The Battle of Chancellorsville was a major battle of the American Civil War, fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville and the area from there to the east at Fredericksburg. The battle pitted Union Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac against an army half its size, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. It is known as Lee's "perfect battle" because of his risky but successful division of his army in the presence of a much larger enemy force. Lee's audacity and Hooker's timid performance in combat combined to result in a significant Union defeat. The Confederate victory was tempered by the mortal wounding of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to friendly fire, a loss that Lee likened to "losing my right arm."
The Chancellorsville campaign began with the crossing of the Rappahannock River by the Union army on the morning of April 27, 1863. Crossing the Rapidan River via Germanna and Ely's Fords, the Federals concentrated near Chancellorsville on April 30 and May 1. 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.
In the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, the basic offensive plan for the Union had been to advance and seize the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. In the first two years of the war, four major attempts had failed: the first foundered just miles away from Washington, D.C., at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) in July 1861; Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign took an amphibious approach, landing his Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862 and coming within 6 miles (9.7 km) of Richmond before being turned back by Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days Battles; that summer, Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia was defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run; in December 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside commanded the Army of the Potomac and attempted to reach Richmond by way of Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg. (This string of Union defeats was interrupted in September 1862 when Lee moved into Maryland and his campaign was defeated by McClellan at the Battle of Antietam, but this represented no threat to Richmond.) President Abraham Lincoln became convinced that the appropriate objective for his army was actually Robert E. Lee's army, not any geographic features such as a capital city, but he and his generals knew that the most reliable way to bring Lee to a decisive battle was to threaten his capital. Lincoln tried a fifth time with a new general in 1863, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a man with a pugnacious reputation who had performed well in previous subordinate commands.
The Chancellorsville campaign was potentially one of the most lopsided clashes of the war. At the start of the campaign the Union army had an effective fighting force of 133,868 men on the field of battle; the Confederate army numbered less at 60,892. 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 poorly provisioned and were scattered all over the state of Virginia. Some 15,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia's First Corps, under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, had previously been detached and stationed near Norfolk in order to block a potential threat to Richmond from Federal troops stationed at Fort Monroe and Newport News on the Peninsula, as well as at Norfolk and Suffolk. In light of the continued Federal inactivity, by late March Longstreet's primary assignment became that of acting as the Army of Northern Virginia's new commissary, which meant requisitioning provisions for Lee's forces from the farmers and planters of North Carolina and Virginia. As a result of this the two divisions of Maj. Gen John Bell Hood and Brig. Gen. George Pickett were 130 miles (210 km) away from Lee's army and would take a week or more of marching to reach it in an emergency. After nearly a year of campaigning, allowing these troops to slip away from his immediate control was Lee's gravest miscalculation. Although he hoped to be able to call on them, these men would not arrive in time to aid his outmanned forces.
More importantly, the engagement began with a Union battle plan superior to most of the previous efforts by Army of the Potomac commanders. A complete overhaul of the army's Bureau of Military Intelligence, which was commanded by Col. G. H. Sharpe, meant that for once the army's commander had a much more accurate appraisal of the number of troops in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, of how they were organized, and where they were stationed. Apart from gathering the usual sources of information from interrogating prisoners, deserters, "contrabands" (slaves), and refugees, the bureau for the first time coordinated intelligence from other sources including infantry and cavalry reconnaissance, signal stations, and an aerial balloon corps. Col. Sharpe also recruited scouts from the army and spies from the local population to infiltrate Lee's army and report directly back to the bureau. Overall the new service provided Hooker with a far more accurate estimate of the size of the forces confronting his army than the wild overestimates that had been provided by Allan Pinkerton and his detective agency to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan during his tenures in command. Armed with this more realistic information, Hooker was able to plan for a flanking attack that, it was hoped, would avoid the bloodbath of direct frontal attacks, which were features of the Battles of Antietam and, more recently, Fredericksburg.
The army started from its winter quarters around Fredericksburg, where it faced Lee across the Rappahannock. Hooker planned a bold double envelopment of Lee's forces, sending four corps on a stealthy march northwest, turning south to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, turning east, and striking Lee in his rear. The remaining corps would strike Lee's front through Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, some 7,500 cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman were to raid deep into the Confederate rear areas, destroying crucial supply depots along the railroad from the Confederate capital in Richmond to Fredericksburg, which would cut Lee's lines of communication and supply. This bold, aggressive plan was later known as Stoneman's Raid.
On April 27–28, the four corps of 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, owned by the Frances Chancellor family, at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road. In the meantime, the second force of more than 30,000 men, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and Stoneman's cavalry began its movement to reach Lee's rear areas. Because the bulk of his cavalry was used in this way Hooker, who believed that cavalry could not operate efficiently in the heavily wooded Wilderness south of the Rappahannock, was left with only one cavalry brigade with which to operate with his main flanking force. The Confederate cavalry forces commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart would play a dominant role in the upcoming campaign by providing Lee with a constant flow of information while denying Hooker similar information from his own cavalry.
By May 1, Hooker had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville. From his Fredericksburg headquarters, Lee decided to violate one of the generally accepted Principles of War and divide his force in the face of a superior enemy, hoping that aggressive action would allow him to attack and defeat a portion of Hooker's army before it could be fully concentrated against him. He left behind a brigade under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale on heavily fortified Marye's Heights and one division, 12,000 men under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, on Prospect Hill to resist any advance by Sedgwick's corps, and he ordered Stonewall Jackson to march west and link up with Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, assembling 40,000 men to confront Hooker at Chancellorsville. Fortunately for the Confederates, heavy fog along the Rappahannock masked some of these westward movements and Sedgwick chose to wait until he could determine the enemy's intentions.
At the same time that General Jackson was marching west to join with Anderson on the morning of May 1, Hooker ordered an advance to the east to strike Anderson, pushing his men 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 minimized, since artillery could not be used to any great effect in the Wilderness. Fighting began between the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws and the rightmost division of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's V Corps, under Maj. Gen. George Sykes. Sykes began an orderly withdrawal, covered by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's division.
Despite being in a potentially favorable situation, Hooker halted his brief offensive. His actions may have demonstrated his lack of confidence in handling the complex actions of such a large organization for the first time (he had been an effective and aggressive division and corps commander in previous battles), but he had also decided before beginning the campaign that he would fight the battle defensively, forcing Lee, with his small army, to attack Hooker's larger one. At the [First] Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862), the Union army had done the attacking and met with a bloody defeat. Hooker knew Lee could not sustain 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 or retreat with superior forces at his back.
Lee accepted Hooker's gambit and planned an attack for May 2. On the night before, Lee and Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, came up with a risky plan that would once again split his already divided army. Jackson would lead 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 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 (19 km) 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 when Jackson launched his attack, he had to hope that the Union forces were unprepared.
All of these conditions were met. Confederate cavalry under 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. Daniel Sickles forward. Sickles captured a handful of Second Corps men and then stopped.
At Fredericksburg, Sedgwick and Hooker were unable to communicate with one another because of a failure of telegraph lines. 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 performance of the commander of the Union XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. 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 do so. The Union right flank was not anchored on any natural obstacle, and the only defenses against a flank attack consisted of two cannons pointing out into the Wilderness. Also, the XI Corps was a unit with poor morale. Originally commanded by Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel and composed heavily of German immigrants, they were resentful when Sigel was replaced by the non-Germanic Howard. Many of the immigrants had poor English language skills and they were subjected to ethnic friction with the rest of the Army of the Potomac. The corps' readiness was poor as well—of the 23 regiments, eight had no combat experience, and the remaining 15 had never fought on the winning side of a battle.
Around 5:30 p.m., Jackson's 26,000 men came running out of the Wilderness and hit Howard's corps by surprise while 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 (3 km), to within sight of Chancellorsville, and was separated from Lee's men only by Sickles's corps, which remained where it had been after attacking that morning.
Hooker, concerned about Sickles's ability to hold what was now a salient into the Confederate lines, pulled the III Corps back to Chancellorsville that night. This gave the Confederates two advantages—it reunited Jackson and Lee's forces, and it gave them control of an elevated clearing in the woods known as Hazel Grove, one of the few places in which artillery could be used effectively. (Sickles was quite bitter about giving up this high ground; his insubordinate actions at the Peach Orchard in the Battle of Gettysburg two months later were probably influenced strongly by this incident.)
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 counterattack, which might still succeed because of the sheer disparity in numbers. He rode out onto the plank road that night on horseback to determine the feasibility of a night attack by the light of the full moon, and, upon his return, he and his staff were incorrectly identified as Union cavalry by men of the Second Corps, who hit him with friendly fire. The wound was not life-threatening, but Jackson contracted pneumonia after his arm was amputated, and he died on May 10. His death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy. Some historians and participants—particularly those of the postbellum Lost Cause movement—attribute the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg two months later to Jackson's death.
On May 3, Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill, who had taken command of the Second Corps following Jackson's injuries, was incapacitated. Hill consulted with Brig. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, the next most senior general in the corps, and Rodes acquiesced in Hill's decision to summon J. E. B. Stuart to take command, notifying Lee after the fact. Stuart launched a massive assault all along the front, aided by Hooker who was withdrawing troops from Hazel Grove, and then set up artillery on the spot to bombard Union artillerists. Fierce fighting broke out that evening when Stuart launched another massive assault against the Union lines, which were slowly crumbling from the pressure and a lack of resupply and reinforcements. 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 could not declare victory, and Hooker was not 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. In fact, a single brigade of Alabama troops led by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox staged a delaying action along the Orange Plank Road west of Fredericksburg and slowed Sedgwick's already-sluggish advance. Reinforcements under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws arrived from Chancellorsville late in the afternoon and joined Wilcox at Salem Church, four miles (6 km) west of Fredericksburg, and the combined Confederate force halted Sedgwick's march to Chancellorsville.
At the height of the fighting on May 3, Hooker suffered an injury when a Confederate cannonball hit a wooden pillar he was leaning against at his headquarters. He later wrote that half of the pillar "violently [struck me] ... in an erect position from my head to my feet." He likely received a concussion, which was sufficiently severe to render him unconscious for over an hour. Although clearly incapacitated after he arose, Hooker refused to turn over command temporarily to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, and, with Hooker's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, and Sedgwick out of communication (again due to the failure of the telegraph lines), there was no one at headquarters with sufficient rank or stature to convince Hooker otherwise. This failure affected Union performance over the next day and directly contributed to Hooker's seeming lack of nerve and timid performance throughout the rest of the battle.
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 Civil War by itself. About 18,000 men, divided equally between the two armies, fell that day.
On the evening of May 3 and all day May 4, Hooker remained in his defenses while Lee and Early battled Sedgwick. After breaking Early's defenses, Sedgwick foolishly neglected to secure Fredericksburg. Early simply marched back and reoccupied the heights west of the city, cutting Sedgwick off. Meanwhile, Lee directed the division of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson 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 before withdrawing back across the Rappahannock at Banks's Ford during the pre-dawn hours of May 5. This was another miscommunication between him and Hooker; the commanding general had wanted Sedgwick to hold Banks's Ford, so that Hooker could withdraw from the Chancellorsville area and re-cross the river at Banks's 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 battle was fought under terrible conditions. 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 common.
Lee, despite being outnumbered by a ratio 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% of his force—men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. Just as seriously, he lost several top generals, most notably Jackson, his most aggressive field commander.
Hooker, who began the campaign believing he had "80 chances in 100 to be successful", lost the battle through miscommunication, the incompetence of some of his leading generals (most notably Howard and Stoneman, but also Sedgwick), and through some serious errors of his own. Hooker's errors include abandoning his offensive push on May 1 and ordering Sickles to give up Hazel Grove and pull back on May 2. He also erred in his disposition of forces; some 40,000 men of the Army of the Potomac scarcely fired a shot. When later asked why he had ordered a halt to his advance on May 1, Hooker is reputed to have responded, "For the first time, I lost faith in Hooker." However, Stephen W. Sears has categorized this as a myth:
Nothing has been more damaging to General Joseph Hooker's military reputation than this, from John Bigelowe's The Campaign of Chancellorsville (1910): "A couple of months later, when Hooker crossed the Rappahannock [actually, the Potomac] with the Army of the Potomac in the Campaign of Gettysburg he was asked by General Doubleday: 'Hooker, what was the matter with you at Chancellorsville? ... Hooker answered frankly ... 'Doubleday ... For once I lost confidence in Hooker'".
Sears's research has shown that Bigelowe was quoting from a letter written in 1903 by an E. P. Halstead, who was on the staff of Doubleday's I Corps division. There is no evidence that Hooker and Doubleday ever met during the Gettysburg Campaign, nor was there any chance of them meeting—they were dozens of miles apart. Finally, Doubleday made no mention of such a confession from Hooker in his history of the Chancellorsville Campaign, published in 1882. Sears concludes:
It can only be concluded that forty years after the event, elderly ex-staff officer Halstead was at best retailing some vaguely remembered campfire tale, and at worst manufacturing a role for himself in histories of the campaign ... Whatever Joe Hooker's failings at Chancellorsville, he did not publicly confess them.
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 concept, but it was 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" soldiers.
The Union was shocked by the defeat. President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" A few generals were career casualties. Hooker relieved Stoneman for incompetence. Couch was so disgusted by Hooker's conduct of the battle (and his incessant political maneuvering) that he resigned and was placed in charge of the Pennsylvania militia. Hooker was relieved of command on June 28, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.
Portions of the Chancellorsville battlefield are now preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
The Battle of Chancellorsville was depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name. The treatment of the battle in both the novel and the movie focused on Jackson's assault on the Union right flank, his wounding, and his subsequent death.