The American Civil War: The Battle of Chancellorsville

From the Lecture Series: The American Civil War

By Gary W. Gallagher, P.h.D., University of Virginia

After Joseph Hooker was chosen as the head of the Potomac Army, he tried to prove his capabilities and skills at war. So, he devised an excellent campaign against the Confederate Army under the command of Robert Lee. He had twice as many soldiers as the Confederate Army and was sure his perfect plan covered everything that could go wrong. Read on to see how he developed the campaign and what happened in Chancellorsville.

The painting shows Joseph Hooker and his troops.
Joseph Hooker had made an excellent plan to crush the Confederates, but he suffered a major setback in the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Image: Edwin Forbes/Public domain)

Hooker’s Campaign against the Confederate Army

For this campaign, the Northern army consisted of 120,000 men against 60,000 southern men. The harsh winter had decreased the fodder for animals and food for Confederate men. To supply forage for the animals, Lee had been forced to send his army to different places. So the army was much smaller than that of Hooker, and the odds were against the Confederates.

The first part of the campaign went exactly as Hooker had planned. He was behind Lee’s army at Chancellorsville, and Sedgwick’s men were in front of the Confederate army.

Hooker thought that, as he had planned, Lee would have two options: either retreat toward Richmond, where Federals were waiting for him or turn around and face Hooker and Sedgwick in opposite directions.

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Robert Lee’s Reaction

Lee never reacted the way he was expected to do. He divided his army and put 10,000 men at Fredericksburg to watch Sedgwick. The rest of his men quickly marched to the west to confront Hooker. He planned to block Hooker’s army in a place called “wilderness of Spotsylvania” or “the wilderness.” It was covered with scrub vegetation, and big trees were cut for charcoaling operations. The area had very limited farms and clearings with almost no roads.

The area was not a suitable place for the Union Army, and their numbers wouldn’t help them. So, Hooker decided to go a few miles east of Chancellorsville so that his numbers could have a real influence.

On the morning of May 1, as Hooker’s troops were marching eastward, they ran into Stonewall Jackson’s men near Zoan Church. Absolutely nervous, Hooker decided to pull his men back quickly although there hadn’t been much fighting.

Putting Hooker’s army into a defensive position determined the fate of the Battle of Chancellorsville; Hooker had already failed. Having now gained the initiative, Lee divided his army again and sent Jackson’s army around Hooker’s right flank and attacked them. On May 2, Jackson’s 28,000 men launched their famous assault while Lee’s 14,000 men engaged Hooker at Chancellorsville.

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Stonewall Jackson’s Death

Jackson crushed the Union 11th Corps, under the command of O. O. Howard. Caught by surprise, the Union Army had to retreat for two miles. But as it got dark, the Confederate attack lost its steam. In an attempt to find a way to continue the attacks, Jackson rode forward. But the darkness led him into a path of a Confederate regiment firing a volley in another direction. Jackson was hit by some of those missiles and wounded, which led to the amputation of his left arm. Hearing about Jackson’s injury, Lee said, “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right,” which was right.

Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by the Confederate troops and he eventually died. (Image: Nathaniel Routzahn (1822 – 1908), Winchester, Virginia / Public domain)

The next morning, Lee managed to unite his divided forces that had Hooker’s army in between them. Although the number of Hooker’s men was much more significant than Lee’s, he had no strategies to attack. At the same time, Sedgwick had forced 10,000 Confederates out of Fredericksburg and was moving toward Chancellorsville.

Now, Lee had to divide his army again. Twenty-five thousand of his men remained in Chancellorsville to keep Hooker busy. The rest of his army went to fight with Sedgwick. They defeated Sedgwick’s army in the Battle of Salem Church on May 3 and 4. On the night of May 6, the Army of Potomac had to retreat across the Rappahannock after a bloody campaign with 17,000 Federal casualties and 13,000 fallen Confederate soldiers, including Stonewall Jackson. On May 10, Jackson died of pneumonia that was probably caused by the complications of his earlier injury.

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Reactions to the Battle of Chancellorsville

The Chancellorsville victory was arguably the most significant victory for Lee because he had defeated an enemy that considerably outnumbered his army. But it came at the considerable cost of losing Stonewall Jackson.

The Chancellorsville defeat came as a shock to the North. When Lincoln heard about the news, he went pale and said, “My God, what will the country say?” Lincoln was facing much more adverse times as the defeat had come immediately after the one at Fredericksburg, heartening antiwar elements in the North and the Copperheads among the Democrats.  

In the South, it was Lee who reaped the benefits of the great victory as he became the great military idol of the Confederacy. The achievements that he and his men had made were exactly what the people in the South wanted: forward-moving and aggressive. They became the most important national institution in the South. He established himself as a great commander through the victories of Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, the Seven Days, and the Maryland campaign.

Common Questions about the American Civil War: the Battle of Chancellorsville

Q: What was important about the Battle of Chancellorsville?

The Battle of Chancellorsville was a crushing defeat for the North. For the South, it was a great victory, which established Robert Lee as the great military idol.

Q: Who won the Battle of Chancellorsville and why?

The Confederates, under the command of Robert Lee, won the Battle of Chancellorsville. An essential cause of the North’s defeat was that Joseph Hooker lost his nerves from the beginning and went into a defensive state.

Q: Why was Chancellorsville a costly victory for the South?

Although, the South emerged victorious in the Battle of Chancellorsville, it came at an enormous cost. The South lost its most famous commander in this campaign, Stonewall Jackson.

Q: How did Stonewall Jackson die?

Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot during the Battle of Chancellorsville by Confederate soldiers. He lost one arm and after a few days, died of pneumonia, probably caused by the complications of the injury.

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