- Historic Sites
Lee’s Greatest Victory
During three days in May 1863, the Confederate leader took astonishing risks to win one of the most skillfully conducted battles in history. But the cost turned out to be too steep.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
Lee took the bad news with the same calm he always displayed, but his heart must have sunk.
Among the casualties of this hours-long brawl was Gen. Hiram G. Berry of Maine, shot down with a mortal wound as he crossed the road near Chancellorsville. But perhaps the most important Federal casualty, viewed from the long perspective of posterity, was Col. Nelson Appleton Miles of the 61st New York. Miles went down with a bullet in the abdomen, recovered, and went on to become commander in chief of the U.S. Army near the turn of the century. At about the time Miles gained his highest command, private citizens both North and South purchased huge chunks of the battlefield of Chancellorsville in hopes that the War Department would accept them as a donation to form a national military park on the order of those newly designated at Gettysburg and elsewhere. The Army chose not to accept the largess of those public-spirited preservationists. Gettysburg was one thing, but the scenes in which the U.S. Army had been humiliated in 1863 (and where a rebellious Southerner punctured General Miles) certainly did not deserve protection. The portion of the battlefield preserved today, amid a sea of modern development, contains only a small fragment of what our forebears sought to protect almost a century ago.
Early during the woods fighting two Confederate generals became casualties of different sorts. Gen. John R. Jones of Virginia was one of Stonewall Jackson’s special projects that turned out poorly. Jones had been accused of cowardice so blatant that it resulted in a formal court-martial, a shocking event in the general officer corps of an army fabled for its bravery. The court cautiously exonerated Jones two weeks before Chancellorsville. On May 3, however, the demands of combat among the bullets snapping through the trees proved to be too much for Jones. He left the field and resigned.
Another of Jackson’s projects, E. F. Paxton, went into the morning’s fight with the unshakable premonition that he would be killed at once. Paxton had known Jackson as a fellow communicant at Stonewall’s beloved Presbyterian church before the war. When Paxton lost an election to be major of the 27th Virginia, Jackson calmly found means to promote him several ranks to brigadier general, out of reach of the whims of the electorate. Much of the army disdained this proceeding as another instance of Jackson’s much mooted wretched judgment in selecting subordinates. Paxton had had little opportunity to confirm or disprove this conventional wisdom when he led his famous Stonewall Brigade into action on May 3. He knew he would not survive the battle and prepared for death by studying his wife’s photograph and reading his Bible by the scant predawn light. Moments after the action opened Paxton fell dead, surviving only long enough to reach for the pocket where he kept his treasured pictures.
Over all of the infantry chaos that morning there throbbed the steady rhythm of Confederate artillery at Hazel Grove, building to a crescendo that won the battle for Lee. The two divisions that had remained with Lee for the past day and a half pressed toward Chancellorsville from the south and east. Jackson’s men under Stuart closed in from the west. Before the morning was far gone, the two Confederate wings reunited at last, ending that aspect of Lee’s incredible gamble and providing the general with the chance to reassert direct control over his whole army. Gradually the consolidated Southern force swept Hooker’s brave but poorly led legions back to the Chancellorsville intersection. A brief, confused stand there bought Hooker a few minutes. Then Confederates swarmed over the crossroads and around the burning inn in a frenzied victory celebration.
Into this animated scene rode R. E. Lee on his familiar gray horse. “His presence,” wrote an officer who was there, ‘was the signal for one of those outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient days rose to the dignity of gods.”