Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory in the Civil War — Prelude to the Battle of Chancellorsville

January 25–April 30, 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 prelude to the battle.

Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait

General Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

This article is the first 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.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, Painting
This painting depicts the last meeting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Hooker takes command of the Army of the Potomac

Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wanted new leadership for the Army of the Potomac (USA). On January 25, 1863, he named General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker to take command of the army from General Ambrose Burnside

When Hooker took command, the army was at Falmouth, Virginia, along the north bank of the Rappahannock River, across from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Hooker, who had a reputation for hard living and hard fighting, reorganized the army, instilled discipline, and improved the living conditions for his men. By the spring of 1863, Hooker believed his army of nearly 130,000 men was ready to confront General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia (CSA) — roughly 60,000 men — who occupied Fredericksburg and the surrounding area. 

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

Hooker’s army included eight corps:

  1. John F. Reynolds, 1st Corps
  2. Darius N. Couch, 2nd Corps
  3. Daniel E. Sickles, 3rd Corps
  4. George G. Meade, 5th Corps
  5. John Sedgwick, 6th Corps
  6. Oliver O. Howard, 11th Corps
  7. Henry W. Slocum, 12th Corps
  8. George Stoneman, Cavalry Corps

Hooker’s plan to attack Lee

Hooker devised a plan he thought could destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. 

  1. Stoneman would take most of his cavalry, cross the Rappahannock River and move northwest of Fredericksburg. Stoneman would turn south and pass the city on its west side. Then he would turn southeast toward Richmond. Stoneman would raid Confederate supply and communication lines to Richmond and cut Lee off from the Confederate capital. Once he was south of Fredericksburg, Stoneman would be at the rear of Lee’s army.
  2. Reynolds (1st Corps) and Sedgwick (6th Corps) would move into position to cross the Rappahannock River. This would put them on the north side of the river, in front of Lee’s army.
  3. Hooker would lead the rest of the army along a similar route as Stoneman’s, around to the west side of Fredericksburg and Lee’s army. From there, Hooker would close in on Lee and trap him.

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.”

Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, Map, Hooker's Plan, Jesperson
This map by Hal Jesperson shows the planned movements of the Union Army. Image Source: CWMaps.com.

Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg

While Lee’s army occupied Fredericksburg and the surrounding area, it ran low on food, firewood, and other supplies. In February, Lee sent General James Longstreet and two divisions to southeastern Virginia to gather food and supplies. In Longstreet’s absence, Lee only had around 60,000 men — less than half of what Hooker had.

April 13 — Stoneman’s march begins

On April 13, Hooker ordered Stoneman to start his march. However, heavy rain kept him from crossing the Rappahannock River. Stoneman was unable to sever Lee’s communication lines before the battle, so the first part of Hooker’s plan failed.

April 27 — Hooker’s flanking march begins

The heavy rains delayed the rest of Hooker’s plan for two weeks. On the 27th, Meade (5th Corps), Howard (11th Corps), and Slocum (12th Corps) moved first. They were northeast of Fredericksburg, far enough they were undetected by the Confederates. As they marched into position, they left guards, forcing the inhabitants to stay in their homes so they could not warn the Confederates.

George Meade, Civil War General
General George Meade (USA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

April 28 — Union forces cross the Rappahannock River

Lee received reports from Jeb Stuart and others, informing him Hooker’s men were on the move upriver from Fredericksburg and directly across from the city. The reports made it difficult for Lee to assess where Hooker intended to attack.

On the night of April 28, Meade (5th Corps), Howard (11th Corps), and Slocum (12th Corps) crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges. After they crossed, they continued to march west, toward the Rapidan River.

April 29 — Union forces move west to flank Lee

Meade (5th Corps), Howard (11th Corps), and Slocum (12th Corps) crossed the Rapidan River. When Meade crossed, his men caught the Confederate pickets by surprise and engaged them. Meade’s men fought them off, completed their crossing, and secured the crossing, allowing Howard and Slocum to cross the river.

Union forces move to Lee’s front

Reynolds (1st Corps) and Sedgwick (6th Corps) crossed the Rappahannock River, just south of Fredericksburg, and moved toward Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Sickles (3rd Corps) moved so he was across from them, on the north side of the river. These moves distracted the Confederates, which allowed Couch (2nd Corps) to move out of Falmouth and head west to join Meade, Howard, and Slocum.

Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, Sedgwick Crossing the Rappahannock River
This illustration depicts Sedgwick’s men crossing the Rappahannock River. Image Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, Archive.org.

Lee warns Jefferson Davis

Lee had enough information to guess what Hooker intended to do. Believing Reynolds and Sedgwick in front of him was a diversion, he sent a message to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond that said Hooker’s plan was to “turn our left, and probably to get into our rear.”

In order to confirm his suspicions, Lee sent General Robert H. Anderson to scout the area west of Fredericksburg, along the Orange Turnpike. Anderson sent infantry units to block roads that led from the river crossings to the Orange Turnpike.

April 30 — Anderson digs in near Chancellorsville

On April 30, Anderson decided he was too close to The Wilderness, a thick forest not far to the west of Chancellorsville. He moved back to Zoan Church, three miles east of Chancellorsville. When he arrived, he put his men to work building defensive works. Soon after, Anderson was joined by General Lafayette McLaws and his men.

General Robert H. Anderson, CSA, Civil War
General Robert H. Anderson (CSA). Image Source: Roll of Officers and Members of the Georgia Hussars, 1906, Archive.org.

Union forces converge at Chancellorsville

Hooker’s men moved toward the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, a place locals referred to as “Chancellorsville.” Hooker arrived there in the evening and made his headquarters at a former inn, owned by the Chancellor family. At Chancellorsville, Hooker was about 12 miles west of Fredericksburg, on the edge of The Wilderness. 

Hooker ordered his men to take defensive positions around Chancellorsville while Crouch (2nd Corps) continued the march to Chancellorsville. He also wanted to wait for Sickles (3rd Corps), who had left Falmouth and started the march to Chancellorsville.

  • Meade (5th Corps) was east of Chancellorsville.
  • Howard (11th Corps) was positioned along the turnpike, west of Chancellorsville.
  • Slocum (12th Corps) was southwest, at Hazel Grove.

Some of Hooker’s officers were concerned about the delay in assembling the entire force at Chancellorsville, but they were still confident his plan was going to work.

Lee and Jackson discuss options

Back in Fredericksburg, Lee met with Stonewall Jackson to discuss options. Believing Hooker intended to attack from the west, Lee made a bold decision to divide his army, despite having fewer men than Hooker. It was a decision that violated his military training — but was something Hooker would not expect. 

First, Lee decided to leave General Jubal Early and roughly 9,000 men in Fredericksburg to defend the right flank of the Confederate Army. Second, Jackson would march west, join Anderson near Chancellorsville, and confront Hooker and the bulk of his army.

The stage was set for a dramatic confrontation at Chancellorsville that would result in Lee’s greatest victory — and the loss of Stonewall Jackson.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson, Illustration
General Stonewall Jacks (CSA). 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

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory in the Civil War — Prelude to the Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Date January 25–April 30, 1863
  • Author
  • Keywords Robert E. Lee, Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

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