Prelude to defeat
The outcome of the Civil War was largely determined two years before Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee signed documents of unconditional surrender, ending the conflict that reunited North and South and forged the "one nation" we have remained to this day.
It is impossible to list all of the "what ifs" that have grown up around the bloody schism that the South referred to as the War of Northern Aggression and the North called the War of the Rebellion. Some of the most tantalizing of these unanswerable questions center on the South's victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863, followed two months later by the North's triumph at Gettysburg on the eve of the Fourth of July.
As we have periodically used this space to mark the celebration of the Civil War sesquicentennial, we thought it worth pausing halfway along the war's four-year timeline at Chancellorsville, the site of Lee's greatest victory, and a harbinger of his most devastating defeat.
For an increasingly frustrated Abraham Lincoln, the war had been an inglorious string of setbacks interspersed with victories that made the defeats more bitter. The chief source of the president's irritation was the timidity of his generals, exemplified by George McClellan, who talked a good fight but proved more adept at avoiding them, despite huge advantages in troop numbers and supply.
In January of 1863, however, Lincoln thought he had finally found his man in Joseph Hooker, who had fought aggressively in lesser commands, earning the nickname "Fighting Joe." Hooker soon set off with his 80,000-strong Army of the Potomac to confront a force less than half its size, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Hooker brimmed with bravado: "I have the finest army on the planet. I have the finest army the sun ever shone on. ... If the enemy does not run, God help them. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none."
Hooker made a good start, getting his army safely across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and drawing up opposite Lee at the tiny Virginia hamlet of Chancellorsville. The Union general exuded still greater confidence in his order to the troops: "Our enemy has ingloriously to flee or come out of his entrenchments and give us battle on our soil, where a certain destruction awaits him."
On May 1, Hooker advanced on Lee. But after lead units of both armies engaged, Hooker inexplicably lost his nerve and, against the advice of his baffled subordinates, withdrew his army into its fortified encampment in the trees.
It was at that point that Lee, ignoring basic military doctrine, split his forces, sending his most trusted and able lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, and 30,000 troops on a wide circuit around Hooker's right flank. Emerging from the woods, the rebels fell upon the surprised bluecoats, who, to borrow Hooker's words, proceeded "ingloriously to flee."
Lee's brilliant maneuver came at a heavy price. Jackson, returning to his lines in the dark after reconnoitering Union positions, was shot by his own sentries. Twice wounded in his left arm, surgeons amputated the limb and Jackson, after first appearing on the mend, contracted pneumonia and died eight days later.
The battle raged on, with heavy losses on both sides, until Hooker finally withdrew on May 6.
With Northerners already discouraged with the course of the war, Lincoln turned ashen at the awful news. "My God, my God. What will the country say? What will the country say?"
Hooker was soon sacked and replaced by George Meade, a steady if unremarkable commander who was soon to meet Lee at Gettysburg.
Lee, though mindful that Jackson was an incalculable loss, made plans to invade the North. Perhaps blinded by the brilliance of his victory, he came away convinced beyond reason that the soldiers who idolized him could whip any army "those people" set against them. "They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led," he said.
Two months later, without the wily Jackson at his side, Lee set his soldiers a task that no army, not even his, could possibly complete.
Chancellorsville, in their words:
"Let us cross over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees" Stonewall Jackson's last words.
"Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead" Robert E. Lee, in a letter to Jackson after learning he had been wounded.
"Hooker could play the best game of poker I ever saw until it came to the point where he should go a thousand better, and then he would flunk" unidentified fellow officer, quoted by historian James McPherson in "Battle Cry of Freedom."
"I was not hurt by a shell, and I was not drunk. For once I lost confidence in Joe Hooker, and that is all there is to it" Gen. Joe Hooker, quoted in Shelby Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative.