The Importance of Chancellorsville to Each Side

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The Wounding of Stonewall JacksonThe Battle of Chancellorsville took place from April 30 to May 6, 1863. It was a clear Confederate victory yet it had significance for both sides.Like the waves that are created by dropping a pebble in a still pond, the battle and its aftermath would impact both sides for the balance of the Civil War.

Let’s look at the obvious results of the battle. Chancellorsville is often called Robert E. Lee’s “Perfect Battle.” He was able to defeat the much larger Union Army that had an over 2-to-1 numerical advantage. By skillfully using the terrain, both the dense forest around Chancellorsville and the hills to the east near Fredericksburg, Lee negated the larger Union numbers.

In the dense forest he was able to channel the Union forces and keep them bottled up on the restrictive road net. Meanwhile, using superior military intelligence, Stonewall Jackson was able to surprise the Union Army with a surprise flank march and deliver a mighty blow to the enemy.

In any battle, there are always conditions that need to be met for victory. In the case of Chancellorsville flank march and attack, historians have laid out four conditions that the Confederates needed for victory. In each and every case they accomplished each one successfully. This was a rare case of everything going just right for one side.

To the east around Chancellorsville, Jubal Early was able to fend of the timid attacks launched by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick who outnumbered him 4-t0-1: 40,000 to 10,000. Early was able to fend off Sedgwick’s weak attacks and protect Lee flank and rear. Again, everything went right for the Confederates.

Those are the obvious results: Lee was better than Joseph Hooker when it came to tactics and control of his troops. He repeatedly gambled and won. However, his solid victory was to have consequences beyond this battle.

On the night of May 2nd, Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s self-described right arm, went out on a scouting mission with General A.P. Hill and members of their respective staffs. In the dark they were mistaken for Union cavalry and Jackson was badly wounded by the ensuing musket fire. Jackson’s three bullet wounds were not in themselves life-threatening, but his left arm was broken and had to be amputated. He contracted pneumonia and died on May 10.

Jackson’s death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy and a corresponding gain by the Union. Some historians and participants—particularly those of the postbellum Lost Cause movement—attribute the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg two months later to Jackson’s absence. In the short term Lee was able to replace Jackson but he could replace Jackson’s audacity in the offense.

Both armies suffered severe casualties at Chancellorsville: 17,197 for the Union Army and 13,303 for the Confederacy. The difference was the considerable number of prisoners captured by the Confederates. However, based on the original 2-to-1 Union advantage, it was a distinct disadvantage for the Army of Northern Virginia with a 22% casualty rate. When comparing only the killed and wounded, there were almost no differences between the Confederate and Federal losses at Chancellorsville.  These were men that Lee would be hard-pressed to replace.

Here’s the subtlest, yet most important significance of Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville. After his greatest victory Robert E. Lee had the mistaken belief that his army was invincible. He felt that they could defeat any force that the Union could send against them. On July 3, 1863, Robert E. Lee was proved wrong when he sent 15,000 men against the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. They were crushed at great loss to the Confederacy.

 

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