The Battle of Chancellorsville, fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, is widely considered to be Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory during the American Civil War. Facing an enemy force nearly twice the size of his own, Lee daringly split his troops in two, confronting and surprising Union Gen. Joseph Hooker. Though Hooker still held numerical superiority, he did not press this advantage, instead falling back to defensive positions. When Lee once again split his forces and attacked, Hooker was forced to retreat across the Rappahannock River. Lee’s victory came at a high cost, however. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, one of his most trusted generals, was mortally wounded by friendly fire during the battle.
Fought in the Wilderness region of Virginia, Chancellorsville was General Robert E. Lee’s greatest defensive victory, an outstanding example of command partnership and the misuse of strategic initiative. On April 30, Lee (whose 60,000 men occupied the Fredericksburg heights) found 80,000 enemy troops behind him, thanks to a brilliantly executed march and river crossing by Union major general Joseph Hooker, who proclaimed Lee could either “ingloriously fly” or give “battle on our ground.” Unnerved by sharp counterattacks delivered by the outnumbered Confederate rear guard, Hooker squandered his advantage by halting to erect defenses near the Chancellor farm. Lee arrived on May 1, and together with his able subordinate Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, planned his own flank movement.
Early on May 2, Jackson and 30,000 men followed a circuitous route that brought them against Hooker’s weak right flank. Jackson’s attack, begun in late afternoon, was a brilliant tactical success that destroyed half of Hooker’s line; only nightfall prevented a complete victory. Jackson, scouting in the dark, was mortally wounded by his own pickets. The most intense combat of the battle took place on May 3, with Hooker now defending against Lee’s attack. In masterful crisis management, Lee simultaneously parried a thrust against his rear by the 27,000 troops Hooker had left behind. On May 6, Hooker recrossed the Rappahannock, having lost 17,278 casualties to Lee’s 12,826, including the irreplaceable Jackson. Lee now possessed the strategic initiative, which in a few weeks would lead him north to Gettysburg.
NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.