Chancellorsville May 1863
On May 10th, 1863, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson lay dying at Guinea Station, a small railroad stop in Spotsylvania County Virginia. His final words before he slipped into oblivion were, “let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees…” In this last refrain Stonewall might have been referring to his recent and now famous flank march and attack at Chancellorsville. Jackson, at the height of his powers and popularity, just eight days earlier, had executed one of the most celebrated and studied maneuvers in military history.
Ultimately Stonewall’s death would have lasting effects for the fate of the Confederacy and dampen the South’s jubilation for Lee’s astounding victory at Chancellorsville in 1863. The Confederate victory at Chancellorsville would come at a time in the war with repeated Southern victories that fueled sentiments in the North of ending the war with a negotiated peace. Lincoln upon hearing of the Union Army’s defeat and withdrawal from Chancellorsville on May 6th, famously said, “My God, my God, what will the country say?”
Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County Virginia was just a simple cross roads in 1863 named for a tavern there, the Chancellor’s, along the Orange Turnpike ten miles west of Fredericksburg. This stretch of Virginia was mostly farmland but the Chancellor’s Tavern lay just outside an area famously called, The Wilderness, a dense, second growth forest grown tangled from a century of felling of it’s trees for local iron foundries. This dense and tangled forested area around Chancellorsville would play a critical role in the battle to come.
In the early spring of 1863, President Lincoln appointed General Joseph Hooker to head up the Union armies after the disaster under General Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg in December. As General Hooker took control of the army he told the President he had formed a bold plan; a secreted grand movement of the Union army around the flank of the enemy. This would leave the Confederates with two choices General Hooker told the President; to flee or be destroyed. The President, used to such hyperbole from his generals, wisely retorted, “the hen is the wisest of all the animals in creation because it never cackles until after the egg”.
Confidently, Hooker puts his plan into action on April 29th 1863 and in three days has his army of 70,000 men across two major rivers and has successfully landed in the rear and flank of his enemy. On May 1st, as the Union Army moved east and began to emerge from the wilderness at Chancellorsville, it looked like General Joe Hooker’s grand scene had paid off. Setting up head quarters at the Chancellor’s Tavern, the general sent an announcement to the Army congratulating them on their successful flanking maneuver and pronounced that the enemy must “ingloriously fly from the field”. According to “Fighting Joe”, the Union Army’s victory was nearly complete.
Meanwhile at Fredericksburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee learns of the Union army’s approach and instead of fleeing as predicted, goes on the offensive. Although out numbered more then 2 to 1, General Lee boldly sends his most trusted subordinate, General Stonewall Jackson to head off Hooker’s lead elements as Lee consolidates the rest of the army and heads towards Chancellorsville.
On May 1st. 1863, Jackson’s troops slammed into one of the Union columns emerging from the wilderness and stop it cold. Union reinforcements were available but communication and deploying troops in the tangles of the wilderness made it nearly impossible to communicate. Jackson’s aggressiveness convinced Hooker, against the pleas of many of his subordinate officers, to pull back his army and concentrate it around the Chancellorsville crossing. This decision by General Hooker to pull back and wait for Lee to attack on May 1st. would have fateful consequences for the Union Army at Chancellorsville.
As the Union Army entrenched around Chancellorsville that evening, a mile or so away, Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee sat on a pair of hardtack boxes around a camp fire and discussed their options in the face of an immense host.
In one of the last meetings of these two icons of the Confederacy was hatched a bold and aggressive battle plan. Rebel scouts had observed a weakness on the Union right flank and Jackson felt the Confederates should take advantage of it. The plan; to essentially out-flank General Hooker’s flanking movement. Jackson proposed to take 30,000 of his troops, secretly march around the enemy and destroy the Federals with a surprise attack on the their right flank. Jackson’s 12 mile flank march and departure would leave Lee with a tiny force to defend against Hooker’s at Chancellorsville. The confederate commander knew that dividing his army in the face of a superior enemy went against all military doctrine, but Robert E. Lee also understood the timidity of his opponent and believed in Stonewall Jackson….. and so, took the gamble…
In the late afternoon light on May 2nd, 1863, Federal troops on the Union right flank observed animals rushing from the forest to their west. Deer and rabbits bounded from the woods as Jackson’s men, in a battle line over a mile long, like hunters flushing their quarry, moved to the attack. Emerging from the woods 30,000 throats screamed the rebel yell and bore down on the unsuspecting Federals. Completely surprised the Union soldiers ran for their lives. For three brutal hours the Confederates chased these fleeing Union troops, many Union soldiers running right past Hooker’s HQ at the Chancellor Tavern. But as the sun went down on May 2nd., Union troops began to make a stand in a semicircle around Chancellorsville, and finally stopped Jackson’s onslaught.
Stonewall was furious. His chance to push the Union Army back over the Rappahannock in one fell swoop had petered away with the simple inevitability of darkness. So anxious was Jackson to finish the job that he led a contingent of staff out between the lines that evening to see where the Federals were digging in and reconnoiter for the coming fight in the morning. In the darkness, mistaken for Union calvary, Jackson and his staff are fired on by their own troops. Jackson and a number of his staff are wounded in the melee and the general is rushed from the field. Stonewall is taken to nearby Ellwood Manor where is left arm is amputated. Jackson is then taken by ambulance to Guinea Station, a railroad hub in Spotsylvania County 25 miles from Chancellorsville. Here at the depot, too weak to be moved, the general dies eight days later of pneumonia.
Stonewall Jackson’s death sends a shock wave through the Confederacy. His death severely effecting the moral of the southern citizenry as well as the army. In Jackson, General Lee had lost an irreplaceable warrior.
In May of 2013 thousands of reenactors from around the country gathered to play out this historic drama at the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville. I watched and photographed as a thousands of reenactors in the impression of Jackson’s troops reenact this flank attack and push their Union reenactor counterparts from the field in Spotsylvania County Virginia. The confederate forces at the reenactment had their own 21 century versions of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Jake Jennette, a four tour Vietnam veteran, took the impression of General Lee and Greg Randall in the impression of Stonewall Jackson. Randall, a local Virginian, plays the role of Stonewall in events all over Virginia throughout the year. His impression of Stonewall is uncanny, Mr. Randall’s a dead ringer for the late general. Seeing him in camp for the first time I immediately approached and addressed him as General Jackson. Greg’s stature, his beard, the uniform, the grey high-topped kepi angled down obscuring his eyes, his impression was perfect.
Thousands of spectators came out to watch this sesquicentennial event, but it was a small non-spectator event held in a nearby wooded lot that gave me and the small contingent of reenactors involved the period rush these history obsessed impersonators seek at these reenactments.
The reenactment schedule noted that there was going to be a small scenario where the wounding of Stonewall Jackson would be reenacted. Mr. Jennette arranged for a group of reenactors attending from North Carolina to participate in this small scenario. These reenactors from North Carolina were reenacting in the same unit their forefathers fought in 150 years ago at Chancellorsville, but more importantly, the same unit that mistakenly shot Jackson on May 2nd 1863. What transpired at this small intimate event was nothing short of remarkable. So much so that I’ve decided it deserves a separate post. The reenactment of the wounding of Stonewall Jackson.
The Battlefield at Chancellorsville
The Chancellorsville Battlefield is a revealing battlefield in that the fighting in May of 1863 basically occurred along the Orange Plank Road, now modern Route 3, which still runs through Chancellorsville as it did in 150 years ago. You can drive along Route 3 and see all the locations of the fighting within just a few miles.
Virginia in the spring is especially beautiful. The wooded areas around Chancellorsville, still termed “The Wilderness” are dense and filled with bird song. Short walks into these wooded areas reveal evidence of the miles of trenches constructed by the soldiers in 1863. These trenches, now leaf covered and worn down over the years, can still be plainly seen and go as far as the eye can see in these dense forests. These ghostly mounds are everywhere.
Along route 3, sandwiched between modern strip malls, the original Salem Church is still there. Cannon and musket ball pock marks still mar its exterior. Just a mile or so up the road, the foundations of the Chancellor Tavern, burned down in the fighting, can still be seen as well as it’s close proximity to the Union position at Fairview just across the road.
The Park Service Visitors Center for the Chancellorsville Battlefield is right here too and resides near the site of Stonewall Jackson’s fatal wounding. A little trail from the visitors center takes you to the forest road Jackson and his staff took on the evening of May 2nd, when they were mistaken for the enemy by their own troops and fired on. The Battle of Chancellorsville is famous for Stonewall Jackson’s roundabout march and flank attack, but most notoriously for his fatal wounding here. Stonewall Jackson was, at Chancellorsville, the most well known and loved of all the soldiers in the Confederacy. The wounding and eventual death of Jackson was so devastating to the South that this wounding site was marked and preserved soon after the battle.
The Park Service has also preserved the back roads that Stonewall Jackson took on this famous flank march. Kept as gravel roads and still running through heavily wooded areas, Jackson’s Trail, East and West, takes you along that famous flank march route.
On this trail you pass the ruins of Catherine’s Furnace an area iron works that Jackson’s troops noted on their march. Along this trail you also cross Poplar Run a small stream that was the last drink of water for many of Jackson’s troops on this fateful march. The trail, twelve miles or so in length, leads you through The Wilderness and back to the Orange Plank Road, the site of Stonewall’s flank attack.
I visited the multiple river crossing the Union army needed to ford to fight this battle. Kelly’s Ford and US Ford on the Rappahannock and Germanna and Ely’s Fords on the Rapidan River. These river crossings were vital to the Union Army and were guarded during the fight and served as both entrance and exit for the Federals in 1863.
The two critical points of high ground in the battle, the hills at Hazel Grove and Fairview, are within the Battlefield park and are today studded with cannons to give visitors an inkling of the furious artillery battle fought here in 1863. Walking at sunrise between these two hills, seeing the warm light crawl across the landscape, my boots wet and covered in seedlings, the intense beauty is tempered by the history of this landscape. It’s also clear, with the short distance between these two hills, why, after the Confederates got control of Hazel Grove, the Union position at Chancellorsville became untenable.
Ellwood Manor, an old dominion plantation just west of the Chancellorsville Battlefield, served as a field hospital during the battle. The grand 18th century manor sits atop a hill that overlooks the Rappahannock River to the north with rolling farmland east and west, as far as the eye can see. To the south, The Wilderness. A small cemetery on the Ellwood property contains only one marker. It’s the final resting place for Stonewall Jackson’s left arm.
The End at Chancellorsville
After Jackson was wounded on May 2nd, General Lee put calvary General J.E.B Stuart in charge of Jackson’s troops and ordered him to reorganize and prepare the Confederates for the inevitable renewed fight in the morning. As May 3rd dawned, Stuart’s troops attacked. The onslaught leads General Hooker to pull back his commands inadvertently giving up the vital high ground at Hazel Grove to the Confederates.
Stuart piled the hill at Hazel Grove with cannons and proceeded to hammer the retreating Union forces as they attempted to make a stand at Fairview. In the fighting General Hooker is wounded and from then on looses all impetus for this battle.
In desperation General Hooker, recovering from a concussion, seeks the assistance of Gen. John Sedgwick’s Union troops still facing Confederates forces opposite Fredericksburg. Sedgwick’s troops, answering the call, storm the heights at Fredericksburg, taking that bloody ground fought so intensely in December, and start to head toward Hooker at Chancellorsville.
Sedgwick’s troops are stopped in their tracks on the Orange Plank Road at Salem Church where the last and the bloodiest of the fighting at Chancellorsville takes place. Sedgwick now isolated and not able to connect with Hooker retreats across the Rappahannock River with the rest of the Union army in the following days…the Battle of Chancellorsville is over.
General Lee triumphantly rides into Chancellorsville amongst the screaming throngs of his adoring troops. The confederate general is victorious in the face of diversity but with the painful knowledge of the battle’s cost in blood and the loss of his most able and trusted general.
The Battle of Chancellorsville on May 1-6th 1863 would in fact go down in history as the second bloodiest engagement of the Civil War. But the stunning Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, a victory against more then two to one odds, gave the South and most importantly Robert E. Lee the momentum and confidence to consider a future invasion of the Northern States……somewhere possibly in Pennsylvania…..in less then two months these armies will meet again at Gettysburg.
An excellent book on this battle, “Chancellorsville”, by Stephen Sears. Also, Stephen Crane’s famous, “The Red Badge of Courage”, is based on this battle. Robert Krick’s, ” The Mortal Wounding of Stonewall Jackson” is an excellent source for details on Jackson’s fate at Chancellorsville. The memoirs of General John B. Gordan, “Reminiscences of the Civil War”, as well as Union officer Darius Couch’s, “The Chancellorsville Campaign”, both published in the 19th century added some period flavor to the research.
The next trip on the calendar takes the Civil War 150 Pinhole Project, north, to Pennsylvania and the epic Battle of Gettysburg.
Link to: The Wounding of Stonewall Jackson
Link to: Gettysburg
Link to: Slide Show