Fear of the Unknown


If it had not been for a lightning strike, the American Civil War might have ended in 1863 with Joseph Hooker considered one of the great generals in history. The problem that helped doom Hooker, and partially cost the Union a victory at Chancellorsville, is one that is also a cautionary tale of depending on new and untested technology in battle.

The Army of the Potomac went through a lot of generals in the first years of the American Civil War. Among those generals was “Fighting” Joseph Hooker. He was in command at the Battle of Chancellorsville, which took place in late April 1863. There were a lot of reasons for the Union defeat, including the brilliant flank march in which Stonewall Jackson died. But preeminent among the reasons for the Union Army being defeated, historians agree, was a loss of nerve by General Hooker.

Hooker’s battle plan was excellent and had a good chance of defeating Robert E. Lee. It made use of the Union’s superior numbers to pin the bulk of the Army of Virginia while flanking it with the rest of the larger army. Hooker had been given a number of the new Beardslee Patent Magneto-Electric Field Telegraph Machines to send commands. These early telegraph units used a hand crank and no battery. One of the problems with these almost untested devices was that they used a visual display on a moving dial to send letters and not Morse Code. Because of this, the telegraphs were easily thrown out of adjustment, making all future messages gibberish. They also had a range of only seven miles between machines. The short range meant that messages had to be relayed between stations established along the line of march. Every seven miles there had to be an operator who read a message and then passed it on to the next machine. For a twenty-one-mile message, they needed four trained operators. Setting up a string of sensitive Beardslees during a battle was no easy task, considering the machine itself weighed a hundred pounds, and it used a heavy copper cable that was easily grounded and decayed over a matter of just weeks. During the Chancellorsville battle, in their haste to get a line set up, old cable had been reused. This further garbled signals, and then one of the awkward machines was found to have been hit by lightning and could not be repaired anywhere closer than New York City. Hooker had been led to believe his communications with his generals would be almost instantaneous; instead, they proved to be almost nonexistent.

Things started well with three corps of Hooker’s army crossing both the Rappahannock River and Rapidan River undetected. Within a day, the Army of the Potomac began to concentrate at Chancellorsville. That placed it in a position to attack Fredericksburg. Lee met this threat by leaving a small force, under Jubal Early, in Fredericksburg and moving to meet Hooker with most of his army. Hearing that Lee was approaching, Hooker halted and prepared to meet him. The plan was to wait until attacked and then move unengaged units to stop or flank the Army of Virginia. This was ceding the initiative to the Southern commander.

This might have worked for Hooker if his primary means of communications had not broken down almost from the start. He had begun the battle with machines that were supposed to allow him instant communications with his commanders. But his Beardslee telegraphs very quickly either ceased to work at all or sent unintelligible messages. This left the Union Army with only signal flags and couriers for getting information to and from its spread-out commanders. But most of those commanders had correctly realized that the Southern soldiers were reading their signals, so they refused to use the flag semaphores. With Lee approaching and Hooker’s communications collapsed, it is not surprising that Hooker was worried. He had been given the expectation of leading a carefully controlled defense; instead he found himself shadowboxing in an information blackout.

Just at the point where Jackson was turning his flank, Hooker could get information only by courier. By the time he was notified of the flank attack, entire regiments were retreating. When Jackson’s troops smashed the Union XI Corps, Hooker wrongly concluded that Lee had somehow outnumbered him by two to one. It is easy to see bogeymen everywhere when you are being kept in the dark. Simply put, for a variety of reasons, General Fighting Joe Hooker was losing his nerve. The next day, the Confederate forces attacked both of Hooker’s flanks. He withdrew to a defensive position and by the next day he was back across the rivers to where the Army of the Potomac had started, leaving thousands of dead and captured behind.

Fighting Joe Hooker’s army lost the Battle of Chancellorsville because their commander lost his nerve. The flank attack and holding action make this one of Robert E. Lee’s most brilliant battles. But Hooker’s failure was certainly helped by what was one of the Union Army’s first, but hardly the last, technological failures in battle. Incidentally, the Union never again trusted or used in battle the Beardslee telegraph.

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