April 30, 1863: Hooker Reaches Chancellorsville
The bloody Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and the aborted “Mud March” along the Rappahannock River the following month demoralized the Army of the Potomac and caused a widespread loss of confidence in its commander, Ambrose Burnside. On January 26, 1863, President Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker, who reorganized the army’s command structure and raised its morale by improving camp conditions, providing better food, and granting furloughs. With 134,000 men under his command, on April 27 Hooker began an offensive designed to drive Robert E. Lee out of his defensive positions along the Rappahannock and force him either to retreat or fight on open ground. While one wing of his army prepared to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, Hooker sent the other wing upriver to turn Lee’s left flank. By April 30 Hooker’s flanking force had crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers and reached Chancellorsville, a crossroads clearing ten miles west of Fredericksburg in the midst of an area of scrub woods and dense undergrowth known as the Wilderness. Captain Charles F. Morse, a staff officer with the Twelfth Corps, recalled that when Hooker reached Chancellorsville that evening, the Union commander said “in the most extravagant, vehement terms” that “he had got the rebels, how he was going to crush them, annihilate them, etc.”
Surprised by Hooker’s adroit movement, Lee nonetheless responded audaciously by dividing his already outnumbered army of 60,000 men. Leaving 10,000 troops to defend Fredericksburg against the Union forces that had crossed the Rappahannock just below the city, he sent Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and the remainder of his men to oppose the Union forces advancing from the west. On May 1 the two sides fought at the edge of the Wilderness, three miles east of Chancellorsville. When Hooker withdrew his men to defensive positions around the Chancellorsville clearing, Lee and Jackson decided to again divide their forces and seize the initiative. While Lee kept 14,000 men to face the 70,000 Union troops at Chancellorsville, Jackson marched 33,000 men twelve miles through the Wilderness on May 2 and struck at Hooker’s exposed right flank. “We loaded & started in run yelling & soon saw the blue rascals running like turkeys & our men—shooting, cheering, & pursuing as fast as they could,” wrote Alabama infantryman Samuel Pickens. “When Yanks got behind hill or breastwk they would stop & shoot & minute or two—but as our men would come charging upon them they’d be off again.” Jackson’s men drove the Union right wing back toward Chancellorsville until night fell. Seeking to continue his offensive, Jackson rode forward in the darkness and was accidentally shot by his own men.
On the morning of May 3 Lee attacked the Union forces around the Chancellorsville clearing. “The rebels came up to the attack in solid masses and got within three hundred yards, but they were slaughtered by the hundreds by the case-shot and canister, and were driven back to the woods,” Morse wrote. Union Captain Samuel W. Fiske was taken prisoner in the dense undergrowth. As Fiske and his guard made their way toward the Confederate rear, they had to step “among mangled corpses of friend and foe, past men without limbs and limbs without men.” After several hours of intense fighting Hooker withdrew to a new defensive position closer to the Rappahannock as Lee learned that Union troops under John Sedgwick had captured Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg and were advancing on Chancellorsville.
Leaving about 20,000 men to face Hooker, Lee attacked Sedgwick on May 4 at Salem Church, four miles west of Fredericksburg. After an inconclusive battle, Sedgwick withdrew across the Rappahannock on the night of May 4. Hooker retreated across the river the following night, ending a campaign in which the Union lost about 17,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, and the Confederates about 13,000. Among the dead was Stonewall Jackson, who died from his wounds on May 10. On her North Carolina plantation Catherine Edmondston mourned “the nation’s idol,” who had died in “the brightness of his glory, a Christian patriot, unselfish, untiring, with no thought but for his country, no aim but for her advancement.”
Many in the Army of the Potomac believed that the campaign had shown Hooker to be without “the qualities necessary for a general.” Nevertheless, Hooker’s failure did not markedly change the strategic situation. Despite Lee’s triumph, the Army of the Potomac was still encamped on the northern bank of the Rappahannock, only sixty miles from Richmond. Lee’s desire to drive it away from the Confederate capital, and his renewed confidence in the Army of Northern Virginia, would soon cause him to look north toward Pennsylvania.
Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 196.
Samuel Pickens, Diary, May 1–3, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 175.
Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 200.
Samuel W. Fiske to the Springfield Republican, May 9, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 206–207.
Catherine Edmondston: Diary, May 5–7, 9, and 10–11, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 194.
Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 203.
Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.