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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
Just before the war more prescient investors had founded and funded a railroad to run from Fredericksburg out to Orange and into fertile Piedmont Virginia. By the time the conflict halted work, the route had been surveyed and the line graded. The level stretch of cuts and fills and grades lay uncluttered by even the first stringers or rails, but it constituted a convenient third passage through the Wilderness. The unfinished railroad ran westward, parallel to the two wagon roads and about a mile south of the Plank Road. Gen. A. R. (“Rans”) Wright’s brigade, three regiments and a battalion of infantry from Georgia, sliced ahead along that convenient conduit and forced a reorientation of the Federal line by ninety degrees. Contending lines that had stretched for miles from north to south readjusted to Wright’s lunge. Hooker’s right swung up away from Wright and left the Federals at the end of the first day of battle (and the first day of May) arrayed in a huge, irregular, shallow V. The apex of the broad V lay at or near Chancellorsville while one arm ran northeast toward the river and the other sprawled west toward Wilderness Church. (See map on page 72.)
Before Jackson and Wright buffeted his right, Hooker himself had squandered a wonderful opportunity on his left. The V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, ably led by Meade, began May 1 by moving steadily eastward along the River Road. This fourth east-west route curled far north of the Turnpike and the Plank Road and led eventually past Banks Ford on the river into Fredericksburg. Meade moved vigorously ahead until his skirmishers reached the vicinity of Mott’s Run, within hailing distance of Banks Ford. Federals holding the southern mouth of that ford would serve a number of highly desirable ends. By that hour, however, Joe Hooker had recoiled from the presence of the legendary Stonewall Jackson with such abruptness that he sought no opportunities, only shelter. Hooker had collapsed within himself, and now he began inexorably pulling his mighty and well-tempered army down with him.
Hooker hoped halting his advance would “embolden the enemy to attack him.” His wish came true.
General Hooker dished out bravado loudly and often during the Chancellorsville campaign, but his boasts seem in retrospect to have been feeble attempts to brace up his own wavering spirits. On the evening before his advance of May 1, Hooker drummed out a staccato general order assuring his men “that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” There can be little doubt that Hooker really meant that. Lee surely would react to Hooker’s clever and successful movement to Chancellorsville, and to the Federal cavalry roaming in his rear, by sidling south away from the unhappy combination facing him. Good ground on the North Anna River would allow the Confederates a chance to regroup and start over. Even after a century and a quarter it is difficult to come to grips with Lee’s daring choice. At the time Hooker clearly was flabbergasted.
With a difficult May 1 behind him, Hooker blustered anew. “It’s all right … I’ve got Lee just where I want him,” the Federal commander insisted to an incredulous subordinate. At headquarters Hooker declared, “The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac.” To another audience he said, “The enemy is in my power, and God Almighty cannot deprive me of them.” And he finally summarized his professed contentment in a written circular to his corps commanders. “The major general commanding trusts,” he wrote incautiously, “that a suspension in the attack to-day will embolden the enemy to attack him.” The first three boasts proved to be empty, but Hooker’s written wish came true with a vengeance.
Across the lines that evening of May 1 the Confederate commanders weighed the situation somewhat more judiciously. Just about a mile from Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson crouched together over a small fire on seats improvised from abandoned U.S. cracker boxes. R. E. Lee, who had ridden up toward the river on his right in a personal reconnaissance during the afternoon, told Jackson that poor roads, steeply cut stream beds, and Federals dense on the ground combined to deny the Confederates any opportunity there.
The two men sent their respective engineer officers on a moonlit scout directly toward the enemy center at Chancellorsville. T. M. R. Talcott of Lee’s staff later wrote vividly of that tense experience. His companion, J. Keith Boswell of Jackson’s staff, had no chance to record his impressions; Boswell fell dead from a volley that struck him as he rode at Stonewall’s side a few hours later. The two capable young men came back convinced that the Federal center offered no opening whatsoever for an assault.