Battle of Chancellorsville

Thomas Stonewall Jackson / General Robert E Lee

The Battle of Chancellorsville will forever be known as the last for the brilliant Confederate General Thomas Stonewall Jackson. It was also a rousing victory for General Robert E Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Outnumbered at more than 2 to 1, Lee’s masterful strategy and the performance of subordinates like Jackson who aggressively pushed the initiative sealed victory for the Confederates.

Chancellorsville The Battle and Its AftermathChancellorsville & FredericksburgChancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears

Union Major General Joseph Hooker, head of the Army of the Potomac, found himself in a relatively good position prior to the battle. He commanded 133,000 fresh troops who had been encamped for a good part of the winter was well-provisioned and had superior intelligence compared to Lee’s troops.

On the other side, General Robert E. Lee commanded 60,000 troops who were not well-provisioned and had been spread out over Virginia for the good part of the last few months. Despite the challenges and against all military convention, Lee divided his smaller force and decided on a two-pronged attack against the advancing Hooker.

* All maps by Hal Jespersen,

Battle of Chancellorsville, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E Lee

Battle of Chancellorsville - Hooker Hesitates

It was May 1, 1863 and Lee left a small force behind at Fredericksburg to guard against an attack on the Confederate rear by Union Major General John Sedgwick.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson led the second half of the Confederate army on an offensive movement close to 11am. The armies met at 11:20 as Jackson pushed the initiative on the Union right. They gained ground that was then lost following a Union counterattack.

After ChancellorsvilleChancellorsville 1863Chancellorsville

Hooker’s army was in an advantageous position on the offensive. Then inexplicably, he halted the advance and decided to retreat his men to create a defensive position around Chancellorsville. It had been his strategy entering the fight to allow the smaller army of Lee to attack and perhaps he wanted to stick with this train of thought.

Some believe that Hooker lost his nerve and could not handle the coordination of such complex maneuvers of his large army while on the offensive. Many of his subordinates were outraged and wanted to occupy a piece of high-ground closer to the advancing Confederates to which General George Meade in defense of Hooker replied, "My God, if we can't hold the top of the hill, we certainly can't hold the bottom of it!" It would not be at the Battle of Chancellorsville that Meade would make a name for himself - it would be two months later at a little town named Gettysburg.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E Lee

Battle of Chancellorsville - A Grand Plan

As the Union forces dug in that night behind breastworks, Thomas Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee met that evening and developed a strategy for the following day. A cavalry scouting report from Major General J.E.B. Stuart revealed that the Union right flank was up in the air - in short it was not supported and vulnerable.

Jackson took 28,000 men in a flanking maneuver designed to attack the exposed Union right flank. Lee would face the bulk of the Union army with just 13,000 men with strong artillery support. In order to achieve this, Jackson had to take his men on a 12-mile march on a meandering path out of view of the Union army.

Hooker realized his weakness and recalled Major General John F. Reynolds’ division but delays in communication got him on the march just before sunrise - four hours behind schedule. Sedgwick, being held by a small Confederate force at Fredericksburg remained there, and would not factor in the fight.

The one last condition that needed to be met for the attack to be successful was for Hooker to remain stationery in his defensive positions at Chancellorsville. With all conditions in favor of the Confederates, Jackson began his march. He moved all day and by 3pm was within sight of the Union right flank.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E Lee

Battle of Chancellorsville, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E Lee

Battle of Chancellorsville - The Good & The Bad

Hooker was aware that the Confederates might be advancing on his right and he ordered skirmishers from these units to advance ahead. None spotted Jackson movements and they were even able to evade detection by a Union observation balloon.

When Jackson was sure he was on the exposed right flank of the Union army he began his assault. Union General Oliver O. Howard and his men were caught completely off guard. He was warned of the danger of a surprise attack but did not employ pickets as ordered by Hooker.

The rebels came rushing out of the woods and attacked Howards’ XI Corps, most of whom were sitting down for dinner. Howard tried to rally his troops but only pockets of men rallied to his side. Howard had just taken command after their original commander was removed by Hooker and they were an undisciplined group with poor morale. It was a complete rout as the Confederates pursued the fleeing troops toward Chancellorsville.

After advancing more than a mile, the Confederates were just as disorganized as the men they were chasing so it was difficult to push the attack. Howards’ Corps took incredible losses with over 2,500 casualties.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson was eager to press the attack and was fearful that Hooker could counterattack by sheer force of numbers. Along with a number of officers, he scouted the enemy positions in advance of his men in the hope that he could push the attack by moonlight.

When returning he was mistaken for Union cavalry in the darkness and shot three times by members of the 18th North Carolina infantry. Although none of his wounds were fatal, he had a shattered bone in his arm and it would have to be amputated. He was expected to live, but died from pneumonia on May 10.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E Lee

Battle of Chancellorsville - The Final Showdown

It was a tremendous blow to the Confederacy as Lee had lost his best commander. Jackson was replaced by Major General A.P. Hill although he was wounded himself. Hill named J.E.B. Stuart in his place and although he was not an infantry leader, he did an admirable job at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Although a tremendous blow had been dealt to the Union army, Hooker was reinforced by Reynolds and his fighting force was still potent with 76,000 men. They were well dug in behind breastworks and their disposition was in the shape of a horseshoe.

The fighting resumed at 5:30 am with Confederate attacks on the Union front and the fighting was some of the fiercest of the war to that point. The Confederates achieved early success then lost the initiative after a Union counterattack. Hooker was injured during heavy fighting as a pole he was leaning against was hit by artillery and he was knocked unconscious. He was out for an hour or so but refused to relinquish command when he regained consciousness.

Finally, the Confederates captured an area of the battlefield that acted as a prime artillery platform to use against the enemy and this made the Union position untenable. The Confederate victory was complete and amazingly, they had defeated an army twice their size. It is often referred to as Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle.”

The Battle of Chancellorsville perhaps gave Lee a feeling of invincibility, thereby emboldening him in his next big fight at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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