Veterans on both sides of the Civil War who were present for duty at Chancellorsville on May 3rd, 1863, described it as the ultimate slaughter. In some accounts, they call it the worst fighting of the entire war. Cavalry officer J.E.B Stuart was personally appointed by the wounded Thomas Stonewall Jackson to take command of his division on the western front – far Confederate left. Stuart had only ever commanded cavalry raids, swooping in to harass the enemy, and then swooping out just as quickly. A hard-hitting attack was his plan for the early morning hours on May 3rd after Jackson’s surprise attack on the Union right.
One flaw in this charge lay in its execution. Stuart had lined up his brigades and sent them in almost in a piecemeal fashion (honestly, when has that ever worked in military history?). Through the dense Wilderness, charge after charge was repulsed. Three times, Stuart’s men worked to drive the Federals from their entrenched positions west of Fairview and atop Hazel Grove. After much bloodshed, it worked and 40 pieces of Confederate artillery rolled up onto Hazel Grove to bombard Fairview and the Chancellor house. They also managed to occupy the first line of the trench network that the Union defenders had established during the night.
I’d like to present four accounts from four different soldiers from that day. Two describe the absolute horror of battle and two prove that there was still a glimmer of humanity in the chaos.
Nick Weekes of the 3rd Alabama, part of Robert Rodes’ brigade that followed up the second assault that morning, recalls the devastation inflicted by the Federal artillery upon Fairview as they tried to hold back the tide of gray sweeping their way.
“There must have been 50 guns… The biggest tree offered no protection. One might as well have been in front as behind it. Limbs and the tops were falling about us as if torn by a cyclone. We were enveloped, as it were, in a dense fog, the flashing of guns could be seen only a few feet away… At every breath we were inhaling sulphurous vapor… What a din. What a variety of hideous noises. The ping of the minnie ball, the sputter of canister, the whistling of grape, the ‘where are you,’ ‘where are you’ of screaming shells.”
Weekes wrote that he saw “an arm and shoulder fly from the man just in front, exposing his throbbing heart. Another’s foot flew up and kicked him in the face as a shell struck his leg. Another, disemboweled, crawled along on all fours, his entrails trailing behind, and still another held up his tongue with his hand, a piece of shell having carried away his lower jaw. I had just enough make up my mind that ‘this is hell sure enough’ when one, two, three and the fourth shell dropped almost in the same spot as fast as one could count, exploding as they struck the ground – and all was dark around me. I should say blackness, so black and thick I could feel it, and my feet seemed to rest on a sheet of flame.”
Weekes recovered from the shock of the consecutive shell hits to realize that fourteen of his comrades were not so lucky to still be breathing. The captain of the 3rd Alabama, M.F. Bonham, experiencing the same bedlam as Nick Weekes, shouted to his troops, “Forward, Third Alabama! The order is forward! Follow me!” And sure enough, they did, despite it all.
Good news came to Stuart after his third battle line failed to carry the Union position. General Robert E. Lee was close by. The Confederate right flank had moved south and west around Hooker’s front to link up with Stuart – as was the plan from the very beginning. Brigades under Richard Anderson and Lafayette McLaws rushed toward the Union earthworks occupied by Brigadier General John Geary under Slocum’s Corps.
Though the men had been inspired by the image of their commander, Joseph Hooker, riding along the lines and bolstering his men, it wasn’t enough to hold their position. If anything, it made the combat even worse because the Federals were determined to put up a stiffer resistance, going as far as to clubbing the enemy with their muskets. Sergeant Sam Lusk of the 137th New York recalled that “happily never in the history of the world was so much life destroyed in so short a time or so much human suffering. The scene… was enough to break a tyrant’s heart. Men with part of their head blowed off trying to get off the field. Some with their legs partly shot off hobbling along to get out of reach of the enemy… I saw men by the side of the road with their legs shot off with the bones sticking out and they still alive. Some with their heads blown off, wounded every way you can immagin… as we retreated the enemy pursued us clostly, as we passed out batteries they fired on the Rebs which were following us in mass and mowed them down…”
In the midst of all this death and gore, there was still some sense of mercy. A 19 year old ministerial student in the 126th Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Clay MacCauley, was part of Brigadier General Erastus Tyler’s brigade that was ordered to support the northern Union right flank against Alfred Colquitt’s charge. The Confederates eventually crumbled the resistance around Little Hunting Run. The moment before the rolling up of his regiment and after their ammunition began to run low, MacCauley wrote, “Something had gone wrong. The men began to feel it. As our firing slackened I noticed a foreboding disorder on our right… a feeling of suspense and doubt seemed to thrill along the line… The disorder, changing into tumult, came near and nearer. At last it swept in upon the company next to mine. Then is struck my own company’s right. The companies, rising in successive ranks from the ground, the men with questioning looks at one another, started at first slowly and then rapidly backward.”
Tyler’s Pennsylvanians retreated and somehow, MacCauley found himself alone and facing down the flood of graybacks headed his way. According to his account, MacCauley tried to run, but tripped and got his legs tangled up in his own sword. A burly, bearded Alabamian found him and thrust the muzzle of his gun in the Federal’s face. He shouted, “You — of a -, give me that sword!” (MacCauley’s written account after the war excludes the foul language that we can assume the Southerner implemented in the moment). However, upon seeing how young MacCauley was, the Alabamian softened and asked if his new prisoner was hurt. MacCauley replied that he wasn’t sure and asked, “Get me out of this.” A bullet had bruised MacCauley’s ribs earlier before the start of the retreat, which must have given him some sense of injury.
Knowing that the Union artillery was about to open up on the advancing Confederates, they ran together toward the rear (west). “I had no desite to be killed by grape, canister, shell or anything else from our own guns,” he said. The Alabamian supported his prisoner around the shoulders, half carrying him less than a hundred yards before the “the expected happened. It seemed as if a tornado out of a clear sky had all at once burst upon that forest.” The two dove into a hole and for ten minutes endured “a roaring torrent of iron plunged through the air above us. We were almost covered by fallen tree limbs and branches. The noise was horrible.”
Once the bombardment slackened, MacCauley and his Alabamian – along with the 5th and 6th Alabama regiments – continued to pull back to the rear, passing by dead of the blue and gray alike. Batteries headed to the front often ran over these fallen dead, “the hoofs of the horses and the carriage wheels crushing and mutilating the bodies of friend and foe.”
MacCauley personally surrendered his sword to General Robert Rodes and was sent to the field hospital along the Plank Road behind the lines where makeshift shelters were created out of muskets and blankets. The future minister recalled that he got “nothing but kind words and treatment from the Rebels on the battlefield.” Though he was captured, without the aid of the Alabamian, he might have become a casualty on the field from the Union artillery barrage. I like to picture them in the hole where they took shelter, both hanging on for their lives in the middle of the warzone.
On the opposite front around Hazel Grove, another prisoner experience was accounted by a member of Posey’s Mississippi brigade. As I earlier stated, Lee was working to link up his half of the army with Stuart’s by moving his troops around south. E.A Perry had come past Catharine Furnace to link up with Carnot Posey, A.R Wright, and William Mahone as they swung north toward Geary’s breastworks (also earlier mentioned). After suffering an artillery assault, the four brigades were able to make a “gallant and daring and irresistible charge” toward the Yankee works, driving them half a mile backward.
A boy within Company F of the 16th Mississippi was out in front of this charge in Posey’s brigade. He had raised his musket to fire at Union soldier at point-blank range when the Federal shouted, “Hello, Hawkins! Don’t shoot me!” The Mississippian gaped at the man he was about to shoot and recognized him. “Great God, old fellow! I wouldn’t shoot you for nothing in the world! Get back to the rear! I ain’t got time to tend to you now.”
Evidently, the two soldiers knew one another earlier in the war. Hawkins had been captured at Sharpsburg (Antietam) the previous September during Lee’s failed campaign into Maryland. The Yankee he had almost shot had been one of the soldiers who showed him kindness while imprisoned, and it seemed that a loose friendship had formed before Hawkins was exchanged. That mercy had ultimately saved the man’s life eight or so months later.
While the war was undoubtedly devastating with horrific casualties both on and off the field, it’s always refreshing to read of simple acts of compassion between the blue and the gray.
Nick Weekes to Captain T.C. Witherspoon, January 11th, 1903, in Battle, “The 3rd Alabama Regiment”, pages 71-75
Letter from Samuel Lusk to father and mother, written May 8th, 1863
MacCauley, “From Chancellorsville to Libby Prison”, pages 185-190
“Chancellorsville, 1863: The Souls of the Brave” by Ernest B. Ferguson, Afred A. Knopf, LLC; 1992; page 243