Wednesday, May 1, 2013

150th of Chancellorsville, Day 1

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The Battle of Chancellorsville by Kurtz and Allison.

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the first day of significant fighting during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia.

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Left: CS General Robert E. Lee      Right: US General Joseph Hooker

150 years ago the Spring campaigning season resumed for the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had spent the winter in the area of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the south side of the Rappahannock River, having repelled the attack on that city by the Union army under Ambrose Burnside the previous 13 December.  The army was under the command of the legendary Robert E. Lee.  Worthy of note was the a portion of the army under CS General James Longstreet was, at the start of May 1863, campaiging in the area of Suffolk in southeast Virginia.  Thus, Lee had at Fredericksburg some 60,000 men.

The Union Army of the Potomac, after its disaster at Fredericksburg and in the Mud March that followed in January, wintered in Stafford County, on the north side of the Rappahannock.  On 25 January 1863, the Army of the Potomac received a new commanding offier: US Major General Joseph Hooker.  Hooker was certainly not lacking in confidence, and attempted to revive the flagging morale of his massive army -- it was he that introduced the corps badges that would be so famous.  He had at his command some 133,000 men.  Hooker outnumbered Lee 2 to 1, and proudly announced: "May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none."

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Map of the action at Chancellorsville, 1 May 1863.  Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen,

Joseph Hooker decided to take the initiative, hatching a bold plan to rapidly put his army into motion, to swing west, ford the Rappahannock at US Ford upstream of Fredericksburg, and place his army in the rear of that of Robert E. Lee.  The VI Corps would be left in Falmouth to keep Lee's attention, and hopefully pin the Army of Northern Virginia in place along the river.

The initial phases of this move were rather successful, and Hooker had the XII Corps of Slocum and the V Corps of Meade moving east through the crossroads of Chancellorsville (it is little more than that -- a crossroads with an old ordinary) towards Fredericksburg by mid day.  It seemed that Hooker had Lee trapped in a vise, and with no way out.  But, Hooker would lose his nerve.

General Lee quickly realized the peril of his situation and reacted boldly: despite being outnumbered 2 to 1, he split his army in the face of the Army of the Potomac, leaving a division under CS General Jubal Early in Fredericksburg to hold off the Union VI Corps, while moving the rest of his army to confront Hooker's main force.  The great CS General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson commanded the vanguard that, at midday, slammed into the Union army along the Plank Road, the local road leading from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg.  Despite initally pushing the Union back, the Yankee forces stablized and began to drive the Confederates.  At that point, much to the dismay of some of his subordinates, Joseph Hooker ordered his forward Corps back to the Chancellorsville crossroads.  At that moment, he had given the initiative to Robert E. Lee, who would not let such a chance pass.

The next day, Lee would divide his army yet again, this time entrusting to Jackson a march around the Union army to hit it from behind.  It is there we continue tomorrow...

For more on the battle you might note:
National Park Service Battle Description

Civil War Trust Chancellorsville Page

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Live well!

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