The Battle of Chancellorsville was among (1) the most dramatic, complicated, crucial battles of the American Civil War. It was a major Confederate victory, possibly the greatest, but also one of the bloodiest, with a combined total of roughly 30,000 casualties. The fighting spanned four days, beginning on May 1st in the spring of 1863, and took place at a small crossroads near the Rappahannock River in Virginia.
Events leading up to the battle began to take shape when Major General Joseph Hooker replaced Major General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac on January 25, 1863. Hooker received his commission shortly after Burnside’s crushing defeat at the hands of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on December 13, 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia.
By the arrival of May, Hooker had gathered 70,000 soldiers near the crossroads of Chancellorsville, and divided his numerically superior forces for the purpose of trapping Lee’s army at Fredericksburg. (2) Hooker’s plan entailed sending the Union Cavalry; under the command of Major General George Stoneman; on a long maneuver to get behind Lee’s army, cut off their supply and communication lines, trap them at Fredericksburg, and force them out of their position.
The cavalry troops ran into several obstacles, however, and were unable to dislodge the Confederate forces. (3) Moreover, Lee was already aware of Hooker’s presence at Chancellorsville and had taken about 40,000 of his men west to stop Hooker’s advance, (4) leaving the remaining troops—approximately 11,000 in number—at Fredericksburg. Lee met Hooker late in the morning on the first of May, and after a number of attacks and counter attacks, Hooker halted all Federal assaults.
Given how easily Federal offensives had been defeated at Fredericksburg the previous year, Hooker was determined to force the Confederate forces to do the attacking, a decision that gave the southern troops opportunity to gain the upper hand. That night General Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, nickname “Stonewall” for the manner in which his men held their ground “like a stone wall” at First Manassas in 1861, agreed on a plan in which Jackson would flank Hooker.
On May 2, 1863, Jackson marched his entire command of nearly 28,000 soldiers 12 miles around the Union army to avoid being spotted, and at about 5:30 in the late afternoon, (5) Jacksons men launched a sudden attack, striking the Union Eleventh Corps by surprise. The Confederates continued their offensive the next morning, forcing the Union ranks, who were now under fire from two different sides, to begin retreating from the field by noon, and on May 4th, Hooker began retreating from Chancellorsville.
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