American Civil War: Battle of Chancellorsville

Stonewall Jackson
Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought May 1-6, 1863, and was part of the American Civil War.

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederate

Background:

In the wake of the Union disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg and subsequent Mud March, Major General Ambrose Burnside was relieved and Major General Joseph Hooker given command of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863.

Known as an aggressive fighter in battle and a severe critic of Burnside, Hooker had compiled a successful resume as a division and corps commander. With the army encamped on the east bank of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Hooker took the spring to reorganize and rehabilitate his men after the trials of 1862. Included in this shakeup of the army was the creation of an independent cavalry corps under Major General George Stoneman.

To the west of the town, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia remained in place along the heights they had defended the previous December. Short on supplies and needing to protect Richmond against a Union thrust up the Peninsula, Lee detached over half of Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps south to aid in gathering provisions. Operating in southern Virginia and North Carolina, the divisions of Major Generals John Bell Hood and George Pickett began funneling food and stores north to Fredericksburg.

Already outnumbered by Hooker, the loss of Longstreet's men gave Hooker over a 2-to-1 advantage in manpower.

The Union Plan:

Aware of his superiority and utilizing information from his newly-formed Bureau of Military Intelligence, Hooker devised one of the strongest Union plans to date for his spring campaign.

Leaving Major General John Sedgwick with 30,000 men at Fredericksburg, Hooker intended to secretly march northwest with the rest of the army, then cross the Rappahannock in Lee's rear. Attacking east as Sedgwick advanced west, Hooker sought to catch the Confederates in a large double envelopment. The plan was to be supported by a large-scale cavalry raid conducted by Stoneman which was to cut the railroads south to Richmond and sever Lee's supply lines as well as prevent reinforcements from reaching the battle.  Moving out on April 26-27, the first three corps successfully crossed the river under the guidance of Major General Henry Slocum. Pleased that Lee was not opposing the crossings, Hooker ordered the remainder of his forces to move out and by May 1 had concentrated around 70,000 men around Chancellorsville (Map).

Lee Responds:

Located at the crossroads of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, Chancellorsville was little more than a large brick house owned by the Chancellor family which was located in a thick pine thicket forest known as the Wilderness. As Hooker moved into position, Sedgwick's men crossed the river, advanced through Fredericksburg, and took up a position opposite the Confederate defense on Marye's Heights.

Alerted to the Union movement, Lee was forced to divide his smaller army and left Major General Jubal Early's division and Brigadier General William Barksdale's brigade at Fredericksburg while he marched west on May 1 with around 40,000 men. It was his hope that by aggressive action, he would be able to attack and defeat part of Hooker's army before its larger numbers could be concentrated against him. He also believed that Sedgwick's force at Fredericksburg would only demonstrate against Early and Barksdale rather than pose a legitimate threat.

That same day, Hooker began pressing east with the goal of getting clear of the Wilderness so that his advantage in artillery could come into play. Fighting soon erupted between Major General George Sykes' division of Major General George G. Meade's V Corps and the Confederate division of Major General Lafayette McLaws.

The Confederates got the better of the fight and Sykes withdrew. Though he retained the advantage, Hooker halted his advance and consolidated his position in the Wilderness with the intention of fighting a defensive battle. This change in approach greatly irritated several of his subordinates who sought to move their men out of the Wilderness and take some of the high ground in the area (Map).

That night, Lee and Second Corps commander Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson met to develop a plan for May 2. While they talked, Confederate cavalry commander Major General J.E.B. Stuart arrived and reported that while the Union left was firmly anchored on the Rappahannock and their center heavily fortified, Hooker's right was "in the air." This end of the Union line was held by Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps which had camped along the Orange Turnpike. Feeling that desperate action was needed, they devised a plan which called for Jackson to take the 28,000 men of his corps on a wide flanking march to attack the Union right. Lee himself would personally command the remaining 12,000 men in an attempt to hold Hooker until Jackson could strike. In addition, the plan required the troops at Fredericksburg to contain Sedgwick. Successfully disengaging, Jackson's men were able to make the 12-mile march undetected (Map).

Jackson Strikes:

In position by 5:30 PM on May 2, they faced the flank of the Union XI Corps. Comprised of largely inexperienced German immigrants, the XI Corps's flank was not fixed on a natural obstacle and was essentially defended by two cannon. Charging from the woods, Jackson's men caught them completely by surprise and quickly captured 4,000 prisoners while routing the remainder. Advancing two miles, they were within sight of Chancellorsville when their advance was halted by Major General Daniel Sickles' III Corps. As the fighting raged, Hooker received a minor wound, but refused to cede command (Map).

At Fredericksburg, Sedgwick received orders to advance late in the day, but held off as he believed he was outnumbered.

As the front stabilized, Jackson rode forward in the darkness to scout the line. While returning, his party was fired on by a group of North Carolina troops. Struck twice in the left arm and once in the right hand, Jackson was carried from the field. As Jackson's replacement, Major General A.P. Hill was incapacitated the next morning, command devolved to Stuart (Map).

On May 3, the Confederates launched major attacks all along the front, forcing Hooker's men to abandon Chancellorsville and form a tight defensive line in front of United States Ford. Under heavy pressure, Hooker was finally able to get Sedgwick to advance. Moving forward, he was able to reach Salem Church before being halted by Confederate troops. Late in the day, Lee, believing that Hooker was beaten, shifted troops east to deal with Sedgwick. Having foolishly neglected to leave troops to hold Fredericksburg, Sedgwick was soon cut off and forced into a defensive position near Bank's Ford (Map).

Fighting a superb defensive action, he repelled Confederate attacks through the day on May 4 before withdrawing across the ford early on May 5 (Map). This retreat was the result of a miscommunication between Hooker and Sedgwick, as the former had wished the ford held so that main army could cross and renew the battle. Not seeing a way to save the campaign, Hooker began retreating across United States Ford that night ending the battle (Map).

Aftermath:

Known as Lee's "perfect battle" as he repeatedly broke the tenet of never dividing one's forces in the face of a superior enemy with stunning success, Chancellorsville cost his army 1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, and 2,018 missing. Hooker's army suffered 1,606 killed, 9,672 wounded, and 5,919 missing/captured. While it is generally believed that Hooker lost his nerve during the battle, the defeat did cost him his command as he was replaced by Meade on June 28. While a great victory, Chancellorsville lost the Confederacy Stonewall Jackson who died on May 10, badly damaging the command structure of Lee's army. Seeking to exploit the success, Lee began his second invasion of the North which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Selected Sources