The Civil War, 1861-1865

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Author: Robert E. Lee  | Date: 1863

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The Battle of Chancellorsville

GENERAL: After the Battle of Fredericksburg, the army remained encamped on the south side of the Rappahannock until the latter part of April. The Federal army occupied the north side of the river opposite Fredericksburg, extending to the Potomac….

At 5.30 a.m. on April 28, the enemy crossed the Rappahannock in boats near Fredericksburg and driving off the pickets on the river, proceeded to lay down a pontoon bridge a short distance below the mouth of Deep Run. Later in the forenoon another bridge was constructed about a mile below the first. A considerable force crossed on these bridges during the day, and was massed out of view under the high banks of the river….

No demonstration was made opposite any other part of our lines at Fredericksburg, and the strength of the force that had crossed and its apparent indisposition to attack indicated that the principal effort of the enemy would be made in some other quarter. This impression was confirmed by intelligence received from General Stuart that a large body of infantry and artillery was passing up the river. During the forenoon of the 29th, that officer reported that the enemy crossed in force near Kelly’s Ford on the preceding evening. Later in the day he announced that a heavy column was moving from Kelly’s toward Germanna Ford, on the Rapidan, and another toward Ely’s Ford on that river. The routes they were pursuing after crossing the Rapidan converge near Chancellorsville, whence several roads lead to the rear of our position at Fredericksburg.

On the night of the 29th, General Anderson was directed to proceed toward Chancellorsville….

The enemy in our front near Fredericksburg continued inactive, and it was now apparent that the main attack would be made upon our flank and rear. It was, therefore, determined to leave sufficient troops to hold our lines, and with the main body of the army to give battle to the approaching column. Early’s division, of Jackson’s corps, and Barksdale’s brigade, of McLaws’ division, with part of the Reserve Artillery, under General (W. N.) Pendleton, were intrusted with the defense of our position at Fredericksburg, and, at midnight on the 30th, General McLaws marched with the rest of his command toward Chancellorsville. General Jackson followed at dawn next morning with the remaining divisions of his corps. He reached the position occupied by General Anderson at 8 a.m., and immediately began prep arations to advance.

At 11 a.m. the troops moved forward upon the Plank and old Turnpike roads…. The enemy was soon encountered on both roads, and heavy skirmishing with infantry and artillery ensued, our troops pressing steadily forward. A strong attack upon General McLaws was repulsed with spirit by Semmes’ brigade, and General Wright, by direction of General Anderson, diverging to the left of the Plank road, marched by way of the unfinished railroad from Fredericksburg to Gordonsville, and turned the enemy’s right. His whole line thereupon retreated rapidly, vigorously pursued by our troops until they arrived within about 1 mile of Chancellorsville. Here the enemy had assumed a position of great natural strength, surrounded on all sides by a dense forest filled with a tangled undergrowth, in the midst of which breastworks of logs had been constructed, with trees felled in front, so as to form an almost impenetrable abatis….

It was evident that a direct attack upon the enemy would be attended with great difficulty and loss, in view of the strength of his position and his superiority of numbers. It was, therefore, resolved to endeavor to turn his right flank and gain his rear, leaving a force in front to hold him in check and conceal the movement. The execution of this plan was intrusted to Lieutenant-General Jackson with his three divisions. The commands of Generals McLaws and Anderson with the exception of Wilcox’s brigade, which during the night had been ordered back to Banks’ Ford, remained in front of the enemy.

Early on the morning of the 2d, General Jackson marched by the Furnace and Brock roads, his movement being effectually covered by Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, under General Stuart in person….

After a long and fatiguing march, General Jackson’s leading division, under General Rodes, reached the old turnpike, about 3 miles in rear of Chancellorsville, at 4 p.m. As the different divisions arrived, they were formed at right angles to the road—Rodes in front, Trimble’s division, under Brigadier-General Colston, in the second, and A. P. Hill’s in the third, line.

At 6 p.m. the advance was ordered. The enemy were taken by surprise, and fled after a brief resistance. General Rodes’ men pushed forward with great vigor and enthusiasm, followed closely by the second and third lines. Position after position was carried, the guns captured, and every effort of the enemy to rally defeated by the impetuous rush of our troops. In the ardor of pursuit through the thick and tangled woods, the first and second lines at last became mingled, and moved on together as one…. It was now dark, and General Jackson ordered the third line, under General Hill, to advance to the front, and relieve the troops of Rodes and Colston, who were completely blended and in such disorder, from their rapid advance through intricate woods and over broken ground, that it was necessary to reform them. As Hill’s men moved forward, General Jackson, with his staff and escort, returning from the extreme front, met his skirmishers advancing, and in the obscurity of the night were mistaken for the enemy and fired upon…. General Jackson himself received a severe injury, and was borne from the field. The command devolved upon Major-General Hill…. General Hill was soon afterward disabled, and Major-General Stuart…. was sent for to take command….

Upon General Stuart’s arrival, soon afterward, the command was turned over to him by General Hill. He immediately proceeded to reconnoiter the ground and make himself acquainted with the disposition of the troops. The darkness of the night and the difficulty of moving through the woods and undergrowth rendered it advisable to defer further operations until morning, and the troops rested on their arms in line of battle….

Early on the morning of the 3d, General Stuart renewed the attack upon the enemy…. Anderson, in the meantime, pressed gallantly forward directly upon Chancellorsville, his right resting upon the Plank road and his left extending around toward the Furnace, while McLaws made a strong demonstration to the right of the road. As the troops advancing upon the enemy’s front and right converged upon his central position, Anderson effected a junction with Jackson’s corps, and the whole line pressed irresistibly on. The enemy was driven from all his fortified positions, with heavy loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners, and retreated toward the Rappahannock. By 10 a.m. we were in full possession of the field.

The troops, having become somewhat scattered by the difficulties of the ground and the ardor of the contest, were immediately reformed preparatory to renewing the attack…. Our preparations were just completed when further operations were arrested by intelligence received from Fredericksburg….

Before dawn on the morning of the 3d, General Barksdale reported to General Early that the enemy had occupied Fredericksburg in large force and laid down a bridge at the town….

…. The success of the enemy enabled him to threaten our communications by moving down the Telegraph road, or to come upon our rear at Chancellorsville by the Plank road…. The enemy then began to advance up the Plank road, his progress being gallantly disputed by the brigade of General Wilcox, who had moved from Banks’ Ford as rapidly as possible to the assistance of General Barksdale, but arrived too late to take part in the action. General Wilcox fell back slowly until he reached Salem Church, on the Plank road, about 5 miles from Fredericksburg.

Information of the state of affairs in our rear having reached Chancellorsville, as already stated, General McLaws, with his three brigades and one of General Anderson’s, was ordered to reenforce General Wilcox. He arrived at Salem Church early in the afternoon, where he found General Wilcox in line of battle, with a large force of the enemy—consisting, as was reported, of one army corps and part of another, under Major-General Sedgwick—in his front…. The enemy’s artillery played vigorously upon our position for some time, when his infantry advanced in three strong lines, the attack being directed mainly against General Wilcox, but partially involving the brigades on his left. The assault was met with the utmost firmness, and after a fierce struggle the first line was repulsed with great slaughter. The second then came forward, but immediately broke under the close and deadly fire which it encountered, and the whole mass fled in confusion to the rear….

The next morning General Early advanced along the Telegraph road, and recaptured Marye’s and the adjacent hills without difficulty, thus gaining the rear of the enemy’s left. He then proposed to General McLaws that a simultaneous attack be made on their respective commands, but the latter officer not deeming his force adequate to assail the enemy in front, the proposition was not carried into effect.

In the meantime the enemy had so strengthened his position near Chancellorsville that it was deemed inexpedient to assail it with less than our whole force, which could not be concentrated until we were relieved from the danger that menaced our rear. It was accordingly resolved still further to reenforce the troops in front of General Sedgwick, in order, if possible, to drive him across the Rappahannock.

Accordingly, on the 4th, General Anderson was directed to proceed with his remaining three brigades to join General McLaws, the three divisions of Jackson’s corps holding our position at Chancellorsville. Anderson reached Salem Church about noon, and was directed to gain the left flank of the enemy and effect a junction with Early. McLaws’ troops were disposed as on the previous day, with orders to hold the enemy in front, and to push forward his right brigades as soon as the advance of Anderson and Early should be perceived, so as to connect with them and complete the continuity of our line…. The attack did not begin until 6 p.m., when Anderson and Early moved forward and drove General Sedgwick’s troops rapidly before them across the Plank road in the direction of the Rappahannock….

The next morning it was found that General Sedgwick had made good his escape and removed his bridges. Fredericksburg was also evacuated, and our rear no longer threatened; but as General Sedgwick had it in his power to recross, it was deemed best to leave General Early, with his division and Barksdale’s brigade, to hold our lines as before, McLaws and Anderson being directed to return to Chancellorsville. They reached their destination during the afternoon, in the midst of a violent storm, which continued throughout the night and most of the following day.

Preparations were made to assail the enemy’s works at daylight on the 6th, but, on advancing our skirmishers, it was found that under cover of the storm and darkness of the night he had retreated over the river.

The movement by which the enemy’s position was turned and the fortune of the day decided was conducted by the lamented Lieutenant-General Jackson, who, as has already been stated, was severely wounded near the close of the engagement on Saturday evening. I do not propose here to speak of the character of this illustrious man, since removed from the scene of his eminent usefulness by the hand of an inscrutable but all-wise Providence. I nevertheless desire to pay the tribute of my admiration to the matchless energy and skill that marked this last act of his life, forming, as it did, a worthy conclusion of that long series of splendid achievements which won for him the lasting love and gratitude of his country.

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Chicago: Robert E. Lee, "The Battle of Chancellorsville," The Civil War, 1861-1865 in America, Vol.8, Pp.166-174 Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2021, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=R33Y1BJ3NDN8BB8.

MLA: Lee, Robert E. "The Battle of Chancellorsville." The Civil War, 1861-1865, in America, Vol.8, Pp.166-174, Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2021. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=R33Y1BJ3NDN8BB8.

Harvard: Lee, RE, 'The Battle of Chancellorsville' in The Civil War, 1861-1865. cited in , America, Vol.8, Pp.166-174. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2021, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=R33Y1BJ3NDN8BB8.