Against All Odds: The Battle of Chancellorsville

by Jeanie Turner

Summary: The Battle of Chancellorsville was a monumental fight on many different levels. It was a Confederate victory that never should have been. It was Lee’s greatest fight and Stonewall Jackson’s final stand. The events at Chancellorsville proved that the accepted military strategy of the day was not necessarily the best strategy as Lee squared off prowess against size and strength. He took a daring gamble and won despite seemingly impossible circumstances.

General Robert E. Lee was not a man to play by the rules. He took chances and defied the accepted rules of war. He went against what was considered the best military strategy and made his own way. One of his trademark strategies was dividing his army when they were facing a much larger force. Though many considered this a very poor military strategy, at the Battle of Chancellorsville it worked out brilliantly and caused one the most embarrassing losses for the Union during the Civil War.

After the terrible defeat at Fredericksburg, the Union was ready to even the score. Lincoln, as always, commanded his generals to destroy the Confederate army. It was never that easy; while the Union had far greater numbers, the Confederacy had greater skill and military prowess. This was never more evident than at Chancellorsville. Lincoln had replaced the commander at Fredericksburg, General Burnside, with General Hooker. Hooker’s objective was not only to annihilate the Army of Northern Virginia, but also to capture and imprison every last one of them. He had a sound military strategy in place, but little turned out as he had planned. Hooker planned to send out his cavalry, which was around 10,000 strong, two weeks ahead of his army. Their job was to wreak as much havoc as possible on Lee’s supply and communication lines all the way to Richmond. This action was supposed to entice Lee’s army out of their fortified position in Fredericksburg. Then, Hooker planned to send his infantry around 40 miles up the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers deep into Confederate territory to launch a surprise attack on Lee’s left flank. The remainder of his forces was to cross the river into Fredericksburg to attack Lee’s front lines head-on. He thought his plans were flawless and that Lee’s army was doomed. Much to Hooker’s dismay, this was not what transpired.

The Union cavalry were delayed by weather and road conditions and, in the end, were barely able to put a dent in the Confederate supply and communications lines. The infantry did march upstream and the remaining Union contingency did cross the river at Fredericksburg. At this point, Lee should have retreated to escape Hooker’s much larger army that was threatening to encircle them. Lee refused to relent and, instead, met the Union advance full force. Lee split his army to go in three different directions to halt the Union offensive. Lee was either very brave or very stupid in doing this because Hooker’s army numbered around 130,000 while his was only around 60,000. Lee left only 10,000 men in the Fredericksburg area at a little road junction called Chancellorsville. The rest went west to clash with Hooker’s columns that were slowly descending upon them. Meanwhile, Hooker’s massive army was moving in the opposite direction to meet Lee’s forces, however, Hooker decided to stop at Chancellorsville instead of pushing on until they reached the Confederates. This delay gave Jackson the opportunity he was looking for. Along with two other Confederate divisions, Jackson attacked the stalled Union army and, though they had fewer weapons, they had more fighting spirit. Hooker ordered his Generals to retreat into the woods and form a defensive position. He thought it best to wait for the Confederates to attack them at the location of his choosing.

However, Lee countered Hooker’s position by further dividing his meager forces. He retained two of his divisions to divert Hooker’s attention while the remainder of the Confederate Army moved west to attack the Union Army’s right flank led by Stonewall Jackson. Jackson and his men executed this maneuver brilliantly and forced the Union Army to retreat back across the Rappahannock River from whence they came.

Against all odds, Lee triumphed at the Battle of Chancellorsville despite being outnumbered by more than double. It was his greatest victory and the final battle of his greatest general, Stonewall Jackson. The most powerful lesson learned from the events at Chancellorsville was intelligence and the power of the mind can trump brute strength and physical size even in an otherwise hopeless situation.
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

About the Author

Jeanie Turner is a history enthusiast and honors graduate of American Public University. She is currently working on her Master’s degree in European History and plans to teach history on the college level in the near future. She resides in Columbia, South Carolina with her husband and five children.