Chancellorsville gleams in Civil War memory as Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory. This victory can of course be partly attributed to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who fell wounded on the night of May 2nd, 1863 after completing arguably the greatest military maneuver of his career. The flank attack on May 2nd at Chancellorsville, whereby Robert E. Lee split his outnumbered army in two and attacked the exposed right flank of the Union army, is still today heralded as the paragon of military daring and success.
Yet all too often we focus on went wrong in the Civil War, and in doing so forget what went right. Because Lee and Jackson’s bold plan on May 2nd proved successful, it’s easy to mentally checkmark their decision as the correct one. We thus minimize, mitigate, and forget the myriad of risks they accepted in making their decision.
The Chancellorsville campaign started out well for Joseph Hooker in last weeks of April, 1863. He deftly maneuvered the Army of the Potomac west of Fredericksburg and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker had successfully crossed two rivers (the Rapidan and Rappahannock) in his rapid march west and had penetrated into that horrible scrubland known as the Wilderness. In short, Hooker had snuck a march on old Bobby Lee and lay in a position to wreak havoc on Lee’s Fredericksburg lines from the flank and rear.
Although Lee was surprised by this move, he refused to back down from the threat. Relying on Second Corps commander, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee sent Jackson west to slow down the Union army’s advance. Jackson did just that, forcing Hooker to fall back and entrench his army around the Chancellorsville intersection amid the thorns and thickets of the Wilderness.
Thus, on the night of May 1st, both armies found themselves face to face in the wilds west of Fredericksburg. Undoubtedly, battle would resume the next day, and despite the mild successes enjoyed by the Confederates thus far, the horizon seemed bleak for the Southern forces. The Army of the Potomac numbered roughly 90,000 in strength; the Army of Northern Virginia could only muster a paltry 45,000 muskets. Worse, the Union army had taken a strong defensive posture, entrenching heavily in lines facing both east and south.
The weak spot in the Union lines was their very far right flank—furthest from Lee’s forces. Held by the 11th Corps under Oliver Otis Howard, the Union right flank was in the air, not anchored on any defensible position. In short, the Union line simply ran west until it ran out of men. If by some chance the Confederates could send a force beyond that far right flank, they could crush the Union right flank. It was the indomitable commander of Confederate cavalry, J.E.B. Stuart, who relayed this information to Robert E. Lee. Even better, Stuart had found a path beyond the right flank to make such an immense flank attack possible, should Lee desire it.
That night, Lee and Jackson discussed their course of action. Jackson proposed taking the path Stuart had uncovered and striking the right flank.
“What do you propose to make the movement with?” Lee inquired.
“My whole corps,” responded Jackson simply.
“And what will you leave me?”
“The divisions of McLaws and Anderson” Jackson replied.
And so it was. On the morning of May 2nd, Jackson set off with some 28,000 men on a tremendous 12 mile march around the enemy, leaving Robert E. Lee to hold the lines with some 15,000 men. This decision broke every military maxim of the day. Lee’s forces were outnumbered two to one, and now he was dividing them in the face of a much larger enemy. Of course, their gamble succeeded, so we chalk these commanders’ decision up as the right one.
A number of risks had to be taken into consideration at the time:
- Robert E. Lee’s force of only 15,000 men would hardly be able to fend off the Union army if he should become seriously engaged while Jackson made his march. Jackson would be out of support range, and both halves of the army would be isolated and vulnerable if Union forces were to lash out. The aggressive demonstrations and feints by Lee on May 2nd, however, bluffed the Union army into inaction—allowing Stonewall to steal a march.
- Jackson’s march must be secret. This did not occur. Union forces on Hazel Grove—the battleground’s centrally located high ground—spotted Jackson’s forces and even tried to engage them. They erroneously reported to Hooker, however, that Confederate forces appeared to be in retreat (which they most certainly were not). Thus, Jackson struck an unsuspecting 11th Corps despite being spotted.
These pre-attack factors are often discussed when we consider the gamble the Confederate high command took. What often goes overlooked, however, are the post-attack risks that would face both Jackson and Lee. There does not seem to have been any plan of action for Jackson’s corps after his attack had been made. It is unclear just how much Lee and Jackson thought the flank attack would even accomplish. There is no record of just how much the two men sought to achieve, nor what the plan was if the attack fell short.
Two possibilities have been bandied about by historians. First, before being carried off the battlefield, Jackson indicated that he wanted his men to push on and capture U.S. Ford on the Rappahannock River. While such a coup would have cut off a main avenue of retreat for the Union army, Jackson’s tired troopers would have had to dismantle two more Federal army corps to take the river crossing—the odds of that occurring were slim to none. Second, perhaps this attack was meant to annihilate the Army of the Potomac? While Jackson’s attack had smashed the 11th Corps, no 28,000 men were ever going to be able to annihilate the entire Army of the Potomac. Thus, the flank attack landed a heavy blow, yes, but it did not fundamentally determine the outcome of the battle. The Union army was intact, and its lines of retreat were wide open.
Thus, on the morning of May 3rd, following Jackson’s flank attack and subsequent wounding, the Confederate army was arguably in a worse position than it had been the previous morning.
The flank attack, while granting the Rebels momentum, had also spawned new risks:
- The Confederate army was cut in two, with the much larger (and angry) Union Army of the Potomac in between. Lee held the First Corps divisions of Anderson and McLaws in the East; the untried infantry commander J.E.B. Stuart (who had taken over for the wounded Jackson) held Jackson’s Second Corps in the West. In between lay the Federal 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 12th Corps, along with the remnants of the 11th Corps. The Confederates were outnumbered and divided.
- The Federals were heavily entrenched and held the high ground at Hazel Grove. Their position endangered both halves of the Confederate army and was strongly fortified in a manner that could easily repulse incoming attacks.
- Two full corps of the Army of the Potomac had seen little action. Worse for the Rebels, the relatively fresh soldiers of the 1st and 5th Corps lay to the north of J.E.B. Stuart’s lines—directly on his right flanks. If these soldiers entered the fray, they were perfectly positioned to strike Stuart’s force—flank the flankers. Indeed, Union commander Joseph Hooker had intimated that this was his plan the night before.
Thus, while the flank attack accomplished much on May 2nd, we should not forget the huge dangers it created on May 3rd! Lee was not only gambling that the attack would succeed, but that we would still be able to find victory after the attack the following day.
Of course, the Confederate army did manage to survive May 3rd, 1863. Lee’s forces found victory that day with more than a little help from the Federals. Joseph Hooker ordered the evacuation of Hazel Grove early in the morning, a move that not only allowed the two halves of the Confederate army to unite but also gave them the high ground. General Hooker was wounded around 9 am, receiving a concussion that doubtless left the Union army leaderless for some time. Perhaps it was because of this wounding that the fresh 1st and 5th Corps were never given the green light to enter the battle and smash the Confederate left flank. Union mistakes helped the Confederacy overcome the risks of Jackson’s flank attack just as much as the success of the attack itself.
All of this is not meant to denigrate or criticize the bold decision made by General Lee in allowing Jackson to make his famous assault. Instead, this post is simply meant to highlight just how much of a gamble General Lee took, not just in allowing the flank attack on May 2nd but for allowing what it would endanger on May 3rd. History had vindicated Robert E. Lee; Chancellorsville was Lee’s greatest victory, not his greatest defeat. By fully examining the ramifications of Jackson’s famous flank attack, however, we can hopefully recognize just how fine a line separated the two.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Sources and Further Reading:
Furgurson, Ernest B. Chancellorsville 1863: Souls of the Brave. Vintage Books, 1993.
Mackowski, Chris. Chancellorsville: Crossroads of Fire. Thomas Publications, 2011.
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville. Mariner Books, 1998.
Stackpole, Edward J. Chancellorsville. 2nd ed. Stackpole Books, 1989.