Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory in the Civil War — Lee Triumphant at Chancellorsville

May 2, 1863

General Robert E. Lee’s victory over General Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville is widely considered Lee’s shining moment of the war. This entry covers the fighting that took place on the morning of May 3, 1863.

Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait

General Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

This article is the fourth in a series that explores Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory in the Civil War. You will find links to the other articles in the series at the end.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America from April 30 to May 6, 1863, during the American Civil War. Confederate forces, led by Robert E. Lee, won the battle — which is widely considered to be his greatest victory in the war. However, Lee’s victory came at a great cost. During the battle, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, one of Lee’s most-trusted officers, was wounded by his own men, leading to his death.

Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, April 30–May 2, 1863

Following the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln placed General Joseph Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker reorganized the army and trained the men, in preparation to resume the fight in the spring of 1863. 

By late April, Hooker had a plan in place to attack Confederate forces, under the command of General Robert E. Lee, near Fredericksburg. Hooker said, “My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”

Joseph Hooker, Civil War General
General Joseph Hooker (USA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

From April 27 to April 30, Hooker moved his men into position. General John F. Reynolds (1st Corps) and General John Sedgwick (6th Corps), took positions in front of Lee’s army, along the bank of the Rappahannock River. The others moved out west of Fredericksburg and gathered near a place the locals called “Chancellorsville.”

On April 30, Lee decided to divide his army. He left General Jubal Early and 9,000 men to defend Fredericksburg and sent General Stonewall Jackson west to confront Hooker at Chancellorsville.

The next day, May 1, Jackson joined General Robert H. Anderson and General Lafayette McLaws and marched toward Chancellorsville. At the same time, Union forces moved out of Chancellorsville and moved west toward Fredericksburg. Around 11:00, the two armies met on the roads. They fought for around three hours. Jackson was able to flank the Union forces and Hooker ordered his men to retreat.

That night, Jackson met with General Lee and they discussed their next move. They received intelligence that showed them a road through The Wilderness that could be used to flank the right of the Union Line. Confederate forces would be able to move into position, allowing them to launch a surprise attack.

Lee divided his army for a second time. In a daring move, Lee kept 15,000 men with him, in front of Hooker’s army. Meanwhile, Jackson and 30,000 men marched around the right flank of the Union Line to attack Oliver O. Howard (11th Corps).

Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, Jackson's Flank Attack
This illustration depicts Jackson’s attack on the right flank of the Union Line. Image Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, Archive.org.

On May 2, Jackson successfully flanked the right of the Union Line and smashed through Howard’s camp. The Federals put up some resistance but were forced to flee east to Chancellorsville. The Confederates pushed close to Chancellorsville as the day ended and darkness fell across The Wilderness.

Jackson was determined to continue the fight, and went to scout the Union positions himself. Unfortunately, a Confederate picket line fired on Jackson and his staff, thinking they were a Union patrol. Jackson was seriously wounded and had to be removed from the battlefield. The command of his 2nd Corps eventually fell to General Jeb Stuart.

Lee told Stuart to continue the attack the next morning and continue to push Hooker’s army east, so the two Confederate forces could rejoin and smash the Union Army.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson Wounded
This illustration depicts the moment Stonewall Jackson was wounded. Image Source: Library of Congress.

May 2 — Preparations for battle

Throughout the night, Union troops worked to strengthen defenses on the west side of Chancellorsville. General John Reynolds and his 1st Corps arrived, giving Hooker nearly 80,000 men — twice what Lee had. Despite the advantage in numbers and the strength of his position, Hooker was concerned.

Battle of Chancellorsville Map, May 3, Morning, Jesperson
This map by Hal Jesperson shows the morning attack by Confederate forces. Image Source: CWMaps.com.

May 3 — Hooker abandons the high ground

Hoooker ordered General Daniel Sickles and the 3rd Corps to leave their position at Hazel Grove — where they commanded the high ground. From there, Sickles would have been able to fire down on attacking Confederates. Sickles protested but moved toward Chancellorsville around 6:00 a.m. on the 3rd.

Heth leads the Confederate attack

About an hour after Sickles started to move out, a Confederate division, led by General Henry Heth, attacked. Heth’s men were able to push through two of the Union defensive lines west of Chancellorsville, but not the third line. Heth’s men suffered heavy casualties and the attack slowed. The “Stonewall Brigade,” under the command of General Elisha F. Paxton, lost half its men in the attack.

The Confederates were exhausted, but reserves were called up and they assaulted the Union breastworks. After two assaults, the Confederates finally broke through and the Union Line collapsed.

General Henry Heth, CSA, Civil War
General Henry Heth (CSA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

Hooker injured by artillery fire

While the battle raged, Hooker stood on the porch of the Chancellor House, where he received reports from his officers. He was receiving a message from Sickles when a Confederate cannonball hit the porch. Hooker was thrown to the ground, unconscious, and his men thought he was dead. However, he came to, climbed on his horse, and started to ride toward the front line. He had not gone far when he was forced to dismount and was taken to lie down, likely suffering from a concussion. Hooker turned the command over to General Darius N. Couch and told him to fall back to a new position, north of Chancellorsville.

Union forces fall back from Chancellorsville

The Confederate advance continued, and they were less than 200 yards from the Chancellor House. Couch put General Winfield S. Hancock and his division in charge of covering the retreat. Hancock’s men were hit with heavy fire, but held their ground, allowing Union forces to successfully move out of Chancellorsville and regroup.

Robert E. Lee’s moment of triumph

While Stuart pushed into Chancellorsville, Lee attacked the Union forces from the east and southeast. Around 10:00 a.m. Lee and Stuart were united at Hazel Grove. Lee ordered his officers to continue the attack, then he rode down to the Chancellor House, which was on fire. 

As Lee approached, his men cheered for him. He had orchestrated what seemed like an impossible feat. In the face of incredible odds, outnumbered at least 2 to 1, he had forced the Union Army to abandon its headquarters at Chancellorsville and retreat.

Lee’s aide, Major Charles Marshall, said Lee:

..sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of — triumph; and I looked upon him, in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods.

However, the moment was interrupted when Lee received a message from Fredericksburg. Union forces, led by General John Sedgwick, had overrun the Confederates holding the city and were likely headed toward Chancellorsville.

Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, Lee Triumphant
This illustration depicts Lee riding into Chancellorsville to the cheers of his men. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Battle of Chancellorsville — Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory in the Civil War

  1. Prelude to the Battle of Chancellorsville
  2. The Battle of Chancellorsville Begins
  3. Jackson’s Flank Attack and Jackson Wounded
  4. Lee Triumphant at Chancellorsville
  5. Hooker Retreats from Chancellorsville

Learn more about the Battle of Chancellorsville

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory in the Civil War — Lee Triumphant at Chancellorsville
  • Date May 2, 1863
  • Author
  • Keywords Robert E. Lee, Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

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