The Battle of Chancellorsville – Hooker’s command decisions


The Battle of Chancellorsville took place April 27-May 6, 1863. The Battle of Chancellorsville is traditionally described as Lee’s most impressive victory. General Robert E Lee gambled on dividing his Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) several times in the face of a larger enemy and transported troops back and forth along internal lines to meet each anticipated threat. His victory turned on his audacity and his opponent’s timidity and is almost always described from that perspective. In this analysis, we will evaluate the command decisions General Hooker made, his choices, and how he contributed to his defeat. Typically, his self-analysis that he lost confidence in himself is taken at face value, but on deeper reflection, that is not an accurate analysis.

Hooker Takes Command

General “Fighting” Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac (AoP) on January 26, 1863, after the fiasco of Fredericksburg and before the Battle of Chancellorsville. He was the obvious choice, given his reputation as a tough and aggressive fighter. Almost immediately, two-division commanders resigned (William Franklin refused to serve under Hooker; Edwin Sumner had poor health), and Daniel Butterfield became chief of staff. Hooker developed the Bureau of Military Information, appointing Colonel George Sharpe to command, who utilized cavalry reconnaissance, spies, scouts, and aerial balloons. Consequently, Hooker knew that Lee had covered all of the crossings of the Rappahannock. 

“Fighting” Joe Hooker had an excellent plan for the upcoming campaign. He designed a double envelopment of the Army of Northern Virginia, having the cavalry cross far west. In contrast, his infantry crossed the Rappahannock and the Rapidan rivers at Kelly’s Ford and then converged at Ely’s and Germanna fords. Where the two rivers converge provided Hooker cover and opportunity. The second branch of the attack was to have General Sedgwick cross below Fredericksburg, flanking Jackson’s Corps. Thanks to Sharpe, Hooker knew that Lee was covering the fords facing north and east and that he had to cover Richmond to his south. Therefore, Hooker sensed an opening in the west. 

“My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”  

The Battle Begins

On April 27-28, the Union army began crossing the fords and concentrated at Chancellorsville, an obscure crossroads in the Wilderness that was just a single brick mansion standing on the north side of an intersection. It was an old inn that was owned by a family named Chancellor and located at the junction of 3 roads: Ely’s Ford Road, Orange Turnpike, and Orange Plank Road. Its location was crucial to Hooker’s plan: it is actually in Robert E. Lee’s west rear.

“Fighting” Joe Hooker arrived there on April 30. By May 1, he had 70,000 troops at this location, and there was no sign that Lee knew where he was. In fact, although Jeb Stuart had been cut off by Stoneman’s advance but had informed Robert E. Lee by April 30 of this movement. And Lee knew that Sedgwick would threaten his right flank. He understood exactly the problem. With both wings of the enemy across the Rappahannock, on both his east and west flanks, Lee faced a serious dilemma. 

Conventional military wisdom dictated that the outnumbered ANV retreat south and escape Hooker’s trap. Lee opted to meet the Federal challenge head-on and not retreat. Lee intuited that Sedgwick was not going to be a real threat but rather a demonstration and that the real threat was in his rear. He also recognized that retreating with the enemy in his rear would create other difficulties.

Correctly deducing that Hooker’s primary threat lay to the west, Lee assigned 10,000 troops under Major General Jubal A. Early to man the old Fredericksburg entrenchments. The balance of the army would turn toward the tangled Wilderness to confront Hooker’s flanking column. Thus, he sent 80% of his army in the opposite direction of the front line. He didn’t think Hooker would allow Sedgwick to command the major attack force. Sedgwick’s division had lost half its men at Antietam, and he himself had been wounded three times. He hadn’t been in command at the battle of Fredericksburg and had just taken over for Sumner. 

The Federals had encountered virtually no opposition to this point. Moreover, they could now press eastward, break clear of the Wilderness, and uncover Banks Ford downstream, thus significantly shortening the distance between their two wings. Having dropped into Lee’s rear, an aggressive attack might have caught Lee in a bad position forcing him to retreat with the Union army chasing him. But Hooker stopped and waited for Lee to attack him, ceding the initiative to Lee.  

Analysis: At this critical moment, Hooker decided to halt at Chancellorsville and await the arrival of additional Union troops. This fateful decision changed the battle. When General Couch protested, Hooker famously said, “It is all right, Couch, I have got Lee just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground.” Hooker’s lack of imagination as to the various options available to his opponent, a wily old fox, would prove to be his fatal flaw.

“Fighting” Joe Hooker had stopped his forward motion when Robert E. Lee was caught in between his wings. Had Hooker advanced, he would have kept the initiative and limited Lee’s options? 

Hooker instead set up a defensive line to his east and the high ground, Hazel Grove, to the southwest. 

Here is one great example of why Lee was a great battlefield commander: his comprehension of how his enemy would analyze the situation. Dividing his army was a gamble, but the real gamble was following his intuition and not hesitating or playing it safe. His instinct about Sedgwick was brilliant.

We hear this battle usually summarized, as Hooker himself did, as a loss of self-confidence. But that isn’t really the case, as his exclamation to Couch shows. He believed either Lee must retreat, with the Union army in his rear, or attack him frontally. Hooker expected Lee to retreat; after all, that was the safe thing to do and exactly what Hooker would have done. There is evidence that Hooker was looking to put himself in a position where he would be attacked and not repeat the Fredericksburg fiasco. He himself suggested that he was concerned that all of his armies be up on the battlefield before advancing, and that may also have been part of the decision. It may well also have been that it was his first time maneuvering an entire army.

The “Surprise Attack”

The “surprise flank attack” of Stonewall Jackson using an unmapped road to attack the rear of the Army of the Potomac highlights Jackson’s military genius, and of course, his ultimately mortal wounding soon thereafter is one of the great American legends. The fact is that movement was not a surprise, nor was it the mortal blow retelling suggests. In fact, his wounding occurred because Jackson understood that he hadn’t defeated a major portion of the Union army, was dangerously separated, and so was looking for an opportunity to take further advantage. On May 2, Jackson devised a daring plan that divided the numerically inferior southern army and then marched Jackson’s men far around the Union army to strike unsuspecting Union troops on their extreme right flank.

The Union army was positioned north of the turnpike and also at Hazel Crest. Lee understood very well that his army was divided and that he was outnumbered everywhere. He knew that Hooker expected him to either retreat – and be forced to defend his rear – or attack his line. Instead, Lee looked for an alternative.

It must be pointed out that Jackson didn’t actually find the road; his cartographer did. A brilliant confederate cartographer named Jedidiah Hotchkiss found the road. Stonewall Jackson had asked him to draw maps of this battlefield, and he made the discovery of a hidden road not on any maps of the time. The road that Hotchkiss found begins at an iron foundry called Catharine Furnace not far from Hazel Crest and leads south – the opposite direction – and then, after a wide swing, goes north. The road then crosses the turnpike and fortuitously leads directly to the Union right flank. Investigations of a route to be used to reach the flank were made by Hotchkiss and Reverend Beverly Tucker Lacy, Jackson’s “chaplain general .”Lacy introduced Hotchkiss to the proprietor of Catharine Furnace, Charles C. Wellford, who showed Hotchkiss, Jackson’s cartographer, a recently constructed road through the forest that would shield marchers from the observation of Union pickets. 

Stonewall Jackson knew that taking this very roundabout route would lead him to the Union right flank, but how did he know that it wasn’t covered and unentrenched? Recall that the union cavalry was off making a wide right flank maneuver, so it wasn’t around to screen the reserve corps from Confederate cavalry. About midnight, Jeb Stuart told Jackson that his reconnaissance had shown that the right flank wasn’t entrenched. Jackson dispatched Hotchkiss to explore the roads to the west. Although Hooker’s left flank was firmly anchored by Meade’s V Corps on the Rappahannock, and his center was strongly fortified, his right flank was “in the air.” Howard’s XI Corps was camped on the Orange Turnpike, extending past Wilderness Church, and was vulnerable to a flanking attack.

At dawn, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson studied Hotchkiss’s hastily drawn map and decided to undertake one of the biggest gambles in American military history. Jackson’s corps, about 30,000 troops, would follow a series of country roads and woods paths to reach the Union right. Robert E. Lee, with the remaining 14,000 infantry, would occupy a position more than three miles long and divert Hooker’s attention during Stonewall Jackson’s dangerous trek. Robert E. Lee, therefore, divided his small army once again: he is now in 3 parts, all of them facing larger forces.

Analysis: Hooker was expecting to be attacked frontally, but Jackson had developed a different plan. Once again, we see General Lee making the right decision. Unlike Hooker, Robert E. Lee knew his opponent. He judged Hooker to be a tough fighter but not the most imaginative strategist. And Lee was a clever tactician; he looked for an opportunity, and here one presents itself.

We know that this is an accurate summary of events because Hotchkiss wrote a book, The Battlefields of Virginia, Chancellorsville. The famous description is from his book:

“With a map before him, General Jackson suggested an entire circuit of the right of the opposing army and that the attack be made on its rear. Lee inquired with what force he would do this. Jackson replied, “With my whole corps, present.” Lee then asked what would be left to him with which to resist an advance of the enemy towards Fredericksburg. “The divisions of Anderson and McLaws,” said Stonewall Jackson. For a moment, Lee reflected on the audacity of this plan in the face of Hooker’s superior numbers. With less than forty-two thousand muskets, he was in the presence of sixty thousand. To divide his army into two parts, and place the whole Federal force between them, was extremely hazardous.”

May 2: The Flank Attack

By the morning of May 2, Hooker realized that Lee was not fooled by Sedgwick at Fredericksburg. Recognizing that he needed to modify his plan, he made two decisions.

First, he tried to bring General Reynolds and the I Corps to Chancellorsville. Hooker had a good plan for positioning Reynolds. However, he thought Reynolds was across the Rappahannock, but in fact, he was still with Sedgwick. This required Reynolds to make a prolonged day march. 

Second, he did the math finally and realized that if most of Lee’s army was now in his front, the Fredericksburg line must be weak. Hooker surmised that Early was vastly undermanned. He, therefore, ordered Sedgwick to make a full attack at Fredericksburg. Proving that Lee was right about Sedgwick all along, the attack never materialized on May 2. His attack was delayed until May 3, making all of the difference.

Reynolds was supposed to be positioned further to the right beyond Howard to anchor that flank on the Rappahannock. The myth that Hooker didn’t know his right flank was in the air is wrong. He merely saw it as his rear.

It was also a myth that the attack was a surprise, except perhaps to General Hooker. Numerous Union forces had, in fact, detected Jackson’s movement, and Colonel Sharpe himself had warned Hooker that Jackson’s corps wasn’t in his front. But Hooker believed that Jackson was in retreat, not advancing on his flank. 

Scouts on Hazel Crest informed Hooker that they saw and heard Jackson’s men to their west. Sharpe had deployed aerial balloons and spotted the movement. When Hooker received these reports about the Confederate movement, he thought that Lee might be starting a retreat, but he also realized that a flanking march might be in progress. He took two actions. First, he sent a message at 9:30 a.m. to the commander of the XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard on his right flank: “We have good reason to suppose the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe in order to obtain timely information of their approach.” He did not order entrenchment, and Howard never considered it.

As the morning progressed, however, Hooker grew to believe that Lee was actually withdrawing; this was the course of events Hooker most preferred. He became less concerned about his right. Instead, he ordered Third Corps to harass the tail end of Lee’s “retreating” army. General Sickles advanced from Hazel Crest towards Catharine Furnace and attacked Jackson’s men in the rear guard. This movement guaranteed that Sickles could not come to Howard’s reinforcement when attacked. Jackson’s main force continued onto Brock Road, where it meets the Orange Plank Road – directly into the Union right flank. Sickles informed Hooker, to no avail, that Jackson wasn’t retreating but was on the move.

Northern soldiers were caught almost completely unawares and quickly succumbed to panic and rout, resulting in one of the most striking tactical defeats of the war. 

Analysis: Obviously, this was an awful judgment; it changed Hooker’s life and his reputation forever after. Most narratives say that Hooker lost his confidence, but that cannot explain his not listening to all of the reports being given. In fact, these actions demonstrate irrational overconfidence. Hooker didn’t have the imagination to plan what he would do if he were in Lees’ situation. Therefore, he could not anticipate what Lee would do. Knowing your enemy is crucial. He himself would do the safe thing, retreat, and he never considered other alternatives. This was his undoing. Lee was never, ever about the safe thing.

Lee and Jackson had made yet another gamble. They deduced that four conditions would apply that might make this risky plan a success: a) Jackson had to make a 12-mile march via roundabout roads to reach the Union right, and he had to do it undetected. b) Hooker had to stay tamely on the defensive. c) Early would have to keep Sedgwick bottled up at Fredericksburg, despite the four-to-one Union advantage there. d) When Jackson launched his attack, he had to hope that the Union forces were unprepared.

Why didn’t the Union cavalry show Hooker where Jackson’s corps was moving? Stoneman’s cavalry was carrying out its long-distance raid against the Confederate supply lines, so they weren’t there. Hooker had sent the cavalry off to cut Lee’s line of supply by tearing up the railroad in Lee’s rear. Unfortunately, the mission failed.

It was thought that the Wilderness woods was impenetrable, and so there was temporary protection, especially as the front was in the east. 

Why wasn’t Howard entrenched? He perceived his position to be in the rear of the army and thus not likely to become involved in the day’s fighting. 

Stonewall Jackson’s victory on May 2 did not result in a significant military advantage for the Army of Northern Virginia. Howard’s XI Corps had been defeated, but the Army of the Potomac remained a potent force and, in fact, were in an excellent position for May 3. This is one of the least understood facets of this battle. Jackson deserves great credit for this attack, but he recognized at the moment that nothing really had been accomplished.

May 3: Hazel Crest

Even after the May 2 surprise attack, Lee was still in a difficult position. Jackson realized that the Union army on his front remained formidable. That evening, he considered a night attack to continue the great rout his surprise attack had created but not completed: that is why he was out there that night. Jackson and Hill were wounded by their own men performing reconnaissance, and JEB Stuart was given temporary command of Jackson’s Corps. 

By the morning of May 3, Howard’s XI Corps had been defeated, but the Army of the Potomac remained a potent force, and Reynolds’s I Corps had arrived overnight, which replaced Howard’s losses. About 76,000 Union men faced 43,000 Confederates at the Chancellorsville front. The two halves of Lee’s army at Chancellorsville were separated by Sickles’ III Corps, which occupied a strong position on high ground at Hazel Grove.

And the ANV was divided all over the battlefield. Sickles’ troops at Hazel Crest were right in between. Hooker could have attacked either part of Lee’s army, moving in any direction, and destroyed it. Stuart was completely aware of this predicament. He was not in a position for a defensive battle. So instead, he prepared an attack at dawn on Hazel Crest rather than await one. 

And then Hooker, who continually made the wrong decisions in this battle, then made his most disastrous decision. He ordered Sickles to abandon Hazel Grove at the very instant when that high ground became critical to the position.

The Union position at Hazel Grove was separated from the main army position with tentative connection and support. Hooker pulled Sickles back for its survival. Hooker was thinking defensively, not offensively. Hooker ordered Sickles off that high ground and instead to another area much lower called Fairview. Hooker felt he was losing, and he couldn’t see the advantage of his position, so he retreated to what he erroneously thought was a safe fallback position. As previously noted, Hooker was unimaginative; if you are losing, you fall back. 

Stuart had been ready to fight for that ground, and now it had been given to him. He took control of the high ground and blasted Sickles at Fairview, where he was a sitting duck for Stuart’s artillery.

Recognizing that his forces were divided and lower numbers and that Hooker expected him to retreat, instead, Lee launched multiple attacks against the Union position at Chancellorsville, resulting in heavy losses on both sides. The army that ended up pulling back was Hooker’s main army. Lee had taken the initiative from Hooker, who sensed he was losing – because it wasn’t going according to his plans, not because of what was happening on the field.

Analysis: At Chancellorsville, the Union army had 106,000 engaged, suffering 12,000 casualties, and the Confederate army of 60,000 had almost 13,000 casualties. Lee lost over 1/5 of his army in a win – obviously, this casualty rate could not be sustained, and definitely not for only a minimal strategic advantage. Lee and the ANV had lost more men, but Hooker didn’t realize it.

But wait! What about Hooker being conked in the head? Hooker suffered an injury on May 3 when at 9:15 a.m., a Confederate cannonball hit a wooden pillar he was leaning against at his headquarters. This occurred during the main battle from the bombardment from Hazel Grove. He later wrote that half of the pillar “violently [struck me] … in an erect position from my head to my feet.” He suffered a concussion, which caused him to be unconscious for over an hour. He did not give up command, but General Couch reported that he was in a daze most of that day. No significant orders were made in that time period. Yet another myth is that Hooker lost the battle because of this injury, but it wasn’t true: he made poor decisions both before and afterward. 

Salem Church

Hooker had ordered Sedgwick to attack the morning of May 2. Sedgwick didn’t receive this order until late in the day, and even then, Sedgwick was slow to take action. But eventually, he crossed the Rappahannock River on May 3. Interestingly, had he attacked on May 2, he would have found Jubal Early entirely unprepared.  

On May 3, Sedgwick and Early fought the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. The idea was to move west to join forces with Hooker and trap Lee between the halves of the Union army. Sedgwick joined with Gibbons and attacked Marye’s Heights yet again. Barksdale’s brigade again held back the Union. A truce was called to allow the Union army to clear the field of its dead and wounded.

Then finally, fortune smiled on the Union army. On May 1, Lee had given Early provisional orders to retreat in case he was defeated at Chancellorsville. Early misunderstood orders and retreated anyway. Fredericksburg was open that afternoon, but Sedgwick never knew it. That night, Lee corrected the error, and Early was in place the morning of May 3.

During the attack, a halt was called for the removal of the dead and wounded. It was noticed during the truce that Barksdale’s left flank was unprotected. Sedgwick re-directed the attack, drove Barksdale off the heights, and then again past the road and Lee’s Hill. Early withdrew south and Wilcox west, holding the road from further Union advance. Early had clearly lost his position. He also sustained 700 casualties of 12,000 troops, vs. 1,100 union casualties of 27,000 troops. 

After occupying Marye’s Heights on May 3, following the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, Sedgwick’s VI Corps marched out on the Orange Plank Road with the objective of reaching Hooker’s force at Chancellorsville. He was delayed by Wilcox’s brigade of Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s force during the afternoon of May 3 before halting at Salem Church. Gibbon was left to defend the town. The next morning, thinking there was only Wilcox in his front, he renewed the attack. Once again, the Union command did not anticipate that Lee would respond to events.

After receiving word of Sedgwick’s breakthrough at Fredericksburg, Lee detached the division of Lafayette McLaws from the Chancellorsville lines and marched them to Salem Church. McLaws’s division arrived at Wilcox’s position shortly after noon, reinforced by William Mahone’s brigade of Richard H. Anderson’s division. He was stopped by elements of Lee’s Second Corps (under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, following the wounding of Jackson) at the Battle of Salem Church, forcing his eventual retreat back over the Rappahannock.

By 11 a.m. on May 4, General Sedgwick was facing three directions; west towards Lee’s main body and Salem Church, south towards Anderson’s division, and East towards Early’s division. When General Sedgwick heard rumors that reinforcements from Richmond had arrived, he felt his situation was becoming more difficult. He already had a six-mile-long line held by 20,000 troops with only a bridgehead to retreat upon in failure, with more Confederates possibly arriving. He had sustained 5,000 casualties in the fighting, and he was concerned if he could hold on against the horde he felt was arriving soon. He reported his difficult situation to General Hooker and requested the main army assist him. General Hooker, however, replied not to attack unless the main army did the same.

Meanwhile, General Lee arrived at McLaws’ headquarters at 11 a.m., and McLaws informed him that he did not feel strong enough to launch an attack and asked for reinforcements. There were no reinforcements coming, and he had 10,000 men. Anderson was ordered to bring the other three brigades of his division and position them between McLaws and Early; he then launched additional attacks, which were also defeated.

Analysis: Both sides in this battle, though, were outnumbered. But the Union, in fact, had a 23,000 to 10,000 advantage. Why did Sedgwick misunderstand his situation? Sedgwick was covering a wider area, so he had the illusion of fewer troops. The act is, once again, all he had to do was gather everyone together and fight one or the other divided confederate divisions. Both sides had about 5000 casualties, again a much higher rate in the Confederate army. Sedgwick was in a great position to attack.

Imagine if Hooker had just attacked Lee on May 4 after Lee sent McLaws to Salem Church? By licking his wounds instead of acting aggressively, Hooker lost the battle he could have won.

The Retreat

After dark, Sedgwick sent Hooker a message recommending that the VI Corps retreat across the river. After Hooker sent his approval at 1 a.m., Sedgwick withdrew across two pontoon bridges at Banks’ Ford, completing the retreat at about 4 a.m. Hearing that Sedgwick had been repulsed, Hooker abandoned the entire campaign, recrossing the main body of the Union army on the night of May 5 into May 6 to the north bank of the Rappahannock River.

Hooker retreated when Sedgwick did. Some think that this was the biggest blunder of the battle. Hooker no longer posed the original threat to attack Lee on both his flanks. He never considered that he still outnumbered Lee in each section of the battlefield. Lee’s impending assault on May 6 might have failed and completely reversed the outcome of the battle.

Final Analysis: Hooker never lost any day’s battle except for Jackson’s surprise attack. Although Hooker suffered more than 17,000 casualties, those losses accounted for only 13% of his total strength. Lee’s 13,000 casualties amounted to 22% of his army. 

Hooker never considered what Lee might do and thought Lee could not discern his plan; he underestimated his enemy and never thought about the response Lee might make. Lee, on the other hand, calculated the situation of the new Union commander very carefully and understood what choices he would not make, leaving him with a window into what he would do. Hooker made plans and had only limited flexibility when that plan met obstacles, and he had little ability to analyze how the enemy would respond to situations. 

Did he lose self-confidence, as he himself said later? Sure, but the reason was that by the time he retreated to find safety, Lee had already figured out how to counter that move. Hooker was playing one step at a time strictly by the book, while Lee was thinking several steps ahead and knew he had to take calculated risks.

But most importantly, Lee then bet all of his chips on his judgment. He didn’t hold back in case he was wrong. Why was he so confident? He knew his opponent, and basically, he had no other realistic chance to win. This is how winners win in making decisions.

Did the Confederate Army win the battle? It is traditionally interpreted that way, with Hooker leaving the field in defeat. Lee did a masterful job despite Hooker stealing a march on him. But the casualties don’t bear that out. It is often called a Pyrrhic victory. But really, the only difference between Hooker at Chancellorsville and Grant at Wilderness a year later was that Grant moved forward. If Hooker moved forward, then it would have been considered a draw. But Hooker retreated because he did what the expected, usual thing was. 

Meanwhile, Lee had 22% fewer soldiers to invade Pennsylvania in 1 month. The Pennsylvania campaign could well have turned out differently with that many additional men at the right moments.

The truth is that General Hooker defeated himself. Lee didn’t so much win the battle as Hooker lost it. Hooker never considered what Lee might do and thought Lee could not discern his plan; he underestimated his enemy and never thought about the responses Lee might make. Lee, on the other hand, calculated the situation of the new Union commander very carefully and understood what choices he would not make, leaving him with a window into what he would do. Hooker made plans and had only limited flexibility when that plan met obstacles, and he had little ability to analyze how the enemy would respond to situations. When things went wrong or unplanned things happened, he was unable to adapt.


Stephen W Sears, Chancellorsville. Mariner Books, 1996.

James K Bryan II, The Chancellorsville Campaign. The History Press, Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. 2009.

James M McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1988.

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