Battle of Chancellorsville 

US #2975p pictures two Union artillery batteries facing an overwhelming Confederate infantry.  Click image to order.

On May 6, 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville ended in a Confederate victory.

Robert E. Lee delivered the Union a stunning defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862.  But Joseph Hooker used the months that followed to reorganize and reinvigorate his troops.  Proclaiming he had created “the finest Army on the Planet,” Hooker devised an elaborate plan to turn the left flank of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  The rebel troops, who were outnumbered and starving, were camped near Fredericksburg in the spring of 1863 as Hooker prepared to spring his trap.

Stinging from the heavy losses at Marye’s Heights, Hooker reshaped his troops into a disciplined force with incentives such as better food and a furlough lottery.  He centralized his cavalry and beefed up military intelligence under Colonel George H. Sharpe, making him the first in the Potomac army’s history to know what lay ahead of him in a battle.

US #2975b pictures Lee in his field uniform with his horse, Traveller. Click image to order.

What he faced was Robert E. Lee and his army of 61,000 – half the number of Hooker’s force.  Lee was fortified behind the Rappahannock, but not in an ideal position.  Two divisions under James Longstreet were a distance away, encircling Suffolk in search of supplies, and too far to help once the battle began.

Hooker’s plan was to send all but a few cavalry brigades in a wide circle to the west and south under George Stoneman’s command, moving them to the rear of Lee’s army and cutting his supply lines.  While that was happening, two Union corps – nearly equal in size to Lee’s entire army – would pretend an attack in Fredericksburg while the rest of the Army of the Potomac quietly crossed the Rapidan River and into Lee’s left flank.  “My plans are perfect.  May God have mercy on General Lee for I will have none,” said Hooker.

As the campaign began, communication with Stoneman ended on April 30 but everything else seemed to be going well.  As night fell, three Union corps under Henry W. Slocum camped in the region known as the Wilderness, near a tavern called Chancellorsville, resting for the morning’s push eastward.

US #1408 – The Stone Mountain Memorial honors Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. Click image to order.

Hooker had intelligence about Lee’s order of battle, but no cavalry to locate the Confederates.  As they fumbled in the darkness of the Wilderness’ forest and brambles, the Union troops crashed into Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps.  The day of fighting that followed saw Hooker lose any advantage he had possessed as his men fell back.

US #2975p FDC – 1995 Chancellorsville First Day Cover. Click image to order.

Perched on fallen logs, Lee and Jackson plotted strategy late into the night.  Facing superior numbers, Lee decided to gamble.  Jackson was ordered to march his entire corps twelve miles through the darkness and turn into Hooker’s right, which was vulnerable.  Lee would be left with a skeleton force.

Jackson’s troops were spotted the next morning from a Union reconnaissance balloon, but poor communication mangled the message to Hooker.  The Union commander decided Lee must have been retreating.  Instead, Jackson’s men stormed from the woods late in the afternoon of May 2 to attack the Eleventh Corps.  Comprised mostly of German immigrants, the corps earned the nickname the “Flying Dutchmen” for the speed of their retreat.

Item #20038 – Commemorative cover marking JEB Stuart’s 152nd birthday. Click image to order.

As night fell, Jackson and A. P. Hill scouted for a prime location for a second night attack.  Both men were hit by friendly fire.  Command of the Confederate troops now fell to cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, who didn’t have orders to work with.  Stuart threw his entire force at the Union troops the next morning, resulting in fighting that was as brutal as any in the war.

Multiple attacks were launched throughout the day, causing heavy losses on both sides.  As the Second Battle of Fredericksburg was raging nearby, Union General John Sedgwick advanced across the Rappahannock River to defeat the small Confederate force at Marye’s Heights.  To counter him, Lee marched a small force east to prevent Sedgwick from reuniting with the rest of the Union Army.

US #2975s pictures Jackson on his horse, Little Sorrel. Click image to order.

By May 4, the bloody fighting at Chancellorsville ceased, as Fredericksburg became the focus of the most intense battles.  The following day, Sedgwick’s troops retreated north because of a miscommunication compounded by frayed nerves and sheer exhaustion.  When he learned the Sixth Corps had retreated, Hooker realized the battle was over and he followed Sedgwick on May 6.  The Battle of Chancellorsville is known as Lee’s “perfect battle” because of his risky decision to divide his army in the face of a vastly superior force and then the Confederate victory he achieved.  However, this victory was hampered by the death of Stonewall Jackson.

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  1. Hooker replaced Bursides after the Battle of Fredricksburg. The essay sounded like it was under Hooker’s continuous plans. Hooker tried to move earlier during the rainy months but had to turn back with the troops calling it the “mud march.”

  2. I enjoy reading these columns each day and particularly appreciated being reminded about the anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville. In our nation’s military history it is one of the most studied battles because of the audacity of Robert E. Lee to divide his smaller force in the face of Hooker’s attempted pincer movement, the skill of Stonewall Jackson’s attack on the Union Army vulnerable flank, and the ability of “Jeb” Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander, to assume leadership of the Second Corps after Jackson was wounded and taken from the field of battle. It is to our nation’s credit that we have so many postage stamps that remind us of the important events of our country’s history and the people involved in making the history.

  3. The epitome of Lee’s career. Emboldened him to strike out on the Gettysburg campaign a little over a month later. We all know how that one came out.

  4. An interesting battle for military historians to study, but for what? To divide the nation into two? To prolong the suffering for another couple of years until the Union finally prevailed?

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