I am a huge student of the American Civil War – I have been since I was a kid. Heck, my new steampunk novel that I’m writing is set during the Civil War. And this week marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most pivotal battles of that war, Chancellorsville.
Why Chancellorsville? It was the battle where General Robert E. Lee was, in my opinion, his most brilliant. You may point to other engagements, but it was at Chancellorsville where Lee rolled the dice more often and with more audacity than almost everywhere else.
Union General Hooker executed a brilliant march, swinging a significant portion of the Army of the Potomac around Lee’s position in Fredericksburg. In many respects, he caught Lee off guard. With a forced crossing at Fredericksburg and his army sitting in Lee’s rear, and with Hooker having well over three-to-one odds, he should have been victorious.
Two things defeated General Hooker. One was General Hooker – the other was Robert E. Lee.
Dictum of the day would have forced Lee to disengage, fall to the south and hope for better ground and better odds. Lee didn’t do that. Instead, outnumbered, he split his army, keeping enough force in front of Fredericksburg to keep the Union convinced he was there, while sending the rest of his troops to the west towards the Wilderness to face the corps that had come against him in his rear. It defied all logic, splitting your army before a superior foe – yet Lee did just that. He slammed his forces into Hooker’s and ground the Union drive to a halt.
Lee met with Stonewall Jackson and came up with an even bolder move. He would split his army again, sending a force with Jackson to skirt around to the rear of the Union forces. Again, on paper, it was the wrong call. Jackson and his men slid to the open-ended flank of the Union force and charged while Lee kept up the pressure and attention back near Chancellorsville. Unprepared and stunned, the Federal forces collapsed into a massive retreat. Even as Union forces slowly pushed the Confederates out of Fredericksburg, Lee managed to maintain control of the far-flung battlefield.
That night, while scouting the Union lines, General Jackson was shot by his own men. His arm had to be amputated and he would die a few days later. As Lee said of his favorite commander, “You have lost your left arm, but I have lost my right.”
Hooker was injured when a cannonball hit a post at the Chancellors house and struck him in the head. Frankly though the cannonball probably only dragged the fight out longer. Hooker had lost his spirit. He withdrew, despite the fact he still had superior numbers.
If my time machine were working, one of the places I would love to visit would be the night when Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee planned the flank attack. I want to see their faces, hear the brilliance of their plan. To me that moment decided the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia. While Jackson’s assault was victorious and devastating, his loss was the beginning of the end. Imagine if he had not died – if he had been at Gettysburg and the battles that followed. I’m not saying that the Confederacy would have won the war, but I think he would have held off some of their following defeats.
I have visited the battlefield park often. You can go to where Jackson was wounded, walk the grounds of the great flank attack, and visit the farm where his arm was amputated. The trenches remain, silent testimony to the great battle that had been fought there. For me – Chancellorsville represents the true high-water mark for the Confederate military…but that’s just my opinion.