A Tale of Two Mays in Wartime: What a Difference a Year Makes

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2007

In war, a great deal can change in a year. Things looked pretty good in Iraq in May 2003 after Americans had raced through the heart of Mesopotamia to topple Saddam’s regime and capture Baghdad. But a year later Americans were trying to adapt to the insurgency that the fall of Saddam had spawned.

On the contrary, things looked pretty bleak in Iraq last May as a result of the sectarian violence that Sunni insurgents had managed to unleash by destroying the great Shia mosque in Sammarah. But while Iraq is still problematic, things are looking up a bit as we enter this May. A new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is in place and he is now implementing a new and more promising counterinsurgency approach.

But the starkest example in American military history of the changes that can occur in a year is provided by two Civil War battles that took place in nearly the same place almost exactly a year apart. The first, in May of 1863, was Chancellorsville, which many historians contend was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s greatest battle. Here Lee was at his boldest, dividing his vastly outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia not just once, but twice, in the presence of the enemy, and striking a blow that came close to annihilating the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Chancellorsville was essentially the opening of Lee’s Gettysburg Campaign, the invasion of the North that he hoped might convince the Yankees that trying to subdue the Confederacy was simply too costly.

The second, in May of 1864, was the terrible fight known as the Battle of The Wilderness. Although a Confederate tactical success, the outcome illustrated how Lee’s offensive capabilities had been reduced after Gettysburg and how the conflict had now become a war of attrition. In the past, when a Union army was defeated in a tactical engagement, it disengaged and took time to lick its wounds. But this time, instead of retreating after the bloody encounter in the tangled underbrush of The Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac under Major General George Meade (and accompanied by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall commander of Union armies) turned South, locking Lee into a month-long bloodletting unlike anything that had gone before.


After the Union debacle at Fredericksburg in December of 1862, the morale of the Army of the Potomac was at rock bottom. Ambrose Burnside asked to be relieved of command and was replaced by Hooker. Lincoln had some misgivings about Hooker, which he revealed in a letter to the new commanding general in January of 1863.

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm.… I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.…

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

In many respects, Hooker’s performance leading up to Chancellorsville seemed to vindicate Lincoln’s decision to give him command. The steps he took to train and reequip the Army of the Potomac led to vastly improved morale. He revitalized the cavalry arm, mimicking the Confederate approach of organizing the cavalry into a corps responsive to the overall commander. But the rashness about which Lincoln had admonished him eventually did him in at the beginning of the campaign and deserted him at the end when a little rashness might have helped.

Hooker’s plan was actually quite good. Indeed it probably would have worked against anyone but Robert E. Lee. There is an old adage that says one should never rely on a plan that depends for success on the cooperation of the enemy. Lee did not cooperate.

In late April of 1863, the two armies faced each other across the Rappahannock with Lee occupying a strong position on the south bank near Fredericksburg. Lee had detached the bulk of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps to forage near Suffolk, so the effective strength of the Army of Northern Virginia was under 60,000 troops, about half of the force that Hooker could muster. Leaving a corps at Fredericksburg to fix Lee in position, Hooker planned to march the most of his army to the west, cross the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, and move south through the dense forest known locally as The Wilderness in order to threaten the important logistics center and railhead at Gordonsville. In typically bombastic language, Hooker proclaimed on April 30, that “our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” He added a flourish: “May God have mercy on Bobby Lee for I shall have none.”

Earlier Hooker had dispatched his cavalry corps under Gen. George Stoneman to raid the Confederate lines of communication between Gordonsville and Richmond. However, heavy rains had interfered with Stoneman’s ability to carry out his mission and delayed his return to Hooker. His absence was to have fatal consequences for the Army of the Potomac.

Part of Hooker’s force crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford then split into two columns to cross the Rapidan at Germanna and Ely’s Fords. The rest of his force crossed the Rappahannock at US Ford. The three Federal columns marched through The Wilderness, a series of bramble-choked thickets made up of “mean jumbles of jack pines, chinquapins, and oak trees, few of them thicker than a man’s arm, across a forest floor carpeted with dry leaves, infested with briars, and riddled with vines,” reassembling at Chancellorsville.

Informed that the Union army had halted in The Wilderness, Lee left one division under Jubal Early at Fredericksburg and marched the rest of his force east to confront Hooker. When the van of the Confederate force clashed with the Federals on May 1, Hooker pulled his forces back to a position near the Chancellor House, expecting that the terrain of The Wilderness would disrupt any attack by Lee against his defenses.

At this point, Lee decided upon a bold course of action. He had already violated a principle of war by once dividing his army in the face of a numerically superior enemy. Now he did so again. While two divisions demonstrated against Hooker’s center, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the bulk of the army executed a bold and dangerous march across the front of the Union army to attack its exposed right flank. During the afternoon of May 2, Hooker received a number of reports that the Confederates were on the move. However, the absence of Stoneman’s cavalry left Hooker in the dark concerning Lee’s intentions. Without accurate reports from his cavalry, Hooker concluded Lee was in retreat, vindicating his plan.

Instead, Jackson struck the Federal XI Corps two hours before dusk, routing it and nearly rolling up the entire Union line. (The movie Gods and Generals provides an excellent cinematic portrayal of Jackson’s attack). Pressing his advantage even after dark, Jackson rode forward of his lines to reconnoiter the ground. As he returned, he and his staff were mistaken for Federal cavalry by Confederate pickets who unleashed a deadly fusillade. Several of his staff were killed and wounded and Jackson himself suffered what proved to be a mortal wound. Jackson was succeeded in command of his corps by the cavalry leader, J.E.B. Stuart.

On May 3, Lee and Stuart reunited their forces and continued to press Hooker. At some point during the day, Hooker was stunned by debris from a column that was struck by an artillery round. Despite the pleas of some of his subordinates, Hooker ordered the Army of the Potomac to withdraw north of the Chancellor House. Hooker’s legendary confidence deserted him during the battle. No one knows why. Some have suggested that while he was known to “pull a cork,” he had given up drinking before the Chancellorsville Campaign. His critics have suggested that he might have done better had he not.

As Lee continued to tighten the noose around Hooker near Chancellorsville, he received word that Sedgwick’s Corps, which Hooker had left at Fredericksburg, had broken through Jubal Early’s defenses. Once again, Lee divided his force, this time to confront Sedgwick at Salem Church on May 4. Although outnumbered and surrounded, Sedgwick managed to retreat across the Rappahannock. A day later, Hooker also managed to withdraw.

Russell Weigley, the late dean of American military historians, described Lee as “the most Napoleonic general of the war” who sought decisive victory in a cataclysmic battle of annihilation. He came close to achieving his goal at Chancellorsville.

But Lee’s victory was achieved at a frightful cost. He suffered 14,000 casualties while inflicting 17,000 on Hooker’s army. He also lost the subordinate he called “his right arm” when Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia on May 10, a complication arising from his wound a week earlier. As stunning as it was, Lee’s victory was ultimately hollow. The Army of the Potomac escaped to fight another day.

The Wilderness and the Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864

Despite heavy casualties, the confidence and morale of the Army of Northern Virginia soared after Chancellorsville. Lee swiftly followed up his victory in Virginia by launching an offensive into Pennsylvania. Lee believed that the best way to neutralize the Union’s advantage in engineering, artillery, and naval power was to employ the strategic turning movement and open-field maneuvering by infantry and cavalry in order to gain an advantage, attack the enemy, and inflict heavy losses. Only in this manner, Lee believed, could the population of the North be convinced that a costly and interminable struggle lay ahead if the South were not granted its independence. This was his goal during both the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and the invasion of Pennsylvania that culminated in the dreadful battle of Gettysburg.

In fact, Lee came very close to success at Gettysburg. He routed three Federal corps on the first day and Longstreet’s echelon attack along the Emmitsburg Road on the second day nearly cracked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. But a “near thing” in war does not matter. In the greatest battle ever fought on North American soil, Lee was ultimately driven from the field.

Critics of the Union commander at Gettysburg, Major General George Meade (including Lincoln) believed that he could have ended the war had he pursued Lee after the battle. But as the Duke of Wellington once remarked, “there is only one thing worse than a battle won and that is a battle lost.” Both armies were badly damaged at Gettysburg. This is confirmed by the fact that despite extensive maneuvering in Virginia in the fall of 1863, the two armies did not fight a major engagement for the ten months following Gettysburg.

On March 10, 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant as General in Chief of the Armies of the United States. The Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 reflected Grant’s military philosophy. “The art of war,” he maintained, “is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”

The 1864 Virginia campaign has led some to dismiss Grant as a butcher, but the truth of the matter is far more complex. This campaign demonstrated that Grant, unlike his predecessors, understood what it would take to defeat the Confederacy.

Grant believed that up to that point, Union armies in different theaters had “acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together.” Accordingly, his strategic plan for 1864 called for putting five Union armies into motion simultaneously against the Confederacy. While three smaller armies in peripheral theaters (Nathaniel Banks against Mobile, Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; and Ben Butler moving toward Richmond via the James River) tied down significant Confederate forces, preventing them from shifting troops from one theater to another, the two main armies, Meade’s Army of the Potomac and William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group at Chattanooga would lock horns respectively with Lee in Virginia and Joe Johnson’s Army of Tennessee on the road to Atlanta. The simultaneous advance of several armies is called “concentration in time.”

On May 4, 1864, a year after the bloodletting at Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac once again plunged into The Wilderness, hoping that the forest would screen the army’s advance but also hoping to get through it before Lee could react. Grant and Meade assumed that Lee would withdraw to his strong position along Mine Run or move toward the North Ana River. But while Lee was weakened by the absence of Longstreet, whose corps had been detached to Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in September 1863 (and was in the process of returning to the Army of Northern Virginia after subsequent independent operations in East Tennessee), he once again failed to act in a predictable way.

As the Army of the Potomac moved southeast through The Wilderness on the Germanna Plank Road, Lee swiftly moved his army from the west along two parallel roads, the Orange and Fredericksburg Pike to the north and the Orange Plank Road to the south, threatening to split the Federal force in two places. But on May 5, Meade managed to strike first. The Confederates repulsed the attack, but Meade renewed the assault at dawn the next day. The massive Union offensive broke the Confederate line along the Orange Pike Road and threatened Lee’s rear.

The Union attack routed A.P. Hill’s corps, but Longstreet, who had been some forty miles away at the beginning of the battle (and who had been on the march for 35 of the previous 40 hours), arrived to blunt the Federal assault and reestablish the Confederate lines. The first unit of Longstreet’s corps to reach the battlefield was Gregg’s Texas Brigade. Lee, who had tried unsuccessfully to rally Hill’s fleeing troops, now attempted to join the Texans’ counterattack. Some soldiers shouted “Go back, General Lee.” Others grabbed the reins of his mount, Traveller. When it was clear to Lee that the brigade would not advance if he persisted in his attempt to join the attack, he relented and the 800 men of the Texas Brigade slammed into the advancing Union force. Only 250 of them returned unharmed.

Seeking to seize the initiative, Lee, as he had the previous year during the battle of Chancellorsville, launched a daring attack against the Union left, which turned what had seemed to be an imminent Federal triumph five hours earlier into defeat—indeed a rout. But just as the Confederates were on the cusp of victory, Longstreet suffered the same fate as Stonewall Jackson a year earlier, mistakenly wounded by his own troops as he and his staff attempted to organize a follow-on attack.

Had Longstreet died that day on the Orange Plank Road, he would have been enshrined along with Lee and Jackson in the pantheon of great Confederate generals. Instead he had the misfortune to survive his wounds and, after the war, commit three sins that were unpardonable in the eyes of Southerners: he became a Republican, he renewed his friendship with Grant, who was elected president in 1868, and—most unforgivably—he dared to criticize Lee. Jubal Early and the Virginia-dominated Southern Historical Society unjustly made him the scapegoat for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg and accused him of all manner of failure as a general.

But this is nonsense. Lee called Longstreet “my War Horse” and never hesitated to assign him the most difficult assignments. Longstreet had an uncanny ability to find and exploit the gap in his adversary’s line, as he did on the second day at Gettysburg and when he broke the Union position at Chickamauga, routing Gen. William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland.

In any event, Lee’s assault against the Union left bogged down after Longstreet was wounded. Lee now turned his attention to the north where Brigadier General John B. Gordon struck the exposed Union right flank north of the Orange and Fredericksburg Pike. Again initial success ended in stalemate.

In the two days of fighting in The Wilderness, Lee had inflicted another tactical defeat on the Army of the Potomac. Meade suffered 18,000 casualties to Lee’s 12,000 but the latter would not be able to replace his losses. The horror of the battle was made worse by raging fires, ignited by musket and artillery flashes, which burned to death many wounded soldiers trapped in the thick undergrowth.

As terrible as the battle of The Wilderness was, it was only the opening act of a bloody campaign that would essentially destroy two great armies. For the next month, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were in nearly constant contact—at Spotsylvania, North Ana, and Cold Harbor. While Lee, operating on interior lines, was able to parry each blow, he could never wrest the initiative from his adversary. Eventually Grant and Meade were able to sidestep Lee once more, cross the James River, and besiege Petersburg.

The human cost of the Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 was staggering. Lee lost a third of his senior leadership, 33,000 of his best—and irreplaceable—troops, and most of his offensive capability. Meade suffered 55,000 casualties in addition to the loss of thousands of veteran troops whose three-year enlistments came to an end. As one historian has remarked, “in short, both armies emerged from the campaign as shadows of their former selves.”

Grant’s strategic success was necessary to defeat the South but it did not impress the Northern public. War weariness, exploited by the so-called “Peace Democrats” or Copperheads, placed Lincoln’s hope for reelection in jeopardy. Not until Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Phil Sheridan’s success in driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley in the late summer and fall of 1864 did hostility toward the war in the North recede enough to ensure that the president would be returned to office and see the War of Rebellion through to its successful conclusion.

A great deal changed from May of 1863 to May of 1864. Chancellorsville demonstrated that the conflict still retained the character of Napoleonic warfare. A year later, the Virginia Campaign adumbrated the Great War that would consume Europe a half century later.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.