Chancellorsville: Lee’s greatest victory
In late April 1863 near Fredericksburg, Va., Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, hatched a plan to defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker’s force lay on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, Lee on the other, effectively blocking the Union route to Richmond.
Hooker planned to leave two army corps in front of Fredericksburg to keep Lee in his trenches, while the rest of the Union army would march 10 miles to the right, cross the Raritan River and strike Lee’s unprotected left flank.
This maneuver caught Lee totally unaware. The northerners also possessed an advantage in numbers. Even with leaving 40,000 men under Gen. John Sedgwick as a feint before Fredericksburg, Hooker had 75,000 soldiers for his flanking move. Lee’s army numbered 60,000, having sent Gen. James Longstreet with 20,000 men away earlier on a campaign to southeast Virginia. Everything favored the Army of the Potomac.
And, in the beginning, it did.
The Federals successfully crossed the Raritan River encountering no opposition. As they camped around Chancellorsville, six miles from Fredericksburg, Lee knew nothing of the threat to his rear.
However, Confederate J.E.B. Stuart soon reported Hooker’s movement and Lee sent men westward. He had concerns over Sedgwick’s men across the river, but soon determined it was a distraction. Lee decided on a daring strategy; he would leave 10,000 men at Fredericksburg and take his remaining soldiers to confront Hooker. Lee updated President Jefferson Davis of his plan to “leave sufficient troops to hold our lines, and with the main body . . . give battle.”
On May 1, Hooker’s troops advanced from Chancellorsville and into the open fields west of Fredericksburg. There, they encountered their first resistance. Though Hooker could have used his superior numbers, he elected to fall back, to the chagrin of his generals.
This movement shocked the commander of the II Corps, Darius Couch, who wrote, “The position . . . abandoned was high ground . . . open in front, over which an army might move and artillery be used advantageously.”
The Army of the Potomac took up a defensive position around Chancellorsville and waited to be attacked, instead of being the attacker. Hooker missed an excellent opportunity.
While Hooker waited, Lee and Jackson planned.
Armed with some intelligence on the Union right flank being unprotected, Lt. Gen Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson suggested an audacious plan. He would take 28,000 infantry plus Stuart’s 4,000 cavalrymen, march 14 miles around the Union army and strike the Union flank. In doing this maneuver, Lee would only have 18,000 men to halt Hooker’s 75,000 if the Union general again advanced.
Lee agreed and split his army for a second time in front of a superior foe.
Jackson headed out early on the morning of May 2 and the Federals only spotted the tail end of his column, which they interpreted as a Confederate withdrawal, not as an impending attack.
The Union XI Corps felt secure in their position on the far right and had not even erected any breastworks.
By 2:30 in the afternoon the first Confederates arrived west of the Union position and commenced forming battle lines. Though alert Union pickets reported this activity, the news was shrugged off as “the offspring of . . . fears.”
As Jackson’s men arrived he arranged his divisions into three lines. At 5 p.m. he gave Gen. Robert Rodes, who commanded the lead division, a simple order, “You can go forward, sir.”
Gen. Oliver Howard’s XI Corps sat totally unsuspecting, many men either resting or having supper. Soon the Rebel yell pierced the air and thousands of Confederates emerged from the thick woods. Jackson’s men slammed into the Federals, who offered little resistance. Totally surprised, the northerners streamed back in disarray, and Hooker commenced moving troops to halt the onslaught.
What turned out to be the saving grace for the Army of the Potomac turned out to be time. It grew dark, and coupled with the thick forest, the charging Confederates’ momentum diminished and organization dissolved. The advance ceased, but men remained on edge.
Entering into this scene came Jackson with his staff. The general wanted to personally survey the situation. He rode forward between the lines and upon returning received a volley from a group of edgy North Carolinians. Jackson fell with a wound that necessitated the amputation of his arm. Command of the Confederate left fell to cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart.
The next morning found Hooker’s army in a very loose horseshoe position that left some troops exposed. Stuart’s men renewed the battle and gained advantageous ground at Hazel Grove. Artillery posted here pounded the Union position around the Chancellor House. One cannon round shattered a porch column that struck Hooker and knocked him senseless. When he regained consciousness, Hooker still suffered from a concussion.
Lee now threw his two divisions originally left behind into the fray. Their attack pressured the Union left flank and soon Lee united the two wings of his army. With such a precarious position, Hooker had no choice but to pull back into a U-shaped position that protected the fords of the Raritan in the rear and to construct breastworks.
The battlefield turned into a nightmarish scene. The muzzle blasts of cannon and rifles ignited the layers of dry leaves covering the ground. The blazes grew in intensity and soon the incapacitated wounded of both sides succumbed to the flames of fires between the lines. These scenes prompted one Federal officer to write, “Fortunate were those that had to die, that they did so before the holocaust began.”
The move excited the spirits of the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee wanted to continue to drive back the Federals. However, the new Union position proved too strong and the Southerners had their dreams for a more decisive victory end.
A high-ranking Union officer telegraphed back to headquarters, “I think we have had the most terrible battle ever witnessed on earth.”
Hooker retreated across the Rappahannock River on May 6. However, during those days while he waited behind strong breastworks, Lee responded to another challenge in his rear. Sedgwick’s diversion became an attack.
Donald Wickman is a historian and author who lives in Rutland.