Confederate Confidence as Battle of Chancellorsville Begins
Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia faced a daunting task in the spring of 1863 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The Union’s huge Army of the Potomac, with its new leader General Joseph Hooker, was about to smash into Lee’s forces to annihilate his army and finally capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. On May 1, 1863, the pivotal Battle of Chancellorsville began. Five days later the fighting was over, and Lee had won what most historians call his most brilliant victory.
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Lee had triumphed. The Union army was much larger, better rested, and well supplied. By contrast, the Confederates were tired, hungry, and lacked supplies—even such necessities as boots. In addition, some of Lee’s army was scattered elsewhere in Virginia, including three of his best commanders: Generals Longstreet, Hood and Pickett. Hooker’s army had over 130,000 men and more than 400 cannons to attack Lee’s 60,000 men and around 200 cannons. After months of Hooker improving camp conditions and solidly drilling his men, morale in the Army of the Potomac was high. However, for many of the men the two-year term of enlistment was expiring soon, and Hooker knew it was time to take action.
While sending a large Union force across the Rappahannock River to attack Lee’s front in Fredericksburg, Hooker cleverly sent an even larger force across the river higher up to circle around behind Lee’s army, catching the Confederates in a deadly trap. Confronted with this threat, Lee did something that went against all sound military thinking: he divided his force in the face of a numerically superior enemy. Not once, but twice. And with this daring move, he won a major victory the South desperately needed.
First, Lee stationed about 1/5 of his army at Fredericksburg while hurrying 4/5 of his men west to meet the advancing second Union force, who were surprised to find Confederate troops storming against them on the battle’s first day, May 1, near the small hamlet of Chancellorsville—where Hooker had not expected to find any serious opposition. Then, on the battle’s second day, Lee again divided his men, breaking the western group in two and sending General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on a forced march through a heavily wooded area known as the “Wilderness” to surprise the Union’s right flank. The fighting was fiercest on May 3, continued into May 4, but by May 5 the Union army began to withdraw. By May 6 Hooker’s entire army was once again on the other side of the Rappahannock, back where it had started after suffering more than 17,000 casualties.
Lee and his ragged but determined men had earned a hard-won victory—but at a great cost. The Confederates suffered more than 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville. They suffered another grievous loss as well. On the evening of May 2, following his brilliant maneuver through the Wilderness and successful surprise attack on the Union right flank, “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally shot by Confederate troops while he was out riding after dark trying to determine the feasibility of a night attack. He died from complications on May 10.
The following three newspaper articles were published as the Battle of Chancellorsville was beginning, after it was known that Hooker had expertly maneuvered his army to trap the Confederates. Despite the situation at the battle’s onset, the first two articles, from Southern newspapers, show how confident the Confederates were. The third article, from a Northern newspaper, shows that the South had no monopoly on confidence—the success of Hooker’s initial movements had boosted Union hopes.
This editorial was published by the Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia) on May 1, 1863:
Affairs at Fredericksburg
Hooker’s advance is a good sign. We take it to mean, unequivocally, that after Abe’s visit and after all manner of bribes and inducements, the two-years volunteers have refused positively to re-enlist. Therefore, the decree has come down from Washington that these men must be put to use before they return home. It matters little whether they can or cannot accomplish the defeat of Lee; they shall not go home until they have been made to pay blood and life for their board and clothes during the past winter. “The best Government on the face of the earth” has no idea of being swindled by a parcel of recusant semi-Copperhead soldiers. If they will not save their country, that is, the present Administration, they shall at least do all the harm they can to the Rebels before they are disbanded. Some thousands of them will be killed or horribly mangled, but that matters not.
The movement, so far as we can judge, appears to be a feint at Deep Run, while the grand attack is to be made on Lee’s left flank. The forces lately marched out of Washington to Warrenton will probably join the attacking column. It has been stated, on what is believed to be good authority, that Hooker’s army is numerically less than our own. The reinforcements from Washington may make it larger; but that is of little moment, if, as we have heard, the country above Fredericksburg is as well adapted for defensive warfare as the scene of the grand slaughter of December last [i.e., the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 11-15, 1862—ed.].
The prospect of a general engagement occasions scarcely any excitement whatever in the Confederate Capital. Lee and Jackson are abundantly able to cope with Hooker, even though his army were not demoralized by repeated defeats, by distrust and hatred of their Abolitionist Commander, and by the palpable fact that the Lincoln Government is forcing a fight out of them merely for spite at their refusal to re-enlist in an endless war for negro freedom and white slavery. It would be all the better if Longstreet, with that terrible shoulder-hitter, Hood, and that dangerous left-hander, Pickett, could take part in the approaching engagement; but “Old Jack” and “Old Jubal” and the rest of Lee’s remaining Captains and Lieutenants will be sufficient to compose the pugnacity of Fighting Joe Hooker, for the rest of his life, we trust.
The heavy rains of the past two days may interfere seriously with the sanguinary work in which the Confederate and Yankee armies are about to engage. If only three brigades of the enemy have crossed at Deep Run, and the river rises behind them, endangering their pontoon bridges, they may be promptly recalled, and the attack postponed for more auspicious weather. But we shall be painfully disappointed if they are permitted to return to the Stafford shore without molestation. It is an object, doubtless, to get them over and within striking distance, for if the fight must come, the sooner it comes the better; but this practice of crossing a Southern river must not be permitted to continue without the exaction of heavy toll.
All this may safely be trusted to our noble Lee. He is not a hard-hearted man or one who delights in the shedding of blood; but he remembers “those people” whom “it just suits” to shell a city full of women and children at a safe distance [i.e., as Union forces did at the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 11-15, 1862—ed.], and he will not be unwilling to execute justice upon them. For us, it is enough to know that, at the very moment, almost, when it had been decided by the tyranny at Washington, that the Summer must pass in operations wholly defensive, a sudden change of attitude has occurred, and the offensive has been resumed. This bodes no good for Lincoln. It tells of plans unexpectedly frustrated, of schemes adopted before they have been matured, of—we know not what in that obstinate Northwest, which will not be conscribed on any terms. Altogether, the signs are auspicious.
This paragraph is part of an article published by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on May 2, 1863:
From Fredericksburg, we may, before going to press, learn that a battle has been fought or is in progress. The dispatches of yesterday, which, although wholly unexpected in their character, we are disposed to credit, show that Hooker has effected the passage of the Rappahannock in several columns; and facts do not leave a doubt that a tremendous struggle is impending. He is in no condition to postpone operations long after having effected a crossing. We are informed that the bulk of his two years’ troops go out of service about the 13th inst., and therefore if he intends to meet Lee he must do it at once. The Examiner says that some thirty-eight of his veteran regiments are included in those who go out of service by expiration of term. It is doubtless this fact which has urged him forward to what we consider a desperate venture, and one which we trust and believe will eventuate in the substantial annihilation of his force.
This northern newspaper published a long article detailing the well-executed movements of Hooker’s army in the days leading up to the Battle of Chancellorsville, and concluded with this confident paragraph. The article was published by the New York Daily Tribune (New York, New York) on May 2, 1863:
If we have succeeded in conveying a clear idea of this movement, it will be understood that it is of such a magnitude, conceived with such skill, and accomplished with such celerity, as have not often been surpassed in military operations. Lee has beyond question been deceived, flanked, and probably forced from his position—in other words out-generaled. It is of course but the beginning of the campaign which is to test the genius and task the resources of Gen. Hooker, but the success already achieved is brilliant enough to inspire confident hopes of a complete triumph in the field and the early possession of Richmond.
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