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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
Historians continue to discuss many aspects of the campaign without any hint of unanimity. Was Joe Hooker drunk most of the weekend? After the war the general conclusion was that he had stopped drinking on accession to army command, leaving him unsettled after a lifetime of consistent bibulousness; new evidence suggests that he did indeed indulge his habit during the Chancellorsville weekend. Did R. E. Lee conclude from the evidence of his incredible victory that there was virtually nothing his battle-tested infantry could not do, leading to overconfidence at Gettysburg? The army had performed at an astoundingly high level during the first three days of May, and Lee soon did ask nearly impossible feats from it; on the other hand, the leaders of a tenuous revolutionary experiment could hardly afford to play conservatively against staggering negative odds.
Chancellorsville gave Lee the leverage to move the war out of torn and bleeding Virginia. His raid into Pennsylvania held the potential for great success, but it came to grief at Gettysburg, two months to the day after Chancellorsville.
The combination of bold strategy and even bolder tactics employed by the Confederate leaders at Chancellorsville turned an apparently impossible situation into a remarkable triumph. But the most important scenes in that tragic drama ultimately unfolded not around the old inn or at Hazel Grove but in an outbuilding of a country house twenty-five miles to the southeast at Guinea Station. Stonewall Jackson seemed to be recovering favorably from the loss of his arm when an ambulance carried him to the Chandler place at Guinea on the hot fourth of May. His progress continued good for two more days at this new resting place farther from the dangers and distractions of the front. Then, early on the morning of May 7, Jackson awakened with a sharp pain in his side that his medical staff readily and worriedly diagnosed as pneumonia. The disease made rapid inroads on the general’s weakened system, and doctors began to hint that he might not recover.
The grim news spread through the ranks. The loss of mighty Stonewall would transform the glorious name of Chancellorsville into the blackest of blots. Mrs. Jackson reached her husband’s bedside on May 7, and three days later it was she who had to rouse Thomas Jackson from his delirium to warn him that he was dying. “I will be an infinite gainer to be translated,” the fading man responded, and later: “My wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
In the early afternoon of a lovely spring Sunday, May 10, Stonewall Jackson called out for Gen. A. P. Hill and for Maj. Welles J. Hawks of his staff as his mind wandered to battles won and streams crossed at the head of his troops. At three o’clock a spell of calm intervened, broken only by the sobs of family and friends in the room and by the general’s desperate gasping for breath. As the clock neared the quarter hour, Jackson spoke quietly from the bed: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” Then, as he so often had done during the year just past, Stonewall Jackson led the way.