Battle of ChancellorsvilleBattle of Chancellorsville

The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought from 1-4 May 1863, between the Federal Army of the Potomac, General Joseph Hooker commanding, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding. Both armies had wintered around Fredricksburg, Virgina, after the disastrous federal defeat near the town in December 1862. Frontal assault having failed under General Ambrose E. Burnside, Gen. Hooker would try a flank manuever. He would lead a sizeable portion of his 130,000 man army up the north side of the Rappahannock River to cross behind General Lee and jeopardize the positions of the Southerners near Fredricksburg.

On May 1st the Battle flared into action west of Fredricksburg as General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson attacked toward Chancellorsville on two seperate roads. Gen. Hooker committed the fatal blunder of retreating under Gen. Jackson's pressure, thus losing the initiative and giving his opponents the chance to attack his weak spots. Early the next morning in a bold move to cut around the Union Army, general Jackson marched west with nearly 30,000 men, leaving General Lee with only 15,000 men to face General Hooker's main threat. By late afternoon Gen. Jackson had his entire force behind Gen. Hooker's army, and he was able to launch an overwhelming surprise attack which caved in the federal line for 2.5 miles.

When confusion and darkness finally brought the attack to a halt, General Jackson rode out in front of his lines to find a means of renewing the offensive and destroying Gen. Hooker's army. With total success at hand, tragic circumstances intervened. As the General rode back towards his own men, some of them fired a blind volley which badly wounded him. He died a week later at Guiney Station, Virginia, as a result of his wounds and the pnuemonia which subsequently developed. The loss of Gen. Jackson dealt a crushing and irreparable blow to the military fortunes of the Confederacy.

Very early on the morning of May 3rd, Southern troops charged against the fortified federal lines one mile west of Chancellorsville. Confederate forces captured the key to the battle at the outset, when they occupied the high clearing known as Hazel grove. The Federals abandoned this vital position with hardly a struggle. After several hours of violent and costly fighting in the woods, Confederate infantry joined hands with their comrades to the east and drove Gen. Hooker back to a new position a mile north of Chancellorsville.

Meanwhile the Union troops back at Fredricksburg, under Gen. John Sedgwick, had pushed through the thin confederate lines entrenched there. Gen. Lee was compelled to halt this victorious army near Chancellorsville and send substantial reinforcements east towards Fredricksburg. After extensive fighting near the Salem church on May 3rd and 4th, Gen. Sedgwick was thrown back across the Rappahannock River at Bank's Ford.

During the night of may 4th-5th, as Gen. Sedgwick was hastily crossing the river, Gen. Hooker, safe in a snug retreat north of Chancellorsville called a meeting of his corps commanders. In a feeble explanation of his actions, Gen. Hooker told them his main responsibilty was to protect Washington, and therefore he had no right to jeopardize the army. He then wanted to know if the corps commanders would vote to stay and fight or retreat across the river. Although a majority voted to stay and fight, Gen. Hooker took it upon himself the responsibility of withdrawing the army to the other side of the river.

Gen. Lee's great victory had one very strong noteworthy effect: it removed any lingering objection on the part of the Richmond administration to his proposed invasion of Pennsylvania. Thus the battle of Chancellorsville led directly to Gettysburg, the turning point of the War.