In today’s Mewsing, we take a look at the beginning stages of the battle of Chancellorsville, fought this day in 1863. The battle was the epitome of the great working relationship between Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. Its battle plan—splitting an outnumbered army to attack the larger enemy—was a daring one that, even today, flies in the face of common sense. And yet it was a brilliant success. Chancellorsville may very well have been the Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest victory.
During the winter of 1862-63 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was encamped near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Union Army of the Potomac lay facing them across the Rappahannock River. After the failure of the battle of Fredericksburg and the Mud March, President Lincoln replaced Gen. Ambrose Burnside with Gen. Joe “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Hooker was proud and known for criticizing others, but Lincoln hoped that that very pride and fighting spirit would make him a general who won battles.
Starting out on April 27, the Union army moved upriver, crossed, and passed around the Confederate left flank, forging ahead through the dense woods and undergrowth of the Wilderness. When they reached a clearing near Chancellorsville, the Chancellor’s house, they formed a battle line and settled down to await further orders. Hooker bragged that the Confederates would have to either run or fight the Union army on its own ground.
Gen. Lee was unsure where Hooker planned to attack. Some Union troops crossed the river in front of him, but they did not strike. Then Lee learned of Union troops near Chancellorsville. Lee quickly sent Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps off to find the Union army.
On May 1, the Union army hit the Confederates. But then Hooker told his men to halt and retreat to their original positions near the Chancellor house. The orders shocked and baffled his generals. They were doing well; why should they retreat? Later, Hooker explained, “For once I lost confidence in Hooker.”
On the evening of May 1, Lee met with Jackson. As they talked, Gen. Jeb Stuart rode up and told them the Union army’s right flank was in the air. Lee looked at Jackson. “What do you propose to do?”
On the sketched map provided by Jedediah Hotchkiss of his staff, Jackson pointed at a long road that led around the Union right flank. “Go around here.”
Lee asked what troops he would use.
Jackson calmly replied that he would use his whole corps.
Both generals knew this would leave only two divisions facing the rest of the Union army. But Lee trusted his second-in-command and hardly hesitated before saying, “Well, go on.”
At 7:00 a.m. on May 2, Jackson’s lead regiments marched past Lee’s headquarters. “Stonewall” rode up and down the lines, telling the men to “Press on! Press on!” They must march rapidly if they were to cover the 14 miles around the Union flank and still have time to attack before dark.
Later in the day, Union lookouts saw the marching Confederates, and Hooker realized they were trying to flank him. Some of his troops attacked the gray column but were beaten back. Hooker decided the Confederates must be retreating.
At last, the Confederates reached their positions and formed into three lines of battle. At 5:15 p.m., with less than three hours left before dark, Jackson turned to Gen. Robert E. Rodes, commanding the first battle line, and asked if everything was ready. Rodes replied in the affirmative. “You can go forward, then,” Jackson said calmly.
The unsuspecting Union soldiers were preparing dinner when deer, rabbits, squirrels and all sorts of forest animals began scurrying through the camp. The soldiers laughed and joked about the animals but did not wonder at the reason. Suddenly, thousands of Confederates appeared through the trees, screaming the high-pitched Rebel Yell.
The gray lines swarmed over the surprised Union soldiers, some of whom were so scared they couldn’t even fire their guns before being swept away by the gray juggernaut. The Union flank crumbled. By the time darkness halted the attack, two miles of the Union line had been rolled up.
Lee and Jackson’s gamble had paid off. But this was not a time to rest on their laurels; there was more work to be done in the morning—unless a night attack could be made. “Stonewall” Jackson rode out between the opposing lines to reconnoiter and decide…but that is a Mewsing for another time.