Battle of Chancellorsville
by Steve Haas
The period extending from the last part of December, 1862, to the end of January
1863, saw the spirit of the main Federal army in the East, the Army of the
Potomac, at the lowest point that it would be in the entire war. At no point
would the army be closer to complete dissolution as an effective fighting force.
Beginning in late June, the army had suffered three major defeats and a Pyrrhic victory that had sapped it
of its strength. First there was the Seven Days' campaign, of June 26 through
July 1, where the army had been within sight of its ultimate goal of the Rebel
Capital of Richmond, under command of Major General George B. McClellan only to
be swept back into a tiny enclave abutting the James River by the victorious
Confederate army lead by the brilliant General, Robert Edward Lee. Then, in
August, another army, under the command of General John Pope had been routed by
the same Confederate army. In September the Confederates and the Federals, again
under the command of General McClellan, had fought to a stalemate on the banks
of Antietam Creek in the worst fighting that any army had seen in the war up to
this point. Then, in December, under General Ambrose E. Burnside, the army had
suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, suffering over
12,000 casualties while only being able to inflict 7,000 on the enemy
The Battle - Part 1
The two armies faced each other from across the Rappahannock River. This is a
relatively wide river that stretches across the State of Virginia and empties
into the Ocean. This river has many places where it can be forded along its
length, and these fords are each named according to a farm or, in one case (the
United States Ford) a mine that existed near the ford.
About 25 miles West of Fredericksburg, the Rapidan River joins the Rappahannock
River, forming something resembling the letter Y on its side; if an army forded
the Rappahannock above this point, it would have to then cross the Rapidan
river to get behind the Confederate army. The point at which the Rapidan River
joins the Rappahannock is a little West of the United States Ford.
The Confederates had troops and
fortifications all along the Rappahannock; the last major concentration of
troops was Anderson's Division, of Longstreet's Corps (this is the division
that Longstreet left behind when he took Hood and Picket with him). West of
this, the Confederates patrolled the other fords with cavalry, but didn't
expect anything to happen, so weren't worried about the fords upriver from the
United States Ford. The assumption was that it was too far away, and the
cavalry would give them news if they saw a lot of activity at these fords.
The Battle - Part 2
General Thomas Jackson let his troops sleep late on the morning of May 2.
Usually he would have them on the road well before daylight when making an
important move like this, but he wanted his men well rested and well fed for
whatever might happen today.
The plan for the Confederates was for General Lee stand behind and occupy the
Federal army's attention while General Jackson took the majority of the troops,
26,000 men, on a long march to try and discover the Federal right flank. While
the Federal left flank had been explored, and found to be unsuitable for
attack, details about where the Federal right flank were very sketchy.
Confederate Cavalry, under Col. Fitz Lee, General Robert E. Lee's cousin, had
skirmished with Federal troops from the XI Corps on the Carpenter Homestead,
which was about one mile to the south of Wilderness Church , so the flank
had to be somewhere near there. Nothing else was known for sure.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Haas
Written by Steve Haas.
Published online: 06/04/2000.
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those of MHO.