American Civil War battle widely considered to be Robert E. Lee's finest achievement. After the failure at Fredricksburg, President Lincoln had to find yet another commander for the Army of the Potomac. His next choice was ‘Fighting’ Joe Hooker. Hooker was very confident and very aggressive, but most of this turned out to be pure bluff. At first, he looked to be a most promising appointment. He restored the army’s confidence and then put together one of the best plans to be attempted by the Union armies in Virginia.
Taking advantage of his superior numbers, Hooker planned to split his army into three large units. One part of his army was to remain at Fredericksburg, in an attempt to pin Lee in place there. Another part was to move upstream to make what would look like his main flanking manoeuvre. Finally, one third of the army was to head further upstream on a wide flanking move that would hit the left and rear of Lee’s army.
Hooker’s bold plan began well. On 30 April, the main flanking force had already crossed all of the river barriers in its way, and had reached Chancellorsville. Although Lee had not been fooled by the force at Fredericksburg, on 30 April his army was dangerously exposed to Hooker’s flanking attack.
On 1 May, Hooker had a chance to maul two divisions of Lee’s army, but instead he withdrew into the Wilderness, an area of scrubland around Chancellorsville, where his great advantage in numbers would count for less. Hooker’s judgement was clouded by his fear of a direct fight with Lee’s Confederates. Lee took advantage of his opponents’ worries and launched an attack that led to his most impressive victory. A large part of the Union army was forced into flight by another flanking manoeuvre. However, once again the Union army was able to re-form and hold most of its position. Only after the battle did Hooker decide to withdraw back across the Rappahannock River, conceding the battlefield to Lee.
Chancellorsville raised morale across the Confederacy and increased the already high morale of Lee’s army. However, impressive though it was, the Confederate cause suffered two blows at Chancellorsville. Despite all of Lee’s successes, his losses were just as high as Hookers (1665 killed and 9081 wounded for Lee compared to 1575 killed and 9594 wounded for Hooker). This passed relatively unnoticed at the time. However, one of the Confederate dead after Chancellorsville was Stonewall Jackson, dead of pneumonia after being shot by mistake by some of his own men.
The death of Jackson provides another of those ‘missed chances’ of the Confederate mythology. After Chancellorsville, Lee embarked on his great invasion of Pennsylvania, which was to end at Gettysburg. If he had had Jackson, the myth goes, the Lee would have won at Gettysburg, and the Confederacy would have survived. Whatever the flaws of the Chancellorsville victory, it effectively ended any chances of any significant Federal campaign in the eastern theatre until the following year.