Chancellorsville is the Virginia battle of early May 1863 at which Union General Joseph Hooker (Hooker) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and where the generalship of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson reached its pinnacle though tragedy immediately followed. (Jackson) It is a very different type of battlefield from Gettysburg, with its dramatic topography and easily recognizable features, and Antietam, compact and sitting under picturesque South Mountain. The area around Chancellorsville is mostly flat and most of the battle took place in an area known as The Wilderness, a 70 square mile area of tangled brush, small trees, impenetrable overgrowth with few roads and fewer recognizable features.
President Lincoln appointed Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac after removing Ambrose Burnside who had led the federal troops to the disaster at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and then the farcical and demoralizing "Mud March" the following month.
Hooker was a braggart, self promoter and heavy drinker (more on that below) but energetic and aggressive which is what Lincoln sought in a commander and he was willing to take risks with him, as the President neatly put it in his letter of Jan 26, 1863:
Major General Hooker:
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality . . . I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship . . .
Yours very truly
The new commander took a number of steps that revitalized the army and developed an innovative strategy for getting at the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Lee, which was nestled safely behind two rivers. In late April, Hooker launched the Army of the Potomac around Lee's left flank, crossing both the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers and reaching the Chancellorsville crossroads, ten miles from Fredericksburg, before Lee realized what was happening.(Hooker's sweep into Lee's rear)
Victory seemed within Hooker's grasp. With 130,000 Federals outnumbering the 60,000 Confederates more than 2 to 1 a further aggressive advance would compel Lee to either fight on ground of Hooker's choosing or retreat. Instead, on the afternoon of May 1, as soon as the Union vanguards hit Southern resistance a mile beyond the crossroads, Hooker ordered them to retreat and take up defensive positions thus losing the initiative and mystifying his own subordinates. By retreating into the Wilderness he negated his huge numerical advantage.
While Joe Hooker stayed immobile to the frustration of his Corps commanders, Lee and Jackson met on the night of May 1 to plan the most dramatic strategic coupe of the Civil War. Lee had already divided his army once, leaving 10,000 men to hold the heights at Fredericksburg against 25,000 Union troops. Now he decided to divide it once again. The following day, Jackson was to take 30,000 men and march 12 miles via small tracks in the Wilderness to assault the right flank of the Union army. Meanwhile, Lee, with 14,000 soldiers would bluff the 75,000 Union troops facing him into thinking he was going to launch an attack when, in reality, Lee could have easily been destroyed if Hooker attacked. Lee would have flunked any Army war college course with this approach. It should never have worked but he knew his opponent.(Flank march, red line at far left)
On the late afternoon of May 2, Jackson launched his flank attack on the unsuspecting troops and demolished the Union 11th Corps and, as night fell, reached a point within a mile of the Chancellorsville crossroads. Jackson planned to make a further attack that evening to cut the Union army off from the river crossings in its rear and thus surround it. Riding out in front of his men in the darkness to reconnoiter a route, Jackson was mistaken for the enemy and was struck by a volley of fire from his own troops. Wounded three times, he was taken to a field hospital where his left arm was amputated and he was evacuated to recuperate, dying eight days later. With Jackson gone plans for the night attack were abandoned.
Jackson's wounding is one of the great "what ifs" of the Civil War. Could he have succeeded with the night attack? If he were alive two months later, would the Confederates have seized Cemetery Hill at the end of the first day of fighting at Gettysburg? For those of us who admire Stonewall's generalship but like the way the Civil War turned out it was a good thing that happened that night at Chancellorsville.
The following morning of May 3 saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War with 17,000 casualties as the Confederates captured the Chancellorsville crossroads (with more bad generalship from Hooker contributing greatly) and to the eventual withdrawal north of the Union army. Hooker would be replaced as commander six weeks later by George Meade, just before Gettysburg.
Hooker's performance was simply appalling. A brilliant strategic plan, executed well at the start and then a complete abdication of leadership at the critical moments when victory was clearly achievable. In fact, Hooker could have still won the battle after Jackson's flank attack. In contrast, Lee was daring and confident, winning a battle against great odds.
Our primary guides on the tours were Ed Bearss, the 90 year old Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service, who can still lead us in marches across the battlefield (see last year's post for more on Ed) and Bob Krick, who for 31 years was the Chief Historian at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (NMP) and is one of the leading experts on the Army of Northern Virginia. The NMP covers four battlefields (Fredericksburg, Dec 1862, Chancellorsville, May 1863 and The Wilderness and Spotsylvania, both in May 1864).
(Krick (Blue Hat), Bearss (White Hat)
We listened to them debate whether Hooker was drunk at Chancellorsville or whether he was just suffering the side effects of recently stopping his drinking. There is historical evidence on both sides of the question and one of the contemporary observers who subscribed to the side effects theory described Hooker as lapsing into "a dipsomaniacal apathy" during the battle.
The Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefield border on each other. In fact, Jackson's flank march goes directly through the area that, a year later, saw some of the bitterest fighting in the Wilderness. There is an eerie symmetry to the battles. On May 2, 1863, Jackson was mortally wounded by his own troops riding out on reconnaissance having just completed his successful flank attack. A year and four days later, Lee's other great Corps commander, James Longstreet was severely wounded by his own troops as he rode in front of them on reconnaissance having just led a successful counterattack. Longstreet would survive and return to command late in the year but was not available to Lee when his strengths as a defensive commander would have counted for the most during the summer 1864 Overland Campaign.