On this day in History:
May 2, 1863, was one of the greatest days of Robert E. Leeâ€™s military career. It was also one of the worst. A little after 5:00 that afternoon a Confederate flank attack led by Lt. Gen. Thomas J. â€œStonewallâ€ Jackson had slammed into the Union right flank at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was key to what would be Leeâ€™s greatest victory. But later that night General Jackson, Leeâ€™s â€œright arm,â€ was badly wounded in a case of mistaken identity.
The attack should not have worked. General Lee divided his army in the face of an enemy that had more than twice his numbers. It was something a military leader should never do. The Union army even saw the flanking march being made. Instead of attacking, which likely would have brought disaster upon the Southern forces, maybe even destroying the Army of Northern Virginia, the Federals were happy with what they thought was a Confederate retreat.
When Jacksonâ€™s men burst out of the woods upon the unsuspecting Union flank, the soldiers in blue crumbled. The attack overwhelmed them and the Rebels pushed hard, taking advantage of their success. The only thing stopping them was the fading light.
The men were tired from their twelve-mile dusty march through the Wilderness and the following attack. Darkness brought on a welcome reprieve, but it wasnâ€™t to last. Jackson, always aggressive, was not finished. He had the enemy ahead of him on the ropes and he wanted to finish him off.
Night attacks in the Civil War were rare. But Jackson saw an opportunity to inflict a damaging blow to the enemy. The following night was to be a full moon, so on the 2nd it should be quite bright. In preparation for the continued assault, Jackson, Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill, and a party of aides and guides rode out in front of the Confederate line to reconnoiter.
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Two months later, had Jackson survived the Battle of Chancellorsville, he would have been in command of his Corps, which would have arrived down the Carlisle Pike in the middle of the afternoon of July 1st at Gettysburg on the flank of Buford’s Cavalry and the Union First Corps who were, at that point, beginning to retreat.
Jackson would have seized the opportunity aggressively, unlike his successor Ewell, and would undoubtedly have pursued and driven the Union forces, denying them possession of the high ground of Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill. The First Day of Gettysburg would then have been the only day of Gettysburg, and would have represented a significant Confederate victory on Northern soil. There would have been no Second Day: no indecisive struggle at the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top, and no Third Day: no Pickett’s Charge.
Mead would have retreated to the Pipe Clay Creek in Maryland, but he would soon have found himself under intense pressure from Lincoln to attack the Confederates in order to save Northern cities, like Philadelphia, from occupation. A Northern attack on well-chosen Confederate defensive position would probably have led to another debacle like Fredericksburg. Two major defeats on Northern soil, the destruction of the railroad bridge over the Susquehanna which linked the East and West, the fall of a major Northern city, such a string of events might well have brought European recognition and a negotiated peace.
The bishop of New Orleans reputedly began a prayer shortly after the war: “O Lord, when Thou didst decide to defeat the Confederate States of America, Thou first had to remove Thy servant Stonewall Jackson.”