After the drubbing General Ambrose Burnside received at Fredericksburg in December, Lincoln replaced him with “Fighting Joe” Hooker. General Hooker had shown courage during the Peninsula Campaign and Antietam, and he quickly won over his troops by improving the food, providing amnesty to deserters, and cleaning up the camps.
Hooker set out to meet Lee with more than twice as many soldiers— 130,000 to Lee’s 60,000. Wanting to avoid Burnside’s mistake of a direct attack at Fredericksburg, Hooker feinted there with a third of his army to fool Lee, and moved the rest of his army along the Rappahannock to get on Lee’s unprotected left and rear. The troops there and at Fredericksburg would then squeeze Lee’s army in a pincer movement.
On April 27, some of the Union troops crossed pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg, with the bulk of the army fording upriver, finding itself in a sixty- four- square- mile woods that included tangled undergrowth, marshes, and fallen trees that locals called the Wilderness. By April 30, fifty thousand Union troops had crossed upriver, but then Hooker would make one of his first of many fatal decisions during the battle. Instead of pressing eastward to get clear of the Wilderness and into open territory where his larger army and additional artillery could wield their advantage, he waited for more troops.
Confederate cavalry saw what the Union Army was up to and relayed the plans to Lee. What would Lee do? Conventional military wisdom recommended retreat when a general faced a force twice his army’s size. It also said that a general should never divide his forces when face- to- face with the enemy, much less one of superior size. Lee, though, divided his forces, leaving only ten thousand troops under Major General Jubal Early to hold the Fredericksburg entrenchments. He sent the bulk of his army, led by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to deal with Hooker’s superior numbers upriver.
Jackson and his men left Fredericksburg at three in the morning on May 1, picked up two divisions on the way, and took a position on a ridge on the Turnpike and Plank Road east of the Wilderness. Th e Union forces came east that morning to escape the Wilderness, but before they got out, Jackson’s experienced fighters hit like a pile- driver. Hooker panicked, calling all the men to retreat to a defensive position in Chancellorsville. “To tell the truth,” Hooker admitted later, “I just lost confidence in Joe Hooker.”
That night, cavalry leader Jeb Stuart, who had surveyed Union positions, rode up to the campfire where Lee, Jackson, and the rest of the high command were discussing plans while sitting on abandoned Union cracker boxes. He had crucial intelligence: The Union right flank, he said, was “in the air,” meaning that it was vulnerable, unprotected by any natural or man made barriers.
In one of the riskiest moves in American military history, General Jackson convinced Lee to split the army a second time. Lee would stay behind with 14,000 soldiers to occupy Hooker, as Jackson would snake 28,000 men in his Second Corps on a twelve- mile trip on country roads and through woods to get at the Union’s right flank. All day on May 2, anxious Union soldiers and officers warned their commanders that huge numbers of Confederate troops were moving to their right flank, but Hooker became increasingly convinced it was Lee’s army in retreat. It wasn’t. At about five thirty in the evening, Confederate bugles sounded, deer bounded toward the Union’s right flank, and the Rebel yell went up. Jackson’s 28,000 battle- hardened men, in a formation two miles wide and four divisions deep, ran, firing, at the federal army’s undermanned right flank.