By this point in the Civil War, the Union has not seen a clear victory. The Battle of Antietam, which was more of a draw, has been the only thing close to a victory for the Union. General Robert E Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, has proven to be quite the formidable adversary. The Union is still practicing the tactics and writings of Antoine-Henri Jomini which state that “War is primarily a matter of maneuverability to gain territory.” It was the Northern belief that the taking of the Confederate capitol of Richmond would bring an end to the war.
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Many campaigns have taken place with the goal of taking Richmond including the Peninsular Campaign and the Battle of Seven Pines which injured Confederate Commander Joseph E Johnston. The loss of Johnston must be emphasized because he was no longer able to command the Army of Northern Virginia which forced the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis to select a new commander which would be the more aggressive Robert E Lee who would command for the remainder of the war. Another assault toward Richmond took place a few moths prior to Chancellorsville; this was the Battle of Fredericksburg. This is an important battle leading up to Chancellorsville because Fredericksburg was a brutal winter battle in which the Union Commander, General Ambrose Burnside sent waves of soldiers against a heavily defended, stonewall protected Confederate position. Many men were lost in a seemingly insignificant battle. Like many of his predecessors, General Burnside was relieved of command after commanding during a defeat which could have been avoided. The Union morale was low from this defeat, and the soldiers were growing hungry for a victory. Lincoln decides to replace Burnside with Major General Joseph Hooker. The appointment of General Hooker was a very controversial appointment because he was a subordinate of Burnside, but was also his harshest critic. Hooker was also seen as very arrogant and ambitious who was known to drink heavily and have women of loose moral character hanging around his tent who were given the nickname “Hookers,” which we now refer to as prostitutes. He also showed signs of being a very aggressive commander, giving him the nickname “Fighting Joe.”
After the defeat at Fredericksburg, Hooker revitalized the tired and dispirited Union Army. He was credited with improving the army’s sanitation, diet, and most importantly, morale. Hooker would say he has “The finest army on the planet,” and that he would lead the army to “Richmond and beyond.”
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in significantly worse shape. The winter was particularly harsh on his army. Lee had all the usual shortcomings he had throughout the war including low amounts of food, shelter, and clothing. Lee had sent Longstreet with two divisions to look for supplies and keep an eye out for Union advancements on the coats of Virginia and North Carolina. The absences of Longstreet’s two divisions were not as significant as some believe. The earthworks around Fredericksburg had been greatly improved since the last battle, and the Union would not dare attempt another frontal assault on that particular position.
The objective of the Union North was the eventual taking of the Confederate capitol of Richmond which presumably would end the war. The objective of the Confederate South was simply to not lose. This was not an offensive campaign for the Confederacy, it was strictly defensive, and all Lee had to do was not lose the battle, and not lose too many men.
The Forces Engaged
The two main forces at this battle were the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and the Union Army of the Potomac. The numbers vary depending on the source, but I have found these to be the most consistent and reputable. For informational purposes, I have outlined the figures.
Confederate, Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E Lee Commanding
2 Corps, 1 Cavalry
6 Divisions – 32 Brigades
First Corps – (Less than two Divisions) – Longstreet absent
McLaws – 4 Brigades
Anderson – 5 Brigades
Second Corps – Jackson
A.P. Hill – 6 Brigades
Rodes – 5 Brigades
Early – 4 Brigades
Colston – 4 Brigades
Cavalry – Stuart
Union, Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker Commanding
7 Corps, 1 Cavalry
23 Divisions – 63 Brigades
1) I Corps – Reynolds – 3 Divisions – 9 Brigades
2) II Corps – Couch – 3 Divisions – 10 Brigades
3) III Corps – Sickles – 3 Divisions – 9 Brigades
4) V Corps – Meade – 3 Divisions – 8 Brigades
5) VI Corps – Sedgwick – 3 Divisions – 8 Brigades
6) XI Corps – Howard – 3 Divisions – 7 Brigades
7) XII Corps – Slocum – 2 Divisions – 6 Brigades
Cavalry – Stoneman
3 Divisions – 6 Brigades
The Assets and Liabilities of Each Side
The Union North had its standard asset of a large standing army which can be attributed to the higher population and immigration of the North during the war and antebellum. The North had a relatively good supply lines with plenty of arms, munitions, food, and other general supplies. The biggest liability of the North was the pressure from Washington for an attack and a victory. Hooker, like his predecessors, has been appointed with the expectation that he will be the one to deliver success. Lincoln knows he can only replace generals for a limited time. He needs clear military victories in order to maintain the already rapidly diminishing support for the war. The ethical cause of slavery could only carry supporters for so long.
The Confederate South had the large advantage of being able to choose the terrain. Lee was able to strengthen his fortifications after Fredericksburg. Despite being outnumbered more than 2:1, Lee maintained a defensive line that was stretched out over 25 miles. Lee’s greatest liabilities were the protection of Richmond, procurement of supplies, and the addition of desperately needed new recruits. Another major problem was ordinance. Lee had a considerable amount of the less accurate smooth barrel cannons and also a large number of defective shells. Lee did have one huge advantage over the Federals, and that was his cohesion with Jackson. Never before in history nor since then has two field commanders worked so well together and off of each other. They brought out the best in each other’s brilliance.
The Chief Commanders Involved
As mentioned before, General “Fighting Joe” Joseph Hooker was the newly appointed commander of the Union Army of the Potomac who was appointed amidst high amounts of controversy following the previous commander, General Ambrose Burnside, being relieved of command for his performance at Fredericksburg. Other Union generals of note were Howard, Meade, Reynolds, and the cavalry commander, General Stoneman.
For the Southern Confederacy, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was Robert E Lee. His second in command was Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Generals Early, Stuart, and McLaws would also play significant roles in the battle.
General Hooker’s plan was to strike both of Lee’s flanks simultaneously as his cavalry corps raided deeply into the rear of the Confederate defenses. He ordered two corps under General Sedgwick to cross the Rappahannock River and attack across the old battlefield at Fredericksburg while an additional two corps were held in reserve. Sedgwick crossed along with Stoneman’s cavalry which had ridden out to distract Lee and then cut the supply lines from Richmond. Things seemed to be going according Hooker’s plans except General Lee knew of the overwhelming numbers against him and had ordered the great Confederate cavalry commander General J.E.B. Stuart to keep the Union cavalry and Hooker’s troops under close observation. Hooker had no element of surprise, mainly because his army was so massive, it could not move without being seen.
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Most commanders in Lee’s position would have withdrawn in the face of a numerically superior force of this magnitude, but Lee decided to launch a surprise offensive leaving a significant number to defend the heavily entrenched and practically impenetrable position at Fredericksburg under the command of General Early against the Union forces under General Sedgwick. “Fighting Joe” failed to live up to his name and instead of attacking; he dug in and prepared a defensive position. The problem with a defensive position is that it leaves the initiative to the enemy. Hooker strengthened his lines and anchored them to the banks of the Rappahannock River to prevent an eastern flanking maneuver. His western flank went unsupported and open to attack, but Hooker did not expect Lee’s army to have the capability or the manpower to attack such a far western position.
Lee had already sent orders to General Longstreet to return from the coast with his two divisions, but they would not arrive for sometime. Lee knew he had to act or retreat. J.E.B. Stuart reported the western flank weakness, and on May 1, 1863, Lee met with Jackson outside Chancellorsville where they made the perilous decision to split Lee’s army again, sending Jackson on a flanking maneuver 15 miles to the west. Jackson took with him 26,000 soldiers leaving Lee with 17,000 soldiers.
May 1 and 2
Jackson left at dawn on May 2 and did a swift march to the Orange Turnpike near Wilderness Tavern and arrived in the early afternoon. At 5:00 PM, Jackson’s forces charged out of the woods into the unformed Federal lines. The Federals were completely taken by surprise and were in a mass unorganized retreat allowing Jackson to penetrate deep in to Federal lines. Many of the Union soldiers in this area were of the German brigades and most of the soldiers did not speak English, making communication impossible. Attempts were made by the Federals to form lines and stall the attack, but did not succeed in halting it until the evening. That night, Jackson rode out to personally scout the Federal position and try to locate potential places to cut off the Union retreat. While out in the dark, he was accidentally shot by Confederate picket soldiers from North Carolina. His left arm would be amputated and General Lee would later say “You have lost your left arm, I have lost my right,” referring to Jackson being his top general. Jackson died from pneumonia a week after being shot. Lee appointed General Ewell as Jackson’s replacement. May 3
Meanwhile, Hooker ordered a few counter attacks which had limited success. He ordered a general withdraw and redeployment which was noticed by General Stuart. Stuart attacked just as Hooker was trying to withdraw which effectively stole even more initiative away from Hooker. During the attack by Stuart, Hooker was knocked unconscious by a cannonball which struck one of the pillars of the Chancellor House as he was leaning against it. Hooker refused to relinquish his command as he was advised to do by his doctors and subordinates. As a result, the Army of the Potomac was essentially leaderless for the remainder of the battle. May 4
Sedgwick did attack Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg with no success as predicted. Lee took advantage of the disorganized activities of Hooker and split his army once again for another attack. Lee left Stuart in position to keep Hooker occupied and Lee personally led 21,000 men toward Fredericksburg on May 4. Lee forced the Federals to retreat back across the Rappahannock River. Lee then turned his forces back towards Hooker’s main force which was disorganized, confused, and already under intermittent attacks from Stuart’s cavalry, infantry, and artillery. Hooker had no choice but to retreat back across the Rappahannock River. Hooker simply could not organize his men after the continuous assaults; as a result, almost 40,000 soldiers under his command barely fired a shot.
Mistakes Made by Each Side
Hooker’s mistakes are many beginning with his own arrogance. He had proven to be a very effective division commander but lacked the capabilities to command the entire Army of the Potomac. The fault could also be placed on Lincoln for appointed such an incompetent commander. Hooker also did not communicate very well with his corps commanders. Many of them were getting orders to retreat when they were doing well, and given orders to attack when they were being driven back.
General Sedgwick attacked Fredericksburg which was a huge and obvious mistake to everyone. The position was virtually impenetrable and Sedgwick was just there to hold the Union lines, not launch an offensive.
Union cavalry commander, General Stoneman failed to achieve any of his objectives. He proved to be lacking as a cavalry commander and was unable to disrupt supply and information lines between Lee and Richmond. The attacks, known as “Stoneman’s Raids,” failed to destroy any of the targets assigned by General Hooker.
Hooker also did not follow through with his offensive push on May 1, which left all of the initiative to Lee. Hooker did not place his troops well, leaving 40,000 soldiers in a completely non-strategic position.
Lee made the mistake of sending General Longstreet and two divisions to Norfolk where they were not really needed. Lee could not have known this; he was simply protecting his flank.
Jackson made a mistake which cost him his life. By doing his own reconnaissance work, he exposed himself to unnecessary dangers and resulted in him getting shot by his own troops. Generals have a staff and scouts for a reason, to do the dangerous work and report back to their commander. Jackson liked to do too many things for himself. Had he lived, most argue that Gettysburg would not have been lost.
Despite the victory, Lee suffered 13,000 casualties which he could not afford to lose. Southern troops are not easily replaceable and considering the battle was won by Lee in a sense that he won the fighting, he did not gain anything by it. No lands were gained, nor were any major casualties inflicted on the Union soldiers. Many would argue that despite Lee’s genius military tactics, the risks and consequences were not worth it.
Were These Mistakes Preventable?
Almost all of Hooker’s mistakes could have been prevented had the Army of the Potomac been more organized with a clearer, more precise objective. There were too many conflicting orders combined with command inexperience. Hooker could have placed his troops more wisely and stayed on the offensive. Stoneman could have done his job quite a bit better by actually completing his orders.
Lee’s biggest mistake was staying on the offensive. In his position, he should have redeployed and maintained his heavily defended line. Hooker would have eventually attacked under pressure from Washington, and Lee would more than likely had another defensive victory. Jackson was just too courageous for his own good and should have stayed in the relatively safer areas.
Which Principles of War were Violated?
Upon examining the Principles of War, I found Hooker was in violation of all of them without exception. Hooker violated the Principle of the Objective by not directing all efforts toward a clearly defined and attainable goal. He had a plan and did not stick to it which left him scrambling for alternatives. He violated the Principle of the Offense by halting his advance and digging in a defensive and unnecessary position thus leaving the initiative to the enemy. He violated the Principle of Mass by not concentrating his troops correctly and inefficiently leaving 40,000 soldiers doing nothing. He violated the Principle of Economy of Force by putting the bulk of his troops in his the center of his lines and on his eastern flank instead of a strong complete line extending to his western flank. He violated the Principle of Maneuver by not positioning his troops in a manor essential to keeping the initiative and accomplishing the initial objective. He violated the Principle of Utility of Command by delegating to many assignments to extended positions not supported the main effort; by doing so, he created too many variables dependent off of each other with little room for secondary objectives. He violated the Principle of Surprise by marching a 134,000 man army all at once in a relatively small concentrated area making them highly visible to a very observant mobile cavalry under Stuart. He violated the Principle of Security by allowing all of the soldiers to know of his plans, so when some were captured and interrogated, the Confederates knew what Hooker was planning. Finally, he violated the Principle of Simplicity by making each commander’s orders unclear and allowed them to improvise which threw off any coordination he had (if he had any at all).
Lee actually followed every single Principle of War. Given the strength of his forces and what was at stake (Richmond), Lee displayed amazing levels of genius mixed with audacity. One could argue he violated the Principles of Mass or Economy of Force, but examining the definitions and comparing them to Lee’s tactics and numbers, it is clear that he had no other alternative.
Why the Victor Won
Lee won because he took the initiative. In every situation where Hooker hesitated, Lee struck hard and effectively. The Confederacy was also in a must win situation. If the Federals had succeeded, they would have moved on to Richmond. This might have ended the war, but even if it hadn’t, the Confederacy’s ability to make war would have been severely crippled with the loss of supplies and factories in Richmond.
Why the Vanquished Lost
Hooker lost because he was a great division commander, but was not able to effectively command the entire Army of the Potomac. He violated every single principle of war. The North also lost because of the lack of organization. The constant shuffle of commanding officers has not allowed them to formulate a clear objective. After this battle, the North would realize there only objectives should be to destroy Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and finishing out the Anaconda Plan. Taking Richmond would no longer be the dominating objective.
The Importance of the Battle Politically and/or Militarily
Many of the main factors have already been included, so they will just be highlighted here. The Southern victory meant saving Richmond from possible siege and sacking which is a major military and political factor. The battle demonstrated Lee’s amazing abilities as a field commander. His tactics during this battle are still studied at West Point today.
The loss of Jackson is one of the most significant political and military events of the entire war. Jackson not only brought brilliant command strategy and command cohesion, he brought an infectious fighting spirit which he passed down to his men and was displayed on the battle fields in which he commanded. The morale of the Confederate cause suffered a tremendous blow as a result of his death.
The North suffered another defeat in strategy. Although the North did not suffer too many casualties, it failed to defeat Lee once again which resulted in Hooker being relieved of command like so many of his predecessors. Support for the war in the North was falling fast and would not rise until the simultaneous victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Did this battle employ something new?
The only ‘new’ tactic employed was the unadvisable tactic of dividing troops when faced with superior numbers which happened to work to Lee’s benefit. Lee had the advantages of good ground, surprise, and a stronger will to fight. Those won out more than anything. Had Grant been commanding the Federal forces, he probably would have won; the Union body count would have been higher, but he would have won because according to Lincoln, “he fights.”
I chose this battle because of the military genius applied by Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Throughout this entire bloody conflict, few cases such as the Battle of Chancellorsville have demonstrated such audacity and courage in the face of such overwhelming numbers.
This battle and its loss were necessary for the Union cause. This defeat pushed the North into a realization that they could still lose this war. They altered their tactics and went on the initiative after this. The North could no longer stand to take such defeats over and over again.
For the South, this victory was essential to protecting Richmond. In retrospect, the Southern loses of the battle, including the death of Jackson, were not worth the audacious maneuvering performed by Lee. He might have redeployed and pulled a Fredericksburg repeat, but instead chose to go on the offensive. Lee is credited for his genius (which is well deserved), but he would express deep remorse for the loss of Jackson saying in a letter to Jackson “Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead,” and after his death Lee would say “I’m bleeding at the heart.” Few battles of the Civil War showed as much military tactics combined with personal loss as were shown at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
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