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Andrew Jackson Russell's photograph of dead soldiers of the 18th Mississippi in the Sunken Road, May 3, 1863,
Part 36 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
FOR TWO DAYS, Gen. Joseph Hooker had been calling loudly for help from Gen. John Sedgwick and the Federal rearguard back in Fredericksburg. That forlorn stratagem may have been an early bit of groundwork toward shifting blame in a situation slipping out of control. More likely it constituted mere grasping at straws.
By the morning of May 3, Sedgwick faced the unmistakable obligation to press westward from Fredericksburg toward the battlefield at Chancellorsville. An order from Hooker dated at 10 p.m. on May 2 had insisted that Sedgwick "at once" march toward Chancellorsville, destroying any Rebels bold enough to interfere. An incredible gaffe by R. E. Lee's chief of staff, Col. Robert H. Chilton, had unhinged the Confederate rearguard, making Sedgwick's job easier.
Gen. Lee's deeply ingrained notions of duty extended to the composition of his staff. In theory, staff officers in the field, though on full-time duty with a particular general, actually answered to, and were assigned by, the adjutant general in Richmond. General officers in fact picked their aides--usually youthful relatives--and told Richmond to appoint them. Lee, however, calmly accepted whomever was sent him; he had never even met some of them before they were assigned to his personal military family. Trusting to Fate, and to the whims of the military bureaucracy, did not always yield optimum results, including the case of Chilton.
On May 2, Lee sent Chilton toward Fredericksburg with some discretionary advice for Gen. Jubal A. Early, commanding the modest rearguard posted in that quarter. Early might fall back, Lee directed prudently, if Sedgwick's pressure became uncomfortably heavy. Somehow, the maladroit Chilton garbled the message into peremptory orders to abandon Fredericksburg. Early obeyed grudgingly. When word reached Lee, he hurriedly sought to reverse the error, but the dislocation of the rearguard could not be repaired entirely.
Civil War generals almost never issued written orders to control tactical evolutions. Society had not yet evolved into the paper-choked environment we know today. The government had no number by which to track citizens; no one knew anyone's mother's maiden name unless they happened to know her family. On the other hand, indifference to documentation in a military setting led to battlefield confusion. During the 20th century, many thousands of young Americans became lieutenants, United States Marine Corps, by passing through The Basic School a few dozen miles north of Fredericksburg. Among that school's basic dogmas was the obligation to issue written orders that included firm directions on when, where, who, and so forth. In 1863, neither lieutenants nor lieutenant generals thought about written orders. That nonchalance helped to shape the Second Battle of Fredericksburg on May 3.
Gen. Early deployed about 10,000 Confederates around Fredericksburg against the 25,000 men at Sedgwick's disposal. Sedgwick had pushed columns across the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg on April 29, then sidled northward into town.
Early's smaller force should have been adequate to defend the formidable heights just west of town, which had demonstrated their vast power in the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. That battle also had showed Early, however, the relative vulnerability of the Confederate right near Hamilton's Crossing. Early had himself led a counterattack in that area to resist an enemy breakthrough. With that precedent in mind, he concentrated his strength along the railroad south of town.
A single brigade of Mississippians held what had been the heart of Lee's line in 1862--from Lee's Hill across Marye's Heights and on to Stansbury Hill (where the college stands today). The brigade commander, doughty William Barksdale, felt grimly certain that the enemy would overwhelm his handful of men. Barksdale hurried the brigade back to Marye's Heights and environs after the damaging false alarm from Chilton, but fretted over his isolated position. When Barksdale's ranking colonel approached headquarters on Lee's Hill late on May 2 and asked if his commander was asleep, the general snapped: "No sir, who could sleep with a million of armed Yankees all around him?"
Barksdale was right; Early was wrong. Attacking down near Hamilton's Crossing might have been the best Federal hope to win a set-piece battle, but Sedgwick's orders vectored him toward Chancellorsville "at once," and that required him to move west, not south. The Yankees must do their best to overwhelm the terrible Stone Wall of deadly memory.
In a reprise of December 1862, which must have chilled the souls of veterans of that slaughter, blue-clad infantry spread into long lines and moved bravely across the blood-soaked, gently sloping approach to Marye's Heights. Confederates shot them down in windrows. Regiments from Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Maine had more than one-third of their men hit within a few minutes.
An incautious Mississippian gave the Federals a chance to breach the heights. Col. Thomas M. Griffin of Cayuga, age 47, commanded the few hundred soldiers in the Sunken Road, behind the Stone Wall. When Northern officers came forward under a white flag to propose a brief truce for tending the wounded, Griffin agreed to their humane suggestion.
Protocol suggested that truces be arranged only at the highest command levels. Suspending the war was not a regimental commander's prerogative. Federals moving among their wounded on May 3 inevitably noticed the tiny number of Southern heads visible above the wall. After the truce, armed with that knowledge, Northern officers crafted a skillful initiative. Instead of attacking in lines across a broad front, they aligned their troops in tight columns and ordered them to punch through the Sunken Road on a very narrow front. Only then would the troops spread out to right and left, north and south, to unravel the Confederate position.
To squelch the attackers' inevitable temptation to stop and shoot back at the defenders before breaching the road, Federal commanders ordered their men not to put percussion caps on their loaded weapons. That final preparation for firing could wait until after the initial success.
The carefully contrived plan worked smoothly. Tight columns crashed over the wall, through the road, and up the heights. What had been unattainable in 1862 proved manageable in 1863. Yankees poured densely up the draws in the ridge, especially the ravine between Willis Hill and Marye's Heights (promontories better know to modern residents as the sites of Montfort and Brompton).
Confederates on the heights, among them artillerists manning several cannon, first learned of the disaster when troops came toward them from their flanks and rear. Some men cheered at the idea of reinforcements. Sgt. John Cogbill of Richmond yelled "Reinforcements, the devil! They are Yankees!" The Virginians spun their cannon around 90 degrees, unleashed canister into the face of the charging Yankees, and surrendered once further resistance became impossible.
As Federals swarmed across the high ground, photographer Andrew Jackson Russell snapped his shutter and captured a stark scene. Russell's photograph of dead Mississippians next to the Stone Wall surely is the most famous Civil War image from the Fredericksburg area, and among the half-dozen best known of any sort for the entire war. Fresh evidence about the immediacy of the photograph surfaced recently.
The photograph looks south along the Sunken Road toward its modern intersection with Lafayette Boulevard. The small building peering above the wall stood just to the left (west) of the front entrance to the modern battlefield museum. Slight shadows below the gun barrels always have made it clear that Russell took the photo near noon, with the sun directly overhead, and thus not long after the Mississippians died. Despite his cumbersome equipment, the photographer clearly had been on the scene quite soon.
An unpublished contemporary letter written by Russell's boss supplies firm timing about the unusual image: "The Stone-Wall picture is a remarkable one [taken] in the midst of actual fighting, the picture being on the plate 20 minutes after the wall was carried Russell shouldering his camera at the heels of the stormers' party."
While A. J. Russell went about his primitive photographic processes, with what proved to be striking success, the Federals who had surged over the Stone Wall kept moving west. Perhaps Sedgwick might be able to do some good in the direction of Chancellorsville?
Next week: Salem Church
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.