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Part 10 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
THE CONFEDERATES of Gen. William Mahone's Brigade who advanced briskly against cavalry to the ridge above Lick Run early on May 1, 1863, soon found themselves facing a more formidable foe. Six regiments of U.S. regulars, supported by an artillery battery, pushed scornfully through the retreating Pennsylvania cavalrymen and faced across the stream.
A colonel named Sidney Burbank, West Point-graduated and in his mid-50s, commanded the advancing brigade. The regulars accounted themselves professional full-time soldiers, and thus a military cut above the volunteers in state units, recruited for temporary war service.
Only Mahone's 12th Virginia had advanced as far west as the lip above Lick Run, and the Virginians could hardly stand up to six times their strength. One of them later boasted that in "our severest fighting," the 12th "alone met four brigades of the enemy."
The Federal cannon fired across "Mott's Run meadow" while blue-clad infantry advanced. The regulars quickly reached, in Gen. George Sykes' words, "a fence bordering a small stream." On his right (south) of the road, woods provided shelter to that end of his line. The cover south of the road proved to be a mixed blessing: a Northern officer reported difficulty negotiating "the marshy ground" and "the dense growth" as he pushed his men forward. Fighting in the Wilderness would cover a great deal of that kind of terrain.
Two dozen members of the 12th Virginia clung to the Reuben McGee farmyard too long and fell into Federal hands. A cedar brush fence surrounding the yard and a small apple orchard provided an illusion of protection, but of course did not stop either bullets or approaching troops.
The Northern regiments south of the road quickly overlapped the McGee position and completed the unhinging of the 12th. A Virginian firing diligently to his front from "behind the gable end" of the small log house heard a demand to surrender. He turned and found a "solid column" to his left and rear, and quickly became a prisoner of war.
Gen. Lafayette McLaws could observe the burgeoning Federal reaction from the high ground back at Zoan Church. Behind the regulars who had crossed Lick Run, dense columns of Federals swarmed along the road, heading east. McLaws told Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson about it. Characteristically, Jackson thought about getting onto his enemy's flank, or behind him. At first he supposed that the Plank Road might afford him the opportunity to launch such a movement at his leisure. Soon, however, he would find Federals coming east down the Plank Road as well.
Southern reinforcements kept arriving steadily, so McLaws had ample support to throw forward as the 12th Virginia's survivors tumbled rearward. The other four Virginia regiments of Mahone's Brigade formed perpendicular to the Orange Turnpike and faced west on the road's north side. The Georgians of Gen. Paul J. Semmes' Brigade swung into line next to Mahone, but south of the road. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's reliable South Carolinians stood behind Semmes, and two more brigades closed in behind Kershaw. An artillery battery from Bedford County unlimbered on the road.
More Confederate troops streamed southwest, then west, along the Plank Road, where Jackson waited impatiently for them. He soon had six brigades on hand.
What had begun as a small-scale encounter between the 12th Virginia and the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry was about to erupt into an infantry battle.
Once Sykes' regulars consolidated their newly won position east of Lick Run, the general sent them forward down the Turnpike. The orders said to "advance to some houses bordering on the road"--the adjacent Lewis-Leitch farms, where Mahone and Semmes and their friends awaited the onset.
The hour approached noon as Col. Burbank waved his regulars forward. One of Burbank's soldiers, Everett Slater of the 7th U.S. (which advanced right on the Turnpike), described the approach to the farms. Confederates "securely posted behind fences and houses sent a murderous fire" into the Federal ranks, Slater wrote a few days later. The Bedford guns firing right down the road toward Slater unleashed "terrible" shelling.
Despite leaving "dead and wounded cover[ing] the fields," the regulars covered several hundred yards and reached the Lewis house, on the western edge of the Leitch farm. As James Leitch, son of the farm's owner, wrote soon after the war, the family home lay "between our and the enemy's lines of battle."
West of the Leitch house, Ann Lewis crouched in her cellar as the fighting intensified until a Confederate shell struck the house, at which she fled into the yard and dashed away from the danger. The Southern battery also exploded the ammunition chest of its opponents, and in turn was itself "pretty badly cut up."
Confederate fire struck down the color bearer of the 7th U.S. Cpl. Stephen O'Neill snatched up the precious regimental symbol and carried it through the rest of the battle. Thirty years later he was awarded the Medal of Honor (now usually miscalled the Congressional Medal of Honor and, until recently, awarded far more judiciously than in the 19th century).
South of the Turnpike, Semmes' Georgians peered west through "a perfect jungle of rank vines and undergrowth." Birds and wildlife stirred up by the advancing Yankees provided the first clue of their near approach. An officer in the 50th Georgia admitted that "some men tried to run but I caught hold of them." In the thickets, the Federals never gained any real momentum.
A bullet spinning through the brush hit Col. William M. Slaughter, commanding the 51st Georgia. The 38-year-old colonel, a graduate of the College of William & Mary and a member of the Georgia state legislature, died that evening. Lt. Col. Edward Ball, gray-haired despite being in his 30s, took over the 51st briefly, until he suffered a dangerous head wound. Ball recovered, but fell mortally wounded in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.
Semmes and Mahone and their artillery support eventually stymied the Federal advance. Sykes' regulars filtered back behind the rolling crest on the Lewis farm and took shelter out of the line of direct fire. The general dispatched aides south to ascertain progress on the Plank Road and north toward Gen. George Meade on the River Road (off the map that accompanies this article). Neither effort succeeded in reaching friends or learning much.
To hold the ground he had won, Sykes brought forward his two reserve brigades--another of regulars under Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres, and some New Yorkers led by Col. Patrick H. O'Rorke. (Sixty-two days later Paddy O'Rorke would perform with exemplary heroism helping to hold Little Round Top at Gettysburg, only to disappear from history's center stage by dying and leaving the telling of the story to a boastful and long-lived Joshua L. Chamberlain.)
Meanwhile the strong column of Confederates pushing west along the Orange Plank Road under Jackson had begun to meet some opposition. Stonewall had strength at hand to push straight ahead, but a more attractive alternative was developing to the north on the Turnpike. Sykes and Ayres and O'Rorke occupied strong, defensible ground, and would be able to make a good showing against Confederates coming at them on that front.
Were Jackson to pivot through an arc of 90 degrees, however, and come up toward their right and rear, the Federals would find their position uncomfortable and dangerous.
Next week: Jackson from the flank,
as was his custom
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.