“Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: He has lost his left arm, but I my right.” ~ Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee
History never truly can be judged until generations have passed, until people who lived through a particularly thorny moment in history are gone and their children have dotted the nation’s cemeteries.
It’s about the only way we have of looking back and getting the truest perspective on a battle, a government policy, an assassination, an opening of new lands and on and on and on. The views and prejudices of people who were actual participants, and who passed on this knowledge, often are too raw with emotion to make clear-headed judgments.
So, when we cast eyes backward 150 years this coming week on our nation’s greatest trial and conflict, we get a much better perspective on one of the pivotal moments in history.
At no time during the American Civil War did the Confederate States of America come closer to its goal of having a separate nation on this continent than it did during one of the great battles in American — and in world — history.
We can look back in hindsight and see all the mistakes, the extenuating circumstances, the topography and the good fortune that fell upon, or befell, both Union and Confederate armies in those fateful days. But the leaders and the men of two great armies had no such luxury in late April 1863.
In a wooded and tangled and sometimes impenetrable area of northern Virginia 10 miles from Fredericksburg lay the unincorporated Chancellorsville clearing, named for the mid-19th century inn operated by the family of George Chancellor, at the intersection of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road.
Two great armies were marching and maneuvering and flailing away to gain an advantage on their adversary. By this time in the war, both the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Union Army of the Potomac were veteran fighting forces — two of the most potent and impressive groups to ever clash at arms on the world stage.
The Union Army had been reborn after the debacle the previous December on the heights of Fredericksburg. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a man of considered courage yet somewhat questionable morals, had devised a brilliant plan to get Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to fight his powerful army.
The Army of the Potomac was extremely well equipped and numbered more than 130,000 men — the most formidable ever assembled on our continent. Robert E. Lee had a force of about 60,000 hardened veterans, underfed and ofttimes ill-equipped. Yet, pound for pound, man for man, at that moment it may have been the finest fighting force ever assembled.
As Hooker and his vast army held favorable position on Lee in the vicinity of Chancellorsville Tavern, Lee made perhaps the boldest decision ever in the history of warfare.
Either he had to turn tail and run from Hooker, or go completely against all military convention at the time.
Leaving a small force in the old Fredericksburg entrenchments, he rapidly took his army toward the tangled Wilderness to confront Hooker, who was attempting to flank the Confederates.
It was here Hooker blundered, cautiously forsaking his former offensive strategy against Lee, and throwing up entrenchments at Chancellorsville, thinking his position would force Lee to fight on ground of Hooker’s choosing.
Just after midnight May 2, 1863, Lee and famous Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson, sat on discarded Union cracker boxes before a roaring campfire. After being informed by J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry the Union flank was “in the air,” or exposed with no natural obstacle, Lee and Jackson hatched a brilliant plan to divide their force again, sending Jackson and 30,000 men by night to attack the Union flank, while Lee held Hooker in place with just 14,000 infantrymen.
By late afternoon, Jackson’s men formed in a 2-mile front, with bugles sounding and the Rebel Yell piercing the air, they came forward out of the dense, tangled woods and utterly smashed the Union right flank.
A Massachusetts infantryman recalled the scene as utter pandemonium and chaos.
The audacious flanking attack turned what had looked like a certain Union victory over Lee, into a rout and defeat. And, it turned out to be the Confederacy’s greatest victory — its high-water mark.
Yet, in a caprice of war, it turned instantly to despair when Jackson, scouting in the darkness of the Wilderness, accidentally was shot by his own men — dead a week later from pneumonia after losing his left arm to his wounds.
The brilliant Robert E. Lee had lost his “right arm.”
Now, without his finest general and thinking his army invincible, Lee would invade the North and the war would completely turn two months later on the fields of Gettysburg.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking