A Pyrrhic victory is one that arrives at a great cost, and is named in tribute to King Pyrrhus (318–272 BCE) of Epirus. Plutarch records that while the king achieved a great victory over the Romans at Asculum, he sustained great losses in the effort. Robert E. Lee’s victory over Union forces at Chancellorsville is widely characterized as such a victory.
The plan seemed like it was a sound one. General Joseph Hooker had led his men across the Rappahannock in late April 1863 in order to catch Lee off-guard. Hooker’s plan was to take Lee’s army from two sides and envelope him.
Lee, however, split his troops and went around Hooker’s flank, and at the end of the day on May 2, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (above)—Lee’s partner in this highly unorthodox plan—urged his own soldiers to press the advantage. Hooker’s plan to crush Lee between two mighty arms of the Union army had backfired, and instead Hooker and his 70,000 men were about to be crushed between two substantially weaker Confederate forces.
As Jackson reconnoitered the Union positions early in the evening on the second of May, his own troops mistook him for the enemy and fired upon him. Jackson was wounded and would die several days later, though every attempt was made to save him, including amputating his left arm.* For the next two days, the Confederate troops pushed Hooker and the Union army back across the Rappahannock.
Historian E. B. Long notes, “Lee had triumphed over numbers and . . . had made Chancellorsville a battle that would be studied the world over.” Lee had won the battle, certainly. Confederate losses, however, told another story. In securing the southern position between Washington and Richmond, Lee had lost about 20 percent of those troops available to him in northern Virginia. Unlike the northern army, which was replenishing its numbers with fresh recruits daily, the South could not suffer such casualties.
Coupled with the loss of Jackson, Lee’s strategic gem was tarnished by the grim fact of wartime attrition—deaths, injuries, and men gone missing were hurting the South, and the status quo of occupying Virginia was rapidly becoming a defensive liability. As he had done in the summer of 1862, Lee decided to go on the offensive; he took the token of a victory he had in his pocket and set his eyes toward Pennsylvania. Inside of two months, the great armies would converge once again, this time at a little-known hamlet called Gettysburg.
*Jackson’s arm would receive its own burial plot. Retrieved from a pile of limbs outside the battlefield hospital, it was buried in the family cemetery at Ellwood Manor near Chancellorsville, and is marked by a stone.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
E. B. Long, The Civil War, Day by Day (New York: De Capo, 1971).
Thomas Jonathan Jackson, / Adam B. Walter, Copy after: Nathaniel Routzahn, / Mezzotint on paper, c. 1862 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution