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Battle of Chancellorsville: Facts, Summary & Significance Video

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  • 0:02 Before the Battle
  • 1:05 Commanders and Plans
  • 4:02 The Battle at Chancellorsville
  • 7:26 Aftermath
  • 9:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought in early May 1863. This lesson examines this major Confederate victory, looking at how, with roughly 30,000 combined casualties, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.

Before the Battle

On the first four days of May 1863, one of the most dramatic battles of the American Civil War was fought at a small crossroads near the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The Battle of Chancellorsville was perhaps the greatest Confederate victory of the American Civil War; yet, in the process of achieving that victory, the Confederacy suffered a crippling loss. Let's learn more about this complicated and crucial battle fought in the spring of 1863.

In late 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Major General Ambrose Burnside, suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in Virginia. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia stopped successive waves of Federal attackers on December 13, 1862. This defeat eventually led to the dismissal of Ambrose Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. In Burnside's stead, Major General Joseph Hooker was given command of this force.

Commanders and Plans

Joseph Hooker was a fighting general. In fact, through a typographical error in a newspaper, he gained the nickname Fighting Joe. Hooker had risen steadily through the army during the fighting of 1862. During the Peninsula Campaign and at Second Manassas, he commanded a division in the Third Corps, and, at Antietam in September, he led the Union First Corps into battle. At Fredericksburg, Hooker commanded one of the grand divisions of the Army of the Potomac. Thus, the next step in this progression was command of the army itself, which he assumed on January 25, 1863.

Hooker's task was fraught with difficulty. He had to restore the fighting spirit of the men in the army and lead them to victory against Robert E. Lee's Confederates. Hooker went to work quickly; he reorganized the Federal cavalry, added new insignias to Union uniforms, and boosted the spirit of the Union army. For the upcoming campaign, Hooker devised a bold plan. Hooker wanted to divide his numerically superior forces to trap Lee's army at Fredericksburg. He would first send Union cavalry behind Lee's army in an attempt to cut Confederate supply and communication lines. Hooker would then leave part of his Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg, taking the rest on a long maneuver to get behind Lee's army, flanking the outnumbered Confederates.

Things did not go well from the start. Federal cavalry troops under Major General George Stoneman ran into numerous obstacles on their cavalry raid. Ultimately, Stoneman's raid was unsuccessful, because it failed to force Lee out of his positions near Fredericksburg. This was an ill-fated omen for the Federals.

In late April, Union forces began to implement Hooker's plan to move behind Lee's army. Hooker had as many as 70,000 soldiers near the crossroads of Chancellorsville by May 1. Lee soon learned of the Union action, and he came up with his own audacious plan. Lee decided to leave just more than 11,000 soldiers at Fredericksburg, taking the remainder of his army, more than 40,000 men, west to Chancellorsville. He was vastly outnumbered by the Federals, but Lee needed to stop Hooker's advance.

Lee's resume up to this point prepared him well to meet the task ahead. He had already achieved several stunning victories against stronger Union armies in 1862. His Army of Northern Virginia was a tremendous fighting force. Lee had several trusted subordinates upon whom he could fully rely in any battle. Among those men was Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Stonewall Jackson had already achieved legendary status in the Confederacy; he earned his nickname after his heroics at First Manassas in 1861, where his line held its ground 'like a stone wall.' Lee had complete faith in Jackson; Stonewall would play a major role in the upcoming fight.

The Battle at Chancellorsville

It was on the 1st of May that the fighting at Chancellorsville began. Late that morning, Federal and Confederate forces collided. Following the initial attacks and counterattacks, Hooker stopped the Federal assaults. After the fighting at Fredericksburg the previous year, where Federal offensives had been defeated easily, Hooker wanted to force the Confederates into doing the attacking at Chancellorsville. This determination to fight defensively ultimately gave Lee an opening to launch his boldest attack of the war.

On the evening of the 1st, Lee met with Stonewall Jackson to devise a plan for victory. Lee wanted Jackson to lead a flanking attack on Hooker, marching around the Federal position and launching an assault where it was least expected. Jackson agreed, and on the following day, the attack began.

Jackson began moving on May 2 with his entire command of nearly 28,000 soldiers. He had to lead them on a long march out of sight of the Union army so as to maintain the element of surprise. This march and attack was arguably one of the greatest of the entire war. Jackson used every bit of his skill and experience to lead his men over 12 miles around the Union position. At about 5:30 that afternoon, Jackson's men launched their strike, taking the Union Eleventh Corps completely by surprise. Federal forces tried to stop the oncoming Confederates, but to little avail. As night began to fall, Jackson's attack had been a tremendous success.

Not wanting to relinquish the momentum, Jackson and a small party rode out in front of Confederate lines that evening, attempting to discern if the attack could be continued that night. When returning to his army, Jackson and his patrol were fired on by members of the 18th North Carolina, who mistook them for Union cavalry.

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