The Battle of Chancellorsville: Beginning of the End?
By Michael Aubrecht and Gunnery Sergeant Robert Kruger, USMC


SUMMARY: In May of 1863, General Thomas Jackson's corps launched a tremendous surprise attack on Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac, (AOP) in what would be paradoxically remembered as one of the Army of Northern Virginia's (ANV) greatest victories. Anxious to end the Federal forces occupation in the South, the overzealous Confederate commander took several potentially catastrophic risks that would ultimately change the course of the Civil War. By the spring of 1863, the Confederacy had claimed more victories (due [in part] to the majority of battles that took place on Southern soil) and appeared to be well on their way toward achieving independence. Things would begin to change following the ANV's win at Chancellorsville, which resulted in the loss of Jackson and possibly the South's momentum. In an effort to fully understand the significance of the Battle of Chancellorsville, we present a study of the participants and events from both sides.

SIGNIFICANCE: The engagement took place on the property of a family residence, within a 10 square-mile area, that included the intersection of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road. The Battle of Chancellorsville was one of the largest non-traditional "ambush" engagements, as opposed to the Napoleonic and/or "siege-style" of warfare that dominated the majority of the Civil War's 19th-Century field tactics. Despite being regarded as a tremendous victory for the South, the loss of Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and the sense of invincibility instilled in the Confederate Army ultimately resulted in more tragedy than triumph.

The Armies

PARTICIPANTS: Confederate: Army of Northern Virginia: Est. 61,000 soldiers - 220 artillery guns / Union: Army of the Potomac: Est. 70,000 soldiers - 184 artillery guns

CONFEDERATE Command Structure:
General Lee (commander of the Army of Northern Virginia)
Major General Longstreet (I Corps commander - not present)
Major General Jackson (II Corps commander)
Major General McLaws (I Division commander)
Major General Anderson (II Division commander)
Major General A.P. Hill (Light Division commander)
Major General Rodes (D.H. Hill Division)
Brigadier General Early (Division commander)
Brigadier General Colston (Division commander)
Brigadier General Stuart (ANV Cavalry commander)

UNION Command Structure:
General Hooker (commander of the Army of the Potomac)
Major General Reynolds (I Corps commander)
Major General Couch (II Corps commander)
Major General Sickles (III Corps commander)
Major General Meade (V Corps commander)
Major General Sedgwick (VI Corps commander)
Major General Howard (XI Corps commander)
Major General Slocum (XII Corps commander)
Brigadier General Stoneman (AP Cavalry commander)

Army of Northern Virginia

BATTLEPLAN: Fully aware that they were outnumbered, the Confederacy's top commanders took advantage of an opportunity to turn the Union Army back toward Washington D.C. Not quite sure of his foe's intentions, General Robert E. Lee questioned the logic as to why the Federals had allowed him to move troops independently between two much larger bodies and therefore concluded that an upcoming full-scale engagement was inevitable. Utilizing both military and civilian intelligence, including surveillance by J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry and local Fredericksburg residents' assistance in identifying "hidden" road locations, the "Gray Fox" ordered Jackson to march his troops undetected to the outskirts of the encampment and launch a vicious surprise attack that would destroy the Union's positions and instigate a retreat back to the safer confines of the North.

REALITY: With an exhausting march, Jackson was able to move his entire army into position with virtually no detection or difficulties. But by the time they arrived, the day's remaining light was down to approximately two hours. After positioning his troops, Stonewall ordered his men forward and they proceeded to overwhelm the camp. As the Union Army attempted to form into ranks, its artillery was summarily captured as well as the majority of its supplies. Unable to organize, the majority of the Federal forces began to retreat back toward Hooker's headquarters. With the aide of his officers, the infuriated commander was able to regain some control of his troops and began to formulate a counter attack as the sun set. After Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops in a terrible case of mistaken identity, the Confederate command structure had to quickly modify its battle plan in order to maintain troop morale and the upper hand. Jackson's troops were assumed under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart and were composed of A.P. Hill's, Rodes' and Colston's divisions, just to the West of the III Corps position at Fairview. Two divisions of Longstreet's corps, (Anderson's and McLaws') were with General Lee, just to the east of the Federal position. The combined strength of these two forces was about 48,000 men. Facing Sedgwick at Fredericksburg was General Early's division of approximately 16,000 men, stretched along a six-mile front and General Wilcox's Brigade of Anderson's Division.

Army of the Potomac

BATTLEPLAN: Using lessons learned from their defeat at Fredericksburg, the Union command realized that they could not challenge the Confederates effectively (despite their lower numbers) when facing troops that held superior positions on high ground and in entrenchments. "Fighting Joe" Hooker's initial plan was to disrupt the Army of Northern Virginia by turning on Lee's left flank with Stoneman's cavalry, in an effort to disrupt both the Confederate lines of communication and the movement of supplies in their rear guard. With superior numbers, Hooker firmly believed that Lee would be forced to withdraw to Richmond in light of this threat. While they retreated, the Union Army would push over the Rappahannock River in pursuit. Hooker was so confident of this plan that he briefed President Abraham Lincoln on April 11th, saying, "I have concluded that I will have more chance of inflicting a heavier blow upon the enemy by turning his position to my right."

REALITY: Unfortunately, due to high flood waters, Stoneman could not complete his mission, so Hooker changed his plan to the following: The cavalry and Federal infantry (42,000 men of the XI, XII, V Corps) would march simultaneously upriver along the Rappahannock and cross at Kelly's Ford; then cross the Rapidan River at Germanna and Ely's Fords; proceeding into a heavily wooded area known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania; and concentrate at the crossroads called Chancellorsville, where they would strike at Lee's army from the west. Two divisions (10,000 men) would then proceed to United States Ford and wait for Meade's V Corps, marching east toward Lee, to drive Confederate defenders away from the river. Hooker would also try to maintain Lee's attention at Fredericksburg by shifting the VI and I Corps (40,000 men) under Sedgwick, to the Confederate-held side of town, threatening an attack against Stonewall Jackson's divisions holding the right flank, to further mask Hooker's movement. This plan would squeeze Lee between powerful forces in the front and rear, while Stoneman's cavalry wreaked havoc on Confederate lines of communication and supply. Ultimately Hooker believed that the Confederates would retreat or attack on unfavorable ground.

Tragedy and Triumph
Excerpts taken from "Onward Christian Soldier" and "Christian Cavalier" (Publish America, 2005)

OVERVIEW: Spotsylvania County, VA, May 1, 1863: After successfully marching and maneuvering his army undetected on the outskirts of the enemy camp, Jackson's men charged out of the wood line and swarmed the encampment of their foes. As a shocked and unprepared Union Army scrambled to defend its positions, the Confederate infantry pushed forward, overwhelming the Yankees and forcing them into retreat. Taking advantage of the element of surprise, the Confederate Army continued to pursue the withdrawing Union soldiers that had splintered off in a wave of confusion and disarray.

Despite the impending danger, Jackson urged his men to press on, as the night sky blanketed the wilderness around them. Perhaps best known as “Stonewall”, Jackson earned his nickname at the First Battle of Manassas, after refusing to withdraw his troops in the face of total carnage. After Brigadier General Barnard Bee informed him that his forces were being beaten back, Jackson replied, "Sir, we will give them the bayonet." Inspired by the bravery of his subordinate, General Bee immediately rallied the remnants of his brigade while shouting "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer." A devout believer in predestination, Jackson insisted that God had already determined his time on earth and that no spot on the battlefield was safer than the other. It was this unwavering conviction that enabled him to lead his troops into battle without the fear of death and inspire countless others to rally behind him. This would ultimately become both a blessing and a curse for the Confederate States of America.

Impatient for word from his scouts, Jackson abandoned officer protocol and rode ahead to survey the Federal lines. When he attempted to return, a fellow Confederate regiment mistook his party for Union cavalry. Then, without a warning, two volleys rang out in the blackness and the general fell from his saddle. Bleeding profusely, Jackson had been hit by three shots, leaving one bullet lodged in the palm of his right hand and two in his left arm. He was quickly taken from the field on a stretcher and treated at a nearby hospital encampment at Wilderness Run. Before succumbing to surgery, Jackson recommended that his subordinate, Cavalry Commander General J.E.B. Stuart, assume control of his II Corps. Unfortunately, not all officers were in agreement, including Stuart's senior, General Rodes, who felt that his responsibilities and experience belonged to a different arm of the service. Surely a cavalry officer would be a last resort to command infantry and artillery! After a short debate, Rodes gracefully bowed out and submitted the prestigious position to the more well known and respected cavalier whose reputation would surely aid in restoring the confidence of the troops who were undoubtedly shaken by the fall of their general. Later Rodes would be praised for his selfless act.

Although not completely aware of the seriousness of Jackson's wounds, Stuart stepped in with great anger and intensity, determined to find resolve for his fallen superior. Almost immediately, he exploited the Federals' lack of organization by placing 31 cannon on the higher ground at Hazel Grove. Combined with additional artillery, which was located west along the Turnpike, the gunners at Hazel Grove pounded the Union positions with a spectacular bombardment. Stuart then launched brigade after brigade against entrenched Union lines on both sides of the Turnpike. A bloody battle ensued as troops lost their way in the tangled underbrush and the woods caught fire, confronting the wounded with a horrible demise. Without hesitation, Stuart continued to press forward, first to Fairview and then against the remaining Union units at Chancellorsville, as reinforcements from General Robert E. Lee's wing advanced simultaneously from the south and east. A Confederate staff officer, watching the expressions of reverence and love for the victorious supreme commander, stated, "It must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods." Unable to recover, the Federals eventually retired back across the Rappahannock River. The next day, before the Confederates could renew their attack, the entire Northern force withdrew.

After the battle had concluded, over 24,000 men had been lost (approx. 14,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate) including Union generals Berry and Whipple and Confederate generals Paxton and Jackson, who would survive his wounds, but later die of pneumonia. Despite being considered one of Lee's greatest victories, the loss of the man he affectionately referred to as his "right arm" may have marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. As word spread throughout the South of General Jackson's untimely and tragic death, many supporters of the Confederacy fell into hopelessness. No one, most of all his own men, believed that anyone could ever replace him. Even today, many historians credit the death of Jackson as the key turning point in the War Between the States. No other commander had ever been able to push his men to such heights on the battlefield, and many of the engagements that followed his death might have been won, were it not for his absence. Perhaps the most decisive of all battles, Gettysburg has long been debated as the definitive victory for the Union. During an interview on CSPAN in 2001, noted Civil War expert Shelby Foote stated that he believed if Jackson had lived, he definitely would have taken Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. That victory alone determined the high ground, the outcome of the battle, and possibly the war.

STATISTICS: The Army of Northern Virginia was the primary military force of the Confederate States of America in the Eastern Theater. This army was noted for its brilliant command, aggressiveness and audacity that enabled it to repeatedly rise to the occasion while overcoming great obstacles and odds. Following a swift and decisive victory at Chancellorsville, the ANV followed up with a devastating loss in The Battle of Gettysburg, in which it never appeared able to recover from. Unable to maintain enough supplies and manpower, the ANV was the first army of the C.S.A. to surrender (to the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Court House) initiating the end of the Civil War. Below appears a list of major engagements fought by the Army of Northern Virginia (before and after Chancellorsville) as well as estimated casualties for each battle.

Army of Northern Virginia, Eastern Theater (1861-1865)
Key: C = Confederate victory / U = Union victory / I = inconclusive
Note: Casualties = killed (not including wounded)

Battle of First Bull Run (C): Casualties: Union: 460 - Confederate: 387
Battle of Seven Pines (I): Casualties: Union: 790 - Confederate: 987
Peninsula Campaign (U): Casualties: Union: 3,000 - Confederate: 5,355
Battle of Second Bull Run (C): Casualties: Union: 1,747 - Confederate: 1,533
Battle of Antietam (U): Casualties: Union: 2,108 - Confederate: 7,816
Battle of Fredericksburg (C): Casualties: Union: 1,284 - Confederate: 608
Battle of Chancellorsville (C): Casualties: Union: 1,574 - Confederate: 1,683
Battle of Gettysburg (U): Casualties: Union: 3,155 - Confederate: 2,600-4,500
Battle of the Wilderness (I): Casualties: Union: 18,400 - Confederate: 11,400
Battle of Spotsylvania C.H. (I): Casualties: Union: 18,000 - Confederate: 12,000
Battle of Cold Harbor (C): Casualties: Union: 13,000 - Confederate: 2,500
Battle of Petersburg / Crater (C): Casualties: Union: 3,236 - Confederate: 8,150

ANV up to Chancellorsville: Est.strength: 75,000 - Casualties: 16,686+/-
ANV at Appomattox: Est.strength: 28,231 - Casualties: 40,233+/-

CONCLUSION: According to the historians at Chancellorsville Military Park, "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 10th 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."

Timeline of events: April 27-May 3

April 27: The V, XI and XII Corps started the march to the Rappahannock and Rapidan.

April 29: Sedgwick's infantry was positioned opposite Lee's at Fredericksburg. Artillery and musket volleys started and continued for the next two days.

April 29: Stuart supplied Lee with intelligence on Union troop movements at Kelly's Ford.

April 29: Lee ordered Anderson's forces to Chancellorsville and McLaws to prepare his division to follow. Lee's orders were "to select a good line and fortify it strongly."

April 30: The Union Army arrived near Chancellorsville

April 30: 1700-1800: Hooker arrived at Chancellorsville. A private home would serve as headquarters for the Army of the Potomac. Hooker stated, "The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They might as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond. I shall be after them." This was still in compliance with his battle plan. (Although having momentum, Hooker unaccountability halted his advance and consolidated his position, losing the initiative and giving Lee time to maneuver against him.)

April 30: Lee decided that Sedgwick's intentions were nothing more than a façade. He left General Early, 9,000 men and 30 cannons (1/4 of his total artillery) at Fredericksburg. He moved with Jackson toward Chancellorsville.

May 1: 0800: Lee and Jackson arrived at Zoan Church. Lee and Jackson determined that they would push toward Chancellorsville on Plank Road. "We are not going to wait for the enemy to come and attack us…we are going out on the warpath after him."

May 1: Morning: Hooker ordered a three-pronged advance toward Fredericksburg: Meade and two divisions of the V Corps moved on River Road; Sykes's division moved east on the turnpike; Slocum's XII Corps moved on Plank Road with Howard's XI Corps in close support. Couch's divisions, reinforced by the III Corps remained in reserve.

May 1: 1100: The Confederate Army was in motion

May 1: 1120: The Battle of Chancellorsville began.

May 1: 1400: Hooker decided not to assault and issued orders for the corps commanders to suspend their advances and fall back to the crossroads. It was a decisive moment in the battle. The advancing corps commanders were successful, until they were called back by Hooker. Hooker relinquished the numerical superiority and lost his nerve. He lacked the will to commit his army to a decisive confrontation with Lee.

May 1: Mid-afternoon: The Union Army started entrenching along a defensive line centered on Chancellorsville. The entrenching was to protect against Confederates to the south and east. It was shaped like a "V" with the apex near Chancellorsville. Hooker stated, "I have Lee just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground."

May 1: Mid-afternoon: Lee's army was positioned east and southeast (within a mile) of Chancellorsville. McLaws' units straddled the turnpike and Anderson's and Jackson's divisions were located along Plank Road.

May 1: Late evening: Lee and Jackson met at Catherine Furnace (one mile southeast of Hooker's headquarters) to discuss how they would get at the enemy. Reports stated that the Union left and center entrenchments were too strong, but the right may be vulnerable. J.E.B. Stuart delivered news from Fitzhugh Lee that Hooker's right flank was reported to be "hanging in the air." If they could move undetected across Hooker's front and hit the right flank, they might achieve victory.

May 2: Prior to dawn: Lee decided to divide his army again, sending 28,000 men of Jackson's II Corps to conduct a flank attack on Hooker's right flank. It left him with 13,000 men and 24 guns to keep Hooker's attention, while Jackson moved into position.

May 2: Prior to dawn: Lee and Jackson parted for last time. Lee stated, "Such an executive officer the sun never shown on. I have but to show him my design and I know that if it can be done, it will be done…"

May 2: 0200: Hooker detached Reynold's corps from Fredericksburg to support the rear envelopment. This brought his forces to roughly 90,000 men.

May 2: 0700-0800: Jackson's column was in motion on a 12-mile route. Rodes' division was in front, followed by Colston and then Hill. The march pace was one mile every 25 minutes with a ten-minute break each hour.

May 2: 0800: The Confederate Army was spotted by the Union Army at Hazel Grove. Sickles was informed about this movement and moved to Hazel Grove where he watched the movement for three hours.

May 2: 0900: Hooker received a message from Sickles about the Confederate column. Using field glasses, he observed the Confederate Army on the march. He thought they were retreating or searching for an opportunity to strike the Union right flank. He sent word to Howard to protect his western flank. Howard later said that he never received this word.

May 2: 0900: Hooker ordered Sedgwick to "cross the river as soon as indications will permit; capture Fredericksburg…and pursue the enemy."

May 2: 1050: Howard informed Hooker about "a column of infantry moving westward on the road parallel with the turnpike on a ridge about 1 ½ to 2 miles south of this." Howard also stated that he was taking measures to resist an attack from the west. He actually did nothing to rearrange his troops and most continued to face south along the turnpike.

May 2: 1450: Fitzhugh Lee informed Jackson that, to their front, spread out along the turnpike, were thousands of Federal soldiers at rest, with arms stacked, campfires lighted and no expectation of a Confederate assault from the west.

May 2: 1500: Jackson's men moved across Plank Road. He sent a message to Lee stating, "I hope as soon as practicable to attack."

May 2: 1715-1800: Jackson told Rodes, "You can go forward then." Twenty thousand Confederates, forming a battleline over two miles in length, conducted a right-flank assault. Within 20 minutes the Union forces were ordered to retreat.

May 2: 1830: Jackson's corps reached Dowdall's Tavern.

May 2: 1900: The XI Corps resistance collapsed.

May 2: 1900: The Union artillery (37 guns) at Fairview directed effective fire westward toward the advancing Confederates.

May 2: 1915: Due to disorganization, the Confederate forces under Rodes had to halt to reorganize, near Plank Road, one mile west of Chancellorsville.

May 2: 1915: The XI Corps suffered 2,500 casualties (25% of its strength).

May 2: Evening: Hooker, still somewhat lethargic, assisted in stabilizing the Union line west of Chancellorsville. Major General Barry, III Corps commander, moved his men west to form a line perpendicular to Plank Road, one-half mile west of Chancellorsville.

May 2: Evening: Union and Confederate soldiers were mingled together in total confusion.

May 2: 2100: Sickles' men settled into position at Hazel Grove, facing northwest.

May 2: 2100-2359: The Confederate troops, involved in the flank assault, reorganized near Wilderness Church. Jackson ordered the A.P. Hill corps to the front to continue the assault.

May 2: 2100: Jackson and a small party of riders moved east along Plank Road looking for evidence of enemy movements. After an examination of the area, they turned back toward friendly lines. After covering a short distance, scattered shots rang out. Then a volley of fire from the North Carolinians of Brigadier General Lane's brigade hit Jackson and his party. The brigade mistook them for Union cavalrymen. Jackson was struck three times; once in the right hand, once near his left elbow, and again near his left shoulder. Within hours he was transported to a Confederate hospital, where his left arm was amputated. Jackson's II Corps was briefly shifted to A.P. Hill, until he was wounded and then they were assigned to J.E.B. Stuart. Jackson, while recovering successfully from these wounds, developed pneumonia and died eight days later, on May 10th.

May 2: Jackson's flank attack marked one of the most dramatic moments in Confederate military history.

May 2: Hooker was overwhelmed by Lee and was thinking defensively. He met with Sickles on the high ground of Hazel Grove. Hooker ordered Sickles to abandon the position and take up a new line along Plank Road.

May 3: First Light: The III Corps began to withdraw from Hazel Grove. The Confederates attacked from the northwest, capturing 100 prisoners and 4 guns. Lee then ordered the positioning of 30 guns upon Hazel Grove. A duel between the Confederate artillery on Hazel Grove and the Union artillery at Fairview commenced.

May 3: 0530-1000: Stuart's infantry advanced toward the western face of the Union line and Lee's forces pressed from the south and east.

May 3: 0915: A Confederate artillery shell struck the pillar at the Chancellorsville house where Hooker was leaning. He was thrown to the ground and rendered briefly unconscious. Hooker, dazed and disoriented, passed the command to Major General Couch and ordered the Union Army to withdraw to a new position, closer to the Rappahannock River. A few hours later, he resumed command of the Union Army.

May 3: 1000: Hooker ordered the Union artillery to withdraw from Fairview.

May 3: 1000: Hooker abandoned Chancellorsville and moved back to a new line closer to the Rappahannock River. He ordered the II, III, and XII Corps to withdraw while waging a rear-guard action. (Hooker did not engage the I, V, or XI Corps during the battle).

May 3: 1000: Lee and Stuart's armies reunited and took Chancellorsville.

May 3: 1000: Lee and the Confederate Army emerged victorious as Union forces withdrew.




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