May, 1863: Battle of Chancellorsville Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Major General Joseph Hooker formulated an excellent tactical plan. He would hold General Robert E. Lee’s army near Fredericksburg with 40,000 troops under John Sedgwick while he marched around Lee’s left flank with 75,000. If Lee moved against Hooker, Sedgwick would advance against the Confederate rear.

Major General Joseph Hooker formulated an excellent tactical plan. He would hold General Robert E. Lee’s army near Fredericksburg with 40,000 troops under John Sedgwick while he marched around Lee’s left flank with 75,000. If Lee moved against Hooker, Sedgwick would advance against the Confederate rear.

General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson scored a brilliant victory at Chancellorsville but died a week afterward—the victim of an accidental shot from one of his own men. (National Archives)

Dead Confederate soldiers lining a trench after the Battle of Chancellorsville. (National Archives)

Initially, the plan worked perfectly, but on May 1, Confederates struck the advancing Union soldiers near Chancellorsville. Inexplicably, Hooker surrendered the initiative, ordering his army back into the Wilderness’s wooded maze, which neutralized his manpower and artillery advantages. On May 2, Stonewall Jackson and 28,000 Confederates marched across and around the Union front and delivered an early evening surprise attack against Hooker’s exposed right flank, which crumbled before the onslaught. Despite the wounding of Jackson, Lee renewed his attack on May 3, convincing a dazed and whipped Hooker to retreat.

Having turned back Hooker, Lee on the afternoon of May 3 marched back toward Fredericksburg where he met and stopped Sedgwick. By May 6, Hooker’s army had retreated north of the Rappahannock River, leaving the Union with another humiliating defeat. Union casualties exceeded 17,200, and Confederate losses numbered nearly 13,000.

This Confederate victory against an army twice its size is recognized as Lee’s greatest battle. His audacity and boldness allowed him to exploit Hooker’s loss of nerve and timidity; nevertheless, Chancellorsville cost the South the invaluable services of Stonewall Jackson, who died on May 10.

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