I made a somewhat inflammatory comment the other day that—although I didn’t realize it until I said it—I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last decade or so:
“Stonewall Jackson’s wounding was probably the best thing that happened to Lee during the battle of Chancellorsville.”
Of course, winning the battle was probably THE best thing. But in a battle that was decided as much by the Union commander’s failings than by the Confederate commander’s strengths, Jackson’s wounding proved to be the critical turning point.
We tend to remember Jackson’s May 2 flank attack as a resounding success, but at the moment of Jackson’s wounding, the Army of Northern Virginia was dangerously divided on the battlefield and even beyond the theater of war. Longstreet was in Suffolk, VA, at the time, with half of the First Corps; Jubal Early was in Fredericksburg with about 13,000 men; and Lee was on the southeast edge of the battlefield with about 14,000 men.
Jackson had successfully put his entire corps—roughly 28,000 men—on the western flank of the Union army. By the time his two lead divisions of Rodes and Colston had exhausted themselves, he had only A. P. Hill’s division to call on as his reserve. However, Hill’s men had been on the road the longest and had marched the farthest, so calling them “fresh” reserves would be a huge stretch.
At the time, Jackson expressed a desire to cut the Federals off from their line of retreat. He commanded his officers to redirect their line of advance toward the road to U.S. Ford, which would’ve severed the road to Ely’s Ford, as well.
Had he done so, Jackson would have unknowingly put the Federal V and I Corps on his left-front flank. The V Corps had more than 15,000 men, the I Corps nearly 17,000. That’s 32,000 men ready to enter the fray for the first time—against Hill’s one exhausted, unsuspecting division.
As a colleague pointed out, Hooker faced the same situation on May 3 and did not mobilize those two corps, and Lee still won the battle, so perhaps that fact that they remained unengaged on May 2 is a non-factor. However, I contend that there’s one major difference: on May 3, Hooker did not send them into battle; on May 2, Jackson would’ve literally brought the battle to them. In that situation, I have little doubt the two Federal corps would have engaged.
My colleague Kris White has also pointed out that the Federal II Corps and William Averell’s division of cavalry also lurked in the background, along with “the plethora of artillery” the 1 and V Corps boasted.
However, rather than lead his men into hazard, Jackson fell to accidental friendly fire. Jeb Stuart’s arrival on the battlefield introduced an element of caution at a time the army (unknowingly) needed it. Stuart is not a man known for being overly cautious, of course, so we can safely assume that his decision to exercise such was a well-considered choice on his part.
When finally Stuart did resume offensive action, it was to shift the Second Corps southward toward Hazel Grove, to reunite with Lee’s wing of the army. Safely reconnected, the two wings then applied concerted pressure on the Federal salient around Fairview. That sequence of events had its own dire consequences—a nearly unprecedented body count over the course of a morning’s fight—but it did lead to Lee’s eventual victory.
Had Jackson pushed deeper behind the Federal position, he not only would have met significant resistance, he would’ve made reunion with Lee’s wing nearly impossible.
Lee’s loss of Stonewall Jackson had nearly incalculable impact on the Army of Northern Virginia and on its commander—made even less calculable because of a century and a half of mythologizing. But in the moment, on the battlefield, the change in strategy necessitated by Jackson’s wounding proved to be all the difference for Robert E. Lee.