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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

Although thoroughly beaten mentally, Hooker maintained his outward bravado. He told Couch that Lee was "just where I want him; he must fight me on my own ground." But neither Couch nor others at Federal headquarters doubted the magnitude of the day's lost opportunity. "The retrograde movement had prepared me for something of the kind," Couch later wrote of Hooker's hollow claims, "but to hear from his own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much." Couch left Hooker's presence "with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man." Late that afternoon Federal corps chiefs at Chancellorsville received a prophetic message from Hooker: "The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack to-day will embolden the enemy to attack him."


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SITUATION: MAY 1, NIGHT
Hooker falls back to a tight defensive line around Chancellorsville. Meade holds a position on the river, Couch and Slocum occupy the center of the line, and Howard's corps stretches west out the Orange Turnpike. Sickles is in reserve at Chancellorsville. Lee, meanwhile, moves and occupies the ridge abandoned by Hooker earlier in the day.

The initiative had passed to Lee—of all Confederate generals the one most likely to attack a vacillating enemy. The Army of Northern Virginia remained in a perilous situation, lodged between Hooker and Sedgwick. Lee and Jackson met that night where a narrow lane from Catharine Furnace intersected the plank road about a mile southeast of Hooker's headquarters. They sat on cracker boxes abandoned by the retreating Yankees, light from a modest fire flickering in the damp air. How could they get at the enemy? Lee had ridden toward the Union left during the afternoon and found no opening. Rough ground, numerous Federals, and an absence of roads rendered that Union flank safe. Confederate engineering officers reconnoitered the enemy's center and reported it also too strong to assail. Reports from various sources—including Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee of Stuart's cavalry, various staff officers, and local residents—suggested that Hooker's right might be vulnerable. If enough infantry could move undetected across Hooker's front and hit the exposed flank, Lee might forge a decisive victory. Key information about possible routes for the flank march came from Charles Beverly Wellford, a veteran of Lee's army now overseeing Catharine Furnace (a Wellford enterprise named for the family's matriarch), Jackson's gifted cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss, and Beverly Tucker Lacy, a clergyman with Jackson whose brother lived in the area.

ON THE NIGHT OF MAY 1, LEE AND JACKSON MET TOGETHER TO PLAN THEIR STRATEGY FOR THE COMING DAY. WHEN THEIR CAVALRY REPORTED THAT HOOKER'S RIGHT FLANK WAS "IN THE AIR." LEE ORDERED JACKSON TO ATTACK IT. (BL)

Lee decided in the early hours of May 2 on a breathtakingly dangerous gamble. He would divide his outnumbered army for a second time, sending 28,000 men of Jackson's Second Corps around Hooker's front to launch an attack on the Union right flank. With the brigades under Anderson and McLaws—roughly 13,000 men supported by 24 guns—Lee would strive to occupy Hooker's attention until Jackson got into position. Should Hooker discover Lee's intention, the Federals could crush the pieces of the Army of Northern Virginia in detail (Jubal Early's small force remained outnumbered about four to one at Fredericksburg). Doubtless aware of that grim possibility, Lee and Jackson discussed the path the Second Corps would take. Lee would leave all details of the movement to Jackson. Illustrating by graphic example of what he hoped to achieve, Lee chose a moment to align a batch of broomstraws on a box—then brushed them to the ground. The generals parted just before dawn on May 2. Lee would see to the demonstration in front of Hooker while Jackson started his divisions on a march that would culminate in the Civil War's most famous flank attack.

IN THE AFTERNOON, DAVID BIRNEY'S DIVISION PUSHED SOUTH TO THE CATHARINE FURNACE IN AN EFFORT TO DISRUPT JACKSON'S MARCH. HE WAS TOO LATE. (NPS)

Jackson's column was in motion between seven and eight o'clock. Its twelve-mile route would follow the Catharine Furnace Road to the ironworks, continuing southwest to the junction with the Brock Road. Turning left at that point, the men would march a few hundred yards south before turning right onto a narrow woods road that eventually deposited them back onto the Brock Road, which in turn would take them to the plank road. The plan called for the attack to proceed east along the plank road. Jackson rode near the front of Rodes's division, which led the march. Colston's and then Hill's commands stretched out behind. Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt's brigade of Georgians had the honor of leading the march. At about eight o'clock, the first of Jackson's infantry passed Lee's bivouac on their way toward the furnace. "Old Jack" reined in his sorrel to have a few quiet words with Lee. He gestured toward Catharine Furnace, Lee nodded, and Jackson took his leave. Lee never saw his redoubtable lieutenant again.

Hours of hard work and anxiety lay ahead for Lee. He helped place the soldiers of Anderson and McLaws, watched carefully for Hooker's reaction, and wondered about Jackson's progress and Jubal Early's situation at Fredericksburg. The Confederate line fronting Hooker eventually extended three and one-half miles from near Catharine Furnace on the southwest, where Carnot Posey's brigade was posted, northwest across the plank road and the turnpike to the Old Mine Road. Only seven brigades strong, this force feigned numerous attacks. Individual regiments frequently deployed huge numbers of skirmishers to create the illusion of greater numbers. Federals easily repulsed the Confederate feints but never followed up with counterattacks. Lee knew his thin line could resist no serious northern advance. "It is plain that if the enemy is too strong for me here," he informed Jefferson Davis, "I shall have to fall back, and Fredericksburg must be abandoned." Lee also told the president about the flank march: "I am now swinging around to my left to come up in his [Hooker's] rear."

JACKSON'S INFANTRY SENSED THAT THEY WERE HEADED AROUND THE UNION ARMY, AND IT PUT THEM IN HIGH SPIRITS. "TELL OLD JACK WE'RE ALL A-COMING," THEY JOKED TO PASSING STAFF OFFICERS. "DON'T LET HIM BEGIN THE FUSS TILL WE GIT THAR!" (BL)

Jackson's men trod on narrow paths damp and soft enough for easy marching. Cavalry preceded the infantry and screened the right flank. Each division marched with its artillery, ambulances, and ammunition trains behind it. From head to tail the column stretched ten miles. Four hours elapsed between the time the first and last brigades passed Lee's bivouac. Jackson hoped to maintain his usual pace of one mile every twenty-five minutes with a ten-minute break each hour. Pleasantly cool under clear skies when the movement began, the temperature climbed steadily as the day wore on. Colonel Charles T. Zachry of the Twenty-Seventh Georgia, a regiment in Colquitt's brigade, remarked six days later that "the march was a trying one for the men; the day was very warm; many fell out of ranks exhausted, some fainting and having spasms."

Noted for prodigious marching in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere, Jackson's famous "foot cavalry" would consume the entire day reaching its jump-off point and forming for the assault. Why did it take so long? One observer explained: "Every little inequality of ground, & every mud hole, especially if the road be narrow, causes a column to string out & lose distance. So that, though the head may advance steadily, the rear has to alternately halt & start, & halt & start, in the most heartbreaking way, wearing out the men and consuming precious daylight, often beyond the calculations even of experienced soldiers."

So many Confederates on so long a march invited detection. Scarcely a mile beyond Lee's bivouac, the column became visible to Federals a mile and a quarter northwest on the high plateau called Hazel Grove. Brigadier General David Bell Birney's division of Sickles's corps held Hazel Grove, and at about 8:00 A.M. Birney informed Sickles "that a continuous column of infantry, trains, and ambulances was passing my front toward the right." Birney ordered the rifled pieces of Battery B, First New Jersey Artillery, to open fire on the Confederates, causing them to double-quick past the gap in the woods. Sickles subsequently rode to Hazel Grove to watch the passing Confederates. "The continuous column . . . was observed for three hours moving apparently in a southerly direction toward Orange Court-House," wrote Sickles in his report of the battle. "I hastened to report these movements through staff officers to the general-in-chief, and communicated the substance of them in the same manner to Major-General Howard, on my right, and also to Major-General Slocum, inviting their cooperation in case the general-in-chief should authorize me to follow up the enemy and attack his columns."

ENGRAVINGS LIKE THIS ONE TENDED TO PORTRAY BATTLES AS TIDY, WELL MANAGED AFFAIRS. SUE CHANCELLOR KNEW OTHERWISE. "IF ANYBODY THINKS THAT A BATTLE IS AN ORDERLY ATTACK OF ROWS OF MEN, I CAN TELL HIM DIFFERENTLY," SHE LATER ASSERTED. (LC)

Shortly after nine o'clock, a courier from Birney found Hooker at the Chancellor house and explained about the Confederate column. Hooker had been up since before sunrise and already had examined his right flank. Troops had cheered as he rode by, and he remarked that the Union position seemed strong—which it was if Confederates attacked from the south. Alerted by Birney's message, Hooker scanned the area near Catharine Furnace through his fieldglasses. He caught glimpses of the Confederates in two places —the break in the woods where Birney had seen them and a section of the Furnace Road that ran south from the iron works toward the Wellford house. Lee's men might be retreating, thought Hooker, but they also might be searching for an opening to strike the Union right flank. His morning inspection had revealed that Howard's line offered little strength facing west. In a dispatch dated 9:30 A.M., Hooker warned Howard to prepare for trouble from that direction: "We have good reason to suppose the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe in order to obtain timely information of their approach."

RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE UNION DISASTER ON MAY 2 FELL SQUARELY ON THE SHOULDERS OF O. O. HOWARD, WHO FAILED TO HEED NOT ONLY HOOKER'S WARNING BUT THE WARNINGS OF HIS OWN MEN. (LC)

Although Howard later claimed this dispatch never reached him, he knew from other sources that Confederates might be marching toward his right. He informed Hooker at 10:50 A.M. about "a column of infantry moving westward on a road parallel with this [the turnpike] on a ridge about 1-1/2 to 2 m[iles] south of this." Howard assured his commander that he was "taking measures to resist an attack from the west." In fact, he did virtually nothing to rearrange his corps, the vast majority of which continued to face south along the turnpike.

While Howard contented himself with nominal adjustments to his line, Hooker remained cautious and Dan Sickles exuded a restless determination to strike the Rebels. Passing up the chance to launch a major assault against the enemy's column, Hooker did send discretionary orders for Sedgwick "to attack the enemy in his front" if "an opportunity presents itself with a reasonable expectation of success." Sickles received permission at noon "to advance cautiously toward the road followed by the enemy, and harass the movement as much as possible."

WILDERNESS CHURCH STOOD AT THE CENTER OF HOWARD'S LINE. CARL SCHURZ WOULD LATER FORM HIS DIVISION NEAR THE CHURCH. FACING WEST, IN AN EFFORT TO MEET JACKSON'S ATTACK. (NPS)

These instructions came too late to interfere with Jackson's main body. The trains, ambulances, and other vehicles accompanying the column had left the Furnace Road to follow alternate paths that carried them safely beyond Federal pressure at the ironworks. Jackson also had detached the Twenty-third Georgia of Colquitt's brigade to guard the rear of the column. The Georgians engaged elements of Birney's division and Colonel Hiram Berdan's sharpshooters near Catharine Furnace during the early afternoon. Driven south from the furnace, the Twenty-third made a stand just north of the Wellford house in a portion of the same unfinished railroad cut Wright's brigade had used the day before. The Federals finally overran this position about 5:00 P.M., capturing most of the defenders (Colonel Emory Fiske Best of the Twenty-third fled the cut and subsequently was court-martialed and convicted of cowardice). Two brigades from A. P. Hill's division, which had turned back to support Best's regiment and now deployed on an open plateau near the Wellford place, efficiently contained Sickles's success.

Most of Jackson's infantry marched on unaware that Sickles's troops nipped at the rear of their column. They reached the Brock Road—the principal north-south artery through that part of the Wilderness—and turned left as planned, crossed a pair of small ridges, then made a right turn onto a narrow woods path that took them, four abreast, northward to a reunion with the Brock Road. A short distance more and they reached the junction of the Brock and Orange Plank roads. Here Jackson had envisioned turning east on the plank road to cover the final two miles before striking the enemy at Wilderness Church. Instead he found Fitzhugh Lee with exciting news. Taking Jackson east along the plank road, Lee ascended to high ground on the Burton farm whence he gestured toward a memorable sight: To their front, spread out along the turnpike, were thousands of Federal soldiers at rest. Arms stood stacked, and wisps of smoke from campfires climbed lazily skyward. No sign indicated any expectation of a Confederate assault from the west. Fitz Lee later recalled that Jackson's eyes "burned with a brilliant glow, lighting his sad face."


JACKSON VIEWS THE UNION LINES

On May 2,1863, Stonewall Jackson led his corps through the Wilderness toward the Union army's right flank, held by Major General Oliver O. Howard's Eleventh Corps. Jackson believed Howard's line ended near the Wilderness Church and therefore planned to make his attack up the Orange Plank Road. As he neared the plank road that afternoon, however, he met Major General Fitzhugh Lee, whose cavalry was screening his march. Lee asked Jackson to follow him down the plank road to the Burton farm, which stood on a knoll just half a mile from the Union line. There, Jackson saw that Howard's line actually extended a mile beyond the church, making an attack up the plank road impractical. Based on this information, he had his corps continue up the Brock Road to the Orange Turnpike, thereby placing it squarely on Howard's exposed flank. In a speech made sixteen years after the battle, Fitz Lee described his meeting with Jackson at the Burton farm:

FITZHUGH LEE (BL)

"Jackson was marching on. My cavalry was well in his front. Upon reaching the Plank road, some five miles west of Chancellorsville, my command was halted, and while waiting for Jackson to come up, I made a personal reconnaissance to locate the Federal right for Jackson's attack. With one staff officer, I rode across and beyond the Plank road, in the direction of the Old turnpike, pursuing a path through the woods, momentarily expecting to find evidence of the enemy's presence. Seeing a wooded hill in the distance, I determined, if possible, to get upon its top, as it promised a view of the adjacent country. Cautiously I ascended its side, reaching the open spot upon its summit without molestation. What a sight presented itself before me! Below, and but a few hundred yards distant, ran the Federal line of battle. I was in rear of Howard's right. There were the line of defence, with abatis in front, and long lines of stacked arms in rear. Two cannon were visible in the part of the line seen. The soldiers were in groups in the rear, laughing, chatting, smoking, probably engaged, here and there, in games of cards, and other amusements indulged in while feeling safe and comfortable, awaiting orders. In rear of them were other parties driving up and butchering beeves ... So impressed was I with my discovery, that I rode rapidly back to the point on the Plank road where I had left my cavalry, and back down the road Jackson was moving until I met 'Stonewall' himself. 'General,' said I, 'if you will ride with me, halting your column here, out of sight, I will show you the enemy's right, and you will perceive the great advantage of attacking down the Old turnpike instead of the Plank road, the enemy's lines being taken in reverse. Bring only one courier, as you will be in view from the top of the hill.' Jackson assented, and I rapidly conducted him to the point of observation. There had been no change in the picture.


"His eyes burned with a brilliant glow, lighting up a sad face. His expression was one of intense interest, his face was colored slightly with the paint of approaching battle, and radiant at the success of his flank movement."

I only knew Jackson slightly. I watched him closely as he gazed upon Howard's troops. It was then about 2 P.M. His eyes burned with a brilliant glow, lighting up a sad face. His expression was one of intense interest, his face was colored slightly with the paint of approaching battle, and radiant at the success of his flank movement.... To the remarks made to him while the unconscious line of blue was pointed out, he did not reply once during the five minutes he was on the hill, and yet his lips were moving. From what I have read and heard of Jackson since that day, I know now what he was doing then. Oh! 'beware of rashness,' General Hooker. Stonewall Jackson is praying in full view and in rear of your right flank!...

'Tell General Rodes,' said he, suddenly whirling his horse towards the courier, 'to move across the Old plank-road; halt when he gets to the Old turnpike, and I will join him there.' One more look upon the Federal lines, and then be rode rapidly down the hill."

It was nearly 3:00 P.M. Much of the day already had been taken up by marching, hut Jackson might achieve complete surprise if his column continued on to the turnpike before turning east. "Tell General Rodes to move across the Plank Road" he snapped to a courier, "halt when he gets to the old turnpike, and I will join him there." Before riding to join his men, Jackson scribbled a note to R. E. Lee: "I hope as soon as practicable to attack... The leading division is up and the next two appear to be well closed."

AFTER VIEWING THE UNION LINE FROM THE BURTON FARM, JACKSON TOOK A MOMENT TO SCRIBBLE THIS DISPATCH TO ROBERT E. LEE. THREE HOURS LATER HE ATTACKED. (BL)
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