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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. III
Chapter I

The "Might-Have-Beens" of Chancellorsville

"It is a terrible loss," Lee wrote Custis in the first shock of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's death.​1 So deep and personal was his grief that when he talked of him with General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.W. N. Pendleton, days afterward, he wept unabashed. "Great and good" were the adjectives he used, again and again, in speaking of the dead "Stonewall."​2 To one officer he said, "I had such implicit confidence in Jackson's skill and energy that I never troubled myself to give him detailed instructions. The most general suggestions were all that he needed."​3 For the remainder of his life his references to Jackson always had a tone of affectionate warmth, and in his official report of Chancellorsville he praised him with the superlatives he was wont to reserve for the men in the ranks alone: "The movement by which the enemy's position was turned and the fortune of the day decided was conducted by the lamented Lieutenant-General Jackson. . . . I do not propose here to speak of the character of this illustrious man, since removed from the scene of his eminent usefulness by the hand of an inscrutable but all-wise Providence. I nevertheless desire to pay the tribute of my admiration to the matchless energy and skill that marked the last act of his life, forming, as it did, a worthy conclusion of that long series of splendid achievements which won for him the lasting love and gratitude of his country."4

In the spirit of this encomium he steadfastly viewed the death of his greatest lieutenant as the act of Heaven. "Any victory would be dear at such a price," he said, adding quickly: "But God's will be done."​5 To his brother Charles Carter Lee he wrote, "I am grateful to Almighty God for having given us such a man."​6 He looked to that same God to raise up some one in  p2  Jackson's stead, while he sought to save the morale of the army, and especially that of the Second Corps, from impairment because of the loss of the man whose body was sorrowfully borne to Richmond and thence to Lexington.​7 In his general order announcing the passing of "Stonewall" he said:

"The daring, skill and energy of this great and good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his spirit still lives, and will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage and unshaken confidence in God as our hope and our strength. Let his name be a watchword to his corps, who have followed him to victory on so many fields. Let officers and men emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our beloved country."8

Jackson's example, he said in the letter to Charles Carter Lee, "is left us," and Jackson's spirit "I trust will be diffused over the whole Confederacy."​9 To Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood, he wrote, "We must all do more than formerly. We must endeavor of follow the unselfish, devoted, intrepid course he pursued, and we shall be strengthened rather than weakened by his loss."10

This was the utterance of a humble spirit. Lee never dreamed of claiming what military critics have since been disposed to assert — that Chancellorsville was perhaps more nearly a flawless battle, from the Confederate point of view, than any that was ever planned and executed by an American commander. Facing an army two and a half times as large as his own, better equipped in every way and supplied with more numerous artillery, Lee had been on the defensive at the opening of the operation and had been threatened in front and on the left flank by a well-planned and admirably executed advance. In the face of his opponent's superiority, Lee divided his army, wrested the initiative from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker, again divided his force and overwhelmed the XI Corps. On the 3d he drove the enemy back to the lines, and on the 4th,  p3  the least success­ful day of the operations, he forced Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sedgwick to retreat. He took a great risk in leaving so small a force at Fredericksburg and he seemingly took still longer chances on May 2 when he detached Jackson and faced Hooker with only two divisions; but except for the capture of the Fredericksburg Heights on the 3d, the situation was entirely in his hands after May 1. In a week's fighting, and through the campaign made possible by the successes of that week, he so changed the military situation that the Army of the Potomac did not undertake a march on Richmond for precisely one year. It was undoubtedly the most remarkable victory he ever achieved and it increased greatly his well-established reputation both in the eyes of the enemy and of the South.11

Lee did not make a single serious mistake in judging the plans of the enemy or in parcelling out his forces to checkmate Hooker. Almost alone among the Confederate commanders, he insisted from the first that the main attack was to be delivered on the left, and though he could not leave sufficient men under Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early at Fredericksburg to prevent the capture of the heights, he at least protected himself against surprise from that quarter. His handling of Anderson and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McLaws on May 3 was tactically as excellent as his general plan was brilliant.

If any criticism is to be made of the operations that Lee could personally control, it was that he failed to organize the attack earlier on May 4 at Salem Church, when he had Sedgwick almost surrounded on three sides by the columns of McLaws, Anderson, and Early. A battle on so extended a front was, as Alexander justly said, an all-day undertaking,​12 but the signal was not given until 6 P.M. It was another instance where Lee seemed temperamentally unable to hasten a slow lieutenant, in this case, McLaws.

The claim that Lee should have brought Anderson to the vicinity of Salem Church during the night of May 3, though advanced by competent authority,​13 is, once again, the counsel of perfection. On the evening of the 3d, when he had been compelled to send off McLaws to cope with Sedgwick, Lee could reasonably assume that after having beaten the enemy that day, he could drive him on the morrow with four divisions, but it was  p4  asking too much even of him to demand that he attack Hooker with only three divisions. It was not until he saw how the Federal positions had been strengthened on the night of the 3d-4th that he reasoned he must reconcentrate his whole army by disposing of Sedgwick entirely, before he could hope to carry the fortified Federal line. Then, but not until then, was he justified in assuming the defensive for one day with a force further reduced. He cannot fairly be condemned for failing to detach nearly two-fifths of his troops on the night of the 3d in the face of the main Federal army, so long as there was a chance that he could follow up the victory of that day and drive Hooker into the Rappahannock on the morrow.

Little has been written, but much might be said, of Lee's bold action in refusing to detach Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart for pursuit of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stoneman's 10,000 cavalry.​14 In this, Lee applied the lessons he had learned on the way to Second Manassas and on the march from South Mountain to Hagerstown and back again. He would not again willingly be blinded by the absence of his mounted forces, least of all in a country where observation was as difficult as in the Wilderness. Deliberately he risked his communications in order to have the main body of his cavalry with him. How well that cavalry served him and how, in particular, Fitz Lee contributed to Jackson's march around the Federal right flank, is a notable part of the history of the campaign. It is hard to conceive how the flanking operation could have been undertaken with the same speed or with like assurance had Stuart been galloping across Midland Virginia in pursuit of Stoneman. The contrast between what Lee knew and could do at Chancellorsville, when Stuart was present, as compared with his groping through Pennsylvania when Stuart was absent two months later, is proof enough of the wisdom of his course. Hooker, on the other hand, was handicapped from the outset by his lack of cavalry. With an adequate force covering the Federal right, Jackson's movement on May 2 would have been a failure, if, indeed, Lee would have had the temerity to undertake it. Chancellorsville saw a definite decline in the strength of the Confederate horse, but witnessed a notable increase of skill in its employment.

 p5  Remarkable as was the victory, it was bought at an excessively great cost. The toll of general officers was very heavy. Four brigades lost eight success commanding officers.​15 Total Confederate casualties numbered 13,156, of whom 1683 were killed, 9277 were wounded, and 2196 were prisoners of war.​16 These losses, Lee told the President on May 7, reflected the difference in the strength of the opposing armies. The killed and wounded, he explained, were "always in proportion to the inequality of forces engaged."​17 Hooker's losses, then of course unknown to Lee, reached 16,845,​18 a far smaller percentage of his total strength.

The disparity of numbers to which Lee attributed his heavier casualties were due, in part, to the absence of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's and Hood's divisions of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's corps. That fact raises a question which goes deeper than the strategy of the field: Had all Longstreet's corps been present, would Sedgwick have been destroyed? Could Hooker have been trapped in the gloomy woods before he had time to extricate himself and recross the Rappahannock? Prima facie, if the 62,500 that Lee commanded during the operations were able to win so stunning a success, it is reasonable to assume that the addition of 12,000 fine veterans would have magnified his victory. Consequently, in any fair appraisal of Lee's general­ship, the question becomes one of whether Lee erred in permitting Longstreet to remain in Southside Virginia to collect supplies when his bayonets were so badly needed on the Rappahannock.

The reasons that prompted Lee to trust Longstreet's discretion, and not to demand his early return to the Rappahannock, have already been given.​19 The army needed provisions. If it were to assume the offensive, it had to accumulate a reserve. If this could be done in no other way than by employing two crack divisions as commissary troops, then, up to a certain point, the work was  p6  worth doing. But time was pressing. Lee had set May 1 as the date beyond which one army or the other could not defer an offensive, yet it was not until April 27 that he inquired how soon Longstreet could rejoin. Longstreet, to be sure, was slow in collecting the supplies and failed to take advantage of his opportunities of meeting the Federals on even terms. His stay in Southside Virginia did no credit to him. Even in his military autobiography, which certainly did not understate his achievements, he was quite content to dismiss his expedition with a few anecdotes. Longstreet's slowness, however, does not exculpate Lee. Essentially a field commander, Lee was not success­ful in directing operations at a distance from him, except when dealing with Jackson. In the case of Longstreet's expedition, as in several other instances, he was too much disposed to trust the discretion of an absent lieutenant. A careful reading of the correspondence between him and Longstreet raises the suspicion that he permitted Longstreet to browbeat him. He took all the risk on his own front while Longstreet did nothing to justify the detachment of 12,000 of the best men in the army. Lee cannot be excused for this. His yielding to Longstreet on August 29, 1862, may have limited the success attained at the second battle of Manassas, and like compliance certainly was a factor in preventing a victory at Gettysburg; but it is possible that Lee's acceptance of Longstreet's unsoldierly excuses in March and April, 1863, cost him and the South still more dearly. Lee himself expressed to Hood his belief that if his whole army had been with him at Chancellorsville, Hooker would have been demolished.​20 He might have said more. Had Longstreet reached him in time for him to assume the offensive before Hooker seized the initiative, the result might have been a swift march northward and a Gettysburg fought in May instead of July, with the added leader­ship of Jackson and with the strength of the men who fell at Chancellorsville.

Failure to recall Longstreet earlier must, therefore, be written down as the darkest "might-have‑been" of the Chancellorsville campaign, and as one of the great mistakes of Lee's military career. The public, not foreseeing the consequences, did not think  p7  so. The few who had any inkling of the facts were disposed to blame the War Department rather than Lee.21

Precisely two years had elapsed since Lee had taken the decisive step in mobilizing the Virginia volunteers. Two years of desperate contest, lacking one month, lay ahead of him. He was thus midway his military career as a Confederate commander when Jackson died. Much he had learned of the organization and administration of an army, much of conciliating rivals, much of arousing the best in men, much in creating the morale of victory. In the hard school of combat he had mastered the art of the offensive so fully, both in strategy and in tactics, that little seemed left for him to acquire. But his military education was not yet completed. On a hill near a little town in Pennsylvania, the bell of a quiet seminary was calling him again to school to learn a new lesson, written red in blood.

The Author's Notes:

1 Jones, L. and L., 242.

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2 Lee to Mrs. Lee, May 11, 1863, R. E. Lee, Jr., 94; O. R., 25, part 2, pp793, 812, 821.

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3 R. E. Lee, Jr., 94.

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4 O. R., 25, part 1, p803.

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5 Jones, L. and L., 242.

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6 May 24, 1863; Confederate Veteran, 287.

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7 Much to his regret, Lee did not feel that he could spare the Stonewall brigade to accompany Jackson's remains as a guard of honor (Jones, 154).

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8 O. R., 25, part 2, p793.

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9 31 Confederate Veteran, 287.

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10 May 21, 1863; Hood, 52.

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11 Fitz Lee, 257.

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12 Alexander, 357.

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13 Alexander, 356.

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14 For the strength of Stoneman, see O. R., 25, part 1, p1067.

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15 O. R., 25, part 1, p1008.

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16 The figures were compiled by Alexander, op. cit., 360‑61. Guild, in his official report, put them at 10,281, but did not include the prisoners of war and gave fewer killed by 102 and fewer wounded by 577 than Alexander later showed. Among the wounded were many whose injuries were so slight that Lee reprobated their inclusion among the casualties (O. R., 25, part 2, pp798‑99. Of material booty, 13 guns, 19,500 small arms, and 17 stands of colors were captured. Eight Confederate guns were taken on the Fredericksburg heights by Sedgwick (Taylor's General Lee, 175; O. R., 25, part 1, p818).

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17 O. R., 25, part 2, p782.

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18 O. R., 25, part 1, pp185, 191.

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19 See supra, vol. II, p499 ff.

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20 Hood, 53.

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21 1 R. W. C. D., 315.

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