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'They fled before us equal to sheep'
Date published: Sat, 08/03/2002
Part 22 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
THROUGH THE LAST two hours of daylight on May 2, 1863, Confederates rampaged eastward toward Wilderness Church and then far beyond. They drove thousands of men in two full corps of Federals before them, at a rate of better than 1 mph. Their success highlighted Gen. Robert E. Lee's greatest victory of the war, and constituted the Army of Northern Virginia's greatest day.
Everything went the Confederates' way that afternoon, especially in the early moments as stunning surprise reigned in the Federal camps. The long gray lines "swept like an avalanche" through their foes, one of the gray-clad soldiers wrote. Capt. William B. Haygood, commanding a company just south of the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3), described the opening of the attack in a letter to friends back home in Clarke County, Georgia. "We all then Sprang forwards," Haygood wrote, "with Such a Shout and yell mingeled with a full round of minia balls, that they gave way at the first onset of our boys." An Alabama lieutenant at the forefront "was able to get three shots with a six-shooter before they gave way and ran for their lives."
"Marching fire" became an option in 20th-century warfare, in an age of repeating weapons and tactics that featured far fewer massed formations. During the Civil War, soldiers almost never marched and loaded and fired at the same time. Confederates at Chancellorsville enjoyed so dominant an advantage that they did some of that on May 2. A private from Alabama, advancing near the north shoulder of the Turnpike, wrote on May 9: "The front line fired and loaded while walking on, and the rear gaining the front, fired and continued to march, loading as they proceeded."
Five brigades made up Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's front line. The two that straddled the Turnpike occupied center stage and accomplished the most. The Alabama brigade that had been led by Gen. Robert E. Rodes until he acceded to division command advanced on the left (north) verge of the road. Gen. George Doles' Georgians moved in tandem on the right (south) side of the pike. Both brigades had forged strong records on bitterly contested battlefields and knew how to exploit an opportunity. Doles dashed in front of his men on horseback, "raised himself in his stirrups, pulled off his cap, and yelled as loud as he could, 'charge them, boys.'" One of the boys, stirred by his general, wrote four days later: "our men never faltered or laggered in the least, but 'onward, right onward' was the cry."
Resistance by a few bravely desperate Northerners dissolved in short order under the deadly circumstances. "We poured it into them and they to us for a short while," wrote Lt. Oliver Evans Mercer, of Brunswick County, N.C., "but soon we charged them and they fled like dogs leaving everything behind--knapsacks, trunks, armsfat beeves already skinned." (Two months later Mercer, by then a captain, would die at Gettysburg.) A Virginian situated near Jackson's left flank chose an ovine, rather than canine, parallel: "We [came] down on them like unto a thunder storm. They fled before us equal to sheep." A soldier from Huntsville, Ala., opted for a harvest simile: "The enemy fled like chaff before the wind."
The fat cattle that caught Lt. Mercer's eye often crop up as fond memories in Confederate descriptions of that afternoon, especially those portions of beef already broiling over a fire. Many of the attackers had eaten nothing for several days. Their frequent and rapid marches had outstripped the capacity of the army's commissary machinery. Even Gen. Rodes, at the top of the food-access chain, had complained that morning in a scribbled note to this wife that he was "very hungry indeed."
Famished men reveled in the chance to eat someone else's dinner. The soldiers "could not stop," an officer recalled, but "each man grabbed what he could and kept on. One man attempted to dispose of the whole of a beefsteak as he ran, and others drank at double-quick from the spouts of steaming coffee-pots." A North Carolinian found it "an easy thing to slip out of ranks and charge these pots and many was the 'reb' who brought his supper from the bottom of them on the point of his bayonet."
Surprise--overwhelming and complete--unhinged the Federal line. Once that line began to dissolve, Southern pressure maintained the momentum, and the configuration of the opposing forces added to Jackson's success. Those Federals who resisted stoutly, as some did and others attempted to do, had little to work with. Their original line faced the wrong way (south), and screeching enemies outflanked their main axis by up to a mile on either side.
"Now and then," an Alabamian wrote, "they would wheel a cannon into position, but before they could fire more than two shots, we would be upon them." Youthful Ensign Hendrick Hardy used his sword to kill a brave Northerner who stood by his artillery piece. Comrades of William Whitaker of the 4th Georgia amused him by jumping atop captured cannon to "flap their arms and crow like a rooster."
Earthworks facing toward the approaching storm would have served nicely as Federal rallying points. Virtually all of the defensive positions, however, faced the wrong direction and therefore served no useful purpose. "We drove them through woods and fields," a North Carolinian exulted, "right by splendid breastworks, for about 21/2 miles." (Visitors to the Chancellorsville battlefield today can read the story of Jackson's reorientation of the fighting in the earthen fortifications at "Fairview," well east of the May 2 attack zone. A line of surviving artillery works there faces south. Right next to that line, another at right angles faces west, whence came the new and greater threat.)
Naval officers dream of "crossing the T" on an enemy--catching their foe in a long straight line, while steaming across its top on a perpendicular axis (as at Cape Esperance in October 1942). In that fortunate alignment, the column "crossing the T" can fire all of its guns at the enemy, who can only respond with the front guns on the foremost ship. Jackson had "crossed the T" on Oliver Howard's line.
All of this advancing and shooting and capturing cost little in Southern blood. An Alabama colonel wrote of May 2: "Our loss was perfectly trifling, hardly a man killed, and booty in abundance." (On May 3, however, he lamented losing 278 of 500 men.)
Henry B. Wood, from Coosa County, Ala., summarized the attack in simple, unpolished prose. "We out don the northern hoards," Henry wrote to Sarah on May 8. "We got them started and then kept it up."
Next week: "Jackson was on us, and fear was on us."
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.