Chancellorsville National Battlefield

Location: Fredericksburg, Virginia

Webpage: National Park

General Description: Chancellorsville National Battlefield is administered as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and centers around the small town of Chancellorsville during the Civil War in 1863.  It consists of a 12 mile driving tour that ta.kes visitors to the critical points of the battle.  The Eastern Theatre of the Civil War was focused on the capture of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.  Following the stunning defeat of Major General Ambrose Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, the command of the Union Army of the Potomac was given to Major General Joseph Hooker, who was an excellent administrator and over the winter and spring of 1863 managed to significantly raise the moral of the Union Army of the Potomac in their winter camp north of the Rappahonock River near Fredericksburg at Falmouth.  Rather than attacking across the river as his predecessor had done, he planned on crossing the Rappahonock far upstream sending 10,000 cavalrymen to raid the Confederate supply line along the railroad which should force General Lee to abandon his defensive positions along the river and move closer to Richmond.  At this point, he would send his infantry across the river to attack Lee while he was moving and vulnerable with over 130,000 Union soldiers against just over 60,000 Confederates.  However, heavy rains made the crossing at Sulpher Springs impossible on April 13, and Hooker modified his plans.  Instead he would attempt a double envelopment of Lee’s Army with three corps of 42,000 men crossing further upriver at Kelly’s Ford and attacking the left flank from the west, two divisons of 10,000 men in the center at US Ford to push the Confederates away from the river, and two corps of 40,000 men to cross the Rappahonock below Fredericksburg to attack the Confederate right flank, all converging at the crossroads at Chancellorsville. The key for the forces to the west was to quickly move through the wooded thickets of the Wilderness to force Lee to fight on more open ground where their superior firepower would be used to advantage. On April 27-28 the Union corps to the west crossed the Rappahonock and Rapidan Rivers and by April 30 had begun to gather their forces at the crossroads of the Orange Plank Road and Orange Turnpike.  By dawn on April 29, the pontoon bridges had been constructed and the Union forces below Fredericksburg had begun to cross the Rappahonock.  On April 30, the men at the U.S. Ford crossed the river without opposition and the stage was set as planned with over 70,000 men converging on the crossroads.  General Lee did not react as anticipated, electing to violate one of the principles of war and divide his army in the face of a superior force with the hope that this bold move would provide opportunities to defeat smaller portions of Hooker’s army before they could come together.  He left only 11,000 men at the heavily defended Marye’s Heights and Prospect Hill at Fredericksburg to slow the advance of the forces from the east.  He moved the remainder of his army, about 40,000 men west to the crossroads to meet Hooker’s main threat, moving back from their positions along the river and establishing new defensive positions along a north-south line.  At 11:20 on May1, the first shots were fired as the two armies collided initially pushing the Union Army away from the crossroads.  However, the Union couterattacked, reclaiming the lost ground, however, Hooker choose not to press his advantage withdrawing back into the Wilderness hoping Lee would attack his superior forces.  Over night, they constructed defensive breastworks within the Wilderness.  However, Lee once again surprised Hooker by again spitting his forces.  Lt. General Stonewall Jackson took his entire division of 28,000 men on a 12 mile march along roundabout roads around the Union right flank which was not firmly anchored by the river and thus “in the air” on the Orange Turnpike.  The march was largely shielded from the Union troops and except for a brief encounter near Catherine Furnace, escaped detection.  Since the march was along small roads, the line stretched for 6 miles as they made their way around the Union right flank and took all morning until mid-afternoon on May 2.  Not only was the Union right flank not properly anchored, but they were unprepared for any surprise attack.  So when Jackson ordered the attack at 5:30 up the Orange Turnpike, the Union forces were easily routed.  By nightfall, they had advanced 1.5 miles and were within sight of the crossroads, however, they were nearly as disorganized as the Union forces and were not separated from the rest of Lee’s army.   Wanting to press his advantage with a night attack, Jackson personally scouted out past his own troops until he could hear the Union soldiers digging in.  Upon returning to his line he was mistaken for the enemy and shot by his own men, taking three bullets.  Although these wounds were not themselves life threatening, his right arm was broken and had to be amputated and he died from pneumonia on May 10.  This was a devastating blow to the Confederates and General Lee had lost his best officer.  In addition, the victory still left the Confederates facing over 76,000 men with a force of 46,000 that was now divided on either side of the Union.  However, Hooker ordered Sickles to abandoned his strong position at Hazel Grove between the two armies to a new position along the Orange Plank Road on May 3, which allowed Lee to reconnect his army.  On May 3, the Union army was positioned in a giant horseshoe and led to the fiercest battles with the Confederates having a tactical artillery advantage from the high ground Hazel Grove and along the Orange Plank Road.  By 9:30 the Union artillery abandoned the high ground on Fairview Hill and began a fighting retreat to positions around U.S. Ford.  However, the meager force that General Lee had left to defend Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg had been overrun and were in a fighting retreat towards Chancellorsville.  The Union advance proceeded as far as Salem Church, but failed to relieve the pressure on the Union retreat from the crossroads.  Since Hooker was making no moves to advance from his positions around US Ford, General Lee was able to drive the Union forces back on May 4.  On May 5-6 the Union forces retreated back across the Rappahonock River and General Lee had won another victory against superior Union forces, although with the loss of General Stonewall Jackson it was a hollow one.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center at the Chancellorsville Battlefield is located at the site of General Stonewall Jackson’s wounding.  The Visitor Center has a few small exhibits about the battle and a movie, which was not working while we were there.  There is a monument to General Jackson and a short walk the gives details about the incident.

ChancellorsvilleVisitorCenter ChancellorsvilleJacksonMemorial

2) We purchased the driving tour CD to provide more information about the battlefield, which was well worth the money.  The first stop on the driving tour is to the Chancellor home site at the crossroads of the Orange Turnpike, Orange Plank Road, and River Road.  Only the foundations of the tavern/inn operated by the Chancellor family remains today, but you can get a sense of the terrain that dominated the battle as the Union and Confederate armies battled back and forth across the crossroads.

ChancellorsvilleInn

3) The next stop on the tour is the location of McLaw’s Line where General Lee kept the Union army occupied on May 2, while Jackson moved his corps on their 12 mile march around the Union right flank.

4) The next stop is the location of the Lee-Jackson bivouac where they planned their bold strategy during the night of May 1.

ChancellorsvilleBivouac

5) There is a side trail that is not a part of the battlefield at the time, the birthplace of Matthew Maury who was a world famous astronomer, oceanographer, meteorologist, cartographer, author, geologist, and educator during the 1800s.  Siding with the Confederacy, he spent much of the Civil War in England and Europe attempting to garner support to recognize the Confederacy.  He was best known for his charts of the winds and currents in the oceans.  There is nothing left of his birthplace, but a shallow hole in the ground, but it would have been of interest to General Jackson and his troops had they been aware of its location along their march.

ChancellorsvilleMauryHome

6) The next stop on the tour is at the Catherine Furnace, which was in operation during the Civil War supplying pig iron to the Confederacy and was the site of a brief encounter by the rear guard of General Jackson corps and a small group of detached Union forces.

ChancellorsvilleFurnace

7) The driving tour then follow the roundabout route taken by General Jackson to sneak around the Union right flank, including the intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road that General Jackson intended to take to the Orange Turnpike, but instead continued north on the Brock Road to the Turnpike to get beyond the Union front.

8) The next stop along the Orange Turnpike (now Virginia 3) is the location of Jackson’s flank attack in the afternoon of May 3.  It is amazing to visualize the sight of the Confederated charging down the Turnpike and along a mile front on both side of the road to surprise the Union army that was facing south towards any attacks from the thickets of the Wilderness.

ChancellorsvilleFlankAttack

9) The next stop are the heights at Hazel Grove which was occupied by the Union on May 3 effectively dividing the Confederate Army, only to be abandoned and occupied by the Confederates to force the Union army away from the crossroads.

10) The next stop is the location of the Union artillery at the top of Fairview Hill which dueled with the Confederates at Hazel Grove.  The National Park Service has kept the field clear of trees so you can easily look from one site to the other.  At this location you can still see the pits the Union used to protect their cannon.  At first glace the pits are confusing because they appear to be lined up in two different directions, until you realize the more substantial pits are facing south towards the Wilderness, however, Hazel Grove is to the west.  The Union Army had to quickly construct new pits facing Hazel Grove creating a line approximately 90 degrees from the original line.

ChancellorsvilleFarviewHill

11) The final stop of the driving tour is the Bullock home site which is part of the position the Union army pulled back to on May 3 in its last line.  You can still see the breastworks of this line.

ChancellorsvilleBullockHome

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