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Battle of Chancellorsville

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Chancellorsville marked the zenith of the powers of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in its struggle to drive off and destroy the Army of the Potomac and win independence for the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War.

The Chancellorsville campaign began with the crossing of the Rappahannock River by the Union (United States) army on the morning of April 27, 1863. Heavy fighting began on May 1 and did not end until the Union forces retreated across the river on the night of May 5-6. The battle had some characteristics of a modern battle, as the armies were spread out over a front of several miles and neither side every fully concentrated its army.

On paper, it was one of the most lopsided clashes of arms in the war. The Union army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, brought an effective fighting force of 132,000 men onto the field. The Confederate army, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, numbered approximately 57,000. Furthermore, the Union forces were much better supplied and were well-rested after several months of inactivity. Lee's forces, on the other hand, were spread out all over the state of Virginia. In fact, some 15,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia under Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet, stationed near Norfolk some 100 miles to the southeast, failed to arrive in time. Their absence probably saved the Union army from total destruction in the battle that ensued.

On April 27-28, Hooker and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers in several places, most of them near the confluence of the two rivers and the hamlet of Chancellorsville, which was little more than a large mansion at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank roads. In the meantime, a second force of more than 30,000 men crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, some 14 miles to the east and the site of a battle the previous December. By doing this, Hooker now had substantial forces on both Lee's front and on his right flank, and he had dispatched some 7,000 cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman to raid deep in the Confederate rear areas. He ordered Stoneman to attack and destroy crucial supply depots along the railroad from Richmond to Fredericksburg, which would cut Lee off from resupply and force him to fall back to positions closer to his supply sources.

By May 1, Hooker had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville, while Lee worked frantically to concentrate his own army. He confronted Hooker at Chancellorsville with 40,000 men, while on his right, Maj. Gen. Jubal Early manned Fredericksburg's formidable Marye's Heights with 12,000 troops, hoping to keep Sedgwick out of Lee's rear. The next day, the Union and Confederate troops clashed on the Chancellorsville front, with some Union forces actually pushing their way out of the impenetrable thickets and scrub pine that characterized the area. This was seen by many Union commanders as a key to victory. If the larger Union army fought in the woods, known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, its huge advantage in artillery would be useless, since artillery could not be used to any great effect in the Wilderness.

However, Hooker had decided before beginning the campaign that he would fight the battle defensively, forcing Lee, with his small army, to attack his huge one. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union army had done the attacking and met with a bloody and dreadful defeat. Hooker knew Lee could not take such a defeat and keep an effective army in the field. So he ordered his men to withdraw back into the Wilderness and take a defensive position around Chancellorsville, daring Lee to attack him.

Lee, with no other options but to retreat down open roads with Hooker's larger army in pursuit (this was what Hooker really wanted Lee to attempt), chose to take the dare and plan an attack for May 2. On the night before, Lee and his top subordinate, Lieut. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, came up with a tremendously risky, but daring, plan of attack. They would split the 40,000-man force at Chancellorsville, with Jackson taking his Second Corps of 28,000 men around to attack the Union right flank. Lee, on the other hand, would exercise personal command of the other 12,000 (the other half of Longstreet's First Corps, commanded directly by Lee during the entire battle) facing Hooker's entire 70,000 man force at Chancellorsville.

For this to work, several things had to happen. First, Jackson had to make a 12-mile march via roundabout roads to reach the Union right, and he had to do it undetected. Second, Lee had to hope that Hooker stayed tamely on the defensive. Third, Early would have to keep Sedgwick bottled up in Fredericksburg. And last but not least, when Jackson launched his attack, he had to hope that the Union forces were unprepared.

Incredibly, all of this happened. Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart kept the Union forces from spotting Jackson on his long flank march, which took almost all day. The only sighting came shortly after Jackson's corps disengaged from Union forces south of Chancellorsville, and this worked to the Confederates' advantage--Hooker thought that his cavalry under Stoneman had cut Lee's supply line and that Lee was about to retreat. Therefore, he stayed right where he was and never contemplated an all-out attack, sending only his III Corps of 13,000 men under Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles forward. Sickles captured a handful of Second Corps men and then stopped.

Over at Fredericksburg, Sedgwick and Hooker were unable to communicate with one another due to the failure of telegraph lines between the two halves of the army. And when Hooker finally got an order to Sedgwick late on the evening of May 2, ordering him to attack Early, Sedgwick failed to do so because he mistakenly believed Early had more men than he did.

But what led most of all to the impending Union disaster was the incompetent commander of the Union XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard. Howard, whose 11,000 men were posted at the far right of the Union line, failed to make any provision for his defense in case of a surprise attack, even though Hooker ordered him to. The Union right flank was not anchored on any natural obstacle, and the only defenses against a flank attack consisted of two cannon pointing out into the Wilderness. Making matters worse, the XI Corps was a poorly trained unit made up almost entirely of German immigrants, many of whom didn't even speak English.

At 4:30 in the afternoon, Jackson's 28,000 men came running out of the Wilderness and hit Howard's corps totally by surprise right when most of them were cooking dinner. More than 4,000 of them were taken prisoner without firing a shot, and most of the remainder were routed. Only one division of the XI Corps made a stand, and it was soon driven off as well. By nightfall, the Confederate Second Corps had advanced more than two miles, to within sight of Chancellorsville, and were separated from Lee's men only by Sickles' corps, which remained where it had been after attacking that morning. Hooker himself suffered a minor injury when a Confederate shell hit near his headquarters during the peak of the fighting.

Both Hooker and Jackson made serious errors that night, and for Jackson, his mistake cost him his life.

Hooker, concerned about Sickles' ability to hold what was now a salient into the Confederate lines, pulled the III Corps back to Chancellorsville that night. Unfortunately, this gave the Confederates two advantages--it reunited Jackson and Lee's forces, and it gave them control of a clearing in the woods known as Hazel Grove, one of the few places in which artillery could be used effectively.

Jackson's mistake came when he was scouting ahead of his corps along the Orange Plank Road that night. Having won a huge victory that day, Jackson wanted to press his advantage before Hooker and his army could regain their bearings and plan a counterttack, which might still succeed because of the sheer disparity in numbers. He rode out onto the plank road that night, unrecognized by men of the Second Corps behind him, and was hit by friendly fire. The wound didn't seem life-threatening at first, but Jackson contracted pneumonia after his arm was amputated and died on May 10. His death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy.

On May 3, Lee put Stuart in command of the Second Corps, and the daring cavalryman proved to be a fine commander of infantry, as well. Stuart launched a massive assault all along the front, and even though the Union army still far outnumbered and outgunned the Confederates, they won by simply outfighting the Union defenders, and by using the Hazel Grove position to pound the Union artillery and eventually drive it off. By that afternoon, the Confederates had captured Chancellorsville, and Hooker pulled his battered men back to a line of defense circling United States Ford, their last remaining open line of retreat.

Still, Lee couldn't declare victory, and Hooker wasn't conceding defeat, either. During the peak of the fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, he again called on Sedgwick to break through and attack Lee's rear. Again, that general delayed until it was too late. That afternoon, he finally did attack Early's position (after Early at one point abandoned it himself thanks to a misinterpreted order from Lee), and broke through. But he did it too late in the day to help Hooker's men. In fact, a single brigade of Alabama troops led by Col. Lafayette McLaws stood off six times as many Union soldiers, halfway between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg at Salem Church.

The fighting on May 3, 1863 was some of the most furious anywhere in the war, and would have ranked among the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War by itself. About 18,000 men, divided equally between the two armies, fell in battle that day.

On the evening of May 3 and all day May 4, Hooker remained in his defenses while Lee and Early battled Sedgwick. Sedgwick, after breaking Early's defenses, foolishly neglected to secure Fredericksburg. Early simply marched back into the city and reoccupied it, cutting Sedgwick off. Meanwhile, Lee took two divisions from the Chancellorsville front and reinforced McLaws before Sedgwick realized just how few men were opposing him. Sedgwick, as it turned out, was as resolute on the defensive as he was irresolute on the attack, and he stood his ground that day and part of the next, before withdrawing back across the Rappahannock at Banks' Ford. Ironically, this was another miscommunication between he and Hooker; the commanding general had wanted Sedgwick to hold Banks' Ford, so that Hooker could withdraw from the Chancellorsville area and re-cross the river at Banks' to fight again. When he learned that Sedgwick had retreated back over the river, Hooker felt he was out of options to save the campaign, and on the night of May 5-6, he also withdrew back across the river.

Stoneman, after a week of ineffectual raiding in central and southern Virginia in which he failed to attack any of the objectives Hooker set out for him, withdrew into Union lines east of Richmond on May 7, ending the campaign.

The most noteworthy characteristic of the battle was the horrifying conditions it was fought under. Soldiers tended to get lost in the impenetrable maze of undergrowth, and many fires started during the course of the battle. Reports of wounded men being burned alive were both common and entirely creditable.

Lee, despite being outnumbered by a margin of about five to two, won arguably his greatest victory of the war. But he paid a terrible price for it. With only 52,000 infantry engaged, he suffered more than 13,000 casualties, losing some 25 percent of his force--men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. Just as seriously, he lost Jackson, his most aggressive field commander. His loss would be felt severely later in the summer, in the Gettysburg campaign.

Hooker, who began the campaign believing he had "80 chances in 100 to be successful", lost the battle through communications snafus, the incompetence of some of his leading generals (most notably Howard and Stoneman) and through some serious errors of his own, including not pushing out of the Wilderness on May 1, pulling back Sickles on May 2 and even by retreating on May 6. For on that day, Lee planned to launch an all-out attack on Hooker's defenses. What Lee didn't know was that they were virtually impregnable, and beyond the capability of his remaining 39,000 infantry to carry. Hooker also erred in his disposition of force; some 40,000 men of the Army of the Potomac scarcely fired a shot.

Of the 90,000 Union men who bore the brunt of the fighting, just over 17,000 fell in battle, a casualty rate much lower than Lee's, and this without taking into account the 4,000 men of the XI Corps who were captured without a fight in the initial panic on May 2. Hooker's tactic of forcing Lee to attack him was clearly sound in its conception, but terribly flawed in the way he and his subordinates implemented it. The actual fighting showed the Union army had become as formidable in battle as Lee's heretofore unbeatable legions, something else that would be proven again at Gettysburg.

The Battle of Chancellorsville, along with the May 1864[?] Battle of the Wilderness fought in the same area, formed the basis for Stephen Crane's 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage.

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