The Battle of Chancellorsville

Joseph Hooker, at the head of the Army of the Potomac, was filled with confidence that he would not suffer the same fate as previous Union commanders facing Confederate General Robert E. Lee. While General Ambrose Burnside and General George McClellan earned their soldiers’ admiration with their leadership, they respectively fell at Fredericksburg and during the Peninsula Campaign and appeared to lack the incisive strategy to defeat Lee.

Joseph Hooker. By: Mathew Brady or Levin Handy. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

The Confederate army, after taking Fredericksburg, had constructed 25 miles of trenches along the Rappahannock River.[i] Hooker, knowing the futility of attacking the rebel entrenchments, devised a strategy to force Lee to move out from the fortifications and into the open.[ii] President Abraham Lincoln could have been heartened to know that, unlike McClellan, Hooker was prepared to confront Lee and to do so with assuredness as Hooker reportedly said, “My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on Bobby Lee; for I shall have none.”[iii]

By April 30, 1863, Hooker—known to his men as “Fighting Joe”—had put into place three pieces of his plan. Sensing the advantage he then possessed, he sent an order stating: “Our enemy must ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”[iv] First, ten thousand Union cavalry had made their way to Lee’s flank and cut off the rebel supply lines.[v] Second, a move tantalizing for the rebel eyes peering out of the trenches: 40,000 Union infantry feigned an advance on Lee’s trenches but, unknown to the Confederates, with no intent to move on the fortifications.[vi] Then, as the final piece of Hooker’s plan, the pincer movement was completed when his 70,000 soldiers marched into the town of Chancellorsville, nine miles from Fredericksburg and near a dense forest known locally as the Wilderness.[vii] Hooker was relieved to learn from his Chief of Aeronauts Professor T.S.C. Lowe, floating in a yellow balloon near the Fredericksburg entrenchments, that the Confederates appeared to have no inkling of the Union movements.[viii]

Professor T.S.C. Lowe in a Balloon. Courtesy: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Lee, not knowing the feeling of fear and having received intelligence of the Union operation, ordered 10,000 of his troops to remain in the trenches but the remainder to move on Chancellorsville.[ix] On May 1, a couple of miles outside Chancellorsville, shots rang out between the rebels and federals. With the aid of artillery, the Union men enjoyed the advantage in the opening stages, but Hooker made the same mistake that his predecessors had: he ordered a defensive retreat to Chancellorsville.[x] The mistake was compounded by the surrounding environs. The Wilderness, a veritable jungle so choked with brush that it “would tear the clothes from a man’s back within minutes of the time he left the road,” provided ample cover for the rebels to sneakily advance on the entrenched federals and consummate a slaughter for the ages.[xi] Union General Darius Couch recalled after the war that upon learning of Fighting Joe’s order: “I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.”[xii] In truth, Hooker’s order came after rebel deserters (who may have been bogus) and aerial intelligence indicated that Lee was already on the move and commanded numbers equal or comparable to the federals.[xiii] Regardless of the circumstances, Hooker maintained an air of confidence telling his officers that the “rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac” and: “The enemy is in my power, and God Almighty cannot deprive me of them.”[xiv]

That night, Lee sat with his top general and the hero at Bull Run, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, on “empty hardtack boxes and conferred by firelight” with profound calmness given they were preparing to take the offensive with half the soldiers of their opponents.[xv] Intelligence reports brought to them throughout the night revealed that Hooker’s right flank was open three miles west of Chancellorsville should Jackson find a path through the Wilderness’ “scrub oak and thorny undergrowth.”[xvi] That path was revealed when a local resident agreed to help the rebels, guiding them on a track used to haul charcoal.[xvii]

The next morning, May 2, Hooker kept his men in a defensive posture. He left the men stationed outside the trenches near Fredericksburg (with the exception of one corps that he took from them), and he did not make any moves toward Lee.[xviii] Meanwhile, in the forest, Jackson was moving 30,000 infantry and artillery, and Lee sat with 15,000 men; the latter being a force that Hooker could have easily overwhelmed as Lee was outnumbered five-to-one.[xix] Lee’s doubly risky bet to keep a band of rebels entrenched in Fredericksburg and a mere 15,000 directly in Hooker’s front would only pay off and be a tactical coup de grâce if Jackson made good on his assault of Hooker’s right flank.

Lee’s audacious gamble nearly fell through when one of Hooker’s divisions led by Daniel Sickles (the first person in American jurisprudence to successfully plea temporary insanity after killing his wife’s lover on a Washington street in 1859) attacked Jackson’s column.[xx] Sickles and other cavalry reported to Hooker that Jackson and his men were on the move, but Hooker failed to act. In fact, to compound his passivity, he had not established a secure position: closest to the seemingly impenetrable Wilderness, he kept what was a “stepchild corps” comprised of mostly immigrants and men untested in battle.[xxi] At around 5:15 PM, when the Union men of that “stepchild corps” were relaxing and cooking their dinners, they saw deer and rabbits fleeing the thicket in droves and began to holler and cheer, waving their caps at the startled creatures.[xxii] Then came the piercing rebel yell and a most unwelcome sight: Jackson and his rugged soldiers—with uniforms torn by the brush—charging from the west onto the south-facing Union line. [xxiii] Confusion abound, northern troops ran from the stampede as the Confederates made their advance in a rare instance of dusk fighting.[xxiv] The rebels rolled up the Union line for the next two miles until the federal troops formed a perpendicular line to stop the advance and rally the fleeing stragglers. Jackson rode from point to point “well pleased with the progress and results” of the fighting and telling his brigadiers and colonels to “push right ahead.”[xxv] As night came, the shelling and shots came to an end, but the Wilderness was burning from spent shells having sparked the dry leaves: “like a picture of hell,” it was aflame and roasting the fallen.[xxvi]

Union Soldiers in the Trenches near Fredericksburg. By: Andrew J. Russell.

When the rebels bivouacked for the night, rumors echoed from a hard-to-swallow truth: during the Confederate assault, a group of rebels mistook the charging cavalry led by Jackson to be Union men and fired upon them.[xxvii] Jackson took two shots to his left arm, which had to amputated, and then he was dropped by pneumonia.[xxviii] Eight days afterward, Stonewall Jackson died.[xxix]

The following morning brought a Union counter-attack: Hooker ordered “Uncle” John Sedgwick to make a push toward Lee’s rear at Chancellorsville through Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg (the precise spot of Burnside’s humiliation just months prior).[xxx] With several pushes on the rebel entrenchments, Sedgwick succeeded with a bayonet charge that sent rebels fleeing and a thousand prisoners into Union camps.[xxxi] Sedgwick’s victory—sizable as it was considering he had taken the ridge with only 1,500 casualties (Burnside was forced to back down after losing 6,300 men)—was short-lived in the broader battle.[xxxii] Fighting Joe had lost his nerve. Lee, utilizing J.E.B. Stuart in place of Jackson, had set up artillery in Hazel Grove, and the artillery sent a cannonball into Hooker’s headquarters knocking Hooker unconscious.[xxxiii] When he came to, rather than order an attack as several subordinates hoped, he ordered a retreat to a defensive line a mile or two northward.[xxxiv]

General John Sedgwick (right). By: David Woodbury.

General Lee rode around the burning mansion in the middle of Chancellorsville to the shouts of the rebels as he had transformed certain defeat into glorious victory yet again. While Sedgwick’s advance through Fredericksburg posed a risk, that was quelled when the rebels repulsed Sedgwick on May 4 and caused him to retreat with his commander Hooker back across the Rappahannock River.[xxxv] Lee, although frustrated that his men did not pursue the federals and inflict more damage, had achieved what “future critics would call the most brilliant victory of his career.”[xxxvi]

Both the Union and Confederacy recognized it was an absolute victory by Lee. He had outmaneuvered his opponent with inferior numbers and achieved a total rout after a predictable surprise attack. The casualties were significant on both sides, however: 13,000 casualties for the Confederates (22% of the total force), and 17,000 for the Union (15% of all soldiers).[xxxvii] As impressive as Lee’s success was when Sedgwick and Hooker retreated back across the Rappahannock, the victory appeared increasingly Pyrrhic when Jackson succumbed to his injuries on May 10, 1863. His last days were spent fighting pneumonia, deliriously calling out orders as if still on the battlefield, and praying with his wife bedside, and his last words illustrated the calmness with which he went: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”[xxxviii] One of the great Confederate generals, whom Lee called his “right arm,” was lost.[xxxix] Nonetheless, Lee had instilled in the Confederates a confidence that the Union did not have the leadership or tenacity to prevail in the war. Jackson had buttressed that confidence with his mantra that the Confederacy “must make up in activity what it lacks in strength.”[xl]

In Washington, the blowback was swift. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, when learning of the Union defeat, remarked: “Lost—lost. All is lost!”[xli] The White House had an even more somber mood: Lincoln held a telegram in his hand with the news of the defeat, and his face, “usually sallow, was ashen in hue.”[xlii] Pacing the room with his “hands clasped behind his back,” he called out, “My God! My God! What will the country say? What will the country say?”[xliii]

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 639.

[ii] See id.

[iii] T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York, 1952), 232; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 262.

[iv] War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 25, pt. 1, p. 171.

[v] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 639.

[vi] See id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 268.

[ix] See id. at 640.

[x] See id.

[xi] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 269.

[xii] Couch, “The Chancellorsville Campaign,” Battles and Leaders, III, 161.

[xiii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 280.

[xiv] Id. at 281-82.

[xv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 640.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] See id. at 640-41.

[xviii] See id. at 641.

[xix] Id.; see also Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 286.

[xx] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 641.

[xxi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 290-91.

[xxii] See id. at 292.

[xxiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 642.

[xxiv] See id.

[xxv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 296-97.

[xxvi] Id. at 300.

[xxvii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 642.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] See id. at 643-44.

[xxxi] See id. at 644.

[xxxii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 311.

[xxxiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 644.

[xxxiv] See id.

[xxxv] See id.

[xxxvi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 314.

[xxxvii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 645.

[xxxviii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 319.

[xxxix] Id. at 311.

[xl] Id. at 272.

[xli] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 315.

[xlii] Id. at 316.

[xliii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 645 citing Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time (New York, 1896), 57-58; Diary of Gideon Welles, ed., Howard K. Beale, 3 vols. (New York, 1960), I, 293.


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