Today is Lee-Jackson Day and what better way to celebrate this holiday that all Southerners should observe regardless of state positions on it than by telling the story of one of Lee and Jackson’s greatest exploits? It would unfortunately prove to be one of Jackson’s last but would lead to the repulsion (yet again) of a Union army marching south and later the Gettysburg campaign.
In late 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac had attempted to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. Everything about the operation was a disaster. Crossing the river led to harrassment by Confederate sharpshooters, Fredericksburg turned into a challenge itself as the Confederates played a miniature guerrilla war in the town, fighting house to house. It took the Union an entire day to get through it and Fredericksburg was only fully secured thanks to the withdrawal of the Confederates in the night. Taking the hills behind the town was the real challenge though and just like the previous Union operations, led to a disaster as the heavily-entrenched Confederates devastated the Union lines.
A few months later and the Union was looking for a victory in the east with some progress. The Rappahannock had to be crossed and punching right through Fredericksburg was not going to work. Joseph Hooker had recently taken over. His solution? Flank Lee’s army with a lightning action and turn his flank. In early April he ordered George Stoneman and his cavalry corps to wreak havoc behind Lee’s lines, drawing away however many men he could and disrupting logistics, using his superior numbers to overpower the Confederate cavalry. The plan wasn’t bad but it was perhaps overly-ambitious. Bad weather and lack of progress led to the abandonment of the cavalry raid. Instead, Hooker would flank Lee with most of his army while Sedgewick’s Corps would try taking Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg to really pin Lee down.
From Shelby Foote’s narrative on the Civil War, Fredericksburg to Meridian, “It was a pleasant thing to contemplate, not only because of its classical tactical simplicity, but also because it would involve what might be called poetic justice, a turning of the tables on the old fox who so often had divided his own army” (Foote, 265). For anyone who knows how Chancellorsville ended, there is a great deal of irony to be had here.
From April 27 to April 30 Hooker crossed the Rappahannock. Ahead of him laid the dense forests and underbrush of “the Wilderness,” slowing down the advance. By the 30th and with only a few skirmishes, the Army of the Potomac was safely on the flank of Lee. To better ensure a victory, in his mind at least, Hooker halted the advance and ordered Couch and Sickles’ corps to rendezvous at Chancellorsville, which was really nothing more than a mansion that happened to be on a crossroad of sorts. This very well might have damned Hooker’s operation, weakening the detatchment at Fredericksburg and on the north bank of the Rappahannock, meaning that Lee could focus on Hooker without much worry. Still, there was a chance he could pull this off.
But the Confederates weren’t just sitting by, awaiting destruction. Hooker caught the Confederates at an ideal time as Longstreet’s corps was tied up in Suffolk, attempting to disperse the Federals on the coast. Longstreet was promptly urged back north. The skirmishes in and about the Wilderness had alerted Lee of Hooker’s presence, giving Lee ample time to maneuver and counter Hooker’s forces, especially with the delay. Still the Confederates were unsure whether it would be Hooker’s flanking forces that would deliver the devastating blow or those that had recently crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and were now digging in. It was decided that Hooker’s flanking attack was the one that stood to deal the most damage, being able to maneuver Lee away from Fredericksburg by threatening his supply routes and line of retreat to Richmond. Therefore Lee focuses on the five corps assembled on the south bank of the Rappahannock. Jubal Early’s division would be tasked with holding the Federals at Fredericksburg, at the very least making it a costly advance.
On May 1 The Army of Northern Virginia lunged westward, coming into contact with the Federals at the Orange Turnpike early in the morning. Couch and Slocum’s corps met resistance but were still advancing, as was Meade to their left who had encountered no resistance. Still, Hooker pulled them back to Chancellorsville in a sort of kneejerk reaction to the Confederate army’s presence. Despite being outnumbered three to one, Lee had managed to foil the Union plan, derail their hope of advance, and put them on the defensive.
The initiative was very important in those days. With it you could fight on the ground you chose, how you chose, and with the enemy’s weaknesses at your fingertips. Hooker surrendered that initiative and now he was going to pay for it. Lee and Jackson devised their own plan; flank the Union army from the northwest, effectively putting them into a salient and exploiting all that entails. This would require a long march to circumvent the Union army but Jackson was the master of forced marches. With him it was well within the bounds of reality. It was a risky and ambitious plan though. Should Hooker lunge forward at Lee’s forces, numbering just 15,000, the next day the entire Confederate army could be split in two and would have to retire southward; however, the Federals were digging in and so the plan was put into effect, fingers crossed.
The march was conducted and despite the Federals taking notice, it was ignored, reasoning that it was a Confederate withdrawal. On the next day, May 2nd, Jackson smashed into the Union flank with 30,000 men. The attack was terrible, crushing the Union lines, but it did not go far enough and the Federals were able to regroup and counterattack, regaining some lost territory. The attack had been launched late in the day with just a few hours of daylight left.
That night was the real tragedy of the day though. While doing his own reconnaissance, Jackson was mortally wounded by his own soldiers, thinking him and his companions were Union cavalry. He would die eight days later from pneumonia.
-The wounding of Jackson
J.E.B. Stuart took over command of Jackson’s corps for the next day. Despite being a cavalry commander, Stuart did well against the Federals on May 3rd, dislodging the entire army with the help of Lee’s 15,000 on Hooker’s left flank. As Hooker began to withdraw north, the Confederates turned to counter Sedgewick’s forces who were nearing a breakthrough at Fredericksburg. On May 4, Sedgewick was pushed back but was able to conduct a fighting and orderly retreat.
Chancellorsville was the prelude to the even more climactic Battle of Gettysburg but it once again showed the world the combined genius of Jackson and Lee. The battle was costly but it was a major strategic victory, pathing the way for a Confederate advance north. However, the absence of Jackson would be sorely missed and the high casualty rate wasn’t helping as one third of all Confederate men engaged became casualties.
Despite missing a third of his army and being outnumber three to one, Lee was able to pull off such a fantastic victory. The admiration he has recieved over the years are surely warranted and the same can be said for Jackson. As the leftists attempt to take away this holiday, remember their sacrifices as well as those of our own ancestors. We’ve earned the right to remember and celebrate.
Happy Lee-Jackson Day and may it continue through the years.