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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

But Hooker remained overawed by Lee. Thinking only of the defensive, he visited Sickles's position at Hazel Grove about dawn on Sunday, May 3. There he stood on ground that would decide the coming day's battle. The Hazel Grove plateau rose between the positions of Lee and Stuart. Almost precisely as high as Fairview and connected to that site by a clear vista through the forest, it afforded an excellent position for artillery. If Lee were to unite the divisions of Anderson and McLaws with those under Stuart—an absolute necessity for the Confederates on May 3—he must first devise a plan to wrest control of Hazel Grove from Sickles. Then Confederates could place artillery on the plateau to fire into the Twelfth Corps lines south of the plank road and west of Chancellorsville.

Hooker spared Lee the trouble of capturing Hazel Grove by ordering Sickles to abandon the position and take up a new line along the plank road. Against his better judgment (and with consequences two months hence at Gettysburg, when he saw the Peach Orchard as a comparably strong piece of ground that must be occupied), Sickles obediently carried out Hooker's instructions. First light had begun to penetrate the woods around the plateau when the soldiers and gunners of the Third Corps began their withdrawal. Before the last of them had departed, James J. Archer's Confederate brigade attacked from the northwest, capturing 100 prisoners and four cannon.

HIRAM BERRY PLACED HIS DIVISION NORTH OF THE PLANK ROAD IN AN EFFORT TO BLOCK JACKSON'S ADVANCE. HE WAS KILLED ON MAY 3 AS HE CROSSED THE FIRE-SWEPT ROAD. (BL)

A U.S. CONGRESSMAN BEFORE THE WAR, DAN SICKLES OWED HIS HIGH RANK MORE TO POLITICAL CONNECTIONS THAN TO MILITARY PROWESS, BUT ON MAY 3 HIS CORPS FOUGHT WELL. (LC)

Archer's brigade constituted part of a broader offensive orchestrated by Jeb Stuart. The cavalryman had worked through the night to prepare Jackson's three divisions for more fighting on Sunday. As day broke with a heavy dew on the field, A. P. Hill's division (commanded by Brigadier General Henry Heth since Hill had been wounded) was nearest the Federals, Colston's in a second line 300-500 yards west, and Rodes's, which had done the hardest fighting on May 2, in a third line near Wilderness Church. All three divisions straddled the plank road. Hill's middle brigades stood just east of the works constructed earlier in the battle and then abandoned by Slocum's Federals. The divisions of Alpheus Williams and Hiram Berry faced Hill's men south and north of the road respectively.

Stuart's infantry advanced about 5:30 A.M. As soon as Archer captured Hazel Grove, Porter Alexander, Lee's ablest artillerist, received word "to immediately crown the hill with 30 guns." "They were close at hand, and all ready," recalled Alexander, "and it was all done very quickly." The fighting west and southwest of Chancellorsville rapidly swelled into the most brutal of the campaign. The brigades of Anderson and McLaws added their weight to the attacks, pressuring the Federals from the south and southeast. Dense vegetation greeted most of the attackers. The defenders fought doggedly from behind their fieldworks. Hill's and Colston's divisions gained ground here and there, only to be driven back by Union counterattacks. Robert Rodes then threw in his brigades, which relentlessly pressed toward Fairview. On the plank road, Hiram Berry received a mortal wound. "My God, Berry, why did this have to happen?" asked a grief-stricken Joseph Hooker when he saw his lieutenant's body. "Why does the man I relied on so have to be taken away in this manner?" Not far away, Brigadier General Elisha F. Paxton of the Stonewall Brigade also lay dead. Certain he would die on May 3, Paxton had lingered over a photograph of his wife just before the battle opened. Untold others met similar fates through the early morning hours.

The élan of Stuart's infantry and superb service by Confederate artillerists helped decide the issue. Many Confederate brigades seemed intent on fighting to exhaustion—none more so than Dodson Ramseur's North Carolinians, who lost upward of 750 of their 1,500 men in less than an hour. "On beholding the shattered remnants of the . . . brigade," observed an officer in one of the regiments, Ramseur "wept like a child." In support of the assaults, 20 Southern cannon along the plank road joined those at Hazel Grove to punish Union infantry and duel with 40 Federal pieces at Fairview. For the only time during the war in Virginia, Confederate gunners enjoyed a decided edge in a major engagement. Major William Ransom Johnson Pegram, just twenty-one years old and perhaps the most aggressive artillerist on the field, happily shouted to Porter Alexander amid the battle's din: "A glorious day, Colonel, a glorious day!"


(click on image for a PDF version)
LEE ASSAILS HOOKER'S LINE: MAY 3, DAWN
At sunrise, Lee makes a determined assault against Hooker's position. Anderson and McLaws press in from the south and east, while Stuart hurls Jackson's divisions against the western face of the Union line. After four hours of heavy fighting, Hooker will abandon Chancellorsville and fall back to a new line closer to the river.

Clermont Best's guns answered bravely but suffered converging fire from enemy cannon along the plank road and at Hazel Grove. Union ammunition chests ran low as Hooker ignored Best's pleas for fresh rounds. Union infantry west of Chancellorsville grudgingly gave ground on both sides of the plank road. "My line of guns . . . kept to its work manfully until about 9 A.M.," reported Best with pride, "when, finding our infantry in front withdrawn, our right and left turned, and the enemy's musketry already so advanced as to pick off our men and horses, I was compelled to withdraw my guns to save them." The last of Best's pieces left Fairview by 9:30 A.M. A Federal counterattack briefly regained the position within half an hour, but at ten o'clock Hooker issued orders to abandon it for good. The loss of Fairview compelled abandonment of the Chancellorsville crossroads as well. Soon the Army of the Potomac was in retreat toward a defensive line nearer the Rappahannock. Parts of the Second, Third, and Twelfth corps waged a rear-guard action (Hooker had not committed their comrades in the First, Fifth, or Eleventh corps).

The soldiers of Lee and Stuart reunited shortly after ten o'clock. Forming a blazing crescent that closed in on the crossroads from the west, south, and east, Confederate infantry celebrated in wild triumph as Lee rode into the clearing around the Chancellor house. An artist could seek no more dramatic scene: Flames rose from Chancellorsville, providing a memorable backdrop as Lee's troops shouted their devotion and exulted in their morning's accomplishment. Colonel Charles Marshall of the general's staff saw Lee astride Traveller "in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph." It must have been from such a tableau, added Marshall, "that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods."

The relative circumstances of Lee and Hooker at that moment graphically revealed the unequal fates of war. While Lee imbibed the adoration of his victorious soldiers, Hooker stood dazed and detached at the Bullock house a mile to the north. He had been stunned about 9:15 when a Confederate artillery projectile struck a pillar at Chancellorsville against which he was leaning. Thrown to the ground and rendered briefly unconscious, Hooker had mounted unsteadily, let his troops see him, then ridden to the Bullock place, where he rested on a blanket and took some spirits. He rapidly regained a measure of lucidity, then summoned Couch to dispense instructions for withdrawing the army from Chancellorsville.

FORTY CANNON AT FAIRVIEW ANCHORED THE UNION LINE. IN THIS SKETCH, ARTIST ALFRED WAUD CAPTURED A UNION BATTERY IN ACTION NEAR CHANCELLORSVILLE. (NPS)

JEB STUART HURLED JACKSON'S DIVISIONS AGAINST THE UNION LINE ONE AFTER ANOTHER. AFTER FOUR HOURS OF STUBBORN FIGHTING, UNION COMMANDERS ORDERED A RETREAT. (FROM MEMOIRS OF STONEWALL JACKSON)

HOOKER APPEARED ON HORSEBACK AT THE FRONT, MAKING HIM A CONSPICUOUS TARGET FOR CONFEDERATE SHARPSHOOTERS. IN THE END, IT WAS A CANNONBALL RATHER THAN A BULLET THAT TOOK HIM OUT OF ACTION. (NPS)

THE HEAVIEST FIGHTING OF THE CAMPAIGN TOOK PLACE ON THE MORNING OP MAY 3. IN THIS SKETCH, UNION TROOPS OP THE THIRD AND FIFTH CORPS REPEL A CONFEDERATE ASSAULT. (NPS)

Could Lee maintain the morning's offensive momentum? His mind scarcely had time to focus on that question before alarming news arrived from Fredericksburg. John Sedgwick's men had broken through Jubal Early's defenders and were on their way toward Chancellorsville.

Since fighting erupted in the Wilderness on the morning of May 1, Sedgwick and Early had presided over an often neglected phase of the Chancellorsville campaign. Assigned the role of occupying Lee at Fredericksburg, Sedgwick had shifted thousands of soldiers from the Sixth and First corps across the Rappahannock below town on April 29. They held their positions for three days, "assuming a threatening attitude" late on May 1 in response to orders from Hooker (orders later rescinded). Reynolds's corps departed for Chancellorsville on Saturday, May 2, leaving Sedgwick with about 24,000 men in his Sixth Corps and Brigadier General John Gibbon's division of the Second Corps. A series of orders flowed from army headquarters at Chancellorsville to Sedgwick on May 2. The last of them, dated 10:10 P.M., arrived an hour later: "The major-general commanding directs that you cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on the receipt of this order. and at once take up your line of march on the Chancellorsville road until you connect with him. You will attack and destroy any force you may fall in with on the road." Although Sedgwick did not know it, Hooker expected him to retrieve Union fortunes thrown into chaos by Jackson's flank attack.


THE VICTORIOUS CHIEF

On May 3, the divided wings of the Confederate army reunited in the fields surrounding the Chancellor house. Colonel Charles Marshall described the ovation accorded to Lee by the troops as he entered the clearing in his book, An Aide-de-Camp of Lee.

"On the morning of May 3, 1863, . . . the final assault was made upon the Federal lines at Chancellorsville. General Lee accompanied the troops in person, and as they emerged from the fierce combat they had waged in the depths of that tangled wilderness, driving the superior forces of the enemy before them across the open ground, he rode into their midst. The scene is one that can never be effaced from the minds of those who witnessed it. The troops were pressing forward with all the ardour and enthusiasm of combat. The white smoke of musketry fringed the front of the line of battle, while the artillery on the hills in the rear of the infantry shook the earth with its thunder, and filled the air with the wild shrieks of the shells that plunged into the masses of the retreating foe. To add greater horror and sublimity to the scene, Chancellor House and the woods surrounding it were wrapped in flames. In the midst of this awful scene, General Lee, mounted upon that horse which we all remember so well, rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His presence 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 fall 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."

CONFEDERATE ARTILLERY STRUCK THE CHANCELLOR HOUSE AND SET IT ON FIRE. FOR SEVERAL YEARS AFTER THE BATTLE, THE BUILDING LAY IN RUINS. (USAMHI)

Early's instructions from Lee on May 1 had outlined a subordinate role. He was to "watch the enemy and try to hold him" at Fredericksburg, retreating toward Richmond if attacked in "overpowering numbers" or marching to Lee's support if Sedgwick recalled all or most of his units from the Confederate side of the river. In response to garbled orders delivered by Colonel R. H. Chilton of Lee's staff on the morning of May 2, Early started most of his men toward Chancellorsville. They had progressed about a mile west on the plank road when word from William Barksdale warned that Federals had advanced in strength against a small Confederate force left at Fredericksburg. Early "determined to return at once to my former position," and his troops "regained our former lines without trouble about ten or eleven o'clock at night." During this confusing period of march and countermarch, thought Early, Sedgwick "might have smashed every thing to pieces, but for his excessive caution."


AMONG THE WOUNDED

"The afternoon slowly passed, a long and sorrowful one for us; then the night came, the last night on earth for many who died for the lack of the care they needed."

The Army of the Potomac contained thousands of new soldiers, many of whom got their first taste of combat at Chancellorsville. Among the newcomers was twenty-year-old Rice Bull of the 123rd New York Volunteers. Bull enlisted in the Union army on August 13, 1862, in response to President Lincoln's call for 300,000 additional troops, but he did not see any combat until Chancellorsville. There, he got more than his fill. On May 3, Confederate troops attacked the 123rd New York near Fairview, and in the fighting Bull fell with a bullet in his side and a shattered jaw. The following excerpt from his memoirs vividly describes the immense suffering endured by wounded soldiers, particularly those who had the misfortune of falling into enemy hands.

"I had just fired my gun and was lowering it from my shoulder when I felt a sharp sting in my face as though I had been struck with something that caused no pain. Blood began to flow down my face and neck and I knew that I had been wounded. Ransom Fisher standing next to me saw the blood streaming down my face, and said, 'You are hit. Can't I help you off?' I said. 'No, Ransom, I think I can get to the Surgeon without help.' I took my knapsack that lay on the works in front of me and started to go to the left of our Regiment where our Surgeons were located. I passed in the rear of several Companies, all were firing rapidly, and when back of Company K felt another stinging pain, this time in my left side just above the hip. Everything went black. My knapsack and gun dropped from my hands and I went down in a heap on the ground.

I do not know how long it was before I became conscious but the battle was raging furiously; two dead men who were not there when I fell were lying close to me, one across my feet. . . .

The bullet that entered my right cheek had glanced along the jaw bone and came out of my neck near the jugular vein. My second wound was in my left side above the hip; the bullet came out near the back bone making a ragged wound. It was difficult to turn either way to seek a comfortable position as I had been hit on both sides. As yet there was little pain but by night my jaw was stiff and swollen, my side was commencing to give me trouble and I was hot and feverish. The clotted blood had hardened so my clothing was chafing and irritating my wounds every time I moved. . . .

The afternoon slowly passed, a long and sorrowful one for us; then the night came, the last night on earth for many who died for the lack of the care they needed. For those not so severely wounded nature was kind, the night was beautiful, it was comfortably warm, and a full moon shone down on us, making it almost as light as day. We were so far away from the enemy's camps that we were not annoyed by them. We could faintly hear in the distance the rumble of wagons passing along the turnpike and the subdued faraway sound of fife and drum reached us. But these sounds we did not heed, for around us were suffering men and the air was filled with their cries and moans. At last it was quiet for all were so exhausted that even in the pain they slept. Before morning many died; we heard their cries no more. . . .

The morning of May 5th was bright and warm but our wounds had become so sore and we were so stiff that those of us who were able did not feel much like moving about. Many had died during the night. They were gathered up and laid side by side in the rear of a lunette that had been built by our soldiers before the battle to protect our artillery. This collection of the dead continued every day while we were in the camp and when we left scores lay there unburied. As time went on we faced a terrible condition arising from the awful odor arising from the dead horses and men that were lying all about the camp. As time went on the stench became unberable. . . .

The morning of May 5th, Surgeons, under a flag of truce, reported at the camp. . . . They found many that required amputation; the only treatment they had for others was to give them a cerate with which to rub their wounds. The Surgeons began their bloody work at once in the immediate view of the wounded, some of whom were not more than ten feet from the table. As each amputation was completed the wounded man was carried to the old house and laid on the floor; the arm or leg was thrown on the ground near the table, only a few feet from the wounded who were laying near by. . . .

About noon thunder heads began to form in the west and south and before one in the afternoon we heard the sound of thunder. . . . It was about two in the afternoon when the storm started; it lasted about two hours. . . .

The condition of most of the wounded was deplorable. More than half had no tent covering, so had to take the full force of the storm. Many could not move without help; they lay in the gutters between the rows, and were half submerged. A few had the strength to sit up in the muddy pool but the greater part lay sprawled in the mud and filth with nothing between them and the ground but their soaked woolen blankets. Many did not even have a blanket. I saw many men lying in from three to five inches of water. We were told, though I did not see this, that on the east side of the cabin two men were drowned. They were lying close under the eaves and were unable to move when they were covered by the water that fell from the roof. . . .

The night came and the rain increased. Those who were fortunate enough to have a tent sat up, back to back to brace each other, either shivering with chills or burning with fever from their wounds. There were no lights about the camp, the darkness was impenetrable, and the groans and shrieks of the wounded could be heard on every side. . . . Not a thing had been done officially [by the Confederate army] either for or against us who lay wounded. We were entirely ignored and were to all appearance of no more consequence than the dead horses that lay around us.

CRUDE FARM BUILDINGS, LIKE THOSE PICTURED HERE, FREQUENTLY SERVED AS FIELD HOSPITALS DURING THE BATTLES. IN MANY INSTANCES WOUNDED SOLDIERS HAD NO SHELTER AT ALL. (NPS)

Starvation that had threatened for several days became acute. The badly wounded were getting weaker every hour and even the stronger were breaking down. Wounds were feverish and festering and hunger was now adding to our troubles; food was as necessary as nursing. Great numbers were still laying in the mud, helpless. There were no privy vaults, but had there been the majority were too weak to go to them. There still remained nearly five hundred men in the camp. I must leave it to your imagination for I cannot describe these awful conditions, which were made worse by the stench from the dead men and horses. None of the men or horses had been buried, The horses lay where they had died, the men lay in a row side by side south of the cabin in sight of all the wounded. . . .

By May 8th our wounds had all festered and were hot with fever; our clothing which came in contact with them was so filthy and stiff from the dried blood that it gravely aggravated our condition. Many wounds developed gangrene and blood poisoning; lockjaw caused suffering and death. While the stench from nearby dead horses and men was sickening it was not worse than that from the living who lay in their own filth. Finally, not the least of our troubles were the millions of flies that filled the air and covered blood-saturated clothing when they could not reach and sting the unbandaged wounds. As days went by none of these conditions improved, except the cries of the mortally wounded gradually lessened as they, one by one, were carried away and laid by the side of those who had gone before them."

Bull remained on the battlefield for nine days until May 12, when Union ambulances arrived under a flag of truce and carried him back to safety across the Rappahannock River. He survived his wounds and returned to his regiment within a year. He died in 1930 at the age of eighty-eight.

— Excerpts from Rice Bull's memoirs courtesy of Presidio Press, Novato, CA.

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