Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory in the Civil War — Hooker Retreats from Chancellorsville

May 3, 1863–May 6, 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 from the late morning of May 3, 1863, through the end of the battle on May 6.

Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait

General Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

This article is the fifth 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 — May 3 to May 6, 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,

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.

The next morning, Stuart and Lee renewed the attack, which forced the Union Army to evacuate Chancellorsville. In the chaos, Hooker was injured by artillery fire and turned command over to General Darius N. Couch.

Soon after, Lee and Stuart joined their commands. Lee rode into Chancellorsville to the thunderous applause of his men. However, the moment was interrupted by news that Union forces had pushed through Fredericksburg 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.

May 3 — The Second Battle of Fredericksburg

As the battle raged around Chancellorsville, General John Sedgwick decided to attack Confederate forces that were defending Fredericksburg. Sedgwick had 24,000 men under his command while General Jubal Early had half that number.

Sedgwick attacked along Marye’s Heights and the Confederates pushed back two assaults. A temporary truce was declared so wounded Union soldiers could be evacuated. While the wounded were being removed from the battlefield, Union officers realized they outnumbered the Confederates.

When the attack resumed, Sedgwick sent 10 regiments to attack, overwhelming the Confederates. Early ordered his men to retreat, while Sedgwick slowly reorganized his forces and prepared to march west toward Chancellorsville to join the rest of the Union Army.

Jubal Early, General
General Jubal Early (CSA). Image Source: Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Lee responds to Sedgwick’s advance — The Battle of Salem Church begins

In Chancellorsville, Lee received the news Sedgwick was on the move. Lee ordered Confederate forces east of him, under the command of General Robert H. Anderson and General Lafayette McLaws, to move into positions to block Sedgwick’s advance. Around 4:00 on the afternoon of May 3, Sedgwick’s advance force engaged McClaws and his division at Salem Church, about four miles west of Fredericksburg. The Confederates held their position. As night fell, the fighting ended and the men made their camps for the night.

Battle of Chancellorsville Map, May 3, Battles, Jesperson
This map by Hal Jesperson shows the battles of May 3. Image Source:

Lee takes advantage of Hooker’s defensive mindset

Hooker had retreated north with his 75,000 men and the center of the Union Line was at a place called Bullock House. From there, the right of the line went northwest and the left of the line went northeast.

Lee gambled, expecting Hooker to stay in a defensive position, and made another bold move. He placed 25,000 men in a line that stretched along the Orange Turnpike, with Chancellorsville in the center. The Confederates faced north, toward the Bullock House and the center of the Union Line.

May 4 — Lee rides to Salem Church

From Chancellorsville, Lee rode east to Salem Church where he joined Anderson and McLaws around 9:00 a.m. He placed McLaws to the west of Sedgwick’s force, Anderson to the south, and General Jubal Early to the east and prepared to advance.

However, it took until nearly 5:00 that afternoon to move his men into position. Lee was upset it took so long, and the attack was slowed by darkness. Lee intended to attack again the next morning, but Sedgwick withdrew his men overnight and moved back over the Rappahannock River, west of Falmouth, Virginia.

Hooker decides to retreat

Around 11:00 that night, Hooker found out Sedgwick had retreated across the river. He met with his officers and asked them if they should attack the next morning or withdraw across the river. However, Hooker left the meeting, so the officers could discuss the situation without him.

George G. Meade, John F. Reynolds, and Oliver O. Howard wanted to attack.

Darius N. Couch and Daniel E. Sickles voted to retreat.

Hooker returned to the meeting and announced he would withdraw. Reynolds was furious, “What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyhow?”

John F Reynolds, Portrait
General John F. Reynolds. Image Source: Libary of Congress.

May 5–6 — Hooker retreats and Lee wins the Battle of Chancellorsville

The next morning, the Union Army marched north and crossed over the rivers, as rain fell on them. Lee tried to launch an attack, but his men were exhausted and ineffective.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was over.

After his army returned to Falmouth, Virginia, Hooker blamed the defeat on his officers who failed to carry out their orders or who were beaten by Lee and Jackson in the field. However, some of his officers — Reynolds and Couch — spoke directly to President Lincoln and asked him to remove Hooker from command. Lincoln kept him in command, but Hooker eventually resigned and was replaced by George Meade on June 28.

Battle of Chancellorsville Map, May 4-6, Jesperson
This map by Hal Jesperson shows the evacuation routes of the Union Army. Image Source:

Lee’s greatest victory of the Civil War…

Lee was vastly outnumbered during the battle but made bold moves by dividing his army and taking advantage of Hooker’s mindset. Initially, Hooker intended to attack Lee, but when Lee went on the offensive, Hooker fell back and moved into defensive positions. 

Lee continued to use it to his advantage and was able to force Sedgwick to withdraw from the battle. When that happened, Hooker decided to follow suit — even though he had more men than Lee. Clearly, Lee convinced Hooker he could not win, even though some of Hooker’s officers believed the opposite.

… comes with a great cost — the death of Stonewall Jackson

The Confederates suffered heavy casualties at Chancellorsville. More than 10,000 men were killed (1,724) or wounded (9,233).

The most significant casualty was, of course, the death of Stonewall Jackson on May 10. Jackson survived the wounds he received when he was shot by his own men, but doctors amputated his left arm. Within a few days, he developed pneumonia and died.

In a letter to his father, Lieutenant John T. Norton of the 97th Regiment New York State Volunteers, Company G, said:

If the rebels call it a victory, it was a dear one to them for at the last calculation they lost two to one, and it would not take many such victories to end the rebellion. Besides losing one of their best Generals who is a host in himself, namely Jackson, the bravest of the brave.

While Chancellorsville may have been Lee’s greatest victory, it was, no doubt, a pyrrhic victory. 

Lee himself said:

At Chancellorsville we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight—I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.

Regardless, Lee decided to press on. On May 14, he marched into Maryland and on into Pennsylvania — toward a small town called Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee, Last Visit to Stonewall Jackson's Grave, Painting, Eckhardt
This illustration depicts Lee visiting the gravesite of Stonewall Jackson. 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 — Hooker Retreats from Chancellorsville
  • Date May 3, 1863–May 6, 1863
  • Author
  • Keywords Robert E. Lee, Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024