The Battle of Chancellorsville
the zenith of the powers of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in
its struggle to drive off and destroy the Army of the Potomac and win independence
for the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War.
The Chancellorsville campaign began with the crossing of the Rappahannock
River by the Union (United States) 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. The battle had some characteristics
of a modern battle, as the armies were spread out over a front of several
miles and neither side ever fully concentrated its army.
On paper, it was one of the most lopsided clashes of arms in the war.
The Union army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, brought an effective
fighting force of 132,000 men onto the field. The Confederate army, commanded
by General Robert E. Lee, numbered approximately 57,000. 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 spread out
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
some 100 miles to the southeast, failed to arrive in time. Their absence
probably saved the Union army from total destruction in the battle that
On April 27-28, Hooker and 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 at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange
Plank roads. In the meantime, a second force of more than 30,000 men crossed
the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, some 14 miles to the east and the site
of a battle the previous December. By doing this, Hooker now had substantial
forces on both Lee's front and on his right flank, and he had dispatched
some 7,000 cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman to raid deep in the
Confederate rear areas. He ordered Stoneman to attack and destroy crucial
supply depots along the railroad from Richmond to Fredericksburg, which
would cut Lee off from resupply and force him to fall back to positions
closer to his supply sources.
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 useless, 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.
Lee, with no other options but to retreat down open roads with Hooker's
larger army in pursuit (this was what Hooker really wanted Lee to attempt),
chose to take the dare and plan 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 entire 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. Dan 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 Otis 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 when 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 were 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 when a Confederate shell hit near his headquarters
during the peak of the fighting.
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 a clearing
in the woods known as Hazel Grove, one of the few places in which artillery
could be used effectively.
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 counterttack, 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 died on May 10. His death was
a devastating loss for the Confederacy.
On May 3, Lee put Stuart in command of the Second Corps, and the daring
cavalryman proved to be a fine commander of infantry, as well. Stuart launched
a massive assault all along the front, and even though the Union army still
far outnumbered and outgunned the Confederates, they won by simply outfighting
the Union defenders, and by using the Hazel Grove position to pound the
Union artillery and eventually drive it off. 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 Col. Lafayette McLaws stood off six times as many
Union soldiers, halfway between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg at
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 into the city and reoccupied it, cutting Sedgwick off. Meanwhile,
Lee took two divisions 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 and part of the next, before
withdrawing back across the Rappahannock at Banks' Ford. Ironically, this
was another miscommunication between he 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 most noteworthy characteristic of the battle was the horrifying
conditions it was fought under. 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 both common and entirely
Lee, despite being outnumbered by a margin 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
Jackson, his most aggressive field commander. His 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) and
through some serious errors of his own, including not pushing out of the
Wilderness on May 1, pulling back Sickles on May 2 and even by retreating
on May 6. For on that day, Lee planned to launch an all-out attack on Hooker's
defenses. What Lee didn't know was that they were virtually impregnable,
and beyond the capability of his remaining 39,000 infantry to carry. Hooker
also erred in his disposition of force; some 40,000 men of the Army of
the Potomac scarcely fired a shot.
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 its conception, 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 Battle of Chancellorsville, along with the May 1864 Battle of the
Wilderness fought in the same area, formed the basis for Stephen Crane's
1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage.