The Union army failed to dislodge the Confederacy or capture Richmond. They spent two years wallowing around Virginia. Robert E. Lee defeated McClellan on the Peninsula, Pope at Second Bull Run, and Burnside at Fredericksburg. Lincoln turned to Joseph Hooker to finally whip General Lee. The two met at Chancellorsville with the familiar results. Lee defeated Hooker when the federal commander froze at a key moment. However, the Confederacy won a Pyrrhic victory as they lost General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
The Federal government’s main strategy since 1861 was to capture the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia. They made several aborted attempts and went through a number of generals. President Abraham Lincoln hoped “Fighting Joe” Hooker could finally accomplish the task. Hooker had a first rate reputation as a fighter and organizer. Lincoln needed an aggressive general and Hooker seemed to fit the requirement.
Hooker collected intelligence and studied his predecessor’s mistakes. He avoided their mistakes and moved on Richmond. By the battle, the Union boasted over 130,000 men to the rebel’s 60,000. Despite being outnumbered, the Confederates had three major advantages. First, they had General Lee, who could read his opposite number and always found a way to win. Second, they were defending their homes. Third, a fog allowed the rebels to move without being detected.
Hooker moved to strike Lee on May 1, 1863. Lee decided on a risky gamble. He divided his force in two in order to confuse Hooker and stall Federal reinforcements. Lee took the initiative and attacked Hooker with most of his army while a small force kept Union General John Sedgwick at bay. Hooker held the advantage, but did not realize it. At a key moment, he froze. Lee’s actions confused the Union general and saved the day. Hooker suspended the offensive operations to the exasperation of his subordinates.
Union forces dug in for day 2. Hooker realized he had been hoodwinked by Lee and reinforced his line. Meanwhile, General Lee decided to split his army in two once more. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was to move on Hooker’s right flank with nearly 30,000 men. Lee needed the element of surprise and had to catch Hooker unprepared. Otherwise, Union numerical superiority would demolish his forces piecemeal.
The Confederates under Jackson achieved a monumental success on May 2. Incompetent Union leadership, surprise, and confusion led to a disaster for the North. The attacks left Hooker disoriented, but night fell. Jackson wished to continue the assault and scouted the terrain. Darkness doomed the general. His own men shot him three times. They just did not know who was in the brush and fired. Jackson’s arm was amputated, but he caught pneumonia and died May 10, 1863.
Jackson achieved a major breakthrough on May 2, but ran out of daylight and then lost his life for the cause. Despite the setback, Hooker’s army remained an effective battle force. Fighting continued at Chancellorsville on May 3. Confederate artillery decimated Union forces. It was the only time in the war Southern artillery held an advantage over their Northern counterparts. Hooker received a concussion when a rebel cannonball hit a wood pillar that fell and struck him. He was unconscious for over an hour and refused to surrender command when he awoke. However, Hooker demonstrated cognitive difficulties for the remainder of the battle.
Lee won May 1 and 2, but the battle remained in doubt. John Sedgwick managed to break the Confederate lines. Confusion reigned early on May 3. The Union caught Jubal Early unprepared as confusing orders moved him out of position. As a result, Sedgwick overwhelmed Early’s men. In response, the rebel general initiated a fighting retreat. Vicious fighting took place at Salem Church and Fredericksburg. However, the Confederates were able to repulse the Union force. Both sides suffered over 21,000 casualties that day.
Hooker took no provocative action against Lee on May 4. Union forces remained entrenched near Chancellorsville. As a result, Lee brought his power to bear on Sedgwick. Hooker did not send relief and an outnumbered Sedgwick withdrew across the Rappahannock River on May 5. Hooker held a council of war and decided to withdraw. His generals wished to continue the fight, but Sedgwick’s retreat convinced Hooker the need to flee.
Hooker suffered 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville. The Union lost 1,600 dead, nearly 10,000 wounded, and almost 6,000 missing or captured. General Lee lost 1,600 dead, 9,000 wounded, and 2,000 captured or missing. The two sides suffered 30,000 total casualties.
Hooker entered the campaign positive of victory. However, he lost his nerve and the initiative on May 1. Then, a concussion rendered Hooker ineffective for the remainder of the battle. He made several textbook errors that may have been the result of his injury. Hooker’s actions and the casualties shocked the nation. Lincoln replaced Hooker with George Gordon Meade right before the Battle of Gettysburg.
While the Union mourned, the Confederates were ecstatic over the victory, but mourned the casualties, especially General Jackson. Lee reorganized his army and prepared to invade the North. Jackson’s absence was keenly felt at Gettysburg. Eventual Confederate defeat dated from Jackson’s death.
Joseph Hooker failed like others before him. He did not take the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Hooker lost to General Lee as his predecessors did before him. The victory at Chancellorsville convinced Lee to strike North to end the war. However, he lost Jackson, which helped lead to defeat at Gettysburg.