After the futile slaughter at Fredericksburg in December, 1862, Joseph Hooker replaced Ambrose Burnside as commander of the disheartened Army of the Potomac. By improving rations and living quarters, judiciously granting furloughs, and stimulating unit pride through a system of corps insignia, he rebuilt morale and had in four months what he boasted was "the finest army on the planet."
In the last days of April, Hooker set a brilliant plan in motion. Leaving Sedgwick's 20,000 men facing Lee's 60,000 across the Rappahannock , he took 73,000 of his 134,000-man army across the river above Fredericksburg and swung southeast to place them between Lee's army and Richmond. On April 30, Hooker's headquarters were at Chancellorsville, not a village but a single house in the midst of a ten-mile square of tangled second-growth trees and thickets called The Wilderness, intersected by only a few narrow roads. Now Lee could be crushed in a giant pincers.
But not waiting in his trenches, Lee left Early's division to contain Sedgwick and boldly marched against Hooker. At this unforeseen aggressiveness Hooker lost his nerve, drew back to a defensive posture and thereby gave Lee the initiative. Dividing his army still more, Lee sent Jackson on a wide flank march to roll up the Union right. At dusk May 2 Jackson attacked, driving the Federals back in wild confusion. When his own men mortally wounded Jackson, Stuart took over and advanced to link with Lee. The befuddled Hooker retreated to the river and entrenched.
Meanwhile, Sedgwick had attacked Early, and was marching toward Chancellorsville to complete the pincers movement with Hooker. Lee left Stuart to threaten Hooker, rushed 20,000 men to Early's aid and forced Sedgwick to retreat across the river. Returning to finish off Hooker, he found that the Union army had retired out of reach across the Rappahannock.
The battle has been called Lee's masterpiece, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. His army had suffered irreplaceable casualties. The Federal army, though battered was still intact. And the incomparable Stonewall was dead; never again would Lee and Jackson execute the dazzling thrusts that made the Army of Northern Virginia a legend for all time.