there was thus left a brigade front of four small regiments, and the flank of a corps of eight thousand men more, without reserves, and with no available force whatever for its support, should it be overwhelmed.
Is any criticism needed upon this situation? And who should be responsible for it?
In a defensive battle it is all-important that the general in command should hold his troops well in hand, especially when the movements of the enemy can be concealed by the terrain. The enemy is allowed his choice of massing for an attack on any given point: so that the ability to concentrate reserve troops on any threatened point is an indispensable element of safety. It may be assumed that Hooker was, at the moment of Jackson's attack, actually taking the offensive. But on this hypothesis, the feebleness of his advance is still more worthy of criticism. For Jackson was first attacked by Sickles as early as nine A.M.; and it was six P.M. before the latter was ready to move upon the enemy in force. Such tardiness as this could never win a battle.
While all this had been transpiring on the right, Lee, to keep his opponent busy, and prevent his sending reenforcements to the flank Jackson was thus threatening, had been continually tapping at the lines in his front. But, owing to the small force left with him, he confined this work to Hooker's centre, where he rightly divined his headquarters to be. About seven A.M. the clearing at Chancellorsville was shelled by some of Anderson's batteries, obliging the trains there parked to go to the rear into the woods.
Hancock states that the enemy frequently opened with artillery, and made infantry assaults on his advanced line of rifle-pits, but was always handsomely repulsed. “During the sharp contests of that day, the enemy was never able to reach my principal line of battle, so stoutly and successfully did Col. Miles (who commanded the advanced line) contest the ground.”
Col. Miles says his line was constantly engaged skirmishing with the enemy during the day. At about three P.M. the Confederates massed troops in two columns, one on each side the road, flanked by a line some eight hundred yards long, in the woods. An impetuous charge was made to within twenty yards of the abattis, but it was baffled by our sturdy front.
Sickles, then still in reserve, had made a reconnoissance early on Saturday, in Hancock's front, with the Eleventh Massachusetts and Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers, covered by some sharpshooters; had driven in the enemy's pickets, and found him, to all appearances, in force. This was Anderson's line.
The Twelfth Corps had also made a reconnoissance down the plank road later in the day, but with no immediate results.
All that was accomplished was a mere feeling of the other's lines by either force. Hooker vainly endeavored to ascertain Lee's strength at various places in his front. Lee, to good purpose, strove to amuse Hooker by his bustle and stir, to deceive him as to the weakness of his force, and to gain time.
During the afternoon of Saturday, Hooker had a rare chance of redeeming his error made, the day before, in withdrawing from the open country to the Wilderness, and of dealing a fatal blow to his antagonist. He knew that Jackson, with twenty-five thousand men, was strug