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
Even without the 40 percent of his front line lost through incompetence, Jackson had enough men in place to sweep the field. His troops devoured more than two miles of the Federal line in about two hours. But near the end of their triumphant plunge toward Chancellorsville the Southerners were themselves taken by surprise as the result of a bizarre accident. The 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry had spent that afternoon at the commanding artillery position known as Hazel Grove, about one mile south of the Turnpike at a point two miles east of where Jackson struck. An acoustical shadow kept those troopers and others around them from hearing, or at least clearly comprehending, the disaster that had befallen their friends far away to their right and rear. When the Pennsylvanians responded to a routine but outdated order to head north to the main road, then east to Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellorsville, they stumbled into the midst of Jackson’s columns. Surprised Southerners quickly dispersed the equally surprised Pennsylvania boys, who fought bravely but vainly in a sea of gray. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who had command of the Federal cavalry, later wove the charge of the 8th into a vast panorama of self-serving lies that he concocted as his official report of the battle. Eventually Pleasonton won his well-earned reputation as the Civil War’s Munchausen, but at the time the survivors could only fume impotently.
As darkness fell, the men of the Federal XI Corps completed a frantic run for shelter that in many instances took them all the way back to the river and across the pontoon bridges. One officer called these German fugitives the Flying Dutchmen; another, hoarse from his vain efforts to shout up a rally, said that “the damned Dutchmen ran away with my voice.” To finish with these poor XI Corps fellows, it must be reported that they ran afoul of similarly grotesque bad luck a few weeks later at Gettysburg and suffered an almost identical thrashing. Before year’s end, though, many of the same men participated in the dramatic spontaneous charge that captured Missionary Ridge in Tennessee.
Dan Sickles’s boys of the Federal III Corps blundered through their own personal nightmare after darkness fell. Thousands of them crashed about in the baffling Wilderness, far south of the position they had left when ordered to explore the area around Catharine Furnace and southwest of friendly lines still intact. When the III Corps troops groped back toward Chancellorsville in the darkness, they bumped into blazing muskets and thundering cannon, all fired by the Federal XII Corps. The number of men killed by friends in this hellish, confused pitch-black tangle cannot be ascertained with any certainty. Some Northern witnesses marveled that anyone survived, and Gen. Henry Warner Slocum, commanding the XII Corps, wrote that “the damage suffered by our troops from our own fire … must have been severe.”
When this combat between bluecoats erupted, Confederates in the vicinity ducked for cover and expected the worst, only gradually coming to the soothing understanding that the storm excluded them. Meanwhile, a handful of Confederates as confused as were Slocum and Sickles inflicted a mortal wound on their own hero—and perhaps on the national prospects of their young country.
Stonewall Jackson’s considerable military virtues did not include an intuitive grasp of terrain. Perhaps because of that, the general customarily worked hard and long in seeking understanding of ground where he would fight. In the smoke-smeared moonlight that evening of May 2, Jackson rode out before the amorphous tangle of troops that constituted his front line. The general and an entourage of staffers and couriers poked about in the Wilderness, looking for a route that would provide access to some point behind Chancellorsville, blocking the Federal retreat. When the little cavalcade headed back toward Confederate lines, it came athwart two North Carolina brigades. The noise of the horses prompted one of the brigades to fire a wild volley obliquely across the road from its southern edge. An officer with the general shouted a desperate plea to cease firing. “You are firing into your own men!” he yelled.
The steady rhythm of artillery at Hazel Grove built to a crescendo that won the battle for Lee.
The major of the 18th North Carolina, just north of the road, bellowed: “It’s a lie! Pour it into them, boys!”