Jackson’s Wounding: The Best Thing to Happen to Lee at Chancellorsville

Jackson is woundedI 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.

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14 Responses to Jackson’s Wounding: The Best Thing to Happen to Lee at Chancellorsville

  1. David Corbett says:

    Interesting article; rather than had Jackson lived, what if Stuart had commanded an infantry corps at Gettysburg?

    • Stuart wanted to stick with the infantry, but Lee felt he was too valuable leading cavalry. As it would turn out, Lee would discover he had depth in his cavalry command. Following the battle of Yellow Tavern in May 1864, where Stuart was mortally wounded, several capable subordinates stepped up. So, perhaps Lee could have spared Stuart and let him command cavalry after all.

  2. Bob Ruth says:

    I agree with David. Very interesting post. Just as interesting was your remark about “a nearly unprecedented body count over the course of a morning’s fight.” Some of Lee’s greatest
    “victories” turned out to be pyrrhic ones.

    Besides Chancellorsville, Seven Days, Bull Run II and Wilderness come to mind. Lee was a naturally aggressive commander. Fortunately for our nation, he didn’t have the resources for such tactics over the long run. Lee was too much the tactician but not enough of the strategist.

    • Lee well knew that the South didn’t have the men or materials to survive a sustained war, so he went on the offensive in an attempt to land a decisive, knock-out blow. He never could, though, and it frustrated him to know end. So, to that end, his strategy was based on sound reasoning (even if it turned out to be disastrous). He just couldn’t fully execute.

  3. Thomas R Place says:

    GOOD WHAT IF ARTICLE CHRIS . WE WILL NEVER KNOW . MR RUTH HOW MANY BOOKS ON GEN.. LEE HAVE YOU READ TO KNOW HIS THOUGHTS AT THAT TIME TO MAKE A COMMENT LIKE THAT . I TRY TO NOT JUDGE THEM BUT INSTEAD TRY TO LEARN AND UNDER STAND THEM . AFTER ALL I WAS NOT THERE TO KNOW WHAT THEY DID .
    I THINK PERHAPS YOU JUST DO NOT THE SOUTHERN POINT OF VIEW ON ANY THING ,

    • Mr. Place,

      I am not sure why you took such offense to Bob’s comment. It was well thought out and he did not say anything out of turn. I cannot speak to how many books he has read on Robert E. Lee, the Civil War, or the Confederate cause; but I have read one or two, and will back up Bob’s comments with some numbers for you.

      When Lee assumed command of what he dubbed the Army of Northern Virginia he was in a pretty unenviable position. His back was against Richmond. He had too small a command staff (a fact that plagued him throughout the war), and he had a hostile press and the southern populace didn’t even want him in command. Soldiers grumbled, calling him the “King of Spades” and “Granny Lee.” Some questioned Davis’s choice of leader. Cavalryman Brig. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart felt that up to this point of the war Lee “had disappointed me as a general.” The historian of Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade felt that Johnston’s “place could never be filled. . . .” The diarist Mary Chesnut cast her eye toward Lee’s brother. “I like Smith Lee better, and I like his looks, too,” she wrote. “I know Smith Lee well. Can anybody say they know his brother? I doubt it. He looks so cold and quiet and grand.”

      When Lee initiated the Seven Days Battles he had some 90,000 men in his army. The Seven Days Battles were, as James Longstreet aptly put it, “a succession of mishaps.” Losses in the officer corps were appalling. An estimated 175 officers were killed and another 675 wounded; of those numbers, 110 of the fallen were field-grade officers. The total losses in Lee’s army numbered 20,614—nearly 23% of his army. And folks often over look the dress rehearsal for Pickett’s Charge was Malvern Hill, which took place 367 days prior to the ill fated and ill conceived assault on the Federal center at Gettysburg.
      To Bob’s point, “Gen’l. Lee says there’ll be no more retreating . . .” wrote Stephen Ramseur. “[T]he watchword of the Army must be and is ‘Victory or Death.’” This doesn’t sound like sound strategy…an all or nothing approach to war.

      Between the battle of Second Manassas and the follow-up battle at Ox Hill Lee lost nearly 19% of his army. Division commander Richard S. Ewell had his knee shattered at Groveton. The hard-fighting Isaac Trimble sustained a leg wound. Lee lost four other brigade commanders, eleven regimental commanders, and 726 line and field officers.

      At Antietam, Lee gave battle with just 37,351 men and with his back to a river. The Confederates lost some 10,000 men—or roughly 27 percent of Lee’s men. Eight hundred thirty-eight officers fell as casualties, including four generals killed (this includes Samuel Garland, killed at South Mountain) and six others wounded; 14 brigade commanders were killed or wounded, and 13 regimental commanders were killed or mortally wounded.
      The 30th Virginia Infantry lost 160 out of 236 men engaged; 320 men of the 3rd North Carolina fell, while 1st Texas sustained 186 casualties—82.3% of the men who entered the Miller Cornfield, and the 6th Georgia lost a horrific 226 men out of 250 engaged.

      Bringing it up to Mackowski’s argument on Chancellorsville, Lee was easily outnumbered 2-1. The focus on the wounding of one man and his flank march, which only setup the real Battle of Chancellorsville on May 3rd, has done a great disservice to Lee and his army. Jeb Stuart and Lee charged head on into the teeth of Union infantry, just as Lee had done at Malvern Hill, Bristoe Station, and Gettysburg. The losses on May 3rd, 1863 are appalling. Brigadier General Samuel McGowan’s South Carolina brigade suffered 457 casualties, including McGowan; his second-in-command, Col. Oliver Edwards; and his third-in-command, Col. James Perrin. By the end of the battle, five men had commanded the brigade.

      James Lane’s North Carolina brigade, the men who wounded Jackson on the evening of May 2nd, lost 910 men in action, including four out of the original five regimental commanders Lane carried into action. Two of those regiments lost two or more commanders in the action. William Dorsey Pender’s brigade also carried five regiments into action, where three of his regiments lost two or more commanders each. The dead from the state of North Carolina alone exceeded 600—the most from any southern state on the field.

      British military historian Col. George Francis Robert Henderson described the battle of Chancellorsville “as the TACTICAL masterpiece of the nineteenth century.” (Emphasis added)

      Lee’s army of 60,892 had engaged roughly 83,000 men of Hooker’s army, which meant that the Federal army still had some 50,000 soldiers to field that had not yet fully engaged the enemy—an amount almost equal to Lee’s effective strength at the outset of the campaign.

      Lee, on the other hand, had placed all of his cards on the table. 60,892 Confederates entered the campaign; 13,460 had become casualties—22 percent of the Army of Northern Virginia.

      The Army of Northern Virginia entered the battle with 130 regiments. Out of those 130 regiments Lee lost 64 field officers. Since Lee assumed command of the army (up to the conclusion of Chancellorsville), he had lost more than 60,000 men, which included more than 300 field grade officers.

      But Chancellorsville was a huge turning point. Jackson was dead, Lee had the initiative, but his command staff was in shambles, and his junior officer ranks were shattered by the losses inflicted by both Lee’s leadership, and the fact that Confederate generals were bullet magnets.

      So how great was the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, let’s ask Robert E. Lee. “At Chancellorsville we gained another victory,” Lee lamented to fellow Confederate General John Bell Hood. “Our people were wild with delight—I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.” Pretty telling!

      Add in Gettysburg where Lee lost another 28,000 men and a third of his general officers that took the field there, then Bob is correct in his assertion, “Lee was a naturally aggressive commander….Lee was too much the tactician but not enough of the strategist.”

      And then of course there is the fact that Lee only left the Commonwealth of Virginia with the ANV twice. His men made it almost to Harrisburg and he did not lead them anywhere into the west, where the war was being won and lost. While it is true that he was essentially a departmental commander until he assumed command of all Confederate forces in February of 1865, he balked time and again at sending troops west. He played lip service to doing so, but fought tooth and nail against it and refused to put his money where his mouth was. It took the loss at Gettysburg to give the Confederate high command the testicular fortitude to meddle in Lee’s army and send part of Longstreet’s corps west. Even still, Lee did not look at Gettysburg as a great defeat, which it most certainly was. Writing in July of 1863 Lee stated “It [Gettysburg] however in my opinion achieved under the guidance of the Most High a general success, though it did not win a victory.”

      Lee’s command style, coupled with his Virginia-centric focus, helped to doom the Confederacy. To be sure it was not only Lee. The failure of Jefferson Davis to find a competent replacement for A.S. Johnston and his constant shortsighted backing of Braxton Bragg, doomed the Confederacy where the war was being won, and that was in the west. While Ulysses S. Grant was capturing whole Confederate armies, undertaking masterful joint operations along the Mississippi, and helping to put together a cohesive strategy to bring the downfall of the Southern Confederacy; Lee was in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania focused squarely on the destruction of one army and hoping that he could inflict so many casualties as to make the war so unbearable for the Northern voters that they would oust the Lincoln administration. An exceedingly poor strategy given that his army would have to go toe-to-toe with the AoP and absorb those casualty figures as well.

      It’s like that scene in the first Jurassic Park when the hunter is so focused on the Raptor in front of him that he doesn’t see the two coming in from the sides.

      And since you don’t think that Bob has a southern perspective on these things, I’ll leave you with some thoughts by Lee’s contemporaries.

      “We were lavish in blood those days and it was thought to be a great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earth-work lined with infantry. ‘It is magnificent, but it is not war,’ was the sarcastic remark of the French general as he looked on at the British cavalry charge at Balaklava.’… The attacks on Beaver Dam intrenchments [sic], on the heights of Malvern Hill, at Gettysburg, etc. were all grand, but exactly the kind of grandeur which the south could not afford.” -Daniel Harvey Hill.

      At Sharpsburg: “He [Lee] gave battle unnecessarily. . . . The odds against him were so immense that utmost he could have hoped to do was what he did do—repel all assaults & finally withdraw safely across the Potomac. And he . . . only succeeded in this because McClellan kept about 20,000 men . . . entirely out of the fight…that defeat would have meant utter destruction of his army. So he fought where he could have avoided it, & where he had nothing to make & everything to lose—which a general should not do.” –Edward Porter Alexander

      • Thomas R Place says:

        wow I FEEL SO HONORED Chris YOU WOULD TAKE ALL THAT TIME TO ADDRESS MY COMMENT TO BOB . IL SUM IT UP IN MORE OF A COMMON MAN VIEW . IF I MAY
        TO QUOTE A HUMBLE AND GREAT HISTORIAN “ITS A MATTER OF HOW ONE INTERPRETS THE FACTS,WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT HISTORIANS DO ALL THE TIME ” HOPE I AM STILL WELCOME ON HERE I AM ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST SUPPORTERS UP HERE IN THE NORTH

    • Thanks, Tom. It’s not so much a “what if” as it is a reminder to folks to remember the situation on the ground at the time of Jackson’s wounding before they start asking, “What if?”

    • Bob Ruth says:

      Thomas:

      Just a few points.

      1) I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of Civil War books, including many on Lee. If I could be so bold, I’d like to suggest two books for your reading pleasure – Marble Man and Lee Considered.

      2) One of the many things I don’t understand about Lost Causers is their inability to see any flaws whatsoever in Lee. Believe it or not, the man was human.

      I am a huge fan of Ulysses S. Grant, yet I’m willing to concede he had flaws, both as a general and as a man. The main difference between the two generals: Grant had a far better understanding of the Big Picture than Lee.

      As Kristopher so aptly pointed out, Lee was too Virginia oriented. Being a Midwesterner, Grant innately realized – correctly, as it turned out – that the South would be brought to its knees only if the Union won the war in the Western Theater. The Union was fortunate to have two other pretty decent leaders who hailed from the Midwest – Sherman and Lincoln.

      • Thomas R Place says:

        i HAVE READ BOTH BOOKS , MORE TO LEARNING THEN BOOK READING WHEN STUDY ING BATTLES WALKING THE FIELD AS WELL YOU SEEM TO ALL WAYS PUT DOWN ANY THING SOUTHERN .

        I DO NOT CONSIDER MY SELF A LOST CAUSERS . WHY YOU JUDGE ME THAT WAY IS PUZZLING I FEEL I HAVE MORE OF A OPEN MIND ACTUALLY THEN YOU ‘ .
        PRETTY CLEAR YOU AND YOUR GREAT FRIEND CHRIS SPEND A LOT OF TIME IN THE LIBRARY BUT PLEASE DONT PUT US COMMON FOLK DOWN BECAUSE WE SIMPLY DO NOT AGREE.
        A GREAT HISTORIAN ONCE SAID “ITS A MATTER OF HOW ONE INTERPRETS THE FACTS,WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT HISTORIANS DO ALL THE TIME .” .

  4. Richard H Flint II says:

    What is the point/value of such speculation?

    • I’m not so sure this is speculation so much as it’s analysis. A lot of people consider Jackson’s wounding to be a calamity–the Park Service sign at the spot of Jackson’s wounding even labels it “Confederate catastrophe.” By looking at the entire situation and understanding the event in context, it’s easy to challenge the notion of whether it was a “catastrophe” or not. It’s a matter of how one interprets the facts, which is exactly what historians do all the time.

  5. At first, when I saw the title of this article I was skeptical and beginning to thing that the author had lost his mind. Once I read it through, I found his logic to be sound. Having visited Chancellorsville, it is some vicious terrain and the woods are unforgiving. Had Jackson pressed further, it is a 50/50 chance that he is stopped and then they are in trouble. Sadly…the injury to Jackson and his passing a few days later was a fatal blow to the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate effort going forward, in my opinion.

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