After the debacle of Fredericksburg, Union commanders sought to make good their earlier failure and smash or disperse Lee’s forces, which inconveniently stood between them and the Confederate capital at Richmond. Their plan was good, if imperfectly executed, but it failed to take into consideration the wiliness of the Confederate commanders. Bold gambles on the Confederate side turned the Union effort into another abject defeat, encouraging the Confederates to dare one more major offensive.
From the beginning of the war, the capture of Richmond had been a major aim of the Union Army. Several efforts had already been made in 1861 and 1862 to break the defenses that ringed Richmond, but always the Union designs had been thwarted. The Fredericksburg campaign had been just the latest example following the ouster of McClellan and his replacement by Burnside at the top command of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside had proven sluggishly methodical at Fredericksburg; by the time he was ready to cross the Rappahannock, Lee had had enough time to position his forces and dig in. The Union attack was rebuffed with devastating losses.
Burnside lost his command as a result of this failure, and leadership was passed on to General Joe Hooker. Hooker’s subsequent reputation was perhaps unfairly tarnished by the consequences of the Chancellorsville campaign; he was certainly an able organizer, and left a legacy in the army structure that would serve the Union very well in the Gettysburg campaign. He broke up Burnside’s cumbersome Grand Divisions with a more nimble system of seven corps, each of which was furnished with insignia that facilitated recognition in the chaos of battle and a feeling of esprit de corps outside of it. Other reforms did much to restore the spirits of the men, and by the end of winter, the Army of the Potomac was again ready to fight.
The Union forces outnumbered the Confederates at Fredericksburg, all the more so because Longstreet had been sent on a mission with two of his divisions. The Confederates were well dug-in on high ground, however, negating much of the Union’s numerical advantage. Hooker decided to split up his forces, with a smaller detachment demonstrating at Fredericksburg while the larger part crossed the Rappahannock further north, threatening to encircle Lee. Lee would be compelled to accept one of two ugly alternatives: to meet a converging Federal encirclement in his fortifications, or to abandon those fortifications and face part of the Union army, secure behind prepared ground of its own.
Initial preparations proceeded favorably. Three corps caught the Confederates’ attention at Fredericksburg on April 29, while the rest of the army made the crossing at Kelly’s Ford. By the next day, Hooker had four corps in position at Chancellorsville, which was not so much a town as a small settlement centered around the land held by the Chancellor family. Their mansion became Hooker’s headquarters.
Two problems entered the execution of the plan at this time. The first is vacillation on the part of the Union forces. It is not clear whether Hooker himself changed his mind, or if his subordinates had an unclear idea of their roles in the plan; in any event, early plans for a reconnaissance in the woods to the east, the infamous Wilderness, were abandoned. The second is that Lee was responding to events as they unfolded, and he was not inclined to react as expected. When the diversionary effort began on the 29th, he sent a small force north to cover the flank, based on his reconnaissance, he concluded that the real attack would come from Chancellorsville and gave orders accordingly.
On the 30th, both sides reduced their forces around Fredericksburg. Hooker diverted one of his three corps from the diversionary force to the main force, while Lee left a small force under Jubal Early in place and took the rest north towards Chancellorsville. On May 1, Hooker again probed into the Wilderness, and even took up an elevated position within it, but he appeared to lose his nerve when Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson arrived, and the Union forces again withdrew.
Confederate reconnaissance soon developed a good sense of the size of the Federal force – nearly five corps in position – and their respective arrangement. They found that the western flank, occupied by the 11th Corps, was exposed; it seemed that the forest was considered an anchor to their flank, and not a liability. Lee and Jackson proposed to turn it into exactly that, and it was soon discovered that a local clergyman, Reverend Lacy, knew of ways through the forest that would permit a force to pass through it and attack the 11th Corps from the flank.
The next day, Jackson’s corps set out on this flanking maneuver. It fell to Lee, with the remainder of his forces, to demonstrate in front of the Union forces, and to appear to be a larger force. In this, the ruse was not wholly successful, although that did not change the outcome. Part of Jackson’s force was spotted, and a Union detachment attempted to intercept it, but was repulsed. In the process, the Union commanders seemed to have concluded that this movement was a withdrawal, rather than a pending attack.
Jackson’s attack burst forth from the forest at 6 pm, catching 11th Corps completely by surprise. 11th Corps was routed, although Hooker was able to gather other troops to form a line. Jackson attempted to maintain some momentum even after nightfall, but met with disaster in the process. Mistaken for enemy reconnaissance, he was fired upon by his own troops and fell, gravely wounded.
For the rest of this battle, cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart took Jackson’s place. The fight resumed the following day, and General Hooker was hurt when his headquarters came under fire. Union forces retreated back to the river, taking up a defensive position that gave them access to the US Ford. No further fighting resulted here, and within a couple of days, the Union forces had crossed the river and returned to Falmouth, where they had spent the winter.
For the Confederates, the fighting was not yet over. The Union diversionary force at Fredericksburg had attacked, and broken Early’s defenses. With the Federal retreat at Chancellorsville, Lee was able to send a division south on the fourth, and the following day additional assistance traveled to Salem Church to face the Union force. With the Confederates so reinforced, the Union detachment withdrew to the other side of the river overnight.
On May 10, General Jackson died of pneumonia that set in as a complication from his otherwise successful surgery. The loss of Jackson was a particularly high cost for the victory at Chancellorsville. Neither of the generals who succeeded him, Hill and Ewell, could emulate his skill and determination, even though Lee was counting on them to do exactly that. Less than two months later, his absence would acutely be felt at Gettysburg.
With this victory, Lee felt emboldened to resume the strategy he had attempted in 1862, after his success at Second Manassas: to take the battle north, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to forage in Union territory and paving the way for a battle that would break Washington’s determination to defeat the Confederacy, or at least to embolden England and France to actively support the South. Lee’s forces traveled north, and by the end of June, they were operating in Pennsylvania. The hoped-for battle materialized at Gettysburg, but there, it was the Union that would be better prepared.
Anders, Curt. Hearts in Conflict: A One-volume History of the Civil War. Barnes & Noble, 1994.
Katcher, Philip. The Complete Civil War. Cassell, 1992.
Macdonald, John. Great Battles of the Civil War. Macmillan, 1988.
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