Volume XXX Issue #1 • An Excerpt From:
and Salem Church
by Erik F. Nelson
Chancellorsville has become a story of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson boldly confronting a boastful Joe Hooker and his massive Union army. The popular narrative is Lee and Jackson meeting after the opening engagement on May 1, 1863, Jackson’s stunning surprise attack on the afternoon of May 2, his loss to friendly fire later that evening, and Lee’s triumphant ride into the Chancellorsville clearing on May 3, surrounded by his cheering warriors.
The related battles east of Chancellorsville are less about Lee, Jackson and Hooker, but more instructive about the relative capabilities of the opposing forces in that third year of the war. Without the emphasis on personalities, the campaign that unfolded in and around Fredericksburg, Va., illustrates the growing strength and professionalism of the Union army, while revealing the limitations of the Confederate army as it struggled to sustain its war-fighting capability with diminishing resources.
The scenes of the action east of Chancellorsville, however, have become obscured. Some of the events of May 1863 unfolded across terrain within what is now the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, but where only the 1862 battle has been interpreted. The battlefield terrain beyond the Park has become neighborhoods, commercial strips, churches, and schools. A historic community has done what communities do—it has grown, accommodating the needs of succeeding generations on what was once a bloody landscape.
Though the battlefield is not easily recognized as historic ground, it has not disappeared. Our ability to see it has simply been diminished by trees, buildings, and highways. The land will always be a battleground and its many details become evident once we know where to look.
On January 25, 1863, Pres. Abraham Lincoln appointed Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to head the Army of the Potomac, replacing Ambrose E. Burnside. Defeat at Fredericksburg in December and the disastrous Mud March in January had caused this force to begin to unravel and its new commander had only a few months to prepare for renewed fighting. Hooker immediately addressed the health and welfare of the troops, through the delivery of proper food, attention to camp sanitation, and furloughs. Beyond these basics of administration, Hooker aggressively addressed the fighting qualities of the army. Intense training brought volunteer formations up to more professional standards. A new intelligence service provided timely and accurate information on the opposing force. Ongoing efforts by the quartermasters to improve the army’s mobility and range continued, with rigorous attention to wagon loads and individual knapsack contents. During Burnside’s Mud March, troops carried three days’ rations before the need for resupply. In the spring of 1863, that load had increased to eight days, which would allow Hooker to march well beyond where the Confederates expected him to be.1
During the winter of 1862-63, the Confederate army also rested and refitted, but without the resources that the Union army could muster. Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee had to scatter his force so its divisions could obtain sufficient food to get through the cold months, and even that was a struggle. The Confederates compensated for their limited strength by digging extensive defensive works. Lee’s chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, described the “change in the appearance of the country . . . from the long lines of trenches and the redoubts which crown every hill-side from ten miles above Fredericksburg to twenty miles below.”
Hooker had prepared his force well and opened his spring campaign on April 14, by sending his cavalry on a raid to sever Confederate communications. He planned to launch a bold flank march shortly thereafter, but heavy rains delayed both his cavalry as well as the infantry. It was not until April 27 that the Union V, XI and XII corps broke camp and marched. These columns were to trek far to the west, cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford and then cross the Rapidan River at Germanna and Ely’s fords, effectively putting the Union army on the Confederate side of these river barriers. These formations had marched from camps that were well away from Confederate observation. Units visible to the watching enemy, such as Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division of the II Corps, at Falmouth, remained inactive, giving the impression that the campaign had not yet begun.
While the Union flank march was in motion, Hooker planned to hold the Confederate army’s attention elsewhere by crossing a force to the south side of the Rappahannock River below Fredericks-burg. The I and VI corps left their camps on April 28 to provide this diversion. Out of view, they marched to within a mile of the river, and went into bivouac under the cover of intervening hills. The move to the river would continue in darkness.
Brig. Gen. William T. H. Brooks’ division, of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, would cross at a place known since December as Franklin’s Crossing, two miles downstream from Fredericksburg. Infantry units manhandled pontoons to the river, maintaining a disciplined silence as they struggled with the awkward loads on roads and pathways made slick by a drizzling rain. Assigned regiments carried and launched five pontoons each while other units prepared to make the initial attack.
Brig. Gen. David A. Russell’s brigade would constitute Brooks’ assault force. The plan had been to cross in the dark, but Brooks did not want to risk the confusion of a night crossing. His desires had held, despite a vehement argument with Brig. Gen. Henry W. Benham, the ranking officer of the Engineer Brigade. As dawn became imminent, the waiting assault troops quietly filled the pontoons, leaving room for officers and the engineer troops who would act as oarsmen. A Maine soldier wrote how a signal came and the “boatloads of armed men shot out into the stream and made for the opposite bank.”
Surprised Southerners of Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s brigade fired a volley as the pontoon assault boats landed. Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett, holding his Federal troops in support at the shoreline, knew Russell’s men needed time to disembark and form up. He ordered his 16th New York Infantry to fire volleys, by battalions, taking care to shoot at enemies at the top of the bluff rather than comrades below it. Under this covering fire, Russell’s men were able to form up on the flat riverbank below the hills held by Southern riflemen. They then moved up and captured a small number of the departing Confederates. Without pausing, the Federals pressed on to “a long and strong rifle pit” about a half-mile from the river. Bartlett followed in support and the Federals soon held a line between Deep Run and the ruins of the once stately plantation house called Mannsfield.
A Federal officer remembered the engineers poised to go to work when the Confederate volley shattered the morning calm, providing “a sudden transition from the silence of the tomb to the confusion of Babel.” The bridge builders immediately began construction without regard to how much noise they made. The U. S. Engineers completed the first bridge in 40 minutes. Reflecting their intense training, the 15th New York Engineers completed a second bridge 45 minutes later and then turned to construction of yet a third bridge. The VI Corps had quickly established the means to cross the river in force.