150 Years Ago This Week: The Battle of Chancellorsville, the loss of Jackson

May 1863

On two of the three major fronts, as May 1863, opened, Northern armies moved in new offensives. The Army of the Potomac was at Chancellorsville in the wilderness of Virginia, prepared to move swiftly between Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army and Richmond. At Fredericksburg, Va., a portion of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s army under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick threatened the Confederates under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early in that direction.

On the Mississippi River, Union attempts to capture or lay siege to the fortress of Vicksburg, Miss., had long been thwarted. Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Federals were now south of Vicksburg, on Mississippi soil. To the Confederacy, this threat was both real and very crucial. In Vicksburg, Lt. Gen. John Pemberton also kept a vigilant watch on Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union advances north of the city.

East of Vicksburg, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and his Confederate troops gathered strength and hoped to relieve Gen. Pemberton, saving both the city and the Confederate army. Deep in Mississippi, Col. Benjamin Grierson’s Union cavalry continued their raiding south, and drew Confederate troops away from Vicksburg.

In east-central Tennessee, the Union troops under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and Confederate troops under Gen. Braxton Bragg were still largely inactive. As May opened, the Federal Army of the Potomac, 70,000 strong, crossed the Rappahannock River upstream from Fredericksburg, leaving some 40,000 troops under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick at Fredericksburg.

Gen. Lee became aware of what the Union army under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was doing, and began moving his 47,000 troops west from Fredericksburg to block the Federal advance through the Wilderness area. Gen. Lee left some 10,000 men under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early in Fredericksburg to oppose any operations by Gen. Sedgwick.

On Friday, May 1, the two armies began fighting without inflicting any serious casualties. That afternoon, Gen. Hooker surprised his officers by stopping the advance and concentrated his forces around the Chancellor family residence called Chancellorsville. Gen. Hooker thus gave away his offensive posture and assumed the defensive, guaranteeing his defeat.

Gen. Lee met that night with Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and discussed what was to be done. From this meeting came one of the most daring decisions in military history. Disobeying the laws of strategy and tactics, Gen. Lee divided his army again in the face of an enemy; Gen. Jackson took his 26,000 men on the morning of May 2 in a flank march around the right flank of the Union army, and attacked with a vengeance around 6 p.m. that evening.

The Confederate onslaught surprised Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard’s 11th Corps, which rolled up like a carpet, with Federal troops running for their lives. That night, under a full moon, Gen. Jackson and his staff rode out to assess where the opposing lines were, and were mistaken by the 18th North Carolina for a party of Union cavalry. In the deadly hail of fire, Gen. Jackson and several of his staff were mortally wounded. Command of the Second Corps devolved on Maj. Gen. James E.B. Stuart, Gen. Lee’s cavalry commander.

That night Gen. Jackson’s left arm was amputated in a field hospital, and he was transported by ambulance to the Chandler Farm at Guinea Station to recover from his wounds and the pneumonia which had set in. There he lingered until Sunday, May 10, when he died at 3:15 p.m. His loss was a blow from which the Confederacy never recovered.

Called Gen. Lee’s greatest victory, the Battle of Chancellorsville continued on May 3 and 4, with major attacks at Chancellorsville and in Fredericksburg, at Salem Church, where elements of Gen. Lee’s army stopped the Union advances by Gen. Sedgwick. In defeat, later in the week, Gen. Hooker withdrew his battered Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River, leaving the Lincoln administration in Washington to face the embarrassment of another defeat.

Casualties for the North numbered some 17,287 killed, wounded, missing or captured. Confederate casualties, including Gen. Jackson, numbered 12,764. Based on the number of men of both sides available for combat, the percentage of casualties for the Confederacy was far greater than the Federals suffered.


Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.