7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of Chancellorsville

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Chancellorsville

1. Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle” went against all military convention.

Chancellorsville is widely considered Lee’s greatest—and most improbable—victory. Despite being outnumbered by nearly 2-to-1, Lee decided on a risky and highly unusual tactic. He elected to divide his smaller forces—not once, but twice—to take on Hooker’s army, including a daring raid by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the Union general’s right flank. Caught completely unawares, Hooker did not press his advantage, instead falling back to defensive positions before finally retreating across the Rappahannock River.

2. A recent overhaul of the Union Army may have played a role in its defeat.

In January 1863, following the disastrous Union defeat and subsequent retreat from Fredericksburg by Ambrose Burnside, President Abraham Lincoln chose as his new commander Major General Joseph Hooker, one of Burnside’s fiercest critics. Soon after, two other senior Union generals resigned, leaving Hooker short on experienced field officers. When he set about reorganizing and streamlining the unwieldy Army of the Potomac, several of his key decisions backfired on him. He created a centralized cavalry unit—unusual for its time—and named Brigadier General George Stoneman to lead it. Stoneman performed poorly at Chancellorsville, continually failing to slow Lee’s advance. Another Hooker move, the reorganization of the 11th Corps under Major General Oliver Howard and the unpopular and cruel Brigadier General Francis Barlow, proved equally disastrous. The demoralized men of the 11th, many of them immigrants from the Midwest with poor English and little training, were completely unprepared to protect the Union’s right flank from Jackson’s assault and soon retreated, suffering significant casualties in the process.

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