Take a Fascinating History Tour of the Chancellorsville Battlefield!
Of all the many battlefields one can get to on a tour of Central Virginia’s many historical sights, Chancellorsville offers a chance to see what has been called Southern general Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle.” Facing an army twice the size of his own, Lee defeated Union Army commanding officer General Joseph Hooker in such a rousting way that Hooker was to be relieved of his command by President Abraham Lincoln. A short hour’s drive from Charlottesville, the battlefield at Chancellorsville is a must see for any history buff on a Central Virginia History Tour.
Setting for perhaps the most famous depiction of the Civil War in literature, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage takes place on the battlefields of Chancellorsville. In addition, the popular movie and novel “Of God’s and Generals” focuses on the events surrounding Chancellorsville. Indeed, for lay people and history aficionados alike, Chancellorsville offers a fascinating insight into the larger Civil War conflict.
The American Civil War has been called our nation’s Iliad, complete with the larger than life characters and minor deities associated with that historical epic. This was a time when remarkably flawed, humanistic men were able to rise to power, leading others to mighty deeds. It’s the personal stories of these humans that help make a Civil War history tour so fascinating, whether or not you are a history buff or not.
Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker rose to prominence and eventual command of the entire Union Army based on his definitive performance in battles leading up to Chancellorsville. But, as with Grant after him, Hooker began to gain notoriety as a hard drinker and fierce fighter, both on and off the battlefield. President Lincoln had appointed him with the hopes that Hooker would prove an aggressive leader in battle after his predecessors had proven weak and indecisive. Hooker proved popular with his men, and according to popular myth, even the term ‘hooker’ referring to a prostitute apparently derives from Hooker himself, who held court over a rowdy section of Washington D.C. when he was stationed there. Chancellorsville was to be Hooker’s first chance to prove himself as a leader. In the eyes of history, it was to be deemed a miserable failure.
No such Civil War figure was more personally strange and publicly great than the South’s General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Deeply superstitious, Jackson believed one side of his body was heavier than the other, and often held one arm in the air as he moved about, leading to a shrapnel wound in his hand at the First Battle of Bull Run. He could often be seen sucking on lemons, and he refused to eat any food seasoned with pepper, as he thought it weakened his left leg. He often slept in a bed with wet sheets, believing this too was better for his health.
Despite such personal oddities, Stonewall Jackson was a mighty leader of men, frequently winning battles in which his forces were significantly outnumbered and outgunned. Chancellorsville was perhaps the most famous of all Jackson’s such battles, and fatefully, his last. Faced with an army of 133,000 well-trained and equipped Union Soldiers, Jackson and Lee devised and daring and desperate attempt to overcome the larger forces they faced.
Violating a major principle of war, Lee decided to split his army into to two forces in the face of a superior force. After the first day of fighting on May 1st, 1863, Hooker’s forces had set up along defensive lines, hoping to force Lee into a frontal attack on their superior numbers or retreat, leaving them vulnerable to further pursuit and harassment as they made their way towards Richmond. Rather than do as expected, Lee ordered Jackson to take the majority of his fighting force on a march lasting 15+ miles and the majority of a day in order to flank the union forces. At 5:30 PM on May 2nd, just as the unsuspecting Union forces were sitting down to dinner, 22,000 Confederate soldiers burst out of the woods, screaming the infamous Rebel Yell. The first sign of the onslaught were the animals such as rabbits and deer, fleeing ahead of the advancing Southern soldiers.
At the end of the day’s triumphant victory, Jackson rode ahead of the Confederate line to observe the advancements his troops had made over the course of the day. Past dark and with his aides at his sides, they approached the Southern line when picket soldiers from a North Carolina regiment opened fire, mistaking Jackson and the others for Union scouts. Hit three times in his left arm, Jackson struggled back to the line, where he was moved slowly and painfully towards the rear. His left arm was amputated, and is currently interred near the battlefield under a simple marker, which can be observed on your next Civil War history tour, along with the small house turned into a field hospital where Jackson lived his last hours, 8 days after his most famous victory.
With much fighting still to come, Lee pressed forward his advantage. Fighting Hooker back towards the Rappahannock River, Lee was able to rejoin his army with the forces Jackson had led in the previous day’s battle. The victory celebrations were brief however, as forces to the Southwest in Fredericksburg under the Union General Sedgwick threatened to cut off Lee’s path of retreat back to Richmond. Forces under Jubal Early fought hard to keep the Union forces at bay. At the end of the fierce fighting on May 3rd, the battle was to become the 2nd deadliest day of the war, with over 22,000 casualties spread over both sides. Over the next two days, Lee would continue to hound the forces of Hooker and his other generals, eventually forcing the full retreat on May 5-6.
In the aftermath of the campaign, while it might have been deemed Lee’s “Perfect Battle,” the victory came at a high cost. In hearing of Jackson’s death, Lee famously remarked, “I’ve lost my right arm,” referring to how close the two had become in fighting together. In addition, while the Confederates lost 13,000 men to the Union’s 17,197, that was still nearly a third of all the men engaged in the fighting, numbers the South could hardly hope to maintain for the long run against the Union’s superior reserves. Perhaps most troubling, Lee, high on the victory Chancellorsville, would march on the offensive to Gettysburg, PA with the misplaced thought that his troops were invincible, a fateful turn soon to change the tide of the war.
Today, Chancellorsville is a part of the larger Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, itself a part of the U.S. National Park Service. Hundreds of acres of the Battlefields and many of the period structures have been preserved, making it possible to get a real sense of the terrain on those fateful spring days in May, 1863. The Park Rangers and Historical Interpreters at the Visitor’s Centers and major points of the park are an excellent resource, helping to bring the little moments of the battle more fully to life.
Our new Bourbon, Brews and Battlefields tour offers a phenomenal opportunity to explore up to three major Civil War Battlefields, allowing you to get up close and personal with the hallowed ground those young men fought and died just over 150 years ago. With stops included at Virginia’s largest and oldest Bourbon Distillery and a local brew pub, there’s something on this tour for nearly everyone!
Give us a call to book your Excursion or check out the description of our Bourbon Brews and Battlefield today!