- 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
This volley struck dead Jackson’s faithful engineer officer, J. Keith Boswell, and inflicted mortal hurts on at least three others in the party. Three of its bullets hit Stonewall Jackson. Two shattered his left arm; the third pierced his right hand. Horrified subordinates gathered around the stricken leader, bound his wounds, and laboriously carried him from the field. At one point three young staff members lay around Jackson’s litter in a hurricane of artillery fire, shielding him with their bodies as canister struck sparks from the road all around them. Twice men carrying a corner of the litter went down. The second time Jackson fell squarely on his mangled shoulder, renewing the arterial bleeding that already had cost him much of his vitality. Eventually the worried and sorrowful party delivered their general to a field hospital near Wilderness Tavern. There his medical director amputated Jackson’s savaged arm just below the shoulder early on May 3. The bullet extracted from the general’s right palm was round, one of the projectiles fired by the obsolete smoothbore muskets still carried by a surprising number of ordnance-poor Confederate units.
By the time Jackson awakened from his anesthetic, artillery fire from the nearby battlefield was shaking the earth beneath him. During the night after Jackson’s wounding, command of his corps passed to Jeb Stuart, who was dragooned into this unaccustomed temporary role because the only available infantry general of adequate rank had been wounded soon after Jackson went down. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, a fine young artillerist from Georgia, reported to Stuart that a high, open knoll called Hazel Grove offered a wonderful artillery vantage point and persuaded the general to capture it. At about 1:00 A.M. Stuart sent J. J. Archer’s brigade of Tennessee and Alabama regiments to the vicinity, and at the first hint of dawn the Southern troops stormed out of the woods into the clearing. They reached the hilltop just in time to capture four guns and one hundred men of a Federal rear guard; Joe Hooker had decided during the night to abandon Hazel Grove, the key to the battlefield.
The newly installed battalion system of artillery, which ensured ready availability of ample guns in large, mobile masses, allowed Alexander to rush about fifty pieces of the right size and type to Hazel Grove. There they took under fire the Federal artillery some twelve hundred yards away at Fairview (still another Chancellor family farmhouse) and at the Chancellorsville crossroads itself. Although the gunners of the Army of Northern Virginia had achieved well-earned fame, they were accustomed to suffering under the fire of better-made and more modern Federal weapons that hurled far more reliable ammunition. The advantage of ground offered by Hazel Grove, however, combined with successful implementation of the battalion concept, resulted in a situation in which, said the army’s leading historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, “the finest artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia were having their greatest day.”
One particularly noteworthy round fired from Hazel Grove spiraled over Fairview and headed unerringly for the Chancellorsville Inn. As the shell descended toward its target, General Hooker was leaning against one of the large white porch columns, looking out from the second-story veranda. The shell did not explode (an all-too-typical result from the Southern perspective; one officer on this day insisted that he kept track and only about every fifteenth round went off). The hurtling iron hit Hooker’s pillar, though, and the impact knocked it and pieces of the porch in every direction. Lt. Col. Logan Henry Nathan Salyer of the 50th Virginia lay across the top of a piano in the inn’s first-floor parlor, where Federal captors had taken him after he went down with a saber wound in the head. Salyer roused himself enough to ask scurrying staff officers what had happened, and they responded with an early and inaccurate report that Hooker had been killed. Salyer rejoiced quietly, but in fact Hooker was only stunned and paralyzed. He ostensibly conveyed to Gen. Darius N. Couch the command of the army, but as the day continued, it became apparent that he retained so many strings on Couch that the latter really wielded no substantial authority.
General Couch and his colleagues recognized that their army still enjoyed clear advantages in numbers and position. Could they commit the large body of unused men to action, they might still grind Lee’s weak force to bits, Jackson’s dazzling success of the previous day notwithstanding. But Hooker held his army passive and allowed Lee the luxury of choosing the time and place at which decisive actions developed.
Nevertheless, R. E. Lee experienced considerable difficulty on the morning of May 3. Almost all of the Federal infantry lines that Lee had to break that morning stood in the dense Wilderness. Southern brigades plunged into the brush and fought blindly against equally bemused Northern units, generally accomplishing little and ballooning the already dreadful casualty lists. Other brigades wandered through the storm without either doing much good or suffering much loss. “It would be useless to follow in detail the desperate fighting which now ensued. …” That admission by Edward Porter Alexander, a ranking Confederate officer who revisited the field after the war before writing a classic history, suggests the nature of the woods fighting on May 3.