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Confederates south and east of the intersection
The Chancellorsville intersection is in the middle of a Maelstrom.
Date published: Sat, 10/26/2002
Part 34 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
BY THE TIME a Confederate shell knocked down Gen. Joseph Hooker on the morning of May 3, his Federal army had come under attack across an arc that covered nearly 270 degrees around his headquarters at Chancellorsville intersection. While some Southerners advanced east on both sides of, and parallel to, the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3), others were pushing northeast from positions south of Hazel Grove.
The Confederates who had remained with Gen. Robert E. Lee on May 2, while "Stonewall" Jackson went marching far afield, now joined in from the lines they had held for two days. Some of the units directly under Lee moved north toward Chancellorsville; others advanced northwest; and some headed due west toward the intersection.
Men who had feigned attacks all day on May 2 across a brushy field full of waist-high alder bushes now advanced across the same field in full battle line. South Carolinians under Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw anchored their left on what today is State Route 610. Between the Carolinians' right and modern State Route 3, Georgians under Gen. Paul J. Semmes waded through messy swampland, then on toward the Chancellorsville plateau.
"I never saw a worse place to march through," Georgian Fred West wrote.
Just north of modern State Route 3 more Georgians, commanded by Gen. William T. Wofford, pushed steadily forward.
A brigade of veteran Mississippians under Gen. Carnot Posey worked its way westward to within short range of the intersection and Chancellorsville Inn. As Samuel J. McBride waved the battle flag of the 16th Mississippi and leaped atop the enemy breastworks, an artillery round smashed his hand and cut the flagstaff in half. McBride jumped into the ditch, seized the butt of the flagstaff, and killed two Yankees with it. McBride's official service record at the National Archives shows that surgeons had to amputate the arm, but he survived the war.
The Mississippians regrouping behind the newly captured works relaxed in the knowledge that the barricade protected them from rifle bullets. Two friends listened with amusement as a third read from a Washington newspaper a perfervid description of Hooker's success against Lee, who now was said to be "in full retreat with a shattered army." As the Southern lads chuckled knowingly, an artillery round arched over the works and exploded, killing one and wounding another.
In the midst of the terrifying morning, Confederates just east of Chancellorsville found an unexpected opportunity to laugh uproariously. As pressure to the front eased, a boisterous cheer echoed down part of the line. Into view came a wounded soldier riding on an ox. The man had a shattered arm, but retained enough energy to put on a show mimicking the unorthodox and unmistakable riding style of Stonewall Jackson. The man held his cap in his unwounded hand "and was bent over in the position that Jackson always took when he rode along a cheering line."
As the cheerful, if mangled, imitator rode out of view, soldiers--all unaware that Jackson had been wounded on the other side of the battlefield the previous evening--cheered and laughed until they cried. An onlooker thought that the display of "grit, endurance, and wit" typified the army.
The final Federal stronghold short of Chancellorsville itself loomed at Fairview, where Northern artillery had resisted long and stoutly. Confederate soldiers from the vicinity of Fredericksburg were the first to break into that clearing. A regiment recruited from the Northern Neck joined another made up of companies from Stafford, Caroline, Essex and Middlesex counties in surging across the final line of breastworks. When they reached the open ground at Fairview, the triumphant Virginians "discovered the field literally crowded with men fleeing in every direc-tion."
As usual in such circumstances, men forced to retreat suffered heavily as they hurried toward the rear. "The getting away was worse than the staying," a Northern general wrote. As he and his men scattered across the Chancellorsville plateau, they faced the necessity of retreating "three-quarters of a mile over an open plainMany a poor fellow lost his life or limb in this fearful transit." Some of the fugitives rallied in the woods behind Chancellorsville Inn, but most kept on going toward the rear.
A few Northern reinforcements pushed into the Chancellorsville clearing, hoping to stem the tide. A newly arrived Maine battery unlimbered right next to the big house and opened fire. John F. Chase won the Medal of Honor for his role with the battery.
"The air was so full of flying missiles," Chase recalled, "that it did not seem as if even a bird could live."
While Southern soldiers closed in on Chancellorsville intersection from several directions, the Confederate artillery from around Hazel Grove advanced to give closer support. Gen. Jeb Stuart ordered a battery manned by youngsters from Charlottesville to fire into the woods around Chancellorsville, from which enemy musketry poured steadily. One of the Charlottesville lads remembered the bullets rattling off their bronze cannon, but when they unlimbered and fired into the woods they soon silenced the Federals.
"You've got it kid," one of Stuart's aides yelled at the cannoneers, "Give it to them!"
As Southern shells exploded in the thickets, and muzzle flashes flamed from Northern rifles--many of them fired by men lying at ground level--a patch of woods burst into flame. Winter-dried duff ignited and tongues of fire spread to brush not yet fully green in the early spring. Wounded soldiers of both sides watched in horror as the flames roared toward them. Men too injured to move swept dried leaves away from their bodies in desperate attempts to retard the blaze. Heat scorched cartridge boxes full of black-powder rounds and eventually exploded them. Northerners and Southerners alike strove to save wounded men, both friends and enemies, but all too often in vain.
The savage fighting in the woods around Chancellorsville approached a climax by midmorning. Confederates who had pushed from west and southwest, south and southeast and east, converged on the open space at the clearing by about 10:30 a.m., after six hours of deadly battle. Weary Federals began streaming northward up the Elys Ford Road (modern State 610). In that direction many thousands of blue-clad friends awaited them. Those plentiful reserves had not been committed to battle when they could have made a difference. Now they stood strong and fresh and immovable, a bulwark against any attempt by Lee to head north in pursuit of Hooker's defeated divisions.
Next week--"Men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of the gods"
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.