Timing was everything at Chancellorsville—a fact Jackson ignored when he made critical calls that put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of the most fateful campfire conversations in military history took place late on May 1, 1863, in a copse of second-growth pines at the intersection of the Orange Plank and Catherine Furnace roads in the Spotsylvania Wilderness of Virginia. There, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson leaned over a rough sketch map, tilting it to catch the light of a candle. Bending closer, Lee asked, “How can we get at these people?”

Then he answered himself. Swinging his finger left across the tangled forest, he tapped it at a point on the Orange Turnpike, west of the crossroads of Chancellorsville. He did not have to say what he meant. Jackson nodded. Months together in battle and camp had linked these two soldiers in perfect rapport; they thought as one.

Lee had already divided his heavily outnumbered army once to confront Union General Joe Hooker’s massive swing across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers onto the Confederates’ western flank. Now, defying rules taught in every military academy, he would divide it again. By sending a force around the Union army and striking from the west, he would outflank Hooker’s flanking movement.

It was the boldest, most dangerous tactical gamble of the Civil War. Lee’s army was barely half the size of Hooker’s. Now he would split it into three parts: One would defend his rear, on the hills behind Fredericksburg. One would hold Hooker’s attention near where he and Jackson sat, east and south of Chancellorsville. To get into position to attack from the west, the third would have to march for miles across the front of a powerful enemy. An aggressive Union commander might crush one or all of those parts, defeating the Army of Northern Virginia in detail and opening the way to Richmond.

In his opening move, Hooker had been aggressive indeed. He had marched more than 65,000 troops across two rivers before Lee reacted, and was so proud of his success that he led a grand celebration the previous evening at Chancellorsville. With bands playing and troops cheering, he boasted that Lee must “ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”

But while Hooker was celebrating, Lee was ordering Jackson to march west from below Fredericksburg to meet the Union thrust. Within hours after arrival, Jackson shifted his troops from defense to offense. That afternoon, May 1, Hooker learned that his troops had struck stiff resistance—and in his mind, he had now collided with the vaunted Lee. This time he was in ultimate charge; there would be no one above him to blame if things went wrong. His aggressiveness wilted, and he dismayed his own generals by ordering them to pull back and dig in about Chancellorsville.

There matters stood as Lee and Jackson conferred in the campfire circle. For a conversation of such historic moment, it consisted of very few words. Both generals understood that Jackson, whose fast-marching troops had won the reputation of foot cavalry, would lead the flank attack. Lee suggested that if Jackson was not sure the next morning about Hooker’s position, he could drop in a few artillery rounds to see what they stirred. The details were up to him; he would have to move fast, and be quiet. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry would cover his march.

Jackson stood and saluted. “My troops will move at 4 o’clock,” he said. Tired and dusty from a long day in the saddle, he stepped away, unbuckled his sword and propped it against a nearby tree. As he spread his saddle blanket, one of his aides offered an overcoat against the chill of the spring night. This Jackson refused, but when he lay down, the young officer detached his cape and spread it across his shoulders. Jackson thanked him, and without further talk fell quickly to sleep.

He did not sleep long. He awoke to warm himself by the fire and talk with his chaplain, Tucker Lacy, who knew some of the roads he might take through the Wilderness. Jackson was concerned about the march: although the dense woods would help cover his move, cutting too close to Hooker’s lines might give away his intentions. Lee’s aide, Armistead Long, awoke and brought a cup of coffee. As they talked, Jackson’s sword suddenly toppled from where he had propped it. Only later did Long remember that as an omen.

With Lee, Jackson pointed to a route that Lacy and his engineer officer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, had found. It wound deeper into the Wilderness before swinging back toward the point where Hooker’s line trickled off, “hanging in the air,” with no serious thought given to an unlikely attack from the west. Lee asked Jackson what force he would take to make that attack.

“My whole corps,” said Jackson.

If Lee was taken aback, he did not say so. Jackson was proposing to take three divisions, about 28,000 men, half of Lee’s entire strength. That would leave Lee facing Hooker with only two divisions, and Jubal Early back at Fredericksburg with one. Lee thought for only a moment before meeting Jackson’s ice-blue gaze.

“Well,” he said, “go on.”

The sun was clearing the treetops by the time the Georgia regiment leading Jackson’s force came striding past the Confederate command post. Jackson had promised that they would move at 4 a.m., but now it was almost 7. Though usually punctilious, insisting on strict attention to detail, he had neglected to alert his generals before going to sleep. They were warned only later, in the morning darkness. Then they had to send orders down through their brigades and regiments; their troops had to bolt breakfast, saddle up and wait their turn to join the long, thin column setting out along a narrow forest road. Now, as Lee and Jackson watched them pass by, they were already three hours behind Jackson’s own schedule—three hours that would make a grave difference when day was done.

After suffering through a long hard winter, the Rebel troops seemed in high spirits as they moved off through the blossoming woods. Marching four abreast, 26,000 of them stretched a good six miles. Add to that artillery, ambulances, ammunition wagons and the inevitable accordioning of an army on the march; by the time the first units of Jackson’s force neared Hooker’s far flank, the rear regiments would just be getting under way.

With Jackson driving them—“Press on, close up, press forward!”—they headed west, then southwest, then south, veering away from the Yankee lines. At an opening in the forest, Union lookouts spotted their bayonets gleaming in the sun. Hooker, hearing this, warned his westernmost division commanders to be wary of a possible attack from that flank. Far back, Union General Dan Sickles tried to cut off the tail of the long Rebel column. But Jackson pressed on, and his jogs away from the Federal lines only reinforced the Union generals’ belief that the Confederates were retreating, just as Hooker had earlier predicted. They were not aware that after that last turn southward, Jackson was swinging back to the northwest. He expected to turn from the Brock Road onto the Orange Plank Road where it angled northeastward toward Hooker’s lines. But as he approached that crossroads, cavalry General Fitzhugh Lee galloped up and beckoned him forward to see what he had seen. Jackson halted his infantry column and rode with him to a farmhouse clearing where Lee swept his arm toward O.O. Howard’s Union division, dug in across a little creek valley. The Yankee soldiers were lolling about, talking, unaware of looming trouble.

But their line stretched on to the west; if Jackson went at them along the Orange Plank Road, he would strike their front rather than their flank. To get onto that flank he would have to continue up the Brock Road to the Turnpike before attacking. That would take another precious hour or two, during which the Union commanders might suddenly wake up to their danger. But Jackson was not about to give up an opportunity that all generals dream of; he sent back orders for his column to march on up the Brock Road and wait for him on the Turnpike.

Thus it was about 3 o’clock when Jackson arrived there on his horse Little Sorrel and scrawled a note to R. E. Lee: “The enemy has made a stand at Chancellor’s [farmhouse] which is about 2 miles from Chancellorsville. I hope as soon as practicable to attack. I trust that an ever kind Providence will bless us with great success.”

Led by a battery of Stuart’s horse artillery, the Confederates hurried along the Turnpike for less than a mile before Jackson halted them at a farmhouse clearing. Here and there Union outposts had heard or spotted them and raced back with warnings, and a few of their officers responded, ordering makeshift positions facing west. But farther up the chain of command, their seniors still scoffed at such alarmists. Howard’s troops went about their business, making camp, preparing supper.

Here Jackson made another fateful decision. He would not be satisfied merely to roll up the Union line. He saw the chance to drive the Yankees back into the Rappahannock, to destroy Hooker’s army, perhaps to win the war. He intended to envelop the Federal position, overlap it north and south, striking from the rear as well as the flank. To do it he spread his infantry far into the thickets, pushing them to keep on, until they extended a mile on each side of the Turnpike. This took still more time, and now the sun was descending. As Jackson waited, he heard artillery fire in the distance—Lee was carrying out his role, drawing Hooker’s attention in the other direction.

Jackson kept checking his pocket watch as his weary soldiers filed into the briery woods. They had already marched 12 miles to get here, and the battle still lay ahead. An Alabama major came back to tell Jackson that his skirmishers were deployed. At last the long lines of riflemen were in place, kneeling in the thickets, ready. Robert Rodes’s division would lead the attack, with Raleigh Colston’s, then A. P. Hill’s coming on their heels. Hill’s trailing brigade was still in column along the Turnpike when Rodes rode up at about 5:15, an hour and 45 minutes before sunset. Jackson spoke quietly:

“Are you ready, General Rodes?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can go forward, then.”

For that order to filter through the forest and get three far-spread divisions moving took uncounted minutes. Then, while Howard’s still unsuspecting troops were boiling coffee, roasting chunks of beef, some of them heating twists of dough on their rifle barrels, suddenly frightened rabbits, birds and deer burst out of the woods. Before the Yankees realized what was happening, Jackson’s men were upon them. The high, yipping sound of the Rebel yell panicked many of the Federals, while others bravely tried to pivot right and confront the oncoming torrent. Jackson’s orders were to drive on, don’t let up, and after a delay by one brigade on the Confederate right wing, the gray infantry flowed over and past every knot of resistance.

The one-armed Howard later wrote that “with all the fury of the wildest hailstorm, everything, every sort of organization that lay in the path of the mad current of panic-stricken men had to give way and be broken into fragments.” Screaming at his soldiers to halt, he stuck a flag under the stump of his missing arm, and with the flag waving he brandished his pistol with his good hand. Officers around him flailed at racing soldiers with their swords, but nothing slowed the retreat for long. By the time the retreat flooded back across a surprised Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellorsville, it was a melee of men, horses, cannon, wagons, and cattle. Regimental bands struck up “Hail Columbia” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” hoping to inspire a patriotic stand, but music was no more effective than swords and oaths.

Confusion reigned on both sides. As night fell, the Rebels had tumbled Hooker’s army back about two miles through the clutching undergrowth. But then their attack began to wind down in chaos and exhaustion. Regiments and brigades overran and mixed with each other. Thousands of soldiers, unfed all day, were wobbly with hunger. A hastily assembled Union stand behind log works in the thickets, a counterattack by Pennsylvania cavalry, a furious blast of artillery—each had slowed the Confederate advance. Union generals farther east, beyond the initial impact of the attack, were swinging their divisions to face the Confederates. Jackson’s drive petered out as its officers halted to regroup. Southern soldiers wandered in the darkness seeking their comrades, then sank to the ground hoping that their spectacular victory entitled them to a good night’s rest.

But Jackson was not satisfied. Back along the road, he did not realize how chaotic things were in the lines ahead. To him, victory would not be complete until the enemy was crushed. He was determined to keep going, to mount a night attack before the Federals reorganized. By morning the shock of his attack would be over. He ordered A.P. Hill to push his division along the Turnpike and take the lead. “Press them!” he shouted. “Cut them off from United States Ford, Hill. Press them!”

Then he rode forward. There Southern and Northern troops were blundering into each other, not knowing who was who in the night, and both sides were jumpy. After a fierce blast of Blue artillery swept the road, Jackson approached the front lines with his staff, and a local cavalryman acting as guide. He halted at a clearing where two woods roads angled north. Although he had a rough hand-drawn map of his own, it did not show those roads. Bullock Road, which would have been on any serious map, ran northeast behind Chancellorsville, just the way he wanted to move to cut off Hooker from the river. Jackson asked his guide where the roads led, but still wanted to see for himself. Starting forward again, he brushed off a young officer’s words of caution. “The danger is all over,” he said. “The enemy is routed.”

He continued until he heard sounds of Union troops digging in close ahead. That made up his mind. At about 9:30, he and his little entourage of officers and messengers turned their horses back. Clattering through the woods, they must have sounded like a cavalry charge to the jittery Confederates in the front rank. A shot rang out, then a volley, not from Yankees but from veteran riflemen of the 18th North Carolina. Hill shouted, “Cease firing! Cease firing! You are firing into your own men!”

A Tar Heel officer yelled back. “Who gave that order? It’s a lie! Pour it into them, boys!”

Musket fire ripped through Jackson’s party, hitting him three times and almost knocking him off his horse. Stretcher bearers carried him under fire back to an ambulance, and before dawn surgeons amputated his shattered left arm in a hospital tent near Wilderness Tavern. From there he would be trundled 27 miles over rough roads to a plantation at Guiney Station, where he died a week later.

For many Americans with only a sketchy knowledge of the war, the story of Chancellorsville begins and ends with Jackson’s attack and his tragic wounding. But the fiercest fighting was yet to come, on Sunday, May 3. Jeb Stuart took over Jackson’s command, and together with Lee smashed Hooker back into a defensive horseshoe between Chancellorsville and the river. Two nights later, in a drenching rainstorm, Hooker pulled his defeated and demoralized army back across the river.

Lives, like battles, always end with ifs. It was Jackson’s aggressiveness, his willingness to take chances, that made him a great soldier. But in at least two instances in his final 24 hours in the field, his eagerness to fight surpassed his military professionalism.

At two other points, he made decisions that were tactically smart, but fatally important.

If Jackson had given his generals a warning order before he turned in to sleep, after he and Lee decided where to strike Hooker, they could have been ready to move out at 4 a.m., as he promised Lee. But they were on the road three hours later, so their flank attack ended in darkness.

Jackson was wise when he decided not to attack up the Orange Plank Road and hit Hooker’s line from the front, but to continue along the Brock Road and cut back onto the enemy flank. But that added roughly another hour and a half before his troops reached the line of departure. Once there, he decided to spread his assault waves north and south, to hit the Yankees from both flank and rear. It would work exactly as he hoped. But it meant yet another delay, of many minutes. Every hour, every minute, mattered.

Thus it was not in late afternoon, but in mid-evening, when Jackson rode forward to where his offensive had ground down in the dark woods. Before sundown, he and those around him could have seen the Yankees ahead, and not wondered where they were. And finally, of ultimate importance, Jackson had to ask where those woods roads led, and then rode out to see for himself.

His personal map, drawn by his own hand, bearing his own initials, was so rough it was useless. The fact that after expecting battle along those rivers for months, he did not have a proper map of the Wilderness, was militarily unforgivable. Close at hand, he had Jed Hotchkiss, perhaps the most talented mapmaker in either army. But for much of the war, Lee’s army persisted in creating maps retrospectively, rather than looking ahead to ground where they were likely to fight. That winter and spring, Hotchkiss had been working on maps to accompany overdue reports of actions in 1862. Only on Thursday, May 30, a day after most of Hooker’s forces crossed the two rivers, did Jackson order current maps of the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan. On the night he met his fate, he was blind to what lay ahead.

Lee had said of Stonewall Jackson, “Such an executive officer the sun never shone on. I have but to show him my design, and I know that if it can be done, it will be done.” Some time later, he acquired that little sketch map carried by Jackson and pasted it inside the cover of one of the first biographies of his fallen comrade. He must have grieved, seeing how useless it was.


Veteran Washington journalist Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson is the author of Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave and Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864, plus books about life in Richmond and Washington during the Civil War.

Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here