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Preparing for a morning of climactic battle

September 28, 2002 1:02 am


Part 30 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Chancellorsville

GEN. JAMES E. B. STUART, universally known as "Jeb," had spent the opening days of the Chancellorsville campaign superintending the operations of the army's cavalry. Stuart always had, oddly, been on close and friendly terms with "Stonewall" Jackson. The dashing, jingling, caped and beribboned cavalryman shared little of Stonewall's dour worldview, and lagged a half-generation behind him in age. Somehow, the two had gotten along famously, if incongruously. Now, Stuart would temporarily succeed Jackson in command at a critical juncture.

During Jackson's secret march on May 2, 1862, Stuart and some of his staff had ridden ahead of the infantry, sending reports of progress back to the corps commander. One cavalry staff officer who rode back to report to Jackson thought that the legendary officer "looked like a Deacon on his way to Church." Once the surprise attack erupted, Stuart and his entourage advanced along the main road with it, just behind the front line.

After darkness halted Jackson's progress, Stuart proposed a foray of his own, heading northward beyond the Confederate left in the direction of Ely's Ford (where modern State Route 610 crosses the Rapidan River). There, he could threaten one of the Federal retreat routes. Jackson approved the idea and loaned Stuart a strong North Carolina regiment to augment the cavalry. The column marched unerringly to the vicinity of Ely's Ford, to the amazement of Stuart's staff, who could see nothing in the pitch-black Wilderness and wondered how their general could find the way.

As they felt their way through the dark thickets in the steeply cut ravines around Ely's Ford, Stuart's detachment came upon a brightly lighted Federal camp. Enemy cavalry, presuming themselves far behind the lines, cavorted around campfires. "From the hilarious sound," a Virginian from Washington County recalled, "we judged the [Yankees] were enjoying life." The North Carolinians crept stealthily, noiselessly, toward their unsuspecting foe. At this tense, exciting moment, Capt. R.H.T. Adams of Lynchburg, a member of Gen. A.P. Hill's staff, came up and told Stuart in a loud whisper: "General Jackson has just been shot, and you are wanted."

Jeb Stuart at once galloped off--"with rapidity," by his own account. Back at Ely's Ford, the Carolinians and the cavalry had their fun after Stuart left. A surprise volley sent Federal horses galloping through the camp, trampling tents and scattering fires. "Confusion rampant prevailed," a cavalry staffer wrote. "Panic was supreme. It was an exhilarating and delightful show we thought." With Stuart gone, and Jackson down, Ely's Ford no longer seemed such an important target. The Confederates faded back into the woods, leaving frightened Northern cavalrymen and horses thrashing about in the darkness.

Gen. Stuart sought to make sense of the confused tangle of Confederate lines he found perpendicular to the Plank Road. What would Jackson have done? What did Lee hope that he might accomplish? A request for advice from Jackson roused the wounded Stonewall momentarily. "His eye flashed its old fire," Dr. McGuire wrote, but then the wounded warrior slumped back and mumbled: "I don't know. I can't tell. Say to General Stuart that he must do what he thinks best."

Lee had pitched his headquarters bivouac that fateful night less than three miles from where Jackson ran afoul of North Carolinian musketry. That modest distance, however, was choked with tens of thousands of armed foes, widely separating the two halves of Lee's army. Mississippian Richard E. Wilbourn, who had ridden in Jackson's reconnaissance, undertook the strenuous, dangerous task of reaching Lee with the bad news. Wilbourn only reached Lee about six hours after Jackson's wounding, an hour before early dawn on May 3.

Stunned by news of the disaster that had befallen Jackson, Lee remarked to Wilbourn: "Any victory is dearly bought that deprives us of the services of Jackson even temporarily." A few minutes later, the army commander sorrowfully told another aide that "he would rather a thousand times it had been himself" wounded, instead of Jackson. For the short term, the two widely separated wings of the Army of Northern Virginia simply must be reunited that morning. Lee's solution was direct: "We must press these people right away."

Across the lines at Chancellorsville, Joe Hooker enjoyed immense advantages, but proved incapable of recognizing them. His available force still outnumbered Lee by fully 2 to 1. He still enjoyed the enormous advantage of interior lines--a compact position in which all of his units could support one another directly. Keeping Lee's divided army from reuniting should not be especially difficult, unless the Confederates abandoned their current positions and re-concentrated elsewhere, leaving the Northern army in possession of the battlefield.

Joe Hooker, however, had lost confidence in Joe Hooker. He had abandoned the initiative on May 1, ceding with it control of the action. On May 2, a major portion of his army had been surprised and routed. Buffeted and bewildered, the once-bombastic general now thought only of hunkering down, of limiting losses, of escaping from the battlefield on which his enemies refused to accept the passive role he had envisioned for them.

Hooker's plans for the morning of May 3 did not include much that would exploit either his huge preponderance in numbers or his advantages in position. He did propose one element of brisk aggression--not from the tens of thousands of soldiers around him who had not yet fought, but instead from his rearguard a dozen miles away at Fredericksburg. Hooker's own legions would wait timidly while a small, far-away detachment bailed them out. The order to Gen. John Sedgwick, back opposite Fredericksburg, "was peremptory," Hooker recalled during his post-battle campaign of words (most of it launched after Sedgwick was dead), "and would have justified him in losing every man of his command in its execution." Hooker would close his eyes, cover his ears, and hope that a smallish force far away might somehow work a miracle.

As inexplicable, and important, as his unwillingness to use the men available to him was Hooker's incredible abandonment of a key piece of the battlefield. The invaluable artillery position at Hazel Grove, which Confederate Col. Alexander had scouted during the night, was worth defending with all the means at the disposal of the Federalist army. Instead, Hooker decided to abandon it without a fight. Perhaps on a flat map, without terrain features, the bulge in the line protecting Hazel Grove looked awkward. Geometry might possibly suggest abandoning the knoll; geographical considerations made it priceless. High and open, looking directly toward the Chancellorsville clearing: Holding Hazel Grove meant winning the artillery struggle on May 3.

Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, a Swiss military theorist much read in North America, had described the tendency of terrain to focus battle events on a key piece of ground. In his book, "Precis de l'Art de la Guerre," (1838), Jomini wrote: "There is on every battlefield a decisive point the possession of which, more than any other, helps to secure victory by enabling its holder to make a proper application of the principles of war."

Hazel Grove was that decisive point at Chancellorsville, and Hooker decided to abandon it.

Next week: Attacking at dawn

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.

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