CHAPTER FIVE: “The Cresting Tide: Robert E. Lee
and the Road to Chancellorsville”
by Kristopher D. White

Commentary  ·  Images  ·  Additional Resources  ·  Suggested Reading  ·  About the Author


By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series

Noah Brooks remembered that May afternoon in vivid detail.

“Never as long as I knew him,” the journalist wrote of the president, “did he seem to be so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike.” Lincoln had just received a telegraph from the Rappahannock front, conveying the results of the battle at Chancellorsville. Three days of tussling with Robert E. Lee in a knotted Virginia wood produced more than seventeen thousand Union casualties. “Clasping his hands behind his back,” Brooks remembered, the president “walked up and down the room, saying ‘My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!”

Not surprisingly, the arresting image of Abraham Lincoln wringing his hands and rationalizing yet another defeat routinely finds its way into accounts of a battle that many historians regard as Lee’s “greatest victory.”

“Most accounts of Chancellorsville,” writes historian Gary Gallagher, “emphasize the generalships of Hooker, Lee, and Jackson; the Confederate flank attack on May 2 and the calamity it visited on O.O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps; and the heavy fighting around the crossroads at the Chancellor house on May 3.” Artists and filmmakers have, in their memorable portrayals of the “cracker box” meeting and Jackson’s flank attack, ensured that the battle endures in popular culture as the story of hapless Joe Hooker’s army wresting defeat from the jaws of victory.

We shouldn’t underestimate what Lee and Jackson accomplished at Chancellorsville. But as historian John Hennessy reminds us, nor should we lose sight of the noiseless “transformations” underway in the Army of the Potomac—transformations that, in part, help to explain why Lee’s “greatest victory” cost him more than twenty percent of his command.

Those transformations began in the winter camps the Army of the Potomac erected on the northern bank of the Rappahannock. Invoking the memory of Valley Forge and the rugged Revolutionary encampment of 1777-1778, authors Albert Z. Conner, Jr., and Chris Mackowski contend that for Hooker’s army, the winter of 1862-1863 constituted “a strategic pause.” According to these authors, a “strategic pause” is “a protracted halt to fighting in a theater of operations” that enables men to “rest, restore, resupply, and regroup forces.” Furthermore, it “provides opportunities to develop plans; revise tactics, procedures, and techniques; and make necessary personnel and organizational changes.”

The “strategic pause” was equally significant in that it provided enlisted men with ample time to ruminate about their participation in the war, the increasingly shrill sniping of Copperhead Democrats back home, and the potential consequences of defeat. As they reflected on the growing antiwar movement arresting the North, the men shivering in camp increasingly defined themselves in opposition to “disloyal” civilians. An army that was divided on emancipation (to say nothing about its fierce disagreements over what constituted appropriate military tactics and policies toward southern civilians) ultimately came to find common ground—and perhaps a previously unknown level of internal cohesion—by condemning the so-called “fire in the rear.”

One of the great ironies of Chancellorsville, then, was the way the battle obscured these unmistakable developments. Gettysburg, after all, was just eight weeks away.

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By Christopher Kolakowski, Chief Historian, Emerging Civil War

This chapter offers a good synopsis of Robert E. Lee’s first year in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Yet beyond the numbers game in relative strengths between Lee’s army and his Federal opponents lay an important political struggle.

From his perch as military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee determined an important fact: Virginia politically was the most important theater of the Civil War. Upon assuming command with a large Federal army camped within earshot of Richmond’s church bells (the largest ever fielded by the United States to that time, too), it appeared that the Confederacy was near death. In this circumstance, Lee had to attack. His “Victory or Death” proclamation, rather uncharacteristic of him, underscores the stakes of June 1862.

Lee rightly merits criticism for poor tactics and staff work during the Seven Days Battles. Yet the series of battles in that week occurred on a scale unlike anything seen in American military to that date. He also was the first American to tactically maneuver independent armies on a field of battle—his own Army of Northern Virginia and Stonewall Jackson’s Army of the Valley.

It is true Lee fought costly battles, but at the same time his army achieved some important milestones. First, the campaigns that opened outside Richmond on June 26, 1862, ended 70 days later on September 3 with the Federal armies hunkered in the Washington defenses. During that time, Lee had reversed virtually all Federal gains in the Eastern Theater. This was a radical swing of fortunes ranking with Trenton-Princeton in 1776-1777, the Normandy breakout in 1944, and the Inchon-Yalu operations in 1950. In London, the British government pondered recognition of the Confederacy and mediation of a peace; the Confederacy was on the brink of independence.

Two days before the climactic battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland, Lee’s troops forced the largest surrender in U.S. military history to that time at Harpers Ferry on September 15; the number of U.S. personnel handed over was more than twice those lost at Charleston in 1780. Harpers Ferry still ranks second among U.S. surrenders, passed only by the fall of Bataan in April 1942.

After a defensive victory in Fredericksburg that precipitated a cabinet crisis in the Lincoln administration, Lee defeated the largest army fielded by the U.S. in the war at Chancellorsville. Whatever the battlefield results, Lee understood that the political dividends from his successes offered the best chance for the Confederacy to win. He carried that idea with him into Pennsylvania and into the 1864 battles, which came close to ruining Lincoln’s chances for re-election. Lee’s strategy was costly to the Confederacy in lives, but also brought them the closest to victory in the war.


Johnston and Lee

Joe Johnston (left) and Robert E. Lee (right) had a complicated relationship. Johnston, who held a higher rank in the prewar army than Lee, resented that Lee outranked him. It rankled Johnston further that, once he had recovered from his Seven Pines wound well enough to again take the field, Jefferson Davis would not give command of the army back to him. By the end of the war, when Lee rescued Johnston from obscurity, Johnston said he ““loved and admired [Lee] more than any man in the world.”

From the Library of Congress: Photograph shows full-length portraits of Lee and Johnston seated at a table. In this print, Lee holds a pen and appears to be writing on a piece of paper. Taken during Lee’s farewell tour of the South, this photo was sold to raise funds for the Lee Monument in Richmond, Va. (credit: Library of Congress)

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Johston wounding plaque

A marker on the 2600 block of Richmond’s E. Broad St., on the south side, indicates the location of the home where Joe Johnston was taken to recuperate after his wounding at Seven Pines. (credit: Bert Dunkerly)

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Last Meeting lithograph Turnbull Brothers

Chancellorsville is most often remembered as the battle where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded. As a result, Jackson’s “last meeting” with Lee has taken an iconic place in the “Lost Cause” mythology of the war. (credit: Library of Congress)

Additional Resources

Historian Doug Crenshaw assisted with research for one of the maps that accompanies Kris White’s essay in Turning Points. Specifically, Doug tracked down the exact site of Joseph E. Johnston’s wounding during the battle of Seven Pines: “Tracking Down the Wounding of Joe Johnston.” Shortly thereafter, ECW did an On Location video with Doug at the spot of Johnston’s wounding.

Many armchair generals wonder about the impact of Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding on the battle of Chancellorsville. ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski has suggested Jackson’s wounding actually had positive implications for the Army of Northern Virginia: “Jackson’s Wounding: The Best Thing to Happen to Lee at Chancellorsville.”

You can visit Richmond National Battlefield, where Lee kicked off the Seven Days’ Battles shortly after taking command, here.

You can visit the Chancellorsville Battlefield, part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, here.

The Civil War Trust’s “In4” video series features a segment about Robert E. Lee, hosted by reenactor Frank Orlando, that you can watch here.

Suggested Reading

· Glatthaar, Joseph. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press, 2008)

· Holzer, Harold and Vaughn, Sara Gabbard, eds. 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013)

· Mackowski, Chris and White, Kristopher D. That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy (Savas Beatie, 2014)

About the Author

Kristopher D. White, a cofounder of Emerging Civil War, is the education manager at the Civil War Trust. He was a staff military historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and is a former member of the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides at Gettysburg. He serves as a founding editor of the “Engaging the Civil War” from SIUP series and the Emerging Civil War Series from Savas Beatie.

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