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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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'You can go forward then'

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Date published: Sat, 07/27/2002

Part 21 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

EUGENE BLACKFORD com- manded a battalion of Alabama sharpshooters at Chancellorsville, but he was a native of Fredericksburg, born on lower Caroline Street. Eugene attended the university at Charlottesville and was teaching in Alabama when, the day after his 22nd birthday, war began at Fort Sumter. A few weeks later, despite being far from home and family, young Blackford won election as captain of a company of Alabamians. In the spring of 1862, the Confederate army commissioned him major of the 5th Alabama.

On May 2, 1863, not long after 5 p.m., Maj. Blackford stood near Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson a dozen miles west of the major's birthplace. After three hours of arranging the arriving troops into long lines, preparations for a mighty surprise attack neared completion.

As he contemplated his steadily massing corps, Stonewall Jackson noted with satisfaction the prevalence of officers who had attended the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson had taught physics and artillery tactics for the decade leading up to the war.

Gen. Robert E. Rodes, commanding the front division, within the next year would become the most distinguished Confederate graduate of VMI. The commander of the division just behind Rodes', Gen. Raleigh E. Colston, also graduated at VMI. Others busily engaged in preparing for the attack with the institute in their background included Jackson's chief of artillery, Col. Stapleton Crutchfield of Spotsylvania County; Rodes' chief of staff, Maj. Henry A. Whiting; and more than a dozen colonels with line units. "The Virginia Military Institute," Jackson said proudly, "will be heard from today!"

By the spring of 1863, Confederates knew that Jackson hovered like a specter over their enemies' horizons. They relished the thought and recognized the usefulness of that atmosphere on hard-fought battlefields. Col. John M. Patton (great-uncle of the George S. Patton of World War II fame), who grew up in Fredericksburg, boasted to his wife that Stonewall "pounced like a lion" on his foes, "first on one side, & then on another," and used his "fangs" on the Yankees. In similar vein, a Louisiana soldier in Jackson's corps wrote home to his sister gleefully that the Yankees "fear Jackson as the little quadrupeds of the forest does the Lion."

Federals admitted suffering from Stonewall tremors. A captured Yankee who heard Jackson's name mentioned during an 1862 battle asked sharply, "Is that devil here?" A U.S. Army regular described imagining Jackson lurking "in every bush," when in fact the Confederate hero was nowhere near. And a Pennsylvanian admitted that Jackson had grown into "what might be called a bugaboo."

None of Jackson's lionlike pounces from the war's first two years could compare to the surprise he crafted on May 2, 1863.

Confederates waiting to attack knew their march had accomplished spectacular results, and marveled that their intended prey, in Eugene Blackford's words, "knew nothing in the world of it." An Alabamian in the front rank wrote a few days later in concise, apt summary: "when we stopped we were about three miles from [where] we had started. This is one of Jackson's moves." An artillery officer also remarked on the prototypical nature of Stonewall's flanking march. The move was, he told his mother in a May 8 letter, "Jackson's old game."

Despite the excitement of the moment, Lt. William H. May of the 3rd Alabama wrote that "in our wearied condition most of us fell asleep" while awaiting the attack signal. (Eugene Blackford wrote a few days later that he "did not sleep any for six nights.") North Carolinian Frank Forrest, south of the Orange Turnpike, kept watch with some comrades over a spring to which Federal soldiers kept coming for water. By the time Jackson turned loose his troops, the Carolinians had captured several dozen unsuspecting Northerners.

As a final preparation, Maj. Blackford carefully pushed his screen of skirmishers 400 yards in front of the main line. One of them suddenly raised his rifle and fired, then quickly reloaded. Blackford angrily "told him I would break his head if he fired again without seeing the enemy." The Alabama lad pointed out a solid line of Yankees lying down not 50 yards away. In the dense thickets, Blackford nearly had moved too far forward. A Louisianian in the second line, in a letter dated May 8, called the groundcover "the thickest and most difficult bushes to get through I ever saw." A North Carolinian described the site as a "little place where the flowers almost refuse to bloom, and where the birds are scarcely ever heard to sing."

Before bugles and rifle shots and yells announced the Southern onslaught, wild animals burst out of the woods. Twenty thousand soldiers, tightly aligned, moving through dense brush, inevitably drove all of the wildlife on a two-mile front ahead of them. A member of the 23rd North Carolina, on the left of the front line, wrote of his enemies' initial warning: "the first intimation they had was the rabbits and foxes running into where they were cooking." "The wild game fled," a Georgian recalled, "startled at our onrush." A Federal officer described "the whirr and flight of the birds and the stir of the small game of the forest." Some men saw deer in flight; one claimed that a bear ran past.

Gen. Oliver Howard himself, for whom the stampeding critters posed the direst danger, ruefully described the Confederate advance: "Its first lively effects, like a cloud of dust driven before a coming shower, appeared in the startled rabbits, squirrels, quail and other game flying wildly hither and thither in evident terror."

Fleeing wildlife puzzled and amused relaxing Federal soldiers. Bugle calls from the thickets soon clarified the deadly nature of the event. Finally satisfied with his strength and alignments, Stonewall Jackson asked his leading division's commander, "Are you ready, General Rodes?" Rodes was ready. "You can go forward then." Rodes waved to Maj. Blackford, who turned to his bugler, Raif Grayson, of Sumter County, Ala. The brass instrument "had not sounded more than a note or two," Blackford wrote to his cousin, "when the whole line opened with a terrible yell."

One of the men yelling, Lt. Octavius A. Wiggins of North Carolina, described the sound echoing through the Spotsylvanian late afternoon as "that inimitable, unearthly, indescribable 'Rebel Yell' from the throats of twenty thousand veteran soldiers."

As the attacking ranks boiled out of the thickets into open country, they found before them what a North Carolinian called "the grandest sight I have ever seen." Thousands of enemy soldiers were fleeing in disarray for their lives. A victorious Confederate wrote: "I reckon the Devil himself would have run with Jackson in his rear."

Next week: "They fled before us equal to sheep."

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.