May 2

This Day in History

Civil War

May 2, 1863:

Confederates deliver blow to Union at Chancellorsville

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson administers a devastating defeat to the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. In one of the most stunning upsets of the war, a vastly outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia sent the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General Joseph Hooker, back to Washington, D.C., in defeat.

Hooker, who headed for Robert E. Lee's Confederate army confident and numerically superior, had sent part of his force to meet Lee's troops at Fredericksburg, Virginia, the day before, while the rest swung west to approach Lee from the rear. Meanwhile, Lee had left part of his army at Fredericksburg and had taken the rest of his troops to confront Hooker near Chancellorsville. When the armies collided on May 1, Hooker withdrew into a defensive posture.

Sensing Hooker's trepidation, Lee sent Jackson along with 28,000 troops on a swift, 14-mile march around the Union right flank. Splitting his army into three parts in the face of the mighty Army of the Potomac was a bold move, but it paid huge dividends for the Confederates. Although Union scouts detected the movement as Jackson swung southward, Hooker misinterpreted the maneuver as a retreat. When Jackson's troops swung back north and into the thick woods west of Hooker's army, Union pickets reported a possible buildup; but their warnings fell on deaf ears.

On the evening of May 2, Union soldiers from General Oliver Otis Howard's 11th Corps were cooking their supper and playing cards when waves of animals charged from the woods. Behind them were Jackson's attacking troops. The Federal flank crumbled as Howard's men were driven back some two miles before stopping the Rebel advance.

Despite the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Union forces soon gained the upper hand in the war in the eastern theater. Scouting in front of the lines as they returned in the dark, Jackson and his aides were fired upon by their own troops. Jackson's arm was amputated the next morning, and he never recovered. He died from complications a week later, leaving Lee without his most able lieutenant.

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