- Historic Sites
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
The narrowness of the wagon tracks Jackson followed toward his goal proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The Southern column needed secrecy, and the Wilderness that closed in all around provided it. But the column also needed to move fast, and that the primitive roads did not encourage. Even so, Jackson’s two-week-old circular about marching habits kept the march moving: two miles in fifty minutes, then ten minutes’ rest, then do it again, and again, and again.
Union men of the XI Corps whiled away their last moments of grace playing cards and writing letters.
A little more than four miles from his starting point Stonewall Jackson reached the Brock Road. This was the main north-south route in the vicinity, and it led north around the enemy right. Jackson turned south. Someone attributed to Stonewall the military aphorism “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy.” Moving the wrong way with almost thirty thousand men might accomplish that end, if anyone was watching. The wrong-way march lasted only long enough to cross two gentle ridgelines. Then Jackson turned off into the trees again on another set of woods tracks and angled northward parallel to the Brock Road.
Soldiers marching at the head of Jackson’s corps rejoiced when, about two miles beyond the detour, they came to a small stream flowing across the road. Standing water dotted gullies throughout the Wilderness, but the stream supplied them with their first source of drinkable water along the route. It gurgled across the road at just about precisely the halfway point along the march. When Jackson’s van reached the stream, the tail of his attenuated corps had not left the starting blocks six miles to the rear.
Officers prodded dusty and tired men through the enticing water and on their way. When Jackson reached the Brock Road again, he poured his troops onto it, and they surged northward. At the intersection of the Plank Road he planned to turn right and cover the two miles to Wilderness Church, there to demolish Hooker’s dangling flank. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee met Jackson at the intersection and led him east on the Plank Road to show him why that idea no longer made good sense. From a high plateau in the yard of a farmer named Burton, young Lee pointed out to Jackson the Federal line running west beyond Wilderness Church. To attack down the Plank Road would be to hit the enemy in front, canceling most of the advantages won by so much sweat and at such great risk.
Stonewall Jackson was about the most famous man on earth that spring; Fitz Lee knew he had served him well and prepared to bask in the glow of a deserved kudos. Instead, the dour Stonewall gazed intently across the intervening ground at his quarry without a glance at his disappointed benefactor. Turning without a word, Jackson hurried back to the head of his column on the Brock Road and pointed it up the road still farther north. Two extra miles of marching would complete the wider circuit now necessary. Good generals adapt to tactical verities, and Jackson was very good indeed at what he did. He paused long enough to scribble a four-sentence dispatch to Lee, then headed eagerly on with his men.
The Federals on whom Jackson planned to unleash his tidal wave belonged to the XI Corps under O. O. Howard. General Howard was new to his post, but the men in the ranks knew Jackson all too well. Stonewall had brought them to grief more than once in the past year while they served under Gen. Nathaniel Banks and Gen. Franz Sigel. That unhappy past, combined with the German origins of many of the men, left them the unpopular and misunderstood outcasts of the Army of the Potomac. After the battle many of them came to believe, or at least to claim, that they had known full well that Confederates by the tens of thousands lurked in the woods. But in the late afternoon of May 2, without access to hindsight, the infantrymen of the XI Corps whiled away their last moments of grace playing cards and writing letters and cooking food that they would never eat. Several miles away Joe Hooker sat on the veranda of the pleasant Chancellorsville Inn and composed brash communiqués.
General Jackson could not wait for his entire column to snake through the narrow woods and uncoil across Howard’s exposed flank. Despite all the risks he had successfully run and the superb opportunity that lay before him, Jackson knew that the inexorable slide of the sun toward the horizon had now become his greatest foe. The stern, devout Jackson was about as close to an Old Testament warrior as the Civil War produced, but he could not make the sun stand still. After pushing two-thirds of his men into three long, parallel lines, Jackson could wait no longer.
The two main Confederate lines, separated by only about one hundred yards, stretched for nearly a mile on either side of the Turnpike. They stood squarely at right angles to the unwitting Federal line strung out along the road and facing south. When the Southern avalanche struck, the bravest Northerner turning to confront this surprise attack from the rear would be outflanked by a mile to his right and a mile to his left. In naval parlance, Jackson had “crossed the T” on his quarry by forming the cap of the T and looking down its shank.