Chancellorsville Campaign

The Chancellorsville Campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought May 1–6, 1863, produced one of the most stunning and ambivalent Confederate victories of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Confederate general Robert E. Lee had trounced the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg the previous December, but since then, Joseph Hooker had thoroughly reorganized and revitalized his dispirited Union troops. Declaring that he had created "the finest Army on the Planet," he set into motion an elaborate plan designed to quietly turn the left flank of the outnumbered and underfed Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which was camped not far from Fredericksburg. In the face of Hooker's attack, Lee dangerously divided his army, sending Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson through the Wilderness, a wild and tangled woodland, and around Hooker's right side in what became one of the most famous flanking maneuvers of the war. A combination of bad Union generalship and good Confederate luck forced Hooker to retreat across the Rappahannock River. Jackson was accidentally killed by his own men in the fighting, and while his death may have been devastating for the Confederacy, so were the additional 13,459 casualties. Combined with the shocking losses at Gettysburg two months later, they nearly destroyed the army's offensive capabilities. MORE...

 

Background

After the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union high command was in turmoil. The repeated frontal attacks on Marye's Heights that had provoked Lee to comment famously on the terribleness of war had also caused "Fighting Joe" Hooker, in protest, to stop fighting. "I had lost as many men as my orders required me to lose," he explained later. Such was the standing of Ambrose E. Burnside among his fellow generals. They were in near open revolt against the bushy-cheeked West Pointer, and, remarkably, he seemed to agree with their assessment. After all, he had accepted command of the Army of the Potomac only after refusing it twice and then insisting that he wasn't up to the job. Following the post-Fredericksburg debacle known as the "Mud March," U.S. president Abraham Lincoln decided that he agreed, and he replaced Burnside with Hooker.

Hooker was a red-faced, big-mouthed brawler from Massachusetts with a perhaps unfair reputation for drinking and gambling. Not a fan of his nickname, he immediately set about proving to a skeptical president that he added up to more than outrageous boasts and headlong charges. (When Hooker had declared that what the country really needed, and quick, was a dictator, Lincoln dared him first to win glory on the battlefield, after which "I will risk the dictatorship.")

Hooker's first step was to reshape his army into a tighter, more disciplined, and more effective force. He rounded up the many thousands of stragglers and deserters, issued all the men tastier food, and instituted a furlough lottery so that they could go home once in awhile. He got rid of Burnside's cumbersome "Grand Divisions" and gave each of his corps distinctive insignia, which helped clear up certain battlefield confusions while nudging his men toward something like an esprit de corps. Finally, he centralized his fast-improving cavalry (while, mysteriously, not doing the same with his artillery) and put Colonel George H. Sharpe in charge of his military intelligence. For the first time in the Potomac army's history, its commander knew exactly what lay before him.

Now, as ever, that was Robert E. Lee, whose army at the end of April 1863 numbered 61,000, putting him at a more than two-to-one disadvantage. Two additional Confederate divisions, under James Longstreet, were away to the southeast, encircling Suffolk. The idea was to capture food and supplies for an army that was rich with military victories but, due to logistical hang-ups, still hungry and without nearly enough shoes. Lee was well fortified behind the Rappahannock, but, otherwise, his was not an ideal position. When the fighting started, Longstreet was still too far south to help.

Hooker's plan was to send all but a couple brigades of cavalry, under the command of George Stoneman, on a wide loop to the west and south and into the rear of Lee's army, cutting his supply lines. Meanwhile, two Union corps under John Sedgwick—a force almost the size of Lee's entire army—would feint an attack in front of Fredericksburg while the remainder of the Potomac army secretly crossed the Rapidan River and crashed into Lee's left flank. By April 30, Stoneman had gone incommunicado, but all else was mostly according to plan. That night, three Union corps under Henry W. Slocum camped in the Wilderness, near an old tavern called Chancellorsville, waiting to push east in the morning.

The Campaign

Because of his superb intelligence, Hooker's knowledge of Lee's order of battle rivaled that of historians a hundred and fifty years later, but without cavalry, he could not follow the Confederates or even find them. His men, in the words of British historian Brian Holden Reid, "stumbled about like partygoers pushed from a brightly lit anteroom into a deep, pitch-black cellar." When they stumbled into Stonewall Jackson's Second Corps while still surrounded by the nearly impenetrable brambles of the Wilderness—a pitch-black cellar is right—they were startled into falling back. By nightfall on May 1, after a fierce day of fighting, Hooker was back to where he had started at Chancellorsville.

An entire school of historians has called this first day decisive, suggesting that Hooker was too cautious, too much in the tradition of Union general George B. McClellan. To quote Reid, "The ghost of McClellan had materialized." Bruce Catton was harsher: "Perhaps Joe Hooker had lost his nerve." Stephen W. Sears, in contrast, has noted that Hooker "was neither disheartened nor had he lost confidence in himself or in his plan." He had always intended to fight defensively, to avoid those ugly headlong charges. And while Hooker busied Oliver O. Howard and his Eleventh Corps with shoring up the end of the line, Lee and Jackson seated themselves on fallen logs and talked late into the night.

The plan they came up with was nothing short of a desperate gamble: Jackson would march his entire corps twelve miles under cover of the Wilderness, past an old iron furnace, and around to Hooker's vulnerable right. (Howard's men weren't actually shoring up much of anything.) Lee, who had sniffed out Sedgwick's feint from the start, would be left with a skeleton force. The next morning, Jackson's troops were spotted by a Union reconnaissance balloon, but Hooker was confounded by bad communication. When he finally heard of the march, he announced, with perhaps a bit too much self-congratulation, that Lee must be retreating. In fact, Jackson's men rushed screaming out of the forest at about five thirty in the afternoon on May 2 and set the German immigrants of Howard's Eleventh Corps to terrible flight—leaving them forever to be disparaged as the "Flying Dutchmen."

Jackson embodied relentlessness, and with his subordinate A. P. Hill grumbling behind him, he scouted the front for a possible night attack. That is when friendly fire struck him down, also wounding Hill. The Second Corps transferred to the ranking general in the field, the cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart, who, without any other plan to work from, threw his troops at Hooker the next morning. The fighting was as hot and close as any in the war—the vast majority of the battle's casualties occurred on this day—and Hooker himself suffered a concussion when a wooden beam from the Chancellor family house fell on him. Rumors immediately circulated that he was drunk, and historians have argued for years about the extent to which the stalemate that followed was a symptom of Hooker's decision not to remove himself from command. (Or was it that he lost his nerve again? A 1910 history of the battle has Hooker telling a subordinate that "I was not hurt by a shell and I was not drunk. For once I lost confidence in Hooker, and that is all there is to it." The historian Sears has thoroughly dismissed this account, however.)

Nevertheless, with Sedgwick waiting at Fredericksburg, the game was still Hooker's to win. Sedgwick was an old army regular who had been wounded three times at Antietam (1862), and he did not seem anxious to jump into this fight. Still, on May 3, he sent his Sixth Corps up Marye's Heights three times before finally overwhelming Confederate general Jubal A. Early's outnumbered Mississippians. So much for avoiding headlong charges, even if this Second Battle of Fredericksburg was more successful for the Army of the Potomac than the first. Lee was forced to rush reinforcements from the Wilderness. Those men, combined with bad communication, frayed nerves, and the fear of Longstreet's men finally appearing from the south like avenging ghosts, forced Sedgwick to retreat across the Rappahannock early in the morning on May 5. The next day—with the battle not quite lost and the Union troops certainly not feeling whipped—Hooker followed.

Aftermath

As the battle started, Hooker had promised his army that "certain destruction awaits" the enemy. A few days later, his generals could only shake their heads. They had lost 17,304 men, nearly as many as at Antietam. Worse, from their perspective, was the fact that Hooker had not engaged the whole army—the entire First Corps sat idle for much of the battle. The Confederates enjoyed no such luxury. Time and again they were forced to commit everything they had, and everything they had usually was not enough for a complete victory. Still, a consensus has formed that Lee's incomplete victory, accomplished in the face of overwhelming odds and with a kind of preternatural coolness, was the most brilliant example of generalship in the war.

Of course, Lee's casualty total was devastating, too, adding up to more than 13,000 and weakening the army's fighting ability even at a time when morale was high. The most famous of those casualties was Stonewall Jackson. His final charge assured his place not just in history but in mythology. As Lee told the young officer who brought him the news of his general's wounding, "Captain, any victory is dearly bought that deprives us of the services of Jackson even temporarily." Lee would ride the momentum of Chancellorsville north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July, but there, his coolness would fade. The fierce and flamboyant competence of his subordinates would falter. And Jackson's absence—his corps was given to the eccentric and one-legged Richard S. Ewell, nicknamed "Old Bald Head"—would be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Historians disagree and the debate has traditionally been waged within the historically suspect parameters of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War.)

Hooker, too, would be gone. His generals revolted against him just as he had once revolted against Burnside. In his own defense, he argued that Stoneman's cavalry raid, which reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital at Richmond and caused a good bit of panic, nevertheless failed to cut Lee's supply lines. He complained that Howard's men had run rather than fight. (Howard, who was particularly religious, labeled Hooker "impure" and accused him of swearing too much. That Howard would later be promoted over him was just one more insult to Fighting Joe.) Finally, he wondered why Sedgwick had not been more aggressive at Fredericksburg. In the end, though, Lincoln demanded results and so turned to George G. Meade. The army Meade took to Pennsylvania, however, was better equipped and better organized than it had been before Hooker. And many of its men did not believe that they had truly been beaten at Chancellorsville. As one Massachusetts soldier put it, "The morale of the Army of the Potomac was better in June than it had been in January."

Time Line

  • May 10, 1863, 3:15 p.m. - Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson dies of pneumonia at Fairfield, the home of Thomas and Mary Chandler, having spoken as his last recorded words: "Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees."
Further Reading
Bigelow, John. The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1910.
Catton, Bruce. Glory Road: The Bloody Route from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1952.
Gallagher, Gary W. Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Reid, Brian Holden. America's Civil War: The Operational Battlefield, 1861–1863. New York, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008.
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Wolfe, B. Chancellorsville Campaign. (2012, November 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Chancellorsville_Campaign.

  • MLA Citation:

    Wolfe, Brendan. "Chancellorsville Campaign." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Nov. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 12, 2009 | Last modified: November 29, 2012


Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.