- 02 May 2021 16:31
May 3, Sunday
During the night at Chancellorsville, General Sickles sends an aide to ask General Hooker to reinforce the Federals holding Hazel Grove. This rise juts between the two wings of Lee’s army; Sickles’ guns massed there prevent the two Confederate forces from linking and impede communications between them. Moreover, the hill is an ideal place from which to launch an attack against either enemy wing. But Sickles’ position on Hazel Grove is precarious. The Confederates are pressing him from both sides, and he is in danger of being overrun when the fighting resumes. Earlier in the evening, in fact, he was cut off for a time by a Confederate probe. The development caused Hooker “great alarm, and preparations were at once made to withdraw the whole front, leaving General Sickles to his fate; but that officer showed himself able to take care of his rear, and communication was restored at the point of the bayonet.” Hooker is asleep when Sickles’ aide arrives to request reinforcements, and no one is willing to rouse the slumbering general until daybreak. Then, instead of granting the request, the fearful Hooker orders Sickles to abandon Hazel Grove without delay, to pull his infantry back to new entrenchments nearer the Plank Road and to redeploy his artillery to Fairview Heights. As Sickles grudgingly complies around 6 am, Jeb Stuart launches his attack.
A rapid succession of events has thrust Jeb Stuart into command of Stonewall Jackson’s corps. When Jackson was wounded, leadership passed to General A.P. Hill. But within minutes of taking over, Hill himself was knocked down and so badly bruised by a spent shell fragment that his legs are temporarily paralyzed. He handed over command to the next-senior division officer, General Rodes. But Hill then had second thoughts and, possibly on Jackson’s advice, sent for Jeb Stuart to replace Rodes. This is a highly unusual move; Stuart is a cavalry commander, not an infantry officer. But Hill was more concerned that the venerated Jackson be replaced by a man the troops know and trust. Rodes is little known outside his own division, while Stuart is widely admired. Rodes has gracefully acquiesced to his instant demotion. All through the night, Stuart has reorganized the Confederate lines to prepare for a renewed attack west of Chancellorsville this morning. Most of Rodes’s battered division has fallen back to Dowall’s Tavern to regroup, and A.P. Hill’s division, now commanded by Brigadier General Henry Heth, moved into the front line with General Raleigh Colston’s division forming the second line. Messengers sent by Stuart made the long ride around Sickles’ position on Hazel Grove to inform General Lee of the latest developments. The commanding general has been shaken by the news of Jackson’s wounds. He approves of Stuart’s moves, but has thought it necessary to stress one point. “It is all-important,” he writes to Stuart at 3:30 am, “that you continue pressing to the right (toward me), turning, if possible, all the fortified points, in order that we can unite both wings of the army.” The key fortified point between the two wings is, of course, Hazel Grove.
Heth’s skirmishers move out early this morning. While most of them are feeling their way toward the Federal positions through the dewy underbrush, Brigadier General James Archer’s brigade on the right, encountering no opposition, advances up the slopes of Hazel Grove. Archer’s men arrive on the crest as the last of Sickles’ units are departing. The grayclads rush forward, capture 100 men and three guns, and give chase to the retreating Federals. The Confederates are quick to capitalize on their surprisingly easy conquest. During the night, Colonel E. Porter Alexander hid thirty guns in the woods near Hazel Grove. The moment the position is overrun he rushes the batteries onto the heights; soon his guns are pouring a devastating fire on the Federal artillery on Fairview Heights and into Slocum’s lines to the east. Heth’s division now descends on the first Federal line of defense across the Plank Road west of Chancellorsville. The attack is preceded by a hellish rain of shot and shell. Units on either side of a New York regiment disintegrate, but the New Yorkers hold on. At one point the regiment’s colonel, Augustus Van Horne Ellis, rides to the front and leads his men into the smoke. They stop the attackers and fight until their ammunition is exhausted and they are in danger of being flanked on both sides. Only then do the New Yorkers fall back, having lost 24 of their 550 men.
But the Confederate attack is sputtering in places. The order to advance was given before all of Heth’s brigades had completed their alignment; as they move forward through the difficult terrain, gaps develop and widen, and the flanks of brigades become dangerously exposed. Driving the Federals back south of the Plank Road, Brigadier General Samuel McGowan’s South Carolina brigade loses contact with Archer’s brigade on Hazel Grove to its right. Brought to a halt before the third Federal line in front of Fairview Heights, McGowan’s men are decimated by musket fire and then driven back by Brigadier General Thomas Ruger’s brigade—an avalanche of bluecoats that crash into McGowan’s exposed right flank. As his men retreat, McGowan falls, severely wounded. The woods themselves pose a terrible threat to the combatants. Exploding artillery shells splinter the trees and send huge limbs hurtling to the ground to crush or maim unwary soldiers. In several places, the trees and underbrush catch fire and the spreading flames trap many of the wounded men.
Shortly before the retreat of McGowan’s Confederates, two brigades of South Carolinians under Generals James Lane and William Dorsey Pender strike the Federal center on either side of the Plank Road. Lane’s men, just south of the road, quickly brush aside a Maryland regiment of green Federals and overrun the log breastwork that constitutes the Union’s second line. But then Lane’s men are checked by two New Jersey regiments, and come under heavy fire from Fairview Heights. At this moment, as McGowan’s brigade gives way on the right, the Federals opposite Lane counterattack and threaten both of his flanks. Lane’s command breaks apart and is driven back in great confusion. While the survivors are trying to reassemble on the far side of the breastwork, General Ruger’s pursuing Federals catch them milling around and mow them down at point-blank range.
In the meantime, most of Pender’s brigade, deployed just north of the Plank Road, is making no headway against the first Federal line. But one North Carolina regiment on Pender’s left manages to link up with Brigadier General Edward L. Thomas’ brigade, farther to the north. Together they overrun the first two defensive positions and advance toward Fairview Heights. On the way, the North Carolinians capture a Federal General, William Hays, along with all but one of his staff officers. The advancing Confederates are on the verge of flanking the Federal guns on Fairview Heights when they run into stiff resistance from Colonel Emlen Franklin’s brigade in their center, combined with a sudden Federal countercharge on their left. This counterthrust is the result of one of General Hooker’s only aggressive moves of the day. A short time earlier, around 7:30, he came upon General William French forming a line of battle just off the Plank Road and ordered French to drive the enemy back. French’s men eagerly comply, pushing Thomas’s men and the North Carolinians back to the log breastwork and taking several hundred prisoners.
General Hooker’s old division, commanded by his friend, General Hiram Berry, has borne the brunt of Pender’s and Thomas’ advance. Before French’s counterattack relieved the pressure, Berry walked across the Plank Road to confer with one of his brigade commanders. He is halfway back when there’s a crack of a sharpshooter’s musket and a wreath of smoke in the foliage of a distant tree, and Berry falls to the road, mortally wounded. In a matter of moments one of Hooker’s most trusted officers is dead. Berry’s command falls to Brigadier General Joseph B. Carr. However, Brigadier General Joseph Revere, out of touch with Carr, mistakenly considers himself to be the senior officer in the division. Each man assumes command of a segment of the division. Carr orders his men to stand their ground. But at the height of the battle, over the protests of his men, Revere suddenly marches his units—the better part of nine regiments in all—off the field of battle. Revere will maintain afterward that the troops needed to be reorganized and resupplied, but his excuse will not be accepted. He will be tried by a court-martial and sentenced to dismissal from the service—a disgrace President Lincoln later mitigates by permitting him to resign. Revere isn’t the only one who fails to meet the test of fortitude and character posed by the terrible arena of the Wilderness. Hooker deploys two regiments of cavalry behind the lines to stop deserters, and they have a busy day returning to duty fleeing officers and men. Two entire batteries of the demoralized XI Corps gallop for United States Ford on hearing the first sounds of the attack. On the III Corps line, Colonel Louis Francine of the 7th New Jersey becomes so hoarse from shouting orders that he loses his voice and is advised by a surgeon to go to the rear. He does so—taking the 400 survivors of his battered regiment with him.
In little more than an hour of fighting, Heth’s attacking troops have penetrated two of the three Federal defensive positions, but his brigades have been shattered, separated, and driven back. While General Colston’s division grimly holds on in support of Heth’s line, trying to forestall a general retreat, Stuart orders Rodes’s division to attack. As Rodes’s troops advance, some Confederate units are retreating, others are moving laterally to plug gaps in the line, and still others are clinging tightly to their hard-won ground. In the smoke and dense brush, Stuart’s three lines become hopelessly jumbled and confused—occasionally with tragic results. On the right, between the Plank Road and Hazel Grove, some of Colston’s troops move up to support McGowan’s exhausted brigade. but instead of pushing forward, the men fling themselves to the ground and start firing over the heads of McGowan’s troops. Some of the South Carolinians are wounded, and a young lieutenant is killed, by the fire of the men coming to their relief. Now McGowan’s men and those behind them freeze in place, and nothing that their officers can say or do will make any of them move forward. The Stonewall Brigade is ordered down from the left flank to get the advance moving again, and find “a large number of men of whom fear had taken the most absolute possession.” Federal troops in the area begin massing for a counterattack, and Colston orders the Stonewall Brigade to attack before the Confederates are overrun. As the veterans of Jackson’s illustrious Shenandoah Valley Campaign move up, they disdainfully tell McGowan’s men, “We will show you the way to clear a Yankee line.” Then, supported by Colonel Thomas S. Garnett’s brigade of Virginians, they pour a withering fire into the Federal line and hurtle it back. But quickly the tide turns again. Both Garnett and the Stonewall Brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Elisha Paxton, are mortally wounded, and before the two brigades have pushed very far they come under a hurricane of fire and are forced to retire.
To the north, the brigade commanded by the fiery young North Carolinian, Brigadier General Stephen Dodson Ramseur, comes up behind some of Colston’s men who are cowering on the ground. Ramseur orders the soldiers to advance, but not a man moves. Ramseur pleads and cajoles to no avail. Then he angrily gives his own brigade the order, “Forward, march!” and they clamber over the prostrate soldiers and rush forward. Colonel Bryan Grimes of the 4th North Carolina furiously steps on an officer’s head and grinds the man’s face in the dirt. Ramseur boldly pushes his brigade far out in front, but a gap of nearly 600 yards opens on his right, perilously exposing his flank. He goes back twice through the musket and artillery fire, trying in vain to persuade the soldiers of Paxton’s, Garnett’s, and McGowan’s brigades to move forward on his right. He sends word to General Rodes that he will have to withdraw unless something is done to protect the exposed flank. Rodes goes up the line and tries his powers of persuasion on the shaken soldiers, but without success. When Jeb Stuart is informed of the crisis, he gallops up to the Stonewall Brigade, which is lying exhausted on the ground after its earlier attack. The jaunty Stuart, in plumed hat and red-lined cape, rides up and down happily exhorting the men to make yet another effort—singing a parody of a popular song, “Old Joe Hooker, Won’t You Come Out of the Wilderness?” Stuart’s theatrics and his confident manner turn the trick. The weary men of the Stonewall Brigade, led now by Colonel Funk, press forward and close the gap on Ramseur’s right. By this time, however, the exhausted North Carolinians are almost out of ammunition and most of them have to fall back to the log works. Yet the Stonewall Brigade drives forward, reaches the foot of Fairview Heights, and launches an assault against the Federal artillery positioned on the crest. When the attackers get within 100 yards of the batteries, the Federal gunners open up with canister and cut the Stonewall Brigade to ribbons. One third of the attackers go down. And since no support is forthcoming, the survivors slowly and reluctantly fall back.
General Stuart’s attack has as yet achieved no breakthrough, but the assaults have succeeded in wearing the Federals down. The Confederate batteries at Hazel Grove have kept up a relentless fire on the Federal infantry and on the opposing artillery on Fairview Heights. At about 9 am, French’s troops on the Federal right are attacked by two of Rodes’s brigades. Soon, the Federal line is being driven back on both sides of the Plank Road. The Federal gunners on Fairview Heights, running low on ammunition and threatened with encirclement, abandon their position, pulling back to a new line close to Chancellorsville. As the pressure mounts, General Sickles sends his aide, Major Henry E. Tremain, to ask Hooker for reinforcements. Hooker is standing with his staff on the porch of the Chancellor House when Tremain rides up, and he leans down over the railing to talk with the young officer. Just then a shell from one of the Confederate batteries at Hazel Grove hits a pillar next to Hooker and splits it from end to end. Part of the pillar strikes Hooker violently on the head. The commander is knocked senseless, and some of the officers around him think he is dead. General Couch, who is next in seniority to Hooker, reaches the Chancellor House shortly after the mishap. He finds Hooker mounted, with his staff also in their saddles. Couch briefly congratulates Hooker on his escape and leaves for the front. Hooker, in great pain and with his right side partially paralyzed, rides off for the rear without notifying Couch or giving him any orders whatsoever. As Hooker rides, his pain becomes more intense. Growing faint, he is helped to the ground, laid on a blanket, and given some medicine. After a time he gets up again and is starting to remount his horse when a shell from Hazel Grove strikes the blanket on which he had been lying. Shaken, he continues on his way. Still he has not relinquished command.
Couch works feverishly to steady the lines of his II Corps. The Confederates are now within about 500 yards of the Chancellor House. To the north, they threaten to turn the Federal right flank. A portion of the line there is being held by troops under the command of the youthful Colonel Nelson Miles, who has barely recovered from the terrible throat wound he received at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg five months ago. Although he has only a handful of understrength regiments at his disposal, Miles has succeeded in holding off several full-scale Confederate assaults, and his division commander, General Hancock, considers him worth his weight in gold. But Miles’s luck turns sour. A round fired by a Confederate sharpshooter strikes his belt buckle, pierces his stomach, fractures his pelvis, and lodges in his thigh. Once again presumed to be dying, he is carried from the field, and his thin line falls back. (The indomitable Miles will recover in time to see action again.) Couch has a Maine Battery brought up to a position just north of Chancellorsville to aid in stemming the Confederate tide. Instead, it is caught in a murderous crossfire. The Confederates now have thirty guns in action on the Federal right, and even more firing from Fairview Heights and Hazel Grove. Soon all of the Maine battery’s officers have been wounded and all but two of the guns have been put out of commission.
Couch believes that the Federals can still save the day if he finds a way to counterattack. But it is not to be. Around 9:30 am, he receives a summons from Hooker. Couch finds the commanding general lying in a tent near the Chandler House, half a mile north of Chancellorsville. Hooker turns command of the army over to Couch, but only to command a retreat, for Hooker produces a map and orders the army withdrawn to the north, closer to the Rappahannock. Hooker will still make the big decisions for his army. When Couch emerges from the tent, General Meade and others who are waiting expect that the army will go over to the attack at last. They are bitterly disappointed to learn differently. As the first Federal units head for the rear, the Maine battery is still firing, although by now it only has one gun. Lieutenant Edmund Kirby, who has taken charge of what is left, is hit by a shell that almost severs his leg. The two remaining gunners fire canister at the approaching Confederates until a shell strikes their weapon in the muzzle, disabling it. The wounded lieutenant is asked for permission to carry him from the field, but refuses. Only after all the guns have been dragged away by infantrymen—the battery’s horses have all been killed—does Kirby consent to be carried off. Before he dies a month later, Kirby will be promoted to brigadier general by President Lincoln.
With General Hancock’s division as a rear guard, the Federals withdraw to a new perimeter north of Chancellorsville. The line—an arc with both ends anchored on the river—is completed by noon. At about this time, General Lee, whose divisions have at last linked up with Stuart’s forces, rides into the clearing at the Chancellorsville crossroads, where the Chancellor House is burning furiously. The Confederate soldiers, faces blackened by the smoke of battle, some wounded and crawling away from the devouring flames, all break out in a cheer at Lee’s arrival. As Lee watches the flames devour the Chancellor House, taking a moment to savor his triumph, a message arrives from Stonewall Jackson. Jackson simply confirms that he has been wounded and congratulates Lee on the victory. Lee’s voice trembles as he dictates a reply: “Could I have directed events, I should have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead. I congratulate you upon the victory, which is due to your skill and energy.” Lee is about to press the attack northward when he is distracted by a messenger bringing news from Fredericksburg: General Sedgwick is on the move.
Hooker’s orders to Sedgwick—to cross the Rappahannock in the night and march at once to Chancellorsville—reflected a complete misunderstanding of Sedgwick’s situation. Hooker seemed not to know that Sedgwick had long since crossed the river below Fredericksburg, and the Federal commander was under the erroneous impression that there are virtually no Confederate troops left in Fredericksburg. Not surprisingly, therefore, Sedgwick was dumbfounded when he received the orders at about 11 pm last night. To follow the orders would be absurd. Sedgwick would have to recross the river below Fredericksburg in the night, move north, throw bridges across the town under fire, smash through Jubal Early’s defenses, and only then take up the march for Chancellorsville. And Hooker expects him to attack the rear of Lee’s army at dawn. Sedgwick decides to follow the spirit, not the letter, of his orders. He will take the most direct route toward Chancellorsville—the Old Richmond Road north from his bridgehead into Fredericksburg, then the Plank Road west toward Lee. This movement has nothing to recommend it; to gain the Plank Road, Sedgwick will be forced to advance up Marye’s Heights, attacking the very stone wall on which the Army of the Potomac had been smashed last December. But it seems the only way that Sedgwick can obey his commanding general.
General John Gibbon, still at Falmouth, is ordered to lay a bridge across the river at Fredericksburg and join Sedgwick there before dawn. Now history begins to repeat itself with terrible exactitude. The Confederate riflemen in Fredericksburg—the same Mississippi units that so effectively delayed Burnside’s crossing there in December—have enough moonlight to shoot by, and they stop Gibbon’s first attempt cold. Gibbon decides to wait until dawn. At 2:35 am, Sedgwick receives a message from General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff: “Everything in the world depends upon the rapidity and promptness of your movement. Push everything.” Around 4 am, a follow-up message from Hooker grandly informs Sedgwick that the forces facing him are negligible and must not be allowed to slow his advance. In fact, Early has 9,000 men at his disposal. They are spread thin but backed by 56 guns, and the works on Marye’s Heights are more formidable than ever. A week earlier Major Sandier Pendleton of Jackson’s staff wrote in awe of the “long lines of trenches and the redoubts which crown every hillside from ten miles above Fredericksburg to twenty miles below. The world has never seen such a fortified position.”
Despite continual harassment by Confederate skirmishers, Sedgwick’s corps reaches Fredericksburg by about 5 am, and in the first light of dawn he directs General John Newton, whose division has led the march, to make a reconnaissance toward the stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights. Newton’s troops are hurled back by a storm of shot and shell as Sedgwick watches glumly from horseback. By now Gibbon’s division is crossing the river, and Sedgwick orders him to assault the Confederate line to the right of the stone wall while the division under General Albion Howe attacks to the left. Meanwhile, Newton, commanding his own and Colonel Hiram Burnham’s divisions, will demonstrate against the center. Under constant artillery fire from Marye’s Heights, the troops take up their positions and begin the advance around 10 am. The movement immediately founders. The Federals have neglected to consider a couple of key terrain features in the path of their attack. Gibbon’s entire division slows to a crawl at the canal that crosses the plain just outside town, and quickly comes under withering artillery fire. Howe’s division, meanwhile, becomes ensnarled on the left in the deep gully formed by Hazel Run. The only option seems to be a frontal assault on the stone wall by Newton’s divisions. At least the Federal commanders now remember the bitter lessons learned during Sumner’s ill-fated attacks over the ground. Instead of forming in lines of battle—the tactic that proved so costly before—ten of Newton’s regiments are deployed in two columns for the attack. There are 4,700 men in all. And they are told not to stop and fire but to advance at the double-quick with unloaded muskets and rely on the bayonet to clear the Sunken Road.
When the Federals trot to within 300 yards of the stone wall, a pair of Confederate howitzers firing canister obliterate the leading ranks of the right column. The left column presses forward to within fifty yards of the wall, and then all at once a sheet of flame and hail of lead leaps out from the defenders’ muskets. The column staggers and reels back, then surges forward again before wavering in the face of the devastating fire. The men fall back and take cover. A Massachusetts regiment takes refuge behind a high board fence around a house. Peering at the Confederate position through the fence, the men think they can see a section near the end of the wall that is lightly held. A party of stretcher-bearers is sent out under a flag of truce and confirms that the wall is indeed vulnerable on the right. Impulsively, with a shout of “Massachusetts colors to the front!” the men swarm out from behind the fence and toward the wall. On their left a Wisconsin regiment joins the charge, and together they clear the stone wall in fierce hand-to-hand fighting and rush up the hill. All of Newton’s regiments now join in the attack, sweeping up Marye’s Heights and capturing six guns from the Washington Artillery. Gaining the crest, they see Early’s soldiers, wagons, horses, and artillery pieces dashing off along the Telegraph Road to the south. Sedgwick doesn’t bother to pursue them, but concentrates on starting his column toward Chancellorsville as ordered, leaving some of Gibbon’s troops to hold the heights. The Federals have won 2nd Fredericksburg, but it is 11 am and Sedgwick is six hours behind schedule.
At Chancellorsville, General Lee dispatches McLaws’ division eastward to intercept Sedgwick. McLaws’ four brigades march to the Salem Church, about four miles west of Fredericksburg, and there form a line on the edge of a wood. They are joined by five regiments of Alabama infantry under Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox, who has sent some of his men ahead to skirmish with Sedgwick’s lead elements. The Confederates in the vicinity number 10,000. Sedgwick, a brave but methodical general, is so slow in getting his divisions moving toward Chancellorsville from Marye’s Heights that General Butterfield talks of relieving him three different times. But nothing is done, and Sedgwick is still in command when his vanguard approaches Salem Church at about 3:30 pm.
The Confederate regiments are deployed on both sides of the Plank Road; just south of the road one company of the 9th Alabama occupies a schoolhouse and another holds the church. After driving back Wilcox’s skirmishers, Sedgwick’s men charge the Confederate position and come under heavy fire. Their lines waver, but the men keep moving. Soldiers from two regiments from New Jersey and New York surround the schoolhouse and capture the defenders there. the Confederate line is broken, and a Federal victory seems imminent. But then Wilcox hurls the eight remaining companies of the 9th Alabama into battle. The Alabamians drive back the Federal line and recapture the school, freeing the prisoners. When three more Alabama regiments sweep forward, the Federals break for the rear. Sedwick had launched his attack aggressively, but he had used only one division—4,000 men of the 19,000 in his command. Two fresh divisions arrive in time to stabilize his shattered lines, but it is too late in the day to organize a new attack.
Lee is so confident that Hooker isn’t going to attack that he orders Anderson’s division to leave Chancellorsville and reinforce McLaws at Salem Church. Early’s division, which had withdrawn to a position four miles southwest of Fredericksburg, is ordered to reoccupy the town. This leaves only 25,000 men—the three divisions of Jackson’s old corps—to keep watch on Hooker’s 75,000. But Lee has taken Hooker’s measure by now and thinks the risk small.
Then Confederates evacuate Grand Gulf on the Mississippi. Though it has staunch batteries, Grant’s inland movement makes it a useless position. Skirmishing occurs along the edges of Grant’s advance on the north fork of Bayou Pierre, at Willow Springs, Ingraham’s Heights, Jones’ Cross Roads, Forty Hills, and Hankinson’s Ferry on the Big Black River. Grant marches steadily toward Jackson, Mississippi.
At Cedar Bluff, Alabama, a tired, discouraged band under Colonel A.D. Streight surrenders to Nathan Bedford Forrest after a skirmish. Forrest thereby partly avenges Grierson’s success and thwarts Streight’s main purpose, which is to destroy Southern railroads.
Longstreet abandons his siege of Suffolk, Virginia, on being recalled to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. There is skirmishing at Warrenton Junction, Virginia; a Federal scout in Cass and Bates counties, and a Union expedition on the Sante Fe Road, Missouri. A Yankee scout moves from Triune to Eagleville, Tennessee.
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Iowa warns Church members that they have two weeks to leave the pro-Southern Knights of the Golden Circle or face excommunication.
The expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better.
—G. K. Chesterton