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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

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THE CAMPAIGN BEGINS: APRIL 27-30
Reynolds and Sedgwick cross the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg to hold the Confederate army in place while Hooker leads the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps across Kelly's Ford, above town, effectively flanking Lee's Fredericksburg defenses. Sickles supports the Union army's right wing, while Conch sends two divisions of the Second Corps to U.S. Ford as a diversion.

Initial execution of the plan was splendid. Three Federal corps marched upriver on April 27, got across the Rappahannock and Rapidan with minimal delays, and by late afternoon of April 30 clustered near Chancellorsville. Couch's two divisions hurried to join them—having crossed the Rappahannock at United States Ford when Confederates on the right bank of the river withdrew in response to reports of heavy enemy activity to the west. Back at Fredericksburg, Union pontoons were in place by dawn on April 29, allowing thousands of Sedgwick's infantry to move into position opposite Lee's lines below the town. Musketry and artillery fire soon echoed along the river, continuing through the balance of that day and the next.

WHILE HOOKER'S MAIN FORCE CROSSED THE RAPPAHANNOCK UPRIVER FROM FREDERICKSBURG, SOLDIERS OF THE FIRST AND SIXTH CORPS CROSSED ON PONTOON BRIDGES BELOW THE TOWN. (HW)

Many Union soldiers sensed that they had stolen a march on the crafty Lee. On the afternoon of April 30, George Meade shed his usual restraint to greet Henry Slocum at Chancellorsville with unabashed enthusiasm: "This is splendid, Slocum; hurrah for old Joe; we are on Lee's flank, and he does not know it. You take the Plank Road toward Fredericksburg, and I'll take the Pike, or vice versa, as you prefer, and we'll get out of this Wilderness."

Meade alluded to the major east-west routes through the Wilderness—the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike, both of which connected Orange Court House and Fredericksburg. The turnpike and plank road entered the area on separate beds but came together at Wilderness Church west of Chancellorsville to form a single road. They diverged again at Chancellorsville with the plank road veering sharply southeast, only to rejoin the turnpike just east of Zoan Church for the last few miles to Fredericksburg. Unnamed by Meade the River Road provided a third route to the rear of Lee's position along the Rappahannock, angling northeast from Chancellorsville to trace a large arc on its way to the town. These three avenues lay open to the Federal flanking forces on the afternoon of April 30, but there would be no more marching that day. At 2:15 P.M., Hooker dispatched instructions from Federal headquarters at Falmouth for the elements of the turning column to halt at Chancellorsville, where he would join them that night.

Hooker arrived at Chancellorsville between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M. He found not a town or village but a rather imposing country residence. Begun in the early nineteenth century by the Chancellor family, the building had been enlarged several times, functioning as an inn on the turnpike for many years. Traffic had decreased markedly by 1860, and the Chancellors then used the structure, which they called Chancellorsville, as a family home. The rambling brick house would serve as headquarters for the Army of the Potomac. Before departing for Chancellorsville (but after issuing his orders halting the turning column), Hooker had transmitted a congratulatory message: "It is with heartfelt satisfaction," he stated, "the commanding general announces to the army 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."


"O THE HORROR OF THAT DAY!"

Although its name implies that it was a village Chancellorsville was actually nothing more than a large brick house with a few scattered dependencies set in the heart of the Wilderness. The building was constructed by the Chancellor family in the early 1800s as an inn to accommodate travelers using the Orange Turnpike, and Frances Chancellor and her family were living at the house in 1863, when Joe Hooker occupied it as his headquarters. For two days Mrs. Chancellor, her children, and a few other local people remained sheltered in the house while the battle raged around them. But on May 3 Confederate artillery shells set the building on fire, compelling those inside to flee for safety. Sue Chancellor, then an eleven-year-old girl, described the arrival of the Union army at her home and the battle that followed. The Union officer she mentions was Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Joseph Dickinson of Hooker's staff.

"There were in the house my mother, her six daughters, her half-grown son, Miss Kate F, Aunt Nancy, and a little negro girl left by her mother when she went away to the Yankees. We put on all the clothes we could, and my sisters fastened securely in their hoop skirts the spoons and forks and pieces of the silver tea service which the engineers had given my mother.. . . Other valuables were secreted as best they could be. Presently the Yankees began to come, and they said that Chancellorsville was to be General Hooker's headquarters, and we must all go into one room at the back of the house. They took all our comfortable rooms for themselves, while we slept on pallets on the floor . . . . General Hooker did not come until the next day. He paid no attention to my mother, but walked in and gave his orders. We never sat down to a meal again in that house, but they brought food to us in our room. If we attempted to go out, we were ordered back. We heard cannonading, but did not know where it was. We were joined by our neighbors, who fled or were brought to Chancellorsville house for refuge, until there were sixteen women and children in that room. From the windows we could see couriers coming and going and knew that the troops were cutting down trees and throwing up breastworks. I know now that they were pretty well satisfied with their position and were confident of victory.

ON APRIL 30. THE CHANCELLORSVILLE CLEARING WAS FILLED WITH MULES, SOLDIERS, AND WAGONS. FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS IT WOULD BE THE HEART OF THE UNION ARMY'S POSITION. (LC)

Well, we got through Thursday and Friday as best we could, but on Saturday, the 2d of May, the firing was much nearer, and General Hooker ordered us to be taken to the basement. The house was full of wounded. They had taken our sitting room as an operating room and our piano as an amputating table. One of the surgeons came to my mother and said, 'There are two wounded Rebels here, and if you wish you can attend to them,' which she did.

There was water in the basement over our shoetops, and one of the surgeons brought my mother down a bottle of whisky and told her that we should all take some, which we did, with the exception of Aunt Nancy, who said: 'No sah, I ain't gwine tek it; I might git pizened.'

There was firing and fighting, and they were bringing in the wounded all that day; but I must say that they did not forget to bring us some food. It was late that day when the awful time began. Cannonading on all sides and such shrieks and groans, such commotion of all kinds! We thought that we were frightened before, but this was beyond everything and kept up until after dark. Upstairs they were bringing in the wounded, and we could hear their screams of pain. This was Jackson's flank movement, but we did not know it then. Again we spent the night, sixteen of us, in that one room, the last night in the old house.

Early in the morning they came for us to go into the cellar, and in passing through the upper porch I saw how the chairs were riddled with bullets and the shattered columns which had fallen and injured General Hooker. O the horror of that day! The piles of legs and arms outside the sitting room window and the rows and rows of dead bodies covered with canvas! The fighting was awful, and the frightened men crowded into the basement for protection from the deadly fire of the Confederates, but an officer came and ordered them out, commanding them not to intrude upon the terrorstricken women. Presently down the steps the same officer came precipitously and bade us get out at once, 'For madam, the house is on fire, but I will see that you are protected and taken to a place of safety.' This was Gen. Joseph Dickinson. . . . Cannon were booming and missiles of death were flying in every direction as this terrified band of women and children came stumbling out of the cellar. If anybody thinks that a battle is an orderly attack of rows of men, I can tell them differently, for I have been there.


"The woods around the house were a sheet of fire, the air was filled with shot and shell, horses were running, rearing, and screaming, the men, a mass of confusion, moaning, cursing, and praying."

The sight that met our eyes as we came out of the dim light of that basement beggars description. The woods around the house were a sheet of fire, tThe air was filled with shot and shell, horses were running, rearing, and screaming, the men, a mass of confusion, moaning, cursing, and praying. They were bringing the wounded out of the house, as it was on fire in several places .... Slowly we picked our way over the bleeding bodies of the dead and wounded, General Dickinson riding ahead, my mother walking alongside with her hand on his knee, I clinging close to her, and the others following behind. At the last look our old home was completely enveloped in flames.

Once at the crossroads, Hooker brimmed with confidence. Sickles's Third Corps would join the turning column early the next morning. The commanding general would then oversee an advance he believed certain to unnerve the previously unflappable R. F. Lee. Within earshot of a newspaper correspondent, Hooker stated, "The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond. I shall be after them."

RESPONSIBILITY FOR GUARDING THE FORDS ABOVE FREDERICKSBURG FELL TO DICK ANDERSON. WHEN UNION TROOPS CROSSED BEYOND HIS LEFT FLANK, ANDERSON FELL BACK TO ZOAN CHURCH. (BL)

Lee's position did seem nearly hopeless. Caught between the hammer of the flanking force at Chancellorsville and Sedgwick's solid anvil at Fredericksburg, his best option might be to slip southward in search of a better tactical situation. But as so often in the past, the Confederate chieftain opted for a daringly unpredictable response. Jeb Stuart's hardworking troopers—free to roam the flanks of the army because so many of Stoneman's cavalrymen had ridden southward—supplied intelligence on April 29 about Federal crossings at Kelly's Ford and enemy columns moving toward the fords on the Rapidan. That evening Lee ordered Richard H. Anderson to go to Chancellorsville and instructed Lafayette McLaws to prepare his division to follow. Anderson reached his destination about midnight to find Brigadier General William Mahone's and Brigadier General Carnot Posey's brigades, which had fallen back from United States Ford earlier in the day. Apprised that a heavy force of Union infantry was bearing down on the crossroads—and under orders from Lee "to select a good line and fortify it strongly"—Anderson withdrew to a ridge just beyond the eastern edge of the Wilderness. This position, near a small Baptist church with the unusual name Zoan, covered the plank road, the turnpike, and the Old Mine or Mountain Road that linked the turnpike with United States Ford. Soon reinforced by a third of his brigades, Brigadier General Ambrose R. Wright's Georgians, Anderson ordered the men to dig in. Their efforts created some of the first field fortifications constructed by the Army of Northern Virginia.

OPTIMISM PERVADED THE UNION RANKS ON THE NIGHT OF APRIL 30 "OUR ENEMY MUST NOW INGLOURIOUSLY FLY." HOOKER ANNOUNCED TO THE ARMY, "OR COME OUT FROM BEHIND HIS DEFENSES AND GIVE US BATTLE ON OUR OWN GROUND. WHERE CERTAIN DESTRUCTION AWAITS HIM." (NPS)

Through a tense April 29 and into the next day, Lee watched Union movements at Fredericksburg and pondered intelligence about activity upriver. Hooker had kept him off balance since February, when he had confessed to Mrs. Lee his inability to fathom the Federal commander's intentions: "I owe Mr. F. J. Hooker no thanks for keeping me here in this state of expectancy. He ought to have made up his mind long ago what to do." Uncertainty ended on April 30 when Lee decided that Sedgwick intended nothing more than a facade of aggressiveness at Fredericksburg. "It was now apparent that the main attack would be made upon our flank and rear," Lee later explained. "It was therefore determined to leave sufficient troops to hold our lines [at Fredericksburg], and with the main body of the army to give battle to the approaching column."

How would Lee divide his small arrmy to keep an eye on Sedgwick, Jubal Early would remain at Fredericksburg with his division from Jackson's Second Corps. Brigadier General William Barksdale's brigade of Mississippians from McLaws's division, and roughly one-quarter of the army's artillery—a total of 9,000 soldiers and 56 guns. The rest of the Second Corps would march westward to join Anderson and McLaws for a showdown with Hooker's main body.

WHILE HOOKER CROSSED THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER ABOVE FREDERICKSBURG, SEDGWICK'S GUNS SHELLED LEE'S LINE BEHIND THE CITY IN AN EFFORT TO HOLD THE CONFEDERATE ARMY IN PLACE. (LC)
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