Battle of Chancellorsville

Battle of Chancellorsville
Date April 30 – May 6, 1863
Location Spotsylvania County, Virginia
Victor Confederate victory
Contenders
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Joseph Hooker Robert E. Lee
Stonewall Jackson
Military Units in Battle
Army of the Potomac Army of Northern Virginia
Unit Strength
133,868 60,892
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 17,197 Total: 13,303
1,606 killed
9,672 wounded
5,919 captured/missing
1,665 killed
9,081 wounded
2,018 captured/missing
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of Chancellorsville took place in Spotysylvania County in Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle started on April 30, 1863 and finished on May 6, and marked the most significant encounter between the opposing forces in what was known as the Chancellorsville Campaign.

The Chancellorsville Campaign brought the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General Joseph Hooker up against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee.

Events Leading up to the Battle

The battle was one of several that took place as a result of the Federal objective of trying to take the Confederate capital, Richmond, in Virginia. The Union army had been defeated in four major encounters with the same objective in the previous two years.

As a result of these defeats, morale was low and the Union army was suffering from a high desertion rate. Major General Ambrose Burnside wanted to implement widespread changes in the Army of the Potomac by removing many if its most senior officers, but failed to get the necessary approval from Congress. Disillusioned, he offered his resignation to the President, Abraham Lincoln, but Lincoln persuaded him to accept a different command.

Burnside’s replacement as head of the Army of the Potomac was Hooker, who undertook systematic changes aimed at restoring morale and improving efficiency. He addressed problems with the living conditions of the troops, improved the quality of the army food, introduced better drills and training techniques, and streamlined many administrative functions.

Any attempt to take Richmond involved the Union army crossing the Rappahannock River and dislodging the Confederate forces from their fortifications there, and Hooker had realized from the previous failed campaigns that using brute force was not a tactic that would work.

Hooker set about assembling his troops at Falmouth, and worked out a plan to overcome the Rebel forces.

Engagement Plan

Hooker’s plan was to send a large force to cross the river much further upstream and mount an assault on the Confederates from the rear. It was hoped this action would cause the Confederate army to retreat, because their supply lines would be cut.

On April 13, he dispatched 10,000 troops under the command of Major General George Stoneman to cross the river at Sulphur Spring, but the move was thwarted by heavy rains, which made the crossing impossible.

Hooker modified the plan, and this time set about launching an attack on the Confederates from the front and rear. Stoneman was to retry his crossing, while 42,000 men would simultaneously try to cross the river upstream at Kelly’s Ford, and proceed to Chancellorsville.

A further 40,000 troops under the command of John Sedgwick would attempt to cross the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg and launch an assault on the Confederates’ right flank, a section commanded by Stonewall Jackson.

The remainder of his army, numbering some 25,000 men would remain at the Falmouth camp, and act as a diversionary force to conceal the pincer movement from the Confederates.

The river crossings were attempted between April 27 and 30 and were successful, meeting little opposition from the Rebels. As a result, Hooker had assembled a total force of 70,000 at Chancellorsville by May 1.

Despite his army being outnumbered by more than two to one, Lee decided to split his force in two, and mount an offensive against the Union soldiers. Heavy fog helped to confuse the Union army about what the Confederates were doing.

The Battle

The first engagement of the battle took place just before midday on May 1. Despite his numerical superiority, Hooker adopted a conservative approach. He felt his best chance of success was to maintain a defensive position around Chancellorsville, hoping the Confederates would be drawn into attacking his positions.

While the Union army was relatively well-protected on its left flank and in its center, the right flank was less well fortified. In addition, Lee was made aware of a road through woodland that would enable his troops to maneuver into position to attack the Union right flank, and that the trees would conceal their movements from Union lookouts. Lee ordered Stonewall Jackson to undertake the flanking maneuver.

The maneuver was more successful than Lee could have hoped for. Not only did the Union army fail to recognize the danger and spot the Confederate soldiers moving into position, they were having dinner when Jackson launched his attack from the woods, leading to a Union rout.

On May 2, Jackson was keen to press home his advantage, so he set out on a scouting mission to see whether a nighttime assault on the Federal troops was a possibility. When the scouting party turned back towards the Confederate lines, some of their own troops mistook them for Union soldiers and opened fire. Jackson was hit three times, and had to have his arm amputated. He then succumbed to an infection that was to prove fatal, and he died on May 10, in what was to be a major blow to the Confederate cause.

On May 3, Hooker was wounded by an artillery shell, but insisted on staying in overall command of his army. Many military experts feel this decision was critical, and that Hooker’s performance in the rest of the battle showed that his ability to make good decisions was affected by his injury.

Hooker’s defensive approach in the battle allowed Lee to send reinforcements to his troops near Fredericksburg, and they managed to push the Union soldiers under Sedgwick back across the river in the early hours of May 5.

Realizing that Sedgwick’s men could not now join him at Chancelorsvile, Hooker decided to retreat and began withdrawing his troops on the night of May 5. Meanwhile, Stoneman and his soldiers, who had not managed to launch any of the attacks that Hooker’s plan called for, also withdrew.

Casualties

The Union army had a total of 17,197 casualties. 1,606 men were killed in the battle, 9,762 were wounded and 5,919 were captured or reported missing. Confederate casualties totaled 13,303, with 1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded and 2,018 missing or taken prisoner.

While the total casualty figures for both sides were similar, the percentage losses for the Confederates were significantly higher, since they had less than half the number of Union troops in the field. On top of that, they had lost one of their most aggressive commanders, Stonewall Jackson.

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