- James Houser
May 3, 1863 - The Battle of Chancellorsville
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 3, 1863. West of the town of Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee is surrounded by cheering Confederate soldiers after a hard day of fighting. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia has beaten a Union army twice its size, securing victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville. It is Lee’s greatest victory – but victory comes with a price.
By 1863, the South was clearly losing the Civil War. The North had penetrated deep into Tennessee and Mississippi, and a Union fleet had taken New Orleans, closing off the Mississippi. The Union blockade was slowly tightening and killing Confederate commerce. Finally, General Ulysses S. Grant was launching his campaign to capture the city of Vicksburg, the South’s last major point on the Mississippi River. When Grant captured Vicksburg, the Confederacy would be cut in two.
It looked bad everywhere – except Virginia. In May 1862, General George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac had been less than three miles away from Richmond, but when Robert E. Lee had taken command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, he launched a whirlwind of attacks that first drove off McClellan then nearly destroyed another Union army. One year later, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia held the Union army in check. Multiple offensive operations and battles had failed to get past Lee’s quick maneuvers and aggressive counterattacks; the last attempt, at Fredericksburg in December 1862, had been a miserable failure unequalled in American history. Lee and his Army stood like a shield in front of the Confederate capital, blocking every Union move.
In January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln fired the almost uniquely incompetent Union commander Ambrose Burnside and replaced him with Joseph Hooker. “Fighting Joe” Hooker, as he was known, had actively lobbied for the command of the Army of the Potomac. An arrogant and dissolute individual, Hooker was so well known for his love of drink and female company that his last name is one possible origin of the slang term for a prostitute. Hooker had a well-earned reputation as an aggressive fighter, though, and was relentlessly ambitious and innovative. Lincoln had even heard rumors that Hooker promoted a dictatorship be established in order to win the war. In the letter Lincoln sent to Hooker giving him command, he chided him, “Give us victory, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
The problem was, of course, that Lincoln didn’t really have any alternative at this stage of the war. Grant was very busy, Sherman was still a relative unknown as one of Grant’s corps commanders, and other generals who would later show their worth were still languishing in the lower ranks. (Hancock, Sheridan, Thomas, et al.)
Hooker promptly exceeded expectations. Burnside’s inept leadership and poor management had left the Army of the Potomac with wretched morale and equipment. Hooker reintroduced fresh vegetables and meat to their rations, reformed the cavalry, and restructured training. He brought in more troops from outposts around Virginia, and soon the Army of the Potomac was in possibly its best state of the war, its men well-fed and well-supplied, and absolutely enormous with 133,000 men on the rolls. Hooker was full of confidence, promising that “Heaven should have mercy on Robert E. Lee, for I will not.”
Bold words. And in spring of 1863, they seemed to have some weight. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was unbeaten in battle, but suffered badly from the poor Confederate supply system and lack of replacements. The Confederate war administration was a shambles compared to the highly efficient Union system. Lee had to feed his force by requisitioning food from the farms of northern Virginia, since the Confederate government sent him nothing resembling regular rations, and some of his men had not been paid in almost a year. Lee was even forced to send General Longstreet, one of his best commanders, away with three divisions to North Carolina. Lee didn’t want to detach these troops, but he couldn’t feed his entire army in the battle-scarred landscape of northern Virginia. This left him with 60,000 tired, hungry soldiers. His only solace was their high morale, and several excellent generals – including the legendary Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
In April 1863, Hooker launched his plan to destroy Lee’s army. Lee and Hooker had the Rappahannock River between them; Hooker would use General John Sedgwick’s force of 40,000 to pretend to cross the river near Lee’s army, while he would take the bulk of the Army of the Potomac – 93,000 men – upriver and make the real attack. Once across the river, he would be in Lee’s rear areas with a huge force, forcing Lee to either fight and be pinned between the two forces or retreat back to Richmond. Either way, Hooker won.
On April 30, Hooker made his crossing, and by May 1 was advancing well behind Lee’s flank through the Virginia Wilderness. This area of ridiculously thick undergrowth to the west of Fredericksburg was nearly impossible to fight in, and Hooker wanted to pass it as quickly as possible. When his forces emerged, to his great astonishment, Lee’s army was waiting. Shots rang out across the fields of northern Virginia, and the Battle of Chancellorsville had begun.
In reality, Lee had faced a tough decision once he realized Hooker’s move. He couldn’t ignore Sedgwick’s force in front of him, but he definitely couldn’t ignore the main Union army behind him. He made a dangerous move, one that flew in the face of all military theory: he divided his smaller army. He left 10,000 men under Jubal Early to watch Sedgwick’s 40,000, and marched off in a hurry to face Hooker’s 90,000 with his 50,000. Both forces were outnumbered, and Lee ordered Early to trick Sedgwick into thinking he had more troops than he really did. He had to buy time.
Hooker, for all his bluster and overconfidence, suddenly lost his nerve when his magnificent plan seemed to be derailed on May 1. Lee wasn’t supposed to know what he was doing. Even though he only faced a few Confederate soldiers – the majority of Lee’s army was still coming up – he withdrew back into the Wilderness and set up a defensive line. He told his generals that Lee would have to retreat soon, and all they had to do was wait for it. Some of his generals, such as George G. Meade, were appalled that they had not hit Lee hard when they had the chance. If Hooker had pressed forward on May 1, he could have broken through the thin screen and won the battle; after the war, he explained his inaction as “I just lost confidence in Joe Hooker.”
Lee hadn’t lost confidence. Despite being outnumbered two to one, he planned to destroy the Union Army. In a twilight conference on May 1, the bread and butter of Civil War artists for generations afterwards, Lee and Stonewall Jackson sat on tree stumps and discussed the situation. Jackson proposed a plan that Lee had already suggested: Jackson would lead most of the army in a long march around Hooker and attack into his rear, just as Hooker had tried to do to Lee. This was an enormous risk; Jackson would only leave Lee to face Hooker with 20,000 men while Jackson completed the march. Lee, though, believed that he had his opponent’s measure, and that Hooker would remain quiet.
Hooker remained quiet. All day on May 2, Jackson took his veteran soldiers on a long march around Hooker’s army, even as they sat in their positions and kept their eyes on Lee’s small force. By evening, Jackson launched a sledgehammer of an assault, a terrifying surprise attack that forced an entire Union corps into headlong retreat. Panic swept the Union army, and the spring evening erupted in musket and cannon fire as Jackson’s men surged forward. Even as Stonewall Jackson pushed forward into the woods to find a way to cut off the Union retreat, though, he ran into one of his own Confederate units in the fading light. They mistook him and his staff for a Union cavalry unit and fired a volley, wounding their own commander.
Lee could not afford to lose hope over Jackson’s injury. He had the Union on the ropes, and he smelled blood. Lee placed his cavalry commander, General “Jeb” Stuart, in charge of Jackson’s troops and decided that the decisive attack would take place on May 3, 1863.
The Union army now formed a horseshoe shape in the middle of the dense Wilderness between Stuart’s troops to the west and Lee’s troops to the east. One of the only open spots in the Wilderness, Hazel Grove, had been left carelessly unoccupied by the North and Lee quickly seized this high ground. He placed 30 cannon on the heights, and they unleashed a terrible fire into the Union lines at 5:30 am. Lee and Stuart both attacked fiercely, squeezing Hooker’s army on both sides, in the heaviest fighting of the battle.
Hooker had done his duty on May 2, rallying and reorganizing his forces and preparing them for the fight all night. He was not called “Fighting Joe” for nothing. On May 3, as he was reading dispatches at his headquarters, a Confederate shell from Hazel Grove struck the pillar of the Chancellor House next to him and knocked him unconscious. While he recovered quickly, the resulting concussion ended his ability to direct the battle. No other general would accept the command, leaving the badly disabled Hooker in charge, paralyzing the Union command as their trouble deepened.
The last and final push of the Confederate infantry rushed into the Union works, even as the Confederate guns glowed with the heat of their rounds. The Union was finally forced to retreat from their positions by 10 am, leaving the Confederates in possession of the battlefield.
Southern soldiers flocked around Hazel Grove as General Lee rode among them, waving his hat in the air. Confederates cheered their commander, who had triumphed over seemingly impossible odds to bring them to victory. Half-starved, unpaid, barely supplied, they had beaten an army twice their size who had all the things they didn’t. It was the high point of Lee’s military career.
The battle was not over. Sedgwick’s force to the east was still out there, and by noon on May 3 he was advancing to try and break through to rescue Hooker. Lee reacted quickly and fell on Sedgwick, who after a bloody fight withdrew back across the river. By May 4, Lee had concentrated on Hooker again to try and destroy him, but in the early dawn of May 5 Hooker, too, had escaped back across the Rappahannock River. The Battle of Chancellorsville was over.
It was easily Lee’s greatest victory. He and the Army of Northern Virginia had won an enormous triumph. The Battle of Chancellorsville, more than any other Confederate victory in the Civil War, demonstrates Lee’s advantages over his opponents: better command relationships, aggressiveness, flexibility, and most importantly psychological dominance. Lee thoroughly outgeneraled Joe Hooker. The Union generals constantly let their fear of Lee’s aggressive, flexible tactics psych them out, even when they had everything going for them. Someday Lee would run into a general he couldn’t intimidate – rhymes with “Grant” – and then things would change. But that day was not today.
Chancellorsville, though, came with a price. The Union had suffered 17,000 casualties, including 1600 killed and 5900 captured or missing, but Lee’s army had suffered 13,000, with a similar number dead. This was almost a fifth of his army. Victory was costly. One of those casualties was the most grievous – on May 10, Stonewall Jackson died of his friendly fire wound. He would be the most irreplaceable Confederate loss of the Battle of Chancellorsville.
For now, though, Lee was flush with victory, and it seemed like he could not be defeated. He would march north and try to bring the war to an end with a truly decisive victory. He and the Union Army of the Potomac would meet again in two months for their greatest clash at a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.