Battle of Chancellorsville
Also known as the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, this battle (fought 1–5 May 1863) emboldened the Confederate troops to make a decisive strike into the heart of Union territory, which materialized two months later in the Battle of Gettysburg. This is typically listed as the third costliest battle of the Civil War, with 3,271 dead and 18,753 wounded. This is also known as Lee's greatest victory of the war.
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Prelude to Battle
27 April 1863 - 1 May 1863 | Chancellorsville, Virginia
The Gathering Forces
General Robert E. Lee established his local headquarters in the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia by gathering forces from all across Virginia. By the beginning of the battle, he had amassed 60,892 men. This number would have increased by about 15,000 had Lieutenant General (Lt. Gen.) James Longstreet, near Norfolk, not been preoccupied with Federal forces near Suffolk, delaying his arrival until the battle was finished.
Beginning on 27 April 1863, Major General (Maj. Gen.) Joseph Hooker marched four corps of the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, mostly crossing near the junction of the two. A second force led by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick crossed the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg, while a final force of cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman headed deep into Confederate territory to cut off their enemy's supply lines.
By the beginning of the fighting, the Union army had a force of 133,868, more than double that of the Confederate forces. Hooker had approximately 70,000 men in and around Chancellorsville; Sedgwick's forces numbered about 30,000, and Stoneman had about 7,500 cavalry.
Stoneman's Raid: the Union Plan
General Hooker planned to use a pincer movement to collapse upon the Confederates, four corps sneaking northwest first, then south to cross both rivers, and finally turning east to strike Lee's army in the rear (see attached image). The other two corps would hit Lee in the front, from Fredericksburg. All of this would be done while the cavalry destroyed Lee's supply lines.
The Confederate Plan
General Lee thought it prudent to annihilate a portion of Hooker's forces before they could assemble against him. To this end, he planned to violate a long-standing military practice by dividing his forces while facing a superior enemy. One brigade (no more than about 4,000 men) would remain heavily fortified with Brigadier General (Brig. Gen.) William Barksdale on Marye's Heights. Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early would defend Prospect Hill against any attack by Sedgwick with one division of 12,000 men. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson would lead 28,000 men of the Second Corps to attack the Union right flank and push through to Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson. A total of 40,000 men under Gen. Lee would confront 70,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Hooker at Chancellorsville.
Battle: May 1
1 May 1863 | Wilderness of Spotsylvania, Virginia
Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker had his forces embedded within the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, the thick scrub pine forest. This was actually believed to be something of a disadvantage by the Union generals, however, because their superior artillery would not be effective within the impenetrable thickets. Thus, Hooker ordered an advance to the east to strike Anderson while Jackson continued to march toward the rendezvous.
Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws of the Confederacy was engaged by the rightmost division of the 5th Corps, under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commanding the entire force there, began withdrawal in an orderly manner, covering the retreat by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's division.
Falter and retreat
At the Battle of Fredericksburg (also known as the First Battle of Fredericksburg) only 4½ months earlier, the Union army had made the assault and met with a devastating defeat. It is perhaps for this reason that Hooker halted his brief attack. Hooker also had previously only been a division and corps commander, although an aggressive and very effective one; it is possible this lack of experience in commanding such a large force also contributed to the hesitancy shown.
In either case, Hooker had determined ahead of time to remain defensive. If Lee sustained a defeat like the Union did at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of the year before, he would be unable to keep any worthy force in the field. Hooker understood this and thus hoped to bait Lee into attacking him or retreating with superior forces behind him. The Union force retreated to take defensive positions around Chancellorsville and waited.
Battle: May 2
2 May 1863
Lt. Gen. Jackson marched with his 28,000 as planned, a trip that took nearly the entire day. To help mask this movement, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart ordered the 1st Virginia cavalry to march in advance of Jackson's column. The 2nd, 5th, and part of the 3rd regiments interposed between the Union left and Jackson's right flank.
Hooker believed Stoneman had successfully cut Lee's supply line, so he stayed put, only ordering Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles to attack with his 3rd Army Corps. Sickles broke through to the Catherine Furnace, a structure set up to assist the Confederacy in badly needed weapons manufacture. These forces ultimately gained control of the road upon which Jackson had already passed, although they were ultimately held by several smaller Confederate forces: Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) W. R. Carter, of the 3d Virginia Cavalry commanding the picket; Col. J. Thompson Brown assisting with two guns from his artillery; Captain (Capt.) W. S. Moore sending two companies of the 14th Tennessee Infantry; and finally General Archer moving his own brigade and that of Thomas back to also engage the enemy.
Sickles, caught in the fray, was left unaware of Jackson's march not long before. He managed at best to capture a few of the Confederate Second Corps men and gain a position of high ground, one of the few places artillery could be used effectively.
Although Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick remained at Frederickburg as ordered, telegraph lines between him and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker failed, making them unable to communicate with one another as planned. By the time an order arrived to Sedgwick to attack Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early's single division, Sedgwick had decided the Confederate force was stronger than his own. Fearing that doing so would prove a mistake, Sedgwick remained where he was.
Gen. Hooker had ordered the commander of the rightmost Union flank (the 11th Corps), Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, to prepare for a surprise attack by the Confederates. The 11,000-strong corps was composed heavily of German immigrants who were formerly under the command of Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel, who had requested relief in February of that same year. The corps developed low morale, being resentful of the general's decision and the appointment of the non-Germanic Howard. Many of them also had poor English and were subjected to ethnic friction with the rest of the Army of the Potomac. What was worse, however, of the 23 regiments making up the corps, 8 lacked any experience in battle, and the rest had never been on the winning side of combat.
In spite of his orders, Howard failed to prepare his corps to defend itself adequately. At 5:30 p.m., while many of Howard's corps were cooking dinner, Lt. Gen. Jackson commanded his 26,000 men to attack. Over 4,000 of the 11th Corps surrendered without a single shot; all but one division of the rest were routed nearly immediately; and the division that remained did not hold its ground for very long. By nightfall, the Confederate 2nd Corps had reached sight of Chancellorsville, where a small Union force was all that stood between them and Lee's army: Maj. Gen. Sickles hadn't moved since that morning.
Not long after, however, Maj. Gen. Hooker ordered the return of Sickles' 3rd Corps to Chancellorsville because his position was a salient. This aided the Confederates by reuniting Jackson with Gen. Lee. Unfortunately, this also gave them Hazel Grove, one of the few places where artillery could be effective. Sickles was quite bitter about giving up this high ground, but he obeyed and retreated from the area.
Jackson had won a major victory over the Union forces that day. Realizing the disparity of army strength between Hooker's forces and Lee's, he decided to forward his advantage before a counterattack could be mounted. While scouting the Orange Plank Road that night, his own men of the 2nd Corps mistakenly shot him. The wound itself was not mortal, but he died from complications only days after being shot.
Battle: May 3
3 May 1863 | Chancellorsville, Virginia
Following the injury of Jackson, Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill took command of the corps. Following orders from the fallen Jackson to "press right in," he impetuously pushed his corps forward, suffering a severe wound himself. (In spite of this wound, Hill stayed near the field the following day.) After consulting with Brig. Gen. Robert E. Rodes (the next most senior officer of the corps), Hill transferred command a second time, to Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. He then sent word of the change of command to Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Stuart attacked all along the front of the Union forces, continuing the aggressive advance of the forces. At the same time, Hooker was withdrawing from his troops from Hazel Grove, which aided in Stuart's advance. After gaining the high ground, Stuart set up artillery and began bombarding the Union artillery below. As the Union lines began to waver from this heavy pressure without receiving any reinforcements, Stuart set a fierce assault on them again. By the afternoon, Chancellorsville was in Confederate hands, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker retreating in the only open direction available, to United States Ford.
During the heat of the fight, Hooker once again ordered Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to punch through Confederate lines and move to cut off Lee's supply, and once again Sedgwick delayed until it was too late. Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early had abandoned his position on Prospect Hill due to a miscommunication of orders from Lee, and Sedgwick's attack there allowed him to get through. However, this was far too late in the day to be of any help to Hooker.
Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox needed only one brigade to work along the Orange Plank Road at Salem Church (west of Fredericksburg) to slow the advance. Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws arrived late in the afternoon from Chancellorsville and together with Wilcox completely stopped Sedgwick's march.
This single day alone was the costliest of this engagement, with roughly 9,000 on each side falling in battle.
Battle: May 4
4 May 1863 | Chancellorsville, Virginia
Despite Sedwick's being engaged with Lee and Early beginning the evening before, Hooker never came out of his fortifications to provide aid. Sedgwick was able to break through defenses Early had erected, but he didn't do anything to secure the city of Fredericksburg. The Confederate force returned to Prospect Hill and occupied those heights once more, separating Sedgwick from the rest of the Union army. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson moved from Chancellorsville to reinforce McLaws before Sedgwick could realize how small the opposing force was. Although Sedgwick was tentative in his attack, he was adamant about holding his ground all that day. He finally backed to Bank's Ford, protecting their line of retreat. When a heavy fog moved in, fighting ceased for the night.
Planned Retreat vs. Battle Strategy
Unfortunately, the miscommunications between Sedgwick and Hooker continued. Sources do not completely agree as to what was a legitimate order that night and what was misunderstanding. It appears that at midnight, Hooker called his generals together to strategize. Generals Butterfield, Warren, Meade, Reynolds, Howard, Couch, and Sickles were present. Apparently Hooker asked the generals present to discuss whether the Army of the Potomac should attack or retreat, then left the tent so they could discuss. Mead, Reynolds, and Howard voted to attack, while Couch and Sickles voiced for retreat.
One theory holds that when Hooker returned, he announced he had already made up his mind: they would retreat. General Reynolds is reported to have commented, "What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyway?" Thus, despite the objections of most of his corps commanders, he ordered a retreat across the river, believing the campaign was lost.
Another theory suggests that Hooker hoped Sedgwick would maintain Bank's Ford (where he was before crossing the river), giving him a chance to move from Chancellorsville to Bank's Ford, where he could engage the Confederates once more. This would seem to suggest that Hooker decided to follow the advice of his aides and generals. If this is what happened, the orders delivered to Sedgwick would have been yet again misinterpreted.
In either case, Sedgwick believed the order he received was to retreat back across the Rappahannock. He withdrew early the morning of the 5th.
Battle: May 5
5 May 1863 | Chancellorsville, Virginia
Gen. Lee was going to attack Sedgwick on the morning of the 5th, but it became clear those forces had retreated across the river. The army was redirected to attack the forces of Hooker in a two-pronged assault. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, still leading the corps of Jackson, would hit the Federal right flank while the combined divisions led by Anderson, Early, and McLaws struck the left. A torrential rain began on the 5th, though, and the fatigued troops could not get into position by the end of that day, so Lee held off until the following morning.
Hooker's withdrawl began on the evening of May 5. Had Lee reached Hooker, he would have confronted a fortified line. With Lee's failure to attack, Hooker withdrew first and stayed on the far bank. His aides and corps commanders directed the rest of the withdrawal, each leaving in succession. By 9:00 a.m. the next morning, the withdrawal was complete.
Aftermath of the Battle
No real victory
When Gen. Lee moved on Hooker's old position, he found it abandoned. Lee had wanted an engagement: the resulting defeat had been far from a decisive battle. There might as well have been no fighting for the little benefit the battle provided. When Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender informed Lee that the Federals were gone, Lee exclaimed, "Why, General Pender! That is what you young men always do. You allow these people to get away. I tell you what to do, and you don't do it."
Lack of bridges and supplies made pursuit of the Union forces across the river an impossibility. Of this fact, Lee later recorded, "At Chancellorsville, we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight. I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our losses were severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued."
Consequences of Battle
The battle was a hit to Union morale. Of the reaction of many of the Federal forces, one man wrote: "The wonder of the private soldiers was great. How could they have been beaten with so little fighting? How had one half of the army been defeated while the other half had not fought at all? The muttered curses were prolonged and deep as they plodded back in the mud to their old camps."
The reactions in New York were equally disappointed. A correspondant to the New York Times wrote, "The news that Hooker and his army had recrossed the Rappahannock flashed through Washington about 5 o'clock this afternoon. The impression produced by it was profound. Men's minds were cast from the congratulatory cheerfulness with which all had for three days discussed the events which succeeded the brilliant passages of the Rappahannock, and the Rapidan…It made men silent and thoughtful beyond anything I have ever seen in Washington."
Abraham Lincoln was himself upset. Noah Brooks, working for the Sacramento Daily Union, wrote of the reaction: "The appearance of the President was piteous. Never, as long as I knew him [some seven years], did he seem to be so broken up, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying, 'My God, my God, what will the country say! What will the country say!' He seemed incapable of uttering any other words, and quickly left the room."
When Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was first injured, Gen. Lee wrote to him, "Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead." Jackson had to have his left arm amputated and caught pneumonia shortly thereafter. He died of complications caused by this on May 10. This was a devastating blow to the Confederate army. When Lee received the news, he said "William, I have lost my right arm" (as opposed to the amputated left arm of Jackson). He finished with, "I'm bleeding at the heart."
In addition to this loss, the Confederacy also lost Brig. Gen. Elisha Franklin Paxton (a friend of Jackson and leader of the Stonewall brigade). With these losses, the last of the so-called "elite" leadership of Lee's army would fall at Gettysburg, two months later. The army under Lee also suffered 13,000 casualties, about one quarter of its total force. With limited manpower already, this was something they could ill afford.
The Union lost some of its own leadership, viz., Maj. Gen. Hiram George Berry; Maj. Gen. Amiel W. Whipple; and Brig. Gen. Edmund Kirby. In addition, some generals were career casualties. Hooker revoked Stoneman's command on grounds of incompentence; Couch was so disgusted by what he felt was Hooker's political maneuvering that he resigned and became the leader of the Pennsylvania militia; Hooker was relieved of command on 28 June 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, after threatening his resignation during a dispute over readiness of forces at Harper's Ferry.
While the Union lost more men during the battle (about 17,000), this loss affected them much less that it did the South.