Chancellorsville: A Question of Impatience

lincolnWhen the spring of 1863 came, President Abraham Lincoln was growing impatient with the progress of the war in the East. However, out West, Ulysses S. Grant was slowly working his way toward to Vicksburg and ultimately choking off the Mississippi River from the South. For Lincoln, the East was all that mattered come April of 1863. With Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy so close, Lincoln was flabbergasted that the Army of the Potomac could not take the city or even get close. General after general had tried and general after general had failed. Part of the reason was the brilliant tactics of Robert E. Lee. The other part was the incompetence of Union commanders. Lincoln knew if the Union could take Richmond, the symbolic nature of the task would be a death knell for the Confederacy.

After the December 1862 disaster that was Fredericksburg, Lincoln named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Lincoln explains to Hooker why he was selected to command:

Major-General HOOKER:

        GENERAL: I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.

Yours, very truly,


Joseph Hooker

General Joseph Hooker

Hooker had several battles under his battle and had been highly critical of the strategy of Burnside at Fredericksburg. Now armed with ca little over 130,000 men, Lincoln was assured that the Union could defeat Lee if Hooker could cross the Rappahannock and take Lee and his 60,000 man Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Then, there would be nothing to stop the Union from taking Richmond and bringing the Confederacy to its knees.

On April 20, 1863, Stonewall Jackson stepped off the train at a small Virginia train station to spend some much needed time with his wife and newborn daughter. A Few days later, the Battle of Chancellorsville would begin and Jackson’s place in Southern lore would be immortalized. On the 27th of April, Hooker began his move across the Rappahannock and began using his calvary to try to disrupt Lee’s supply lines. It was to no avail.

At the time, Lee had split his army into 2 parts. General James Longstreet had been sent to southern Virginia to gather supplies and food. Lee still had his right arm, Stonewall Jackson, and A.P. Hill’s corp. Lee began to grow impatient, too, as he was vastly undermanned with 60,000 men. Lee could have easily retreated and let Hooker take Fredericksburg and the surrounding area uncontested so that the Army of Northern Virginia could be at full strength. Lee, impatient, did not. He chose to fight Hooker then and there. Lee, however, did the unthinkable. In the face of a superior foe, he split his army again.

The night of April 30, Lee and Jackson bivouacked and planned the next day’s battle. With his army split, Lee was able to move faster and quicker to find weak points in the Union line. Stonewall Jackson would attacked Hooker’s right flank near Fredericksburg. Hooker, meanwhile, wanted to reconvene all his troops near Chancellorsville and attack en masse on Lee.

Lee and Jackson Bivouac

Lee and Jackson Bivouac


For Hooker, his plan to encircle Lee dissipated quickly. On May 1, Lee and Jackson smashed Hooker’s plans. Lee’s 14,000 man unit acted as a diversion as Stonewall Jackson moved into position to demolish the right flank of Hooker on May 2. With 21,000 men, Jackson and his men came out of the forest as if appearing out of nowhere. This action caught the Union flat-footed and lead to chaos in the Union lines.

An overwhelming sense of urgency permeated the actions of the generals on both sides. The war was dragging on. But here at Chancellorsville, the Confederacy was willing to take a gamble. However, in doing so, the tactics lead to impatience in the commander’s actions. On the night of May 2, after his brilliant action of the day, Jackson was checking his lines. Apparently, impatience had spread to his men. Several shots rang out in the darkness. Jackson wobbled on his horse. He had been shot 3 times by his own men. His left arm would have to be removed. The arm received its own tombstone sometime later.

The tombstone for Jackson's left arm.

The tombstone for Jackson’s left arm.

The loss of Jackson at a crucial point in the battle unnerved Lee. His famous saying of “Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” summed up the impatience he felt. However, Lee still A.P. Hill to call upon. Hill was wounded the next day. Lee would then rely on J.E.B. Stuart.

Despite Hooker’s losses on May 2, come May 3, the opportunities to win were still there. Unfortunately, like many times during the war, the Union attacked in piecemeal. By doing so, Lee united his forces quickly with Stuart’s to repel every attack on May 3. The Union artillery soon ran out of supplies allowing for a Confederate triumph of the day.

For Lee, this was his greatest victory but it came at a huge cost. Jackson never recovered from his wounds. Stonewall Jackson would die shortly after the battle’s completion. Lee was devastated. The victory did lift Confederate spirits but it also showed the growing impatience with the war in the East. Lee knew the Confederates were close to a victory in the East. Lee would gamble again to try and win the war in one battle and get recognition for the Confederacy with a victory on Union soil. He thought that the Union generals were no match for his generals and soldiers. That summer of 1863 Lee would take the fight north into Pennsylvania.

For Lincoln, his impatience was almost at an end.

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