More than Just Jackson: The Army of Northern Virginia’s Casualties in the Officer Corps at Chancellorsville

Stonewall Jackson died on May 10, 1863. Ever since, his loss has been held up as a key factor in why the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was never the same. “If only Jackson…” begins many counter-factuals.

In the wake of Jackson’s death, Chancellorsville has been presented as one of the ultimate pyrrhic victories—Robert E. Lee won, but at the cost of one of his most-trusted subordinates. These statements are nothing new to Civil War scholarship. And yet, usually overlooked in the wake of Jackson’s death is truly how battered the Army of Northern Virginia was coming out of the battle of Chancellorsville.[1]

The battle at Chancellorsville cost Lee’s army in the neighborhood of 13,000 casualties. This translated to 22% of its engaged strength of 60,000 men. Because the majority of James Longstreet’s First Corps was detached around the Siege of Suffolk at the time, the burden of these casualties fell on the army’s Second Corps. Besides the loss of Jackson, the Second Corps had three division commanders and ten brigade commanders killed or wounded (this counting replacement officers who also fell after assuming command).

Frank Paxton, killed May 3, 1863
(“Elisha Franklin Paxton: Memoir and Memorials”)

Perhaps most eye-popping were the regimental officer casualties. The Army of Northern Virginia went into Chancellorsville with 130 regiments of infantry. Over the course of the battle, 56 field grade officers (major, lieutenant colonel, or colonel) heading these regiments were killed, wounded, or captured. Some of those losses came in the same regiment—the 55th Virginia, for example, lost all three of its field grade officers. Across the whole Chancellorsville Campaign, a third of the army’s infantry regiments lost a commanding officer.

While casualties in the army’s other branches were not as pronounced, losses such as the Second Corps’ Chief of Artillery Stapleton Crutchfield and the death of talented battery commander Greenlee Davidson still permeated through the ranks.

Looking at these casualty figures, and focusing in specifically on the regimental commanders reveals the true price for the battle of Chancellorsville. Robert E. Lee may have won, but it came at an exorbitant cost. The battle accomplished very little, and Lee knew that. He snapped at junior officers once Confederate skirmishers realized the Army of the Potomac had escaped across the river on May 6, 1863 that once again the enemy had been allowed to get away. Lee knew that he could not continue to fight the bloody behemoth actions that were marking the war in the eastern theater with no appreciable progress.

Lt. Col. Junius Hill, 7th North Carolina, killed at Chancellorsville
(Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War, Volume 1)

After the battle was over, Lee was forced to reorganize the Army of Northern Virginia, breaking it from two corps into three. This has always been presented as a way to remedy the loss of Jackson, and that is certainly true, but once more, it is important to realize how deep the scars of Chancellorsville went. Lee did not just lose one of his lieutenants, he lost priceless command experience at the regimental level that would never be replaced. Captains would have to be promoted to field grade and sergeants to company grade to backfill the catastrophic loss incurred by the Army of Northern Virginia. With those new commanders, not just at the top, but equally important, at the bottom, too, Lee would have to fight the battle of Gettysburg in two months’ time.

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[1] Numbers for the following post have been attained by a close examination of the order of battle printed in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 3 (New York: The Century Company, 1884), starting on 237.

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10 Responses to More than Just Jackson: The Army of Northern Virginia’s Casualties in the Officer Corps at Chancellorsville

  1. This excellent, detail-oriented scholarship once again demonstrates there are ample opportunities for further consideration of accepted elements of the armies in what for more than a century have been settled consensus. Thank you, Ryan Quint, for an engaging post.

  2. Wayne says:

    And that’s just the field grade officers. What about the nco’s?

  3. Douglas Pauly says:

    Other Confederate officers in Stonewall’s party were killed or wounded. More were hit by Union fire as they were trying to evacuate Stonewall. Longstreet would suffer the same fate the following year, though he would survive. The “fog of war” can be a brutal thing! The attrition endured by the Confederates at Chancellorsville was absolutely appalling. I ask this, were there any similar situations where Union forces in any particular battle or campaign took so many hits among their officer corps?

  4. Pingback: More than Just Jackson: The Army of Northern Virginia’s Casualties in the Officer Corps at Chancellorsville – Urban Fishing Pole Lifestyle

  5. Edward S. Alexander says:

    I see the image from Clark’s regimental series and can’t help but think how a decent amount of NC regimental commanders in the last year started so far down the line of succession that they weren’t considered for a photo.

  6. Robert E. Epp says:

    Friends of Wilderness Battlefield (FoWB) researchers are conducting a deep dive into the casualty lists of all of the Confederate units that participated in the 1863 Chacellosville engagement. The initial goal was to possibly identify some of the 10-12 unknown soldiers buried at the Ellwood Divisional Hospital. (1-3 possibles have been idnetified). Very preliminary findings reflect a serious under-counting of the Confederate casualties (compared to existing counts) among the enlisted ranks. There is no firm completion date for the project.

  7. grandadpookers says:

    Thought provoking assessment of the consequences of “victory”

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