Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle” went against all military convention.
Chancellorsville is widely considered Lee’s greatest—and most improbable—victory. Despite being outnumbered by nearly 2-to-1, Lee decided on a risky and highly unusual tactic. He elected to divide his smaller forces—not once, but twice—to take on Hooker’s army, including a daring raid by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the Union general’s right flank. Caught completely unawares, Hooker did not press his advantage, instead falling back to defensive positions before finally retreating across the Rappahannock River.
A recent overhaul of the Union Army may have played a role in its defeat.
In January 1863, following the disastrous Union defeat and subsequent retreat from Fredericksburg by Ambrose Burnside, President Abraham Lincoln chose as his new commander Major General Joseph Hooker, one of Burnside’s fiercest critics. Soon after, two other senior Union generals resigned, leaving Hooker short on experienced field officers. When he set about reorganizing and streamlining the unwieldy Army of the Potomac, several of his key decisions backfired on him. He created a centralized cavalry unit—unusual for its time—and named Brigadier General George Stoneman to lead it. Stoneman performed poorly at Chancellorsville, continually failing to slow Lee’s advance. Another Hooker move, the reorganization of the 11th Corps under Major General Oliver Howard and the unpopular and cruel Brigadier General Francis Barlow, proved equally disastrous. The demoralized men of the 11th, many of them immigrants from the Midwest with poor English and little training, were completely unprepared to protect the Union’s right flank from Jackson’s assault and soon retreated, suffering significant casualties in the process.
Lee won the battle—but at a high cost.
On the night of May 2, while returning from a reconnaissance mission, Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men, members of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, who had mistaken his group for Union cavalry. Jackson was hit three times—twice in the left arm and once in the right hand—and several of his men were killed by the friendly fire. When Lee learned of Jackson’s injuries, he wrote to his trusted lieutenant, stating that he wished he had been injured in Jackson’s place. After Jackson’s left arm was amputated, he seemed to be recovering well, but he soon developed pneumonia and died eight days after he was shot. Lee was devastated, reportedly saying that in losing Stonewall, he had lost his “right arm.” The death of Jackson, one of the South’s brightest stars and ablest generals, was a crushing blow to the Confederate cause.