And it is thought that every one engaged in this campaign with the Army of the Potomac will remember the feeling of confusion and uncertainty engendered by the withdrawal from Jackson’s front on this unlucky day.
A council of general officers was held at Chancellorsville on Friday evening, in which many were still strongly in favor of making the advance again. Warren says: “I was in favor of advancing, and urged it with more zeal than convincing argument.” But Hooker held to his own opinion. He could not appreciate the weakness of assuming the defensive in the midst of the elan of a successful advance.
It is not difficult to state what Hooker should have done. He had a definite plan, which was to uncover and use Banks’s Ford. He should have gone on in the execution of this plan until arrested by superior force, or until something occurred to show that his plan was inexpedient. To retire from an enemy whom you have gone out to attack, and whom you have already placed at a disadvantage, before striking a blow, is weak generalship indeed.
Hooker had arrived at Chancellorsville at noon Thursday. Lee was still in Fredericksburg. The troops were able to march many miles farther without undue taxing. They should have been pushed out that afternoon to the open ground and to Banks’s Ford. To fail in this, was the first great error of the campaign. There had not been a moment’s delay allowed from the time the troops reached the river until they were massed at Chancellorsville, and the proposed movement nearly completed. One continued pressure, never let up, had constantly been exerted by the headquarters of the army. The troops had been kept in constant movement towards Banks’s Ford. Hooker had all but reached his goal. Suddenly occurred a useless, unexplained pause of twenty-four hours. And it was during this unlucky gap of time that Lee occupied the ground which Hooker’s cavalry could have seized, and which should have been held at all hazards.
Nor is this error excusable from ignorance of the terrain. For Hooker had shown his knowledge of the importance of celerity; and his own declared plan made Banks’s Ford, still a half-dozen miles distant, his one objective. In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, he thus refers to his plan: “As soon as Couch’s divisions and Sykes’s corps came up, I directed an advance for the purpose, in the first instance, of driving the enemy away from Banks’s Ford, which was six miles down the river, in order that we might be in closer communication with the left wing of the army.” And if the troops had needed repose, a few hours would have sufficed; and, the succeeding night being clear moonlight, a forward movement was then entirely feasible.
Dating from this delay of Thursday, every thing seemed to go wrong.