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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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R. E. Lee prepares for battle

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 03/30/2002

Part 4 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

Northern Virginia spent the
winter of 1862-1863 strewn across the central Virginia countryside in widely separated bivouacs. The war already had eroded the state's agricultural economy. Feeding tens of thousands of horses, and even more men, put a heavy burden on a palsied distribution system.

Some artillery occupied camps south and west of Carmel Church. Infantry outposts spread up the Rappahannock River to the junction with the Rapidan, and farther west beyond that. Confederate camps clustered downstream around Moss Neck, Skinker's Neck, Grace Church, and Guiney Station (all in Caroline County).

Many of the camps relied upon the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad for supplies. With a tolerance that proved to be foolish, although in keeping with modern notions about avoiding wartime paranoia, the Confederate government left the RF&P under the control of its antebellum chief, Pennsylvanian Samuel Ruth. Surviving records prove that Ruth, whose hands grasped the neck of the army's logistical lifeline, was in Yankee pay throughout the war. Food and materiel did not move briskly on the RF&P.

As Gen. Robert E. Lee prepared for spring, his army counted fewer than one-half as many men as his enemy mustered, but he enjoyed three tremendous advantages: He had welded his regiments into a sturdy army, inured to marching and fighting and responsive to its leader's will. He had forged an incomparable symbiotic relationship with a brilliant lieutenant, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, which allowed contemplation of tactical and operational vistas beyond the reach of most forces. And he had won so often with his army that its officers and men expected to win; equally importantly, their foe expected to lose.

As is the case in football, poker, love and most other human transactions, expecting to win (or to lose) often constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The attributes of Lee's soldiery have been so widely hymned that it probably would serve best to quote only Federals on the subject. A Northerner who studied the battle described the Southern army as "a remarkable and powerful body of men."

Joe Hooker himself, testifying before a Jacobin committee in Washington, admitted--with a dash of laughable jingoism--that Lee's army had achieved a towering prowess. Despite having "a rank and file vastly inferior to our own, intellectually and physically," Hooker testified, somehow, inexplicably, the Army of Northern Virginia had "acquired a character for steadiness and efficiency unsurpassed in ancient or modern times."

The "vastly inferior" Southerners had turned, mirabile dictu, into a decidedly formidable army despite their ostensible mental and physical shortcomings.

Lee's subordinate generals included some very able men, as did Hooker's officer corps in similar degree. The striking difference in the armies' leadership, in addition to Lee's individual superiority over Hooker, came from the incomparable ability of Stonewall Jackson to execute his chief's initiatives. Stonewall's stern warrior spirit, abetted by his unflinching certainty that God was squarely on his side, made the Virginian well-nigh unbeatable. In the daunting chaos of battle, as the impermeable "fog of war" obscured events, Jackson's calm determination resonated across battlefields with powerful effect.

A key element in the successes that Lee and Jackson crafted jointly was their implicit mutual trust. Civil War generals on both sides, including many in the Army of Northern Virginia, often spent more time at the throats of their colleagues than in pursuit of a common enemy. Working in tandem, the two Confederates became more than the sum of their considerable parts.

Southern confidence in success, and Northern resignation to defeat, had by the spring of 1863 come to be a factor in operations. Much of that certainty sprang from the pervasive confidence and fear, respectively, inspired by "Stonewall" Jackson.

A Louisiana soldier said of the Yankees, "They fear Jackson and his men as the little quadrupeds of the forest does the Lion."

A lieutenant from Pennsylvania worried that his fellow soldiers considered Jackson "a bugaboo" who "could not be whipped."

"His name was a terror in the Union army," a Massachusetts man admitted, causing "more fear than all the other names put together."

One of the most astonishing contemporary summaries of the Seven Days Campaign around Richmond in the summer of 1862 came from a Northern soldier who wrote, "the dreaded form of Stonewall Jackson seemed to [lurk in] every bush."

In fact, the Seven Days witnessed Jackson's only failure, as he floundered in the grip of some kind of stress fatigue. Had he been lurking in bushes, it was only to nap impotently--but still the "dreaded form" terrified his unknowing enemies. At Chancellorsville, a wide-awake Stonewall Jackson would indeed be lurking in the bushes, this time with high-powered mayhem in mind.

One fresh adjustment in Confederate organization installed during the winter of 1862-1863 would pay handsome dividends at Chancellorsville. The army's energetic artillerists--bright youngsters like E. Porter Alexander and Willie Pegram--promoted a scheme that would realign batteries into larger organizations called battalions. They theorized that those larger units, under higher-ranking officers, could respond more effectually to the exigencies of battle.

The young gunners were right. In the dense thickets where the Battle of Chancellorsville would be fought, the few high clearings suitable for positioning big guns became crucial. The key ground on the battlefield would be an open knoll called Hazel Grove. On that knoll, Confederate cannon massed rapidly, thanks to the new battalion system, would do much to win the battle.

As winter waned in 1863, Lee faced a fundamental question: Where should he position his stalwart army? Where should he unleash the redoubtable Stonewall?

It was hardly conceivable that Joe Hooker would come complacently into Fredericksburg for a reprise of the December slaughter near town. Might it not be better, then, to fall back to the next major east-west river barrier (the North Anna) and repulse the invaders there? Enemy lines of communication and supply would be stretched much farther to reach that point, and a victory might yield more fruits.

Lee sent two staff officers south to the Hanover-Caroline line to examine the North Anna region across a 30-mile front. He hoped that they might discover a "greater scope to manoeuvre," but the aides came back to report that they found no marked advantage over the Rappahannock-Rapidan line.

Lee would remain where he was, with the army's center of gravity near Fredericksburg, to await Hooker's onslaught. It came during the last week of April.

Next week: The armies converge

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.