The Civil War, Day by Day

His Supreme Moment

His Supreme Moment

A day earlier, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had faced potential destruction. In the forest thickets west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, near the rural crossroads of Chancellorsville, General Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac had sought to envelop and destroy Lee’s army. Hooker’s strategy was sound, his army was much larger and better equipped, and he was confident of victory. “My plans are perfect,” he had boasted, “and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”

As Hooker moved to crush Lee’s army, however, Lee learned of an unprotected route through the woods that might allow him to unleash a surprise assault on his enemy’s right flank. Departing from basic military doctrine — never divide your force in the face of a superior enemy — Lee sent General Stonewall Jackson and 30,000 troops on a day-long forced march to set up the flank attack. It was a dangerous risk: Lee was left with barely 15,000 men to hold off the Federal advance. He deceived and stalled Hooker by feigning an assault — buying the time needed for Jackson to organize and launch his surprise attack.

That afternoon, May 2nd, Jackson’s troops charged screaming from the forest and struck Hooker’s right flank a mighty blow that sent the Federal XI Corps reeling in retreat. Instead of the success he had proudly predicted, Hooker was dealt the same humiliating defeat that Lee had inflicted on the previous Federal army commanders. It was a might victory for Lee and Jackson, but it was a costly one: Stonewall Jackson would soon die of complications from battle wounds suffered at Chancellorsville. Looming ahead, too, was the battle of Gettysburg and the death of Southern dreams. For the moment, however, the Army of Northern Virginia was again victorious. As he moved among his army near the blazing Chancellor house the next morning, General Lee was mobbed by his cheering troops. Again, they had done the impossible. Again, they had turned back the invader. The triumph at Chancellorsville was Robert E. Lee’s supreme moment.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.