The battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, 1862–63, were remarkable in several respects. Both revealed the problems of mounting a serious attack at night and provided the first examples of the now-familiar trench warfare. Fredericksburg featured street fighting and river crossings under fire. Chancellorsville was marked by Stonewall Jackson’s death and the rare instance of mounted cavalry attacking infantry. In addition, the latter battle also demonstrated in striking fashion the profound influence of the commander on the battle. The Union committed more soldiers, supplies, money, and better equipment than did the Confederacy, and yet Lee won.
A Confederate soldier called the Rappahannock River the “Dare Mark,” and it is an apt description. By the summer of 1862, the Rappahannock seemed to be the major natural obstacle between the Union army and victory in the eastern theater of the Civil War. If the United States was to win the conflict, decided the Union high command, a Federal army had to penetrate and establish itself south of that major waterway. The Confederate capital of Richmond, a principal target of the army for much of the war, lay
south of the river. Many of the food resources and railroads of northern Virginia, all vital to Rebel success, also rested securely behind that barrier. Most important, the Army of Northern Virginia, when not threatening the peace above the Potomac, resided below the Rappahannock. This army – Gen. Robert E. Lee‘s army – dared the Yankees to cross its river.
The task did not look difficult at first. Union cavalry patrols could ford the Rappahannock and conduct reconnaissance with some ease above Fredericksburg, and Federal gunboats plied the lower, more navigable reaches of the river. Union commanders believed there must be a vulnerable spot, an open road to central Virginia, somewhere between those two points and along forty miles of twisting, winding river. Gen. John Pope used the upper fords and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to plant his Army of Virginia south of the river in July 1862. He remained less than two months before Lee dislodged him and then routed his army at Second Manassas. Gen. George B. McClellan seemed prepared to try his hand in November 1862, but President Abraham Lincoln removed him from command before he could launch his campaign. The Union army would not succeed in its quest until a year later, in November 1863, when, almost by default, and as a consequence of an unexpected engagement at Rappahannock Station, Gen. George G. Meade staked his claim below the Rappahannock.
But the most concerted and grandest Federal challenge to the river came between December 1862 and May 1863. In traditional terms, those five months encompass two separate campaigns: Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. They were waged in different seasons and, on the Union side, by two different commanders. Yet the two operations were conducted in the same location, and important parts of both battles were fought on identical ground. The second battle raged even as the North debated why the first
had been lost, and when the second battle was also lost, there followed the inevitable comparisons to the first. Most telling, the two operations had but a single object, and so, viewed against the backdrop of larger Federal and Confederate strategic goals, they may be seen as a single, extended campaign: the Dare Mark campaign.
The Confederates, led by Lee, won the campaign and maintained the integrity of the Rappahannock line. It was the most stunning Confederate military achievement in the eastern theater, perhaps in the entire war. The campaign showed Lee at his most versatile and audacious. He made a strong defensive stand at Fredericksburg and a defiantly aggressive series of offensive movements at Chancellorsville. Fredericksburg was the only battle in which Lee inflicted higher casualties, both absolute and proportional, than he received. Chancellorsville is widely regarded as the Virginian’s tactical masterpiece. Even so, Lee’s triumph, his last significant one, was bittersweet. Not only did he lose his right arm with the death of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, but he and his army grew overconfident. The Army of Northern Virginia became convinced of its own invincibility, and in that spirit, and partly for that reason, the Rebels marched north to Pennsylvania in June 1863.
from the introduction
Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville : the Dare Mark campaign Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, c 1998 Daniel E. Sutherland Fredericksburg, Battle of, Fredericksburg, Va., 1862, Chancellorsville, Battle of, Chancellorsville, Va., 1863 Hardcover. Great campaigns of the Civil War. xiv, 234 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -226) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
The staggering Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are seldom treated as part of a coherent strategy, and they have never been presented as a single campaign. Yet, analyzed as a whole, the two battles go far to explain Lee’s military success. At the same time, the failures and bungling that characterized Federal efforts are more intelligible when seen in the light of the political and military circumstances that thrust unprepared and inadequate Union commanders into predicaments they little understood. The eastern theater in the winter of 1862 and spring of 1863 witnessed sudden shifts in northern command and strategy and increasing political intervention. Lincoln despaired of McClellan and sought a general more willing to fight; whatever the ultimate result of this search, it provided opportunities the canny Lee was willing and able to exploit.