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

May 1, 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 opening of the battle.

Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait

General Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

This article is the second 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.

What led to the Battle of Chancellorsville?

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

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

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.”

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

From April 27 to April 30, Hooker moved his men into position. Reynolds (1st Corps) and 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 would leave General Jubal Early and 9,000 men to defend Fredericksburg and send General Stonewall Jackson west to confront Hooker at Chancellorsville.

May 1 — Hooker moves out from Chancellorsville

Hooker ordered his men to march east, away from The Wilderness and toward Fredericksburg. He wanted to move to open ground where he could maneuver his army. Hooker also believed his superior numbers — he had more than twice the men Lee did — that Lee would have no choice but to abandon Fredericksburg and retreat south toward Richmond. 

Union forces took three roads out of Chancellorsville:

  1. General George Sykes from Meade’s Corps took his division and marched on the Orange Turnpike. He was joined by a division from the 2nd Corps, while a division from the 3rd Corps stayed behind in Chancellorsville as the reserve.
  2. Measd took the rest of the 5th Corps and marched along the River Road, north of the Orange Turnpike.
  3. Slocum (12th Corps) and Howard (11th Corps) took the Orange Plank Road, south of the Orange Turnpike and moved toward Tabernacle Church. Hooker intended to move his headquarters there.

Two divisions of the 2nd Corps were going to stay in Chancellorsville to protect the rear, and another division of the 2nd Corps marched to Todd’s Tavern to protect Hooker’s army from an attack from the south.

Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, Union Forces at Chancellorsville
This illustration depicts Union forces gathered around the Chancellor House. Image Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, Archive.org.

Jackson moves out toward Chancellorsville

Around 3:00 in the morning, General Stonewall Jackson and his 2nd Corps marched out of Fredericksburg and moved west toward Anderson at Zoan Church. Jackson arrived around 8:00 a.m., took command, and told Anderson and McClaws to prepare to march west and engage the Union forces.

General Lafayette McLaws, CSA, Civil War
General Lafayette McLaws (CSA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Battle of Chancellorsville begins

It was around 11:00 in the morning when advance parties from the two armies engaged each other. Skirmishes broke out west of Zoan Church on the Orange Turnpike. At first, the Confederates scattered, allowing the Federals to continue moving east. However, they were quickly met by a larger Confederate force made up of men under the command of McClaws.

McClaws was surprised at how many Union troops were headed toward Fredericksburg and he quickly sent word to Jackson. As the fight intensified, Jackson told McClaws to hold his ground. Then he led his men, including Anderson’s division and General Robert E. Rodes and his division, west to try to flank the Union forces that were engaging McClaws.

Jackson successfully flanked the right of the Union Line, and General Sykes sent word to Hooker. Sykes asked for Hooker to send reinforcements, however, Hooker responded by ordering his forces to fall back to Chancellorsville. Hooker’s intent was to take defensive positions and challenge Lee to attack. 

He sent a message to his corps commanders that said, “The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack to-day will embolden the enemy to attack him.”

Battle of Chancellorsville, Map, May 1, Jesperson
This map by Hal Jesperson shows the movements that took place on May 1. Image Source: CWMaps.com.

Hooker’s officers question his plan

Many of his officers disagreed with the move, including General Meade, who had been close to capturing the high ground at an important river crossing. A frustrated Meade said, “If we can’t hold the top of the hill, we certainly can’t hold the bottom of it!”

After the Union forces fell back, they built breastworks and set up abatis around Chancellorsville. While the work was carried out, General Couch questioned Hooker, who said, “I have got Lee just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground.”

Couch was shocked at Hooker’s response and recalled it, saying, “To hear from his own lip that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much, and I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.”

General Darius Nash Couch, USA, Civil War
General Darius Nash Couch (USA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

Lee and Jackson plan their attack

While Hooker’s men retreated, Stonewall Jackson tried to press the attack, moving west along the Orange Turnpike and Plank Road toward Chancellorsville. He pushed ahead until early in the evening when he engaged the Union 12th Corps. The 12th held its ground and Jackson pulled back.

That night, Lee and Jackson met in the woods near the intersection of Plank Road and Furnace Road to design a strategy for the next day. As they sat around a campfire, they knew they could not make a frontal assault on the Union forces. The only viable option was to try to flank Hooker on his right, which was defended by Oliver O. Howard and his 11th Corps.

Around midnight, Jeb Stuart arrived with a report from Fitzhugh Lee, informing them the right flank of the Union Army was “hanging in the air,” meaning Howard’s were not protected by defensive works.

Jackson asked his pastor, Reverend Beverly Tucker Lacy, if he knew anyone living in the area who could show them a way around Hooker’s flank. Lacy and Major Jedediah Hotchkiss traveled south of Chancellorsville and met with Charles Wellford, the owner of Catharine Furnace. Wellford showed them a path through The Wilderness that would enable the Confederates to flank the Union Line and take them by surprise. Lacy and Hotchkiss returned before dawn with a rough map and showed Lee and Jackson the route.

Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson Bivouac, May 1
This illustration depicts Lee and Jackson discussing their plan of attack. Image Source: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 1887, Archive.org.

Lee looked at Jackson and asked, “What do you propose to do?”

“I propose to go right around here.” Jackson responded, tracing the route on the map with his finger.

Lee asked him how many of his men he wanted to take with him. Jackson said, “My whole command.”

They decided to divide the army for a second time. The plan was for Jackson to take the 30,000 men of his 2nd Corps and march around Hooker’s right flank while Lee and 15,000 men, including Anderson and McLaws, remained in front of Hooker. Lee planned to distract Hooker, while Jackson moved into position to flank the Union 11th Corps from the west.

Their plan depended on three things:

  1. Jackson had to make the 12-mile march without being seen, so Union forces on the flank were unprepared.
  2. Hooker had to stay on the defensive and remain in his defensive positions in Chancellorsville.
  3. Confederate forces in Fredericksburg needed to keep Sedgwick from overtaking the city.

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

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  • Article Title Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory in the Civil War — The Battle of Chancellorsville Begins
  • Date May 1, 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

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