Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac ended soon after the fiasco at Fredericksburg that caused many thousands of Union casualties. President Abraham Lincoln appointed Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in his stead.
Hooker arrived at army headquarters in January 1863, carrying some personal baggage of his own. His brash comments about the state of affairs from a military perspective, as well as nationally, prompted a pointed message to him from the president. As excerpted from John Gabriel Hunt’s “The Essential Abraham Lincoln”:
“I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac … [even though] I am not quite satisfied with you. … I have heard … of your recently saying that both the army and the government need a dictator. … What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
The opportunity for “success” came in late April/early May, after the spring thaw occurred. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army was poised south of the Rappahannock River, near the town of Fredericksburg, Va., in anticipation of the new Union army commander going on the offensive.
As author Stephen Sears points out in his book on this subject, action soon took place centered around “Chancellorsville,” an isolated brick residence 10 miles west of Fredericksburg originally built as a crossroads tavern by George Chancellor, in the heart of a densely wooded area known as the Wilderness.
Despite a successful flanking maneuver and a two-to-one Union manpower advantage, Hooker’s shortcomings as a field commander led to the defeat of his army and a great victory for Lee and his Confederate forces.
Caught in the middle of this maelstrom, the 1st and 2nd Delaware Regiments, serving within Maj. Gen. Darius Couch’s Second Corps, nonetheless performed faithfully and efficiently. The 1st Delaware was pressed into service to help stop the panic caused when the Eleventh Corps fell victim to a surprise flank attack by a powerful Confederate force under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
As 1st Delaware commander Col. Thomas A. Smith wrote with pride and eloquence in his battle report, “The conduct of the regiment, both officers and men, is worthy of all praise. The men who fought so bravely at Antietam and Fredericksburg forgot not their record, nor failed to add to it another page inscribed with glorious deeds of patriotic valor.”
Regimental commander Lt. Col. David L. Stricker reported that the 2nd Delaware was also actively engaged at Chancellorsville from May 1 to 5 (Official Records, Vol. 25, pages 388-89). The regiment came under heavy bombardment from enemy artillery, deployed as skirmishers in front of the battle lines, and withstood an attack from “a strong force of the enemy, who were gallantly and severely repulsed.”
When the Chancellor House, being used as a field hospital for Union troops, “had taken fire from the enemy’s shells” and was set ablaze, men from the 2nd Delaware added to their laurels by braving the flames to remove the wounded to safer ground.
Somerset Publishers’ “Encyclopedia of Delaware” proudly proclaims that Delaware troops upheld the state’s reputation for valor at Chancellorsville. Not without cost, however. Smyth’s casualty list for the 1st Delaware at Chancellorsville included six killed, 33 wounded and 10 missing. The 2nd Delaware’s toll in officers and men for the five days of combat was two killed, 19 wounded and 40 either captured or missing.
The awe-inspiring victory of the Army of Northern Virginia over the more powerful Union Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville is considered Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest triumph during the Civil War. One month later, in June 1863, in an atmosphere of exhilaration and great confidence, Lee and his fighting men ventured on a most hazardous expedition into the North.
The two armies would soon engage once again in a fateful encounter at a crossroads town in south central Pennsylvania. On the home front in Delaware, a Wilmington woman was anxiously following these events through available information sources, and recorded her thoughts about them in her diary. We will consider her comments in my next article.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.