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Chapter 22:

  • The battle of Chancellorsville and consequent events, May 3 to 6.

The dawn of this memorable Sunday-destined, as by a strange series of coincidences had been so many others, to be a day of fighting instead of rest and prayer — was just streaking the sky, when I was sent by Stuart to order the skirmishers to advance; our three divisions, numbering still about 28,000 men, having in the mean time formed in line of battle en echelon across the Germana plank-road-A. P. Hill's in the first line, Colston's in the second, and Rodes's in the third. The bulk of the artillery and cavalry were placed in reserve, the nature of the ground at the commencement of the engagement not admitting the employment of more than a certain number of light batteries acting in concert with the infantry. General Lee, with Anderson's and McLaws's divisions, pressed on the enemy from the Fredericksburg side, and was engaged in quite a distinct battle until towards the end of the conflict, when his extreme left joined our right, and the whole of our army operated in one united movement. The enemy, fully three times our number, occupied a piece of wood extending about two miles from our immediate front towards the plateau and open fields round Chancellorsville, a village consisting of only a few houses. The Federals had [391] made good use of their time, having thrown up in the wood during the night three successive lines of breastworks, constructed of strong timber, and on the plateau itself, occupied by their reserves, had erected a regular line of redoubts, mounted by their numerous artillery, forty pieces of which were playing on the narrow plank-road. This plateau of Chancellorsville rises abruptly about three hundred yards from the skirts of the forest, and is bordered by a creek with swampy borders, forming a strong natural work of defence. Notwithstanding the fearful odds arrayed against us, the many disadvantages under which we were labouring, and the fatigues of the last few days, during which scarcely any rations had been given out, our men were in excellent spirits, and confident of success. The sharpshooters advanced rapidly through the dense undergrowth, and were soon engaged in a lively skirmish with the tirailleurs of the enemy, whom they speedily drove to the first line of their intrenchments, where a well-directed fire checked the pursuers.

All our divisions now moving forward, the battle soon became general, and the musketry sounded in one continued roll along the lines. Nearly a hundred hostile guns opening fire at the same time, the forest seemed alive with shot, shell, and bullets, and the plank-road, upon which, as was before mentioned, the fire of forty pieces was concentrated, was soon enveloped in a cloud of smoke from the bursting of shells and the explosion of caissons. This road being our principal line of communication, and crowded therefore with ambulances, ammunition-trains, and artillery, the loss of life soon became fearful, and dead and dying men and animals were strewing every part of it. How General Stuart, and those few staff-officers with him who had to gallop to and fro so frequently through this feu infernal, escaped unhurt, seems to me quite miraculous. Several of our couriers were wounded; one had a leg torn from his body by a cannon-ball while I was [392] in the act of giving him some directions, and died soon afterwards. General Stuart had a horse killed under him in the first half-hour of the fight, and my own was twice wounded, first in the back by a musket-ball, and next in the chest by a piece of shell, from the effects of which it died the following morning, though it was fortunately able to carry me through the day. Stuart was all activity, and wherever the danger was greatest there was he to be found, urging the men forward, and animating them by the force of his example. The shower of missiles that hissed through the air passed round him unheeded; and in the midst of the hottest fire I heard him, to an old melody, hum the words, “Old Joe Hooker get out of the Wilderness.”

After a raging conflict, protracted for several hours, during which the tide of battle ebbed and flowed on either side, we succeeded in taking the advanced works, and driving the enemy upon their third line of intrenchments, of a still stronger character than those before it. This partial success was only gained with a sad sacrifice of life, while countless numbers were seen limping and crawling to the rear. The woods had caught fire in several places from the explosion of shells — the flames spreading principally, however, over a space of several acres in extent where the ground was thickly covered with dry leaves; and here the conflagration progressed with the rapidity of a prairie-fire, and a large number of Confederate and Federal wounded thickly scattered in the vicinity, and too badly hurt to crawl out of the way, met a terrible death. The heartrending cries of the poor victims, as the flames advanced, entreating to be rescued from their impending fate-entreaties which it was impossible to heed in the crisis of the battle, and amidst duties on which the lives of many others depended-seem still in my ears. Among the heart-sickening scenes of this terrible conflict which are still vivid in my memory, is one no lapse of time can ever efface, [393] and in contemplating which I scarcely could check the tears from starting to my eyes. Riding to the front, I was hailed by a young soldier, whose boyish looks and merry songs on the march had frequently attracted my attention and excited my interest, and who was now leaning against a tree, the life-blood streaming down his side from a mortal wound, and his face white with the pallor of approaching death. “Major,” said the poor lad, “I am dying, and I shall never see my regiment again; but I ask you to tell my comrades that the Yankees have killed but not conquered me.” When I passed the place again half an hour afterwards I found him a corpse. Such was the universal spirit of our men, and in this lay the secret of many of our wonderful achievements.

The enemy had in the meanwhile been strongly reinforced, and now poured forth from their third line of intrenchments a fire so terrible upon our advancing troops that the first two divisions staggered, and, after several unsuccessful efforts to press onward, fell back in considerable confusion. In vain was it that our officers used every effort to bring them forward once more; in vain even was it that Stuart, snatching the battle-flag of one of our brigades from the hands of the colour-bearer and waving it over his head, called on them as he rode forward to follow him. Nothing could induce them again to face that tempest of bullets, and that devastating hurricane of grape and canister vomited at close range from more than sixty pieces of artillery, and the advantages so dearly gained seemed about to be lost. At this critical moment, we suddenly heard the yell of Rodes's division behind us, and saw these gallant troops, led by their heroic general, charge over the front lines, and fall upon the enemy with such impetus that in a few minutes their works were taken, and they were driven in rapid flight from the woods to their redoubts on the hills of Chancellorsville.

A slight pause now intervened in the conflict, both sides, [394] after the terrible work of the last few hours, being equally willing to draw breath awhile; and this gave us a opportunity to re-form our lines and close up our decimated ranks. The contest, meanwhile, was sustained by the artillery alone, which kept up a heavy cannonade; and the nature of the ground being now more favourable, most of our batteries had been brought into action, while from a hill on our extreme right, which had only been abandoned by the enemy after the charge of Rodes's division, twenty 12-pounder Napoleons played with a well-directed flank-fire upon the enemy's works, producing a terrible effect upon their dense masses. About half-past 10 we had news from General Lee, informing us that, having been pressing steadily forward the entire morning, he had now, with Anderson's and McLaws's divisions, reached our right wing. I was at once despatched by Stuart to the Commander-in-Chief to report the state of affairs, and obtain his orders for further proceedings. I found him with our twenty-gun battery, looking as calm and dignified as ever, and perfectly regardless of the shells bursting round him, and the solid shot ploughing up the ground in all directions. General Lee expressed himself much satisfied with our operations, and intrusted me with orders for Stuart, directing a general attack with his whole force, which was to be supported by a charge of Anderson's division on the left flank of the enemy. With renewed courage and confidence our three divisions now moved forward upon the enemy's strong position on the hills, encountering, as we emerged from the forest into the open opposite the plateau of Chancellorsville, such a storm of canister and bullets, that for a while it seemed an impossibility to take the heights in the face of it. Suddenly we heard to our right, piercing the roar and tumult of the battle, the yell of Anderson's men, whom we presently beheld hurled forward in a brilliant charge, sweeping everything before them. Short work was now made [395] of the Federals, who, in a few minutes, were driven from their redoubts, which they abandoned in disorderly flight, leaving behind them cannons, small-arms, tents, and baggage in large quantities, besides a host of prisoners, of whom we took 360 in one redoubt.

A more magnificent spectacle can hardly be imagined than that which greeted me when I reached the crest of the plateau, and beheld on this side the long lines of our swiftly advancing troops stretching as far as the eye could reach, their red flags fluttering in the breeze, and their arms glittering in the morning sun; and farther on, dense and huddled masses of the Federals flying in utter rout towards the United States Ford, whilst high over our heads flew the shells which our artillery were dropping amidst the crowd of the retreating foe. The Chancellorsville House had caught fire, and was now enveloped in flames, so that it was with difficulty that we could save some portion of the Federal wounded lying there, to the number of several hundreds, the majority of whom perished. In this building General Hooker had fixed his headquarters, and hence he had directed the battle, until a shell, striking the roof of the porch within which he stood, brought down such an overwhelming heap of plaster and stones upon his head, that he was taken up from the ground insensible, and for more than an hour was unable to attend to his duties. The flight and pursuit took the direction of United States Ford, as far as about a mile beyond Chancellorsville, where another strong line of intrenchments offered their protection to the fugitives, and heavy reserves of fresh troops opposed our further advance.

Eight hours of severe fighting had now considerably exhausted our troops, and General Lee, having sent me off at about 11 o'clock A. M. to recall the advanced division, ordered the whole army to halt and rest for the present. The next few hours passed away in comparative quietude, interrupted [396] only at intervals by cannonading, or the more brisk firing of the skirmishers, and it soon became evident that the battle would not be renewed that day. Our men had in the mean time occupied themselves throwing up a line of intrenchments along the plank-road, as a protection against a sudden rush of the enemy, and were now some of them engaged in tending the wounded and burying our dead, while others were busying themselves cooking the rations left behind them in abundance by the Federals. I was myself suffering severely from hunger, having eaten little or nothing for several days, and coming upon an apparently well-stored haversack fastened on the back of one of the disfigured corpses on the field, I was held back by no morbid loathings from helping myself to its contents, and enjoyed a hearty meal off the dead Yankee's provisions — a thing which not many months before would have seemed to me impossible. Even my negro Henry was affected with more squeamishness, for I soon afterwards met him, after he had been collecting a heap of plunder, which so loaded my poor mule Kitt as to leave only her legs visible, standing wistfully beside a fine pair of boots upon a dead Yankee's feet, and eyeing them, with his finger in his mouth, and a most melancholy expression of regret and longing on this black visage. Knowing how much the fellow was really in want of such articles, I advised him to possess himself of them before some one else was beforehand with him, when he whined out, “Oh! I like so much to have them boots, but I can't; I'se afraid de ghost of dis ‘ere Yankee come in de night and take dem dar boots back agin.” And nothing could persuade this generally enterprising darkey from despoiling the dead, although he would have had little hesitation in cutting a living man's throat for the sake of the same alluring prize.

In the course of the afternoon a heavy cannonade came booming over to us from Frederisckburg, and early in the [397] evening it was reported to General Lee that, after a sanguinary conflict, our troops, yielding to far superior numbers, had been driven from the heights opposite that town, and the hostile forces were pressing forward in the direction of Chancellorsville. This startling intelligence, rendering our position now a very precarious one, was received by our Command-in-Chief with a quietude, and an absence of all emotion, which I could not but intensely admire. Referring, with the utmost calmness, to Sedgwick's advance, he quietly made his dispositions, ordering McLaws's division to march to the support of Early, who had been retreating to Salem Church--a place about five miles from Fredericksburg. By this firm and tranquil demeanour did General Lee inspire confidence and sanguine hope of success in all around him. Notwithstanding our extreme fatigue, the whole of the latter part of the evening we were busy carrying water to the wounded, hundreds of whom still lay in the field, it being impossible to convey so large a number to the hospitals before night. Nor did we cease our merciful task till after darkness had set in, when we returned to the centre of the plateau, where in the mean time Stuart had temporarily established his headquarters. Here we found General Lee and Stuart seated by a small bivouac-fire discussing the day's events, and speculating on the chances of a continuation of the battle; and here, too, I found my Prussian friend, Captain Scheibert, greatly elated over an adventure he had met with in the early part of the day, his original way of recounting which greatly amused us all.

He had been riding my black horse, for which he had a particular affection; and in the hope of procuring provender for it, which it much needed-perhaps, too, actuated by like intentions on his own account-he determined, after the actual fighting was over, to make an excursion to some of the neighbouring houses. Neither knowing anything of the [398] adjacent country, nor of the relative positions of the armies, he started off straight in the direction of the enemy; and coming up to a small plantation, where he made sure he should find all he wanted, he encountered six Yankees, armed with muskets, coming out of the house towards him. Scheibert, well aware that the worst thing he could do would be to turn tail, with admirable presence of mind drew his sword; and, flourishing it wildly over his head, rode up to the astonished Yankee, crying out, in broken English, “Surrender, you scoundrels! all my cavalry is right behind me.” The bewildered soldiers at once dropped their arms, and the gallant Prussian marched the whole six triumphantly back to General Lee, by whom he was highly complimented for his coolness and pluck. A rapid succession of despatches and reports reached our Commander-in-Chief during the night, which he had considerable difficulty in deciphering by the flickering light of the bivouac-fire. Like Longfellow's Ajax, his prayer was for light “throughout that long and dreary night.” It so chanced that, during our advance on Chancellorsville, I had discovered, among other luxuries, a box of excellent candles, which now lay a little outside our lines, and quite close to the enemy's skirmishers. To attempt the adventure with the hope of bringing the much-desired relief to the eyes of our beloved commander, was more than I could resist, so I set forward on foot towards the spot, crawling cautiously through the bushes, and, favoured by the darkness, succeeded in finding the box, and providing myself with a sufficient provision of candles, without attracting the attention of the enemy's videttes. On reaching the temporary headquarters, and presenting my prize to General Lee, he eyed me with his calm penetrating glance, and said, “Major, I am much obliged to you; but I know where you got these candles, and you acted wrongly in exposing your life for a simple act of courtesy.” I willingly submitted to the rebuke, only too happy [399] to have been able personally to oblige one whom we all so much admired, and for whom not one of us but would gladly have risked his life.

During the night we were allowed but little sleep, frequent alarms calling us into the saddle; moreover, the place which Stuart had selected for our repose, because it was close to the centre of our lines, being also exactly in range of the hostile artillery, which opened whenever the skirmishing grew louder, we were several times roused from our slumbers by shells plunging all around us, one of which actually burst in the top of a cherry-tree under which I reposed, covering me with a litter of torn and scattered branches. Not more than 150 yards from us, in and around a large barn, were collected more than 300 Federal wounded, and the tenement which sheltered them being ever and anon struck by the cannonballs, the pitiful cries of the poor fellows, many of whom were finally despatched, while others received fresh wounds, added to the horrors and confusion of this dreadful night. The morning of the 4th was fraught, in like manner, with excitement and disquiet; at times the skirmishing and the cannonade which followed it grew so warm as to lead, until about ten o'clock, to the expectation of an advance of the Federal army. About noon, however, everything sank into tranquillity again, and we were enabled to continue our ministrations towards the wounded, and to bury our dead. All the Federal dead, however, as well as the innumerable carcasses of animals, still encumbered the ground, and the effuvium was already growing unpleasant. But I will not attempt to go into the horrors of this battle-field; they surpassed all that I had ever seen before, the fearful effect of the artillery firing going beyond all that had occurred on any previous occasion. In the course of the afternoon we received cheerful news of the proceedings of McLaws and Early, who, attacking the enemy simultaneously, had succeeded in forcing [400] them back upon Fredericksburg, retaking the heights, and finally, by a spirited attack, driving the whole of Sedgwick's corps to the other side of the river. Several ammunition and provision trains, besides prisoners, had fallen into our hands, and, but for the extreme caution of our generals, the whole of this portion of the hostile forces might have been annihilated.

The night of this day passed over much in the same way as its predecessor, and was followed by a misty, sultry morning; and this kind of weather promoting the process of putrefaction, the air was poisoned with emanations from the dead to such an extent as to be almost insupportable. There being, moreover, danger of the men's health being affected, all that could be spared from the front were employed burying the hundreds of disfigured corpses. The enemy being very quiet all the morning, Stuart, suspecting a retrograde movement of their army, ordered our skirmishers to advance, who discovered soon enough, however, that the Federals were still in large force in our front, and posted behind works of a formidable character. Accordingly, after a severe skirmish, accompanied by a heavy cannonade, lasting more than an hour, our men were withdrawn to their original position. The afternoon brought a sudden change in the weather; the temperature fell considerably for the season of the year, and heavy rain, with violent winds, continued all the evening and a great part of the night. Meanwhile General Lee had determined to assault the enemy in their strong position. McLaws's and Anderson's divisions had already approached United States Ford on the 5th, by a circuitous march, thus menacing the left flank and line of retreat of the Federal army; and at earliest dawn on the 6th Jackson's corps received orders to advance, Rodes's division taking the lead. My own instructions from General Stuart having been to move forward with the skirmishers and reconnoitre the enemy's position as closely as possible, I cautiously made my [401] way through the woods, expecting at every instant to hear the skirmishers open fire, followed by the thunder of the artillery; but finding all quiet, I continued to advance until I reached the formidable intrenchments thrown up by the Federals, extending several miles, which I found they had entirely abandoned, leaving behind in them a large quantity of ammunition and stores of provisions, which they had not taken time to destroy. Just as I was entering the fortifications, General Rodes rode up, saying, “I am sure the enemy is in full retreat, and is probably by this time on the other side of the river.” Both of us being equally eager to discover what had really become of the great Federal army, we galloped off entirely by ourselves along the muddy road, leaving everybody behind.

General Hooker had done wonders amidst the difficulties of this wild entangled forest. Works of great strength and extent had been constructed at nearly every quarter of a mile's distance; roads had been cut and cleared through the dense undergrowth, along which telegraph wires were laid to the principal headquarters of the army; and wherever branch-roads turned off to the different corps, divisions, and brigades, large signs were conspicuously erected to guard against mistakes or confusion. Notwithstanding these wise precautions, however, considerable numbers of the Yankee soldiers became mazed amidst these extensive woods, and we continually encountered them along our route, sometimes in squads of six or eight. These poor devils, all bespattered with mud, and soaked to their skins by the drenching rain, not recognising us as enemies, our grey uniforms being concealed beneath large india-rubber cloaks, innocently accosted us to inquire the way towards their regiments, and on discovering our real character, surrendered with alacrity, laying down their arms, and marching off rapidly to the rear at our request, as submissively as though they had been our own [402] men. General Rodes and I in this way captured, merely our two selves, more than sixty of these stragglers, who, had they been tempted to act at all pluckily, might easily either have killed or made prisoners of us both. We had not far to ride in order to discover that the hostile army had entirely disappeared from our side of the Rappahannock; and as we approached the river, we could just catch sight of their rearguard climbing the hills on the opposite shore, where several batteries of artillery were placed in position, while a number of riflemen were posted along the banks of the stream. With these our sharpshooters, on coming up, became engaged in a slight skirmish, and we were favoured with several shots from the hostile batteries; but soon even these parting tokens of farewell from Hooker's great army were discontinued, and, vanishing entirely, it ceased to give forth any sign.

Seeing his army greatly demoralised by a succession of defeats, and all his plans and combinations frustrated, General Hooker had already on the previous day determined to withdraw his troops to the other side of the Rappahannock, the waters of which were rapidly rising, and threatened to carry away the pontoon-bridges, and render retreat impossible. The retrograde movement was commenced at about dusk on the 5th, and was conducted with considerable order; the bridges had been covered with layers of twigs and small branches, in order to deaden the rumbling sound of the artillery and trains passing over them, while the heavy fall of rain during the evening, followed up by bursts of thunderstorm in the night, completely masked the sounds of the retreating hosts, whose movements, exactly as at Fredericksburg under similar circumstances, entirely escaped in vigilance of our pickets. As Hooker was retracing his course back towards his old position near Falmouth, so did our troops commence at about noon their march towards their old [403] camping-ground near Fredericksburg. A. P. Hill, having now entirely recovered from his slight wound, assumed the command of Jackson's corps; and as his men marched past us they spontaneously raised an enthusiastic cheer for General Stuart, thus testifying their admiration of the gallant chief who had led them so splendidly against the enemy, and directed them to the achievement of a brilliant victory, and one for which, in my opinion, Stuart never gained sufficient credit from his superiors. Thus ended the battle of Chancellorsville, and the short but decisive spring campaign. The losses of the Federal army amounted to at least 20,000 men, of whom nearly 8000 were made prisoners. There were captured, besides, thirty pieces of artillery, large quantities of ammunition, and more than 30,000 stand of small-arms. The loss on our side was severe, amounting to nearly 10,000 men in prisoners, killed, and wounded-our beloved and everfamous Stonewall being among the latter, a fact which filled every soldier's heart with grief. It was not at that time at all anticipated that Jackson's wounds would end fatally; and several days after the unfortunate incident, I heard from the mouth of the surgeon who attended him, that the General was doing very well, and that from the state of his health at that time there was every prospect of his speedy recovery.

General Hooker, after all his disasters, had the audacity to speak of his operations as successful; and, in order to blind the eyes of the North to the true state of affairs, he ended his campaign by issuing to his soldiers an order congratulating them on their achievements and success.

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