Battle of Chancellorsville History: The Flank Attack

Hooker's confidence had faded to caution, but whether he was "whipped" depended upon Lee and Jackson. Those two officers reined up along the Plank Road at its intersection with a byway call the Furnace Road on the evening of May 1. Transforming discarded Federal cracker boxes into camp stools, the generals examined their options.

Confederate scouts verified the Federals' strong positions extending from the Rappahannock River, around Chancellorsville, to the high, open ground at Hazel Grove. This was the bad news. The Southern army could not afford a costly frontal attack against prepared fortifications.

Then, about midnight, Lee's cavalry chief, "Jeb" Stuart, galloped up to the little campfire. The flamboyant Virginian carried thrilling intelligence. The Union right flank was "in the air" -- that is, resting on no natural or artificial obstacle. From that moment on, the generals thought of nothing but how to gain access to Hooker's vulnerable flank. Jackson consulted with staff officers familiar with the area, dispatched his topographical engineer to explore the roads to the west, and tried to snatch a few hours rest at the chilly bivouac.

Before dawn, Lee and Jackson studied a hastily drawn map and decided to undertake one of the biggest gambles in American military history. Jackson's corps, about 30,000 troops, would follow a series of country roads and woods paths to reach the Union right. Lee, with the remaining 14,000 infantry, would occupy a position more than three miles long and divert Hooker's attention during Jackson's dangerous trek. Once in position, "Stonewall" would smash the Federals with his full strength while Lee cooperated as best he could. The Army of Northern Virginia would thus be fractured into three pieces, counting Early's contingent at Fredericksburg, any one of which might be subject to rout or annihilation if the Yankees resumed the offensive. To learn more about the role of McLaws' men on May 2 see a folder for McLaws' Trail.

Jackson led his column past the bivouac early on the morning of May 2. He conferred briefly with Lee, then trotted down the Furnace Road with the fire of battle kindled in his eyes. After about one mile, as the Confederates traversed a small clearing, Union scouts perched in treetops at Hazel Grove spotted the marchers. The Federals lobbed artillery shells at Jackson's men and notified Hooker of the enemy movement.

"Fighting Joe" correctly identified Jackson's maneuver as an effort to reach his right flank. He advised the area commander, Major General Oliver 0. Howard, to be on the lookout for an attack from the west. As the morning progressed, however, the Union chief grew to believe that Lee was actually withdrawing - the course of events Hooker most preferred. Worries about his right disappeared. Instead, he ordered his Third Corps to harass the tail end of Lee's "retreating" army.

Colorful Major General Daniel E. Sickles commanded the Third Corps. He probed cautiously from Hazel Grove toward a local iron manufactory called Catharine Furnace. In mid-afternoon the Federals overwhelmed Jackson's rearguard beyond the furnace along the cut of an unfinished railroad, capturing nearly an entire Georgia regiment. The action at Catharine Furnace, however, eventually attracted some 20,000 Bluecoats onto the scene thus effectively isolating Howard's Eleventh Corps on the right with no nearby support.

Meanwhile the bulk of Jackson's column snaked its way along uncharted trails barely wide enough to accommodate four men abreast. "Stonewall" contributed to Hooker's faith in a Confederate retreat by twice turning away from the Union line - first at Catharine Furnace, then again at the Brock Road. After making the desired impression, Jackson ducked under the Wilderness canopy and continued his march toward Howard's insensible soldiers.

Acting upon a personal reconnaissance recommended by cavalry general Fitzhugh Lee, Jackson kept his column northbound on the Brock Road to the Orange Turnpike where the Confederates would at last be beyond the Union right. The exhausting march, which altogether traversed more, than 12 miles, ended about 3 p.m. when "Old Jack's" warriors began deploying into battle lines astride the Turnpike. Jackson, however, did not authorize an attack for some two hours, providing 11 of his 15 brigades time to take position in the silent forest. The awe-inspiring Confederate front measured nearly two miles across.

Although individual Northern officers and men warned of Jackson's approach, Eleventh Corps headquarters dismissed the reports as frightened exaggerations from alarmists or cowards. Hooker's shortage of cavalry hampered the Federals's ability to penetrate the Wilderness and uncover the Confederate presence with certainty. Only two small regiments and half a New York battery faced west in the direction of Jackson's corps.

Suddenly, a bugle rang out in the afternoon shadows. Bugles everywhere echoed the notes up and down the line. As waves of sweat-soaked soldiers rolled forward, the high defiance of the Rebel Yell pierced the gloomy woods. Jackson's Corps erupted from the trees and sent the astonished Unionists reeling. "Along the road it was pandemonium," recalled a Massachusetts soldier, "and on the side of the road it was chaos."

Most of Howard's men fought bravely, drawing three additional battle lines across Jackson's path. But the overmatched Federals occupied an untenable position. The screaming gray legions overwhelmed each Union stand and eventually drove the Eleventh Corps completely from the field.

Sunset and the inevitable intermingling of "Stonewall's" brigades compelled Jackson to call a reluctant halt to the advance about 7:15. He summoned Major General A.P. Hill's division to the front and, typically, determined to renew his attack despite the darkness. Jackson hoped to maneuver between Hooker and his escape routes across the rivers and then, with Lee's help, grind the Army of the Potomac into oblivion.

While Hill brought his brigades forward, Jackson rode ahead of his men to reconnoiter. When he attempted to return, a North Carolina regiment mistook his small party for Union cavalry. Two volleys burst forth in the blackness and Jackson tottered in his saddle, suffering from three wounds. Shortly thereafter a Federal shell struck Hill, incapacitating him, and direction of the corps devolved upon Stuart. The cavalryman wisely canceled "Stonewall's" plans for a night attack. See text for Wounding of Stonewall Jackson Trail.

Hazel Grove, Fairview and the Second Battle of Fredericksburg

Last updated: October 5, 2021

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