May 6, 1863
Rain drenches Washington before news of the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville arrives. President Lincoln drafts but does not send a telegram to General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia: “Are you suffering with dust this morning?” The President later writes Hooker: “The great storm of yesterday and last night, has interrupted the telegraph; so that we think fit to send you Gen. Dix despatch of the contents of Richmond papers. I need not repeat the contents. We also try to get it to you by Telegraph. We have nothing from your immediate whereabouts since your short despatch to me, of the 4th. 4/20. P.M. We hear many rumors, but do not exactly know what has become of Sedgwick. We have heard no word of Stoneman, except what is in Dix’s despatch about Col. Davis which looks well. It is no discouragement that you have already fought the bulk of Longstreet’s force, nor that Jackson is severely wounded. And now, God bless you, and all with you. I know you will do your best. Waste no time unnecessarily, to gratify our curiosity with despatches.”
Later, Lincoln writes Hooker: “We have, through Gen. Dix, the contents of Richmond papers of the fifth (5th) Gen. Dix’s despatch in full, is going to you by Capt. Fox of the Navy. The substance is Gen. Lee’s despatch of the third (3rd) Sunday claiming that he had beaten you, and that you were then retreating across the Rappahannock; distinctly stating that two of Longstreet’s Divisions fought you on Saturday; and that Gen. Paxton was killed, Stonewall Jackson severely wounded, and Generals Heth and A. P. Hill slightly wounded. The Richmond papers also state, upon what authority, not mentioned, that our Cavalry have been at Ashland, Hanover Court-House and other points, destroying several locomotives, and a good deal of other property, and all the Railroad Bridges to within five (5.) miles of Richmond.
In a third telegram, Lincoln writes Hooker: “General Hooker: Just as I had telegraphed you contents of Richmond papers, showing that our cavalry has not failed, I received General Butterfield’s of 11 a.m. yesterday. This, with the great rain of yesterday and last night, securing your right flank, I think puts a new face upon your case; but you must be the judge.” Hooker responds: “Have this moment returned to camp. On my way received your telegrams of 11 a.m. and 12.30. The army had previously recrossed the river, and was on its return to camp. As it had none of its trains of supplies with it, I deemed this advisable. Above, I saw no way of giving the enemy a general battle with the prospect of success which I desire. Not to exceed three corps, all told, of my troops have been engaged. For the whole to go, there is a better place nearer at hand. Will write you at length to-night. Am glad to hear that a portion of the cavalry have at length turned up. One portion did nothing.”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “We have news, via Richmond, that Stoneman has destroyed bridges and torn up rails on the Richmond road, thus cutting off communication between that city and the Rebel army. Simultaneously with this intelligence, there is a rumor that Hooker has recrossed the river and is at Falmouth. I went to the War Department about noon to ascertain the facts, but Stanton said he had no such intelligence nor did he believe it. I told him I had nothing definite or very authentic, — that he certainly ought to be better posted than I could be, — but I had seen a brief telegram from young Dahlgren, who is on Hooker’s staff, dated this A.m., “Headquarters near Falmouth — All right.” This to me was pretty significant of the fact that Hooker and his army had recrossed. Stanton was a little disconcerted. He said Hooker had as yet no definite plan; his headquarters are not far from Falmouth. Of course nothing farther was to be said, yet I was by no means satisfied with his remarks or manner.
An hour later Sumner came into my room, and raising both hands exclaimed, “Lost, lost, all is lost!” I asked what he meant. He said Hooker and his army had been defeated and driven back to this side of the Rappahannock. Sumner came direct from the President, who, he said, was extremely dejected. I told him I had been apprehensive that disaster had occurred, but when I asked under what
circumstances this reverse had taken place, he could give me no particulars.
I went soon after to the War Department. Seward was sitting with Stanton, as when I left him two or three hours before.’ I asked Stanton if he knew where Hooker was. He answered, curtly, “No.” I looked at him sharply, and I have no doubt with incredulity, for he, after a moment’s pause, said, “He is on this side of the river, but I know not where.” “Well,” said I, “he is near his old quarters, and I wish to know if Stoneman is with him, or if he or you know anything of that force.” Stanton said he had no information in regard to that force, and it was one of the most unpleasant things of the whole affair that Hooker should have abandoned Stoneman.
In the aftermath of Chancellorsville, journalist Noah Brooks wrote: “The first intimation of the fact [of the defeat at Chancellorsville] was known here at three o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, the 6th, when the War Department received a dispatch from General [Daniel] Butterfield, Hooker’s Chief of Staff, informing that Bureau that for prudential reasons the army had been withdrawn from the south side of the Rappahannock and was safely encamped in its former position. Had a thunderbolt fallen upon the President he could not have been more overwhelmed. One newly risen from the dead could not have looked more ghostlike. It actually seemed that we had been overwhelmed. One newly risen from the dead could not have looked more ghostlike. It actually seemed that we had been overwhelmed and forced to abandon the campaign, and had been driven back, torn and bleeding, to our starting point, where the heart-sickening delay, the long and tedious work of reorganizing a decimated and demoralized army would again commence. Despair seemed to dwell in every word of that curt and fatal dispatch, which was the first to pass over the wires after an interruption of a whole day, in consequence of breakages made by the swollen streams.”
Brooks wrote: “I was at the White House on Wednesday, May 6 , and the President, who seemed anxious and harassed beyond any power of description, said that while still without any positive information as to the result of the fighting at Chancellorsville, he was certain in his own mind that ‘Hooker had been licked.’ He was only then wondering whether Hooker would be able to recover himself and renew the fight. The President asked me to go into the room then occupied by his friend Dr. [Anson] Henry, who was a guest in the house, saying possibly we might get some news later on.
“In an hour or so, while the doctor and I sat talking, say about three o’clock in the afternoon, the door opened, and Lincoln came into the room. I shall never forget that picture of despair. He held a telegram in his hand, and he closed the door and came toward us I mechanically noticed that his face, usually sallow, was ashen in hue. The paper on the wall behind him was of the tint known as ‘French gray,’ and even in that moment of sorrow and dread expectation I vaguely took in the thought that the complexion of the anguished President’s visage was almost exactly like that of the wall. He gave me the telegram, and in a voice trembling with emotion, said, ‘Read it – news from the Army.’ The dispatch was from General Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, addressed to the War Department, and was to the effect that the Army had been withdrawn from the south side of the Rappahannock, and was then ‘safely encamped’ in its former position. The appearance of the President, as I read aloud these fateful words, was piteous. Never as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying ‘My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!’
“He seemed incapable of uttering any other words than these, and afer a little time he hurriedly left the room. Dr. Henry, whose affection for Lincoln was deep and tender, burst into a passion of tears. I consoled him as best I could, and while we were talking and trying to find a gleam of sunshine in this frightful darkness, I saw a carriage drive up to the entrance of the White House, and looking out, beheld the tall form of the President dart into the vehicle, in which sat General Halleck, and drive off. Immediately after, an attendant came to tell us that the President and General Halleck had gone to the Army of the Potomac, and that Mr. Lincoln would return next day, and would like to see me in the evening.
“The wildest rumors were at once set on foot; but it was known that the President and General Halleck had gone to the front, taking a special steamer at the Navy Yard at four o’clock that afternoon. It was commonly believed that Hooker was or would be put under arrest; that Halleck would be placed in command of the Army of the Potomac; that Stanton had resigned; that Lee had cut Hooker to pieces, and was approaching Washington by the way of Dumfries; that McClellan was coming on a special train from New York, and that [Franz Sigel, [Benjamin Butler, [John] Fremont, and several other shelved generals, had been sent for in hot haste. The crowd at Willard’s Hotel that night was so great that it was difficult to get inside the doors. The friends of McClellan, and the Copperheads generally, sprang at once into new life and animation, and were dotted through the gloomy crowds with smiling faces and unsuppressed joy.”
One of President Lincoln’s aides, William O. Stoddard, recalled how news of the defeat was received at the White House: “My desk was piled high with unopened mail, but the shock of [John G. Nicolay’s] message brought with it a numbness of body and spirit, and I sat staring at the closed doors across the hall. How would the President take this, the severest blow of all! Behind lay one sickening defeat after another: Bull Run, the dreary Peninsula campaign and the bloody sacrifice of Fredericksburg, and now this one more ghastly defeat…..
“It was an awful day in Washington. We could not hear the thunders of artillery or the rattle of musketry, but the hospitals overflowed with the wounded, and burying parties rattled along the streets.. It was a city of despair and death, and the White House was as quiet as though a coffin had its solemn place in one of the rooms. The very few who had called that day seemed to walk on tiptoe, as though in fear of waking the dead. Only those on important business were allowed to pass.
“Long hours meant nothing to me, and it was nine o’clock when I first saw Seward, Halleck and Stanton come out of Lincoln’s room and walk slowly away. I was alone on that floor of the White House, except for the President across the hall behind the now-half-open door. It seemed to me the hall and the silent rooms were full of shadows, some of which came in and sat down by my desk to ask me what I thought would become of the Union cause and the country. Not long afterward, a dull, heavy, regularly repeated sound came out of Lincoln’s room and found its way to mine. As I listened I became aware that this was the measured tread of the President’s feet. He was walking the length of the rom, to and fro, from wall to wall, on the farther side of the Cabinet table.”