Hooker began the campaign on April 27 and within three days some 40,000 Federals had splashed through the upriver fords, their presence detected by Confederate cavalry. On April 29, a sizable Union force led by Major General John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps erected pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg and also moved to Lee's side of the river.
With both wings of the enemy across the Rappahannock, Lee faced a serious dilemma. Conventional military wisdom dictated that the understrength Army of Northern Virginia retreat south and escape Hooker's trap. Lee opted instead to meet the Federal challenge head-on. Correctly deducing that Hooker's primary threat lay to the west, "Marse Robert" assigned 10,000 troops under Major General Jubal A. Early to man the old Fredericksburg entrenchments. The balance of the army would turn west toward the tangled Wilderness to confront Hooker's flanking column.
By mid afternoon of April 30, that column, now containing 50,000 men and 108 artillery pieces, rendezvoused at the most important road junction in the Wilderness. A large brick tavern named Chancellorsville dominated this intersection of the Orange Turnpike with the Orange Plank, Ely's Ford, and River roads. "This is splendid," exulted one of Hooker's corps commanders, "Hurrah for Old Joe."
The Federals had encountered virtually no opposition to this point. Moreover, they could now press eastward, break clear of the Wilderness, and uncover Banks Ford downstream, thus significantly shortening the distance between their two wings. Hooker, however, decided to halt at Chancellorsville and await the arrival of additional Union troops. This fateful decision disheartened the Federal officers on the scene who recognized the urgency of maintaining the momentum they had thus far sustained.
"Stonewall" Jackson, gladly seizing the initiative that Hooker needlessly surrendered, left the Fredericksburg lines at 3:00 a.m., on May I and arrived at Zoan Church five hours later. There he found two divisions of Confederate infantry, Major General Richard H. Anderson's and Major General Lafayette McLaws', fortifying a prominent ridge covering the Turnpike and Plank Road. Although his corps had not yet appeared, Jackson ordered Anderson and McLaws to drop their shovels, pick up their rifles, and advance to the attack.
Jackson's audacity dictated the shape of the Battle of Chancellorsville. When Hooker at last authorized an eastward movement late in the morning of May 1, his troops on the Turnpike and Plank Road ran flush against "Stonewall's", outgunned but aggressive brigades. Union front-line commanders had not expected this kind of resistance. They sent anxious messages to Hooker, who quickly ordered his generals to fall back to the Wilderness and assume a defensive posture. The Federal columns on the River Road marched almost to Bank's Ford without seeing a Rebel. They returned to Chancellorsville fuming, fully realizing the opportunity that had slipped through their fingers.
Late in the day, as the blue infantry threw up entrenchments encircling Hooker's Chancellorsville headquarters, Major General Darius N. Couch approached his superior. As the army's senior corps commander, Couch had advocated an offensive strategy and shared his comrades' disappointment with "Fighting Joe's" judgment. "It is all right, Couch," Hooker reassured him, "I have got Lee just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground."
Couch could barely believe his ears. "To hear from his own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much, and I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man."