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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
Sometime after 5:00 P.M. Stonewall Jackson reached under his coat and pulled his watch out of an inside pocket. Conflicting accounts place the moment at 5:15 or as late as 6:00. Jackson looked up from the watch at the handsome, capable Robert E. Rodes, a Virginian commanding the division waiting in the front line. “Are you ready, General Rodes?”
An officer yelled, “You are firing into your own men!” The 18th N. Carolina’s major cried, “It’s a lie!”
“You can go forward then.”
That quiet colloquy launched the II Corps and moved thousands of men through the brightest moment of the fabled Army of Northern Virginia. A nod from Rodes to a young officer named Blackford, who had grown up in nearby Fredericksburg but commanded Alabamians on this day, triggered the attack. Bugles told skirmishers to advance. About twenty thousand infantrymen followed close behind through dense brush that tugged at their tattered uniforms. As the Rebels gained momentum, they broke into a hoarse, savage roar that escalated into the spine-chilling high-pitched shriek of the Rebel yell.
The dense two-mile line of Southern soldiers drove forest animals in front of its advance like beaters flushing game on an African safari, and many Northern troops got their first intimation that something was afoot in the woods behind them when animals scurried and fluttered past, hurrying eastward. Some Federals laughed and cheered the bizarre natural phenomenon. Then the paralyzing tremolo of the Rebel yell came floating after the wildlife.
Howard’s unfortunate division and brigade commanders generally did their best in an impossible situation. No soldiers could have stood in the circumstances thrust upon the XI Corps —even had the Confederates been unarmed, and the Federals equipped with twentieth-century weapons not yet dreamed of. Troops simply do not stand when surprised from behind by hordes of screaming enemies. Leaders with those foreign names that made the rest of the army look askance encouraged brief rallies that inevitably spilled back in rout. Schurz, Krzyzanowski, Schimmelfennig, von Gilsa, von Einsiedel, and dozens more scrambled in vain to stem the wide and deep tide sweeping against and over them.
Capt. Hubert Dilger won a great name for himself by firing a piece of artillery with steadfast courage in the face of Jackson’s legions. This freshly immigrated German, known as Leather-breeches because of some doeskin pants he wore, retired so stubbornly that Army legend held that he fell back only by reason of the recoil of his gun at each discharge.
Federals fleeing from the intolerable spot whence Jackson had erupted found little support as they ran eastward. Dan Sickles had taken most of his XI Corps down toward the furnace to cope with Jackson’s rear guard. The panicky fugitives ran back not onto a stalwart line of friends but into a comfortless vacuum.
Only the failure of one inept Confederate officer saved the Federal army from unmitigated disaster. Alfred H. Colquitt was a Georgia politician of starkly limited military attainments. Chance put this weak reed on the right end of Jackson’s four-brigade frontline cutting edge. The spare fifth brigade of the front division fell in just behind Colquitt, ready to deploy into the first good seam popped open by the attack. Colquitt and his peers operated under strict orders to move straight and steadily ahead, ignoring matters on either side; they would exploit Jackson’s strenuously won advantage while other troops tidied up around the edges and behind them.
Despite his unmistakable instructions, Colquitt came to a dead stop shortly after the attack began. One of the general’s staff excitedly reported enemy off to the right. The highly capable young Stephen Dodson Ramseur of North Carolina, commanding the brigade just to the rear and stymied by Colquitt’s halt, found to his immense disgust that “not a solitary Yankee was to be seen” in that direction. Colquitt had single-handedly obliterated the usefulness of two-fifths of Jackson’s front line. Almost immediately after the battle Lee sent Colquitt into exile far away from the Army of Northern Virginia; by contrast, Georgians thought enough of Colquitt to elect him governor twice and then send him to the U.S. Senate.