The Battle – Part 2
At a quarter past 5 o’clock in the morning, the Confederates stormed out of the Wilderness, the Rebel Yell like barreling thunder to those startled Federals. A short resistance was put up by Colonel Adolphus Bushbeck’s 154th New York, about 5,000 men, but it was still no use. The left flank of the Union Army crumbled that evening. They simply didn’t have the numbers to contend with Jackson’s forces and they were caught off guard, thanks to the ignored warnings that something was brewing in the west.
Hooker, still settled at his headquarters at the Chancellor Mansion, had no clue that anything was happening until the fleeing remnants of the XI Corps came streaming in from the west. Some of them made it all the way into the II and XII Corps who were holding up against McLaw’s demonstrations on their left flank facing east. Some were captured by the Confederates and orders were given by Hooker to have any skedaddling bluecoat shot if he reached that portion of the line. Winfield Scott Hancock of the II Corps took to smacking the men with the flat of his sword to make them stay and listen to reason. In an effort that seems more comical in hindsight, Hooker also struck up the band and had inspirational songs played for the sake of his scared men. By an unfortunate coincidence, the XI Corps was made up primarily of Germans and in later years were jeered as the “Flying Dutchmen”, hinting at some of the xenophobia many US citizens held toward immigrants.
Sickles, who had been so preoccupied with their front to the south around the Furnace, was ordered to come back and reinforce Howard’s line. Meanwhile, Hooker had the reserve artillery around the Chancellor Manor pointed to the west, ordering his men to be ready to “Receive the enemy on your bayonets.”
It wouldn’t come to that yet. Though Jackson had successfully scared the bejesus out of the XI Corps, the Wilderness played against him. As he had ordered before the charge, none of the men stopped, but with the dense woods and undulating terrain, the regiments didn’t advance all in the same neat rows that they had started out in. Many became jumbled and structure fell apart. Not to mention, the burden of dealing with captured enemy soldiers slowed them down. And, as what happened at Shiloh, many of the famished Confederates stopped to snitch at the dinner that had been prepared by the Federals within their camps. The attack was stalled and by nightfall, Jackson had ordered up A.P. Hill’s newly arrived division to reinforce the efforts. Meanwhile, he took the time to run a reconnaissance to get a better feel for where his men were and weren’t.
Jackson enlisted the help of a 9th Virginia Cavalry private by the name of David Kyle, a 19-year-old who knew all the little backwoods routes in and around the Bullock Farm. He took Jackson down the Mountain Road, passing through Brig. Gen. James Lane’s North Carolina brigade with skirmishers in front comprised of the 33rd North Carolina Infantry. Along the road, he heard what he had feared. Union soldiers two hundred yards ahead of him were digging entrenchments and building abatis to resist the coming onslaught that Jackson had planned. He had to attack now and meet up with Lee’s army just two miles away on the other side of the battlefield. Despite the darkness and the fact that his men might be exhausted from the march and earlier attack, he had to do what he pushed them to do all day, “Press forward”.
But this would be the furthest Jackson would ride. Earlier that evening after the halt had been ordered, the North Carolinians had encountered troops of Pennsylvanians within their lines. Though the intruders were dealt with, it left them jumpy and firing at shadows and strange noises in the thicket. They fired upon Jackson’s scouting party. Despite insistences that the North Carolinians were firing on their own men, three bullets found their way to Stonewall Jackson. One in his palm and two in his left arm.
Jackson was carried away on a stretcher, later losing his left arm and subsequently his life to pneumonia. In the meantime, this left the whole Second Corps of Lee’s army without a commander. A.P. Hill would have been his second, but he too, had been wounded by an artillery shell when the Federals open-fired on their position – thanks to the smattering of spooked fire amongst the North Carolinians. Though he was just badly bruised, he was unable to mount a horse and deferred command to J.E.B Stuart, the only remaining major general in the field, who had never commanded any mass of infantry so large in his military career. The only advice that the wounded Jackson could give was, “Tell General Stuart he must do what he thinks best”.
Both armies now sat disillusioned. The Union forces were trapped between a divided, weaker, and now practically leaderless Confederate army. But nightfall brought an end to the hostilities for one day and gave them time to regroup and reassess.
Sickles, however, wasn’t content to wait. He planned to pull back his III Corps from Hazel Grove and strike at Jackson’s right flank. What became known as “Sickles’ Midnight Charge” would be remembered by the poor souls mixed up in it years after the war’s end. Just like the Carolinians, the Federal troops were also shooting at shadows and fellow blue coats when they should have been shooting at Confederates. Artillery became involved and the whole mess resulted in about 200 casualties for the III Corps and neighboring XII Corps. Sickles pulled back to Hazel Grove and resolved to wait for daylight after that point.
Lee understood the dire straights his army had found themselves in on the night of May 2nd. He gave orders to Stuart that they must try to reunite their forces as quickly as possible. And perhaps imbued with a “Jacksonian” spirit, Stuart was said to “never seemed hesitant or in doubt for one moment that he could just crash his way wherever he chose to strike.”
And he would do just that the following morning. But not before Sickles begrudgingly gave up Hazel Grove under Hooker’s orders. The high ground they had dominated since May 1st had now become a salient, a weak place in their line that the converging Confederate wings could crush. Though Sickles thought he could defend it, Hooker wasn’t taking the chance. Brig. Gen. Charles Graham defended the rear of the withdraw, but Confederates under Brig. Gen. James Archer gave them a hell of a time before they completely abandoned this piece of ground. Artillerist Porter Alexander set up 28 of his guns, plus three that were left behind in the retreat, and pointed them toward the new Union line at Fairview to the north and their 44 guns.
Stuart ordered the charge that morning and his Second Corps, shouting “Remember Jackson” stormed toward the fortifications that the III and XII Corps had constructed overnight to repel them. “Carnage is fearful,” summed up the fighting along that front by a Union officer, but that was also putting it lightly. May 3rd would become the second bloodiest day of the war, second only to Antietam last September. Causalities came at a rate of one man every second for five hours. Over and over, the Confederates attempted to swarm the entrenchments, but the Federals continued to deter them. Finally, at about 9am, Stuart sent in Rhode’s division and they managed to break the Union line, thus threatening the guns at Fairview that had been blowing their men to pieces. At the same time, Lee was pushing his divisions under Anderson and McLaws to put pressure on the Union line, especially around Fairview.
The piece of land Hooker thought he couldn’t hold was now in the hands of the enemy and their guns had the perfect line of sight right to the front porch of the Chancellor house. An artillery shell from the once prized Hazel Grove struck a column next to Hooker. It fell and nearly crushed him. The Union commander fell unconscious for half an hour, but from then on, he wouldn’t be the same. His staff carried him back toward the Bullock House for safety, but the doctors proclaimed that he had suffered a concussion. He wasn’t in his right mind and could barely stay awake long enough to give orders or receive updates on the battle. Still, he did not relinquish full command to his second, Darius Couch.
In the meantime, Stuart and Lee had done the impossible and reunited their two segments. Not only that, but the artillery units upon Fairview ran out of ammunition and had to withdraw. Alexander with his Confederate guns filled the void and set their sights once more on the Chancellor Manor. It caught fire in the barrage. The family in the basement were evacuated, along with 33 wounded soldiers who had been convalescing inside. The whole area around the place that had once been a respite for weary travelers was now up in flames. “The woods around the house were a sheet of fire – the air filled with shot and shell – horses were running, rearing and screaming – the men, a mass of confusion, moaning, cursing, and praying.”
Federals fell back from the intersection, unable to defend it any longer, and retreated to a defended position at U.S. Ford. Meade’s V Corps and Major General John Reynold’s I Corps became the last line of defense and Hooker refused to let them pour into the fray, despite the fact that 30,000 fresh troops were ready to whip the Rebels.
Once he knew that the crossroads had been taken, Lee rode down from Hazel Grove to the cheers of his men. One of his staff officers wrote, “He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of – triumph.” It took five hours and the loss of countless commanders, but it had been done.
The Confederates didn’t have much time to celebrate, however, because they faced another threat from the front they had all but forgotten about. Major General John Sedgwick was still settled around Fredericksburg with his 25,000 men. Hooker called for his assistance and “Uncle John” pushed through where Burnside could not that previous December. Maryes Heights was taken by the Union forces and pushed on to try and reinforce Hooker. The plan now changed and Sedgwick would be the hammer, while Hooker was the anvil to help crush the Confederates.
Lee, once again, divided his army to deal with Sedgwick. He left 30,000 men at the burning crossroads and sent the rest to join up with Jubal Early and Cadmus Wilcox who had tried to resist the Union advance. Sedgwick’s division bent back on itself, each flank anchored on the river in a crescent shape while the Confederates surrounded him along a low ridge called Salem Heights near a little Baptist church. The armies stalemated and sat there.
That night, Hooker called together all of his corps commanders to ask their opinions of what they should do. Should they abandon Chancellorsville and retreat across the Rappahannock River, or should they stay to fight it out? Meade spoke up and asked if this was a Council of War because Hooker wanted their responses to go on record. He conceded that it was and their votes were cast. Three out of the five wanted to stay and fight and each gave their reasons why, but Meade dominated the meeting. Those who were all for leaving were Sickles and Couch. Couch only want to leave so they could come back with a new commander (i.e. not Hooker). Faith in Hooker had deteriorated by that point, and as Hooker would put it later after the battle, he lost faith in himself as well.
What enraged the commanders at the meeting was that, even though the majority had voted to stick it out, Hooker still ordered them to make an orderly retreat across their fords. “What was the use of calling us together at this time of the night when he intended to retreat anyhow?” complained Reynolds after the meeting.
No matter what the general had been thinking, both wings of the army were bottlenecked out through Banks Ford and by the following morning, the Confederates faced an empty front with abandoned fortifications.
“My God! My God! What will the country say?” cried the American president, Abraham Lincoln, after he received the news of the defeat at Chancellorsville.
Hooker’s General Order Number 49 tried to soften the news. “The events of the last week may swell with pride the heart of every officer and soldier in the army. We have made long marches, crossed rivers, surprised the enemy in his intrenchments, and whenever we have fought, we have inflicted heavier blows then we have received… We have no other regret than that caused by the loss of our brave companions; and in this we are consoled by the conviction that they have fallen in the holiest cause ever submitted to the arbitrament of battle.”
This softened nothing because Hooker turned around and continued to blame others for the defeat. He blamed George Stoneman, the cavalry officer he had sent to disrupt Lee’s supply lines. If Lee had turned back to protect them, the battle wouldn’t have gone as it did. Then he blamed Oliver Otis Howard for not holding the right flank – despite the fact that his troops had been redeployed to help Sickles. But the final straw came when he pointed a finger at Sedgwick and said that it was his fault for not coming soon enough to his aid. That’s when the dissenting whispers turned into shouts. The public and political opinion of Hooker diminished until the final crackdown in June, when he was replaced with George Gordon Meade just days before the showdown at Gettysburg.
Lee was equally upset about the defeat, even though it was technically a victory for the south. “At Chancellorsville we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight. I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.” He did, however, have an uplifting statement for those who had fought for him. In General Order Number 59, he said, “With heartfelt gratification, the general commanding expresses to his army his sense of the heroic conduct displayed by the officers and men during the arduous operations in which they have just been engaged… While this glorious victory entitles you to the praise and gratitude of the nation, we are especially called upon to return our grateful thanks to the only Giver of victory, for the signal deliverance he has wrought.”
However, the loss of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would prove to cripple the morale of the Confederacy beyond this point. The void Jackson left in the command structure forced Lee to promote officers, shuffling around the commanders without total confidence that they could fill the shoes left empty by the multitude of those lost at Chancellorsville.
“Chancellorsville, 1863” by Ernest Ferguson
“That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy, May 1-4, 1863” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White
“The Civil War: A Narrative – Fredericksburg to Meridian” by Shelby Foote
“Campaigns of the Civil War” by Walter Geer