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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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New marching guidelines for Jackson's Corps

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 06/29/2002

Part 17 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

THE HEAD OF Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's secret flanking column re-crossed the unfinished railroad line a few hundred yards after pausing at Poplar Run, with its refreshing drinkable water. Soon after they crossed the railroad the marchers came to the first farm sites they had encountered along their route. Wells at the small places owned by Stevens and Trigg further slaked Confederate thirsts.

Another mile beyond the farms, the column reached Brock Road again. This time Jackson had no choice but to take that route northward.

Jackson's Corps moved on May 2, 1863, under newly issued marching guidelines. One of the military maxims attributed to Stonewall reduced operational success to three precepts: move fast, strike hard, and reap all the fruits of victory. His storied campaigns in 1862 had displayed the first two attributes, but sometimes the fruit-reaping had fallen short of expectations.

Perhaps to spread out his troops' efforts across all three of those desirable goals, Jackson issued on April 13, 1863, General Orders No. 26. The document abounded with stern admonitions to officers about their duties on a march ("precisely at the time indicated"), but its central feature was a marching regimen. The troops must cover no more than two miles in 50 minutes, then rest for 10 minutes.

Marching armies since the beginning of recorded history have grumbled about the "hurry up and wait" system. Perhaps smooth and steady, instead of intermittently faster, would bring infantry to its target in condition to "reap all the fruits of victory"? Apparently Jackson's marchers behaved to specifications on May 2, since the head of the column eventually would cover nearly a dozen miles in about six hours. Waiting then for the rest of the corps to arrive would require some patience.

Uncoiling a mass of nearly 30,000 men and their supporting paraphernalia onto narrow woods paths created a fantastic logistical tangle, especially in an era before the discovery of long-range communication media. (Modern military leaders whom I have taken on Chancellorsville tours--some of them of multiple-star ranks--marvel more than anything else at the success of a circuitous march led from in front, with no ability at all to communicate from front to back.)

Back where the march had started, Jackson's corps had been clustered in camps that covered a relatively compact zone. Near the end of the day, when the general finally had his attack ready to launch, that mighty array again would be deployed into a tight formation.

All day long, however, during the march, all of those men and all of those cannon had been in an alignment anything but compact. Jackson's entire corps for many hours had been four men wide and many miles long. An aerial observer, had there been such an element in 1863, would have looked down upon a great gray serpent winding through the thickets. Someone has calculated that time-and-space considerations probably produced a marching column at least 10 miles long. By that standard, when Jackson and the head reached Brock Road for the second time, the tail had not yet passed the starting line.

In the 1930s, park authorities improved much of Jackson's course through the woods so that automobiles could follow it. Fortunately, in the process they straightened out some of the doglegs, and thus left intact some short stretches of the original route. In several locations--just south of Catharine Furnace, just east of Brock Road, just after the turn northwest off Brock Road--the old trace remains discernible in the woods. Standing in those narrow depressions, none wider than 10 feet, makes obvious the arduous nature of the march, and also its potential for secrecy.

When he turned the march north onto Brock Road, Jackson thought that he was approaching his target, but the enemy's alignment did not conform to expectations. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee's nephew, was about to play an important role in reconnaissance. The Lee family regularly employed "Fitzhugh" as a given name, on the basis of kinship to the William Fitzhugh (pronounced "Fit-chew") who built Chatham in Fredericksburg in the 1760s. Only one of William Fitzhugh's grandchildren had issue to carry on the line. Only one of George Washington's (adopted) grandchildren had issue. In both instances, that grandchild was Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Fitz Lee would become Virginia's governor after the war. In his later years, the former cavalry trooper spent more time at the feed trough than the exercise paddock, and grew immensely corpulent. When the state installed the first elevator in the capitol, Gov. Lee sent a messenger to fetch a particular judge from another building to his office. When the jurist, whose shape resembled the governor's, arrived, Fitz admitted that his only purpose had been to make certain the newfangled contraption really would carry that much bulk without breaking down.

On May 2, 1863, trim young Fitz, a wounded veteran of the Indian wars, scouted ahead of Jackson's infantry column. At the Burton Farm, a mile east of Brock Road and a mile west of Wilderness Church, he came upon a splendid vantage point that overlooked the enemy's lines. The view unfolded there made it obvious to Fitz Lee that Jackson must not turn east on the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 621) to come into the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3) at Wilderness Church. Federals in strength stretched well west of the church on the Turnpike. Attacking at Wilderness Church would not accomplish the goal of the whole risky march. It would fall upon the enemy head-on, albeit at a new and surprising point; but it would not strike the exposed flank and rear.

When Fitz guided Jackson to the hilltop vista, the corps commander recognized the salient facts at a glance. "His expression was one of intense interest," young Lee wrote. The vivid glow that lit Stonewall's eyes in battle (his men called the general "Old Blue Light") built as he looked at an unsuspecting foe. Jackson rasped orders to a courier for adjusting the line of march and, characteristically, rode away without so much as a word of thanks to Fitz Lee for his stellar efforts.

Back at the intersection of the Brock and Plank roads, Stonewall Jackson scribbled a note to Gen. Lee, describing tersely the revisions he must make to the plan of attack. Despite the changes necessitated by the Yankee alignment, Jackson remained as aggressive and optimistic as usual. "I hope as soon as practicable to attack," he told Lee.

Next week: Getting ready to attack

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.