General Ambrose E. Burnside only lasted a single campaign at the head of the Army of the Potomac. His abject failure at Fredericksburg, followed by further fumbling on January's "Mud March," convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make a change.
Major General Joseph Hooker's energetic make-over polished the Northern army into tip-top condition, and with more strength than ever before. The army commander outmaneuvered Lee in late April, when the weather finally allowed roads to harden enough for marching.
Swinging far beyond Lee's left, Hooker closed up on the Chancellorsville intersection on the last evening in April. He never managed to escape the clutches of the Wilderness, though—the tangled, brush-choked thickets that covered about 70 square miles around Chancellorsville.
On May 1, Lee hurriedly gathered his army from its far-flung camps across the Old Dominion. He used his regiments to hem the quiescent Hooker into the Wilderness, pushing west along the two primary corridors in the region—the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road.
That evening Lee and his incomparable lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, conceived their greatest, and last, collaboration. Early on May 2 Jackson took nearly 30,000 men off on a march that clandestinely crossed the front of the enemy army and swung around behind it. That left Lee with only about 15,000 men to hold off Hooker's army. He managed that formidable task by feigning attacks with a scant line of skirmishers.
Soon after 5 p.m. Jackson, having completed his circuit around the enemy, unleashed his men in an overwhelming attack on Hooker's right flank and rear. They shattered the Federal Eleventh Corps and pushed the Northern army back more than two miles.
When Jackson's men burst out of the thickets screaming the Rebel Yell that afternoon, they dashed across the high-water mark of the Army of Northern Virginia. About three hours later the army suffered a nadir as low as the afternoon's zenith, when Jackson fell mortally wounded by the mistaken fire of his own men.
The long marches, high risks, and veiled stratagems of May 1-2 gave way on the 3rd to a slugging match in the woods on three sides of Chancellorsville intersection. Hooker abandoned key ground in a further display of timidity; Confederate artillery roared from a crucial hilltop, employing a brand-new battalion organization; and Southern infantry doggedly pushed ahead.
When a Confederate artillery round smashed into a pillar against which Hooker was leaning, the Federal leader spent an unconscious half hour. His return to semi-sentience disappointed the veteran corps commanders who had hoped, unencumbered by Hooker, to employ their army's considerable untapped might.
By mid-morning, Southern infantry smashed through the final resistance and united in the Chancellorsville clearing. Their boisterous, well-earned, celebration did not run long: word came from the direction of Fredericksburg that a Northern rearguard had broken through and threatened the rear.
The May 3 Battle of Salem Church, just west of Fredericksburg, halted the threat from the east. Lee went to that zone in person to ensure final success on the 4th, then returned to Chancellorsville to superintend the corralling of Hooker's defeated army.
Hooker re-crossed the Rappahannock River to its left bank, whence he had come, early on May 6. The campaign had cost him about 18,000 casualties, and his enemy about 13,000. None of the losses on either side would resonate as loudly and long as the death of Stonewall Jackson.