Chancellorsvile Pt. 2
Volume XXIX Issue #5 • An Excerpt From:
Action from May 3-6, 1863
by Frank A. O’Reilly
Gen. Robert E. Lee faced a monumental crisis on the grim morning of May 3, 1863—one of the darkest Sundays in American military history. Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant flank attack at Chancellorsville on May 2 had created an opportunity for Lee to either escape his opponent’s overwhelming clutches, or dare to win the battle decisively right then, right there. At the same time, Lee knew he was weaker and more vulnerable than ever before. He had divided his small army into three parts: two divisions (McLaws’ and Anderson’s) of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps, under Lee’s direct control; Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s command holding the line at Fredericksburg; and Jackson’s forces to the west. Lee’s command structure was also in turmoil; in short, Lee had no corps commanders. Longstreet’s corps, less two divisions, had been sent to southeast Virginia on detached duty, and Stonewall Jackson had been felled by the mistaken fire of his own men. Stonewall’s replacement, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, also had been hit and had to relinquish command. Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart of the cavalry now commanded Jackson’s infantry by virtue of his rank. It remained to be seen what kind of corps leader the cavalier would make.
Robert E. Lee had only two advantages: his adversary had surrendered the initiative; and Jackson’s May 2 flank attack had the Federals off-balance and reeling. The Union commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, had twice the men and materiel of Lee, but he had been too busy fending off relentless Confederate blows to use his resources to land any of his own. Lee crafted a plan for May 3 that would retain the initiative and hopefully reunite his army. Both he and Jeb Stuart would attack at first light. Lee confided to Stuart: “It is necessary that the glorious victory thus far achieved be prosecuted with the utmost vigor, and the enemy given no time to rally.” He told a staff officer, “These people shall be pressed to-day.”
Joseph Hooker had to reevaluate all of his plans and intelligence. So far, every prediction, every pronouncement, had been exactly wrong. He had assumed Lee would “fly ingloriously” from his Rappahannock River defenses as soon as the Union army crossed the stream above and below the Rebel stronghold. Instead, he had provoked Lee to attack on May 1. Hooker announced that Lee was indeed retreating on May 2, only to be blindsided by Stonewall Jackson’s onslaught against Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s luckless and isolated XI Corps. It appeared Lee intended to drive Hooker back across the Rappahannock River, but even that now appeared deceptive. Three Confederate riders—two from A. P. Hill’s staff and one from Stonewall Jackson’s—had been carried into Union lines by frightened mounts, spooked and wounded by the friendly fire that brought down Jackson. Nothing is known of the Rebels’ interaction with Hooker, though it does appear the Union commander learned of Stonewall Jackson’s last order to A. P. Hill: “Cut them off from the United States Ford.” Union Brig. Gen. Andrew Atkinison Humphreys chronicled, “Jackson was aiming, it was said, to get around and take possession of the United States Ford, and thus get in our rear.” Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalry already had disrupted Hooker’s tie to Ely’s Ford, lending credence to the notion that Lee intended to cut Hooker’s line of retreat and destroy the Union army. Well after the fact, it was speculated that cocksure Joseph Hooker had lost his confidence. By the morning of May 3, that seemed evident to at least some of his subordinates. The only thing Hooker knew for certain was that Lee was not done and would attack again as soon as possible.
The Battle of Chancellorsville had become large and ungovernable in the dense woods of the Wilderness, especially at night—and it took on a life of its own that threatened to undo both Lee’s and Hooker’s plans. During the black night, the forest exploded repeatedly with a crescendo of action, much to the surprise and consternation of both sides. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum’s Federal XII Corps had stumbled into Stonewall Jackson’s forces that evening around 9:00 p.m. They had fallen back to regroup and assess the situation. Eventually, the Northerners worked their way northeast and tied into the Federal defenses around Fairview and Chancellorsville.
Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps also attempted to feed back into their old positions along the Orange Turnpike. At midnight, Brig. Gen. David B. Birney’s Federal division massed in a large clearing called Hazel Grove and pressed boldly north. Advancing across the open space en masse, the movement of thousands of soldiers by the full moon instantly drew unwanted attention. The jittery XII Corps trusted nothing west of their fortified positions and immediately blistered the darkness with cannon and rifle fire. A. P. Hill’s Confederates, now led by Brig. Gen. Henry Heth following Hill’s flesh wound, answered with a crash of musketry. Heth’s men had nervously rebuffed and captured numerous Yankees throughout the night. To them the woods seemed to be alive with Federals. Their earlier firefight with Slocum’s XII Corps had resulted in the accidental wounding of Stonewall Jackson. Sickles’ corps now unwittingly angled into the disputed space between Union and Confederate antagonists, and caught fire from both sides. “Human language can give no idea of such a scene,” reflected Union Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, “such an infernal and yet sublime combination of sound and flame and smoke, and dreadful yells of rage, or pain, of triumph, or of defiance.” More succinctly, a Maine soldier admitted, “We were mortally scared!” Unable to determine friend from foe in the disorienting darkness, Sickles’ men backed away and hunkered down at Hazel Grove for the evening. Morning would determine which way they needed to go.
Jeb Stuart also waited for the dawn. He had asked both Lee and Jackson for instructions. The wounded Stonewall deferred, telling Stuart’s emissary that Stuart should do what he thought was best. Lee, on the other hand, ordered Stuart to attack toward Chancellorsville. At 3:00 a.m., he instructed Stuart: “As soon . . . as it is possible, they [the Federals] must be pressed so that we can reunite the two wings of the army. Endeavor, therefore, to dispossess them of Chancellorsville, which will permit the union of the whole army.” The Confederate commander hoped a driving thrust toward Hooker’s headquarters would force his opponent to constrict his lines and possibly relinquish Hazel Grove. The farm would be the easiest and most direct way to reconnect the forces under Lee and Stuart. Stuart’s de facto chief of artillery, Col. Edward Porter Alexander, also hoped the Federals would be compelled to abandon Hazel Grove. He had reconnoitered the area by moonlight and coveted the high open plateau as an ideal platform for his guns. Robert E. Lee intended to mirror Stuart’s move with a strike against Chancellorsville from the east as well. He would have James Longstreet’s two First Corps divisions under Maj. Gens. Lafayette McLaws and Richard H. Anderson stab directly at Chancellorsville, and then extend their left flank west to link up with Stuart’s command.
Stuart struggled to array his new corps for action by dawn. He had very little staff to tame the chaos in the forest. Jackson’s staff had left with their chieftain; much of Stuart’s staff had stuck close to the cavalry; and A. P. Hill’s staff had been annihilated in the night. Stuart operated largely alone, but he managed to arrange Heth’s Division as a front while Brig. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Raleigh Colston pieced together their mixed divisions in reserve. By morning, Stuart and Heth appreciated that Heth’s right flank bent slightly back from the rest of the division line straddling the Orange Turnpike. Before launching his attack against Chancellorsville, Stuart wanted General Heth to wheel his right forward and straighten the line. “Commencing at 5 A.M. Sunday [May] 3d,” the Confederates touched off a firestorm characterized by Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender as “five terrible hours” of the most intense fighting and bloodshed Americans had ever experienced.
The Confederate brigades of Brig. Gens. Samuel McGowan and James J. Archer crashed through the underbrush at 5:00 a.m., extending Heth’s line and heading straight for Hazel Grove and the Union III Corps. One of McGowan’s South Carolinians confessed he had a particular horror of fighting in the dark. “We knew nothing, could see nothing,” he recounted. “Night engagements are always dreadful, but this was the worst I ever knew.” Federals began firing blindly at the sound of charging Confederates. “To see your danger is bad enough,” groaned a Carolinian, “but to hear shells whizzing and bursting over you, to hear shrapnel and iron fragments slapping the trees and cracking off limbs, and not know from whence death comes to you, is trying beyond all things.” McGowan’s men surprised and routed the 37th New York, but then blundered into Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger’s reinforced Union brigade, and started taking heavy casualties as they neared the edge of the clearing. General McGowan went down wounded below the knee as he leapt atop the Yankee breastworks. His replacement, Col. Oliver E. Edwards, fell shot through the shoulder. Col. James M. Perrin assumed command, only to be mortally wounded. The dying officer requested, “Give my sword to my eldest boy [Joel] & tell him to use it in defense of his country & if need be to pour out his life blood for it as I have done.” The South Carolinians’ fourth commander, Col. Daniel H. Hamilton, wavered and withdrew to personally find fresh ammunition for his troops. He became lost in the jungled thicket and did not return to the brigade for several hours.