previous next

Chancellorsville, battle of

Early in April, 1863, Hooker, in command of the Army of the Potomac, became impatient, and resolved to put it in motion towards Richmond, notwithstanding his ranks were not full. Cavalry under Stoneman were sent to destroy railways in Lee's rear, but were foiled by the water in the streams. After a pause, Hooker determined to attempt to turn Lee's flank, and, for that purpose, sent 10,000 mounted men to raid in his rear. Then he moved 36,000 of the troops of his right wing across the Rappahannock, with orders to halt and intrench at Chancellorsville, between the Confederate army near Fredericksburg and Richmond. This movement was so masked by a demonstration on Lee's front by Hooker's left wing, under General Sedgwick, that the right was well advanced before Lee was aware of his peril. These troops reached Chancellorsville, in a region known as “The wilderness,” on the evening of April 30, 1863, when Hooker expected to see Lee, conscious of danger, fly towards Richmond. He did no such thing, but proceeded to strike the National army a heavy blow, for the twofold purpose of seizing the communications between the two parts of that army and compelling its commander to fight at a disadvantage, with only a part of his troops in hand. Hooker had made his headquarters in the spacious brick house of Mr. Chancellor, and sent out Pleasonton's cavalry to reconnoitre. A part of these encountered the Confederate cavalry, under Stuart, and were defeated.

Lee had called “StonewallJackson's large force to come up when he perceived Sedgwick's movements. Lee left General 20, 1870. Early with 9,000 men and thirty cannon to hold his fortified position at Fredericksburg against Sedgwick, and, at a little past midnight (May 1, 1863), he put Jackson's column in motion towards Chancelorsville. It joined another force under General Anderson at eight o'clock in the morning, and he, in person, led the [92] Confederates to attack the Nationals. Hooker had also disposed the latter in battle order. Aware of the peril of fighting with the Wilderness at his back, he had so disposed his army as to fight in the open country, with a communication open with the Rappahannock towards Fredericksburg. At eleven o'clock the divisions of Griffin and Humphreys, of Meade's corps, pushed out to the left, in the direction of Banks's Ford, while Sykes's division of the same corps, supported by Hancock's division, and forming the centre column, moved along a turnpike. Slocum's entire corps, with Howard's, and its batteries, massed in its rear, comprising the right column, marched along a plank road. The battle was begun about a mile in advance of the National works at Chancellorsville, by the van of the centre column and Confederate cavalry. Sykes brought up his entire column, with artillery, and, after a severe struggle with McLaws, he gained an advantageous position, at noon, on one of the ridges back of Fredericksburg. Banks's Ford, which Lee had strenuously sought to cover, was now virtually in possession of the Nationals, and the distance between Sedgwick, opposite Fredericksburg, and the army at Chancellorsville was shortened at least 12 miles.

Meanwhile, Slocum and Jackson had met and struggled fiercely on the plank road. Perceiving Jackson endeavoring to flank Slocum, and his strong column overlapping Sykes's flank, Hooker, fearing his army might be beaten in detail before he could successfully resist the furious onslaught of Jackson, ordered its withdrawal behind his works at Chancellorsville, the Confederates following close in the rear of the retreating troops. So ended the movements of the day. Hooker's position was a strong one. The National line extended from the Rappahannock to the Wilderness church, 2 miles west of Chancellorsville. Meade's corps, with Couch's, formed his left; Slocum's, and a division of Sickles's, his centre, and Howard's his right, with Pleasonton's cavalry near. Lee's forces had the Virginia cavalry of Owen and Wickham on the right, and Stuart's and a part of Fitzhugh Lee's on the left. McLaws's forces occupied the bridge on the east of the Big Meadow Swamp, and Anderson's continued the line to the left of McLaws. Such was the general disposition of the opposing armies on the morning of May 2.

Lee was unwilling to risk a direct attack on Hooker, and Jackson advised a secret flank movement with his entire corps, so as to fall on Hooker's rear. Lee hesitated, but so much did he lean on Jackson as adviser and executor that he consented. With 25,000 men Jackson made the perilous movement, marching swiftly and steadily through the thick woods, with Stuart's cavalry between his forces and those of the Nationals. But the movement was early discovered; the Nationals, however, believing it to be a retreat of the Confederates towards Richmond. Sickles pushed forward Birney's division to reconnoitre, followed by two brigades of Howard's corps. Birney charged upon the passing column, and captured a Georgia regiment, 500 strong. but was checked by Confederate artillery. The Nationals now held the road over which Jackson was moving. Disposition was made to pursue the supposed fugitives, when Jackson made a quick and startling movement towards Chancellorsville, concealed by the thick woods, at six o'clock in the evening, suddenly burst forth from the thickets with his whole force, like an unexpected and terrible tornado, and fell with full force upon Howard's corps (the llth), with tremendous yells, just as they were preparing for supper and repose. Devens's division, on the extreme right, received the first blow, and almost instantly the surprised troops, panic-stricken, fled to the rear, communicating their alarm to the other divisions of the corps. The Confederates captured men and guns and a commanding position, while the fugitives, in evident confusion, rushed towards Chancellorsville, upon the position of General Schurz, whose division had already retreated. The tide of affrighted men rolled back upon General Steinwehr.

While the divisions of Devens and Schurz were reforming, Steinwehr quickly changed front, threw his men behind some works, rallied some of Schurz's men. and checked the pursuit for a brief space. But the overwhelming number of the Confederates speedily captured the works. These disasters on the right were partially relieved by Hooker, who sent forward [93] troops at the double-quick, under Generals Berry and French, and also a courier to apprise Sickles, who had pushed some distance beyond the National lines, of the disaster to the 11th Corps and his own peril. He was directed to fall back and attack Jackson's left flank. He was in a critical situation, but Pleasonton saved him by a quick and skilful movement, greatly assisting in checking the pursuit. This was done long enough for Pleasonton to bring his own horse-artillery and more than twenty of Sickles's guns to bear upon the Confederates, and to pour into their ranks a destructive storm of grape and canister shot. Generals Warren and Sickles soon came to Pleasonton's assistance, when there was a severe struggle for the possession of cannon. Meanwhile Lee was making a strong artillery

Ruins of Chancellorsville

attack upon Hooker's left and centre. Soon a great misfortune befell the Confederate commander, in the loss of “StonewallJackson, the strong right arm of his power. Jackson had sent for Hill, and was anxious to follow up the advantage he had gained by extending his lines to the left and cutting off Hooker's communication with the United States Ford. While waiting for Hill, he pushed forward with his staff, on a personal reconnoissance, and, when returning, in the gloom of evening, his men, mistaking them for National cavalry, fired upon them and mortally wounded the great leader.

No more fighting occurred in that part of the field. Birney's division drove back the Confederates at midnight, recovered some lost ground, and brought back some abandoned guns and caissons. During the night a new line of intrenchments was thrown up by the Nationals; but Hooker's forces were in a very perilous position on Sunday morning, May 3. When he heard of the movement of Jackson on Saturday morning, he had called from Sedgwick Reynolds's corps, 20,000 strong, and it arrived the same evening. Hooker's force was now 60,000 strong, and Lee's 40,000. The former ordered Sedgwick to cross the river and seize and hold Fredericksburg and the heights behind it, and then, pushing along the roads leading to Chancellorsville, crush every impediment and join the main army. Each army made disposition for a battle on Sunday morning. Stuart advanced to the attack with Lee's left wing, and when he came in sight of the Nationals he shouted, “Charge, and remember Jackson!” With thirty pieces of artillery presently in position on an elevation, his men made a desperate charge under cover of their fire, and were soon struggling with Sickles's corps and four other divisions. These were pushed back, and a fierce battle ensued, the tide of success ebbing and flowing for more than an hour. During this struggle Hooker had been prostrated, and Couch took command of the army. Almost the whole National army became engaged in the battle, at different points. excepting the troops under Meade and Reynolds. Couch fell back towards the Rappahannock, and, at noon, Hooker, having recovered, resumed chief command.

Lee's army was now united, but [94] Hooker's was divided. Sedgwick had seriously menaced Lee's flank, but had not joined Hooker. After a hard conflict and the loss of 1,000 men, Sedgwick had captured the Confederate works on the heights back of Fredericksburg, and sent Early, their defender, flying southward with his shattered columns. Intelligence of these events made Lee extremely cautious. Sedgwick, leaving Gibbon in command at Fredericksburg, marched for Chancellorsville, when Lee was compelled to divide his army to meet this new peril. He sent McLaws with four brigades to meet Sedgwick. At Salem church they had a sanguinary conflict. The Confederates won, and the losses of Sedgwick, added to those sustained in the morning, amounted to about 5,000 men. Hooker, at the same time, seemed paralyzed in his new position, for his army appeared being beaten in detail. On the following morning, perceiving that Hooker's army had been much strengthened, Lee thought it necessary to drive Sedgwick across the Rappahannock before again attacking the main body. Early was sent to retake the Heights of Fredericksburg, and he cut Sedgwick off from the city. Early was reinforced by Anderson, by which Sedgwick was enclosed on three sides. At six o'clock in the evening the Confederates attacked him. His forces gave way and retreated to Banks's Ford, and before morning the remains of Sedgwick's corps had crossed the Rappahannock over pontoon bridges. Gibbon also withdrew from Fredericksburg to Falmouth that night, and, on Tuesday, Lee had only Hooker to contend with. He concentrated his forces to strike Hooker a crushing blow before night, but a heavy rain-storm prevented. Hooker prepared to retreat, and did so on the night of May 5 and morning of the 6th, crossing the Rappahannock and returning to the old quarters of the army opposite Fredericksburg. The losses of each army had been very heavy. That of the Confederates was reported at 12,277, including 2,000 prisoners, and that of the Nationals was 17,197, including about 5,000 prisoners. The latter also lost thirteen heavy guns, about 20,000 small-arms, seventeen colors, and a large amount of ammunition. The Union Generals Berry and Whipple were killed.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1870 AD (1)
May 1st, 1863 AD (1)
April 30th, 1863 AD (1)
April, 1863 AD (1)
May 5th (1)
May 3rd (1)
May 2nd (1)
6th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: