- 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
In the last two days of April, Hooker brought to a successful conclusion the huge turning maneuver that placed the center of his flanking element at the country crossroads of Chancellorsville. That polysyllabic name, whose ending suggests a busy settlement, actually belonged to a single building. The Chancellor kin who built the heart of the structure late in the eighteenth century expanded it into a wayside inn opened in 1815. By 1860 two additions had swelled the building into a really sizable structure, but dwindling traffic on the roads that met in the yard had reduced its function to that of a one-family residence. The Chancellors called their home Chancellorsville in the same fashion that other Southern homes were called Mount Vernon or Belle Hill. No one else lived within a half-mile of the crossroads, and only a few within several miles.
An environmental feature that contributed to Chancellorsville’s meager dimensions also levied a heavy impact on military operations nearby. The land lay largely desolate under the dense, scrubby growth of a region known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. About seventy square miles of the Wilderness sprawled along the south bank of the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, stretching about three miles farther south than Chancellorsville and about two miles farther east. A numerically superior army ensnarled in those thickets, and confined to easy maneuver only on the few poor roads, would lose much of its advantage.
Jackson had a last quiet word with his chief, then rode away. The two men never saw each other again.
Joe Hooker pushed the head of his mighty army eastward to the edge of the Wilderness early on Friday, May 1, 1863. About three miles from the Chancellorsville crossroads the Federals came face-to-face with a commanding wrinkle of the earth’s surface, atop which stood a little wooden Baptist church bearing the name of Zoan. The Zoan Church ridge represented about as succulent a military prize as Joe Hooker could have found just then in his zone of operations. It was high ground (none higher to the east, short of Europe); it straddled a key road; and most important, it rose on open ground just east of the entangling tendrils of the Wilderness.
Confederates on top of the prize ridge had been feverishly digging earthworks overnight on the orders of the division commander Richard H. Anderson. Despite the trenches, Hooker could have dislodged Anderson’s relative handful of men and occupied Zoan Church without much exertion. Perhaps he would have, had not Stonewall Jackson ridden into the uncertain tableau and dominated the unfolding action with his force of personality. Stonewall ordered Anderson’s men to pack their entrenching equipment and attack. Anderson left no account of his reaction, but he must have wondered how he and Jackson and a few assorted regiments could accomplish much.
As Jackson began pressing against the Northerners lapping around the western base of the ridge, he used two critically important parallel roads. The old Orange Turnpike came out of Fredericksburg past Zoan, through Spotsylvania County, and then on to Orange County and Orange Courthouse. About a decade before the Civil War local entrepreneurs had undertaken to supplant that century-old thoroughfare with a toll road paved on one of its lanes with planks. Elsewhere in the vicinity men of vision were putting their money into railroads; but trains and their trappings required vast capital outlay, and the plank-road people reasoned that everyone owned wheeled wagons already.
The brand-new Orange Plank Road proved to be a wretched idea economically, but in May 1863 it drew troops of both sides like a magnet because it formed a second usable corridor through the Wilderness. Hooker had moved east on both the Turnpike and the Plank Road, which near Zoan Church ran generally parallel to and a mile or so south of the older right-of-way. As the morning wore on, Confederates pushed west against both heads of Hooker’s army on the two roads.
Jackson, soon joined by Lee in person, superintended an almost chaotic blend of Confederate regiments and brigades in the advance. Southern units arriving from various points funneled off into the Turnpike or the Plank Road at Jackson’s whim and in response to unfolding exigencies, without much regard for command and control at levels below the corps commander in person. Their élan and their leader’s determination were steadily reclaiming the ground of the earlier Federal advance when yet another transportation corridor swung the action entirely into the Confederate column.