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Chancellorsville: The crux of the war
Gary W. Gallagher's op-ed column on Chancellorsville and its Impact.

 Gen. Robert E. Lee
Library of Congress
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Date published: 4/28/2013


--Robert E. Lee's stunning victory at Chancellorsville capped a remarkable 11-month period during which he built the Army of Northern Virginia into a self-confident and formidable weapon. After defeating the Army of the Potomac at the Seven Days Battles, Second Bull Run, and Fredericksburg, the officers and men of Lee's army entered the spring of 1863 with abundant faith in their commander.

Their triumph at Chancellorsville cemented a bond with Lee unrivaled on either side during the Civil War. Even the costly defeat at Gettysburg two months later failed to weaken that bond, which sustained the Army of Northern Virginia for nearly two more years. Beyond its effect on the internal dynamics of the army, Chancellorsville contributed to a growing impression among the Confederate populace that the future of their incipient nation lay with Lee and his men in Virginia.

The comments of a British observer in March 1865 suggest that faith in Lee's ability--a legacy of Chancellorsville and other victories in 1862-1863--continued until the very end of the conflict. This man described Lee as "the idol of his soldiers & the Hope of His Country" and marveled at "the almost fanatical belief in his judgement & capacity."

Intimidating odds against Confederate success elevated Chancellorsville to a special position among Lee's victories. Union Gen. Joseph Hooker had rebuilt and re-inspirited the Army of the Potomac in the wake of Ambrose E. Burnside's removal from command in January 1863. Hooker entered the Chancellorsville campaign at the head of a force with ample equipment, strong discipline, and high morale.


During a difficult winter, Lee had dispersed his cavalry to secure sufficient fodder and detached two divisions under James Longstreet to Southside Virginia. Lee could count on the redoubtable spirit of his men, but he knew their ranks were dangerously thin. With more than 133,000 men to Lee's 61,000, Hooker enjoyed the widest margin of manpower of any Union general who had fought against the Army of Northern Virginia.

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Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III professor of history at the University of Virginia. His most recent books include "The Union War" and "Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty."