Battle of Chancellorsville: Details

Details

Strategy
  • In the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, the basic offensive plan for the Union had been to advance and seize the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia.

  • Abraham Lincoln had become convinced that the appropriate objective for his Eastern army was the army of Robert E. Lee's, not any geographic features such as a capital city, but he and his generals knew that the most reliable way to bring Lee to a decisive battle was to threaten his capital.
Terrain
  • One of the defining characteristics of the battlefield was a dense woodland south of the Rapidan known locally as the "Wilderness of Spotsylvania". The area had once been an open broadleaf forest, but during colonial times the trees were gradually cut down to make charcoal for local pig iron furnaces. When the supply of wood was exhausted, the furnaces were abandoned and secondary forest growth developed, creating a dense mass of brambles, thickets, vines, and low-lying vegetation.

  • The Chancellorsville Campaign was one of the most lopsided clashes of the war, with the Union's effective fighting force more than twice the Confederates' Hooker's (Union) army was much better supplied and was well-rested after several months of inactivity. Lee's forces, on the other hand, were poorly provisioned and were scattered all over the state of Virginia.

Union Plan 1: Maj. Gen. George Stoneman (Union) planned to cut Lee’s lines of communication and supply. Stoneman attempted to execute this turning movement on April 13, but heavy rains made the river crossing site at Sulphur Spring impassable.

Union Plan 2: Hooker's (Union) second plan was to launch both his cavalry and infantry simultaneously in a bold double envelopment of Lee's army.

  • The terrain was such that the area was largely unsuitable for the deployment of artillery and the control of large infantry formations, which would nullify some of the Union advantage in military power.

April 27-30, 1863: Movement to Battle

On April 27–28, 1863 the initial three corps of the Union Army began their march.
  • Hooker (Union leader) arrived late on April 30 and made the Chancellor (name of the village) mansion his headquarters. The mansion was a single large, brick structure. Some of the Chancellor family remained in the house during the battle.
By May 1, 1863 the Union had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville.
  • When Lee (Confederate) found out about the Union plans/approach Lee did not react as Hooker had anticipated. Lee decided to violate one of the generally accepted Principles of War and divide his force in the face of a superior enemy, hoping that aggressive action would allow him to attack and defeat a portion of Hooker's army before it could be fully concentrated against him.

  • Lee sent 4/5 of his army to endage the Union forces before the fully fortified and he left behind a brigade under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale on heavily fortified area and one division under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, on Prospect Hill south of the town. These roughly 11,000 men and 56 guns would attempt to resist any advance by Sedgwick's 40,000.

  • Fortunately for the Confederates heavy fog masked some of their movements.
Battle May 1, 1863
  • Confederate men began marching west before dawn on May 1.

  • The first shots of the Battle of Chancellorsville were fired at 11:20 a.m. as the armies collided.

  • Lee (Confederate) plans an aggressive move by taking all of his men on a flanking march on May 2.
Battle May 2, 1863
  • Hooker (Union) sent his orders at 1:55 a.m., expecting that Reynolds would be able to start marching before daylight, but problems with his telegraph communications delayed the order to Fredericksburg until just before sunrise. Reynolds was forced to make a risky daylight march. Union troops were behind schedule the rest of the day.

  • Meanwhile, for the second time, Lee was dividing his army.

  • Many of the Union immigrants had poor English language skills and they were subjected to ethnic friction with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, where all non-Irish immigrants were referred to as "Germans". In fact, half the XI Corps consisted of native-born Americans, mostly from the Midwest, but it was the immigrants with whom the corps came to be associated. The corps' readiness was poor as well. Little experience. And although many of the immigrants had served in European armies, they tended to not perform well under the loose discipline of the American volunteer military. Because of these factors, Hooker had placed the XI Corps on his flank and did not have any major plans for it except as a reserve or mopping-up force after the main fighting was over.

  • Around 5:30 p.m. 21,500 Confederate men exploded out of the woods screaming the Rebel Yell. Most of the men in the immigrant Union corps were sitting down to dinner and had their rifles unloaded and stacked. Their first clue to the impending onslaught was the observation of numerous animals, such as rabbits and foxes, fleeing in their direction.

  • After midnight Jackson (Confederate) rode out onto the Plank Road that night to determine the feasibility of a night attack by the light of the full moon, traveling beyond the farthest advance of his men. As Jackson (Confederate) and his staff started to return, they were incorrectly identified as Union cavalry by men and hit with friendly fire. Jackson's three bullet wounds were not in themselves life-threatening, but his left arm was broken and had to be amputated.

  • Jackson contracted pneumonia and died on May 10. His death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy.
Battle May 3, 1863
  • Artillery fire was exchanged by both sides in the afternoon and at 5:30 p.m.
Battle May 4-6, 1863
  • Confederate attack finally began around 6 pm.

  • Hooker felt he was out of options to save the campaign. He called a council of war and asked his corps commanders to vote about whether to stay and fight or to withdraw. Although a majority voted to fight, Hooker had had enough, and on the night of May 5–6, he withdrew back across the river at U.S. Ford.

  • Rains caused the river to rise and threatened to break the pontoon bridges.

  • The surprise withdrawal frustrated Lee's plan for one final attack against Chancellorsville.
Aftermath
  • The battlefield was a scene of widespread destruction, covered with dead men and animals.

  • The south lost its most aggressive field commander, Stonewall Jackson.

  • Hooker (Union), who began the campaign believing he had "80 chances in 100 to be successful", lost the battle through miscommunication, the incompetence of some of his leading generals (most notably Howard and Stoneman, but also Sedgwick), but mostly through the collapse of his confidence.
Union Reaction
  • The Union was shocked by the defeat. President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "My God! My God! What will the country say?"

  • Hooker’s poor performance resulted in him being yanked from command (by Lincoln) three days before Gettysburg.

  • Confederate Reaction

  • The Confederate public had mixed feelings about the result, joy at Lee's tactical victory tempered by the loss of their most beloved general, Stonewall Jackson.

  • Of more consequence for Gettysburg (than losing Jackson), was the attitude that Lee absorbed from his great victory at Chancellorsville, that his army was virtually invincible and would succeed at anything he asked them to do.

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