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Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Battle of Chancellorsville: Genius and Tragedy in the Woods of Virginia

Stonewall Jackson in command of Lee's left hook.
Because war is by its very nature an extremely messy business, there are not that many truly classic battles in history. The number of true masterpieces, like Hannibal’s triumph at Cannae or Napoleon’s at Austerlitz, is far surpassed by the number of flawed masterpieces, while that number is itself outstripped by the number of confused, chaotic, and wasteful battles.

One of the most frustrating battles of the American Civil War is the Battle of Chancellorsville, a six-day battle that started today 153 years ago – frustrating because it had all the hallmarks of true genius resulting in a complete victory, but finally ended up being a minor and inconclusive victory for the South, but with heavy casualties.

The Southern forces, about 50,000 men led by Robert E. Lee, were on the defensive against a Northern force over twice the size led by Joseph Hooker. Hooker’s plan was to use his much larger force to envelop Lee and crush him, thus clearing the way for an advance on the Southern capital at Richmond.

For this purpose Hooker decided to divide his force into an Eastern Corps of around 30,000, under Sedgwick, facing the enemy at Fredericksburg, while taking his main force of 70,000 on a wide circuit to the West, using the Rappahannock River and the forest of the Wilderness as cover – not unlike the successful attack made by the Germans through the Ardennes region in 1940.

Lee, however, was not fooled. He realized that Sedgwick was playing a holding role, and so was able to draw off most of his army to strong defensive positions on the West, leaving Early with a force of around 10,000 to keep Sedgwick in check.


After some engagements with Hooker’s Western thrust, Lee sensed some confusion and timidity in the Northern army's attack, and guessed that it might be ripe for his own counter thrust. Keeping a relatively small force of around 12,000 with him, Lee detached a corps of 28,000 men – well over half of his entire army – to go on a wide, circuitous march through the Wilderness forest. This extremely ambitious operation was entrusted to his best general, Stonewall Jackson, who was unfortunately killed in the operation by friendly fire.

While this detached force was on the march Lee’s undermanned centre and right could have been annihilated by Hooker and Sedgwick attacking with a 5-to-1 advantage, but Lee kept his men busy and projected an image of greater strength.

After their lengthy march, Jackson’s corps now turned directly East and attacked the right flank of the Northern army, causing great confusion and panic. This was the decisive moment, but also the point at which the element of surprise was squandered. Rather than outmaneuvering the Northern forces by cutting off their communication to the North, the Confederates “marched to the sound of the guns” and got bogged down in inconclusive fighting in forest terrain, which favoured dogged defence.

The battle deteriorates into trench warfare.
Although Lee’s sweeping left hook had caught the Northern army unawares and demoralized it, Hooker’s numerical superiority and the terrain meant that he was able to hold his army together and put up reasonably effective defence.

Hooker then sent an order to Sedgwick to use his superior force to attack Early’s covering force on the Eastern end of the greatly extended battlefield. This move helped take the pressure off his own position, because Lee was forced to send reinforcements to support Early and keep Sedgwick under control. Hooker was thus able to slowly edge backwards into a more defensible position that could not be cut off, from which he could finally retreat back to the North.

The final tally in dead as well as missing and wounded (many of whom were dead or dying) was 17,197 on the Northern side and 13,303 on the Southern side. Although Lee had shown great genius in the battle, he had suffered a much greater proportion of casualties for the size of his army than his opponent, and had also lost his best field commander. This was a far from satisfactory outcome for the South. In fact, it was a tragedy.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete