May 3, 1863, Day 3 at Chancellorsville: The Second-Bloodiest Day


Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
One of the factoids about the American Civil War that nearly anyone can recall if prompted is that the Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in American history, featuring over 22,000 casualties. What's less well-known is the runner up; May 3, 1863, during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The popular narrative of Chancellorsville is heavily centered around a number of earlier events during the battle. Joe Hooker, the egotistical but skilled and cunning Army of the Potomac commander, outmaneuvers Robert E. Lee to start the campaign. Lee however, rather than play by Hooker's rules, boldly divides his army in the face of a superior enemy and retakes the initiative from Hooker, who loses his nerve and falls back into defensive formations around Chancellorsville. Lee, with superior Union forces all around him, divides his army again by dispatching Stonewall Jackson on a flank attack against the Union army. The Union army is surprised, the Eleventh Corps routed, and thanks to Jackson's efforts, and despite his wounding, the Confederates win the battle thanks to this daring maneuver.

What tends to get de-emphasized if not ignored in the narrative is the situation following Jackson's flank attack, which I will illustrate with the below map.*

*This is not a very good map; I have access to much better ones in physical format but can't share for copyright reasons

Jackson, shortly before his wounding, had been hoping to get between the Army of the Potomac and the fords of the Rapphannock, specifically US Ford, and had instructed his senior division commander AP Hill to prepare to accomplish that end. He planned to launch a night attack to achieve this, but such plans were cut short when Jackson was hit by friendly fire. A night attack, in addition to the inherent difficulties of such, would have brought Jackson up against fresh Union troops and would have been highly unlikely to achieve his hopes for it. However, it was reflective of the intent of Jackson and Lee; Jackson was not specifically instructed to attempt this, but it was very much in line with Lee and Jackson's hopes of achieving the destruction of the Army of the Potomac in the field.

But such hopes were shot down with Jackson, for AP Hill too was struck down by friendly fire in the woods near the Orange Turnpike, though non-fatally, and this fundamentally changed the plan. Hill was the only one who had any idea what Jackson was planning, as Jackson was notoriously secretive with his subordinates. With Hill out of the picture, the next man in the chain of command for Jackson's forces would normally have been Jubal Early, a division commander who had held his post since the end of the previous year. Early however, was commanding Confederate forces at Fredericksburg, staring down the Federals of John Sedgwick's command, and was unavailable. Command devolved to Robert Rodes, who was one of the more talented tacticians in the Army of Northern Virginia; Rodes however, was in his first battle as a division commander, and was ignorant of the intent of his superiors, and he began rudimentary preparations for a dead-on advance at the crossroads of Chancellorsville, instead of trying to take the Federals there in the rear.

Someone on either Jackson or Hill's staff or both came up with the idea of calling JEB Stuart in to take command, instead of the untested Rodes. Stuart was a known and loved figure in the army, and by Rodes' own account, he chose to yield the command for the sake of morale. Stuart, while he ranked Rodes and was technically a corps commander of sorts, had never led infantry in large numbers before, and he only arrived on the scene around midnight, in the midst of confused spurts of night fighting, to find his new command highly disorganized. Stuart set about the task of getting ready for the morning with his usual energy, and communicated with Lee to clarify what he was supposed to do. Lee's replies eventually specified the need for uniting the divided Confederate forces, consisting of nearly 30,000 under Stuart and an additional 15,000 being directed by Lee in person. From the northeast direction to the ford envisioned by Jackson to a due east advance on Chancellorsville, the attack had been reoriented to a east-southeast advance by Stuart's command. Lee meanwhile, would strike with McLaws and Anderson to threaten Chancellorsville proper and link up with Stuart. The battle would take place largely in the dense undergrowth that gave the region, and a later battle just to the west, the name of the Wilderness.

For the Confederates still faced a crisis; Jackson's flank attack had failed. Not completely, as it had placed the Confederates in a position where there were more possibilities for victory than there had been previously. But Jackson's objectives had not been met; the Rebel forces did not stand between the Union and the river, they had not driven Hooker from the crossroads at Chancellorsville, and Hooker's army still stood between the troops of Lee and Stuart. Joe Hooker had indeed surrendered the initiative on May 1st, but on May 3rd, he would be presented with the chance to retake it and smash the divided Confederate forces, for he stood between them with a force of over 70,000 men. And according to some, such as Governeur K. Warren, he planned to do just that. If so however, he never put such plans into action.

At 6 am on May 3, Stuart began his attacks. Leading the way east towards Chancellorsville were the troops of AP Hill's division, the freshest unit he had available. Hill's division was led by Henry Heth, since Hill had been wounded the previous night. Heth attacked with five brigades striking along, north, and south of the Orange Turnpike. Heth's right flank didn't quite line up with the rest of his forces, so they went forward first. Archer and McGowan struck towards Hazel Grove, through the tangled woods south of the road. After surprising some Union troops, McGowan's brigade ran right into the Federals of Thomas Ruger's Twelfth Corps brigade and suffered heavily, losing 457 men and four successive commanding officers that morning. Archer's brigade would have more luck, inflicting heavy punishment on Graham's Third Corps brigade and securing the ground around Hazel Grove itself, though the unit would be essentially spent by the effort. Archer's task was made easier by Joe Hooker's decision not to heavily contest the targeted ground.

With his lines now in order, Heth advanced the rest of his men. Pender and Thomas' brigades attacked north of the turnpike; Pender's brigade in particular suffered heavily from defending Union Third Corps troops of Hiram Berry's division. Joined by Thomas' Georgian brigade, the Confederates (all now commanded by Pender, as Heth had been hit) managed to push forward and defeat William Hays' brigade thoroughly; however, Union Third Corps troops, including Hiram Berdan's famed sharpshooters, promptly counterattacked and threw Pender and Thomas right back.

Just south of the turnpike, north of McGowan and Archer, James Lane's brigade attacked through dense underbrush north of Hazel Grove, and was nearly annihilated by heavy fire from Union defenders, losing 910 out of their 2,250 men, most in a matter of minutes. Thomas Ruger's Twelfth Corps men seized the opportunity to tangle with McGowan again, forcing the Confederates north of Hazel Grove back. Hill's division was virtually spent in about an hour of combat.

Stuart promptly threw forward another division, Raleigh Colston's, Colston's division, led by a relatively inexperienced commander and with only one experienced brigadier, was somewhat inefficient about getting into action, but when they did, much the same pattern repeated. They charged the patchwork Union defensive line repeatedly, and while forcing individual Union units back in places, the Confederates suffered withering fire from Union defensive positions as they thrashed their way through the woods. Colston's attacks gained no advantage, and by 8 a.m., Stuart had spent his second division to no great end, other than to impose similar casualties and more usage of ammunition on the mixed-together Third and Twelfth Corps troops opposing them. The Union troops fought hard, and gave as good or better than they got. More concerning for the Union forces was that Edward Porter Alexander had begun to mass his guns at Hazel Grove.

As Stuart's second attack sputtered out, Robert E. Lee was entering the action with his two divisions. Anderson's began making its way towards Hazel Grove to link up with Stuart, and to their east, McLaws exerted pressure on the other side of the Union salient, keeping most of Darius Couch's Second Corps from decisively intervening in the fight between Stuart, Slocum, and Sickles. Stuart did not hesitate to throw in his last reserve, Rodes' division, following Colston's repulses. Some of Rodes' units, striking towards Chancellorsville, had the misfortune of running head-on into the fresher Union troops of Winfield Scott Hancock, and the appearance of Twelfth Corps troops on their flank promptly ended their attack. Across the front, Rodes' attacks seemed characterized by the same bloody repulses that Stuart's earlier efforts had met. A third Confederate attack had failed.

Edward Porter Alexander's artillery however, had gained a major advantage over the Union artillery, and was mercilessly raking the field. The Union's patchwork lines were frayed from three hours of savage combat and continual enemy attacks as well; some units were low on ammunition. Engaged in this brutal fight south and west of Chancellorsville were the Twelfth Corps of Henry Slocum, the Third of Dan Sickles, and Darius Couch's Second Corps, though not as heavily as the first two. To the north of Chancellorsville at 9:00 a.m., Hooker still held the Fifth Corps of George Meade and the First Corps of John Reynolds ready for action. Instead of acting as Stuart was doing and throwing his men into the fight however, Hooker held his fresh troops back and continuously shuffled his tiring units from the south further north, towards Chancellorsville and US Ford. Hooker was not thinking of the danger of the Confederate wings uniting and then closing a vice around Chancellorsville; he was worried about the Confederates doing precisely what Jackson had intended, attacking his line of retreat towards US Ford. Consequently, Hooker did not put forth his effort to securing the high ground south of Chancellorsville.

Lee's troops had linked up with Stuart's battered forces by 9:00 a.m,, and Lee ordered a general advance, with the less battered commands of Anderson and McLaws playing a lead role. Just as the fighting began to climax with the Confederates determinedly trying to close the vice around Chancellorsville, Hooker was knocked out of the battle by a cannon blast, and though he would regain consciousness, the army was bereft of any clear direction as its commander was first unconscious and then commanding with a concussion; and this, it should be remembered, was a man who was already being described by his subordinates as "whipped" before these events.

Hooker's subordinates continued to try and fight; Fifth Corps elements under Erastus Tyler briefly entered the fight against the Confederate left flank, briefly paralyzing their push forward, but Hooker, conscious again by this point, ordered them to pull back, and Lee resumed closing the vice around Chancellorsville as a large portion of Hooker's army stood unengaged to the north of it with no choice but to watch. A determined Union rearguard action allowed Hooker's army to reform in a strong defensive line closer to the river, but the battle had essentially been forfeited. After 10 am, the fighting had mostly died out, except for brief probes by Lee of Hooker's final line to the north. Hooker would choose to sit still and wait for John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps to break through at Fredericksburg and rescue the rest of the army. Lee would respond by dividing his army again and meeting Sedgwick at Salem Church.

In somewhat over five hours of fighting, it is estimated over 17,000 men fell as casualties. On the Union side, the main casualties were among Dan Sickles' Third Corps (4,124), Henry Slocum's Twelfth Corps (2,821), and Darius Couch's Second Corps (1,923). Slocum and Sickles had been lightly engaged previously in the battle, but factoring in casualties from other scattered Union units engaged on May 3, this combined total of 8,868, perhaps with some change, is a respectable representation of Union casualties for this fighting. The three main Union formations involved in the battle mustered between 45-46,000 men.

The Confederates at Chancellorsville, all of whom were eventually involved in the fight, mustered around 41,000 infantry, not counting Stuart's cavalry command and some of the artillery that weren't included in that number. Factor in that McLaws' division kept most of the Union Second Corps relatively out of the fight for a time, and the relatively even match becomes even more apparent. Exact casualty figures for the Confederates in this fight are guesswork because the same Confederate units were engaged in this fight and in the rest of the battle and the casualties often aren't clearly distinugishable between days, just listed for the whole campaign. If their casualties were less than the Union forces though, it was only by a slim margin.

17-18,000 men fell in these five hours of fighting around Chancellorsville, and this was not the whole butcher's bill for the day. Around 1,700 Federals and 700 Confederates fell at Second Fredericksburg; to this would be added another 1,500 Federals at Salem Church and another 700 Confederates. With these numbers factored in, May 3 at Chancellorsville would fail to equal Antietam in bloodshed by only the slimmest of margins, and the events of the day would do more to decide the outcome of the battle than Jackson's flank attack on the preceding day. Jackson, while failing in his objectives, had put the Confederates in a position where they could win; but on May 3rd, it was left to Stuart, Lee, and their soldiers to complete the task of winning what many historians would call Lee's greatest victory.

Main Sources:

Blue & Gray #5 2013, specifically Frank O'Reilly's article on the May 3 fighting.

Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front by Chris Mackowski and Kris White.

Series 1, Vol. XXV, pt. II, The Official Records of the Civil War

by Stephen Sears