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'Jackson was on us, and fear was on us'

August 10, 2002 1:02 am

Part 23 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

CONFEDERATES heading east in the fading twilight of May 2, 1863, ran roughshod over their foes. An evening full of excitement and victory for Southerners offered no real options for Northerners other than brief resistance followed by flight.

Many Federals--probably most of them--made no resistance at all, nor could they reasonably have been expected to do so. Troops never have tolerated surprise attacks from behind. Relative numbers and armaments dwindle in importance in circumstances where an attacker achieves surprise and position.

The spectral image of "Stonewall" Jackson heightened the impact. "Jackson was on us," an Ohio soldier wrote, "and fear was on us." An attacker from Alabama professed to know that "Jackson went forth from every Yankee tongue as they broke pellmell." In his official report, a colonel from Massachusetts drolly described his fleeing friends as being "under the influence of an aversion for Stonewall Jackson."

Astonished and terrified Yankees "ran some one way and some another." In frightened attempts to hide, a North Carolinian wrote, "some of them ran in the tent and wrapped up in blankets." Capt. J.W. Williams of Greensboro, Ala., described "a moving mass of yankeeshundreds would turn and run to us to be taken prisoners, for it seemed certain death to remain in front." A Northern band must have been among the last Federals to learn of the disaster: their boisterous tooting and thumping covered the noise of the initial onslaught, until a long-range bullet shattered the bass drum and ended the concert.

Once the Yankee line broke, disintegration spread inexorably eastward, beyond Wilderness Church and on toward Chancellorsville intersection. A French volunteer at Hooker's headquarters looked west and saw the 11th Corps fugitives in "close-packed ranksrushing like legions of the damned" toward him. The Rebel yell unmanned the foreigner, who reported that "all of the [Confederates] roar like beasts." An Ohio officer described the rout as "a disorderly mass" and "the most terrible sight I have ever witnessed."

Thousands of demoralized blue-clad troops scrambled through the woods toward Chancellorsville, then veered north for safety in the rear. Many fugitives from the 11th Corps reached the Rappahannock River and thundered across the pontoon bridges there, or swam the river when provost guards attempted to close the bridges. Indianan Henry Reed, an orderly to Gen. Schimmelfennig, "flew to the rear," crossed the river, and only returned four days later. New Yorker Peter Bischoff returned to duty after an absence of three months. Ohioan William Devore took the opportunity to stay away from the army more than a year. Washington Swift, also from Ohio, fled on May 2 and only came back five days later; a court was lenient because of "extreme youth"--Swift claimed to be 15, although he had given his age as 18 two years earlier.

Col. E.L. Price of the 145th New York (of the 12th Corps, farther to the rear than the 11th) behaved in an egregiously unacceptable manner, according to witnesses at the court martial that charged him with "gross cowardice in the face of the enemy." The colonel became so "imbecile from fear that he couldn't find his way out of the woods," and enlisted "a drummer boyto show him the way out." Price eventually ran to a hospital well beyond any danger, according to the testimony, and then hurried on across the Rappahannock River and did not reappear for some while. A surgeon testified that Price "said he had a tooth knocked outwhich made him limp." The court somehow reached a verdict of not guilty, in the best tradition of American jurisprudence.

Northerners of stouter spirit put up the best fight they could, even under impossible circumstances. Gens. Carl Schurz and O.O. Howard have no place in any pantheon of military heroes, and neither displayed any discernible genius at Chancellorsville. Both men, however, bravely tried to rally troops. Howard mounted, tucked a flag under the stump of a missing arm (lost at Seven Pines in 1862), and desperately sought to rally a defense. An artillerist saw Schurz "with drawn saber endeavor to form a line" around a color bearer. Schurz gathered a few score men, who broke when Confederates reached them--then did the same thing again, "repeatedly."

An Alabamian who helped put to rout these brief intermittent stands acknowledged that "the yankees did all they could to stop us when we struck a new line, but they might as well have tried to stop a cyclone."

The most famous and dramatic Federal resistance on that afternoon came from a German-immigrant artillery officer, Capt. Hubert Dilger. The captain had turned an Ohio battery into a well-tuned unit, despite what he called "the intrigues & petit jealousies of the different german cliques" in the 11th Corps, and had become recognizable by the doeskin German-style britches he wore. When the Federal right collapsed on May 2, "Leatherbreeches" Dilger retired methodically down the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3), firing a single cannon in the road, then falling back and doing it again.

The Medal of Honor (usually miscalled the Congressional Medal of Honor), meant appreciably less during the Civil War than it came to signify for a time during the mid-20th century. Four New Englanders who won the medal for actions near Fredericksburg, for instance, received them three decades later--immediately after (to suggest coincidence strains credulity) one of them became his state's adjutant general, and a second of them became his assistant. It is impossible, however, to doubt that Capt. Dilger richly deserved the honor, by the standards of any era. "Fought his guns until the enemy were upon him," the citation read, "then with one gun hauled in the road by hand he formed the rear guard and kept the enemy at bay by the rapidity of his fire and was the last man in the retreat." The devoutly Virginian historian who chronicled the history of Robert E. Lee's artillery admiringly described Dilger's feat as "an example of almost superhuman courage and energy."

Virginian scenery and people apparently fetched Hubert Dilger. In 1881, having grown rich by inheritance, he bought a large stock farm near Front Royal and began raising pure-bred cattle. Two years later a prize bull, perhaps unconvinced of Dilger's credentials as a freshly converted Virginian, gored him badly, but the old warrior survived and lived into the new century.

Despite the best efforts of brave men like Capt. Dilger, and the frantic appeals of Schurz and Howard and other officers, only darkness could halt the rout. In that darkness, some confused North Carolinians would do more harm to Lee's army than any Federals had achieved on May 2, or on any other prior date.

Next week: Civilians in the midst of battle

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.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.