Chancellorsville: The Fatal Wounding of Stonewall Jackson
On the morning of May 2, 1863 no one could have known that it was to become the Confederacy’s most fateful day with the Fatal Wounding of Stonewall Jackson. By the following morning the Confederacy was to suffer its greatest loss despite achieving a stunning victory against a numerically superior foe.
Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps numbered about 8,600 men. About 600 of these were facing west, the rest were facing south in a curved formation. The XI Corps had a combination of poor leadership at the top, poor morale and poor readiness. Of the 23 regiments, 15 had never fought on the winning side of a battle and 8 had no combat experience. They were ripe for a disaster. It came at around 5:15 pm when 21,500 screaming Confederates erupted from the woods and crashed into their line. Stonewall Jackson’s plan had worked to perfection. His flank attack had achieved complete surprise and shattered the Federal line. The division of Brig. Gen. Charles Devens, Jr. collapsed first. Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz ordered his division to take a north-south alignment to meet the onrushing flood of Confederates. They reformed smartly but were soon overlapped on the left and the right. Schurz ordered his men to retreat at about 6:30 pm. Gen. Howard attempted to rally his corps but was unsuccessful. A considerable number of his men reformed down the road near the Chancellor House behind 37 guns of the XII artillery. It was here that Confederate Gen. Rodes division was stopped at 7:15 PM.
With the coming of nightfall, the darkness created confusion for both sides. The XI Corps had taken heavy losses. The corps suffered nearly 2,500 casualties (259 killed, 1,173 wounded, and 994 missing or captured), about one quarter of its strength, including 12 of 23 regimental commanders, which indicates that they fought fiercely during their retreat.
Jackson was anxious to press the attack while the Federals were disorganized. He and his staff rode to the front to scout the Federal positions. As they were returning to their own lines about 9:15 they were fired upon by troops of the 18th North Carolina Infantry who mistook them for enemy cavalry. Jackson was hit three times, including a serious shoulder wound. It took at least two hours to get him the Wilderness Tavern where his own physician, Dr. Hunter McGuire, examined him and amputated his left arm at about 2:00 in the morning. He was moved to Guiney Station on May 4th. After a torturous 27-mile trip he arrived at the Chandler estate that evening. He was never to leave the small office building that had been turned into a makeshift hospital. On May 10th General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson died after saying, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”. True to his wish he died on the Sabbath.
In one of the oddities of the Civil War Jackson’s amputated arm was buried in the family cemetery at Ellwood Manor but his body was returned to Lexington, Virginia where he was buried on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute.
Despite Jackson’s daring flank attack the Confederates were at a disadvantage. The two halves of Lee’s army were separated by Dan Sickles’ corps which was a Hazel Grove. This high ground dominated the surrounding area. Unless Lee was able to join the two halves of his army he stood little chance of ejecting Hooker’s forces from their strong emplacements around Chancellorsville. However, Hooker of his own volition withdrew Sickles forces back to the Orange Plank Road and gave Lee the opportunity to unite his forces. Hazel Grove soon became a powerful Confederate artillery positioned that was used to lash the Federal forces.
After Gen. A.P. Hill was wounded, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was put in command of Jackson’s Second Corps. Stuart who was a cavalry leader was desirous to command an infantry corps. By all accounts he did a very good job in the short time that he was in command. With the vigorous assistance of their well-placed artillery batteries the Confederates were able to have the advantage on the morning of May 3rd. The Federals gradually pulled back to positions around U.S. Ford. At about 10 AM the two wings of the Confederate army were reunited with joyous celebrations.
At about 9:15 Am a cannonball struck the porch that Joe Hooker was standing on. More than likely he received a concussion. He was unconscious for over an hour and somewhat disoriented after he was revived. He refused to turn over command to any of his subordinate generals.
The following day, May 4th, Lee received a message that Sedgewick had broken through his lines at Fredericksburg and was heading towards Chancellorsville. Sedgewick had sent his men on repeated assaults of Early’s positions with the final bayonet-assault carrying the day. Early organized a fighting retreat that delayed the Federal advance until Lee could reinforce him. Despite Lee’s best efforts Sedgewick was able to retreat across the Rappahannock in the pre-dawn hours of May 5th. On the night of May 5th-6th Hooker’s main force withdrew back across the river at U.S. Ford.
Chancellorsville has been called Lee’s “perfect battle” but it came at a tremendous cost to both sides. Lee had 60,000 men engaged. He suffered 13,303 casualties (1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, 2,018 missing), losing some 22% of his force in the campaign—men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. Beyond manpower losses Lee lost his greatest field commander, Stonewall Jackson. Some would say that Jackson’s loss doomed the Confederate cause.
Hooker’s forces suffered similar casualties. Of the 133,000 Union men engaged, 17,197 were casualties (1,606 killed, 9,672 wounded, 5,919 missing), a percentage much lower than Lee’s, particularly considering that it includes 4,000 men of the XI Corps who were captured on May 2. When comparing only the killed and wounded, there were almost no differences between the Confederate and Federal losses at Chancellorsville. The Union lost three generals in the campaign: Maj. Gens. Hiram G. Berry and Amiel W. Whipple and Brig. Gen. Edmund Kirby.
The Northern reaction to this defeat was shock. President Lincoln was quoted as saying: “My God! My God! What will the country say?” Hooker relieved Stoneman for incompetence. Gen. Darius Couch was so disgusted that he resigned. Hooker carried on a running battle with Oliver O. Howard for many years after the war, blaming him for the defeat. In the short term Lincoln chose to retain Hooker in command but by June 28th he too was relieved of command and replaced with George Meade, who served as commander of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war.
The loss of Jackson to the Southern cause dealt irreparable harm to future operations. Within two months Lee invaded Pennsylvania. He was defeated at Gettysburg and never again took the offensive. His offensive partner was gone, never to be replaced.
Today the Wilderness, although much smaller, is partially preserved for modern Americans to understand and appreciate where these two adversaries fought. It is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.