Streetwise Professor

May 3, 2013

Chancellorsville

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — The Professor @ 5:20 pm

Today is the sesquicentennial of the 3d day of the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Jackson’s flank attack on 2 May, 1863 is usually the focus of accounts of the battle, and indeed, it was a daring and brilliant achievement.  But it did not win the battle for Lee and the Confederacy.  Lee only prevailed after a brutal slugging match on this day, 150 years ago.  Wave after wave of Confederates, under command of Jeb Stuart, repeatedly assailed the western side of a Federal salient surrounding the Chancellor house.  And wave after wave was beaten off by Union soldiers of the Third and Twelfth Corps.  What proved decisive was a disastrous decision to evacuate the high ground at Hazel Grove, made by the Union commander, Joe Hooker.  The Confederates seized this commanding terrain, and the artillery planted there proved decisive.  It was perhaps the only time in the war that Confederate artillery decided a battle: there were several fields where Union artillery proved decisive.  Confederate artillerist and memorialist Porter Alexander said of the abandonment of Hazel Grove: “There has rarely been a more gratuitous gift of a battlefield.”

Chancellorsville is often called Lee’s Masterpiece.  And it was, in many ways.  But it also illustrates the ultimate futility of the Confederate cause.  Even after the rout of the Eleventh Corps on the 2d, the Union forces far outnumbered Lee’s and were in a position to carry out a vigorous defense.  Even with the gratuitous gift of Hazel Grove, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered huge casualties to drive the Federals from the environs of the Chancellor House and Fairview.  The casualties were particularly devastating at every level of command.  The battle was a virtual holocaust of division and brigade commanders, field officers, and company officers.  As a result of the battle, Lee had to undertake a wholesale reorganization of his army, and many of those promoted to fill the positions of those killed or maimed on May 3d proved overmatched two months later, on the fields of Pennsylvania.

In brief, even to execute a “masterpiece”, and one facilitated by numerous errors by his opponent Hooker, Lee had to spend lives at an unsustainable rate.  One wonders how it would have been possible to prevail, since even victory was impossibly costly.

Indeed, even the action of the 3d was not decisive.  The Army of the Potomac retreated from the Chancellorsville salient to a more compact position abutting the Rappahannock River, and entrenched it strongly.  It is highly unlikely that it could have been dislodged by an attack by Lee’s spent force.  But Hooker, who had already suffered a loss of confidence and courage on 1 May, and who had been severely concussed by a shell on the 3d, wanted no more of Lee.  Even though a majority of his corps commanders favored fighting it out on the new line, Hooker decided to retreat.  The ultimate victory was due more to Lee’s psychological dominance over an addled Hooker that proved decisive, than to the military dominance of the ANV.

And this worked on Lee’s psychology too, and not in a good way.  Chancellorsville contributed to a hubris that proved disastrous at Gettysburg.

Meanwhile,while Lee was triumphing at Chancellorsville, events were developing far to the west, in the heart of Mississippi.  After months of frustrated attempts to get at Vicksburg, Grant was on the east side of the Mississippi River.  He had beaten back a Confederate force commanded by John Bowen at Port Gibson on 1 May.  He was advancing east, towards Jackson.

Lee fought a masterful battle in early May.  Grant fought a masterful campaign over three weeks of that month.  The campaign proved far more decisive than the battle, as I’ll discuss in future posts on Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black Bridge.

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