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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Chancellorsville: Dusk, lies, and cavalry

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 08/31/2002

Part 26 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

AFTER GEN. "STONEWALL" JACKSON'S attack on the evening of May 2, 1863, had surged eastward for more than two miles, it sputtered to a stop for three reasons. No organized body of Federals threw an integrated defense in its path. Instead, the Confederates began to run out of steam, both physically and emotionally, as adrenaline subsided and the inroads of a very strenuous day had an opportunity to claim attention.

They also faced the disarray and loss of unit cohesion that afflicts victors almost as much as victims in a long-running fight. Most importantly, rapidly falling darkness dropped a confusing veil over the scene. Civil War armies almost never fought after dark, and when they did, chaos reigned.

In the gathering twilight, with military anarchy rampant on the field, two small groups of Union soldiers played parts in bizarre episodes. Neither of the peculiar incidents had any significant impact on reversing the Federal calamity, but each became larger than life because of the incredible lies about them launched by an arrantly dishonest Northern general.

Gen. Alfred Pleasonton had graduated (a respectable seventh in his class) from West Point in 1844, a contemporary on the banks of the Hudson River with Jackson, Grant, McClellan, and dozens of other youngsters destined for Civil War fame. He fought in Mexico and against the Seminoles, then served on the western frontier. Pleasanton, Calif., notable today for apricots, atomic accelerators, and electricity-generating windmills, got its name from Alfred (an 1850s postal clerk fumbled the new town's spelling on an official listing).

Pleasonton had performed reasonably well in 1862, earning neither harsh criticism nor enthusiastic raves from his superiors. Stonewall Jackson's attack on May 2 gave him a chance to operate in an arena outside the view of other general officers. Pleasonton could not resist the urge, under those circumstances, to unleash a deceitful character trait. He fabricated a complex set of lies of such magnificent scope that Baron Munchausen would have envied the result.

A few hundred Federal cavalry around Hazel Grove, an open hilltop destined to be the battlefield's key position the next morning, constituted Pleasonton's command. The 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, commanded by Maj. (later Col., then Gen.) Pennock Huey, faced southward for a time, toward Gen. Sickles' adventures near Catharine Furnace; but then word came to go find Gen. O.O. Howard. Huey rounded up his men and prepared to ride in that direction. His second in command, Maj. Peter Keenan, grumbled about abandoning a high-spirited hand of cards: "You have spoiled a damned good game!"

Meanwhile, Jackson's legions had shattered Howard's corps. Although the focus of that cataclysm of fire and movement lay only about a mile northwest of Hazel Grove, the cavalrymen could hear nothing at all. Sound waves reach distant points by bouncing off the atmosphere at random angles. In several Civil War battles, commanders who incautiously ordered supports to attack when they heard the battle open learned hard facts about acoustical shadows. Two more miles eastward from Hazel Grove, Gen. Robert E. Lee discerned Jackson's attack when an aide saw muzzle flashes in the distance. Lee could hear nothing, nor could Huey at Hazel Grove.

The Pennsylvanians accordingly rode north toward the Plank Road (modern State Route 3) in relaxed formation without the least concern about nearby enemies. They used an old road that parallels the modern entrance to Wilderness Camping Resort. Underbrush on either side of the lane grew "so thick that a bird could scarcely fly through it," so the riders necessarily formed a tight, thin column.

As they reached the Plank Road, where an old schoolhouse stood, the blue-clad troopers suddenly found, to their utter astonishment, Confederate infantry all around them. They had unwittingly ridden into the midst of Jackson's victorious ad-vance. Cavalrymen frantically unsheathed sabers and pistols and galloped madly in every direction.

For a few moments, the mounted men had the best of the surprise as their horses' hooves spread panic among infantry who feared being ridden over. Then Southern muskets began to blaze, and Southern bayonets flashed. Three officers riding at the head of the column, Maj. Keenan among them, fell dead. Huey estimated a loss of 30 men and 80 horses killed during the brief encounter. The regiment's official report of casualties for the campaign totaled 102.

Not long after the Pennsylvanians completed their frightening ride, the quiet zone they had left behind at Hazel Grove came under scattered Confederate fire. Jackson's right-flank elements filtered into the area as darkness closed in on the battlefield. They should have been Gen. Colquitt's men, and probably should have arrived sooner, but it was on the right flank that Colquitt's timorousness had disrupted the Confederate front. Accordingly, Georgians of Doles' Brigade spread into that sector.

Col. David E. Winn and about 200 men came in view of Hazel Grove near dusk, lay down behind a fence, and opened long-range rifle fire on Federals in the open space. Capt. James F. Huntington, an Ohio artillerist much distinguished in several of the war's battles, swung cannon into line to return the fire. When Confederates slid onto Huntington's flank, he deftly retired the guns a bit and resumed firing.

Huey's charge, brave albeit accidental, and Huntington's sturdy resistance both reflected well on the participants. Pleasonton's role had been limited to dispatching Huey and his men on a routine mission. He had nothing to do with the artillery. The event, Huntington wrote after the war, "has been made the subject of more balderdash than perhaps any minor action of the war"--a very broad balderdash universe indeed. Pleasonton's account, Huntington said bluntly, "is an absolute falsehood made from whole cloth! simply bosh!"

A participant in the events described Pleasonton's feverishly concocted, heroic autobiographical tribute to himself as "the egotistical and unreliable romances of General Alfred Pleasonton." By his own fanciful version, Pleasonton desperately had thrown the 8th Pennsylvania forward as a forlorn hope, to win him a few moments' time. Using that interval brilliantly ("I was alone pretty much the whole time," he testified earnestly before Congress), Pleasonton prepared to save the Union. "Jackson had 35,000 infantry," he told a wondering Congress, "and I knew that nothing but an immense shock of artillery was the only thing to stop him." The "immense body of men" whom Pleasonton claimed to have single-handedly repulsed actually numbered about 34,800 troops fewer than 35,000--and he actually had nothing to do with repulsing even the 200.

Pleasonton's self-described bravura performance that early evening included going out to capture prisoners, prescient fellows who were able to tell him that "Stonewall" Jackson had been mortally wounded by Pleasonton's fire, even before Jackson had been wounded. After the war, warming to his task, the mendacious braggart added several other heroic tales to his dishonest accounts of Chancellorsville, including the fictitious capture of Lee's dispatches which allowed him to offer advice to Hooker about the entire campaign.

As Gen. Pennock Huey wrote sarcastically after the war, once Pleasonton's hallucinations became public: "Did Wellington or Napoleon ever, under such adverse circumstances, pluck such victorious laurels from defeat and disaster?" Federal Col. Charles Russell Lowell reported "the universal opinion" that Pleasonton's accounts consisted of "systematic lying." The leading authority on the Civil War campaign in which Pleasonton had his most important moments told me this week in a telephone interview that he considers the general "a pathological liar, totally devoid of integrity."

After the war, Pleasonton put his talents to work on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service, "but in a conflict of authority was asked to resign." In 1888, he went on the U. S. Army retired list at the humble rank of major. Pleasonton is buried, fittingly, in Washington. His tombstone (not far from those of John Philip Souza and J. Edgar Hoover) is about the size of a hubcap.

Next week: A fatal volley in the darkness

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.