Lee’s Greatest Victory

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Other corps commanders of note included George G. Meade and Daniel E. Sickles. General Meade, the snappish patrician who was destined to replace Hooker, seems in retrospect the most capable man who wore Union general’s stars in the war’s Eastern theater. Dan Sickles, by contrast, was a bawdy, rambunctious adventurer. Three years before Chancellorsville he escaped conviction for the public murder of his wife’s lover on the then novel ground of temporary insanity. After the war he served as intermittent paramour to the queen of Spain.

Federal operations at Chancellorsville suffered dramatically from two absences. Much of Hooker’s cavalry spent the crucial days on a largely irrelevant raid, leaving the main army bereft of its essential screening-and-reconnaissance function. Worse, the army’s enormously capable chief of artillery, Henry J. Hunt, was off in a rear area, where Hooker had consigned him after the two had quarreled.

Hooker had collapsed within himself, and now he began inexorably pulling his mighty army down with him.

The men of the Army of Northern Virginia benefited from any number of subjective advantages over their familiar foemen of the Army of the Potomac, but no Southerner could help worrying over the apparent disparity of force. Although no one knew enemy strengths with precision—and, in fact, often neither side could firmly establish its own strength—Federals north of the Rappahannock clearly had a vast preponderance in numbers. The actual figures approximated 130,000 against 60,000.

The Northern army brought seven corps to the field of Chancellorsville. The Confederates countered with two, and one of the two was at less than one-half of its strength. The missing divisions had gone southeastward to the vicinity of Suffolk, Virginia, in quest of the foodstuffs that already dwindled at an alarming rate. The question now was whether the agrarian South could feed its armies on its own soil.

The two supporting arms that came up short for Hooker at Chancellorsville never looked better on Lee’s side of the line than they did in that spring of 1863. The colorful Southern cavalry general James E. B. Stuart, universally called Jeb after his initials, stood at the height of his personal and professional powers, tirelessly alert and active and energetic. As for the Southern artillery, it continued to labor under tremendous disadvantages in weaponry and ammunition but during the past winter had revolutionized its tactics by converting to a battalion system. Since the first whiff of gunpowder, cannon had suffered from the tendency of infantry officers to misuse the big guns simply as larger infantry weapons. In 1861 batteries assigned to brigades fought under infantry direction, often from positions at either end of the line. High ground, low ground, heavy enemy pressure, or no enemy pressure, it was all the same: Put the guns with the infantry. But now Confederate artillery would move and fight in clusters, usually of at least four four-gun batteries, and the higher-ranking artillerymen commanding these larger clusters would enjoy some degree of autonomy. Some of the South’s brightest and best young men rode at the head of the reorganized guns.

Federal horsemen attempted to open the campaign that led to the Battle of Chancellorsville at the end of the second week in April. Gen. George Stoneman, commanding Hooker’s cavalry, was to take the greater part of the available mounted force and cross the Rappahannock far upstream northwest of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The horse soldiers, Hooker hoped, would ricochet with deadly effect through Confederate rear areas, freeing Federal prisoners, tearing up railroads, breaking an aqueduct on the James River, and forcing a frightened Lee to fall back from Fredericksburg. In the event, heavy rains sluiced the bottoms out of Virginia’s clay roads, and the raiding force did not cross the Rappahannock until April 29, after a substantial portion of Hooker’s infantry had done so. Still, it is hard to avoid blaming the delay as much on Stoneman as on uncooperative weather.

Once launched, the cavalry raid caromed almost aimlessly about central Virginia, causing some localized discomfort but achieving not a thing of real military worth. Stuart detached just enough regiments to contain the raid within certain wide limits, harassing its rear and flanks and gathering in stragglers. One of the interesting reflections modern students draw from the Chancellorsville campaign is that the Federal cavalry raid, prudently checked by just the right number of Confederates, presaged in mirror image the cavalry situation a few weeks later at Gettysburg. There Stuart wasted his substance in a meaningless raid while his army fought blindly, and the Federals reacted prudently. It was as though the Federals had gone to school at Chancellorsville on the apt use of the mounted arm, with Stuart as teacher.