Battle of Chancellorsville by Kurz and Allison, 1889
Military historians consider the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville to be Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s tactical masterpiece. Fighting against a larger and better-equipped opponent, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia undertook an aggressive offensive designed to flummox the adversary and shift the initiative in the war’s eastern theater firmly in the rebels’ favor.
President Abraham Lincoln, besieged politically and desperate for a military victory to rally public support for the Union cause, became despondent when he received the news of the defeat, crying, “My God! My God! What will the country say?”. A close friend observed that Lincoln had never appeared “so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike.”
However, Lee’s stunning victory at Chancellorsville came at a steep cost to the Confederacy. Lee lost his most trusted and most aggressive lieutenant, and the success at Chancellorsville reinforced the belief of many Confederates that the rebel army could defeat its Union counterpart anywhere and under any circumstances. That overconfidence played a significant role in the decision to launch a second invasion of the North, with Lee’s army heading into Union territory. A month and a half after the battle at Chancellorsville, the two armies would converge on the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, with results that would turn the tide of war against the insurgents.
Historian Christopher Hamner examines the lead-up to Chancellorsville, Lee’s tactical approach to fighting a numerically superior opponent, and the strategic implications of the Confederate victory.
Additional Opportunity: If you enjoy the topic of this program and live in the Washington, DC-area, check out a May 20 in-person tour called The Civil War at Chancellorsville.