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The fighting begins west of Chancellor Elementary School
Date published: Sat, 05/04/2002
Part 9 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
WHEN UNION GEN. Joe Hooker quiescently allowed Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to grasp the initiative
at Zoan Church, the primary results of the fighting on May 1, 1863, had been foreordained: Hooker would let himself be pushed back into the Wilderness. Reaching that inevitable outcome on the ground, however, entailed a great deal of bitter fighting. Many of the Federal units falling back toward Chancellorsville had earned battle stars and knew how to fight. They had plenty of strength on hand, so only fell back grudgingly, under orders, stubbornly contesting the ground as they went and launching extensive, albeit short-term, counterattacks.
Jackson began his aggressive advance on both of the westbound roads. With characteristic impatience, he detached a brigade--Mississippians under Gen. Carnot Posey--from its parent division and headed down the Plank Road (modern State Route 610 in Spotsylvania County) with it. Conventional wisdom dictated keeping units together, in the interest of tactical cohesion, but Jackson did not wish to wait.
While the rest of Gen. Lafayette McLaws' division, with which Posey usually served, stayed on the Orange Turnpike (State Route 3), Posey and Jackson went off after Yankees at a more southerly latitude. As the five brigades in the division of Gen. Robert E. Rodes arrived near Zoan, they would follow Jackson and Posey.
Jackson apparently believed that the countryside along the Plank Road afforded more potential for maneuver, an activity at which he excelled. The relatively new Plank Road also looked like the main corridor westward. In fact, fighting would erupt sooner, wax more bitter, and last longer on the old Turnpike. Jackson had miscalculated a bit in imagining how the battle would open.
The opening engagements on May 1 concentrated on the Turnpike for two reasons. Most significantly, fighting erupted there because energetic Federals pushed the issue in that area. The nature of the ground also affected operations, as it always does. Although the Turnpike reached the eastern edge of the Wilderness not long after passing Zoan Church, for a full mile the road's northern edge ran past relatively open farm fields within the Wilderness.
A half-dozen small farms abutted one another on that edge of the road: Alsop, Leitch, Lewis, two McGees, and Newton. All were subsistence farms of modest scope even before the war fractured the region's economy. None of the six had more than 100 acres cleared (they averaged 48 acres). In 1860, Ann Lewis' farm implements were appraised at $12 and her livestock at $35. By 1863, even those miserly values probably had dwindled to almost nothing.
Today, the Chancellor Elementary School complex stands at the eastern edge of this May 1 battle zone. The fighting would begin near Alsop's, just west of where the school now is located, and swirl back and forth along the two roads for a distance of about 3,000 yards westward.
The first encounters along the Turnpike gave little indication of the maelstrom to come. Gen. William Mahone sent forward skirmishers from the 12th Virginia Infantry--men from Richmond and Petersburg, primarily--to drive off blue-clad horseman visible near the Alsop house. The mounted Yankees belonged to the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, a unit that about 30 hours later would briefly hold center stage in a bizarre charge a few miles farther west. A few Confederate cavalrymen went with Mahone. So did two pieces of light artillery.
Mahone, a scrawny, wiry little fellow educated at Virginia Military Institute, knew the territory uniquely well. (When someone took word to Mrs. Mahone in 1862 that her husband had suffered a "flesh wound," she responded that it must be serious, because William's thin frame included no unimportant flesh.) Mahone had parlayed his background in engineering into a job as chief engineer in charge of surveying and laying out the Plank Road during the 1850s. Now he commanded an advance guard deploying on familiar ground.
Cavalry simply did not stand up against advancing infantry during the American Civil War--or in most other epochs either. The Pennsylvanians posted near the Alsop house waited until their foes came within musket range, then fired a volley. When more Southern troops moved toward Alsop's, the Federal cavalry trotted away. Near the Lewis house they came upon reinforcements and took cover "behind a crude brush fence." From an upstairs window, a Northern officer could see Confederate skirmishers approaching steadily. Ann Lewis hurried into her cellar for safety.
Not far west of Mrs. Lewis' place a stream ran north--and still does--through a ravine that bisected the road. Lick Run (in old accounts often called Mott Run or Mott's Run, toward which it was flowing) crosses the Turnpike (State Route 3) about where the modern high-power electrical transmission line makes its way over the countryside between huge steel towers. Lick Run rises north of the Plank Road, so the stream did not affect operations on that corridor. On the Turnpike, Lick Run served as a landmark, and sometimes as a point of demarcation between the contending forces.
Mahone's foot soldiers pushed steadily westward, the two accompanying guns banging away steadily in support. The fire from the short-range carbines of dismounted Pennsylvanians crouching behind Ann Lewis' hedge could not hold off infantrymen for long.
The Northerners scuttled back toward Lick Run, but not without putting up a spirited resistance. Leroy S. Edwards of the 12th Virginia admiringly described the Pennsylvania cavalrymen as "stubborn fellows to deal with." Edwards, a 23-year-old preacher's son, had attended the University of Virginia and would spend a quarter-century after the war affiliated with Randolph-Macon College. On May 1, 1863, he fired his musket steadily against the "stubborn fellows" in the initial advance. Some aggressive Federal junior officers pressed localized counterattacks with so much effect that at one point Edwards and some comrades had to hide in a barn (probably John Leitch's).
Mahone's advance, despite occasional setbacks, inexorably pushed the mounted Yankees beyond Lick Run. As the Virginians consolidated a position on the Reuben McGee farm, however, looking down into the valley of Lick Run, a strong enemy force began to arrive on the opposite ridge.
Doughty Gen. George Sykes might be saddled with orders to fall back eventually, but for the time being his hard-bitten U.S. Regulars would behave as befitted their reputation: They would fight. Sykes' onslaught would bring on the first serious infantry engagement at Chancellorsville, on the farm fields edging the Turnpike east of Lick Run.
Next week: The Infantry battle east of Lick Run
ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & 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.