The Story of Gettysburg: Moving North: Part 3: Billy Yank
An Essay By Benjamin // 1/29/2014
Meanwhile, across the Rappahannock, Hooker diligently set himself to the task of redeeming his reputation that he had soiled at Chancellorsville. Hooker would claim in a letter to Colonel Samuel Ross commanding a brigade in XII Corps, “No general battle was fought at Chancellorsville, for I was unwilling to give battle with such great odds against me. I rejoice that what was not gained was not lost. We lost no honors at Chancellorsville. With all of our misfortunes the enemy's loss exceeded our own by one-third.”1
Hooker then proceeded to congratulate his army, attempting to cast his ignominious defeat in an entirely different light. In his General Orders No. 49, he wrote, “In withdrawing from the south bank of the Rappahannock before delivering a general battle to our adversaries, the army has given renewed evidence of its confidence in itself and its fidelity to the principles it represents. In fighting at a disadvantage, we would have been recreant to our trust, to ourselves, our cause, and our country. Profoundly loyal, and conscious of its strength, the Army of the Potomac will give or decline battle whenever its interest or honor may demand. It will also be the guardian of its own history and its own fame. By our celerity and secrecy of movement, our advance and passage of the rivers were undisputed, and on our withdrawal not a rebel ventured to follow. The events of the last week may swell with pride the heart of every officer and soldier of this army. We have added new luster to its former renown.”2
These claims of success by the commanding general did not serve in any way to endear him to his men and failed miserably in its attempt to regain their confidence. Just one week earlier, he had spoken of an incredible victory well within his grasp. “It is with heartfelt satisfaction the commanding general announces to the army,” ran General Orders no. 47, “that the operations of the last three days have determined that our 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.”3 It was clear to all that he had failed in accomplishing his purpose.
Hooker recognized this danger, but instead of quietly accepting the blame for the defeat, he rapidly found ways to cast the blame elsewhere, writing, “The major-general commanding tenders to this army his congratulations on its achievements of the last seven days. If it has not accomplished all that was expected, the reasons are well known to the army.”4
Unfortunately, this was exactly what none of the men could understand: why they had failed to beat Lee at Chancellorsville; why they had withdrawn when the battle seemed to be in balance. As Colonel Wainwright put it, “It is these very reasons that everyone I have met is looking for; what they are no one seems able to conceive.”5
Among the enlisted men, many felt that the South had quite simply outgeneraled their leaders. “It is true the A.P. [Army of the Potomac] accomplished but little since its organization,” wrote Private Justice M. Sillimar, “though I think it is composed of better drilled and as good fighting men as can be found. The reasons for its failure I think are as follows: The incompetency and treachery of some of its commanding generals; the continual interference of politicians at W[ashington].”6
Captain Francis Donaldson summed up the spirit that pervaded the army, writing to his brother on 14 May, “The army is in a very unsettled condition. The men are morose, sullen, dissatisfied, disappointed, and mortified. We are a good deal discouraged because we feel that we should not have lost the battle. I don’t see how we can hope to succeed if we are not better handled.”7
Yet despite this fresh disappointment in the leadership of the army, most of the men did not bear any great grudge towards Hooker, nor were there the typical signs of depression often found after defeat. J. Henry Blakeman described the spirit of the army as follows, “I forgot to tell you the boys are all thriving and in gay spirits ready for a fight if necessary.”8 Donaldson seems also to recognize this spirit, for he continued in his letter of May 14 to say, “But at the same time it must be confessed we are a remarkable army. I doubt very much if any other could have sustained two such tremendous disasters as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and held together as we are doing. Why, do you know that notwithstanding our discouragements we are now fast recovering and could make a big fight today if we had someone to inspire us with confidence?”9
Though Hooker had failed to provide this inspiration and skilled leadership at Chancellorsville, the enlisted men, for the most part, were willing to serve under “Fighting Joe” once again.