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Why Didn't Robert E. Lee Attack Washington After Chancellorsville?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: August 29, 2013 
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Dear Sir,

Just finished reading TIME Magazine's "Gettysburg: A Day-by-day account of the greatest Battle of the Civil War." For me, I found it very interesting, but it left me with a question.

After his victory at Chancellorsville, why didn't General Lee head straight for Washington? With the Union Army in the mess it was in at the time, he very well might have gotten through and taken it—ending the war in the South's favor three years early. Instead, it sounds like he spent the whole war going out of his way to avoid the city.

Madison Bruffy

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Bruffy,

Although arguably General Robert E. Lee's most remarkable victory, Chancellorsville left the Army of Northern Virginia with plenty of its own wounds to lick, along with depleted supplies, including horse fodder for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Cavalry Corps, which were replenished by the arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet with the provisions he had acquired during his Suffolk campaign.  Lee also had to find a successor to his fallen Second Corps commander, the late Lt. Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and wait for the wounded Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill to recover and take charge of the newly formed Third Corps.

Even once he got underway toward Pennsylvania, Lee doubted that he could have taken Washington directly, since Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker had stationed his corps in locations that would assure their being between him and that target—and even if he took it, he doubted his ability to hold it. Lee's strategy all along had been psychological (before anyone knew the term): to march around Washington, hoping the threat the Army of Northern Virginia constituted would pressure nervous politicians to urge Abraham Lincoln into at least talking to Richmond, which as an act of recognition would constitute a victory in itself. In the process, Lee also hoped he could draw the Army of the Potomac into a battle that would result not in its defeat or  embarrassment, but in its partial or complete annihilation, thereby putting more serious pressure on Washington. He did stumble into such a situation at Gettysburg, but on terms that proved far less favorable than he would have wanted—and he paid a heavy price for going through with it anyway.

In any case, seizing Washington outright was never part of Lee's strategy. He probably had studied enough history at West Point to know how decisive it had been when the British secured Philadelphia in October 1777—or, for that matter, when they took and burned Washington itself in August 1814.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History


Readers interested in Gettysburg should check out "Gettysburg: Three Days of Courage and Sacrifice" from the staffs of America's Civil War and Civil War Times magazines. It includes more than 30 first-person accounts.—Ed.

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