April had been a cruel month for Federal troops in Virginia; the mud created by spring rains slowed troop movements to a miserable crawl as Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac prepared to confront Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Then, as May approached, the sun came out, and the roads dried. Fresh provisions and a visit from President Lincoln cheered the Union soldiers, while Hooker looked forward to a rout. “May God have mercy on General Lee,” Hooker boasted, “for I will have none.”
“Fighting Joe” had reason for confidence: His troops outnumbered Lee’s by more than two to one. If he could lure the Rebels from their heavy fortifications at Fredericksburg, a decisive victory was almost assured.
Hooker planned to force Lee into a retreat by threatening his supply lines while initiating a mock frontal assault. On May 1, when Lee did not retreat into waiting cavalry divisions as expected, Hooker wavered and halted his advance. His hesitation proved fatal. The following day General Lee led forty-five thousand of his men into combat against Hooker in the thick woodlands near Chancellorsville as three divisions of mounted troops under Stonewall Jackson swung around to attack Hooker’s unprepared right flank.
Hooker’s grand scheme to vanquish Lee disintegrated into four days of chaotic fighting and desperate maneuvering. The Confederates lost thirteen thousand men; among the dead was Stonewall Jackson, accidentally shot by his own troops while returning from a nighttime reconnaissance. Union casualties numbered seventeen thousand by the time Hooker withdrew his men.