Civil War Profiles — Robert E. Lee’s resounding victory at Chancellorsville


When Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, these Union forces were in disarray following a crushing defeat at the hands of the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg the previous month.


President Abraham Lincoln knew he was taking a risk by appointing Hooker to the position, because he had heard that the general believed “that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator.”

In his appointment letter to Hooker, written at the executive mansion on Jan. 26, Lincoln spoke openly and honestly about the “dictator” issue. The president wrote, “… it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. … What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

Hooker, who had undermined his previous commander, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, by openly criticizing him, was brimming with confidence that he could defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army. After all, the Union forces, numbering 120,000 troops, were double the size of Lee’s 60,000.

As Stephen W. Sears wrote in “Chancellorsville,” upon taking command, Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac and appointed to corps and division command men whom he could trust politically, as well as militarily.

He revived the demoralized men in the ranks with a number of reforms, including a new furlough plan, giving each corps a distinctive badge to wear on their uniforms, and, most popularly, an improved diet, including fresh bread and vegetables.

Come April, when spring weather permitted renewal of military operations, Hooker’s Army of the Potomac sat on the northern side of the Rappahannock River near Falmouth, Va., while the enemy deployed on the south side, around Fredericksburg. “Fighting Joe,” as news reporters had dubbed Hooker, devised a plan to outflank the Rebels in order to defeat them.

During the winter, Lee detached a part of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps to southern Virginia so they could forage for the troops and horses. Lee was left with a force of about 60,000, including the remainder of Longstreet’s corps and all of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps.

To confuse Lee, Hooker divided his force in two and crossed the river to the north and south of Lee’s position. The maneuver, completed with stealth in late April, caught the Rebel general by surprise.

Union Fifth Corps commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade reacted positively, “Hurrah for Old Joe. We’re on Lee’s flank and he doesn’t know it.” The mood changed dramatically, however, when Hooker ordered his troops on the southern end to halt and dig entrenchments, rather than to attack Lee’s vulnerable position.

The over-confident “Fighting Joe” issued general orders to his troops on April 30 that claimed, “The operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy [under Gen. Lee] must ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”

It did not take long, however, for the Rebels to counter Hooker’s decision to entrench his troops with a flanking movement of their own with Stonewall Jackson in command. Jackson’s attack on May 3 on the right flank caught Hooker and his troops by surprise and stampeded them back through the Union camps.

A confused and unnerved, Joe Hooker decided to cut and run and, against his corps commanders’ wishes, he withdrew the army back across the Rappahannock. By May 6, the Battle of Chancellorsville had ended with a resounding victory for the much smaller army under Gen. Robert E. Lee’s leadership.

Perhaps even more significant, however, was the mortal wounding by friendly fire during the battle, and the subsequent death, of Jackson — a loss the Confederacy could ill afford.

Chancellorsville was also a harbinger of Gen. Hooker’s demise as Army of the Potomac commander, as President Lincoln replaced him with Gen. Meade the following month, prior to an engagement between the two armies at a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, or contact him directly at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.