The Battle of Chancellorsville has been called Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory while at the same time it was the Confederacy’s greatest loss. Some have characterized Chancellorsville as Lee’s “perfect battle”. Outnumbered two-to-one the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia out-maneuvered the Federal Army of the Potomac administering a devastating defeat on it and in the process eventually unseating General “Fighting” Joe Hooker as its commander.
However, on May 2nd General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by his own troops while scouting his army’s forward positions at night. Jackson was to die eight days later. This devastating loss cost the Confederacy perhaps its second most important field commander after Robert E. Lee. Jackson’s loss was to be felt throughout the rest of the war. Lee likened the loss of Jackson to “losing my right arm”.
The battle of Chancellorsville was the principal engagement of the Chancellorsville Campaign which took place from April 30 to May 6, 1863 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The Federal army numbered an incredible 134,000 men while the Confederates brought 61,000 men to the field.
How could the Federals been beaten at Chancellorsville? Partly, it was due to the superior generalship of Lee and Jackson. Partly it was due to constricting terrain that forced the two armies to fight on narrow frontages where the Federal army’s seemingly overwhelming numbers were negated. Finally, it was due to Joseph Hooker’s loss of faith in his own generalship.
Hooker had a somewhat complicated but achievable plan to surround Lee’s army on three sides and crush him between the jaws of his two wings of infantry. He sent Gen. George Stoneman’s 10,000-man cavalry force on a sweeping ride around Lee’s force to blockade the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad cutting him off from his supply base in Richmond. It would also prevent Lee from extricating his forces from Hooker’s trap. Hooker assumed that Lee would abandon his positions on the Rappahannock and withdraw toward Richmond because that is what a Federal army would do under similar circumstances. Hooker would then cross the river and attack Lee’s army when it was vulnerable.
Nature intervened in the form of rains that caused flooding. Hooker reworked his plan into a bold double envelopment. All of his forces would attack simultaneously. His cavalry would still make a sweeping ride around Lee’s force. The western arm of the double envelopment would be the 42,000 men of three corps (V, XI, and XII) who would cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford. They would march south, cross the Rapidan River at Germania Ford and head for the Chancellorsville crossroads, attacking Lee from the west. The 10,000 men of the II Corps would cross at U.S. Ford and join up with the V Corps, pushing the Confederates away from the river.
The eastern arm of the double envelopment consisted of 40,000 men in two corps, I and VI Corps, under the overall command of John Sedgwick. They would cross the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg and threaten an attack on Stonewall Jackson’s position on the Confederate right flank.
Hooker’s remaining force of 25,000 would be visible across the river at Falmouth, diverting Lee’s attention from the flank attacks.
The problem with Hooker’s plan was that it didn’t take into account the inhospitable terrain around Chancellorsville. Known as the “Wilderness of Spotsylvania” was a dense woods with a significant undergrowth. It was an area 12 miles long and 6 miles wide along the southern bank of the Rappahannock River. The ground was spongy and swampy with creeks appearing and disappearing in the thick undergrowth. In many places the visibility was less than twenty yards. This forces both armies to move along the narrow forest roads of the area. It was a truly awful place for an army to be, particularly one that needed to make precise maneuvers. It was unsuitable for the deployment of artillery with little open space and almost no fields of fire.
Complicated plans in the Civil War were mostly unsuccessful for a number of reasons. The terrain often became an enemy. In the case of Chancellorsville, the hostile terrain of the Wilderness channeled the opposing forces along narrow back roads. In many cases the opposing forces could not see their enemy but could only hear them. The dense woods precluded sweeping maneuvers and attacks by either side. River crossings were a dangerous and time-consuming maneuver. The fords along the rivers also channeled the attacks. The lack of fast communications during the 19th century encouraged uncoordinated piece-meal attacks. All of these plagued the Federal plan at Chancellorsville.