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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

Two additional miles brought the van of Rodes's division to the turnpike. Brigade after brigade turned east along that thoroughfare, forming in long lines that straddled the road facing east and extended nearly a mile in each direction. Soon two complete lines, separated by about 100 yards, and part of a third were in place. Because the sun inexorably dipped toward the western horizon, Jackson could not wait for the last brigades of Hill's division to arrive. Thousands of soldiers stood in position to smash directly into the unprotected right flank of O. O. Howard's Eleventh Corps. Accounts vary as to the precise time, but between 5:15 and 6:00 P.M. Jackson checked his watch, then looked at Robert Rodes, the young brigadier general whose troops manned the front line. "Are you ready, General Rodes?" asked Jackson. "Yes, sir," came the steady reply. "You can go forward then."

AT 5:15 P.M., OR SHORTLY THEREAFTER, ROBERT RODES REPORTED HIS DIVISION READY FOR ACTION. "YOU CAN GO FORWARD THEN," JACKSON REPLIED. (LC)

Nearly 20,000 Confederates surged forward through trees and underbrush. The unnerving whoop of the Rebel Yell floated through the forest, and a wave of terrified animals rolled eastward in front of the advancing human tide. Startled Federals at first pointed and laughed as rabbits and deer scattered through their lines—then frantically sought to form when they realized why the beasts had burst from the woods. Howard's men never had a chance. Only five regiments faced the oncoming Rebels. Confronting enemy lines that far overlapped their own, they offered token resistance before falling hack in disorder. Near Wilderness Church, Carl Schurz shifted his division's alignment from south to west. "Round came his line like a top, swinging sharply as though upon a pivot," wrote an admiring Union soldier of Schurz's maneuver. "Not more than two minutes before Schurz's men were facing south. Now their front was to the west—in unbroken line, shoulder to shoulder, to stem the torrent of men." Twenty minutes of hard fighting settled the issue. Flanked on both ends of his line, Schurz ordered a retreat at about 6:30 P.M. Other pockets of Federals also fought fiercely, and artillery Captain Hubert Dilger—called "Leather-breeches" because he affected doeskin trousers—heroically worked a cannon on the turnpike.


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JACKSON'S FLANK ATTACK: MAY 2, 5-6 P.M.
While Lee spars with Hooker south and east of Chancellorsville, Jackson leads three divisions of the Second Corps on a daylight march around the Union army's right flank. Observing Jackson's march, Hooker sends Sickles to harass the Confederate column at Catharine Furnace and later orders Slocum forward as well. This isolates Howard's corps, which later folds under the weight of Jackson's afternoon assault.

O. O. Howard's splendid behavior during the fighting partially redeemed his careless deployment. He seized a standard and shouted for his men to stand. Oblivious to minie balls that whizzed around him, he managed to rally small knots of soldiers before witnessing the complete disintegration of his corps. "More quickly than it could be told," he sadly observed, "with all the fury of the wildest hailstorm, everything, every sort of organization that lay in the path of the mad current of panic-stricken men had to give way and be broken into fragments."

THE CONFEDERATES SWEPT DOWN THE ORANGE TURNPIKE LIKE A HURRICANE, OVERPOWERING ANY UNIT THAT STOOD IN THEIR WAY. IN LESS THAN TWO HOURS, THEY HAD DEMOLISHED THE ELEVENTH CORPS. (BL)

Eleventh Corps resistance had collapsed by about 7:00 P.M. Several thousand of Howard's men collected over the next hour at Fairview, a large clearing across the plank road from Chancellorsville. Captain Clermont L. Pest, chief of artillery in the Twelfth Corps, massed 37 guns at Fairview and directed an effective fire westward toward the advancing Confederates. Rodes's division, badly disorganized in victory, halted at 7:15 near a set of abandoned works that Slocum's soldiers had erected across the plank road roughly a mile west of Chancellorsville. Soon to be excoriated as the "damned Dutchmen" who fled rather than fighting Jackson's veterans, the Eleventh Corps had performed reasonably well under the circumstances. Nearly 2,500 casualties (roughly 25 percent of its strength), among them a dozen of twenty-three regimental commanders, attested to its efforts.

Joseph Hooker had roused himself from a curious lethargy to assist in stabilizing the Union line west of Chancellorsville. He and members of his staff vainly sought to stem the tide of fugitives pouring east along the plank road. At one point, Hooker encouraged Major General Hiram G. Berry, who led the Third Corps division the commanding general himself had organized nineteen months earlier, to "throw your men into the breach—receive the enemy on your bayonets—don't fire a shot—they can't see you." Berry's men went into line perpendicular to the plank road a half mile west of Chancellorsville about the time Jackson's attack lost momentum.

CAPTAIN HUBERT DILGER'S BATTERY FIRED DOUBLE ROUNDS OF CANISTER DOWN THE PLANK ROAD IN AN EFFORT TO CHECK JACKSON'S ADVANCE. HIS GUNS HINDERED THE CONFEDERATES BUT COULD NOT STOP THEM. (BL)

CLUTCHING A U.S. FLAG UNDER THE STUMP OF HIS AMPUTATED ARM, HOWARD TRIED VALIENTLY TO RALLY HIS TROOPS. (BL)

The Confederate assault might have accomplished a great deal more. Alfred Colquitt, a Georgia politician whose brigade occupied the right of the first line of attackers, ignored Jackson's stern orders to move ahead without regard to his flanks. Imagining a Union threat from the south, Colquitt halted his brigade after a brief time, in the process stacking up Dodson Ramseur's fine brigade of North Carolinians in the second line as well as the Stonewall Brigade, which was attempting to move east along the plank road. Five thousand Confederates remained stationary while a furious Ramseur demanded to know why. Colquitt finally moved on, leaving Ramseur to search in vain for the phantom enemy. Ramseur subsequently reported that "not a solitary Yankee was to be seen" where the rattled Georgian had concocted a Federal menace.

MANY OF HOWARD'S SOLDIERS THREW DOWN THEIR WEAPONS AND RAN FOR THE REAR. "WE WERE ORDERED TO STOP THEM." REMEMBERED ONE TWELFTH CORPS SOLDIER. "BUT WE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE TRIED TO STOP A CYCLONE. . . . ONE CAN HARDLY CONCEIVE OF THE TERROR THAT POSSESSED THEM." (BL)
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