Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson At Their Best

Defending the Breastworks at Chancellorsville.

Defending the Breastworks at Chancellorsville.

Perhaps it was because he lacked the superior intellect required for an Ivy League Education that Ansel Head shunned German philosophy and Greek tragedies and gravitated instead towards Civil War battles. When he got older, he was heartened to learn that he was in good company: Winston Churchill had been shipped off to his country’s military academy because his elders felt he too lacked the brain power to study at Oxford or Cambridge.

Head’s military education began early so he had plenty of undisturbed time to absorb the material. His middle school library contained the West Point Atlas of American Wars. Head poured over the battles; the movements of the Confederate forces were depicted in red, the Union forces in blue. Until the end, the Southerners  always seemed to be on the move, attacking here, then there, disrupting and demoralizing the Yankees and their inept generals. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Stuart, Longstreet and many others were his heroes.

The McCallie School, Head’s high school, was half way up Missionary Ridge where Douglas MacArthur’s father had led the charge that pushed Southerners off of the high ground in Chattanooga and back into Georgia. MacArthur’s father won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts. Casualties from these battles were buried in neat rows just down the road from Head’s dorm rooms.

Head’s college years at W&L in the historic Shenandoah Valley were centered around Lee Chapel, Confederate battle flags, Jackson’s tomb, and the Recumbent Statue of Robert E. Lee asleep on the battlefield. And when in the Navy flying out of Virginia Beach, Head had toured the many battlefields from the air, boring his back seat companion with lectures on Jackson’s movements up and down that Valley and how he had used both sides of Massanuten Mountain to protect his flanks and confuse his opponents. Jackson’s foot cavalry was always on the move and on the attack.

Chancellorsville was Lee and Jackson at their best. They faced Fighting Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac with only the Rappahannock River separating them. Tecumseh Sherman knew both Hooker and Lee. Upon learning of Hooker’s appointment as the head of the Union army, Sherman wrote that when Hooker is in front of Lee, he would be safe so long as he stayed in one place; but when he starts moving, Lee will pounce on him.

The Invaders Are Retreating.

The Invaders Are Retreating.

And that’s what happened. Hooker crossed the river at Chancellorsville and simultaneously began a similar effort at Fredericksburg. Lee found his army outnumbered by two to one with his enemy firmly established on both of his flanks. Conventional military wisdom was that Lee must retreat and a timid general would do just that. But Lee was neither conventional nor timid. He chose to attack. He divided his army, a real no-no, leaving part in Fredericksburg and moving the remainder to Chancellorsville. Hooker set up strong defensive works in Chancellorsville in front of Lee; he assumed Lee would see his predicament and withdraw without a fight. So certain was Hooker of his brilliant maneuvers that he left his right flank exposed.  Lee’s cavalry discovered the weakness and found a way around the Federal lines; but it would be a full days march. Lee and Jackson conferred; there was no discussion of retreating. Splitting his army in half again, Lee dispatched Jackson to depart early the next morning around the Federal lines. Hooker detected the movement and believed Lee was withdrawing as he had predicted. To his thinking, he had accomplished his goal and driven Lee back. So he did nothing to interfere.

Around four in the afternoon, Jackson had his corps arrayed on the exposed and barely defended right flank of the Union army. He attacked. The small number of Federals posted in the area took flight. As they were fleeing past their comrades facing Lee’s remaining troops, they were asked how many Confederates were there. “The whole damn army!” one replied.  Panic ensued. Only nightfall and Jackson’s untimely wounding saved Hooker’s army from a complete defeat.

Taunting The Fleeing Invaders!

Taunting The Fleeing Invaders!

Shaken, Hooker pulled his defenses back into a tighter circle with his back to the Rappahannock; this blunder let Lee combine his divided army. Lee massed his troops for another attack and sent out scouts to find the enemy lines; they came back reporting that they could not locate the Federals. The Yankees had retreated  back across the river to their original starting point. Fighting Joe Hooker, despite having a substantial army at Lee’s back in Fredericksburg and twice the number of men, had decided he had had enough of Lee, Chancellorsville, and being south of the Rappahannock.

It took Lincoln another year or two before he put the Shermans and Grants in charge. These generals were first and foremost not timid souls. They combined Lee’s approach of maneuver and attack with the overwhelming force available to the Union side.  Ever since, the American military has never varied from that philosophy.

Head’s elderly elementary school teacher, Miss Ward, had summed up his and most Southerners’ feelings about the Civil War. She said she was sorry that the South had lost but she was glad that the North had won and that Lincoln had banished slavery and preserved the Union.


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