The Battle of Chancellorsville: History


The Civil War of the United States had numerous examples of military mastery both on the Federates’ and Confederates’ sides. One of the main battles of the war, the Battle of Chancellorsville, provided an example of strategically advanced, thoughtful and drastic decision making, which resulted in General Lee’s, the Confederate ally, the most known and respected victory over the Union Army. The battle decided whether the Union or the Army of Northern Virginia would take control over the eastern theater. Although Lee’s army was outnumbered by the Union’s army more than twice, his full of risk decision to split his forces and counterattack the opponent’s flank resulted in a significant defeat of the Union Army under General Hooker. On both sides, strategy, operations, and tactics were conducted and thought precisely, but Hooker eventually yielded because of his underestimation of the opponent’s strategy and number and Lee’s bold unexpected counterattack. Although the Lee managed to become a victor, it is widely considered that it was rather Pyrrhic, as both the Confederates and the Union Army suffered from considerable losses.

The Setting

For a complex analysis of the battle, the historical context and the strategies of both parties need to be presented. The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered a major collision of the Union and the Confederates’ forces during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). The opponents were the Union Army, specifically Army of the Potomac led by Joseph Hooker, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia with its general Robert Lee (Sears 2014). The Chancellorsville Campaign followed the battles of Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and others. While the Confederates obtained solid advantage in the eastern theater, the Federal Union was advancing successfully in the western stage and in politics, by conquering moral advantage with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (Canty 2015). Both sides made conclusions on their weaknesses and upgraded the military strategy, including Hooker revitalizing the devastated troops after the defeat to General Lee at Fredericksburg (Canty 2015). All the above demonstrates the revitalized forces should have conducted a qualitative confrontation.

The Strategic Setting

The Union’s strategic goal was to cut the supply to the ANV by capturing the railroads and other lines and hence weaken the Confederate’s military power (Wineman 2013). The ANV set a fortification behind Rappahannock with the number of troops of approximately 60,000, while the AOTP commanded 120,000 men and prepared to divide the forces for attacking Confederates’ front and rear. Being cut from their allies, leading campaign in the southeast near Richmond, the ANV were considerably outnumbered by the rivals (Weber 2015). General Hooker led his strategy with a view to outweigh the opponent’s forces and move the Confederates fortified near Fredericksburg, and General Lee, due to lack of strategic information and limited military resources, decided to split his own troops and preventively attack the AOTP’s flank, which had eventually led to the further ANV’s victory (Jurney 2015). During the Chancellorsville Campaign, the Confederates demonstrated efficient flexibility, mobility, and ambition, while the Union forces – well-planned strategy and organization.

The Operational Setting

Both Union’s and Confederate’s actions within the operational aspect were both thoughtful and proactive. On the one hand, The Hooker’s union marched along the upstream Rappahannock and Rapidan crossings on April 27, 1863, and left the other part of troops under command of Sedgwick near Fredericksburg thus setting at Chancellorsville and preparing for the simultaneous strike to rear and front of Lee’s army (Wineman 2013). Because of Hooker’s conspiracy and operating speed, he managed to secretly move his units around the enemy without Confederate’s notice until the beginning of the battling action. In such a setting, Hooker expected Lee to either retreat or accept the fight and lose due to the army’s insufficient number (Hensel 2015). On the other hand, General Lee, having shown both his quick reaction and flexibility due to the circumstances, decided to split the army, having left the tenth part of his forces to retrain Sedgwick from Fredericksburg, and moved the main part of the army towards Hooker’s troops around the Chancellorsville crossroads. On May 2, General Lee sent Jackson with the 30,000 infantry to cross the woods across the AOTP’s front, bounding Hooker’s right flank (Hensel 2015). The operational setting of both armies was well-organized and effectively maneuvered.

The Tactical Setting

The battle was also significant due to the accurate tactical decisions of both sides. On April 27, having split his forces and moved upstream Rappahannock, Hooker secretly traveled with the remote corps undetected. General Lee was aware of the rival’s intentions but had no information on the dislocation of Hooker’s units within almost 24 hours (Wineman 2013). By 29 April, Lee discovered the position of AOTP under Hooker and assumed the latter was preparing for an attack on the rear. Having considered his disadvantage in positioning and number, Lee conferred with Jackson on the further action and, on April 30, decided to leave small division under Early to confront the Union Forces at Fredericksburg, while moved his units for an unexpected attack on Hooker’s forces. On May 2, General Jackson, a trusted subordinate of General Lee, advanced marching through the Wilderness woodland to hit Hooker’s right flank (Hensel 2015). The following actions of Confederates had a distorting and demoralizing effect, which had resulted in the latter retreat of the Union Forces.

The Action of the Battle of Chancellorsville

The AOTP began its movement on 27 April, when Hooker split his forces and moved with the V, XI, and XII Corps upstream the Rappahannock River. All the actions at the beginning of the Campaign were accompanied by torrential rains and other obstacles (Hensel 2015). The storms stopped on 28 April and let the forces cross the river and the units under General Stoneman fortified near Fredericksburg. While Lee was studying the situation, on 28 April, the Union Forces crossed Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, and, on 29 April, I and VI Corps crossed the river hear the Confederate’s fortifications (Wineman 2013). Reynold’s and Sedgwick’s units gained position under Fredericksburg, and thus distracted the rivals to allow II Corps to join the other corps in the ANV’s flank. On April 29, Lee figured the Union’s plans and informed Jefferson Davis on the possible rear and front attack by the AOTP. Afterward, Lee commanded General Anderson to move towards the Hooker’s units and relocated his own troops on April 30. His pragmatic decision was to leave General Early’s 9,000 troops to retrain Sedgwick and march the rest of the forces under Jackson to join Anderson.

Meanwhile, on April 30, the Union troops settled in Chancellorsville with V and XI Corps (Wineman 2013). On May 1, Lee receives information about weak Hooker’s right flank and pursues an attack on May 2. Jackson advanced with approximately 27,000 troops towards the Hooker’s right, while the remaining forces of about 15,000 under General Lee kept pressing the Federates’ forces frontally. The troops attacked Federal XI Corps under Howard at 1730, and despite the Hooker’s orders on possible flank confront, Jackson’s units managed to win (Wineman 2013). As a result of 2 May, the Confederates managed to defeat the US XI Corps and move the right flank to Hooker’s headquarters in Chancellorsville but with a cost of 1000 casualties including wounded by friendly fire General Jackson.

Hooker received reinforcement by General Reynolds later that night and obtained 2 to 1 advantage against the Confederates (Wineman 2013). Nevertheless, considering his beneficial position for a counterattack, General Hooker remained cautious and did not proceed. Meanwhile, Lee’s troops were divided from the Jackson’s by Sickles’s III Corps at a solid position at Hazel Grove. On May 3, Lee reunited with Stuart and conducted several attacks on Hooker’s front. Later that morning, Hooker was forced to yield to Chancellorsville Crossroads. In the morning of May 3, Hooker commanded Sickles to switch the position to the Plank Road, which was followed by several attacks by Gen. Archer during the withdrawal (Hensel 2015). At the same time, on May 3-4, the Federate forces near Fredericksburg pushed through Early’s opposition, and General Lee was forced to move towards the Fredericksburg troops.

General Lee countered the rival’s front, which he accomplished by operatively stopping the Sedgwick’s VI Corps at Salem Church (Wineman 2013). Lee’s forces of 20,000 men matched Sedgwick’s forces, and, by shaping the units in a “U” form, Lee overcame the opponent, forcing him to retreat on May 5. General Hooker awaited for the news form Sedgwick’s corps during May 4, and giving into consideration the uncertainty, held his position at Chancellorsville (Wineman 2013). The VI Corps retreated at night on May 5, by crossing the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. On May 6, General Hooker discovers the Sedgwick’s troops retreated across Rappahannock and decided to unite with his general and moved the army north towards the rest of the units. General Lee did not manage to counterattack, as the withdrawal was quick and the Confederate soldiers were exhausted because of long traveling and the battle at Salem Church. Later, on May 10, General Jackson, seriously wounded, died from pneumonia during the treatment (Wineman 2013). The battle’s outcomes proved to be unexpected and demonstrated how quick, effective, but dangerous tactics can benefit the outnumbered forces. Another conclusion that can be formed is the Confederate’s victory was ambiguous, as, even having managed to push the rivals across the river, they experienced decent losses in troopers and commanders, including valuable Lee’s subordinate General Jackson.


To conclude, the battle is considered the greatest victory of the Confederate ally General Lee, who had demonstrated strategic, operational, and tactical flexibility within narrow time bounds. As the Chancellorsville Company was prepared, the effective strategy, planning, and discipline were considerable attributes of both the AOTP and ANV. However, later, General Hooker partially underestimated Lee’s capabilities which, accompanied by malicious storm conditions, led to defeat and retrieval of the Union Army. General Lee, after discovering the rival’s plan to strike on the rear, unexpectedly decided to conduct a counter-maneuver by splitting his already outnumbered troops and advancing towards the enemy’s weak flank. Considering Gen. Lee’s profound actions and Gen. Hooker’s procrastination and lack of central management, the outcome of the battle was that Hooker was forced to retreat before the rival’s minor troops would strike back. Although the battle demonstrated Gen. Lee’s crucial military skills, it also resulted in considerable losses of both parties, such as General Jackson’s death, so the general’s victory can be referred to as a Pyrrhic one.


Canty, Jeremiah. 2015. Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville: The Principles of War and the Horns of a Dilemma at the Burton Farm. Sevenoaks: Pickle Partners Publishing.

Hensel, Howard. 2015. The Sword of the Union: Federal Objectives and Strategies during the American Civil War. Sevenoaks: Pickle Partners Publishing.

Jurney, William. 2015. Commander’s Intent of Major General Joseph Hooker during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Sevenoaks: Pickle Partners Publishing.

Sears, Stephen, ed. 2014. Chancellorsville. Wilmington: Mariner Books.

Weber, James, ed. 2015. Engineer Battlefield Functions at Chancellorsville. Sevenoaks: Pickle Partners Publishing.

Wineman, Bradford Alexander. 2013. The Chancellorsville Campaign: January-May 1863. Washington: Center of Military History, United States Army.

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