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The start of a legendary leader's last march
Date published: Sat, 06/08/2002
Part 14 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
AS GEN. ROBERT E. LEE'S
plans coalesced during the
evening hours of May 1, 1863, Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson had embraced enthusiastically the chance to lead a daring march through the Wilderness. "My troops will move at 4 o'clock [a.m.]," he said in his quick fashion.
That energetic intention proved in the event to be far too optimistic. Confederate soldiers, who had marched long and hard on May 1 and then fought their way across two miles of countryside, spent the night of May 1-2 in widely scattered bivouacs. When roused from their well-earned rest, they took some time to muster into formations and start the march. None of them would cover fewer than 12 miles on May 2 to reach the point of attack. Some, from the farthest-dispersed locations, would march 15 miles to battle.
Lee and Jackson were themselves not ready to turn loose the flanking column at 4 a.m., nor for some time thereafter. Additional evidence about a route across the enemy's front had trickled in steadily during the hours of darkness. Jedediah Hotchkiss of Jackson's staff, New York-born but ardently Confederate, played a role in the accumulation of information. His contribution may have been finding the obscure, sheltered middle leg of the eventual route, west of Brock Road. Hotchkiss consulted with Charles B. Wellford, a 33-year-old veteran of Lee's army, who lived three miles into Jackson's prospective route. Wellford, as an operator of Catharine Furnace (the eponymous Catharine was his mother), knew the essential wagon roads intimately well.
Jackson, meanwhile, had experienced an uncomfortable night. As the general retired, Alexander S. "Sandie" Pendleton, his brilliant young staff officer, offered Stonewall his overcoat to use as a blanket. Jackson demurred, but agreed to accept Sandie's detachable cape for covering.
When the general awakened after a brief rest, he felt chilled and sought warmth beside a sparse fire. The initial symptoms of a bad cold congested his respiratory system. A sudden, sharp clattering nearby startled the handful of wakeful Confederates at headquarters. Jackson's sword for no apparent reason had slipped from where he had leaned it against a tree, and struck the ground noisily. Witnesses later, of course, mused about ill omens.
Despite the suspicions of the superstitious, the night's dire result had to do with Jackson's immune system, not with noises from his temporary scullery. The chain of circumstances that led to the general's demise may have begun during that cool night spent on damp ground next to the Furnace Road. Eight days later, enervated by savage wounds, he would succumb to pneumonia.
Was that upper-respiratory infection of May 1-2 the etiology of Jackson's fatal illness? Such a conclusion always will remain impossible to prove, of course, but irresistible to ponder.
When Lee and Jackson sat down near dawn to compare notes on the new evidence about routes westward, they were meeting for the last time. The march already was set, the route roughly apparent. A crude, imperfect map lay between them (the original of that simple map is on display today at the battlefield museum). A polite colloquy, typical of the era, ensued.
"What do you propose to do?" Lee asked his corps commander rhetorically.
"Go around here," Jackson answered as he traced a direction on the sketch of the roads.
"What do you propose to make this movement with?"
"With my whole Corps."
"What will you leave me?"
"The Divisions of Anderson and McLaws."
"Well," Lee said calmly, "go on," thus launching Jackson on the last march of his spectacular career.
For the past 14 months, the former small-town professor had whirled across the region, bewildering foes and bedazzling friends. In the process he had become perhaps the most famous man in the Western world. Jackson's evolution into the Mighty Stonewall of legend fittingly reached its climax in the greatest orders he ever received, leading to his most daring march and most startling triumph.
The courtly tableaux in which Lee ensured Jackson's understanding of the mission led some of Stonewall's staff to assert that their chief had conceived the plan, as well as perfecting its details and executing it impeccably well. The question vexed postwar authors and remains somewhat moot even today. There is, in fact, ample evidence that the design--as on so many other fields--came from Lee, leaving--also as on so many other fields--the matchless fulfillment to Jackson.
Nearly 30,000 men and more than 110 cannon would follow Jackson into the thickets. Soon they would be far beyond any possibility of supporting their comrades left behind. Lee would remain near Chancellorsville to superintend the deployment of only about 15,000 men, who would face most of the Federal army. Any sort of aggression from Gen. Joseph Hooker's Unionists would overwhelm that tiny force with casual ease. Lee meant to see that Hooker remained quiet, by means of feigning an attack.
The first rank of Jackson's leading division, four men abreast with 30,000 to follow, turned into the Furnace Road not at 4 a.m., but at 8 a.m. Jackson's enthusiasm for prompt and early marching is well-documented.
"There are but few commanders who appreciate the value of celerity," he had told a balky South Carolinian in 1862. On this crucial morning, however, Jackson began his march far behind his own schedule. The four-hour delay, probably almost inevitable under the circumstances, would haunt that afternoon's results at a time when moments of daylight were worth countless carats of military gold.
Jackson would have to ride near the front of the march in order to control it, in that era of face-to-face communications. Passing back and forth along a moving column on such narrow wagon paths would not be practicable.
Before he swung into the saddle of his sorrel horse, though, Jackson had a final brief conversation with Lee. The army commander, on horseback beneath a large oak tree at the edge of the road, leaned down to hear Jackson, who stood beside the horse with one arm on its neck. With the other arm, a passing colonel from North Carolina noted, he was "gesticulating while he talked very earnestly and rapidly."
With that Jackson rode westward, into his greatest venture, and thence off the pages of Civil War history, which he had done so much to write in the era ending on May 2, 1863.
Next week: Fighting near Catharine Furnace
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.