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AT THE END of April 1863, an immense Northern army maneuvered into the dense thickets west of
Fredericksburg known as "the Wilderness of
Spotsylvania," trying once more to beat the
Confederates who had slaughtered their comrades so easily the preceding December in the Battle of Fredericksburg. The battle that ensued involved more men, and resulted in more casualties, than any other engagement ever fought on Virginia soil.
Some observers initially called the action "The Battle of the Wilderness," but "Chancellorsville" soon took precedence, leaving "Wilderness" to be applied to another battle in the same vicinity the following spring.
Because of the daunting odds that Gen. R.E. Lee faced, and the dazzling tactical initiatives that he employed, Chancellorsville has been called his greatest victory. The superlative stands up to review. With the smallest army he commanded until late in the war, and facing the largest army he ever encountered, Lee divided his force into three pieces and thoroughly bewildered Federal Gen. Joseph Hooker through the first three days of May 1863, and eventually drove him back across the Rappahannock River.
Hooker's Army of the Potomac brought 130,000 men to the campaign--"the finest army on the planet," he called it. Lee's army counted only 60,000 men at Chancellorsville. Dire shortages of food and supplies had prompted the Confederate chieftain to dispatch Gen. James Longstreet with a sizable force to the vicinity of Suffolk to gather rations from that agricultural region. The absence of those Southern troops, combined with Hooker's unusual strength, left Lee facing substantially longer odds than he did in any other of the war's major battles.
Joe Hooker--"Fighting Joe" in the popular press--had skillfully reorganized his army after replacing the discredited Ambrose Burnside, loser at Fredericksburg. In the spring of 1863, the Army of the Potomac enjoyed better administration and support than at any earlier time. Would Hooker fight as well as he organized? Experienced observers of Northern military operations certainly must have found abundant cause for hope. Hooker crafted a plan that avoided the deadly killing ground near Fredericksburg, and instead reoriented the war to a point behind Lee's stronghold. By throwing his powerful columns up the Rappahannock, and then crossing the river to reach the vicinity of Chancellorsville unscathed, Joe Hooker stole a march on R.E. Lee as thoroughly as anyone did during the entire war.
Only Gen. U.S. Grant's stealthy sidestep across the James River in June 1864 compares to Hooker's elegant success in the opening stages of the Chancellorsville campaign.
Gen. George G. Meade, no Hooker admirer by any means, enthused on April 30: "Hurrah for Old Joe! We are on Lee's flank and he does not know it!"
Hooker himself, always prone to persiflage, boasted that Lee must "ingloriously fly orgive us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him."
The delighted Federal commander was heard to boast, "God Almighty could not prevent me from winning a victory tomorrow."
In the event, Lee neither flew ingloriously nor gave battle on his enemy's chosen ground; God more or less stayed out of things; and the destruction befell Hooker.
Lee's Chancellorsville consisted of a pastiche of unbelievably risky gambits that led to a great triumph. Hooker's campaign, after the brilliant opening movements, degenerated into a tale of opportunities missed and troops underutilized.
A theme that quickly became a leitmotif running through all discussion of Chancellorsville was Joe Hooker's sobriety, or lack thereof. Had he been drunk? Impressive evidence suggests that he had indeed fallen under the sway of that old adversary, which had bedeviled him before the war; other evidence denies the fact.
Much of the general's own army accepted the allegations as truth. Capt. George Armstrong Custer, who would himself become a general in a few weeks, heard that Hooker had been wounded (he actually had been). If so, Custer opined bluntly, "it was a wound he received from a projectile which requires a cork to be drawn before it is serviceable."
Before Hooker retreated whence he had come, fighting raged across much of northern Spotsylvania County and the city of Fredericksburg. Men marched and fought around Chancellorsville intersection (modern State Routes 3 and 610); along the Orange Turnpike (State Route 3) as far east as Zoan Church and as far west as Brock Road (State Route 613); up the Ely's Ford Road (State Route 610) and the U. S. Ford Road (State Route 616); east on the River Road (State Route 618) as far as the canoe livery; at Salem Church; and all through the streets of Fredericksburg, across Marye's Heights, and down the Telegraph Road (old U.S. 1) nearly to Four-Mile Fork.
The Chancellorsville campaign swept inexorably over Fredericksburg and the region, leaving in its wake more than 30,000 casualties.
The results of Chancellorsville reverberated across the land. When Abraham Lincoln received word that, despite all of the boasting early in the campaign, Hooker had been forced back across the Rappahannock with heavy losses, the Northern chief executive muttered disconsolately: "What will the country say? Oh, what will the country say?"
Southerners received the unexpected news of a great victory with jubilation, muted of course by sorrow for the losses. At army headquarters, Lee set about turning the tidal wave of momentum generated by Chancellorsville into a surge northward against his foe. The ensuing raid into Pennsylvania met decidedly different results at Gettysburg, precisely two months after the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Pundits insist that the incredible Confederate success at Chancellorsville made Lee excessively confident in the prowess of his troops, leading to subsequent downfalls. They may even be right.
The most significant mark on the Chancellorsville ledger must be attributed to the impact of three round smoothbore musket balls, fired blindly and mistakenly by North Carolina troops on the night of May 2 into a scouting party that included Stonewall Jackson. When Jackson died of complications of his wounds eight days later, down the R.F.&P. Railroad at Guiney Station, the Confederacy suffered an irremediable loss.
NEXT WEEK: "To the dwellers on the frontier, Civil War is no pastime"--Fredericksburg during the winter before Chancellorsville.
About the series
Since he was 8 years old, Robert K. Krick has thought the Battle of Chancellorsville was the most interesting thing that ever happened in North America. This week, the nationally known historian begins a series in Town & County magazine on the May 1863 battle called "Lee's Greatest Victory: Chancellorsville."
Krick was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years before his retirement this year. A native of Northern California, Krick began his National Park Service career at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and then supervised Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania before coming to Fredericksburg.
Krick is the author of 14 books and more than 100 published articles. His most recent book, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published last month by Louisiana State University Press.
Widely regarded as the top historian in modern times on the Army of Northern Virginia and the foremost authority on Chancellorsville, Krick is a popular lecturer and battlefield tour guide.
Battlefield preservation is a prime concern for Krick, who has pushed tirelessly for legislation and federal funding for Civil War sites. Former New York Rep. Robert Mrazek called Krick "the greatest secret weapon for Civil War battlefield preservation we've ever had."
The Virginia General Assembly honored the historian last month with a joint resolution commending his contributions to Virginia through his books, preservation efforts and "stellar career of service."
"Bob Krick's passion, persistence, and unquestioned Civil War expertise helped him win many battles to preserve vital Civil War sites throughout the area and earned him the admiration of historians and senior members of Congress," the resolution states.
This article inaugurates a series that will look at the Chancellorsville campaign in some detail in weekly installments. The scenes of this largest battle in Virginia's history are familiar parts of the everyday life of local residents, so the series will tie the dramatic events of May 1863 to landmarks still recognizable throughout the countryside near Fredericksburg.