01 May 2007 by Published in: General musings 3 comments

Today is the 144th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1, 1863. Over the course of the last six or seven years, Chancellorsville has become one of my very favorite battles of the war. It has so many layers, so many sub-stories, that one could easily devote a lifetime of study to it. I’m going to do several posts on the importance of Chancellorsville over the course of the next couple of days. I hope that you enjoy them. Tonight, I’m going to focus on the Army of Northern Virginia.

With only about 45,000 men, Robert E. Lee thoroughly whipped Joseph Hooker’s 100,000+ man strong Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. There are lots of reasons for it, and those reasons, in turn, have great import to the rest of the Civil War in the east.

First, and foremost, of course is the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson. When Jackson was shot by his own men, it meant that there would be tremendous changes ahead for the Army of Northern Virginia. At the time of the battle, the ANV consisted of two extremely large corps, commanded by Jackson and James Longstreet. Most of Longstreet’s command was not at Chancellorsville; all but McLaws’ division were besieging Suffolk. After Jackson was mortally wounded, the entire Army of Northern Virginia was restructured. Instead of two corps, there were now three. Only one of those three corps was commanded by a man with any experience in command of such a large body of men, Longstreet. The other two, Richard S. Ewell and A. P. Hill were both coming off of serious wounds (Hill was wounded with Jackson by friendly fire), both were in questionable states of health, and neither had any experience leading such large bodies of men. Hill was almost a non-factor at Gettysburg, and Ewell proved not to have the aggressive nature of Jackson. Some argue that with the passing of Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia lost its offensive punch. While I don’t necessarily agree, there is no disputing the fact that the ANV would never again be the same.

At the same time, the lopsided Confederate victory had one very real and unforeseen consequence. It made both Robert E. Lee and the men who followed him into battle believe that they were invincible. Lee’s plan violated virtually every conventional rule of war: he was outnumbered more than two to one, he divided his army in the face of the enemy, and he took the offensive against the accepted odds. Incredibly, those gambles paid off, and his army thrashed Hooker, even if it came at a frightful toll. Such success inevitably made both Lee and his troops believe that they were invincible, and those men paid the price for that arrogance eight weeks later at Gettysburg, especially those who led the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge on July 3, 1863.

When both Jackson and Hill were wounded, the next ranking officer in the corps, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, had just been promoted to divisional command and was in no way prepared to assume command of a very large corps. Instead, Lee turned to J.E.B. Stuart, his cavalry chief, and put Stuart in temporary command of Jackson’s corps. To Stuart’s undying credit, he performed magnificently in that role, leading Jackson’s battered men in a hard day of fighting on May 3. Stuart wanted permanent command of the corps and felt he had earned it by virtue of his fine performance at Chancellorsville. Lee, however, evidently felt that the army was better served by having Stuart remain as the eyes and ears of the army, and returned the cavalier to his regular command after the battle. Some armchair psychologists have speculated that Stuart’s disappointment over not being given permanent command of Jackson’s corps caused him to become determined to do something spectacular in order to prove that Lee was wrong. Personally, I don’t buy this theory for a moment, but it’s very persistent and it’s worthy of attention.

Chancellorsville also demonstrated that shortcomings in the organization of the Confederate artillery structure, prompting Lee to completely reorganize his artillery as part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s restructuring. Although the Union artillerists outgunned their Southern counterparts at Gettysburg, we can only imagine how bad it would have been had Lee not restructured his artillery. This was a positive change that came about as a direct result of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Although I remain convinced that Second Bull Run was Lee’s greatest victory, as it did not entail any significant losses in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps and caused an entire army to cease to exist within a few days, Chancellorsville was nevertheless critical to the mystique of both Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Its significance and long-lasting impact should never be underestimated.

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Comments

  1. Steve Basic
    Tue 01st May 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Eric,

    Count me as one of those who think 2nd Manassas was Lee’s greatest victory as well. I also agree that the changes Lee made after the Battle of Chancellorsville made a big difference, and in effect prolonged the war in the East.

    As for Stuart, he did perform very well in that role at this Battle, but I don’t buy it either that he wanted the job to become permanent. Just my opinion, but I feel he would have been stifled in that role, and was more attuned with his job with the Cavalry. As for him doing something spectacular to prove Lee was wrong, to me, he just went about his business as he always did.

    I find it very interesting just how close Stuart and Jackson were during the war. IMHO, it is an angle of the war that has not been delved into more deeply, and there is a great story there that has yet to be fully told.

    Hope all is well.

    Steve

  2. Don
    Wed 02nd May 2007 at 9:36 am

    Hello Eric

    Looking forward to your posts. Thoroughly enjoy these type of posts that have some many topics to discuss. I had never heard Stuart wanted that position to be permanent. His performance was very good in that role. Concerning the wounding of Jackson and ultimate promotions of Ewell and Hill, were any others seriously considered? Sometimes it is easy to look back over the period of time and make suggestions now. I think other than Ewells one day on the way to Gettysburg and I believe the first day in the Wilderness his performance was lacking. Not sure if Hill’s could even be considered to match Ewells.
    Regards

  3. Teej Smith
    Wed 02nd May 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Good post, Eric. Good fit or not, I daresay Jeb would have moved heaven and earth to get Jackson’s Corps and the promotion it would have brought. He wrote to Flora about the rumors abounding that he would “succeed Jackson,” with no indication that he would turn it down. According to Emory Thomas, he also walked around with “his draft general order congratulating ‘his’ corps” and wrote a letter to Lee that was clearly “fishing for compliments” in regard to his performance at Chancellorsville.
    I agree with you that Lee’s never promoting Jeb was NOT his way of showing his displeasure of the Plumed One’s performance during the Gettysburg Campaign. Lee had no reason to be that subtle. 🙂

    Teej

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