In 1861 the United States of America engaged in a civil war. Over the next four years, the Confederate and Union armies fought 384 battles inflicting more than 800,000 casualties.1 One of the most definitive battles of the war, the Battle of Chancellorsville, provided an example in which an inferior force achieved a strategic objective through the application of the offense characteristics of surprise and audacity. The Battle of Chancellorsville was set to decide whether the Union or Confederate Army would control the Eastern Theater.
We will write a custom Research Paper on Battle of Chancellorsville in American Civil War specifically for you
301 certified writers online
Although the Confederate Army was outnumbered two to one, General Robert Lee’s ability to devise a simple plan and accept risk by splitting his force to counterattack his opponent’s flank, resulted in the significant defeat of the Union Army under General Joseph Hooker. Both Armies demonstrated sound strategy and tactics, but Hooker eventually yielded to Lee because he did not anticipate Lee’s counterattack.2
General Lee’s simple plan and bold actions proved the effective application of the characteristics of the offense – surprise and audacity. When applied appropriately, they can offer a smaller force the opportunity to gain the initiative and defeat a numerically superior enemy.
The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered to be a major battle of the Union and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (1861-1865). In May 1863, the Union’s Army of the Potomac (AOTP), led by Joseph Hooker, collided in battle with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), headed by General Robert Lee.3 While the Confederates obtained an advantage in the Eastern Theater, the Union was advancing successfully in the Western political stage by conquering the moral support with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.4 Both sides made conclusions based on their weaknesses and revised their strategy, including Hooker revitalizing devastated troops after the defeat to General Lee at Fredericksburg.5
The Union’s strategic goal was to cut the supply to the ANV by capturing railroads and other lines in order to weaken the Confederate’s military power.6 The ANV set a fortification behind the Rappahannock from Port Royal to Bank’s Ford. General Lee’s Army totaled approximately 60,000 troops.7 The AOTP commanded 120,000 men and prepared to divide their force to attack the Confederates’ front and rear. Being cut from their support lines in the Southeast near Richmond, the ANV were considerably outnumbered by the Union Army.8 General Hooker devised his strategy to outweigh the opponent’s forces and move the Confederates fortified near Fredericksburg. General Lee, due to lack of information and limited military resources, decided to split his force and preventively attack the AOTP’s flank.
The Chancellorsville Campaign began when Hooker split his forces and marched with the V, XI, and XII Corps upstream the Rappahannock and Rapidan crossings on April 27, 1863.9 All the actions at the beginning of the Campaign were accompanied by torrential rains and other obstacles.10 Hooker decided to leave a part of the troops under the command of Sedgwick near Fredericksburg thus setting at Chancellorsville and preparing for the simultaneous strike to rear and front of Lee’s smaller army.11
The terrain surrounding Chancellorsville known as “the Wilderness” resembled a dense forest of second-growth pine and scrub oak, with numerous creeks, gullies, swamps, heavy tangle foot underbrush, and few farms or open spaces.12 Hooker managed to move his formation around the enemy without the Confederate Army’s notice. The storms stopped on April 28 and allowed the forces to cross the river, and the units under General Stoneman fortified near Fredericksburg.
While Lee was studying the situation, on 28 April, the Union Forces crossed Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, and, on 29 April, I and VI Corps crossed the river near the Confederate’s fortifications.13 Reynolds’ and Sedgwick’s units gained position under Fredericksburg and enabled II Corps to join the other corps in the ANV’s flank.
By this time, Lee figured out the Union’s plans and informed the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Lee wrote, “It is plain that if the enemy is too strong for me here, I shall fall back, and Fredericksburg must be abandoned, if successful here, Fredericksburg will be saved, and our communications retained”.14 Lee commanded General Anderson to move towards Hooker’s units and reposition his troops. Additionally, General Lee concluded to leave General Early’s 9,000 soldiers with Sedgwick and marched the rest of his force under General Jackson to join Anderson.
During this time Lee discovered the positions of AOTP under Hooker and assumed they were preparing to attack him to the rear. In such a setting, Hooker expected Lee to either retreat or accept the fight and lose due to the army’s insufficient numbers.15 Hooker had every intention of luring Lee’s Army out of their position to attack the Union in their defense. Having considered his disadvantage in positioning and size, Lee conferred with Jackson and decided to keep a small division under Early to confront the Union Forces at Fredericksburg, while he led his units for an unexpected attack on Hooker’s forces. Lee himself had been planning an offensive movement in the Shenandoah Valley; Hooker’s move temporarily baffled him.
As Lee saw it, there were only two courses of action: to retreat southward or attack the Federal forces at Chancellorsville. A retreat was definitely the most straightforward choice, but it was precisely what Hooker expected him to do.16
On May 1, Lee received some information about Hooker’s weak right flank. This new knowledge concerned the Union’s XI Corps.17 This was a part of the Army which consisted of people who did not participate in winning battles and soldiers with no experience in the field. Many of those men were immigrants from Germany and other European countries, although others were born in America.18
These differences among troops led to cultural conflicts and misunderstandings, lowering the morale of the Corps further. Moreover, the commanding officers of these units also lacked their subordinates’ respect, as they did not have successful experiences in previous battles.19 This division was also the smallest in the Union Army because the officials did not think that there was a need to enlarge it. As the troops positioned themselves in a place where nobody expected a major battle to take place, the men were unprepared and unskilled. In fact, almost a third of all regimens in this Corps did not have any battlefield experience – they had never participated in armed conflicts before. The rest of these men, almost two-thirds of them, had never won a battle.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville, the XI Corps’ commander was Major general Oliver Howard.20 His failure to counter the surprise attack of Jackson substantially impacted the course of the battle. His troops were not ready to fight – they were too few and had been positioned in a disadvantaged place without any natural protections. Furthermore, they did not know from which side the enemy’s armies could advance or whether they would reach them at all. Thus, their cannons did not have any direction to protect specific flanks and were simply pointed at the forest instead.21 Additionally, Howard was not popular among his men as a leader and an authoritative figure. As a result, the XI Corps was likely the most vulnerable part of the Union Army at that time.
Get your first paper with 15% OFF
Faced with an opponent of vastly superior strength, Lee had already divided his force twice for previous conflicts. Now, he would need to subdivide the reduced segment for the third time.22 General Lee decided to split the army and move the majority of the troops towards Hooker’s men around Chancellorsville’s crossroads. Lee planned to have Stuart’s cavalry screen General Jackson’s movement circle as he went around the Union position and attacked it from the west.23 Thus, Jackson’s troops had to face the XI Corps on their way to Chancellorsville and Lee’s army, as the Union soldiers were positioned on the Orange Turnpike, a place surrounded by the Wilderness.
The Confederates had learned how to make practical use of the Wilderness to conceal their movements during night marches. They moved during periods of limited visibility, enabling Lee to reposition his forces without the Federals knowing.24 Shortly after sunrise on May 2, Hooker inspected his perimeter and was satisfied with the disposition of the troops. During this time, General Jackson started his march through the Wilderness woodland to attack Hooker’s right flank.25
Jackson’s maneuver was a dangerous one, for he would lead approximately 27,000 men for fourteen miles along narrow roads across the front of the Union Army to Hooker’s right flank.26 The remaining force of roughly 15,000 soldiers under General Lee provided security for Jackson’s maneuver to Hooker’s right side by diverting Hooker’s attention with active demonstrations and disruptions.
Jackson, observing the terrain with the help of his cartographer, located a road that led right through the Wilderness forest.27 He assumed that it could help the troops to hide from the Union Army and its observation pickets in order to launch a surprise attack. Thus, on May 2, he and his whole command took off on the flanking march towards the XI Corps. This plan relied on luck in many aspects – its completion depended on the behavior of the Union’s troops, Jackson’s movements, and the element of surprise. First of all, it was essential for Hooker to stay in his defensive position throughout the whole operation.
If his troops were to change their strategy and move out to attack the nearest opponents, the plan would be ineffective. Second, Jackson’s soldiers needed to avoid any of the Union’s forces until they would reach their destination. Thus, they had to march for approximately 12 miles while staying completely hidden from the enemy.28 Finally, Early and Sedgwick’s troops had to stay in Fredericksburg; their movements would provide the Union with even more advantages, despite the fact that the Confederates were already outnumbered.
Most importantly, Jackson had to rely on the Corps’ level of unpreparedness. All of the mentioned above factors contributed to that; as Jackson traveled through the Wilderness, his army stayed undetected. Interestingly, soldiers spotted observation balloons from the Union watching them.29 However, Jackson preserved his advantage as the Union did not share any substantial news that would disrupt their march during its early stage.
They marched through the first half of May 2, starting their movement as early as 7 a.m. and finishing it in the afternoon.30 Nevertheless, Hooker received some information about the Confederates marching after some time. He considered the idea that Lee was retreating, also thinking about a possible attack. Thus, he contacted Howard and Sedgwick to warn them and give further instructions. Neither man fully adhered to his commands and they did not take any action.
Unwilling to attack Howard’s men from the front, Jackson decided to observe the location first. Seeing that the Union’s forces were neither moving nor preparing for the upcoming attack, Jackson made the decision tp progress further in order to attack the weakest part of the flank instead of facing it on the spot. Thus, his troops walked for two more miles before reaching the Turnpike. The men separated into two lines, led by Rodes and Colston, and the third line commanded by Hill joined them later.31 In this formation, the troops moved further to reach the XI Corps.
In the meantime, the XI Corps was not completely unaware of the suspicious movements that were happening in the Wilderness. Their assumptions and fears, however, were not acknowledged by those in command. In particular, Howard did not believe the information that soldiers sent from different parts of their camps. It is possible that his assuredness in the army’s safety was based on the forest’s seemingly impenetrable nature – he could have viewed the dense woods of the Wilderness as a strong point of defense. Therefore, the XI Corps remained mostly unresponsive to the Confederates approaching them until the time of the attack.32 Similarly, other divisions also did not get any messages about their opponents.
Jackson reached the Union’s forces after 5 p.m. which means that his men had been marching from more than 10 hours. During this time, the XI Corps’ men were making or eating supper, their weapons lying unprepared and unloaded. They did not hear the attack’s preparation until the very start of the battle when the Confederates started advancing with battle cries and musket fire. Therefore, the Union’s forces were unable to hold defense for more than 10 or 20 minutes before fleeing.33 The power of the assault was uncontrollable and chaotic, driving the XI Corps out of the territory by sheep force and surprise.
Men flew from their camps and ran to Chancellorsville, attracting the attention of Hooker and his troops. The XI Corps was defeated and suffered considerable damages, losing more than a fourth of their strength as a result.
On the other hand, General Jackson’s flank attack cost him over 1000 casualties which also can be considered a significant loss. When Jackson launched the attack against the Federal XI Corps under General Howard during the late evening, it is clear that the Union soldiers protecting the flank were turned south and out of position. They were caught unprepared – playing cards or preparing supper while others were sleeping.34
Though the Union was in the defense position and held the advantage by utilizing the surrounding terrain and their prevalent numbers, Jackson’s units managed to conduct a successful flank attack because the Federals were unprepared. As a result of the battles on May 2, the Confederates managed to defeat the XI Corps and move the right flank to Hooker’s headquarters in Chancellorsville.
Jackson’s attack went unnoticed by other parts of the Union army, providing him with further options to proceed. He attempted to use this opportunity in the evening of the same day, planning for a night attack. However, on his way back from an investigative ride, another infantry regiment hit him and his men with friendly fire. The attacks on May 2 had given an advantage to other troops, but Jackson was wounded severely in the end.35 Thus, he was unable to press on with his attacks, although his single operation significantly changed the disposition of forces in the region.
Later that night Hooker received reinforcements from General Reynolds and maintained the two to one advantage over the Confederates.36 Nevertheless, considering his beneficial position for a counterattack, General Hooker remained cautious and did not proceed. Meanwhile, Lee’s troops were divided from the Jackson’s by Sickles’ III Corps at a solid position at Hazel Grove. On May 3, Lee reunited with Stuart and conducted several attacks on Hooker’s front. Later that morning, Hooker was forced to yield to Chancellorsville Crossroads. In the morning of May 3, Hooker commanded Sickles to switch the position to the Plank Road, which was followed by several attacks by General Archer during the withdrawal.37
On May 3-4, the Union forces near Fredericksburg pushed through Early’s opposition, and General Lee was forced to reposition near Fredericksburg. General Lee’s counter decision was to move to VI Corps’ front which operatively stopped Sedgwick’s troops at Salem Church.38 Lee’s forces of 20,000 men marched towards Sedgwick’s army, and, by shaping the units in a “U” formation, Lee overcame Sedgwick, forcing him to retreat on May 5.
General Hooker waited for the news from Sedgwick’s corps during the previous day, and giving into consideration the uncertainty of communication, held his position at Chancellorsville.39 The VI Corps retreated at night on May 5, by crossing the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg.
On May 6, General Hooker discovered that Sedgwick’s troops retreated across Rappahannock and decided to unite with his corps. Thus, he moved the army north towards the rest of the units. General Lee did not manage to counterattack, as the withdrawal was quick and the Confederate soldiers were exhausted due to long traveling and the Battle at Salem Church. Later, on May 10, General Jackson, severely wounded after losing an arm during one of the battles, died from contracting pneumonia while being treated.40
At the conclusion of the battle, the Confederates lost approximately 13,000 men, while the Union Army lost 17,000. The Confederate Army was victorious as Lee had successfully driven the AOTP from Virginia. The ANV losses were not only more devastating in numbers; Lee also lost his best general, Stonewall Jackson. Following the battle, the AOTP was embarrassed by their defeat. The decrease in morale was reminiscent of the Fredericksburg defeat; many of Hooker’s generals were close to mutiny. The confidence of Lee’s Army had never been higher as Lee began to organize and prepare to invade the North.41
The application of such tactics as surprise and audacity led to General Lee’s success during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Commanders usually achieve this by attacking the enemy at a time or place the enemy does not expect or in a way for which the enemy is unprepared.42 A total surprise is rarely essential in such operations; General Lee’s decision to attack the Union Army was a course of action of which General Hooker was aware.
Hooker envisioned achieving victory in the defense by forcing the Confederates out of their position to attack the Union on his terms. When Lee devised the plan to flank the Union, the manner in which he did it was audacious and the time of the attack was uncommon, which caught the Union’s right flank completely off guard. The decision to focus on the weakest part of the troops also helped General Lee and Jackson to move forward.
During the Civil War, it was uncommon for units to attack in limited visibility and during the night, let alone move a force of roughly 27,000 men through the restricted terrain. As darkness fell, Jackson continued to progress offensively, seeking to exploit his success. Jackson’s attack was the decisive point during the Battle of Chancellorsville, as it provided the Confederates with a tactical advantage over the Union.
ADRP 3-90 defines audacity as boldly executing a simple plan of action.43 Lee’s decision to conduct a flank attack fits this term for several reasons. Doctrinally, an outnumbered element can strengthen itself if it establishes itself in a defensive position, uses the terrain, and utilizes existing obstacles to its advantage. Lee’s choice to split his forces to move towards three separate locations with Early at Fredericksburg, Jackson moving to Hooker’s flank, and himself maintaining a position to Hooker’s front was bold and risky. His plan also required Jackson to parallel the Union’s defense for nearly 14 miles during limited visibility hours to get near Hooker’s right flank.
This would pose a great risk if Hooker chose to take the offensive to attack Lee’s force or Jackson’s army during his movement. Even though Hooker received reports on a potential flank attack, he was set to believe Lee would retreat. Therefore, when Jackson launched his attack, Howard and Hooker were unprepared, if not surprised, when Jackson’s massed forces charged out of the Wilderness and began rolling up Hooker’s defense toward Chancellorsville.
While looking for the cause of how the Union army lost the Battle of Chancellorsville, one can see that it was partially due to the superior tactical boldness of the enemy.44 Although other reasons exist, the main reason that General Lee succeeded in the Battle of Chancellorsville was not that of any difference between the two armies but due to his courage and conviction to execute his plan regardless of the circumstances.
Canty, Jeremiah D. Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville: The Principles of War and the Horns of a Dilemma at the Burton Farm. New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015.
Cullen, Joseph P. The Battle of Chancellorsville. Philadelphia: Eastern Acorn Press, 1981.
Hensel, Howard M. The Sword of the Union: Federal Objectives and Strategies during the American Civil War. New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015.
Stackpole, Edward J. Chancellorsville: Lee’s Greatest Battle. 2nd ed. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1988.
Stephenson, Elton. Analysis of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Montgomery: Air Command and Staff College Air University, 1984.
Sutherland, Daniel E. Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville: The Dare Mark Campaign. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
United States Government US Army. Army Doctrine Reference Publication ADRP 3-90 Offence and Defence August 2012. Washington, DC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
Weber, James, R. Engineer Battlefield Functions at Chancellorsville. New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015.
Wineman, Bradford Alexander. The Chancellorsville Campaign, January-May 1863. New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015.
- Bradford Alexander Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, January-May 1863 (New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015), 7.
- Edward J. Stackpole, Chancellorsville: Lee’s Greatest Battle, 2nd ed. (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1988), 279.
- Howard M. Hensel, The Sword of the Union: Federal Objectives and Strategies during the American Civil War (New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015), 255.
- Jeremiah D. Canty, Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville: The Principles of War and the Horns of a Dilemma at the Burton Farm (New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015), 11.
- Ibid., 13.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 8.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 373.
- James, R. Weber, Engineer Battlefield Functions at Chancellorsville (New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015), 22.
- Ibid., 12.
- Hensel, The Sword of the Union, 309.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 9.
- Joseph P. Cullen, The Battle of Chancellorsville (Philadelphia: Eastern Acorn Press, 1981), 51.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 13.
- Cullen, The Battle of Chancellorsville, 46.
- Hensel, The Sword of the Union, 321.
- Ibid., 322.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 239.
- Daniel E. Sutherland, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville: The Dare Mark Campaign (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 99.
- Ibid., 150.
- Ibid., 149.
- Ibid., 151.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 327.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 25.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 175.
- Hensel, The Sword of the Union, 96.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 29.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 100.
- Ibid., 152, 207.
- Sutherland, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, 141.
- Ibid., 153.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 237.
- Sutherland, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, 152.
- Ibid., 155.
- Cullen, The Battle of Chancellorsville, 49.
- Stackpole, Chancellorsville, 273.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 27.
- Hensel, The Sword of the Union, 322.
- Wineman, The Chancellorsville Campaign, 29.
- Ibid., 30.
- Ibid., 31.
- Elton Stephenson, Analysis of the Battle of Chancellorsville (Montgomery: Air Command and Staff College Air University, 1984), 61.
- United States Government US Army, Army Doctrine Reference Publication ADRP 3-90 Offence and Defence August 2012 (Washington, DC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- Sutherland, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, 139.