150 Years Ago, May 1863

150 Years Ago

May 1863

The quick bloodless war that men afraid they would miss is entering its’ third summer.  Both sides are showing signs of strain.  Black wreaths hang on many doors and the streets are full of maimed men.  Some historians think the dead were deliberately undercounted.  Both sides sent badly wounded and very sick men home to “recover”.  These men were “discharged” and not counted as dead.  This idea is based on comparisons of the 1860 and 1870 census.  A historical note, the government did not count a man “killed” working on Hover Damn unless he died at the site.

Much of the press judges the war on the Richmond/Washington front.  Robert E. Lee is controlling the war, beating McClellan, Pope and Burnside.  While Antietam is a “loss”, it has not dulled his luster on either side.  Lee is in a perilous position.  The supply satiation forced him to disperse the army.  Longstreet is at Suffolk, Stuart is well behind the lines and the horses are weak from lack of proper forge.

“Fighting Joe” Hooker is confident his plan is going well.  Army moral is improving under his capable administration.  Food is much better, pay is almost regular and the Corps Badges are popular.  With the two-year men leaving the army’s veteran population has taken a serious hit.  Many regiments are “green” or have had little experience.  The newer units have only seen action at Fredericksburg.  The XI Corps is trying to adjust to O. O. Howard as their new commander.  The beer drinking Germans and the dour temperance religious Howard is an awkward match.

In Tennessee Rosecrans is resupplying south of Nashville.  Victory at Stones River improved moral and the men are looking forward to this campaign season.

Bragg’s army is fraught with problems.  Most items are in short supply or unavailable.  The men are discouraged but grimly determined to hold on.  The officers are joining the pro or anti Bragg factions that are compromising its’ ability to function.  After Perryville and Stones River respect and affection for Bragg is almost nonexistent.  The men tell stories of Bragg ordering men shot for trivial offenses.  The officers are starting to ignore his orders without worrying about repercussions.

In Mississippi Pemberton is lost.  He thinks Vicksburg is more important than anything else and must be defended to the bitter end.  Johnston is unable or unwilling to make saving the army a priority.  Grant is between them and stronger than either of them.  In addition, they are reacting to Grant’s moves putting him firmly in control.  Davis is worried and hounding both generals for action.

Banks is closing on Port Hudson.  Grant has beaten him politically by remaining an independent command and not having to reinforce him.

Overall, the North should be optimistic.  They are winning on the Mississippi, in Tennessee, around New Orleans and along the Carolinas coastline.  The blockade is no longer a “paper blockade”.  Europe is not considering mediation.  England is still building ships for the Confederacy and France is still buying bonds.  However, the English government is starting to take a real look at what Laird is doing and listening to Adams.  The French are getting bogged down in Mexico and starting to worry about investing in the CSA’s bonds.

The South has Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

On the First, Grant wins the Battle of Port Gibson, securing his position on the east bank of the Mississippi.  This is a hard fought battle for both sides.  While the South is outnumbered almost three to one, the terrain favors them.

Stonewall Jackson finds Hooker near Chancellorsville and aggressively challenges his pickets.  Hooker pulls back into the Wilderness giving Lee the initiative.  Bing in the Wilderness negates Hooker’s advantages in artillery and men.

Stuart tells Lee that Hooker can be flanked.

Lee detaches Jackson with the bulk of his command to march around Hooker and flank him.  The Army of Northern Virginia is split in three pieces.  One is at Fredericksburg facing Sedgwick VI Corps, Lee and 20,000 face Hooker’s 75,000 men while Jackson with 30,000 men will make a 14-mile march to reach Hooker’s flank.

On the second, Jackson makes a disciplined 14 mile march.  Sickles sends men out trying to find him.  Headquarters ignores Sickles messages refusing to support him which leads to a recall of his men.  Howard detects Jackson but takes no action.  Jackson builds up two-mile long line and attacks about 6PM.  Despite orders to entrench, Howard is unprepared with his men in the open.  The XI Corps is flanked, unable to make a stand they break and flee over two-miles.  Jackson advances until darkness and the Federal’s center starts to hold.  An unnerved Hooker orders the army to consolidate its’ position by contracting the line and anchors the flanks on the Rappannock.  The field’s best artillery position, Hazel Grove, is abandoned as part of this consolidation.

Stonewall Jackson, always aggressive, rides outside his lines looking for a way to continue fighting.  The 18th North Carolina fires on him in the darkness.  Jackson is badly wounded.  A.P. Hill assumes command until he is wounded.  J.E.B. Stuart commands the II Corps for the rest of the battle.

Longstreet withdraws from Suffolk to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia.

Grant crosses Bayou Pierre, the last major obstacle between the river and the Mississippi countryside.

Colonel Grierson’s raiders reach Baton Rouge.  His raid, essential to Grant crossing the Mississippi River, has killed, wounded or captured about 600 Confederates, destroyed 50 miles of railroad and telegraph line and taken 3,00 weapons.

May 2, 1863 is one of the busiest days of the war; the third is not a quiet day either.

Stuart with 50 cannon atop Hazel Grove reopens the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Hooker even with an almost two to one advantage continues his defensive stance.  The second growth forest causes a confusing fight that slowly pushes Hooker’s flanks backward.  Hooker orders a general retreat toward the Rappahannock River signaling defeat.

Sedgwick’s VI Corps pushes Early off Marye’s Heights forcing him back onto Lee at Chancellorsville.  Lee responds by sending Anderson’s division to reinforce Early, leaving only 20,000 to face Hooker and the majority of the Army of the Potomac.  At Salem Church, Early with McLaws help and darkness stop the fighting.  On the fourth, Anderson’s division joins Early and McLaws.  Together, they almost surround Sedgwick and force him back to the Rappahannock.  On the fifth, Hooker orders all units back across the Rappahannock River.

The Chancellorsville Campaign is over ending in a crushing defeat for the North.  Northern losses exceed 22,000.

It is not the causalities; important as they are that is the real problem.

Hooker outnumbered Lee almost two to one and he had promised much.  Northerners with high expectations made an emotional investment in him accepting his promise of victory.  Such a total defeat crushed their hopes and damaged their will to continue.  Lincoln is distraught with worry about how the nation will respond.  There are many reasons for defeat at Chancellorsville.  The best one may be Hooker’s “I lost confidence in Joe Hooker.”

We must mention one of Forrest’s greatest victories of the war.  On the third, with one battery and 600 men he forces Colonel Abel D. Streight to surrender his brigade of 1,500 men at Cedar Bluff, Alabama.

On the sixth, A.P. Hill assumes command of the II Corps.

Stoneman crosses Raccoon Ford, on the seventh, ending his raid into Virginia.

The same day, Sherman starts marching toward Grant and the Army of the Tennessee marches toward Jackson.

Earl Van Dorn is murdered by the husband of a lady he is paying a lot of attention to.  The husband flees to safety behind Federal lines.

Davis orders Joseph E. Johnston to assume command of Confederate forces in Mississippi on the ninth.  Two days before, Davis wrote Pemberton asking for “information on your active operations” and pledging his support.

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson dies of pneumonia brought on by his wounds at Chancellorsville.  His death creates one of the most active “What If”s of the American Civil War.  Jackson becomes the standard by which Ewell and Hill are judged.  His performance during the Seven Days and at Franklin is forgotten.  In a “What If” he is always the Jackson of the Valley, Second Manassas or Chancellorsville.

On the 11th, Secretary Chase, upset over patronage, angrily offers his resignation, which Lincoln refuses to accept.

In Mississippi, Pemberton discovers Grant is going to sever the Vicksburg Jackson Railroad at Edwards Station.  General John Gregg’s 4,000 man brigade is ordered contest this at Raymond.  Gregg’s men assume defensive positions blocking the major roads.  The next day, Logan’s Division runs into Gregg’s roadblocks.  The densely forested terrain hampers both sides.  The trees hold the dust and smoke along the battle lines making command and control difficult if not impossible.  McPherson is forced to the XVIII Corps to dislodge Gregg.  While each side loses about 500 men, this convinces Grant that he cannot ignore the Confederates at Jackson.  Grant sends Sherman’s XV Corps and McPherson’s XVIII Corps toward Jackson on the Mississippi Springs Road while McClernand’s XVII Corps marches toward Clinton.  Joe Johnston finds about 6,000 men in Jackson.  Faced with two corps, he orders evacuation of the city.  Additionally, Johnston orders Pemberton to march east with 22,000 men trying to catch Grant between them.  Johnston predicts “I am to late!”

On the 14th, McPherson and Sherman enter Jackson even as Gregg conducts a skillful rear guard action that saves the supply train.  Nathan Banks with 30,000 men advances on Port Hudson.

While the West is falling apart, Robert E. Lee is pushing for an invasion of Pennsylvania at a strategy conference in Richmond.  This high-level conference is trying to decide how to save Vicksburg and take advantage of the victory at Chancellorsville.  Lee’s idea is to win a major battle on Northern soil to discredit the Republicans, help the Copperheads and possibly get Europe intervention moving again.

On the 15th, Pemberton disobeys Johnston’s orders and marches south trying to cut Grant’s supply line.  However, Grant has no supply line, something Pemberton never considered.  Enraged over a newspaper’s anti-Union statements, Federal troops sack the office of the Jefferson in Richmond, Indiana.

Pemberton deploys on Champion’s Hill.  His 3-mile long defensive line is in well chosen terrain.  On the 16th, about 10:00 AM, McPherson Corps hits the Left of Pemberton’s line.  Over the next seven hours a bitter seesaw fight sees Champion Hill change hands 3 times.  Pemberton orders Loring to shift men to the Left and when Loring refuses is left no choice but retreat.  Pemberton loses 27 cannon and Loring’s division retreats away from the bulk of his army.  A combination of Johnston and Pemberton is no longer possible.  A combination of Grant’s strategy, Pemberton’s actions and disobedience has set the direction of the campaign.

On the 17th, Pemberton suffers a serious defeat at the Big Black River.  Deploying on the East Bank, in hopes of reestablishing contact with Loring’s division, his position is crushed with causalities of 1,751 men and another 18 cannon.  Over the last two days, May 16 and 17, Pemberton’s army has lost about 5,600 men and 45 cannons.  Pemberton is forced into Vicksburg’s defenses.

On the 18th, during a speech in the House of Lords, British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell declares Her Majesty’s Government has no intention to intervene in the American Civil War.  Grant’s army is investing Vicksburg even as Johnston warns against being trapped in the city.

Secretary Stanton orders Clement L. Vallandigham released from jail and deported to the CSA.

Grant attacks on Vicksburg’s defenses are defeated.  The city is subjected to a continuous bombardment from both gunboats and land based artillery.

On the 21st, General Franklin Gardner disobeys Johnston’s orders to march north to Vicksburg, abandoning Port Hudson.  With Pemberton trapped in Vicksburg and Gardner staying at Port Hudson, Johnston lacks the resources to rescue Vicksburg.

On the 22nd, the War Department establishes the Bureau of Colored Troops charged with coordinating requirement across the nation.

The same day, Jefferson Davis asks Bragg to aid Vicksburg in every way “possible”.  Bragg will not find any “possible” way to do so.

George Stoneman becomes a causality of the Chancellorsville Campaign losing command of the AoP’s Calvary to Alfred Pleasonton.

Attacking Vicksburg’s defensive line produces only heavy causalities; Grant stops the attacks and settles in for a siege.

On the 26th, Banks, with his army and the Navy in place, determines to attack Port Hudson.  Hard fighting occurs the next day with heavy causalities the main result, this battle in notable for being the first major use of colored soldiers.  The First and Third Louisiana Native Guards establish that black men can perform in battle.

On the 28th, the 54th Massachusetts parades in Boston on its way to South Carolina.  Massachusetts presents the War Department with the first Black regiment raised in the North as part of the state’s quota.  The majority of the volunteers are from northern free black families making the 54th represent all the northern states.

During the last week in May, Clement L. Vallandigham is released from jail and banished to the CSA at Murfreesboro.  Burnside protests this action, he ordered the arrest, and Lincoln refuses to accept his resignation.

On the 30th, the Army of Northern Virginia is reorganized into 3 infantry corps and a cavalry corps.


May is an active month for promotions:

  • Winfield Scott Hancock assumes command of the II Corps, USA.
  • George L. Hartsuff assumes command of the XXIII Corps, USA.
  • Richard S. Ewell is promoted to lieutenant general and assumes command of the II Corps, AoNV.
  • Ambrose P. Hill is promoted to lieutenant general and assumes command of the III Corps, AoNV.
  • Henry Heth is promoted to major general.
  • General John A. Schofield replaces Samuel R. Curtis as commander Department of the Missouri.


The naval war is easy to overlook.  The blockade fleet is keeping busy chasing blockade-runners, capturing several.

The US Navy captures or destroys a number of CSA ships at sea.  Gunboats are escorting ships on the Mississippi River to discourage guerrillas.  The CSS Florida and CSS Alabama are active.

Naval operations during the month are:

  • Attack batteries at Hayne’s Bluff, Yazoo City and Warrenton Mississippi
  • Aid Grant during the crossing of the Mississippi and bombard Vicksburg
  • Supports Banks at Port Hudson
  • Attack Fort De Russy on the Red River
  • Accepts the surrender of Alexander, Louisiana
  • Raids Edisto, SC and burns cotton
  • Destroys a battery on Island No. 82
  • Burn stocks of grain along the Sunflower River
  • Support an army operation against Wilkinson’s Point, NC
  • Cover embarkation of troops on James Island, SC
  • Provides guns and crews to strengthen the siege line at Vicksburg
  • The USS Shepherd Knapp is scuttled after hitting a reef off Haiti
  • The USS Amanda is wrecked off the Florida coast during a storm
  • The USS Cincinnati is sunk by cannon fire near Vicksburg with 25 killed and 16 missing
  • The USS Chattahoochee is sunk when a boiler explodes killing 18 men


Reading the War

Steven W. Sears Chancellorsville is the best book I have read about the battle of Chancellorsville.

Blue & Gray covers Chancellorsville with the expected excellent job.

Due in May is CHANCELLORSVILLE’S FORGOTTEN FRONT: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863.


Vicksburg has almost as many books as Gettysburg.

Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River by William L. Shea and Terrence J. Winschel both are excellent historians and writers.

The Campaign for Vicksburg: I Vicksburg Is the Key, II Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow, III Unvexed to the Sea (3 volume set) by Edwin C. Bearss, mine is signed.

The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863 by Shelby Foote many say Foote is not a historian but he is a great storyteller.

While many consider Groom’s histories to be less than valid, I have enjoyed reading him since Better Times Than TheseVicksburg, 1863 is his entry into this market.


If you want to fight these campaigns on your PC, HPS line of John Tiller’s Civil War campaign games include Campaign Chancellorsville and Campaign Vicksburg.  The F8 key activates “fast A/I” to speed up the computer’s play.


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