Was Chancellorsville Lee’s greatest victory?

LeeChancellorsville was Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory in the Civil War, right?  At least, that’s what is often said of the Confederate chieftain’s triumph over his Federal adversaries in early May 1863.  But was it really?  If you were to ask the general himself, he probably would not have thought so.

Speaking to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon’s brother following Gettysburg, Lee said of Chancellorsville that it was “another victory” for his cause.  There was more to this victory, though.  “Our loss was severe,” he admitted.  “Again we had not gained an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.”  The armies were stalemated on either side of the Rappahannock River just as they had been for the previous several months.

Did Lee change his mind after the war and believe that Chancellorsville was, in fact, his greatest moment as a battlefield commander, his pinnacle of success?  Perhaps.  I, however, have always liked to think that Lee’s greatest success did not come among the tangled forests surrounding the Chancellor home, but instead on the open plains of Manassas, less than thirty miles as the crow flies from Capitol Hill.

Lee and his Generals (Library of Congress)

While the Army of Northern Virginia inflicted more casualties on it’s enemy at Chancellorsville than it did at Second Manassas, consider the immediate implications of each victory.  As shown above, any initiative gained by Lee after Chancellorsville was stymied when the Federals retired on the opposite side of the Rappahannock.  The enemy occupied the same territory in central Virginia that it had for months and the necessary reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia prompted by Jackson’s death unavoidably delayed any sudden movements open to Lee, the current holder of the ever important initiative in the eastern theater.

In the wake of Second Manassas, where Lee was outnumbered just as he was at Chancellorsville (though not as badly), he firmly held the initiative in his hand.  With it, he continued to press his demoralized foe as it streamed panic stricken back towards Washington City.

When it appeared the campaign might stalemate against the mounds of earthen fortifications ringing the capital city, Lee chose another option, always remembering that with the initiative in your hand, you never let it slip from your grasp.  “The present seems to be the most propitious time” to enter Maryland, Lee informed President Davis, and his army began snaking its way along Virginia’s roads towards the rippling waters of the Potomac River.  The victory-filled Confederate soldiers began crossing that river six days after the smoke settled outside Manassas Junction; following Chancellorsville, Lee’s army did not begin moving towards that aquatic dividing line between North and South for nearly one month.

Additionally, Lee’s victory in August 1862 nearly propelled two events that might have spelled the ultimate demise of the United States.  First, Washington City may never have been more ripe for the taking than it was at the end of August 1862.  Two exhausted Federal armies and thousands of recently mustered in recruits defended the city, but people within its defenses questioned if this would even matter.  “For the first time, if I remember, I believe it possible…that Washington may be taken,” one correspondent told his readers.  “I stay while it [the Federal government] stays and skedaddle when it skedaddles,” he heroically and yet ingloriously vowed.

Edwin Forbes sketch of the Army of Virginia retreating from the Second Manassas battlefield (Library of Congress)

The European powers monitoring events from across the pond also seemed closer to taking the leap and supervising a mediation between the Union and Confederacy than it ever had before or since.  Second Manassas pushed British officials – the most influential of the European nations – to declare that one more Federal defeat, especially one “to the north-west of Washington,” might force mediation “and the iron should be struck while it is hot,” Prime Minister Palmerston wrote.

While Lee could not have known the true extent of all of this, he and his men were well aware of the achievements they gained for their country.  “There never was such a campaign, not even by Napoleon,” one Confederate general told his wife from Maryland in September 1862.

And, if you are looking for the trees amidst the forest, Lee did achieve at Second Manassas something that he could not do during the rest of his stint in command – destroy a Federal army.  The Army of Virginia never fought another battle following its defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee.  The War Department terminated it on September 12, 1862 and its shattered remnants folded into the command structure of the Army of the Potomac.  Nit picky?  Sure.  But Lee did destroy Pope’s Army of Virginia in his greatest victory at the Battle of Second Manassas.

8 Responses to Was Chancellorsville Lee’s greatest victory?

  1. A great victory, Second Bull Run, but as indecisive as Chancellorsville. I’ve thought for some time that this Central Virginia campaign was Lee’s greatest success. Yet bereft of results.
    There was need for inspired strategy as well as a brilliant demonstration of operational and tactical skill by Lee and his wing commanders. This strategy might have been provided by the Davis administration, might have included Bragg and Smith’s efforts in the Heartland, might have aimed at restoring the Confederacy’s border on the Potomac and border of Tennessee and Kentucky, rather than permitting uncoordinated into the United States that could not be supplied or sustained.

    1. Very well put! The more one studies the War in the West you realize how much talent and manpower was wasted by lack of coordination. CSA officers like Richard Taylor, Patrick Cleburne , Adam Johnson and even Kirby Smith performed excellent service. I respectfully disagree on Bragg.

  2. The answer probably depends on the measuring stick. As a tactical victory, Chancellorsville would seem to win out. Lee was without Longstreet, was overwhelmingly outnumbered, and faced two “fronts”, yet pulled out a win. As a strategic matter, for the reasons discussed it would be Second Bull Run.

  3. And yet, it directly led (IMO) to his defeat at Gettysburg. Lee drew the wrong lesson from Chancellorsville—he believed his army had defeated the Union army, and therefore was capable of great feats. He was wrong—he (Lee, and not his army) had defeated only one man (Hooker), so when he asked his men to do the impossible in Pennsylvania, they failed.

  4. Great points Kevin. Lost Cause influences the Chancellorsville theory…Jackson died and it touched off Gettysburg. But..the second day at Chancellorsville saw a strong Federal defense and the victory Lee sought (destruction of Hookers army) was no where near his grasp. If you want more proof…Look at the northern newspapers after the two battles. The impact of Second Manassas on the northern morale far outweighs Chancellorsville

  5. I agree with you! Lee’s closing of the vise with Longstreet’s attack on the third day, largest of the war (28,000), was the closest Lee he had to destroying the enemy’s army. But for only some incompetent Confederate commanders he could have pulled it off! Because of them Pope escaped and the Capitol was never threatened! Your right it did lead to the invasion of the North with possible Maryland participation and foriegn reconigition.The Confededates best chance to take the Capitol is still when Jubal Early shows up at the ramparts of Fort Stevens in July of 1864.

  6. Another important point in favor of Second Manassas: For Lee, Chancellorsville was strategically defensive and reactive from the beginning, however brilliant tactically. Hooker took the initiative, came close to destroying Lee and they both ended up where they started. At Second Manassas, Lee and Jackson were on the offensive from the beginning, gained and maintained strategic initiative and, as noted, ended up far forward while essentially destroying Pope’s command. As a campaign–not just a battle–is there any better example in the war? Maybe Grant at Vicksburg.

  7. Personally, I think Fredericksburg is Lee’s greatest victory. It stopped the initiative the Union was hoping to establish, and it helped overcome the disappointment of the Maryland campaign within the Confederacy. Proportionately, the casualty disparity was even greater in favor of the Confederates than was Second Bull Run. It ended 1862 on a high note for Lee and his army.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: