After the disaster at Fredericksburg, Burnside and his distinctive whiskers (Burnside/Sideburns) were dispatched to the western theater and boozing, blustering Joe Hooker was given command of the Union army still hovering in Virginia. Hooker spent several months rebuilding his army’s strength and morale; then he took aim at Lee’s army still camped along the Rappahannock River.
Once again the Union forces enjoyed a huge numerical advantage. Hooker had more than 130,000 men with him; Lee had less than half that. In addition, during the last week of April 1863, Hooker marched them into a relatively strong position. Marching northwest and efficiently crossing the Rappahannock River, he managed to place about 70,000 men directly at the center of the Confederate lines. But Lee did not panic at the sight of the monstrous army. Nor did he concentrate his forces, as conventional wisdom would have suggested, in order to attack the much stronger Union forces. Instead, Lee split his army. While he led about 20,000 toward the center of Hooker’s lines, Stonewall Jackson led a larger force of 26,000 on a roundabout, and largely obscured march aimed at hitting Hooker’s exposed right flank. It worked brilliantly. On 2 May Jackson caught the clueless Yanks by complete surprise and sent them into confused retreat. Hooker was able hold his ground for another three days. But in the end, he was forced to return the way he came—back across the Rappahannock with whipped and embarrassed army.
It was a costly victory for the Confederacy. Stonewall Jackson, the hero of so many battles, was shot by one of his own confused sentries. And Confederate casualties almost equaled the North’s (10,746 killed and wounded versus 11,169). But it was still a victory. Lee had outfoxed another Union general and the Confederate army had turned back another “invading force” roughly twice its own size.