Battle of Chancellorsville

Battle of Chancellorsville


Copy of a painting entitled, "Last Meeting of General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson." The scene depicts the meeting at the Battle of Chancellorsville, VA on May 2, 1863. The two men ride on horseback on the site of the battle. View the original source document: WHI 76486

Location: Chancellorsville, Virginia (Google Map)

Campaign: Chancellorsville Campaign (April-May 1863)

Outcome: Confederate victory

Summary

The Confederate victory at Chancellorsville opened the door for invading the North a month later.

The Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, spanned the first week of May 1863. It involved more than 160,000 soldiers, 30,000 of whom were killed or wounded. It occurred about halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. Although Union forces outnumbered Confederates almost 2-to-1, their leadership was bumbling and timid. Confederate generals, in contrast, showed both daring and creativity and drove Union forces from the field by the end of the week.

It was a costly victory for the Confederates. They lost more than 22 percent of their soldiers. Among the casualties was one of their most brilliant generals, Stonewall Jackson, who died after being accidentally shot in the dark by his own troops.

Wisconsin's Role

Wisconsin's 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 26th Wisconsin Infantry regiments and Berdan's Sharpshooters were engaged in some of the fiercest fighting. The 26th Wisconsin Infantry, composed almost entirely of German immigrants, had 149 men either killed or wounded.

Links to Learn More
Read About the Battle of Chancellorsville
Read About the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry
Read About the 26th Wisconsin Infantry
View Battle Maps
View Original Documents

[Source: Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields (Washington, 1993) Estabrook, C. Records and Sketches of Military Organizations (Madison, 1914) Love, W. Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Madison, 1866).


Why the Battle of Chancellorsville Was Both Glorious and Tragic

Famed Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson met his fate at Chancellorsville.

Key Point: Jackson’s Trail and Hazel’s Grove are among key the sites at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville.

Gray waves of infantry emerging from the dark woods on both sides of the Orange Turnpike stampeded startled Yankees on the Federal right flank on May 2, 1863. One of the Union positions jeopardized by Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank attack was the artillery park at Hazel Grove.

The Confederates were “rushing through and through my battery, overturning guns and limbers, smashing my caissons, and trampling my horse-holders under them,” wrote a disheartened Union artillery officer. Not all of the guns were overrun. Some Yankee gunners fired canister at point-blank range into Georgians trying to overrun their position.

Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, commander of the Union III Corps, had approximately 22 guns posted at Hazel Grove. As darkness engulfed the battlefield, Sickles strived to consolidate his corps before it was cut off by Confederate forces converging on it. Somehow in the black of night he pulled his forward elements back from Catharine Furnace to Hazel Grove before dawn.

Order to Abandon Hazel Grove Unravels Union Position

Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, whose confidence returned during the night following Jackson’s sledgehammer attack of the previous afternoon, summoned Sickles to his headquarters at the Chancellor House before dawn on May 3. Fearing that Sickles’ salient at Hazel Grove would be assailed from both sides, he ordered him to withdraw to Fairview on the Orange Plank Road. It was a major blunder. Hooker was conceding high ground perfect for artillery to the enemy without a fight.

For the morning of May 3, Lee told Maj. Gen. James E.B. Stuart to take command of Jackson’s corps following Stonewall’s wounding by friendly fire the previous night. As soon as Rebel infantry secured Hazel Grove that morning, Stuart ordered his artillery chief to put as many guns in action on the ridge as possible.

“A beautiful position for artillery”

Hazel Grove was “a beautiful position for artillery, an open grassy ridge some 400 yards long, extending northeast and southwest,” wrote Colonel Edward P. Alexander, the artillery reserve commander responsible for massing Rebel guns at Hazel Grove. Once the infantry had cleared the ridge, “General Stuart…sent me word to immediately crown the hill with 30 guns,” Alexander wrote. “They were close at hand, and all ready, and it was done very quickly.”

Solid shot streaked from the Rebel guns into Fairview and even as far as the Chancellor House. “Some of our shells set fire to the big Chancellorsville House itself, and the conflagration made a striking scene with our shells still bursting all about it,” wrote Alexander.

Hooker failed to resupply his cannoneers in the ensuing duel between Union guns at Fairview and Confederate guns at Hazel Grove. With the support of the guns at Hazel Grove, Confederate infantry seized the Fairview and Chancellorsville clearings. By late morning Hooker’s army was in full retreat toward U.S. Ford on the Rapidan River.

Make Time to Drive Jackson’s Trail

Hazel Grove, which today bristles with period cannon, is one of 10 key sites at the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park administered by the National Park Service.

Visitors’ first stop at Chancellorsville should be the visitor center at 9001 Plank Road. The center features exhibits, a bookstore, and a short film about the campaign. A short trail leads to the site where Jackson was tragically wounded.

Although all of the sites on the driving tour are worth visiting, the must-see sites are the Chancellor House Site, Hazel Grove, and Fairview. What’s more, it is worth carving out enough time to drive Jackson Trail, a gravel road that follows the route of Jackson’s II Corps on its famous flank march.

While visiting the park, contemplate how on May 2 the Confederacy’s fortunes soared as the Rebels headed toward a glorious victory, and then rapidly plummeted with the wounding of a remarkably gifted, irreplaceable general.


Chancellorsville

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside lasted only a single campaign at the head of the Army of the Potomac. His abject failure at Fredericksburg in December, 1862, followed by further fumbling on January's "Mud March," convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make another change in army commanders.

Major General Joseph Hooker's energetic make-over polished the Northern army into tip-top condition, and with more strength than ever before. Seizing the initiative, Hooker developed a “perfect” but poorly executed plan to trap Robert E. Lee’s army around Fredericksburg between two pincers of his force. With around 130,000 men to Lee’s 60,000, Hooker outmaneuvered Lee the last days of April, when the weather finally allowed roads to harden for marching.

First to move was the Union cavalry which conducted a wide, sweeping movement to the west and then south, but too far away to have any impact on the coming battle. Next, Hooker kept Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps opposite Fredericksburg to occupy Lee’s attention along the Rappahannock River. Swinging north and west beyond Lee's left with the remainder of his army, Hooker approached the Chancellorsville road intersection on the last evening in April with his V, IX and XII Corps. Continuing eastward toward Lee’s rear, he hoped to escape the clutches of the Wilderness — the tangled, brush-choked thickets that covered the area around the Chancellor family home and tavern.

On May 1, Lee hurriedly gathered his army from its camps. Missing Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet and two divisions of his army wing on a supply gathering expedition in southeast Virginia, Lee hoped to stall Hooker in the Wilderness, where the Union advantage in manpower would be negated. Lee divided his smaller army and pushed his main body west along the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road toward Hooker, leaving Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division to watch Sedgwick at Fredericksburg.

The two forces met near the Zoan Church three miles east of Chancellorsville late on the morning of May 1. On the turnpike, the Union V Corps met Lafayette McLaws’ division and was pushed back after three hours of fighting. Elements of the XII Corps were likewise stopped by Richard Anderson’s division on the Plank Road to the south. Then, inexplicably, Hooker ordered his corps commanders to fall back to Chancellorsville, somehow believing it better to have Lee to attack him there.

Lee would oblige him. That evening, he and Jackson conceived the battle plan for the next day. Early on May 2, Jackson took nearly 30,000 men off on a march that clandestinely crossed the front of the enemy army and swung around behind it. Jackson’s objective was the right flank of the Union line that rested “in the air” along the Orange Turnpike near Wilderness Tavern. That left Lee with only about 15,000 men to hold off Hooker's army around the Chancellorsville crossroads. He skillfully managed that formidable task by feigning attacks with a thin line of skirmishers.

At around 5:00 p.m. Jackson, having completed his circuit around the enemy, unleashed his men in an overwhelming attack on Hooker's right and rear. They shattered the Federal XI Corps and pushed the Northern army back more than two miles.

When Jackson's men burst out of the thickets screaming the “Rebel Yell” that afternoon, they dashed across the high-water mark of the Army of Northern Virginia. Yet three hours later, the army suffered a nadir as low as the afternoon's zenith, when Jackson fell mortally wounded by the mistaken fire of his own men. The forward momentum of Jackson’s infantry that might have carried them to the Rappahannock river fords was checked by darkness and the orders of J.E.B. Stuart, now in temporary command. Both sides settled in for an anxious night, the pickets occasionally exchanging musket fire in the dark.

The long marches and high risks of May 1-2 gave way on the 3rd to a slugging match in the woods on three sides of Chancellorsville intersection. Hooker abandoned key ground in a further display of timidity Confederate artillery roared from Hazel Grove and Southern infantry doggedly pushed ahead. When a Confederate artillery round smashed into a pillar against which Hooker was leaning, the Federal leader spent an unconscious half hour. His return to semi-sentience disappointed the veteran corps commanders who had hoped, unencumbered by Hooker, to employ their army's considerable untapped might.

By mid-morning, Southern infantry smashed through the final resistance and united in the Chancellorsville clearing. Their boisterous, well-earned, celebration did not last long: word came from the direction of Fredericksburg that the Northern rearguard threatened the army’s rear.

Sedgwick had crossed the Rappahannock and broken through Early’s battle line on Marye’s Heights, a task unachievable the previous December. Pressing west to join Hooker, he met resistance by more Confederates from McLaws’ division at Salem Church on the Plank Road, sent there by Lee who had divided his army a third time. McLaws and Early counterattacked Sedgwick on May 4 and pushed him back across the river, halting the Yankee threat from the east.

On May 5, Hooker held a council of war with his corps commanders. They recommended staying to fight but Hooker had had enough. His army re-crossed the Rappahannock to its north bank early on May 6. The campaign had cost Hooker about 18,000 casualties, and his enemy about 13,000. But none of the losses on either side would resonate as loudly and long as the death of “Stonewall” Jackson.


Battle of Chancellorsville - HISTORY

After the Battle of Antietam, Lee's forces retreated into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley with almost no interference. Frustrated by McClellan's lack of aggressiveness, Lincoln replaced him with General Ambrose E. Burnside (1824-1881). In December 1862, Burnside attacked 73,000 Confederate troops at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Six times Burnside launched frontal assaults on Confederate positions. The Union army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, twice the number suffered by Lee's men, severely damaging northern morale.

After the defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln removed Burnside and replaced him with Joseph Hooker (1814-1879). In May 1863, Hooker tried to attack Lee's forces from a side or flanking position. In just ten minutes, Confederate forces routed the Union army at the Battle of Chancellorsville. But the Confederate victory came at a high cost. Lee's ablest lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, was accidentally shot by a Confederate sentry and died of a blood clot.

Despite Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the Union showed no signs of giving up. In a bid to shatter northern morale and win European recognition, Lee's army launched a daring invasion of Pennsylvania.

When his forces drove northward into Pennsylvania, Lee assumed, mistakenly, that Union forces were still in Virginia. When he suddenly realized that Union forces were in close pursuit, he ordered his forces, which were strung out from Maryland to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to converge at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a central location where a number of roads met. Lee, who did not want to risk a battle until he had gathered all his troops together, ordered his men not to engage the enemy. But on July 1, 1863, a Confederate brigade ran into Union cavalry near Gettysburg and the largest battle ever fought in the West Hemisphere broke out before anyone realized what was happening.


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Battle of Chancellorsville - HISTORY

In January 1863 the Union army once again tried to cross the Rappahannock and attacked the Confederate Army. Initially the attacked was met with success, but Lee's superior leadership and the unwillingness of the Union forces to sustain an encounter resutled in another Union defeat.

After the debacle of Fredericksburg, Burnside in January made an additional attempt to cross the Rappahannock, which was now heavily fortified. On January 19th the army of the Potomac broke camp and headed upriver. The weather turned terrible, and after two days Burnside's was forced to call off the march, which was terribly bogged in the mud. It became known as the Mud march, and marked another low for the Army of the Potomac. On January 25th Lincoln replaced Burnside as the commander of the army of the Potomac, immediately replacing him with Joseph Hooker.

Hooker immediately reorganized the army, created an independent cavalry division, and most important reorganized the army. As one veteran recalled many years later

" From the commissary came less whiskey for the officers and better rations, including vegetable, for the men. Hospitals were renovated, new ones built, drunken surgeons discharged, sanitary supplies furnished, and the sick no longer left to suffer and die without proper care and attention. Officers and men who from incompetence or disability could be of no further use to the services were allowed to resign or were discharged, and those who were playing sick in the hospitals were sent to their regiments for duty."

Moral rebounded, but that was obviously only a start. Hooker needed to attack Lee forces. He developed a plan of attack, which he kept secret from everyone, so as not to alert Lee of his plans. His plans called for dividing his army in two. The first half would secretly move North and cross the river getting behind Lee, while the other half under Sedgwick would cross south of the city to fool Lee into thinking that this was the main attack.

The army of the Potomac broke camp on the 27th of April, and headed North. They successfully moved North without being observed by the confederates and crossed the river at Kelly's ford. At the same time Sedgwick began crossing South of the city.

The troops North quickly moved in and captured Chancellorsville, but instead of keeping moving under the orders from Hookers they then stopped to regroup before continuing. By the end of the 30th Lee had decided that Sedgwick's crossing to the South of town was merely a feint, and the main attack was coming to the North. Lee ordered his main forces North. They moved North on the morning of the first. That day, Hooker's forces- moved out as well. Slocum's forces were to advance along Plank road on the right, supported by Howard's corp., Meade was to advance on the left supported by Couch's corps. The roads led through an area that was known as the wilderness, thick forest that was almost impenetrable. The goal was to make it through the woods to the open, where the Unions numerical strength would be effective. The going was not easy and a regular army division commanded by George Sykes was forced to withdraw when it came under withering fire. The division regrouped and receive reinforcements but before it could resume its advance it received orders from Hooker to pull back. Hooker seems to have lost his nerve, and he pulled all of the army back to their starting point of the morning. Meanwhile Lee had arrived on the scene. He and Jackson, after scouting out the Union defensive lines concluded that a direct attack on them would fail, instead it was decided that Jackson commanding 25,000 men would make a large flanking move and hit the Union armies Northern flank. Jackson moved off, and although his movement was observed by Union forces, Hooker concluded that it was the beginning of a confederate withdrawal. Thus despite mounting evidence that Jackson was going to attack the North flank of the army no preparations were made, nor was Lee almost empty lines attacked. At 6 PM on May 2nd, Jackson launched his attack on the unsuspecting Union flank. It fell back in confusion. Meanwhile Jackson himself was wounded by his own men. He died a few days later.

Hooker ordered the forces of Sedgwick to attack from the south and on the morning they successfully stormed the Marye Heights, defended this time only by Early's division, which was forced back. Sedgwick was ordered to advance and attack Lee's main body from his rear. Unfortunately for Sedgwick the inactivity of Hookers forces around Chancellorsville allowed Lee to turn his army and face Sedgwick, who was fought to a standstill. Sedgwick retired back across the Rappahannock. The next day before the Confederates could renew there attack, the Union forces withdrew from there beachhead across the Rappahannock. Once again Lees superior generalship and union incompetence had bested a Union forces twice his size.


The Battle of Chancellorsville

May 1863 opened in a burst of spring glory along the Rappahannock River. Blossoms from apple, peach, and cherry trees splashed color against a background of soft green woods. Wildflowers dotted hillsides and ditches alongside rolling fields of luxuriant grasses and wheat half a foot high. Nature thus masked the scars inflicted by two huge armies over the previous months, providing a beautiful stage across which a whirlwind of action would be played out during May's first week. Armed with an excellent strategic blueprint, Union Major General Joseph Hooker and his Army of the Potomac marched into this scene of pastoral renewal. General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson reacted with a series of maneuvers that carried their fabled collaboration to its dazzling apogee. The confrontation produced a grand drama filled with memorable scenes, a vivid contrast in personalities between the respective army commanders, and clogged fighting by soldiers on both sides. Its final act brought humiliating defeat for the proud Army of the Potomac and problemactical victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.

IN 1862, ROBERT E. LEE HAD DEFEATED GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN, JOHN POPE, AND AMBROSE BURNSIDE, BUT COULD HE DEFEAT JOE HOOKER? (NPS)

The spring of 1863 marked the advent of the third year in an increasingly bloody war. Along the Mississippi River, Major General Ulysses S. Grant continued his movement against the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg with an eye toward establishing Union control of the "Father of Waters." In Middle Tennessee, Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland prepared to engage General Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee in operations that could settle the fate of Chattanooga and the Georgia hinterlands. The last major military arena lay in Virginia, where the armies of Hooker and Lee were arrayed along the Rappahannock River.

Neither government considered Virginia the most important theater. President Abraham Lincoln and Major General Henry W. Halleck, his general in chief, considered Grant's operations most important. Success there would separate the Trans-Mississippi states from the rest of the Confederacy, allow Northern vessels to cruise the river at will, and provide water-borne access to great stretches of Confederate territory. Lincoln and Halleck saw Rosecrans's movements as second in importance, judging Hooker's activities a clear third. On the Confederate side, Jefferson Davis and many of his generals believed the decisive fighting would come in Tennessee. A group that has come to be known as the "Western Concentration Bloc," which included officers such as General Joseph F. Johnston and Lieutenant General James Longstreet as well as Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas and other influential politicians, argued that Lee's army should be weakened to reinforce Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. Lee thought otherwise and hoped to keep as much strength as possible under his command. Mulling over the strategic situation in late February, he had postulated victory for the Confederacy through "systematic success" on the battlefield that would create "a revolution among [the Northern] people."

AS THE CAMPAIGN OPENED, JOE HOOKER BRIMMED WITH SELF-CONFIDENCE. "MY PLANS ARE PERFECT," HE TOLD A GROUP OF OFFICERS, "AND WHEN I START TO CARRY THEM OUT, MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON GENERAL LEE, FOR I WILL HAVE NONE." (LC)

Lee knew better than most that military success in Virginia stood the best chance of triggering such a revolution. Accused then and later of wearing Virginia blinders, the Southern commander in fact understood that the psychological power of his victories probably outweighed whatever the Confederacy might accomplish elsewhere. The eastern theater contained the respective capitals, each nation's largest army, and the Confederacy's most famous generals, Lee and Jackson. The Mississippi River or Middle Tennessee might be more crucial in a strictly military sense, but many citizens and politicians North and South, as well as virtually all foreign observers, considered the eastern theater to be transcendent. Lincoln had learned this lesson the previous year, when a series of Union victories in the West had been overshadowed by Major General George B. McClellan's failure during the Seven Days' battles. "It seems unreasonable," the frustrated president had observed, "that a series of successes, extending through half-a-year, and clearing more than a hundred thousand square miles of country, should help us so little, while a single half-defeat should hurt us so much." The campaign between Hooker and Lee—the one man new to army leadership and the other a consummate field commander—would have great significance because so many people considered it the war's centerpiece in the spring of 1863.

CHANCELLORSVILLE WAS A LARGE BRICK HOUSE IN THE WILDERNESS, RATHER THAN A TOWN AS ITS NAME MIGHT IMPLY. ORIGINALLY OPERATED AS A TAVERN, IT BECAME HOOKER'S HEADQUARTERS DURING THE BATTLE. (BL)

A PHOTOGRAPHER TOOK THIS PICTURE OF STONEWALL JACKSON AT THE YERBY HOUSE JUST DAYS BEFORE THE CAMPAIGN OPENED. JACKSON'S SOLDIERS LIKED THE IMAGE, BUT HIS WIFE, ANNA, THOUGHT IT MADE HIM LOOK TOO STERN. (NA)

The rival commanders and their armies offered a study in contrasts on the eve of the campaign. Hooker had been named to head the Army of the Potomac on January 25, 1863, through a combination of solid service and effective political maneuvering. A graduate of West Point, who ranked twenty-ninth in the class of 1837, he had left the army in the 1850s but accepted a brigadier generalcy of volunteers shortly after war erupted in 1861. He missed the battle of First Bull Run, then fought as a division and corps chief at the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. A press report of action on the Peninsula headed "Fighting-Joe Hooker" had been rendered "Fighting Joe Hooker" when it appeared in print, thus fastening on its subject a nickname that he despised but never managed to shake. Still, he did stand out as an aggressive officer in an army blessed with too little of that commodity. A shameless self promoter, Hooker worked tirelessly to supplant Major General Ambrose F. Burnside following the Union fiasco at Fredericksburg and the equally ignominious Mud March of mid-January 1863. Telling Republicans in Congress what they wanted to hear, touting his own accomplishments, and criticizing Burnside, he emerged in late January as the president's choice to lead the Army of the Potomac.

Hooker looked the part of a general and exuded self-assurance. Above medium height, blue-eyed, with light hair and a ruddy complexion, he cut a dashing figure on or off a horse. "It is no vanity in me to say I am a damned sight better general than any you had on that field," he had told Lincoln after First Bull Run. Newspapers generally liked Hooker's cockiness. One rhapsodized about him in January 1863 as "a General of the heroic stamp. who feels the enthusiasm of a soldier and who loves battle from an innate instinct for his business."

"Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."

The president told his new commander what he expected in a remarkably perceptive and blunt letter. "I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier . " wrote Lincoln. "You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm." But Lincoln knew Hooker had worked against Burnside—which "did a great wrong to the country"—and had spoken of the need for a military dictator if the North were to win the war. "Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command," continued the president: "Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship." In a communication dated January 31, 1863, Halleck spoke for Lincoln in reiterating to Hooker what he had told Burnside earlier that month: "Our first object was, not Richmond, but the defeat and scattering of Lee's army." The president confirmed Halleck's language some two months later, observing that "our prime object is the enemies' army in front of us, and is not with, or about, Richmond."

The Army of the Potomac in January 1863 represented a poor weapon with which Hooker might smite the Rebels. "Fighting Joe" inherited an organization buffeted by defeat, lacking confidence in leaders who engaged in bitter squabbling, plagued by breakdowns in the delivery of pay and food, and suffering a high rate of desertion. An officer in the 140th New York described an "entire army struck with melancholy. . . . The mind of the army, just now, is a sort of intellectual marsh in which False Report grows fat, and sweeps up and down with a perfect audacity and fierceness." Another soldier thought "the army is fast approaching a mob." A man in the 155th Pennsylvania spoke darkly of the dismantling of Hooker's force: "I like the idea for my part," he observed, "& I think they may as well abandon this part of Virginia's bloody soil." Many of the problems boiled down to the men's lack of faith in their generals. "From want of confidence in its leaders and from no other reason," summarized one observant New Yorker, "the army is fearfully demoralized."

Executive Mansion
Washington, January 26, 1863

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not indispensable, quality.

You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly,
A. Lincoln

Hooker took a number of steps that quickly restored morale. He named as medical director Jonathan Letterman, who oversaw improvements in food and sanitation that helped to lower the incidence of illness among the soldiers. Tackling the problem of desertion, Hooker tightened patrols while also convincing Lincoln to issue a proclamation of amnesty. A new system of furloughs for individuals and units with strong records went into effect, a measure, noted one man, that triggered "joyous anticipation" in the ranks. Known as a general who appreciated good drink, Hooker mandated a whiskey ration for soldiers returning from picket duty. Perhaps most important symbolically, the new commander instituted a system of corps badges. Initially aimed at identifying the units of shirkers, the badges soon became highly valued symbols that engendered pride in belonging to a particular corps. Hooker probably did not exaggerate when he commented after the war that this innovation "had a magical effect on the discipline and conduct of our troops. . . . The badge became very precious in the estimation of the soldier."

MORALE IN THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC WAS AT LOW EBB AT THE TIME HOOKER ASSUMED COMMAND. HE WOULD HAVE JUST THREE MONTHS TO TURN THINGS AROUND. (BL)

HOOKER'S ADOPTION OF CORPS BADGES ENABLED OFFICERS TO IDENTIFY UNITS ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND BUILT ESPRIT-DE-CORPS AMONG THE TROOPS. (BL)

The army also underwent reorganization. Hooker scrapped the Grand Divisions of Burnside's tenure, which had grouped the Union corps into larger administrative bodies. This required that he communicate with eight corps—a cumbersome arrangement at best. Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who led the Eleventh Corps, suggested that Hooker opted for this arrangement because he "enjoyed maneuvering several independent bodies." Far more pernicious was Hooker's decision to scatter the army's artillery batteries among its infantry divisions, which removed the able Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt from effective charge of the Federal long arm. Hooker believed this move would promote strong bonds between the infantry and artillery because soldiers "regarded their batteries with a feeling of devotion." But its principal effect was to deny Northern artillery the ability to mass for concentrated fire. Hooker took the opposite approach with his mounted arm, which he gathered into a Cavalry Corps under the direction of Major General George Stoneman.

A canvass of Hooker's subordinate command reveals some competence and a good deal of caution, but no brilliance. Closest to Hooker was Third Corps commander Daniel F. Sickles, a former New York congressman who had murdered his wife's lover in 1859, won acquittal, and then—to the astonishment of Washington society—accepted Mrs. Sickles back into his home. Innocent of military training and beholden to Hooker for his advancement to major general, Sickles differed from the other corps chiefs in his aggressiveness on the battlefield. The First Corps belonged to Major General John F. Reynolds, a handsome Pennsylvanian widely known then and since as the ablest corps commander in the array—but whose record offers little evidence to substantiate that lofty reputation. Major General Darius N. Couch, a Pennsylvanian who led the Second Corps, emulated his idol George B. McClellan with a conservative approach to war and politics. A third Pennsylvanian, Major General George G. Meade, quietly presided over the Fifth Corps after a solid but unspectacular record during the first two years of the conflict. A pair of strong McClellan supporters, Major General John Sedgwick and Major General Henry W. Slocum, commanded the Sixth and Twelfth corps respectively. Neither had compiled a distinguished record indeed, Sedgwick's one memorable episode as a general consisted of leading his division to ignominious disaster in the West Woods at Antietam. Except for Sickles, all of these men had advanced partly because of their ability to mask conservative political views in the context of a war shifting to a more radical orientation concerning emancipation and other issues.

GEORGE STONEMAN COMMANDED THE UNION ARMY'S CAVALRY CORPS. "LET YOUR WATCH WORD BE FIGHT," HOOKER TOLD HIM. (BL)

GEORGE G. MEADE (BL)

O. O. Howard of the Eleventh Corps stood out as a pious Republican among predominantly Democratic peers. Hooker shared Howard's politics but not his moral code. In a postwar interview, the former army commander remarked savagely that Howard "was always a woman among troops. If he was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them. He was always taken up with Sunday Schools and the temperance cause." Howard inspired little devotion in his corps, which counted among its ranks thousands of Germans who would have preferred Major General Carl Schurz or some other German-speaking officer as their commander. Taunted as "Dutchmen" throughout the army, the soldiers of the Eleventh Corps stood apart from their comrades—just as their commander stood apart from them. Adversity would bind them together in the wake of Chancellorsville.

Despite the uncertain quality of many of its senior generals, the Army of the Potomac approached the spring campaign as a formidable force. Well supplied and equipped and vigorously led by Hooker, the army numbered nearly 134,000 men of all arms and could carry 413 artillery pieces into battle. Hooker described this host as "the finest army on the planet." Others shared this view, including Edward Porter Alexander, a perceptive Confederate artillerist who after the war wrote of "Hooker's great army—the greatest this country had ever seen."

A series of reviews through the spring season allowed the army to display its growing confidence and power. President Lincoln joined Hooker in early April to preside over the most notable of these public showings. Scores of thousands of men marched by the admiring general and their commander in chief. After one of the reviews, a soldier in the Second Massachusetts proudly proclaimed that the "Army of the Potomac is a collection of as fine troops . . . as there are in the world." An Ohioan seemed awestruck at such a magnificent display of the Republic's martial resources: "Such a great army! Thunder and lightning! The Johnnies could never whip this army!"

E. PORTER ALEXANDER (BL)

R. E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to meet their imposing foe after enduring a very difficult winter and early spring. Lee's own health remained uncertain. In early April he complained to his wife of "a good deal of pain in my chest, back, & arms." "Some fever remains," he added, and the doctors "have been tapping me all over like an old steam boiler before condemning it." By April 11, he reported himself much improved to his daughter Agnes: "I hope I shall recover my strength," he wrote, through his pulse stood at about 90, "too quick for an old man," according to his physicians.

The winter had forced hard choices on Lee. Unable to provision his cavalry, he had dispersed it widely to secure sufficient fodder. James Longstreet, head of the First Corps and Lee's senior lieutenant, also had been detached from the army with the divisions of Major General George E. Pickett and Major General John Bell Hood. Posted in Southside Virginia near Suffolk, Longstreet's soldiers foraged on a grand scale and stood ready to block Federal thrusts from Norfolk, or the coast of North Carolina. Lee retained the divisions of Major General Richard H. Anderson and Major General Lafayette McLaws from Longstreet's corps. and Stonewall Jackson's entire Second Corps—the divisions of Major General Ambrose Powell Hill, Brigadier General Robert F. Rodes, Major General Jubal A. Early, and Brigadier General Raleigh E. Colston—stood ready to rake the field against Hooker. Lee's artillery counted 220 guns, and approximately 2,500 Confederate cavalrymen were near at hand. The Army of Northern Virginia could muster slightly fewer than 61,000 men in all—which meant it would face an enemy more than twice its strength.

IN APRIL 1863, PRESIDENT LINCOLN TRAVELED TO STAFFORD COUNTY TO REVIEW THE ARMY. HERE BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN BUFORD'S CAVALRY DIVISION PASSES IN REVIEW. (HW)

Superb leadership partially offset this daunting disparity in numbers. Lee's record since June 1862 justified his reputation as an unexcelled field commander. He had forged an unshakable bond with his soldiers, and many Confederate civilians already viewed him as the personification of their war effort. "Like [George] Washington, he is a wise man, and a good man," noted a Georgia newspaper in late 1862, "and possesses in an eminent degree those qualities which are indispensable in the great leader and champion upon whom the country rests its hopes of present success and future independence." Stonewall Jackson stood second only to Lee in the estimation of the Confederate people (in Europe he probably was more famous) and inspired similar confidence among his men. As superior and loyal subordinate, Lee and Jackson formed a partnership that accounted for much of the army's success. Major General James E. B. "Jeb" Stuart complemented Lee and Jackson beautifully. He brought unmatched skill in the arts of gathering intelligence and screening the army to his work with the cavalry—talents that would prove crucial in the upcoming campaign. Finally, the Confederate artillery boasted a group of highly intelligent, innovative, and cocky young officers who benefited from a recent reorganization that placed Southern batteries in battalions. Unlike their opponents, Confederate gunners would be able to bring several batteries to bear on different sectors of the battlefield—a tactic that diminished Union advantages in firepower and quality of ordinance.

Splendid Confederate morale brightened the prospects for Southern success. Lee's soldiers had overcome long odds in winning spectacular victories, and they believed their generals would place them in a position to do so again.

Splendid Confederate morale brightened the prospects for Southern success. Lee's soldiers had overcome long odds in winning spectacular victories, and they believed their generals would place them in a position to do so again. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, a youthful brigadier in Robert Rodes's division, spoke for many in the army when he confidently stated that the "vandal hordes of the Northern Tyrant are struck down with terror arising from their past experience. They have learned to their sorrow that this army is made up of veterans equal to those of the 'Old Guard' of Napoleon." When Hooker seemed loath to advance during one spell of dry weather in March, Ramseur confidently attributed it to Fighting Joe's desire "to postpone the day of his defeat and humiliation." Lee reciprocated this confidence, seeing in his soldiers the capacity to offset much of the North's substantial edge in men and materiel.

Hooker's preponderant strength carried with it the strategic initiative. Well aware of Burnside's costly failure to bludgeon his way through Lee's defenders at the battle of Fredericksburg, he entertained no thought of challenging entrenched Confederates head-on. His initial plan called for turning Lee's left flank with the Cavalry Corps. Stoneman would take his command across the Rappahannock well upstream from Fredericksburg, after which the troopers would strike south and southeast to disrupt communications and transportation in Lee's rear. Expecting Lee to withdraw toward the Confederate capital in the face of this threat, Hooker would push his infantry over the Rappahannock and pursue the fleeing Rebels. "I have concluded that I will have more chance of inflicting a heavier blow upon the enemy by turning his position to my right," the general informed President Lincoln on April 11, "and, if practicable, to sever his connections with Richmond with my dragoon force and such light batteries as it may be deemed advisable to send with them." The next day Hooker urged Stoneman to remember that "celerity, audacity, and resolution are everything in war," pointedly telling the cavalryman that "on you and your noble command must depend in a great measure the extent and brilliancy of our success."

JAMES E.B. STUART (LC)

The cavalry's turning march, begun promisingly enough on April 13, quickly slowed to a halt when heavy rains turned the Rappahannock into a frothing, impassable torrent. Only a single brigade made it across the river before the water rose precipitately and prompted Stoneman to abort the effort. "I greatly fear it is another failure already," an anguished Lincoln commented when Hooker explained Stoneman's problems. The president, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and General Halleck joined Hooker at Aquia on April 19 to discuss strategy.

Hooker greeted his visitors with plans for a more ambitious turning operation. Stoneman's role remained essentially the same, but now Federal infantry would march simultaneously with their mounted comrades. While the Cavalry Corps crossed the river and began its dash into the Virginia interior, the 42,000 men of the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Fifth corps would move upriver, past well-defended Banks and United States fords, to negotiate the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford. Once on the Rebel side of the river, they would hasten south to cross the Rapidan River at Germanna and Ely's fords, proceed into a heavily wooded area known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, concentrate at a crossroads called Chancellorsville, and then strike Lee's army from the west. Meanwhile, two divisions from Couch's Second Corps—another 10,000 men—would proceed to United States Ford and wait for Meade's Fifth Corps, marching east toward Lee, to drive Confederate defenders away from the river.

WHEN UNION SOLDIERS CROSSED THE RAPIDAN RIVER, THEY ENTERED A 70-SQUARE-MILE AREA OF DENSE THICKETS KNOWN AS THE WILDERNESS. MANY WOULD NEVER LEAVE ITS GLOOMY REALM. (NPS)

Hooker hoped to hold Lee's attention at Fredericksburg by shifting the Sixth and First corps, 40,000 strong and under John Sedgwick's overall command, to the Rebel side of the Rappahannock below town. Sedgwick's troops would threaten an attack against Stonewall Jackson's divisions holding the Confederate right flank. Further to mask Hooker's turning movement, Daniel Sickles's Third Corps and one division of the Second Corps, which together mustered nearly 25,000 muskets. would remain in their camps at Falmouth in plain view of watching Confederates.

THE RIGHT WING OF THE UNION ARMY BROKE CAMP ON APRIL 27 AND CONFIDENTLY HEADED UP THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER. WITHIN TWO WEEKS IT WOULD BE BACK WHERE IT STARTED. (BL)

EACH UNION SOLDIER LEFT CAMP WITH UPWARD OF 60 POUNDS OF EQUIPMENT. AS THE DAY DREW HOTTER, INDIVIDUALS CAST OFF OVERCOATS, BLANKETS, AND OTHER CUMBERSOME ITEMS. (LC)

If Hooker's grand design were to work, the three corps in the turning column should break clear of the Wilderness as quickly as possible. Covering approximately seventy square miles, the Wilderness extended south from the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers with irregular borders running some three miles south and two miles east of Chancellorsville. Few roads traversed this gloomy forest, and only a handful of farms broke its dismal hold on the countryside. No longer dominated by mature growth, it was an ugly, scrub wasteland repeatedly cut over to feed hungry little iron furnaces in the region. Dense underbrush, choking vines, thickets of blackjack and hickory, and spindly saplings posed wicked obstacles to the passage of troops and would nullify to a large degree the superior Federal artillery. Just a few miles east of Chancellorsville the Wilderness gave way to open country where Northern numbers and equipment could have full weight. That was where the turning column should seek its outnumbered and outgunned enemy.

Efficient execution of the Union plan would squeeze Lee between powerful forces in front and rear while Stoneman's cavalry wreaked havoc on Confederate lines of communication and supply. Hooker believed his opponent must either retreat, to be hounded by a pursuing Army of the Potomac, or attack the Federals on unfavorable ground. Either scenario promised victory sweeping enough to lay to rest the troubling ghosts of Fredericksburg and other Union failures against Lee. An admiring Porter Alexander awarded Hooker's design high marks: "On the whole I think this plan was decidedly the best strategy conceived in any of the campaigns ever set on foot against us," he wrote in his memoirs. "And the execution of it was, also, excellently managed, up to the morning of May 1st."


Battle of Chancellorsville History: Hooker Bows Out

Hooker, however, had seen enough. Despite the objections of most of his corps commanders, he ordered a withdrawal across the river. The Federals conducted their retreat under cover of darkness and arrived back in Stafford County on May 6. Ironically, this decision may have been Hooker's most serious blunder of the campaign. Lee's impending assault on May 6 might have failed and completely reversed the outcome of the battle.

Confederate leadership during the Chancellorsville Campaign may represent the finest generalship of the Civil War, but the luster of "Lee's greatest victory" tarnishes upon examination of the battle's tangible results. In truth, the Army of the Potomac had not been so thoroughly defeated - some 40,000 Federals had done no fighting whatsoever. Although Hooker suffered more than 17,000 casualties, those losses accounted for only 13% of his total strength. Lee's 13,000 casualties amounted to 22% of his army, men difficult to replace. Of course, Jackson's death on May 10 created a vacancy that could never be filled. Finally, Lee's triumph at Chancellorsville imbued him with the belief that his army was invincible. He convinced the Richmond government to endorse his proposed offensive into Pennsylvania. Within six weeks, the Army of Northern Virginia confidently embarked on a journey northward to keep an appointment with destiny at a place called Gettysburg.

The text for this section was written by A. Wilson Green, former staff historian for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. It is derived from a National Park Service training booklet.


Watch the video: Gods and Generals Battle of Chancellorsville part one