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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
The ability of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson never showed itself more vividly than during three days of battle in May 1863 around a rustic crossroads called Chancellorsville. At the battle’s denouement, which might be considered the highest tide of the Confederacy, the two Virginians capped a reversal of fortunes as dramatic as any recorded in more than three centuries of American military affairs.
Joseph Hooker had stolen a march on Lee as completely as anyone did during the entire war.
During the last day of April the Federal commander Joseph Hooker had stolen a march on Lee as completely as anyone did during the entire war. In an amazing strategic initiative Hooker took his army far around Lee’s left, across two rivers, and into an admirable position around Chancellorsville. His fellow general George G. Meade, a saturnine man and no admirer of Joseph Hooker when in the sunniest of moods, exclaimed jubilantly on April 30: “Hurrah for old Joe! We’re on Lee’s flank and he doesn’t know it.”
The army with which Joe Hooker stole his march on Lee was a tough, veteran aggregation that had suffered from ill use at the hands of a series of inadequate leaders. Most recently Ambrose E. Burnside had butchered more than twelve thousand of his brave men in a hopeless attack near Fredericksburg the preceding December. Earlier the Army of the Potomac had endured mishandling from a boastful bully named John Pope, whose tenure in command was numbered in days, not in months, and the brilliant but timid George B. McClellan had led the same regiments to the brink of victory—but never quite over the threshold—on famous fields in Virginia and Maryland.
General Hooker’s rise to high rank during the war grew from a blend of training at West Point and experience in Mexico, with more than a tincture of political maneuvering. Bravery under fire in the 1862 campaigns won the general a name for valor and the nickname Fighting Joe. (According to some accounts the catchy name was coined by accident when two newspaper headlines—THE FIGHTING and JOEHOOKER—overlapped in some fashion.) Hooker had shamelessly schemed against Burnside, motivated in part by a wholesome distaste for Burnside’s ineptitude but also by a powerful degree of personal ambition.
Abraham Lincoln concluded in January 1863 that Burnside must go and reluctantly identified Hooker as the officer to inherit the mantle. In a patient and appropriately famous letter the President bluntly informed Hooker that he was appointing him despite the “great wrong to the country” inherent in his behavior toward Burnside. “I have heard, in such way as to believe it,” Lincoln continued, “of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
During the three months between Hooker’s appointment and the onset of the campaigning season, Lincoln must have been very much gratified by the accomplishments of his new commander. A contemporary wrote that Hooker when young was a “very expert” baseball player, who could “take a ball from almost in front of the bat, so eager, active and dexterous were his movements.” When applied to military administration, that same controlled zeal made the Army of the Potomac a much improved military implement. Joe Hooker ironed ineptitude and indolence out of the medical services, flogged quartermaster and commissary functions into a fine pitch of efficiency, revitalized the cavalry arm, and inaugurated an intelligence-gathering system far ahead of its time in that staff-poor era. The soldiers noticed the changes and took heart from them.
The men also relished their new commander’s reputation as a profane, hard-drinking sort of fellow. “Our leader is Joe Hooker, he takes his whiskey strong,” they sang in admiration of one of the general’s two most widely mooted social traits. The other rumored trait resulted in a persistent tradition that remains in circulation to this day. General Hooker’s campaign to tighten up the Army of the Potomac extended to controlling the prostitution that flourished on its fringes. Supposedly the general’s name somehow became an appellation for the quarry of the overworked provost detachments enforcing his order. Joe Hooker’s own reputation as a womanizer fed the story conveniently. Firm evidence that the etymology of the word hooker ante-dates 1863 by more than a decade has done little to check the legend.
Hooker’s ranking subordinates by and large did not share the enthusiasm of the men in the ranks. The officer corps of the Old Army was a generally conservative body, both politically and morally. One immediate subordinate, the intensely pious O. O. Howard, doubtless felt particularly uneasy about Hooker, and Hooker reciprocated. Soon after the war he told an interviewer that Howard was “a good deal more” qualified to “command a prayer meeting” than an army corps. “He was always a woman among troops,” said Hooker. “If he was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them. He was always taken up with Sunday Schools and the temperance cause.”
Other corps commanders of note included George G. Meade and Daniel E. Sickles. General Meade, the snappish patrician who was destined to replace Hooker, seems in retrospect the most capable man who wore Union general’s stars in the war’s Eastern theater. Dan Sickles, by contrast, was a bawdy, rambunctious adventurer. Three years before Chancellorsville he escaped conviction for the public murder of his wife’s lover on the then novel ground of temporary insanity. After the war he served as intermittent paramour to the queen of Spain.
Federal operations at Chancellorsville suffered dramatically from two absences. Much of Hooker’s cavalry spent the crucial days on a largely irrelevant raid, leaving the main army bereft of its essential screening-and-reconnaissance function. Worse, the army’s enormously capable chief of artillery, Henry J. Hunt, was off in a rear area, where Hooker had consigned him after the two had quarreled.
Hooker had collapsed within himself, and now he began inexorably pulling his mighty army down with him.
The men of the Army of Northern Virginia benefited from any number of subjective advantages over their familiar foemen of the Army of the Potomac, but no Southerner could help worrying over the apparent disparity of force. Although no one knew enemy strengths with precision—and, in fact, often neither side could firmly establish its own strength—Federals north of the Rappahannock clearly had a vast preponderance in numbers. The actual figures approximated 130,000 against 60,000.
The Northern army brought seven corps to the field of Chancellorsville. The Confederates countered with two, and one of the two was at less than one-half of its strength. The missing divisions had gone southeastward to the vicinity of Suffolk, Virginia, in quest of the foodstuffs that already dwindled at an alarming rate. The question now was whether the agrarian South could feed its armies on its own soil.
The two supporting arms that came up short for Hooker at Chancellorsville never looked better on Lee’s side of the line than they did in that spring of 1863. The colorful Southern cavalry general James E. B. Stuart, universally called Jeb after his initials, stood at the height of his personal and professional powers, tirelessly alert and active and energetic. As for the Southern artillery, it continued to labor under tremendous disadvantages in weaponry and ammunition but during the past winter had revolutionized its tactics by converting to a battalion system. Since the first whiff of gunpowder, cannon had suffered from the tendency of infantry officers to misuse the big guns simply as larger infantry weapons. In 1861 batteries assigned to brigades fought under infantry direction, often from positions at either end of the line. High ground, low ground, heavy enemy pressure, or no enemy pressure, it was all the same: Put the guns with the infantry. But now Confederate artillery would move and fight in clusters, usually of at least four four-gun batteries, and the higher-ranking artillerymen commanding these larger clusters would enjoy some degree of autonomy. Some of the South’s brightest and best young men rode at the head of the reorganized guns.
Federal horsemen attempted to open the campaign that led to the Battle of Chancellorsville at the end of the second week in April. Gen. George Stoneman, commanding Hooker’s cavalry, was to take the greater part of the available mounted force and cross the Rappahannock far upstream northwest of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The horse soldiers, Hooker hoped, would ricochet with deadly effect through Confederate rear areas, freeing Federal prisoners, tearing up railroads, breaking an aqueduct on the James River, and forcing a frightened Lee to fall back from Fredericksburg. In the event, heavy rains sluiced the bottoms out of Virginia’s clay roads, and the raiding force did not cross the Rappahannock until April 29, after a substantial portion of Hooker’s infantry had done so. Still, it is hard to avoid blaming the delay as much on Stoneman as on uncooperative weather.
Once launched, the cavalry raid caromed almost aimlessly about central Virginia, causing some localized discomfort but achieving not a thing of real military worth. Stuart detached just enough regiments to contain the raid within certain wide limits, harassing its rear and flanks and gathering in stragglers. One of the interesting reflections modern students draw from the Chancellorsville campaign is that the Federal cavalry raid, prudently checked by just the right number of Confederates, presaged in mirror image the cavalry situation a few weeks later at Gettysburg. There Stuart wasted his substance in a meaningless raid while his army fought blindly, and the Federals reacted prudently. It was as though the Federals had gone to school at Chancellorsville on the apt use of the mounted arm, with Stuart as teacher.
In the last two days of April, Hooker brought to a successful conclusion the huge turning maneuver that placed the center of his flanking element at the country crossroads of Chancellorsville. That polysyllabic name, whose ending suggests a busy settlement, actually belonged to a single building. The Chancellor kin who built the heart of the structure late in the eighteenth century expanded it into a wayside inn opened in 1815. By 1860 two additions had swelled the building into a really sizable structure, but dwindling traffic on the roads that met in the yard had reduced its function to that of a one-family residence. The Chancellors called their home Chancellorsville in the same fashion that other Southern homes were called Mount Vernon or Belle Hill. No one else lived within a half-mile of the crossroads, and only a few within several miles.
An environmental feature that contributed to Chancellorsville’s meager dimensions also levied a heavy impact on military operations nearby. The land lay largely desolate under the dense, scrubby growth of a region known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. About seventy square miles of the Wilderness sprawled along the south bank of the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, stretching about three miles farther south than Chancellorsville and about two miles farther east. A numerically superior army ensnarled in those thickets, and confined to easy maneuver only on the few poor roads, would lose much of its advantage.
Jackson had a last quiet word with his chief, then rode away. The two men never saw each other again.
Joe Hooker pushed the head of his mighty army eastward to the edge of the Wilderness early on Friday, May 1, 1863. About three miles from the Chancellorsville crossroads the Federals came face-to-face with a commanding wrinkle of the earth’s surface, atop which stood a little wooden Baptist church bearing the name of Zoan. The Zoan Church ridge represented about as succulent a military prize as Joe Hooker could have found just then in his zone of operations. It was high ground (none higher to the east, short of Europe); it straddled a key road; and most important, it rose on open ground just east of the entangling tendrils of the Wilderness.
Confederates on top of the prize ridge had been feverishly digging earthworks overnight on the orders of the division commander Richard H. Anderson. Despite the trenches, Hooker could have dislodged Anderson’s relative handful of men and occupied Zoan Church without much exertion. Perhaps he would have, had not Stonewall Jackson ridden into the uncertain tableau and dominated the unfolding action with his force of personality. Stonewall ordered Anderson’s men to pack their entrenching equipment and attack. Anderson left no account of his reaction, but he must have wondered how he and Jackson and a few assorted regiments could accomplish much.
As Jackson began pressing against the Northerners lapping around the western base of the ridge, he used two critically important parallel roads. The old Orange Turnpike came out of Fredericksburg past Zoan, through Spotsylvania County, and then on to Orange County and Orange Courthouse. About a decade before the Civil War local entrepreneurs had undertaken to supplant that century-old thoroughfare with a toll road paved on one of its lanes with planks. Elsewhere in the vicinity men of vision were putting their money into railroads; but trains and their trappings required vast capital outlay, and the plank-road people reasoned that everyone owned wheeled wagons already.
The brand-new Orange Plank Road proved to be a wretched idea economically, but in May 1863 it drew troops of both sides like a magnet because it formed a second usable corridor through the Wilderness. Hooker had moved east on both the Turnpike and the Plank Road, which near Zoan Church ran generally parallel to and a mile or so south of the older right-of-way. As the morning wore on, Confederates pushed west against both heads of Hooker’s army on the two roads.
Jackson, soon joined by Lee in person, superintended an almost chaotic blend of Confederate regiments and brigades in the advance. Southern units arriving from various points funneled off into the Turnpike or the Plank Road at Jackson’s whim and in response to unfolding exigencies, without much regard for command and control at levels below the corps commander in person. Their élan and their leader’s determination were steadily reclaiming the ground of the earlier Federal advance when yet another transportation corridor swung the action entirely into the Confederate column.
Just before the war more prescient investors had founded and funded a railroad to run from Fredericksburg out to Orange and into fertile Piedmont Virginia. By the time the conflict halted work, the route had been surveyed and the line graded. The level stretch of cuts and fills and grades lay uncluttered by even the first stringers or rails, but it constituted a convenient third passage through the Wilderness. The unfinished railroad ran westward, parallel to the two wagon roads and about a mile south of the Plank Road. Gen. A. R. (“Rans”) Wright’s brigade, three regiments and a battalion of infantry from Georgia, sliced ahead along that convenient conduit and forced a reorientation of the Federal line by ninety degrees. Contending lines that had stretched for miles from north to south readjusted to Wright’s lunge. Hooker’s right swung up away from Wright and left the Federals at the end of the first day of battle (and the first day of May) arrayed in a huge, irregular, shallow V. The apex of the broad V lay at or near Chancellorsville while one arm ran northeast toward the river and the other sprawled west toward Wilderness Church. (See map on page 72.)
Before Jackson and Wright buffeted his right, Hooker himself had squandered a wonderful opportunity on his left. The V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, ably led by Meade, began May 1 by moving steadily eastward along the River Road. This fourth east-west route curled far north of the Turnpike and the Plank Road and led eventually past Banks Ford on the river into Fredericksburg. Meade moved vigorously ahead until his skirmishers reached the vicinity of Mott’s Run, within hailing distance of Banks Ford. Federals holding the southern mouth of that ford would serve a number of highly desirable ends. By that hour, however, Joe Hooker had recoiled from the presence of the legendary Stonewall Jackson with such abruptness that he sought no opportunities, only shelter. Hooker had collapsed within himself, and now he began inexorably pulling his mighty and well-tempered army down with him.
Hooker hoped halting his advance would “embolden the enemy to attack him.” His wish came true.
General Hooker dished out bravado loudly and often during the Chancellorsville campaign, but his boasts seem in retrospect to have been feeble attempts to brace up his own wavering spirits. On the evening before his advance of May 1, Hooker drummed out a staccato general order assuring his men “that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” There can be little doubt that Hooker really meant that. Lee surely would react to Hooker’s clever and successful movement to Chancellorsville, and to the Federal cavalry roaming in his rear, by sidling south away from the unhappy combination facing him. Good ground on the North Anna River would allow the Confederates a chance to regroup and start over. Even after a century and a quarter it is difficult to come to grips with Lee’s daring choice. At the time Hooker clearly was flabbergasted.
With a difficult May 1 behind him, Hooker blustered anew. “It’s all right … I’ve got Lee just where I want him,” the Federal commander insisted to an incredulous subordinate. At headquarters Hooker declared, “The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac.” To another audience he said, “The enemy is in my power, and God Almighty cannot deprive me of them.” And he finally summarized his professed contentment in a written circular to his corps commanders. “The major general commanding trusts,” he wrote incautiously, “that a suspension in the attack to-day will embolden the enemy to attack him.” The first three boasts proved to be empty, but Hooker’s written wish came true with a vengeance.
Across the lines that evening of May 1 the Confederate commanders weighed the situation somewhat more judiciously. Just about a mile from Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson crouched together over a small fire on seats improvised from abandoned U.S. cracker boxes. R. E. Lee, who had ridden up toward the river on his right in a personal reconnaissance during the afternoon, told Jackson that poor roads, steeply cut stream beds, and Federals dense on the ground combined to deny the Confederates any opportunity there.
The two men sent their respective engineer officers on a moonlit scout directly toward the enemy center at Chancellorsville. T. M. R. Talcott of Lee’s staff later wrote vividly of that tense experience. His companion, J. Keith Boswell of Jackson’s staff, had no chance to record his impressions; Boswell fell dead from a volley that struck him as he rode at Stonewall’s side a few hours later. The two capable young men came back convinced that the Federal center offered no opening whatsoever for an assault.
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 23rd 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 23rd 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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
Lee took the bad news with the same calm he always displayed, but his heart must have sunk.
Among the casualties of this hours-long brawl was Gen. Hiram G. Berry of Maine, shot down with a mortal wound as he crossed the road near Chancellorsville. But perhaps the most important Federal casualty, viewed from the long perspective of posterity, was Col. Nelson Appleton Miles of the 61st New York. Miles went down with a bullet in the abdomen, recovered, and went on to become commander in chief of the U.S. Army near the turn of the century. At about the time Miles gained his highest command, private citizens both North and South purchased huge chunks of the battlefield of Chancellorsville in hopes that the War Department would accept them as a donation to form a national military park on the order of those newly designated at Gettysburg and elsewhere. The Army chose not to accept the largess of those public-spirited preservationists. Gettysburg was one thing, but the scenes in which the U.S. Army had been humiliated in 1863 (and where a rebellious Southerner punctured General Miles) certainly did not deserve protection. The portion of the battlefield preserved today, amid a sea of modern development, contains only a small fragment of what our forebears sought to protect almost a century ago.
Early during the woods fighting two Confederate generals became casualties of different sorts. Gen. John R. Jones of Virginia was one of Stonewall Jackson’s special projects that turned out poorly. Jones had been accused of cowardice so blatant that it resulted in a formal court-martial, a shocking event in the general officer corps of an army fabled for its bravery. The court cautiously exonerated Jones two weeks before Chancellorsville. On May 3, however, the demands of combat among the bullets snapping through the trees proved to be too much for Jones. He left the field and resigned.
Another of Jackson’s projects, E. F. Paxton, went into the morning’s fight with the unshakable premonition that he would be killed at once. Paxton had known Jackson as a fellow communicant at Stonewall’s beloved Presbyterian church before the war. When Paxton lost an election to be major of the 27th Virginia, Jackson calmly found means to promote him several ranks to brigadier general, out of reach of the whims of the electorate. Much of the army disdained this proceeding as another instance of Jackson’s much mooted wretched judgment in selecting subordinates. Paxton had had little opportunity to confirm or disprove this conventional wisdom when he led his famous Stonewall Brigade into action on May 3. He knew he would not survive the battle and prepared for death by studying his wife’s photograph and reading his Bible by the scant predawn light. Moments after the action opened Paxton fell dead, surviving only long enough to reach for the pocket where he kept his treasured pictures.
Over all of the infantry chaos that morning there throbbed the steady rhythm of Confederate artillery at Hazel Grove, building to a crescendo that won the battle for Lee. The two divisions that had remained with Lee for the past day and a half pressed toward Chancellorsville from the south and east. Jackson’s men under Stuart closed in from the west. Before the morning was far gone, the two Confederate wings reunited at last, ending that aspect of Lee’s incredible gamble and providing the general with the chance to reassert direct control over his whole army. Gradually the consolidated Southern force swept Hooker’s brave but poorly led legions back to the Chancellorsville intersection. A brief, confused stand there bought Hooker a few minutes. Then Confederates swarmed over the crossroads and around the burning inn in a frenzied victory celebration.
Into this animated scene rode R. E. Lee on his familiar gray horse. “His presence,” wrote an officer who was there, ‘was the signal for one of those outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient days rose to the dignity of gods.”
The impromptu celebration fizzled out when dreadful news arrived from Fredericksburg. Lee’s eleven-thousandman rear guard there, under Gen. Jubal A. Early, had been facing twice as many Federals under Gen. John Sedgwick. When a Mississippi colonel named Thomas M. Griffin incautiously (and against regulations) accepted a flag of truce during the morning of May 3, Northern officers saw just how thin was the line opposing them. Adjusting their formations and tactics accordingly, the Federals pounded across the plain below Marye’s Heights and burst over the stone wall and Sunken Road that had caused their army so much grief the previous December. This penetration of the rear guard opened a path to Lee’s rear for Sedgwick’s force. A government photographer accompanying the advancing Federals took some shots of the captured ground, among them one of freshly dead Mississippians in the Sunken Road that gave stark testimony of the price of their colonel’s impolitic behavior. The film captured one of the most graphic views of battle dead taken during the entire war.
Sedgwick’s apparently wide-open opportunity to slice westward and do Lee some harm came to an abrupt obstacle about four miles west of Marye’s Heights, at Salem Church. Gen. Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox and his brigade of five tough, veteran Alabama regiments began May 3 guarding Banks Ford on the Rappahannock River, two miles due north of Salem Church. Wilcox moved alertly toward Fredericksburg and the action developing there during the morning. When Early’s line at Marye’s Heights fell apart, Wilcox hurried across country and threw skirmishers in Sedgwick’s path. The Alabama men retarded their enemy’s advance from positions on each gentle crest and at fence rows perpendicular to the road. Finally at Salem Church they made a stout stand.
Lee received the bad news from eastward with the same calm poise he always displayed, but his heart must have sunk within him. He turned Gen. Lafayette McLaws onto the Turnpike back toward Salem Church and later followed in person. Wilcox and his men stood at bay near the little brick building when McLaws arrived with reinforcements. The simple Southern Baptist sanctuary, built in 1844 by the farming brethren who worshiped in it, now served as a make-do fortification. Bluecoated infantry charged up to and around the building while Alabamians fired out the windows. Hundreds of men fell in the yard, in the church itself, and in the small log church school sixty yards to the east.
But McLaws and his men made the Salem Church ridge too strong to breach, and fighting flickered out late on May 3. The next day Confederates from the church and from Early’s bypassed rear guard bottled Sedgwick up with his back to the Rappahannock. Soon after midnight of May 4th, this Union detachment retreated back over the river under desultory shell fire and light infantry pressure.
Salem Church survives today, covered both inside and out with battle scars. All but a tiny fragment of the Salem Church ridge, however, disappeared during the past few years as gas stations and shopping centers destroyed the battlefield. Huge earth-moving machines chewed up and carried away the ground of the ridge itself, leaving the building a forlorn remnant of the historic past isolated on its little vestigial crest.
Jackson’s wife told him he was dying. “My wish is fulfilled,” he said. “I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
After Sedgwick headed for cover at the end of May 4, Lee could return his attention to Hooker’s main army. The Federals had built a strong and deep line of earthworks shaped like an enormous capital V. The flanks were anchored on the river, and the apex stretched south to a point only one mile north of Chancellorsville. Within that sturdy fastness Joe Hooker continued to cooperate with Lee’s objectives by holding his force quietly under the eyes of Southern detachments that he outnumbered by about four to one. When Lee was able to return to the Chancellorsville front on May 5, the men he brought back with him from around Salem Church improved the odds to some degree but not nearly enough to approach parity. Federal losses totaled about eighteen thousand during the campaign, but Lee had incurred some twelve thousand casualties as well and was still greatly overmatched. Even so, the Confederate commander was looking for some means to launch a renewed offensive against Hooker when, on the morning of May 6, his scouts reported that all the Federals had retreated north of the river during the night.
That same day, Joe Hooker announced in an order to the entire army: “The events of the last week may swell with pride the heart of every officer and soldier of this army. We have added new luster to its former renown … and filled [the enemy’s] country with fear and consternation.” By contrast, Lee’s congratulatory order to his troops, dated May 7, gave thanks to God “for the signal deliverance He has wrought” and encouraged divine services in the army to acknowledge that debt.
Historians continue to discuss many aspects of the campaign without any hint of unanimity. Was Joe Hooker drunk most of the weekend? After the war the general conclusion was that he had stopped drinking on accession to army command, leaving him unsettled after a lifetime of consistent bibulousness; new evidence suggests that he did indeed indulge his habit during the Chancellorsville weekend. Did R. E. Lee conclude from the evidence of his incredible victory that there was virtually nothing his battle-tested infantry could not do, leading to overconfidence at Gettysburg? The army had performed at an astoundingly high level during the first three days of May, and Lee soon did ask nearly impossible feats from it; on the other hand, the leaders of a tenuous revolutionary experiment could hardly afford to play conservatively against staggering negative odds.
Chancellorsville gave Lee the leverage to move the war out of torn and bleeding Virginia. His raid into Pennsylvania held the potential for great success, but it came to grief at Gettysburg, two months to the day after Chancellorsville.
The combination of bold strategy and even bolder tactics employed by the Confederate leaders at Chancellorsville turned an apparently impossible situation into a remarkable triumph. But the most important scenes in that tragic drama ultimately unfolded not around the old inn or at Hazel Grove but in an outbuilding of a country house twenty-five miles to the southeast at Guinea Station. Stonewall Jackson seemed to be recovering favorably from the loss of his arm when an ambulance carried him to the Chandler place at Guinea on the hot fourth of May. His progress continued good for two more days at this new resting place farther from the dangers and distractions of the front. Then, early on the morning of May 7, Jackson awakened with a sharp pain in his side that his medical staff readily and worriedly diagnosed as pneumonia. The disease made rapid inroads on the general’s weakened system, and doctors began to hint that he might not recover.
The grim news spread through the ranks. The loss of mighty Stonewall would transform the glorious name of Chancellorsville into the blackest of blots. Mrs. Jackson reached her husband’s bedside on May 7, and three days later it was she who had to rouse Thomas Jackson from his delirium to warn him that he was dying. “I will be an infinite gainer to be translated,” the fading man responded, and later: “My wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
In the early afternoon of a lovely spring Sunday, May 10, Stonewall Jackson called out for Gen. A. P. Hill and for Maj. Welles J. Hawks of his staff as his mind wandered to battles won and streams crossed at the head of his troops. At three o’clock a spell of calm intervened, broken only by the sobs of family and friends in the room and by the general’s desperate gasping for breath. As the clock neared the quarter hour, Jackson spoke quietly from the bed: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” Then, as he so often had done during the year just past, Stonewall Jackson led the way.