In his Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, published in 1866, Reverend R. L. Dabney, D.D., formerly Jackson's chief of staff, stated that Jackson "proposed to throw his command entirely p585 into Hooker's rear."1 This language was accepted in the South as a claim, on Dabney's part, that Jackson was responsible for suggesting as well as for executing this movement. In the same year, Colonel William Allan and Major Jed Hotchkiss published their Chancellorsville, in which Hotchkiss, who evidently wrote that particular passage, quoted a conversation between Jackson and Lee which seemed to justify the claim Dabney had made.2 This conversation, slightly elaborated, was repeated in a letter from Major Hotchkiss to Colonel G. F. R. Henderson and was accepted by him in his Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War.3 The substance of this contention is that the movement around the right flank of the Federal army was not suggested until the morning of May 2, when Major Hotchkiss and Mr. Lacy returned from their reconnaissance beyond Catherine Furnace. The whole of this incident is given in the text, p521 ff.
Some of General Lee's staff officers knew the facts and were quick to assert that the initiative as well as the responsibility were Lee's. A mild controversy developed. It culminated in 1906 in a review of all the circumstances by Colonel T. M. R. Talcott, of Lee's staff. Colonel Talcott concluded that Major Hotchkiss's claim to have brought word of a new road to the left was not well founded, and that the proposal for the flank movement undoubtedly originated with Lee.4
The controversy need never have arisen if the parties to it had realized that the council of war on the night of May 1‑2 lasted for hours. Various individuals heard different snatches of it, as they came and went, and they mistakenly assumed that what they heard was all that was said. When Major Hotchkiss went off to reconnoitre with Mr. Lacy he knew nothing of what had happened earlier in the evening. He did not understand that Lee had already ordered the movement and had entrusted its execution to Jackson. The conversation he reported between the two would certainly have indicated that Jackson proposed the move, had there been no previous discussion. As it was, the leadership that Jackson seemed to assert and the questions Lee asked him take on a very different meaning when read as Jackson's explanation of how he intended to carry out a plan Lee had proposed in outline and had left for him to elaborate in detail. If this be kept in mind, and if the various versions of the last council be fitted together in their proper sequence, they present no material contradictions. Instead, they accord precisely with what is known of the manner in which Generals Lee and Jackson worked. Jackson looked to Lee, as p586 commander, for decisions on strategy; Lee almost always gave Jackson the largest discretion both as to the routes he should follow and the men he should employ in executing his orders.
The problem of the biographer, then, is not one of deciding where the weight of probability lies on the scale of contradiction. His task is simply that of taking scraps of a conversation that occurred at different hours and of piecing them together, like the bits of jig-saw puzzle, into a consistent whole. This is not altogether easy, but it is possible to fix the approximate sequence of events, especially if one takes into account what the different witnesses omit as well as what they say.
Stuart's visit evidently occurred while Talcott and Boswell were reconnoitring; most of the conversation that Marshall quoted in his narrative must have taken place about the same time. After Talcott and Boswell reported, however, a definite decision had to be made and the route had to be chosen. The conversation therefore took on a more precise tone. The only difficult part in the picture is that relating to Reverend B. T. Lacy. Fitz Lee affirmed, doubtless on Stuart's authority, that General saw the chaplain; yet Jackson's conversation with him before daylight, as reported by Dabney, who got the story from Lacy, indicated that Jackson had not previously talked with Lacy about the roads. The most reasonable assumption is that Lacy arrived after Jackson retired. He talked with Lee, but did not see Jackson until the latter woke up. This accords with the known fact Jackson retired ahead of Lee but was up earlier on the morning of May 2.
If the case were not one where the evidence could be reconciled easily, the biographer would hardly hesitate in deciding from the preponderance of evidence that the proposal to turn the enemy's flank originated with Lee. The testimony of three members of General Lee's staff, Long, Talcott, and Marshall, is available and is in agreement that the main decision had been reached before the interview with Major Hotchkiss could possibly have occurred.5 Hotchkiss was the only eye-witness to leave the inference that Jackson originated the plan, for Major Dabney was not present at the council. In his final account of the incident,6 Hotchkiss reported what he had said in his Chancellorsville, but he significantly expanded his original narrative so as to make it plain that Lee first proposed the move. Hotchkiss's contention, therefore, is narrowed down to the claim that Jackson chose the particular
roads that were to be followed and that Jackson first suggested that he take his whole corps with him. As this was never disputed by Lee's staff officers, the case was even stronger in 1906 than Colonel Talcott made it out.
Lee's own evidence remains to be taken into account. Late in 1865 Mrs. Jackson sent for his perusal the manuscript of Dabney's Life. He read it "for the pleasure of the narrative," as he subsequently told Mrs. Jackson, "with no view of remark or correction," and he took no notes. He was forced to return the manuscript before he could give it the critical reading Mrs. Jackson seems to have expected of him. In writing her, however, he mentioned a few errors into which Doctor Dabney had fallen through his desire to present Jackson's service fully. Lee said: "I am misrepresented at the battle of Chancellorsville in proposing an attack in front, the first evening of our arrival. On the contrary, I decided against it, and stated to General Jackson, we must attack on our left as soon as practicable; and the necessary movement of the troops began immediately. In consequence of a report received about that time, from General Fitz Lee, describing the position of the Federal army, and the roads which he held with his cavalry leading to its rear, General Jackson, after some inquiry concerning the roads leading to the Furnace, undertook to throw his command entirely in Hooker's rear, which he accomplished with equal skill and boldness . . ."7 Dabney paraphrased this in his Life, but he substituted "proposed" for "undertook" — an unjustified change of language.8
Doctor A. T. Bledsoe, at one time chief of the Bureau of War in the Confederate War Department, wrote Lee in 1867 for his opinion of an article in The Southern Review on Chancellorsville.9 Lee replied that he had not read the article in question, nor any of the books "published on either side since the termination of hostilities." He went on: "I have as yet felt no desire to revive my recollections of those events, and have been satisfied with the knowledge I possessed of what transpired. I have, however, learned from others that the various authors of the 'Life of Jackson' award to him the credit of the success gained by the Army of Northern Virginia where he was present, and describe the movements of his corps or command as independent of the general plan of operations, and undertaken at his own suggestion, and upon his own responsibility. I have the greatest reluctance to do anything that might be construed as detracting from his well-deserved fame, p588 for I believe that no one was more convinced of his worth, or appreciated him more highly, than myself; yet your knowledge of military affairs, if you have none of the events themselves, will teach you that this could not have been so. Every movement of an army must be well considered, and properly ordered, and every one who knows General Jackson must know that he was too good a soldier to violate this fundamental military principle. In the operations round Chancellorsville I overtook General Jackson, who had been placed in command of the advance as the skirmishers of the approaching armies met, advanced with the troops to the Federal line of defences, and was on the field until their whole army recrossed the Rappahannock. There is no question as to who was responsible for the operations of the Confederates, or to whom any failure would have been charged. What I have said is for your information . . ."10
Gamaliel Bradford11 remarked: "The more I read this letter, the less I understand it." General Maurice12 said of Bradford's comment "I agree with Lee that to any one with a knowledge of military affairs it is clear as daylight." It may be added that any one with a knowledge of General Lee's letter-writing after the war knows, further, that he was exceedingly careful and reserved, because his letters might find their way into print. While he laid down a general principle that Doctor Bledsoe's clear mind was certain to apply to his particular inquiry, Lee took pains to avoid a specific statement that might lead to controversy among a people whom he wished to see united, with their minds on their economic problems and not on the battles of the war. The letter gave no specific information and was not intended to do so, but the inference from it is reasonably plain.
Lee's official statements are the final evidence and, to those who are familiar with his method of writing, they are convincing proof that he initiated the proposal that Jackson so brilliantly executed. In his letter of May 2 to President Davis he described operations of May 1 and said: "I am now swinging around to my left to come up in his rear."13 If the proposal had come from any one else or was in any sense an independent movement, Lee's meticulous regard for the performance of others would almost certainly have prompted him to say to. For example, in telegraphing Davis on August 27, 1862, regarding Jackson's move on Manassas, Lee specifically said: "The advance under Genl. Jackson last night broke up the Orange and Alexandria R.R. . . ."14
p589 The language of Lee's report on Chancellorsville is equally significant. He said of the situation on the night of May 1‑2: "It was, therefore, resolved to endeavor to turn [the enemy's] right flank and gain his rear, leaving a force in front to hold him in check and conceal the movement. The execution of this plan was intrusted to Lieutenant General Jackson with his three divisions."15 In his telegrams, Lee usually spoke in the first person; in formal reports, especially where his own acts were concerned, he was in the habit of speaking impersonally, because those documents were printed. When he said "It was, therefore, resolved . . .," etc., he meant "I resolved . . ." He used the identical form when he wrote in the same report of his decision to divide the army and to hold Sedgwick with part of the forces while the rest were thrown against Hooker — a movement that undoubtedly originated with him and with him alone. His language was: "It was, therefore, determined, to leave sufficient troops to hold our lines, and with the main body of the army to give battle to the approaching column."16
Taking the evidence as a whole, it is difficult to see how the controversy could have lasted so long or could have confused so many students of the campaign. The facts are unmistakable: Lee originated the plan to turn Hooker's flank and to get in his rear; Jackson elaborated it by proposing to use his entire corps, and then executed the plan with assured genius.
1 P. 673.
2 Pp. 41‑42.
3 2, 431‑32.
4 34 S. H. S. P., 1 ff., cited in the text as Talcott.
5 Long's account is in op. cit., p252 ff.: Talcott's has already been cited, and Marshall's was given to Fitz Lee, vide his Chancellorsville, 27‑28. Long wrote before 1886; Talcott before the same year, and Marshall in 1879. Talcott, as quoted, dates from 1906, but the review he published that year agrees in nearly every particular with what he wrote Long (see Long, 254‑55), thirty years before.
6 3 C. M. H., 381.
7 R. E. Lee to Mrs. T. J. Jackson, Jan. 25, 1866, conveniently accessible in 2 Henderson, 472‑73.
8 Talcott, 19.
9 Southern Review, vol. 2, 461, Oct., 1867. The article was unsigned and may have been by Bledsoe himself.
10 R. E. Lee to Doctor A. T. Bledsoe, Oct. 28, 1867, Jones, 158‑59.
11 Lee the American, 151.
12 Op. cit., p185.
14 Lee's Dispatches, 544. The italics are not in the original.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 26 Jan 15