“…such a palpable crippling of a great arm…”: Hunt’s assessment of Chancellorsville

I don’t think it a stretch to advance the notion May 3, 1863 was the greatest day for Confederate field artillery in the Civil War (although we may also mention August 30, 1862…).  The “Long Arm of Lee” dominated the battlefield around Chancellors Crossroads that day.  One of the few occasions where the Confederate gunners held the upper hand on their Army of the Potomac counterparts.  Favorable terrain – namely Hazel Grove plateau, conceded by the Federals – accounted for the performance.  Skillful employment of the guns by able officers such as Colonel E.P. Alexander and Major W.T. Pegram.  On paper, the Confederate batteries were at a disadvantage in caliber and quality. Their shells proved faulty.  Yet the Confederate gunners dominated the battlefield for the critical phases of fighting that Sunday.

The Federal guns were not badly mismanaged at the tactical level in order to setup this scenario.  Indeed the guns assembled by Captain Clermont Best at Fareview might have held firm given a few changes of circumstance.  But in the assessment of Brigadier-General Henry J. Hunt, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery, the blame lay at the feet of his commander – Major-General Joseph Hooker – and how the artillery arm was managed in the months before the campaign.  Although, when first assuming command that winter, Hooker made organizational changes which favored employment and massing of artillery, he also diminished the Chief of Artillery’s role considerably.  Early in the Chancellorsville campaign, Hooker dispatched Hunt to direct the artillery protecting the fords over the Rappahannock.

That in context, consider the closing paragraphs of Hunt’s report of the campaign:

In justice to the artillery, and to myself, I think it necessary to state certain circumstances affecting its condition and losses in these operations. The command of the artillery, which I held under Generals McClellan and Burnside, and exercised at the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, was withdrawn from me when you assumed command of the army, and my duties made purely administrative, under circumstances very unfavorable to their efficient performance. I heard after the movement commenced that, when the corps were put in motion to cross the river, they left part of their artillery in their camps. No notice of this was given to me, and it was only by accident that I learned that the batteries so left behind were afterward ordered to rejoin their corps. As soon as the battle commenced on Friday morning, I began to receive demands from corps commanders for more artillery, which I was unable to comply with, except partially, and at the risk of deranging the plans of other corps commanders. That same morning I was ordered to Banks’ Ford, to take command there, and was absent at that place until the night of the 3d from general headquarters.

The promotion of many of the old artillery officers, and the invariable transfer which accompanied it to other duties, weakened the regular batteries exceedingly, and at the same time deprived the divisional artillery of experienced commanders. The limitation of officers of four-gun batteries crippled the volunteer service, and the want of field officers added to the great difficulties under which the arm labored. It will, perhaps, hardly be believed that for the command and management in their operations of the artillery of the army, consisting of 412 guns, 980 artillery carriages, 9,543 men and officers, and 8,544 horses, besides their large ammunition trains, there were but five field officers of artillery in the army, and from the scarcity of officers of inferior grades these officers had miserably insufficient staffs. Add to this that there was no commander of all the artillery until a late period of the operations, and I doubt if the history of modern armies can exhibit a parallel instance of such palpable crippling of a great arm of the service in the very presence of a powerful enemy, to overcome whom would require every energy of all arms under the most favorable circumstances. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that confusion and mismanagement ensued, and it is creditable to the batteries themselves, and to the officers who commanded them, that they did so well. Fourteen guns were lost, but the most of these losses (eight) occurred in the rout of the Eleventh Corps, and all of them before Colonel Wainwright or myself was placed in command of the whole artillery.

Now that is how you tell off your boss!

For the record, however, Hunt posted this report a little late… well maybe conspicuously late… August 1, 1863.  By then Hooker was relieved and Hunt was fully vindicated by the performance of the artillery at Gettysburg.  Firm footing for criticism.  I would add, in Hooker’s defense, that in the weeks following Chancellorsville the army commander made changes to address the ills cited by Hunt.  The lessons of Chancellorsville were not completely lost on Joe Hooker.  Can we at least say a few positive things about Fighting Joe?

(Hunt’s report is in OR, Series I, Volume 25, Part I, Serial 39, pages 246-252.)


3 thoughts on ““…such a palpable crippling of a great arm…”: Hunt’s assessment of Chancellorsville

  1. Ah, but Craig, on the flip side, I never think of the artillery at Chancellorsville that Willie Pegram’s “glorious day” doesn’t come to mind.

    We all retain select mental snapshots affixed solidly in our mind’s eye and a favorite personal image embraces Colston’s observation at Hazel Grove: “With the fire of battle shining from his eyes through his spectacles,” the ever-modest Pegram asserted to EP Alexander, “A glorious day, Colonel, a glorious day!”

    For Willie Pegram to proclaim it so, it must indeed have been a glorious day.

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