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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Keeping Hooker bemused

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 07/20/2002

Part 20 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

WHILE TWO-THIRDS of his available troops spent all day on May 2, 1863, marching toward a distant goal, Gen. R.E. Lee did his best to keep his enemies in the dark.

Almost 30,000 men went west with Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, across the face of the Federal army. Fortunately for the Confederates, most of their foes remained inert and uninquisitive. Lee, meanwhile, supervised about 15,000 men in a vigorous effort to fool Federal commander Joseph Hooker into believing that Confederates remained in strength near Chancellorsville. Ideally, Lee might even convince Hooker that they intended to attack him.

Tactical doctrine at the time of the Civil War included protecting a military front with skirmishers. One of a regiment's 10 companies typically spread out ahead of the line. On defense, the skirmishers gave early warning of an onset, fired some scattered rounds to delay the enemy, then folded back within friendly lines. On offense, they identified enemy positions and drove in opposing skirmishers, then melded into the attacking force. (As the war progressed, tactics evolved toward the open-order formations dictated by rifled musketry, and skirmishers played an increasingly important role.)

On May 2, Lee sent a thick screen of skirmishers into the swampy low ground, known as Big Meadow Swamp, east of the Chancellorsville intersection. Instead of having 10 times their number behind them at the crest, as an enemy might reasonably presume, Lee could mount only a hollow defense composed primarily of bluff and bluster. One of the skirmishers recalled his orders: "Make the Yankees believe we were going to charge and drive in their pickets every time they came out Charge with a yell and drive them in, and to give them no rest." William E. Cameron, who 20 years later would be Virginia's governor, described "feigned attacks made in rapid succession," designed "to impress the enemy with the belief that an assault was imminent." The feints succeeded.

Preservation of the Chancellorsville battlefield probably would stand far ahead of its current state had the Federals done a better job of penetrating Lee's stratagem. A young colonel who commanded Northerners in the area, Nelson A. Miles, did not accomplish much to be proud of on May 2. A Confederate bullet eventually hit him hard in the belly the next morning. Three decades later, Miles had become the pompous commander in chief of the U.S. Army. Ambrose Bierce claimed that he always heard faint and ethereal martial-band music even before the heavy-set, medal-bedizened Miles strutted into view. When members of a citizens group, generously stocked with leading men from both North and South, bought extensive tracts at Chancellorsville in the 1890s, they sought to present them to the government for preservation. The War Department operated the battlefield parks in those days (only in 1933 did arrantly misguided bureaucrats engineer their shift to the National Park Service), and Gen. Miles said he did not want Chancellorsville, of which he had only unhappy memories.

Gen. Lafayette McLaws, commanding one of the two divisions that remained with Lee, described his relief at his enemies' complacence. Had Miles driven in the men in the scanty Confederate screen, McLaws wrote, "as there was no support for them to fall back on, the ruse of Genl Lee would have been discovered, and an energetic and able [Northern] officer could have made a change in the results of the battle."

Lee expressed his deep concern about fighting against such heavy odds in an earnest conversation with McLaws. He urged the division commander to encourage his men to fight with desperation. "Let them know that it is a stern reality now," Lee said to McLaws, "it must be Victory or Death, for defeat would be ruinous."

A field across which many of the Southern skirmishers swarmed stretched downward from a ridge one mile east of Chancellorsville intersection. A private from Georgia described the field as thick with "alder bushes about waist high"; a Virginian nearby recalled being in a "patch of chinquapin." Skirmishing across the bottom of that field, at its western edge, sputtered and waxed and waned all day long on May 2, erupting intermittently into pitched battle. A Southerner who fought in the field recalled that "bullets were lacerating the bushes and vines around us, and it seemed to me that they were coming closer and closer." The close fighting so excited James Cowles of Petersburg, who had attended Randolph-Macon and later became a judge in Texas, that he yelled, "By God, I will be damned if I wouldn't give a hundred dollars for a loaded gun."

In 1998 the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, a Fredericksburg-area preservation group, responded to the threat of development of the field, 100 acres in extent, where Lee (and Cowles) stood firm in 1863, by purchasing the tract. Eventually, they conveyed it to the National Park Service--at a loss, as is customary in dealing with the government. The same group subsequently bought two more small tracts just across the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3). Thus, they saved a unique site, the only sector of the Chancellorsville battlefield fought over on each of the three days of primary action. (The May 1 fighting ended there, and on May 3 triumphant Confederates swept through.)

Lee superintended the bold false-front arrayed before Hooker because the troops came from an army corps whose commander was not present. James Longstreet had been in Tidewater through the late winter and early spring, collecting foodstuffs for the army and jousting in vain with Federals there. Lee had hoped that Longstreet's troops, about one-half of Longstreet's corps, would reach the vicinity of Fredericksburg in time to help repulse Hooker, but they did not. In Longstreet's absence, Lee engaged in a role at a lower level than his custom.

Confederate soldiers saw the army commander riding steadily across the ridge's crest, waiting hopefully for some sign of Jackson's arrival at his goal. Lee dismounted near an artillery battery from Richmond to consult with McLaws beneath "a medium-sized pine tree." As the two generals talked, a shell careened in and cut the tree off just above their heads without touching either of them. When Lee mounted to ride away, another shell burst immediately in front of his horse, which "reared up and stood as straight as ever I saw a man," a nearby artillerist recalled.

A small army, broken into even smaller pieces, had gambled at long odds. Waiting for the results to come in, keeping the enemy from interfering, made May 2 one of Lee's longest days of the war. The anxiety must have been excruciating.

Late in the afternoon, a member of Lee's staff climbed a huge oak tree to look west in hopes of seeing some sign of success on Jackson's front. On July 2, precisely two months later, Capt. (later Lt. Col.) Samuel Richards Johnston (1833-1899) would engage in two missions near Gettysburg that remain controversial today. On May 2, with Gettysburg in the unknowable future, Sam Johnston's treetop aerie near Chancellorsville at first revealed nothing of what Lee had hoped to see from afar. The captain scribbled notes, tied them to stones, and dropped them to a courier far below, who carried them to Lee. Finally, to the vast relief of anxious Confederates, Sam saw distant muzzle flashes facing his way. An acoustical shadow silenced their noise, but Confederate guns were roaring behind the enemy army.

Jackson had unleashed his attack, and the balance of power shifted at once to the troops under the star-crossed Confederate banner.

Next week: "You can go forward then"

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.