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'Stonewall' Jackson from the flank, as was his custom
Date published: Sat, 05/18/2002
Part 11 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
AT MIDDAY ON May 1, 1863,
several thousand Federal
soldiers in a dozen regiments occupied a strong position astride the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3) not far west of where Chancellor Elementary School now stands. The north-south ridge they occupied afforded good cover, and they knew that some friendly troops were on the parallel Orange Plank Road to the south.
The Northerners, commanded by Gen. George Sykes, also could see strong Confederate columns arriving in the vicinity of Zoan Church. The general had orders from army commander Gen. Joseph Hooker that limited his potential for aggression and independent action.
Although his front looked solid, Sykes had cause to worry about both of his flanks. To the northeast, beyond his left flank, he caught occasional glimpses of a few mounted Southerners. Soon Confederate infantry turned up in the same area. Some of them were Floridians, the only troops from that state in the Virginia theater of operations, in a brigade commanded by Gen. E.A. Perry. A New York regiment turned in that direction as a precaution and a Federal battery fired in support.
The fighting northeast of Sykes' left never amounted to much, but it resulted in the death of a civilian. Lt. Joel C. Baker of Miccosukee, Fla., age 31, belonged to a company that called itself the "Dixie Yeomen." In a letter home, Baker described moving past a "little dwelling" the Yankees "had fired in their retreat." An artillery shell had decapitated "the elderly lady of the house." A younger woman "was perfectly frantic," searching for two little children. The dead woman cannot be identified with certainty, but the house must have been that of the Jett or Alsop families. Joel Baker was destined to die eight weeks later at Gettysburg.
On the other end of his line, Sykes soon faced a development that held the potential to make his ground untenable. Gen. Lafayette McLaws initially sent a single regiment, the 10th Georgia, forward to harass the enemy right. Three Federal regiments went south of the road to defuse the threat. Sykes described his predicament: "without support, my position was critical; still, I determined to hold it as long as possible."
That stalwart purpose foundered, as did so many Yankee intentions during 1862 and 1863, on Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. The legendary Virginian had been pushing steadily westward on the Plank Road against moderate opposition. A half-dozen regiments--men from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Indiana and New York--stood in his way. They did not pose a formidable obstacle, but Jackson saw a more attractive target to the north. By swinging to his right, reorienting his axis by ninety degrees, Jackson would be facing toward Sykes' right and rear.
About 27 hours later, on the afternoon of May 2, Jackson would launch the most famous flank attack in American military history, and Gen. Robert E. Rodes would lead the way with his division. On May 1, in a dress rehearsal on a far smaller scale, the two collaborated in the same fashion against Sykes.
The three Yankee regiments south of the Turnpike outweighed the 10th Georgia by a comfortable margin, but they soon began to receive fire from an unexpected direction. Confederate musketry crackled from the wood line at the southern edge of the fields along the Turnpike's southern shoulder. Jackson had vectored four brigades of Rodes' division straight north onto Sykes' tender flank.
More than a dozen Southern regiments pressed north from the Plank Road toward the Turnpike, spread into long lines parallel to both roads, moving in a direction perpendicular to the roads. North Carolinians under Gen. Alfred Iverson formed farthest west. Two Georgia brigades, under Gens. George Doles and Alfred H. Colquitt, formed in the middle. Five Alabama regiments supported the advance from the right, closest to the hinge of the main Confederate line and therefore least engaged.
Federals resisted the advance for a time, but did not have nearly enough strength to hold firm. Even had there been far more Yankees on hand, they probably would have accomplished little good. Troops simply do not stand being attacked from flank and rear. Sykes recognized the necessity of retreating, and ordered his men back west of Lick Run.
Extricating his force proved to be achievable, but at some cost. When the 2nd U.S. Regulars dropped into the Lick Run valley, some of the men began to break ranks and run toward the rear. Capt. Salem S. Marsh spun his horse around, waved his sword, and shouted, "Steady there, boys; don't run!" A Confederate bullet knocked Marsh from his horse, dead.
Federals who lagged behind, or who resisted too long, fell into Confederate hands. Others went down steadily under musket fire rained upon them by pursuing Southerners. One company of New Yorkers, trapped while scrambling over a fence, was almost entirely killed or captured. When they could differentiate between the smoke-shrouded lines, Confederate artillerists hurled shells into the midst of their retreating enemies.
Northern surgeons began to gather wounded in the scant shelter offered by the Newton house and yard. Bandsmen, whose duty when music gave way to musketry was to bring in wounded, carried stricken Federals to the rude dressing station, then kept going west. "They never came back for a second load," a surgeon grumbled. Then an artillery shell crashed through "this wooden shanty, making a deuce of a clatter." The surgeons relocated farther west.
Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, a superb soldier--perhaps the best general in the Federal army--came forward with his division to protect Sykes's withdrawal. Once Sykes and his survivors had hurried inside Hancock's cordon, both divisions moved farther west toward Chancellorsville crossroads. They had the strength and spirit to renew the contest, but peremptory orders from Hooker forbade such action.
Gen. McLaws, commanding the Confederates on the Turnpike, did not pursue as avidly as he might otherwise have done because he remained worried (as well he should have been) about Gen. George G. Meade's Federals well to the north, on River Road. Perry's Floridians and other Southern troops in that sector brushed against Meade's outriders, but no serious conflict developed.
As the Federals recoiled into the depths of the Wilderness, a turning point had been reached. A Northern officer wrote later, under the illumination of hindsight, about the consequences of that afternoon's action. "The advance stopped," he reflected. "The battle of Chancellorsville was lost right there." Much remained to be decided, some of it as a result of dangerous and dramatic operations, but nothing that followed would have been possible had not Lee wrested the initiative from Hooker.
When Sykes grudgingly fell back to Chancellorsville, the configuration of the contending battle lines at the end of May 1 remained to be determined. A railroad grade hewn through the Wilderness, but far from ready for train traffic, would help the Confederates design the stage upon which the battle would unfold.
Next week: An unfinished railroad shapes the battle's course.
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.