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Lee and Jackson conspire to reach an astonishing decision

June 1, 2002 12:58 am

Part 13 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

Thomas J. "Stonewall"
Jackson met late on May 1, 1863, they faced the necessity of sculpting a plan for the next day's operations. The two sat down on hardtack boxes abandoned by retreating Federals and began a conference that continued intermittently throughout the evening, into the night, and on to the dawn of May 2.

The generals began their deliberations in the intersection of the Orange Plank Road and the Furnace Road, which bisected the Plank Road en route to Catharine Furnace. A Northern rifleman who had climbed a pine tree along the Plank Road up toward Chancellorsville sent bullets whistling into the vicinity. Lee and Jackson prudently moved back into the woods away from the road--and from the bullets.

Lee asked Jackson, an eyewitness stated, "whether he had ascertained the position and strength of the enemy on our left." Jackson reported on the recently concluded fracas between the furnace and Hazel Grove, and the realignment thus forced upon Union Gen. Joseph Hooker's right. For a time Lee had actually fretted--incredibly, given the armies' relative strengths--that Hooker might try to "escape from Chancellorsville" in that direction.

The army commander himself had reconnoitered to the right, toward the Rappahannock River. He found one piece of decidedly good news in that sector: Hooker's collapse toward Chancellorsville had forced him also to recall Gen. George G. Meade's column, which had thrust far eastward along the River Road. Otherwise, that zone afforded little cause for Confederate optimism.

Personal scouting had made Lee a legend in the American army during the Mexican War. In 1847 at Cerro Gordo and Churubusco, he had discovered, in ventures full of danger and daring, obscure routes in which to channel important advances. Lee's prowess had so impressed commander-in-chief Winfield Scott that he called the younger officer "the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field." Scott's conviction that Lee's "military genius stood far above that of any other officer in the army" had led to an offer of command of the U.S. Army in 1861. Had Lee accepted, could the war have lasted more than a few weeks or months?

With that background in personal reconnaissance, and his inevitably eager preference for the offensive, when Lee recommended against attack he could hardly be doubted. On May 1, he could see no hope for moving his right against the Yankee left. The Wilderness would entangle any advance. No good roads ran toward the target. A deeply cut stream ran like a medieval moat in front of the enemy line, then into the Rappahannock. Proximity to the primary Federal crossings meant that countless enemy troops infested the area.

What, then, might be accomplished near the center of the line, in the direction of Chancellorsville intersection? Probably nothing, given the thick ground cover and few roads and swarming Yankees. To examine the possibility, the generals each sent forward a trusted aide.

Friends of 23-year-old Capt. J. Keith Boswell of Jackon's staff called him "Preserves" because he loved jam inordinately much. A few weeks earlier, Boswell had formed one leg of a pathetic love quadrangle played out in Fauquier County. When the eagerly pursued young woman made her choice, she did not opt for Boswell. The other loser, a young preacher, went upstairs and shot himself. The preferred beau went on to become a Confederate colonel, eventually cashiered for cowardice.

In the shaken aftermath of that unhappy affair, Boswell crept through the moonlit woods toward Chancellorsville on the night of May 1. Precisely 24 hours later he would be dead, killed by the same volley that hit his chief, Stonewall Jackson. ("Preserves" Boswell is buried next to the northernmost aisle in the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery.)

Lee sent as his representative in the two-man scouting party Maj. Thomas M.R. Talcott. The major, age 24, had been born in Philadelphia, but like countless thousands of other emigrants to the South, went to war on behalf of his adopted homeland. Talcott, who subsequently achieved a colonelcy, lived until 1920, and wrote a detailed account of this night's events.

About 10 p.m., Boswell and Talcott came back with a negative report. Innumerable enemies lurked in the woods, and they were throwing up fortifications of downed trees--still a relatively novel practice, but soon to be become routine. Lt. James Power Smith of Jackson's staff (later the Presbyterian minister in Fredericksburg for decades) also brought word that the infantry officers near the front frowned on the idea of attacking directly toward Chancellorsville.

Going straight at Hooker would not work. In his official report, Lee explained: "a direct attack upon the enemy would be attended with great difficulty and loss"

The original question posed by Lee to Jackson, with a map before them, had been "How can we get at those people." The answer gradually had become obvious. With the Federal left unassailable, and the center almost as strong, the Confederates must look to the west, toward their enemy's right flank. Miles of all-but-trackless Wilderness intervened, but if the Army of Northern Virginia had any opening, it lay in that direction. Lee determined to move the majority of the army, under his incomparable executive officer, on a secret, risky march.

Lee's detractors, who proliferate in the politically correct epoch that afflicts our age, always relish anti-Southern conclusions. Such creatures would have us believe that Lee should have embraced the defensive everywhere and always. That eminently desirable system, of course, only worked against opponents like Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, and the Unionists only had the one Burnside.

The leading Northern analyst of the Battle of Chancellorsville, John Bigelow, nicely described in 1910 the principle that drove the Southern commander to grasp the initiative in this battle and others: "The defensive has to be strong at every point, the offensive has to be strong at but one point. A commander who attacks when and where his opponent expects himsuffers all the disadvantages of the offensive without realizing its characteristic advantage."

Lee planned to make his move where Hooker would expect him least.

Through the remainder of the night of May 1-2, intelligence came in steadily to the overnight bivouac at the intersection. General J.E.B. Stuart prowled and reported. So did the army commander's nephew, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. Jackson's favorite preacher, the Rev. Beverley Tucker Lacy, knew something of the region because his brother lived nearby. Civilian women of the Talley family, on whose farm Jackson's attack would erupt the next afternoon, filtered through the woods to get word to their army friends about Yankee dispositions.

The Catharine Furnace establishment played a major role in making the planned march possible. For a decade the furnace had produced pig iron, using charcoal in the process. That charcoal came from trees cut in vast surrounding woodland tracts. Primitive wagon roads, hewn roughly through the thickets, ambled in every direction. Some of them, knit together to suit Confederate purposes, might lead a flanking column across the front of the Yankee army, toward the enemy's exposed right and rear.

Before the generals retired for the night in quest of a brief rest, Lee had concluded that he would throw the military dice and attempt to send Jackson far away on a day-long march. It was Lee's greatest gamble of the war, and would lead to his greatest victory.

Next week: The start of a legendary leader's last march

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.

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