The Battle of Chancellorsville was a major battle of the American Civil War in 1863. Called "Lee's perfect battle" due to his risky but successful division of his army in the presence of a much larger enemy force, the battle pitted U.S. Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac against an army half its size, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lee's audacity and Hooker's timid performance in combat combined to result in a significant and embarrassing Union defeat.
The Chancellorsville campaign began with the crossing of the Rappahannock River by the Union army on the morning of April 27, 1863. Heavy fighting began on May 1 and did not end until the Union forces retreated across the river on the night of May 5–6.
On paper, it was one of the most lopsided clashes in the war. The Union army brought an effective fighting force of 130,000 men onto the field. The Confederate army numbered less than half that figure, at approximately 60,000. Furthermore, the Union forces were much better supplied and were well-rested after several months of inactivity. Lee's forces, on the other hand, were scattered all over the state of Virginia. In fact, some 15,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia under Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet, stationed near Norfolk, failed to arrive in time to aid Lee's outmanned forces.
Moreover, the engagement began with a Union battle plan superior to most of the previous efforts by Army of the Potomac commanders. The army started from its winter quarters around Fredericksburg, Virginia, where it faced Lee across the Rappahannock. Hooker planned a bold double envelopment of Lee's forces, sending four corps on a stealthy march northwest, turning south to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, turning east, and striking Lee in his rear. The remaining corps would strike Lee's front through Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, some 7,000 cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman were to raid deep into the Confederate rear areas, destroying crucial supply depots along the railroad from Richmond to Fredericksburg, which would cut Lee's lines of communication and supply. It was a bold, aggressive plan.
However, despite its superior forces and fearless strategy, as in earlier campaigns of the war the Army of the Potomac's lack of competent leadership would continue to doom their forces, as the superior tactical skills of the Confederate leaders Lee and Jackson would win the day.
On April 27–28, the four corps of the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers in several places, most of them near the confluence of the two rivers and the hamlet of Chancellorsville, which was little more than a large mansion, owned by the Chancellor family, at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road. In the meantime, the second force of more than 30,000 men, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. And Stoneman's cavalry began its movement to reach Lee's rear areas.
By May 1, Hooker had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville, while Lee worked frantically to concentrate his own army. He confronted Hooker at Chancellorsville with 40,000 men, while on his right, Maj. Gen. Jubal Early manned Fredericksburg's formidable Marye's Heights with 12,000 troops, hoping to keep Sedgwick out of Lee's rear. The next day, the Union and Confederate troops clashed on the Chancellorsville front, with some Union forces actually pushing their way out of the impenetrable thickets and scrub pine that characterized the area. This was seen by many Union commanders as a key to victory. If the larger Union army fought in the woods, known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, its huge advantage in artillery would be minimized, since artillery could not be used to any great effect in the Wilderness.
However, Hooker had decided before beginning the campaign that he would fight the battle defensively, forcing Lee, with his small army, to attack his huge one. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union army had done the attacking and met with a bloody and dreadful defeat. Hooker knew Lee could not take such a defeat and keep an effective army in the field. So he ordered his men to withdraw back into the Wilderness and take a defensive position around Chancellorsville, daring Lee to attack him or retreat with superior forces at his back.
Lee accepted Hooker's gambit and planned an attack for May 2. On the night before, Lee and his top subordinate, Lieut. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, came up with a tremendously risky, but daring, plan of attack. They would split the 40,000-man force at Chancellorsville, with Jackson taking his Second Corps of 28,000 men around to attack the Union right flank. Lee, on the other hand, would exercise personal command of the other 12,000 (the other half of Longstreet's First Corps, commanded directly by Lee during the battle) facing Hooker's entire 70,000 man force at Chancellorsville.
For this to work, several things had to happen. First, Jackson had to make a 12-mile march via roundabout roads to reach the Union right, and he had to do it undetected. Second, Lee had to hope that Hooker stayed tamely on the defensive. Third, Early would have to keep Sedgwick bottled up in Fredericksburg. And last but not least, when Jackson launched his attack, he had to hope that the Union forces were unprepared.
Incredibly, all of this happened. Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart kept the Union forces from spotting Jackson on his long flank march, which took almost all day. The only sighting came shortly after Jackson's corps disengaged from Union forces south of Chancellorsville, and this worked to the Confederates' advantage—Hooker thought that his cavalry under Stoneman had cut Lee's supply line and that Lee was about to retreat. Therefore, he stayed right where he was and never contemplated an all-out attack, sending only his III Corps of 13,000 men under Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles forward. Sickles captured a handful of Second Corps men and then stopped.
Over at Fredericksburg, Sedgwick and Hooker were unable to communicate with one another due to the failure of telegraph lines between the two halves of the army. And when Hooker finally got an order to Sedgwick late on the evening of May 2, ordering him to attack Early, Sedgwick failed to do so because he mistakenly believed Early had more men than he did.
But what led most of all to the impending Union disaster was the incompetent commander of the Union XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. Howard, whose 11,000 men were posted at the far right of the Union line, failed to make any provision for his defense in case of a surprise attack, even though Hooker ordered him to. The Union right flank was not anchored on any natural obstacle, and the only defenses against a flank attack consisted of two cannon pointing out into the Wilderness. Making matters worse, the XI Corps was a poorly trained unit made up almost entirely of German immigrants, many of whom didn't even speak English.
At 4:30 in the afternoon, Jackson's 28,000 men came running out of the Wilderness and hit Howard's corps totally by surprise right while most of them were cooking dinner. More than 4,000 of them were taken prisoner without firing a shot, and most of the remainder were routed. Only one division of the XI Corps made a stand, and it was soon driven off as well. By nightfall, the Confederate Second Corps had advanced more than two miles, to within sight of Chancellorsville, and was separated from Lee's men only by Sickles' corps, which remained where it had been after attacking that morning. Hooker himself suffered a minor injury during the peak of the fighting when a Confederate cannonball hit a wooden pillar he was leaning against at his headquarters. Although practically incapacitated, Hooker refused to turn over command temporarily to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, and this failure affected Union performance over the next day, and certainly contributed to Hooker's lack of nerve and timid performance throughout the rest of the battle.
Both Hooker and Jackson made serious errors that night, and for Jackson, his mistake cost him his life.
Hooker, concerned about Sickles' ability to hold what was now a salient into the Confederate lines, pulled the III Corps back to Chancellorsville that night. Unfortunately, this gave the Confederates two advantages—it reunited Jackson and Lee's forces, and it gave them control of an elevated clearing in the woods known as Hazel Grove, one of the few places in which artillery could be used effectively. (Sickles was quite bitter about giving up this high ground; his insubordinate actions at the Peach Orchard in the Battle of Gettysburg two months later were probably influenced strongly by this incident.)
Jackson's mistake came when he was scouting ahead of his corps along the Orange Plank Road that night. Having won a huge victory that day, Jackson wanted to press his advantage before Hooker and his army could regain their bearings and plan a counterattack, which might still succeed because of the sheer disparity in numbers. He rode out onto the plank road that night, unrecognized by men of the Second Corps behind him, and was hit by friendly fire. The wound didn't seem life-threatening at first, but Jackson contracted pneumonia after his arm was amputated and he died on May 10. His death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy.
On May 3, A.P. Hill, who had taken command of the Second Corp following Jackson's injuries, was incapacitated. Hill consulted with Robert E. Rodes, the next most senior general in the corps, and Rodes acquiesced in Hill's decision to summon J.E.B. Stuart to take command, notifying Lee after the fact. The daring cavalryman proved to be a fine infantry commander as well. Stuart launched a massive assault all along the front, aided by Hooker who was withdrawing troops from Hazel Grove, and then set up artillery on the spot to bombard Union artillerists. Fierce fighting broke out that evening when Stuart launched another massive assault against the Union lines, which were slowly crumbling from the pressure and a lack of resupply and reinforcements. By that afternoon, the Confederates had captured Chancellorsville, and Hooker pulled his battered men back to a line of defense circling United States Ford, their last remaining open line of retreat.
Still, Lee couldn't declare victory, and Hooker wasn't conceding defeat, either. During the peak of the fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, he again called on Sedgwick to break through and attack Lee's rear. Again that general delayed until it was too late. That afternoon, he finally did attack Early's position (after Early at one point abandoned it himself thanks to a misinterpreted order from Lee), and broke through. But he did it too late in the day to help Hooker's men. In fact, a single brigade of Alabama troops led by Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox staged a delaying action along the Orange Plank Road west of Fredericksburg and slowed Sedgwick's already-sluggish advance. Reinforcements under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws arrived from Chancellorsville late in the afternoon and joined Wilcox at Salem Church, four miles west of Fredericksburg, and the combined Confederate force halted Sedgwick's march to Chancellorsville.
The fighting on May 3, 1863 was some of the most furious anywhere in the war, and would have ranked among the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War by itself. About 18,000 men, divided equally between the two armies, fell in battle that day.
On the evening of May 3 and all day May 4, Hooker remained in his defenses while Lee and Early battled Sedgwick. Sedgwick, after breaking Early's defenses, foolishly neglected to secure Fredericksburg. Early simply marched back and reoccupied the heights west of the city, cutting Sedgwick off. Meanwhile, Lee directed the division of Richard H. Anderson from the Chancellorsville front and reinforced McLaws before Sedgwick realized just how few men were opposing him. Sedgwick, as it turned out, was as resolute on the defensive as he was irresolute on the attack, and he stood his ground that day before withdrawing back across the Rappahannock at Banks' Ford during the pre-dawn hours of May 5. Ironically, this was another miscommunication between him and Hooker; the commanding general had wanted Sedgwick to hold Banks' Ford, so that Hooker could withdraw from the Chancellorsville area and re-cross the river at Banks' to fight again. When he learned that Sedgwick had retreated back over the river, Hooker felt he was out of options to save the campaign, and on the night of May 5–6, he also withdrew back across the river.
Stoneman, after a week of ineffectual raiding in central and southern Virginia in which he failed to attack any of the objectives Hooker set out for him, withdrew into Union lines east of Richmond on May 7, ending the campaign.
A noteworthy characteristic of the battle was the horrifying conditions under which it was fought. Soldiers tended to get lost in the impenetrable maze of undergrowth, and many fires started during the course of the battle. Reports of wounded men being burned alive were common.
Lee, despite being outnumbered by a ratio of about five to two, won arguably his greatest victory of the war. But he paid a terrible price for it. With only 52,000 infantry engaged, he suffered more than 13,000 casualties, losing some 25 percent of his force—men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. Just as seriously, he lost several top generals, most notably Jackson, his most aggressive field commander. Jackson's loss would be felt severely later in the summer, in the Gettysburg Campaign.
Hooker, who began the campaign believing he had "80 chances in 100 to be successful", lost the battle through communications snafus, the incompetence of some of his leading generals (most notably Howard and Stoneman, but with Sedgwick not far behind), and through some serious errors of his own. Hooker's errors include abandoning his offensive push on May 1 and ordering Sickles to give up Hazel Grove and pull back on May 2. He also erred in his disposition of forces; some 40,000 men of the Army of the Potomac scarcely fired a shot. When later asked why he had ordered a halt to his advance on May 1, Hooker responded, "For the first time, I lost faith in Hooker."
Of the 90,000 Union men who bore the brunt of the fighting, just over 17,000 fell in battle, a casualty rate much lower than Lee's, and this without taking into account the 4,000 men of the XI Corps who were captured without a fight in the initial panic on May 2. Hooker's tactic of forcing Lee to attack him was clearly sound in concept, but terribly flawed in the way he and his subordinates implemented it. The actual fighting showed the Union army had become as formidable in battle as Lee's heretofore unbeatable legions, something else that would be proven again at Gettysburg.
The Union was shocked by the defeat. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" A few generals were career casualties. Hooker relieved Stoneman for incompetence. Couch was so disgusted by Hooker's conduct of the battle (and his incessant political maneuvering) that he resigned and was placed in charge of the Pennsylvania militia. Hooker himself was relieved of command on June 28, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.
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