After Burnside was slaughtered at the Battle of Fredericksburg and shamed in the Mud March, “Fighting Joe” Hooker assumed command of the demoralized Army of the Potomac. With both armies still camped at Fredericksburg, Hooker faced the same problem his predecessor had: how to get past Lee in his strong defensive position. Hooker decided to split his 110,000 men: he would leave a detachment under John Sedgwick at Fredericksburg as a diversion, while marching 70,000 men to the west, where they would cross and catch Lee in a trap. On April 29, 1863, the bulk of Hooker’s army crossed Kelly’s Ford and then gathered at the small tavern of Chancellorsville, in preparation to march on the Confederate army at Fredericksburg from the rear.

Lee’s army, numbering only a little more than 60,000 men (due to the absence of most of Longstreet’s Corps) would be trapped in a pincer movement. Lee left 10,000 men under Jubal Early to hold back the 40,000 Federals, while marching 52,000 troops to meet the Federal advance. On May 2, 1863, “Fighting Joe” lost his nerve and decided to let Lee’s numerically inferior forces attack him. Lee gladly accepted. He split his already outnumbered troops again, sending 28,000 men under Stonewall Jackson on a day-long march to the Union right flank. This flank consisted of the mostly foreign XI Corps under Howard, with such subordinate generals as Kryzanowski and Schimmelfennig (try pronouncing those). Howard’s line was positioned on the Orange Turnpike, facing south. Jackson would strike from the west, completely flanking the entire Federal line. However, while on the march, Federal troops detected the Confederates. Hooker noted the information, but came to the conclusion that this maneuver by Jackson was a withdrawal, not a flank march. This resulted in the complete rout of the Federal flank as Jackson struck with only 2 hours of daylight left (due to the day-long march). Despite heroic resistance, there were simply too many Rebels. The XI Corps broke and fled, and only nightfall forced Jackson to halt, temporarily.

Even after dusk fell, Jackson attempted to continue the attack. While directing the placement of A.P. Hill’s division, he was hit by friendly fire. Then, he contracted pneumonia and ended up dying on May 10, 1863. Lee bemoaned that he had lost “his right arm.” The southern army had a joke about this. An angel had come down from heaven to lead Jackson up, but the angel couldn’t find Jackson. The angel returned to heaven to find Jackson already there, because Jackson had outflanked the angel. His last words were, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action” and then, delirious, he said, “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” His corps was temporarily taken over by cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart.

At dawn on May 3, Stuart renewed the attack. Jackson’s old corps struck along the line, supported by artillery situated at the Hazel Grove. A cannon shell knocked over a pillar, which hit Hooker and knocked him out temporarily. He recovered, and, contrary to his nickname, ordered a withdrawal to cover the fords across the Rappahannock. Lee and Stuart reunited the two spread out wings of the army, and prepared to pursue. However, Lee got word from Early (commanding his rear guard opposed to Sedgwick) that he had been overrun. Lee was forced to move east again to drive Sedgwick back.

After doing so, Lee planned to finish off Hooker’s army on May 6, 1863. However, Hooker gave up and simply retreated across the river. Lee had achieved his greatest tactical triumph. He inflicted 17,000 casualties compared to 14,000 lost (of course, one of these was Stonewall Jackson). Plus, he had managed to drive a numerically superior enemy back in a series of attacks. “Fighting Joe” had not fought, he had grown cautious and been driven back. This battle is considered by many as Lee’s finest battle.

Follow Lee to the Battle of Gettysburg

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