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Why General Hooker and the Army of the Potomac Lost the Battle of Chancellorsville | CivilWar.org

The Battle of Chancellorsville was an important turning point of the Civil War, one that set the stage for Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second and final push into the North, and ultimately lead to one of the most famous and arguably significant Civil War battles, the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Chancellorsville took place from April 30th to May 6th, 1863, in the areas south and west of the Rappahannock River, near a small collection of houses known as Chancellorsville, Virginia.   In the wake of the tragic Union defeat at Fredericksburg and subsequent blundering in late fall and early winter of the previous year, Major General Ambrose Burnside was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker.  Gen. Hooker spent the winter lifting morale and building up his force to roughly 134,000 men.

In a very well planned yet poorly executed plan, Gen. Hooker attempted to use a double envelopment to surprise Gen. Lee.  Dividing his army, he sent three of his seven corps north-west along the Rappahannock to circumvent Gen. Lee’s forces and strike at the Confederate flank in the vicinity of Chancellorsville.  Another two corps were to press across the river to assault Fredericksburg in Gen. Lee’s front and hopefully prevent him from reinforcing Chancellorsville.  An additional two corps were held in reserve. Hooker also sent most of Gen. George Stoneman’s cavalry across the Rappahannock to confuse and harass Lee’s rear, as a diversion.

However, despite his dramatically larger force, Gen. Hooker ended up withdrawing across the Rappahannock on May 6, after five days of intense fighting. Though this battle showcased Gen. Lee at his finest, it was primarily Gen. Hooker’s timidity in the middle of pitched battle that led the Army of the Potomac to experience defeat. Gen. Lee’s cavalry effectively shadowed Hooker’s main force in the run up to May 1, giving Lee enough scouting information to prepare for the double envelopment and avoid the Union cavalry’s attempts at distraction. Splitting up his forces, Lee sent the bulk to confront Hooker, who opted to establish a defensive position at Chancellorsville.

Lee’s cavalry chief, Major General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart scouted the Federal position and detected a weakness: an exposed right flank.  Lee responded to this opportunity by again dividing his forces, sending the majority to exploit Hooker’s weakness.  The famous Lt. General Stonewall Jackson led the flanking force, which ultimately compelled Hooker to withdraw despite his advantage in numbers over Lee’s twice divided army. However, the Confederate victory was bittersweet.  The night after the assault on Hooker, Jackson was ambushed by his own troops and was mortally wounded. Nonetheless, Lee pushed the Union troops out of Fredericksburg, and as Hooker completed the retreat back across the Rappahannock, prepared to capitalize on his victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville with an invasion of the North.

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