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A golden opportunity at Zoan Church
Date published: Sat, 04/20/2002
Part 7 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
THE FEDERAL ARMY of the
Potomac would have to fight a
battle to beat Robert E. Lee. No one in its ranks ever doubted that. Gen. Joe Hooker, however, almost certainly preferred to commit his army to battle later rather than sooner. On the evening of April 30, 1863, Hooker's substantial advantages over Lee probably led the Northern general to imagine himself on the verge of an easy victory, a victory that could be won without major fighting.
Hooker's formula looked eminently workable: the immense preponderance in numbers of blue-clad soldiers, plus the masterful march that had maneuvered the Confederates out of position, had created an attractive set of circumstances. Surely Lee would fall back and search for a better arena?
Lee's decision not to fall back, but instead to move west aggressively toward Hooker's force, looking for a battle, actually increased the tremendous preeminence the Federal army enjoyed. Hooker had convinced himself that he would win by default near Fredericksburg, but if he must fight sooner or later, it would be hard to imagine the inevitable battle with Lee ever coming under better terms than those available on May 1.
In addition to the advantages he already enjoyed, Hooker needed to achieve two things to be ready to win such a showdown: he needed to be willing to act and fight decisively, and he needed to get his big army out of the clutches of the Wilderness. Neither of those posed a substantial temporal obstacle, but Hooker did not manage to accomplish either of them.
The Wilderness that so bedeviled Joe Hooker had straddled the country west of Fredericksburg throughout recorded memory. Poor soil, heavily laced with minerals, yielded scrubby growth. For decades a rudimentary iron industry had inefficiently extracted some of those minerals from the soil. Furnaces that turned crude "bog ore" into pig iron consumed mountains of charcoal. That charcoal came from Wilderness trees, which therefore had no opportunity to rot into the soil and revitalize its content in a natural cycle. As a result, the dreary stunted woods took another step back and became second-growth scrub.
By 1863 the Wilderness had degenerated into a barren and unlovely landscape. The wrenching impact of war on the countryside had uprooted most of the weary subsistence farms that had kept small tracts cultivated along some of the roadsides.
There was "something about the scrawny, moss-tagged pines, the garroted alders, and hoary willows," a Federal officer wrote, that gave "a very sad look to those wet thickets." A Confederate described the area as "a Wilderness of trees and underbrush and marsh."
Aesthetic considerations aside, Hooker needed to get out of the Wilderness as an essential preliminary to employing his mighty army. In the tangled thickets, his strong numbers would not be as useful as in the open. No matter how many thousands of soldiers he had scattered through the brush, the only Federals who could harm their enemy would be those at the front of columns restricted to narrow roads and intermittent clearings. For Lee's small army, the Wilderness served as a sort of natural barbed wire, protecting the Southern units from a far larger force that could not get at them readily.
On the morning of May 1, Hooker uncoiled his army from its bivouacs around Chancellorsville and started east. Within three miles he could emerge from the Wilderness and complete his stranglehold on the military situation. Three roads served his design that morning.
For more than a century, the primary east-west corridor beyond Fredericksburg had been the Orange Turnpike. In the early 1850s, a brave new transportation idea resulted in the Orange Plank Road--a stock-funded, for-profit venture that actually placed planks atop horizontal stringers. The old River Road (modern State Routes 618 and 620) also traced a serpentine course westward, leaving the northwest corner of Fredericksburg and paralleling the Rappahannock River en route to Chancellorsville.
The original corridor of the turnpike went from Fredericksburg to Orange on the path now followed by modern State Routes 3 and 20 (although on a very different configuration at the junction of those two routes). The newer Plank Road could not acquire the turnpike right of way the whole distance, so in some places its planks went down atop the turnpike--and "Plank Road" became the new, current name--while in others it deviated onto a parallel route.
The Plank Road of 1863 ran out of Fredericksburg on modern State Route 3 to Five-Mile Fork. There it bent southwest onto modern State Route 610, eventually rejoining State Route 3 right at Chancellorsville intersection. (The occasional efforts of Spotsylvania County to give "Plank Road" addresses to State Route 3 locations between Five-Mile Fork and Chancellorsville are quaintly antiquarian, but completely errant.)
The two Orange roads then ran west jointly for two miles, bearing the new Plank Road name, to opposite Wilderness Church. There the Plank Road deviated again onto what is now State Route 621, coming back in (to State Route 20) at Verdiersville. An 1863 soldier could follow the Orange Plank Road from Fredericksburg to Orange along a single path that now is covered by State Routes 3, 610, 3, 621 and 20.
Joe Hooker, of course, faced no uncertainty at all about highway nomenclature. He had three roads on which to move east out of the Wilderness, and he used them all. Strong elements of the 12th Corps marched southeast onto the Plank Road (State Route 610), which soon bent onto an easterly heading. Gen. George Sykes' division, many of its units being army regulars of stout reputation, moved east on the turnpike (State Route 3). Perhaps the most important column of the three (although the least well-known) headed up the River Road toward Banks Ford, with the doughty George G. Meade in command.
Three miles east of Chancellorsville the Wilderness dissolved into open country. Zoan Baptist Church stood on a ridge outside the brushy area--and rising high above the surroundings. A modern motorist who drives east across the Zoan crest can see no equivalent high ground to his front: there is none on to Fredericksburg, nor beyond in the Northern Neck, the Eastern Shore, and the Atlantic Ocean--no ground looms higher, in fact, until somewhere in the European Alps.
From a position at Zoan Church, above the adjacent ground and in the open, Joe Hooker could hardly lose a Battle of Chancellorsville under any imaginable scenario. Lee and Jackson still might manage to bewilder him to some extent, and Hooker might well fail to thrash them; but the Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville sector of central Virginia would hold no dramatic opportunities of any kind for the Confederates.
What could stop Hooker from occupying the Zoan Church ridge? At dawn on May 1, only a handful of Southern soldiers, under a general of very modest credentials, held the spot. They would not be enough to halt a foe of even moderate determination. More Confederates were approaching, however, under the direction of leaders of extraordinary determination.
Next week: Lee seizes the initiative
ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.