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Lee’s Greatest Victory
During three days in May 1863, the Confederate leader took astonishing risks to win one of the most skillfully conducted battles in history. But the cost turned out to be too steep.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
Other young men scouting through the darkness of the Wilderness sent back reports through the night that gradually suggested a way to get at Hooker. It would be horribly risky under the circumstances, but perhaps Lee and Jackson might be able to snake a column westward all the way across the enemy’s front, around his right, and clear up behind him. Stonewall’s favorite preacher, Beverly Tucker Lacy, knew some of the ground in the western reaches of the Wilderness because his brother lived there. Charles Beverly Wellford, a veteran of the army and now running the family iron furnace just down the road, knew more of the ground. Catharine Furnace (named for the matriarch of the Wellford clan) burned charcoal in enormous volume and owned thousands of acres nearby from which to harvest charcoal wood. Jackson’s mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss, a converted New York Yankee now as zealously Southern as any native, wandered the woods roads with Wellford and Lacy and came back with some sketches. Jeb Stuart sent cavalry in the same direction under General Lee’s boisterous twenty-seven-year-old nephew Fitzhugh Lee.
Very early on May 2 Lee reached his decision. Jackson would take two-thirds of the already heavily outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia and disappear on a daylong march over the horizon. With startling nonchalance the two commanders agreed that Lee would stand firm and act belligerent with no more than seventeen thousand men at his back while Jackson ventured far out on a limb with twice that many troops. An attack by Hooker of even moderate earnestness would simply destroy the Confederate army.
A rough pencil sketch of the roads showed that the desperate gamble might have a chance. Lee and Jackson and others pored over the map. At one point the army commander carefully arranged a handful of broomstraws on the edge of a box and then, by way of example to Jackson, swept them helter-skelter onto the ground. Jackson had a last quiet word with his chief, then rode away. R. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson never met again.
Lee at once set out upon the delicate mission of beguiling his opposite number. The tactical dogma of the day held that one or at most two companies of the ten that made up a regiment should go forward on skirmish or outpost duty. Those advance guards could give early warning of approaching enemy, fire a quick volley, and then scurry back to the main line. Driving in hostile skirmishers was familiar business; so was finding their comrades behind them in a ratio of about nine to one. On May 2 Lee sent swarms of skirmishers toward the enemy, sometimes using all his men out in front, leaving no main line but creating the impression of great strength. Confederate units launched vigorous feints that Federals repulsed stoutly and with some smugness. Meanwhile, Jackson pushed on through the woods toward Hooker’s rear, carrying a quiver full of thunderbolts.
Jackson’s fabled flank march actually unfolded with far less stealth than any Confederate wanted. Barely one mile beyond the intersection where Lee and Jackson parted, the flanking column ran into its first taste of trouble. On high ground just before the road dropped into a bottom around Catharine Furnace, a gap in the woods allowed Federals a mile and a quarter away to see the Southerners moving steadily past the open space. Of course Northern artillery opened fire at the closely packed target; of course the Confederates double-timed past the hot spot. General Lee knew of this early difficulty, but then there began a long, tense silence that dragged on for endless hours.
The long-range shells spiraling across more than a mile annoyed their intended victims and no doubt hurt a few of them, but they constituted no real military impediment. A more serious threat gradually developed at the second milepost when Dan Sickles pushed his troops southward to the vicinity of Catharine Furnace to find out what all those moving Southerners were up to. Men of the 23d Georgia spread in an arc above the furnace as a flank guard fought against an increasing tide of Federals. The Georgians finally fell back to the cut of the same unfinished railroad that had played a role the day before in shaping the battle lines. By this time Jackson’s entire infantry column had marched past. The Georgia regiment fell apart finally, and all but a handful of men became prisoners. Emory Fiske Best, the regiment’s twenty-three-year-old colonel, was among those who escaped. A courtmartial cashiered him just before Christmas, but his 23d Georgia had done well for a long time.
The bluecoats of Sickles’s corps who captured the Georgians were pleased by their success, but in fact their prime quarry had eluded danger. The last two infantry brigades in Jackson’s column turned back and easily repulsed any further advance by Sickles beyond the railroad. High open ground around the Wellford house, bisected by the narrow woods road climbing out of dense thickets, provided the Southern rear guard with a ready-made stronghold. The extensive trains of ambulances and ordnance wagons scheduled to follow Jackson’s infantry avoided the furnace pressure point by detouring around it to the south and west on another set of primitive traces. Jackson was free to pursue his great adventure.