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An unfinished railroad shapes the battle's course
Date published: Sat, 05/25/2002
Part 12 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
VISITORS TO Civil War battle-
fields often hear stories about a
sunken road, a bloody pond, an important stone wall, a ghost or two, and a famous hilltop. Another familiar battlefield landmark in the Virginia theater is the ubiquitous "unfinished railroad."
During the 1850s, railroad lines mushroomed across the eastern United States--especially in the North, but also in the mid-Atlantic states. The burgeoning industry spread new tracks in every direction until the advent of hostilities put a stop to most such domestic endeavors. The railroads thus unfinished cropped up as key landmarks at Gettysburg, Second Manassas, Mine Run, Wilderness, and Chancellorsville. At Gettysburg and Manassas, they served as perfect ready-made fortifications. The fills across low ground made fine earthworks for defenders; so did the cuts through hillsides. The "Deep Cut" became a renowned landmark at Second Manassas, and both Unionists and Confederates met victory and defeat, by turns, in another deep cut just west of Gettysburg.
At Chancellorsville and Wilderness, an unfinished railroad (the same line, at different points along its route) provided Confederates in May 1863 and again in May 1864 with a sheltered corridor on which to move briskly but covertly, in order to gain an advantage over Federal invaders. Fighting on their home soil, on ground familiar to some officers and men, Southerners took advantage of their knowledge of the region to exploit an obscure route through the brush.
Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson had pretty much gotten his way on the early afternoon of May 1. He had pushed back desultory opposition on the Orange Plank Road and then made Gen. George Sykes' line on the Orange Turnpike untenable by swinging up against its flank. In the aftermath of that success, Stonewall looked for ways to drive the Yankees farther west, deeper into the Wilderness, where their huge advantage in numbers would be neutralized to some degree.
Fighting on May 1 through the mid-afternoon had developed primarily on an east-west axis. Confederate lines stretching north and south, perpendicular to the main roads, had won their way westward. Federal lines aligned similarly had faced eastward, attacked in that direction, then fallen back. Jackson's flanking maneuver had come from the south to unravel Sykes' line, but in support of a westward advance.
Now, Jackson sought a way to unbalance the equation, to twist some of the enemy out of his path and gain a further advantage.
The unfinished railroad proved to be ideally suited for Jackson's purpose. All of the grading had been finished, incorporating the customary engineering efforts to flatten the track's route. A contemporary described the state of work suspended by the war on one rail line as being "graded but not ironed." In other words, the line was ready for track to be laid, but none had been put down. That made the corridor perfect for advancing troops. The unfinished railroad ran east and west in northern Spotsylvania County--in essence a third road through the underbrush, roughly parallel to the Turnpike and the Plank Road, but unfamiliar to the Yankees.
Gen. A. R. "Rans" Wright's Georgia brigade had been near Zoan Church since early on April 30. The Georgians had marched 27 miles in 20 hours, much of it on muddy roads, and arrived "completely exhausted." Restored by a day of rest intermixed with digging earthworks, Wright's men proved ready to fight when Jackson called on them on the afternoon of May 1 for an advance fraught with high consequences.
The 3rd, 22nd, and 48th Georgia Infantry and the 2nd Georgia Battalion probably counted nearly 2,000 men when they swung onto the unfinished railroad and headed west. The Confederate column moved unhindered far beyond the longitude of the opposing front lines to their right and right rear, and reached the vicinity of Catharine Furnace at 6 p.m. without meeting serious opposition.
At the furnace, where a picturesque ruin survives today as a landmark, the Georgians met Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. The cavalry chieftain had with him six pieces of horse artillery--light but highly mobile cannon. Wright's infantry climbed up the nose of the ridge behind Catharine Furnace and plunged northward into the dense Wilderness thickets. The horse artillery, under Maj. Robert F. Beckham of Culpeper, prepared to fire from near the furnace.
The Georgians soon ran into Yankees. Madison Church McKee, of Wright's 22nd Georgia, described the advance with more enthusiasm than literacy. Church McKee, as he was known, and the 22nd moved slowly through thick woods until "we got in sight of the Yankays." Then the "Cornel give his command as follows for words: 'The damned sons of bitches is running like hel.' We raised the hoop and started. We pored it to them."
Early on May 3, at the climax of the Battle of Chancellorsville, a small open knoll in the midst of the woods, named Hazel Grove, would prove to be the decisive position on the battlefield. As daylight faded on May 1, Wright's men probed toward Hazel Grove. Stuart and Jackson looked on approvingly as the infantry drove the Federals back with considerable loss. To aid the Georgians, Beckham manhandled several artillery pieces forward and opened fire.
Federal artillery responded with heavier guns of longer range, and soon had more cannon in play as well. Their fire forced Beckham's battered guns to withdraw in the darkness, and the Southern infantry followed them. Wright had lost only two dozen men, but the artillery took a beating.
One casualty was a universally popular young officer on Stuart's staff. Maj. Richard Channing Price had turned 20 years of age just nine weeks earlier, and had been a major for only eight weeks. Despite his tender years, Price had made himself indispensable to Stuart. The youngster's photographic memory made it possible for the general to issue long and intricate orders as they rode side by side, then Channing would dismount and write them out verbatim.
Near Catharine Furnace on May 1, a shell exploded above Jackson and Stuart and the knot of mounted couriers and staff officers around them. A fragment hit Channing Price behind the knee. Since nothing seemed to be broken, the young major insisted on remaining at Stuart's side. The metal had clipped an artery, though, and Price soon fainted from loss of blood. No one had a tourniquet handy there in the woods, and the boy major died that evening at the Wellford house a few hundred yards south of where he had been wounded.
Jeb Stuart immediately bought tourniquets for every member of his staff to carry. Ten days later, the general wrote to Channing's mother. The soul-wrenching letter expressed "deep grief for the fate of your dear boy, whose loss to me is scarcely less than to you. I miss him hourly." Stuart in his grief bowed "in submission to the decree of an allwise God.'Thy will be done.'" Precisely one year to the day after he wrote to Mrs. Price, Stuart himself would be mortally wounded.
Channing Price was one of many hundreds of thousands of boys who died under arms from 1861 to 1865, and Stuart's letter was one of a number of similar anguished letters bearing such tidings.
The fighting near dusk between Catharine Furnace and Hazel Grove did not yield enough casualties on either side to matter in the larger military scale (though Mrs. Price and other grieving families had ample cause to consider them significant). Nor was the ground gained or held of immediate tactical importance. Nonetheless, great consequences resulted.
Wright's advance west and then north made the Federal army adjust its lines to a new fronting. That army's right swung back to a position parallel with the Turnpike. Most of the Northern units had faced east throughout May 1. Now most of them faced south. The enemy configuration facing Lee and Jackson as they prepared for operations on May 2 had changed drastically because of what those few Georgians under Wright had accomplished. The plan that Lee and Jackson developed to deal with that new configuration would lead to a legendary march on May 2, and a towering triumph for their army.
Next week: Lee and Jackson conspire to reach an astonishing decision.
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.