The battle of Chancellorsville

The battle of Chancellorsville

The battle of Chancellorsville

The battle of Chancellorsville

Map taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: III: Retreat from Gettysburg, p.158

Return to battle of Chancellorsville

The Battle of Chancellorsville

Jackson's infantry and artillery were on the move under a memorably bright moon before dawn on Friday, May 1. With adrenaline pumping in anticipation of battle, the Confederates devoured the miles separating them from their blue-clad enemy. Jackson arrived at Anderson's position near Zoan Church by 8:00 A.M. McLaw's brigades had preceded them by a few hours. The men at Zoan who greeted Jackson assumed they would be fighting on the defensive, but they soon discovered that Stonewall harbored only offensive thoughts. Orders swiftly revealed his intention—Mahone's brigade and McLaws's division would move west on the turnpike, while Anderson's other brigades, supported by Jackson's arriving men, would push toward Chancellorsville on the plank road. By eleven o'clock the Confederates were in motion. A Confederate artillerist, watching Jackson's infantry pour westward, recalled the scene as Lee joined Jackson to observe the developing action: "Up the road from Fredericksburg comes marching a dense & swarming column of our shabby gray ranks, and at the head of them rode both General Lee & Stonewall Jackson. We were not going to wait for the enemy to come & attack us. we were going out on the warpath after him." The presence of Lee and Jackson, he added, "meant that it was to be a supreme effort, a union of audacity & desperation."



Joseph Hooker also entertained offensive thoughts on the morning of May 1. A beautiful day beckoned. Light breezes played among the army's uncased banners, and the men sensed important work ahead. Many officers had been unhappy with Hooker's decision to bivouac the turning column near Chancellorsville instead of moving on during the afternoon and evening of April 30. Now they heard with relief that the army would seek to regain its forward momentum. With 70,000 soldiers and 184 guns on hand, Hooker ordered a three-pronged advance toward Fredericksburg. George Meade took two divisions of his Fifth Corps out the River Road and sent Major General George Sykes's division, which boasted two brigades of U.S. Regulars, east on the turnpike. Farther south, Slocum's Twelfth Corps filled the plank road, with Howard's Eleventh Corps in close support. Couch's divisions, soon to be reinforced by the Third Corps then crossing United States Ford, would stand in reserve. Hooker envisioned a rapid march to take his troops out of the Wilderness, seize control of the ridge at Zoan Church, and permit him to stage a final strike against Fredericksburg.

Headed toward each other on the same roads, thousands of Federals and Confederates rapidly approached an inevitable collision. On the plank road, a captain in Slocum's corps instinctively looked at his watch when he noticed the first shell burst: "Twenty minutes past eleven," he remarked. The first gun of the battle of Chancellorsville. Fighting soon flared along the turnpike and plank road and almost immediately illuminated a stark contrast in leadership. Stonewall Jackson urged his men forward, directing new units to either the turnpike or plank road and seeking to press the enemy. Back at Chancellorsville Hooker shrank from the prospect of battle, issuing instructions at 2:00 P. M. for his corps commanders to suspend their advances and fall back to the crossroads.

Much hard fighting lay ahead. Thousands of men would he killed or maimed, but any real hope for Union victory slowly receded as puzzled Federal veterans retreated away from the bright sunlight into the Wilderness.

The decisive moment of the campaign had arrived. Hooker's troops on the turnpike were nearing the vital ridge at Zoan Church. Slocum's units had made similar progress on the plank road. From the Zoan high ground eastward the landscape steadily descended toward Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock. Possession of the ridge would open the way to possible victory. But Hooker pulled his soldiers off the rising ground, back into the clutching forest. With every yard his soldiers trod into the woods, Hooker relinquished a measure of his numerical superiority. He had come face to face with R. E. Lee and had lost his nerve. In effect, the Chancellorsville campaign ended on the morning of May 1 because Hooker lacked the will to commit his army to a decisive confrontation with Lee. Much hard fighting lay ahead. Thousands of men would be killed or maimed, but any real hope for Union victory slowly receded as puzzled Federal veterans retreated away from the bright sunlight into the Wilderness.

Some of Hooker's subordinates reacted angrily. Slocum's report for the campaign implicitly criticized the commanding general by noting that the Twelfth Corps was gaining ground and had lost just ten men when the order to retreat arrived. On the River Road, Meade had encountered only the lightest opposition in reaching a point within sight of Banks Ford. Possession of that vital crossing would greatly shorten the distance between the two wings of Hooker's army. But Hooker's orders allowed no discretion. Grudgingly reversing direction, Meade betrayed frustration and wrath: "My God," he exclaimed, "if we can't hold the top of a hill, we certainly can't hold the bottom of it!"

By mid-afternoon Hooker's troops had begun entrenching along a defensive line centered on Chancellorsville. They originally deployed north to south facing east, but shortly after Hooker's order to withdraw Federals detected a threat on their right flank about a mile south of the plank road. A. R. Wright's Georgians had deployed in the bed of an unfinished railroad that roughly paralleled the plank road and turnpike, following it west through the woods and forcing the Federals to readjust. Hooker drew his new line to protect against Confederates to the south and east. Shaped like a broad, flat V with the apex near Chancellorsville, it consisted of Meade's corps and Couch's two divisions on the left, anchored on the Rappahannock and facing east and southeast Slocum's corps in the center facing south and Howard's corps holding the right along the turnpike, extending past Wilderness Church and also facing south. Sickles's troops, who had arrived about noon boosted the number of men under Hooker's direct control.


Lee's army was arrayed to the east and southeast, its advance units within a mile of Chancellorsville. McLaws's brigades straddled the turnpike, while Anderson's and Jackson's divisions deployed along the plank road. Musketry and cannon fire died away as evening came on. Another bright moon "filled the heavens with light," noted a South Carolinian, casting weird shadows in the forest. A damp chill settled over the Wilderness, the night's silence broken by the axes of Union pioneers laboring to strengthen Hooker's works.

The Battle of Chancellorsville

Night enveloped a chaotic field. The moon rose over the Wilderness to create a fantastic landscape of shadows broken by shafts of light. The men of Rodes and Colston, "mingled together in inextricable confusion" during the attack, would have to be sorted out. Hill's brigades made their way to the front. The Eleventh Corps lay scattered over several miles, and thousands of its soldiers would not be available for further service for many hours. Third Corps units involved in the fighting at Catharine Furnace and the Wellford house found themselves isolated from the main Union position and struggled to link up with comrades along the plank road and at Chancellorsville.

By 9:00 P.M., Sickles's men had settled into position at Hazel Grove facing northwest. To their right, Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams's division of Slocum's corps extended the line to the plank road. Its right touched the left of Berry's division, positioned north of the plank road and, like Williams's command, facing west. Other units of the Second and Twelfth corps were spread around the Chancellorsville crossroads. The Fifth Corps line angled from a position just north of Chancellorsville toward Scott's Dam on the Rappahannock, and the divisions of John Reynolds's First Corps, which had begun the day on the Confederate side of the river at Fredericksburg, were slowly making their way from United States Ford to Chancellorsville. Between 11:00 P.M. and midnight, Sickles mounted a groping assault from Hazel Grove toward the plank road during which his men came under artillery and musket fire from the Twelfth Corps. "I have no information as to the damage suffered by our troops from our own fire," confessed Henry Slocum, "but fear that our losses must have been severe."

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Jackson's afternoon assault routs the Eleventh Corps, but throws Rodes's and Colston's divisions into disorder. While they reform near Wilderness Church, Jackson orders A. P. Hill's corps to the front to continue the assault. As Hill moves into position, Jackson reconnoiters in front of Lane's brigade and is injured. Sickles unsuccessfully attacks the Confederates from Hazel Grove at midnight, while Reynolds's First Corps crosses the river at U.S. Ford and hurries into position on Hooker's right.


Lee continued to oversee the Confederate right. There Richard H. Anderson's division held a line between Scott's Run, just east of Catharine Furnace, and the plank road. Lafayette McLaws's brigades nestled between the plank road and turnpike.

During a lull in the fighting, Stonewall Jackson rode out to his skirmish line on a personal reconnaissance of the Union position. As he and members of his party were returning, a line of Confederate soldiers mistook them for Union cavalrymen and fired a volley into them. Several horsemen were hit, including Jackson, who was struck by three bullets: two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Lieutenant Joseph G. Morrison was the general's brother-in-law and a member of his staff. In an article later published by Confederate Veteran magazine, he described that tragic night in the Wilderness.

"It was now nine o'clock, and Gen. Jackson, who had been for some time near the front line, rode a little in advance of it to reconnoiter the enemy's position. A heavy skirmish line had been ordered to the front, and he supposed he was in the rear of this line. He was at this time accompanied by Capt. J. K. Boswell, of the engineers, Capt. R. F. Wilburne [sic], of the signal corps, Lieut. J. G. Morrison, aid-de-camp, and five or six couriers, and had ridden but a short distance down the pike when a volley was fired at the party by the Federals in front and to the right of the road. To escape this fire the party wheeled out of the road to the left and galloped to the rear, when our own men, mistaking them for Federal cavalry making a charge, and supposing the firing in front to have been directed at the skirmish line, opened a galling fire, killing several men and horses and causing the horses that were not struck to dash panic-stricken toward the Federal lines, which were but a very short distance in front. The General was struck in three places, and was dragged from his horse by the bough of a tree. Capt. Boswell was killed instantly.


Lieut. Morrison, leaping from his horse that was dashing into the enemy's lines, ran to an interval in our line and exclaimed: 'Cease firing! You are firing into our own men.' A colonel commanding a North Carolina regiment in Lane's Brigade cried out: 'Who gave that order? It's a lie! Pour it into them.' Morrison then ran to the colonel, told him what he had done, and assisted him to arrest the firing as soon as possible. He then went to the front in search of the General, and found him lying upon the ground, with Capt. Wilburne and Mr. Wynn, of the signal corps, bending over him examining his wounds. In a few moments Gen. Hill, accompanied by Capt. Leigh and a few couriers, rode up to where the General was lying and dismounted. On examining his wounds, they found his left arm broken near the shoulder and bleeding profusely. A handkerchief was tried around the arm, so as partially to stop the bleeding.

While this was being done, and while the party were bending over the General, two Federal soldiers, with muskets cocked, stepped up to the party from behind a cluster of bushes and looked quietly on. Gen. Hill turned to several of his couriers and said in an undertone, 'Seize those men,' and it was done so quickly that they made no resistance. Lieut. Morrison. thinking these were scouts in front of an advancing line, stepped to the pike, about twenty yards distant, to see if it were so, and distinctly saw cannoneers unlimbering two pieces of artillery in the road, not a hundred yards distant.

Returning hastily, he announced this to the party, when Gen. Hill, who was now in command of the army, immediately mounted and rode to the head of Pender's column (which was coming up by the flank) to throw it into line. He left Capt. Leigh, of his staff, to assist in removing Gen. Jackson. About this time Lieutenant J. P. Smith, aide-de-camp, who had been sent to deliver an order, rode up and dismounted.

"Once the General attempted to rise, but Lieut. Smith threw his arms across his body and urged him to lie quiet a few moments, or he would certainly be killed."

Capt. Wilburne had gone a few moments previous after a litter. The party thought it best not to await Wilburne's return, and suggested that they bear the General off in their arms, when he replied: 'No I think I can walk.' They assisted him to rise, and supported him as he walked through the woods to the pike and toward the rear. Soon after reaching the road they obtained a litter, and placed him on it but had not gone over forty yards when the battery in the road opened with canister. The first discharge passed over their heads but the second was more accurate, and struck down one of the litter bearers, by which the General received a severe fall. The firing now increased in rapidity, and was so terrific that the road was soon deserted by the attendants of the General with the exception of Capt. Leigh and Lieuts. Smith and Morrison. These officers lay down in the road by the General during the firing, and could see on every side sparks flashing from the stones of the pike caused by the iron canister shot. Once the General attempted to rise, but Lieut. Smith threw his arms across his body and urged him to lie quiet a few moments, or he would certainly be killed.

After the road had been swept by this battery with a dozen or more discharges, they elevated their guns and opened with shell. So the little party now had an opportunity of removing their precious burden from the road to the woods on their right, and continued their course to the rear, carrying the General most of the way in their arms. Once they stopped that he might rest, but the fire was so heavy they thought it best to go on. The whole atmosphere seemed filled with whistling canister and shrieking shell, tearing the trees on every side. After going three or four hundred yards an ambulance was reached, containing Col. S. Crutchfield, Gen. Jackson's chief of artillery, who had just been severely wounded, a canister shot breaking his leg. The General was placed in this ambulance, and at his request one of his aids got in to support his mangled arm.

During all of this time he had scarcely uttered a groan, and expressed great sympathy for Col. Crutchfield, who was writhing under the agonies of his shattered limb. After proceeding over half a mile the ambulance reached the house of Mr. Melzi Chancellor, where a temporary hospital had been established. Here Dr. Hunter McGuire, medical director of Gen. Jackson's Corps, checked the bleeding of the General's arm and administered some stimulants. He was then taken to a field infirmary, some two miles to the rear, and about two o'clock in the night his arm was amputated by Dr. McGuire, assisted by Surgeons Black, Wells, and Coleman."

Nightfall did not extinguish Stonewall Jackson's offensive spirit. He hoped renewed assaults would carry his troops to a position between the Army of the Potomac and the fords over the Rappahannock (a vain desire because thousands of Federals blocked the way and the ground favored Hooker). Jackson and a small party of riders moved east along the plank road about 9:00 P.M in search of information about the ground across which any new attacks would pass. Accompanied by a nineteen-year-old private in the Ninth Virginia Cavalry named David Kyle, who had grown up on the Bullock farm north of Chancellorsville and thus knew local roads intimately, Jackson spurred slightly ahead of the rest of the group on the Mountain Road. That small track branched off the plank road slightly more than a mile west of Hooker's headquarters at Chancellorsville and paralleled the main route a few dozen yards to the north.

Eventually satisfied that he had ventured far enough east, Jackson turned Little Sorrel back to the west on the Mountain Road. He had covered but a short distance when scattered shots and then a volley rang out from North Carolinians of Brigadier General James H. Lane's brigade to his left front. Struck by three balls, Jackson was helped to the ground, carried rearward, and eventually transported to a field hospital several miles behind Confederate lines where surgeons amputated his left arm. Command of the Second Corps devolved briefly on A. P. Hill, Jackson's senior lieutenant, who shortly received his own disabling wound. Authority passed finally to Jeb Stuart, summoned from his troopers during the night to take charge of the westernmost piece of the Army of Northern Virginia.


Jackson's flank attack on May 2 marked one of the most dramatic moments in Confederate military history—yet it conveyed no substantive advantage to Lee. Only Howard's corps had been seriously damaged, and the arrival at Chancellorsville of the First Corps during the night of May 2-3 more than made up for Federal losses. The two parts of Lee's army remained separated by many thousands of Hooker's soldiers. Indeed, Hooker enjoyed a situation favorable beyond the imaginings of most generals. With nearly 90,000 available men, he could overwhelm the much smaller forces under Stuart and Lee. Darius Couch argued vigorously after the war that the Confederate dilemma on Stuart's front was "a desperate one . . . front and right flank being in the presence of not far from 25,000 men, with the left flank subject to an assault of 30,000, [from] the corps of Meade and Reynolds." Although writing many years after the events he described, Couch still evinced passion in concluding that "it only required that Hooker should brace himself up to take a reasonable, common-sense view of the state of things, when the success gained by Jackson would have been turned into an overwhelming defeat."

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Why the Battle of Chancellorsville Was Both Glorious and Tragic

Famed Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson met his fate at Chancellorsville.

Key Point: Jackson’s Trail and Hazel’s Grove are among key the sites at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville.

Gray waves of infantry emerging from the dark woods on both sides of the Orange Turnpike stampeded startled Yankees on the Federal right flank on May 2, 1863. One of the Union positions jeopardized by Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank attack was the artillery park at Hazel Grove.

The Confederates were “rushing through and through my battery, overturning guns and limbers, smashing my caissons, and trampling my horse-holders under them,” wrote a disheartened Union artillery officer. Not all of the guns were overrun. Some Yankee gunners fired canister at point-blank range into Georgians trying to overrun their position.

Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, commander of the Union III Corps, had approximately 22 guns posted at Hazel Grove. As darkness engulfed the battlefield, Sickles strived to consolidate his corps before it was cut off by Confederate forces converging on it. Somehow in the black of night he pulled his forward elements back from Catharine Furnace to Hazel Grove before dawn.

Order to Abandon Hazel Grove Unravels Union Position

Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, whose confidence returned during the night following Jackson’s sledgehammer attack of the previous afternoon, summoned Sickles to his headquarters at the Chancellor House before dawn on May 3. Fearing that Sickles’ salient at Hazel Grove would be assailed from both sides, he ordered him to withdraw to Fairview on the Orange Plank Road. It was a major blunder. Hooker was conceding high ground perfect for artillery to the enemy without a fight.

For the morning of May 3, Lee told Maj. Gen. James E.B. Stuart to take command of Jackson’s corps following Stonewall’s wounding by friendly fire the previous night. As soon as Rebel infantry secured Hazel Grove that morning, Stuart ordered his artillery chief to put as many guns in action on the ridge as possible.

“A beautiful position for artillery”

Hazel Grove was “a beautiful position for artillery, an open grassy ridge some 400 yards long, extending northeast and southwest,” wrote Colonel Edward P. Alexander, the artillery reserve commander responsible for massing Rebel guns at Hazel Grove. Once the infantry had cleared the ridge, “General Stuart…sent me word to immediately crown the hill with 30 guns,” Alexander wrote. “They were close at hand, and all ready, and it was done very quickly.”

Solid shot streaked from the Rebel guns into Fairview and even as far as the Chancellor House. “Some of our shells set fire to the big Chancellorsville House itself, and the conflagration made a striking scene with our shells still bursting all about it,” wrote Alexander.

Hooker failed to resupply his cannoneers in the ensuing duel between Union guns at Fairview and Confederate guns at Hazel Grove. With the support of the guns at Hazel Grove, Confederate infantry seized the Fairview and Chancellorsville clearings. By late morning Hooker’s army was in full retreat toward U.S. Ford on the Rapidan River.

Make Time to Drive Jackson’s Trail

Hazel Grove, which today bristles with period cannon, is one of 10 key sites at the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park administered by the National Park Service.

Visitors’ first stop at Chancellorsville should be the visitor center at 9001 Plank Road. The center features exhibits, a bookstore, and a short film about the campaign. A short trail leads to the site where Jackson was tragically wounded.

Although all of the sites on the driving tour are worth visiting, the must-see sites are the Chancellor House Site, Hazel Grove, and Fairview. What’s more, it is worth carving out enough time to drive Jackson Trail, a gravel road that follows the route of Jackson’s II Corps on its famous flank march.

While visiting the park, contemplate how on May 2 the Confederacy’s fortunes soared as the Rebels headed toward a glorious victory, and then rapidly plummeted with the wounding of a remarkably gifted, irreplaceable general.

Battle of Chancellorsville History: The Flank Attack

Hooker's confidence had faded to caution, but whether he was "whipped" depended upon Lee and Jackson. Those two officers reined up along the Plank Road at its intersection with a byway call the Furnace Road on the evening of May 1. Transforming discarded Federal cracker boxes into camp stools, the generals examined their options.

Confederate scouts verified the Federals' strong positions extending from the Rappahannock River, around Chancellorsville, to the high, open ground at Hazel Grove. This was the bad news. The Southern army could not afford a costly frontal attack against prepared fortifications.

Then, about midnight, Lee's cavalry chief, "Jeb" Stuart, galloped up to the little campfire. The flamboyant Virginian carried thrilling intelligence. The Union right flank was "in the air" -- that is, resting on no natural or artificial obstacle. From that moment on, the generals thought of nothing but how to gain access to Hooker's vulnerable flank. Jackson consulted with staff officers familiar with the area, dispatched his topographical engineer to explore the roads to the west, and tried to snatch a few hours rest at the chilly bivouac.

Before dawn, Lee and Jackson studied a hastily drawn map and decided to undertake one of the biggest gambles in American military history. Jackson's corps, about 30,000 troops, would follow a series of country roads and woods paths to reach the Union right. Lee, with the remaining 14,000 infantry, would occupy a position more than three miles long and divert Hooker's attention during Jackson's dangerous trek. Once in position, "Stonewall" would smash the Federals with his full strength while Lee cooperated as best he could. The Army of Northern Virginia would thus be fractured into three pieces, counting Early's contingent at Fredericksburg, any one of which might be subject to rout or annihilation if the Yankees resumed the offensive. To learn more about the role of McLaws' men on May 2 see a folder for McLaws' Trail.

Jackson led his column past the bivouac early on the morning of May 2. He conferred briefly with Lee, then trotted down the Furnace Road with the fire of battle kindled in his eyes. After about one mile, as the Confederates traversed a small clearing, Union scouts perched in treetops at Hazel Grove spotted the marchers. The Federals lobbed artillery shells at Jackson's men and notified Hooker of the enemy movement.

"Fighting Joe" correctly identified Jackson's maneuver as an effort to reach his right flank. He advised the area commander, Major General Oliver 0. Howard, to be on the lookout for an attack from the west. As the morning progressed, however, the Union chief grew to believe that Lee was actually withdrawing - the course of events Hooker most preferred. Worries about his right disappeared. Instead, he ordered his Third Corps to harass the tail end of Lee's "retreating" army.

Colorful Major General Daniel E. Sickles commanded the Third Corps. He probed cautiously from Hazel Grove toward a local iron manufactory called Catharine Furnace. In mid-afternoon the Federals overwhelmed Jackson's rearguard beyond the furnace along the cut of an unfinished railroad, capturing nearly an entire Georgia regiment. The action at Catharine Furnace, however, eventually attracted some 20,000 Bluecoats onto the scene thus effectively isolating Howard's Eleventh Corps on the right with no nearby support.

Meanwhile the bulk of Jackson's column snaked its way along uncharted trails barely wide enough to accommodate four men abreast. "Stonewall" contributed to Hooker's faith in a Confederate retreat by twice turning away from the Union line - first at Catharine Furnace, then again at the Brock Road. After making the desired impression, Jackson ducked under the Wilderness canopy and continued his march toward Howard's insensible soldiers.

Acting upon a personal reconnaissance recommended by cavalry general Fitzhugh Lee, Jackson kept his column northbound on the Brock Road to the Orange Turnpike where the Confederates would at last be beyond the Union right. The exhausting march, which altogether traversed more, than 12 miles, ended about 3 p.m. when "Old Jack's" warriors began deploying into battle lines astride the Turnpike. Jackson, however, did not authorize an attack for some two hours, providing 11 of his 15 brigades time to take position in the silent forest. The awe-inspiring Confederate front measured nearly two miles across.

Although individual Northern officers and men warned of Jackson's approach, Eleventh Corps headquarters dismissed the reports as frightened exaggerations from alarmists or cowards. Hooker's shortage of cavalry hampered the Federals's ability to penetrate the Wilderness and uncover the Confederate presence with certainty. Only two small regiments and half a New York battery faced west in the direction of Jackson's corps.

Suddenly, a bugle rang out in the afternoon shadows. Bugles everywhere echoed the notes up and down the line. As waves of sweat-soaked soldiers rolled forward, the high defiance of the Rebel Yell pierced the gloomy woods. Jackson's Corps erupted from the trees and sent the astonished Unionists reeling. "Along the road it was pandemonium," recalled a Massachusetts soldier, "and on the side of the road it was chaos."

Most of Howard's men fought bravely, drawing three additional battle lines across Jackson's path. But the overmatched Federals occupied an untenable position. The screaming gray legions overwhelmed each Union stand and eventually drove the Eleventh Corps completely from the field.

Sunset and the inevitable intermingling of "Stonewall's" brigades compelled Jackson to call a reluctant halt to the advance about 7:15. He summoned Major General A.P. Hill's division to the front and, typically, determined to renew his attack despite the darkness. Jackson hoped to maneuver between Hooker and his escape routes across the rivers and then, with Lee's help, grind the Army of the Potomac into oblivion.

While Hill brought his brigades forward, Jackson rode ahead of his men to reconnoiter. When he attempted to return, a North Carolina regiment mistook his small party for Union cavalry. Two volleys burst forth in the blackness and Jackson tottered in his saddle, suffering from three wounds. Shortly thereafter a Federal shell struck Hill, incapacitating him, and direction of the corps devolved upon Stuart. The cavalryman wisely canceled "Stonewall's" plans for a night attack. See text for Wounding of Stonewall Jackson Trail .

Battle of Chancellorsville History: The Opening of the Campaign

Hooker began the campaign on April 27 and within three days some 40,000 Federals had splashed through the upriver fords, their presence detected by Confederate cavalry. On April 29, a sizable Union force led by Major General John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps erected pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg and also moved to Lee's side of the river.

With both wings of the enemy across the Rappahannock, Lee faced a serious dilemma. Conventional military wisdom dictated that the understrength Army of Northern Virginia retreat south and escape Hooker's trap. Lee opted instead to meet the Federal challenge head-on. Correctly deducing that Hooker's primary threat lay to the west, "Marse Robert" assigned 10,000 troops under Major General Jubal A. Early to man the old Fredericksburg entrenchments. The balance of the army would turn west toward the tangled Wilderness to confront Hooker's flanking column.

By mid afternoon of April 30, that column, now containing 50,000 men and 108 artillery pieces, rendezvoused at the most important road junction in the Wilderness. A large brick tavern named Chancellorsville dominated this intersection of the Orange Turnpike with the Orange Plank, Ely's Ford, and River roads. "This is splendid," exulted one of Hooker's corps commanders, "Hurrah for Old Joe."
The Federals had encountered virtually no opposition to this point. Moreover, they could now press eastward, break clear of the Wilderness, and uncover Banks Ford downstream, thus significantly shortening the distance between their two wings. Hooker, however, decided to halt at Chancellorsville and await the arrival of additional Union troops. This fateful decision disheartened the Federal officers on the scene who recognized the urgency of maintaining the momentum they had thus far sustained.

"Stonewall" Jackson, gladly seizing the initiative that Hooker needlessly surrendered, left the Fredericksburg lines at 3:00 a.m., on May I and arrived at Zoan Church five hours later. There he found two divisions of Confederate infantry, Major General Richard H. Anderson's and Major General Lafayette McLaws', fortifying a prominent ridge covering the Turnpike and Plank Road. Although his corps had not yet appeared, Jackson ordered Anderson and McLaws to drop their shovels, pick up their rifles, and advance to the attack.

Jackson's audacity dictated the shape of the Battle of Chancellorsville. When Hooker at last authorized an eastward movement late in the morning of May 1, his troops on the Turnpike and Plank Road ran flush against "Stonewall's", outgunned but aggressive brigades. Union front-line commanders had not expected this kind of resistance. They sent anxious messages to Hooker, who quickly ordered his generals to fall back to the Wilderness and assume a defensive posture. The Federal columns on the River Road marched almost to Bank's Ford without seeing a Rebel. They returned to Chancellorsville fuming, fully realizing the opportunity that had slipped through their fingers.

Late in the day, as the blue infantry threw up entrenchments encircling Hooker's Chancellorsville headquarters, Major General Darius N. Couch approached his superior. As the army's senior corps commander, Couch had advocated an offensive strategy and shared his comrades' disappointment with "Fighting Joe's" judgment. "It is all right, Couch," Hooker reassured him, "I have got Lee just where I want him he must fight me on my own ground."

Couch could barely believe his ears. "To hear from his own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much, and I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man."

Complacency and a Close Call

Meanwhile, Hooker remained cautious to the point of complacency. Instead of attacking with his superior numbers, he waited for Lee and Sedgwick to play their parts. It gave Lee the chance to reunite his forces near Chancellorsville and bring their weight to bear in an all-out attack.

Lee’s aggressive maneuvers created openings Hooker could have used to his advantage. Despite having three Union corps in reserve, he did not attack.

In mid-morning, a cannon shot hit the post next to where Hooker was standing at his headquarters. The post exploded, and he was knocked out. He soon recovered but just before another cannonball hit where he had been lying.

Blunders at Chancellorsville

Due to a severe supply problem in the winter of 1862-1863, General Lee had to disperse substantial portions of his army. Among these were the veteran divisions of John Bell Hood and George Pickett which, together with their corps commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, were sent to forage in southeastern Virginia. Lee approved Longstreet’s plan to attack the Federal garrison at Suffolk, 120 miles from Lee’s army. The Suffolk campaign turned into a siege that lasted for nearly a month, and was still in progress when Hooker initiated the Chancellorsville campaign. Longstreet’s 12,000 men could have drastically altered the outcome of the battle of Chancellorsville had they been available to Lee.

Hooker planned himself right out of the services of his large, new cavalry corps. Anticipating that his infantry would rout Lee, “Fighting Joe” detailed the Union cavalry to ride behind the Confederates to disrupt their communications and block their retreat. The cavalry failed miserably in this mission and deprived Hooker of their valuable scouting capability. A good cavalry screen might well have prevented Jackson’s flank attack on May 2.

Lee and his famous cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, can be faulted for slipshod disposition of Confederate cavalry pickets at the upper fords along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. The almost-unguarded fords allowed Hooker to get his army into position and nearly overwhelm Lee at the start of the campaign.

Hooker probably planned to concentrate his army and then entice Lee into a suicidal attack. However, when Hooker withdrew his army to Chancellorsville on May 1, he committed the fatal blunder of allowing Lee to seize the initiative.

While Hooker securely anchored his eastern flank on the Rappahannock River, he chose his least reliable corps to guard his exposed western flank, which is exactly where Jackson hit the Federals at dusk on May 2.

Jackson’s flanking column took an entire day to march 10 miles and get into position on the Federal right flank. The long column was spied by many Union soldiers and officers their reports were relayed up the chain of command where, incredibly, they were interpreted as a Rebel retreat.

Map The Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., including operations from April 29th to May 5th, 1863

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Watch the video: Which wounding was more fatal for the Confederacy, Jackson or Longstreet?: War Department