May 6, 1863, was the final day of the Battle of Chancellorsville, which ended in a Confederate victory that is often considered General Robert E. Lee‘s “perfect battle,” as he successfully defeated an army more than twice the size of his own.
In April, Union general Joseph Hooker—the new commander of the Army of the Potomac—decided to move against Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was situated at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Hooker wanted to avoid attacking Fredericksburg head on, as that had proved a disaster in the past, so he planned to send a third of his army to Fredericksburg to hold Lee there, while his cavalry would cut Lee’s communication lines and the majority of his army would sweep around to outflank Lee from the rear and left.
Hooker’s movement to Chancellorsville, a crossroads not far from Lee’s left flank, was well-executed, but Lee—although outnumbered more than two to one (roughly 130,000 to 60,000)—left only a small part of his troops at Fredericksburg and moved the rest under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to face Hooker rather than retreat. When Jackson began to push back against Hooker’s vanguard, Hooker lost his nerve and had his troops take up defensive positions in a brushy, difficult area known as the Wilderness.
Defying conventional military wisdom, Lee and Jackson decided to split the army once again, leaving a portion of troops under Lee to distract Hooker’s front, while Jackson would take the bulk of the troops on a 12-mile march to hit the Union’s exposed right flank. The gamble paid off, and on the evening of May 2, Jackson’s troops caught the Union right by surprise and it crumbled.
The fighting continued for a few more days, with the most intense occurring on May 3. Besides fighting around Chancellorsville, there was also fighting at Fredericksburg and Salem Church. Eventually, Hooker retreated across the Rappahannock River, giving the Confederates the victory, despite heavy casualties on both sides.
However, although the battle was a Confederate triumph, the Lee sustained a major loss in the death of Jackson, one of the best Confederate generals. On the night of the 2nd, Jackson and some others had been returning from scouting Union positions when they were fired on by their own pickets. Jackson was wounded, and his left arm had to be amputated. Complications arose following the surgery, and on May 10, Jackson died of pneumonia.
Lee’s victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville would give him the necessary momentum for his campaign into the North, where he would face the Union on its home soil at the Battle of Gettysburg that July.
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