This article is the third 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.
The Battle of Chancellorsville unfolds and Robert E. Lee divides his army twice
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.”
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.”
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 planned to keep 15,000 men with him, in front of Hooker’s army. Meanwhile, Jackson and 30,000 men were to march around the right flank of the Union Line and attack Oliver O. Howard (11th Corps).
May 2 — Jackson’s flank march
Jackson kept the plan to himself and did not inform his officers until after dawn on May 2. It was around 7:00 a.m. when the first of his 30,000 men moved out. They marched on backwoods roads through The Wilderness and headed west. The Confederates passed the Union 11th Corps, and then turned north, placing them west of Howard and his men.
Throughout the day, Lee covered Jackson’s march by sending the two divisions under his command to start skirmishes along Hooker’s front. The move was a decoy, designed to convince Hooker a large force was still in front of him.
Jackson’s men covered about two miles per hour, and the column was over 10 miles long. Although they were marching through The Wilderness, their presence was not undetected, as Lee and Jackson had hoped. Several times, Union soldiers saw the Confederates through gaps in the thickets.
Hooker suspects a flanking maneuver
Hooker received various reports indicating the Confederates were on his right flank. He thought they could be in retreat, or they could be attempting to flank him. At 9:30 a.m., he sent word to Howard and Henry W. Slocum that said, “We have good reason to suppose the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe in order to obtain timely information of their approach.”
Sickles attacks the Confederate column
General Daniel Sickles (3rd Corps) was not satisfied with Hooker’s response to the Confederate movements. He asked Hooker for permission to engage the Confederate column. Hooker eventually agreed and Sickles sent a division out to engage the column and had artillery batteries in Hazel Grove open fire. However, the action was too late to stop Jackson’s column and it marched away and disappeared into The Wilderness, heading south.
Sickles did have some success. An infantry patrol intercepted Jackson’s rearguard near Catharine Furnace and captured around 250 Confederates. Determined to engage Jackson, Sickles pursued the Confederate column and sent for reinforcements. However, since Sickles saw the Confederate column moving south, he believed it was in retreat. The truth is, it was simply following the road, which eventually turned north.
Hooker sent brigades from the 2nd, 11th, and 12th Corps to aid Sickles. Howard went with the men of the 11th to Catharine Furnace. The troop movements created a gap between the rest of Howard’s men, on the far right of the Union Line, and Chancellorsville.
Jackson continues the march west
Jackson arrived at the intersection of Brock Road and Orange Plank Road. He climbed a hill and surveyed the scene in front of him. He could see the men of the 11th Corps, but it was unclear where their line — the point he wanted to attack — ended. He realized he had to keep moving west and resumed the march until he was two miles west of the Union right. By then, it was 2:00 in the afternoon.
Howard’s camp in peril
Meanwhile, Howard’s men were in their camp, unprepared for combat, despite the earlier warning from Hooker. Howard had taken no action to fortify his position and his men were resting, unaware the enemy was on their doorstep.
Making matters worse for the Union was the gap in the line that was created by sending reinforcements to Catharine Furnace. If the Confederates pushed through the camp of the 11th Corps there was no one between them and Chancellorsville. They would have a good chance to smash Hooker’s army.
Jackson gives the order to attack
For roughly three hours, Jackson organized his men and prepared for battle. Union troops were aware of the Confederate movements and tried to warn their superior officers. When word reached Howard, he insisted the Confederates were retreating — which he believed he had seen himself — and would not be able to launch an attack through the thick woods.
Around 5:30 p.m., Jackson’s men were ready. Jackson turned to General Rodes, commander of the first line, and asked, “General, are you ready?” Rodes nodded and Jackson said, “You may go forward then.” Rodes then gave a signal and thousands of Confederate troops made their way through the Wilderness and into the clearing where the Union 11th was busy preparing its evening meal.
Chaos on the Union flank
Howard’s men saw rabbits and other small animals run past them. The animals were followed by the sounds of bugles signaling the Confederate charge. Second later, Confederates poured into the camp, screaming the “Rebel Yell.”
The men of the 11th Corps tried to hold their positions but were overwhelmed by the onslaught. In the chaos, the Confederates captured artillery batteries, turned them around, and fired on the fleeing Union troops.
The sound of gunfire reached Hooker’s headquarters, which was followed by men and horses running to safety. One of Hooker’s men yelled, “My God, here they come!” Hooker ran to his horse and ordered General Hiram Berry and his men to fix their bayonets and prepare for the attack.
Meanwhile, more Union forces retreated from their positions and poured into Chancellorsville, pursued by Confederates. By then, it was dark and Jackson’s 2nd Corps was in sight of Chancellorsville.
Stonewall Jackson is shot by his own men
In the darkness, around 7:15, confusion reigned for both armies and the Confederate assault slowed to a halt. Jackson tried to rally his men to keep up the attack, however, many of the officers pulled back in the confusion and converged around Dowdall’s Tavern, south of the Wilderness Church. Jackson was upset and impatient. He called up reinforcements and sent them to attack, but the darkness made everyone hesitant.
Jackson decided to ride out to see the position of the men on the Union Line. To do that, he rode in front of a Confederate picket line, made up of men from the 18th Carolina. The men were unaware it was Jackson riding in front of them and they opened fire, believing it was Union cavalry.
In the attack, Jackson was shot three times, including in his left arm. Several of his staff members were wounded and some were killed. Jackson was evacuated from the battlefield and General A.P. Hill took command.
Jeb Stuart takes command
Sporadic fighting continued and Hill was wounded by Union artillery fire. Lee put General Jeb Stuart in command and told him to resume the attack the next morning and continue to push east, so he could rejoin the 2nd Corps with Lee’s command.
Both armies worked through the night to prepare for battle on May 3, 1863.
The Battle of Chancellorsville — Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory in the Civil War
- Prelude to the Battle of Chancellorsville
- The Battle of Chancellorsville Begins
- Jackson’s Flank Attack and Jackson Wounded
- Lee Triumphant at Chancellorsville
- Hooker Retreats from Chancellorsville