In this lesson, we will explore the Battle of Chancellorsville. We will focus especially on the plans and goals of the Union and the Confederacy and the execution and outcome of the battle.
An Army of Shame
As the North traveled the road to the Battle of Chancellorsville in the first months of 1863, the Union Army in the East was in shameful shape.
General Ambrose Burnside was in charge, but he wasn’t doing well. His army had sustained massive casualties and an embarrassing loss at Fredericksburg the previous December when Burnside ordered troops to repeatedly attack a well-entrenched Confederate line. Trying to redeem himself, the general took the offensive again in January only to end up with his army hopelessly bogged down in the mud. He was getting nowhere fast, and his troops were dejected, hungry, ill, and almost ready to give up.
Fighting Joe Hooker and His Plan
Burnside soon realized that he was not the right man to lead the Union Army, and he resigned his post. General Joseph Hooker, often called ‘Fighting Joe,’ took his place. Hooker believed that given a little time and effort, he could whip the army into tip-top shape and then turn and whip the enemy. He made a few changes in the army’s routine, providing better food and sanitation, reorganizing the command structure, and ordering more frequent drills. Soon the soldiers’ morale raised, and they were ready to fight once again.
Hooker had a plan for that, too. He decided that his troops should cross the Rappahannock River at several locations and then gather at Chancellorsville, Virginia. A small group of soldiers would feign an attack a little to the east to divert the enemy’s attention. Then the whole Union army would pounce on the Confederates from Chancellorsville. Hooker knew that Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army was outnumbered and weakened by a winter without proper food, clothing, or shoes. He was confident that he could win a major victory.
‘My plans are perfect,’ Hooker boasted, ‘and when I start to carry them out may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.’In late April of 1863, Hooker set his plans in motion. His army successfully crossed the Rappahannock, and by May 1, it had taken the high ground just south of Chancellorsville and was in a perfect position to achieve Hooker’s predicted victory.Then, suddenly, Hooker pulled his troops back to Chancellorsville. No one could understand it.
Had the general lost his nerve? Hooker claimed to have his reasons, but he had made a bad mistake.
A Daring Trick
Late at night on May 1, Lee met with his right-hand man, General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson to talk strategy. Jackson proposed a daring trick. He would lead over 26,000 Confederates in a twelve-mile march around Hooker’s right flank and surprise the Union Army.
It was a risky plan because Lee would be left to face a possible direct Union attack with only about 14,000 Confederates. Lee, however, trusted Jackson and gave him permission to try.Early on May 2, Jackson and his men began their march. The Confederates skirmished a bit with Union forces, who reported their activities to Hooker.
Hooker, however, refused to recognize the Confederate threat, and even assumed that the enemy was actually retreating.Hooker could not have been more wrong. By 4 p.m.
, the Confederates had reached their destination and were forming their battle lines while most Union troops were goofing off, talking, and relaxing with their weapons neatly stacked in a pile. They had no idea what was about to descend upon them.Jackson attacked a little after 5 p.m., and the Confederates stormed the Union Army, screaming out their famous rebel yell.
Caught completely off guard, Union troops broke and dashed into Chancellorsville in a panic. The confused Hooker managed to rally a few of his troops and bring up some artillery pieces. By this time, however, the Confederates had gotten a bit mixed up in the thickets around Chancellorsville and had pulled back to regroup.
The fighting was over for the day.That night, Jackson went out to do some scouting. As he returned to his own lines, however, a picket mistook him for a Union cavalryman and opened fire. Gravely injured, Jackson was moved off the battlefield.
Victory and Tragedy
As May 3 dawned, Union reinforcements were already arriving at Chancellorsville. Hooker’s army vastly outnumbered the Confederates, who were now commanded by General J.
Stuart started off the morning by sending wave after wave of Confederates slamming against the Union line. They didn’t break, though, but Union soldiers soon grew tired.Hooker, who was commanding his troops from the porch of a Chancellorsville house, was knocked unconscious when a shell hit nearby. When he awoke, he decided that he’d had enough of battle for one day and ordered a retreat.The Union had one more chance at success. General John Sedgwick’s corps was sneaking up on the Confederates from the east. Soon, however, Lee became aware of the Union’s movements and sent a force to meet Sedgwick at Salem Church.
The two armies clashed on May 3-4. The Confederates couldn’t break the Union line, but the Union could not progress.Hooker called a meeting of his subordinate generals to figure out what to do next. The majority voted to attack, but Hooker ignored them and ordered the Union Army to retreat across the Rappahannock on May 6. Lee was left victorious on the battlefield, but his victory was tinged with tragedy, for Stonewall Jackson died of his wounds on May 10. Lee immediately began forming a new plan.
He would march north and meet the Union Army on its own territory. Within six weeks, the Confederate army was on the road to Pennsylvania.
At the beginning of 1863, the Union Army, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, was in rough shape. General Joseph Hooker soon took control, built up his forces, and formed a plan. He would cross the Rappahannock River, congregate his army at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and attack from there.
Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had plans of their own, however. Jackson pulled a daring trick and marched his men around Hooker’s right flank, taking the Union Army by surprise on May 2 and causing it to flee in panic. Fighting resumed on May 3, with Confederate General J.E.B.
Stuart replacing the wounded Jackson, but Hooker called a retreat.Union General John Sedgwick tried to sneak up on the Confederates from the east but ran into Lee’s forces at Salem Church and could progress no further. On May 6, Hooker ordered his troops to retreat across the Rappahannock, and Lee was left victorious at Chancellorsville. His victory, however, came at a steep price.
Stonewall Jackson, who had been wounded on May 2, died on May 10. Lee, mourning his friend, prepared to march north and meet the Union Army on its own territory.
When this lesson has been completed, you could be able to:
- List the major players of this Civil War battle
- Recognize the Union’s mistakes at Chancellorsville