6 – Battle of Chancellorsville (1863)
In many ways, the Battle of Chancellorsville showed the best and worst of General Robert E. Lee. Although it is widely regarded as his masterpiece, the Confederate army lost an enormous number of soldiers, losses it could not afford, and crucially, resulted in the death of Stonewall Jackson, a man Lee referred to as his ‘right arm’. Lee faced a Union army almost twice the size of his and took a huge gamble with a bold strategy that paid off.
On April 30, 1863, Lee commanded an army of approximately 60,000 men and found an enemy army of over 100,000 men, led by General Joseph Hooker, right behind him. A battle began that lasted for six days and resulted in approximately 30,000 casualties between the two armies.
Instead of pressing home his initial advantage, Hooker decided to set up a defensive position, and when Lee arrived on the scene on May 1, he was able to plan his own flank movement with the aid of Jackson.
The following day, Lee divided his army and Jackson took 30,000 men to fight against the Union’s weak right flank where he won a stunning victory. In fact, only the arrival of nightfall prevented him from completely destroying the enemy. That night, Jackson died in a tragic friendly fire incident. The Union army attacked the rear of Lee’s forces on May 3 but the Confederate general was able to beat them back, and on May 6, Hooker withdrew his remaining army.
Although both sides sustained enormous casualties, the Union had the far greater manpower and resources and could bear the losses and regroup. In contrast, the Confederate army was at a severe disadvantage. Within a couple of months, Lee would do battle with the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg; the conflict often said to be the turning point in the Civil War.