I suspect, statistically and situationally, a case could be made for several of Lee’s victories as “the greatest.”
Seven Days’: Lee beats back a much larger Federal army from the gates of Richmond, losing almost every tactical engagement yet still managing to drive his opponents off the capital’s doorstep and win the campaign.
Second Manassas: Lee’s top three lieutenants—Longstreet, Jackson, and Stuart—all perform at peak ability, individually and as a team, beating a Federal army so badly that it gets dissolved.
Fredericksburg: Lee’s most lopsided victory of the war. The road to Gettysburg started here!
Wilderness: Lee’s hits the unsuspecting Federal army so hard he stops it in its tracks, inflicting a horrifying number of casualties and forcing Grant to abandon the field.
With the right spin, any of those battles could have earned the “greatest” label, but Chancellorsville, which is certainly a credible contender, won the P.R. battle. (I’ll have to investigate that idea at greater length–pardon the pun–sometime.)
I do realize there are reasons why each of those battles might not deserve the title “greatest.” On the Peninsula, for instance, the performance of Lee’s division commanders, particularly Jackson, was entirely lackluster and uncoordinated, and Lee’s plans were overly complicated, particularly for a staff not yet used to working with him or each other. At the Wilderness, Grant abandoned the field but forced Lee to immediately grapple with him again, so in the context of the larger campaign, the Wilderness is just one part of the Federals’ overall strategic victory.
By the same token, though, Chancellorsville is as much Hooker’s greatest loss as it is Lee’s greatest victory. Hooker made at least one major bad decision on every day of the battle; much of the credit due to Lee is for his ability to take advantage of Hooker’s bad choices.
The word “greatest” sounds specific enough that we all know it’s the superlative–it’s “the most.” But the most what? “Greatest” is, I would argue, an extremely vague word, which makes it extremely useful in this semantic context, because we all think we know what it means, and we might even be in the same ballpark–but, in fact, we don’t have a specific common understanding.
If you don’t believe me, what would you say if I told you the Yankees were the greatest baseball team ever? Some of you would agree, and some would make retching noises. Some would cite their record number of World Series appearances and titles, and some of you would accuse the Yankees of buying all those rings.
So, as you see, “great” is pretty relative. (And, to amend my earlier point, if we’re all in the same ballpark about the meaning of the word “greatest,” then that ballpark is probably not Yankee Stadium.)
In the context of Chancellorsville, “greatest” allows for a mysterious X-factor that goes beyond statistics and situation to account for the cult of Lee’s personality. It also allows for the very Greek-tragic narrative of Stonewall Jackson’s death and casts it in terms of martyrdom. The so-called Lost Cause could not have asked for a battle that offered a better narrative framework to support the David-vs-Goliath arguments its advocates were forwarding.
I should also point out that Chancellorsville is characterized as Lee’s greatest victory–not the Army of Northern Virginia’s. Certainly the two terms get used interchangeably by a lot of people, and writers frequently use them as synonyms. There is a difference, though, and it’s interesting that postwar-Confederates seemed to come to unspoken consensus about the use of Lee in this very specific way, to characterize that victory as his.
As I said, there’s much here that could be fleshed out with facts and figures and statistics, and doing some historiographic detective work on the phrase itself would also yield an interesting trail. I toss all of this out there for you to mull over as the 149th anniversary of the battle wraps up. I’d love to hear your thoughts.