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A Masterpiece of War

The battle of Chancellorsville, 150 years on

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Which is not to say that he had no strategy. Lee’s insight was simple and clear. He could not last in a contest that came down to a series of battles like those he had fought already. To win, he needed a victory of annihilation. An American Cannae would demonstrate to the enemy the futility of continuing the fight. Bringing about such a battle and winning it would call for audacity and a willingness to take both the offensive and very long risks. He’d shown, already, that he was willing to take such risks, as, for instance, when he divided his army in the face of the enemy before Second Manassas. He was looking for a similar opportunity when he led his army into Maryland and was forced into a long-odds defensive battle at Antietam. In a letter to his secretary of war, after Fredericksburg, he made it clear that he wanted a rematch, on his own terms.

“Should Hooker’s army assume the defensive, the readiest method of relieving the pressure .  .  . would be for this army to cross into Maryland.”

It would mean giving Hooker the slip. And that maneuver would have to wait until Longstreet completed his resupply operation. But, in this rare case, Lee’s enemy got the jump on him.

Hooker had conceived a sound plan for the annihilation of Lee, by dividing his army as the Rebel commander had so often done. He marched more than half his army upstream on the Rappahannock, forded that river and its tributary, the Rapidan, and put himself to Lee’s left and rear. He left the remainder of his army across from Fredericksburg but soon began moving those troops across the river on pontoon bridges under cover of artillery. Both wings of his divided army were larger than Lee’s forces on the hills above Fredericksburg, known as Marye’s Heights.

Once Hooker had all of his units in place, Lee would have to fight and be crushed between the two Union forces or retreat toward Richmond, moving into exposed and open ground where he could be destroyed.

It was very ably done. The troops had been well supplied; the marches had been brisk and orderly. These soldiers had been hardened by two years of war. They were not the naïfs who had gone out from Washington to fight the battle of First Manassas, strolling as though on their way to an afternoon picnic when, that is, they weren’t tying up the roads in knots of disorganized, badly led, rookie soldiers. Hooker’s army moved efficiently and professionally, and the general was well satisfied.

This was on April 30. Five days later: Hooker was back on the other side of the river, defeated—and in some instances, routed—by a force less than half the size of his.

Union troops, many of whom Hooker had not put into the fight, reacted with something like bewilderment. They did not understand how this could have happened. One wrote in a journal:

I have nothing to say about it in any way. I have no opinions to express about the Genl’s or the men nor do I wish to. I leave it in the hands of God. I don’t want to think of it at all.

The answer to their bewilderment was simple enough: They were not outfought, just outgeneraled.

Lee was asleep in his quarters when the first shots of the battle were fired. They came from downstream, where Union troops had crossed the river on pontoon bridges. He dozed for a while, then was awakened by Stonewall Jackson’s aide.

“You want me to send a message to your good general, Captain?” Lee said. “Tell him that I am sure he knows what to do. I will meet him at the front very soon.”

Lee might have retreated, and some students of the battle say that would have been the best course. He could have found a better place to fight a great Napoleonic battle of annihilation, closer to Richmond. On the North Anna River, perhaps.

But he did not retreat.

His subordinates were, at first, unsure whether the enemy’s main effort would come from the troops upstream or those who had crossed below Fredericksburg. As his staff debated the issue, Lee studied the positions established by the troops who had crossed on pontoons, then closed his binoculars and said, “The main attack will come from above.”

This ended the discussion, and with Jackson and his troops, Lee rode to meet that attack.

Union troops were in Chancellorsville, a crossroads of no consequence in country grown up in jack pine, scrub oak, and briars known, descriptively, as “the Wilderness” (where a year later a dreadful battle would be fought). Three or four miles further east, toward Fredericksburg and Lee’s position, there was blessedly open ground. Hooker’s divisions were moving toward it and were nearly there. Hooker’s subordinates were impressed, for perhaps the first time in the war, by the way things were going according to plan.

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