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Chapter 13: Chancellorsville

  • On the march
  • -- the light division passes our guns -- Marse Robert passes the light division -- the two little dogs of the battalion -- two of our guns take Chancellorsville in reverse -- interview with General McLaws -- entire regiment from New Haven, Conn., captured -- brother William and Marse Robert -- Sedgwick -- Hooker -- his battle orders -- his compliment to Lee's Army -- Lee's order announcing Jackson's death.

I recall but one or two features of the march to Chancellorsville. We were with McLaws' division, and of the 14,000 (Anderson's and McLaws' commands) with which General Lee undertook to hold, and did hold, the front of Hooker's 92,000, while Jackson, with the balance of our forces, swung around his right flank and rear.

Two of our batteries, the Howitzers and Manly's, left Fredericksburg at midnight, April 30th, 1863, and early on the morning of May 1st were drawn up in column on the side of the Old Turnpike, head toward Chancellorsville, to allow the “Light division,” as Gen. A. P. Hill's command was called, to pass. Jackson, as we understood, was somewhere ahead, and Hill's superb troops seemed to be resolved that he should not be compelled to wait even a moment for them. They were in light marching order, and I thought I had never seen anything equal to the swinging, silent stride with which they fairly devoured the ground. The men were magnified in the morning mist which overhung the low flat-lands they were traversing, and at the same time imparted a ghostly indistinctness of outline, which added to the impressiveness of the scene. All was silent as the grave, save the muffled and almost synchronous tread of the thousands of feet in the soft road, and the low clatter or jingle of accoutrements. [169]

There was a sudden outburst in the rear of tumultuous shoutings, which rapidly swept toward us, and very soon General Lee, with a full staff, galloped to the front, passing between us and the Light Division, which, however, had now halted and stacked arms across the road from our guns. I cannot recall a moment of higher enthusiasm during the four years of the war. The troops were transported with the wildest excitement and the General also appeared to be unusually impressed. I cannot say that it was his habit, but I distinctly remember that on this occasion he lifted his hat, taking it by the crown with his right hand and holding it suspended above-his majestic head as far as we could see him. I remember, too, how the men greeted him, shouting, “What a head, what a head! See that glorious head! God bless it, God bless it!”

In a short time the Light Division got under way again, resuming its swaying, swinging, panther-like step, others of Jackson's command following them. When the last of his troops had passed, we resumed our march and continued it until we finally reached the position assigned us, with McLaws' division, which formed a part of the thin Confederate line covering Hooker's front, and a most peculiar position it was. It was an old house site in a small clearing, but the main building had been burned or destroyed, apparently years ago, while one or two outbuildings were standing. Our guns came into battery in an old pansy bed, which before we left was spattered with splotches of intenser color. We could see absolutely nothing of the enemy, nor of any other part of our own lines; indeed the entire region was a gloomy thicket and our infantry line so stretched and attenuated that the men were scarcely in sight even of each other. It was currently, and I have every reason to believe correctly, reported, that in inspecting the line of his division, General McLaws found one of his brigades actually faced to the rear.

Although the enemy was not in sight from our position, nor we from theirs, yet we interchanged occasionally a considerable fire, which resulted on our side in a few sad and ghastly casualties; but we have already spoken of these and [170] may speak of them again in another connection. For the present, let us turn to something of a less painful nature.

There were two little dogs in the battalion which afforded not only a good deal of amusement, but also a field for some interesting observation and discrimination. Both were small, the Troupe Artillery dog, the larger of the two, about the size of a small coon without a tail, which he in general resembled. He was dark, stone gray on his back, inclining (somewhat more than a coon) to tan or fawn color underneath. He had also rough, coarse hair; short, stout legs, and, as implied, little or no tail. He had entered the service early, joining the battery during the unfortunate campaign in Western Virginia, and was named after the commanding general, “Robert Lee.” He was very plucky in a personal difficulty, but I blush to say, an abject coward in battle. The Howitzer dog, whom we christened “Stonewall Jackson,” came to us a mere puppy in the summer of 1862, after the battles around Richmond, and while we were waiting for the re-equipment of the battery. He was a Welsh fice, very small, but beautifully formed, gleaming white in color, with a few spots of jet black, his hair fine and short, and lying close and smooth. He did not carry guns enough, metaphorically speaking, to amount to much in a canine encounter, but he was a born warrior, a perfect hero in battle. When our guns were in action he was always careering wildly about them, and in any pause of their hoarse thunders the shrill treble of his tiny bark was always to be heard.

In the battle of Chancellorsville, while we were occupying the position above described, I had occasion to go down the little declivity in rear of the gun to the caissons. I had just left the battery firing actively and Stonewall even more than usually excited, when my eye chanced to light upon poor little Bob Lee sneaking to the rear, in fright absolutely pitiable. It may serve as an excuse for him that he had gotten separated from his company, which had been left behind at Fredericksburg with Early. To my astonishment, he made for a large tree, back of which and as close in and under as possible he crept, and crouched and squatted, very much as a demoralized man might have done. The action and the [171] purpose were unmistakable. I do not know that I could have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes, but there was no room for doubt. One might not feel generously and sympathetically inclined toward a man under such circumstances, but it is pleasant to be able to say that little Bob's prudent precautions accomplished their object. As I have always understood, he passed safely through the war and followed the men of his battery to Georgia.

Stonewall was a remarkable little animal. It was surprising that he was not lost or killed in action, especially when we had to change our position rapidly under fire, which was very often. Under such circumstances, whoever happened to be nearest the little fellow, if by a frantic dive he could manage to get him in time, would lift the lid of a limber chest, drop him in an empty partition, and clap the lid down again before the gun dashed off with the rest; but as soon as it came into battery in the new position, No. 6, before getting at his fuses, would first lift the little warrior from his dark, close quarters and drop him on the ground, where, in a twinkling, he would recover his balance, resume his part in the fight and keep it up until, in another move, he was again imprisoned in transitu, either in an ammunition chest or under someone's arm.

He was an intelligent, companionable little chap, and the boys taught him some uncommon tricks. His special master, teacher, patron and friend was dear old “Van,” --chief of the second detachment,--who could do anything from shoeing a horse to making a clock out of pine bark, and must of necessity be always doing something, even if it were but training a puppy. Van taught Stonewall to attend roll-call, and to sit up on his haunches, next to him, on the advanced rank of non-commissioned officers, and he made a little pipe for him, which Stonewall would hold firmly in his mouth when Van had once inserted it between his teeth. Then when the orderly sergeant, before beginning the roll, called “Pipes out!” Van would stoop and slip Stonewall's pipe from his mouth to his left paw, which would then instantly drop to his side with the other, and the little corporal would stand, or sit, stiffly and staunchly in the position of a soldier, eyes front, until the company was dismissed. [172]

Stonewall was stolen from us several times by Harry Hayes' brigade, his Louisiana Creoles having the ungovernable passion of the French soldier for pets. At last the cunning thieves succeeded in hiding him, and we lost him finally, to the deep regret, not to say grief, of every man in the battery.

After fighting for some hours in a very indecisive and unsatisfactory fashion, in the unsatisfactory position above described, two of our pieces, my gun one of them, were advanced by a neighborhood road, several hundred yards to the right and front and to the top of a hill from which we could see the entire formation of the Federal lines about Chancellorsville. Who discovered this position I never knew, but it was one of the most remarkable, perhaps the most remarkable, I ever saw. It was on the left flank and rear of the Federal lines about Chancellorsville house, and not more than a thousand or twelve hundred yards distant from our guns. The Federal artillery was as regularly and accurately stationed as if on parade or at drill-guns in front and in action, the motions of the cannoneers at the manual of the piece being distinctly recognizable, except when the smoke of the successive discharges momentarily shut them off; limbers the required distance in rear of guns, caissons in rear of limbers, drivers sitting bolt upright on their horses, and three heavy, black lines of infantry lying down back of the artillery.

I never before felt such a rising of my heart into my throat as I did while lying just behind the crest of the ridge, gazing intently upon this scene and aiding the gunners of the two pieces in making careful estimate of the distance. We were unwilling to waste a shot, knowing that, in the very nature of things, such an opportunity would not be long vouchsafed us. In the pauses or subsidences of the cannonade we could hear the clear, high-pitched, thrilling, dauntless yell of our charging infantry, and we felt what our fire, if well directed, might mean to those gallant fellows. We had already unlimbered and moved the gun3 forward by hand, so that their muzzles just failed to project over the brow of the hill. We went back to the limbers, [173] took out two shells and cut the fuses accurately in accordance with our estimate of the distance, loaded and ran both pieces forward again until they just cleared the crest of the ridge; then, running down the screws and elevating the muzzles appropriately to the distance, every man in the detachment fell into place, the primers were inserted in the vents and both lanyards pulled simultaneously. The ear detected but one discharge, and the two shells flew screaming and bursting together in the very midst of the mass of Federal artillery, exploding certainly one, and, as it seemed, two, ammunition chests or caissons.

The blow was utterly unexpected, the effect overwhelming, and we gave them no time to recover, but kept throwing in shell as rapidly as the guns could be loaded and discharged, until the entire hillside seemed to be cleared for the time of both artillery and infantry. Suddenly we heard the regular huzzas of Federal infantry very close to us, apparently at the foot of the hill on which we stood, but concealed by the scrub forest. No pickets had been thrown out in our front so far as we knew; there was no infantry support with us; minie balls began to drop in very briskly; the hillside we had cleared filled up again, and it was deemed prudent for us to retire.

Strange it is, but I have not the slightest recollection as to what artillery officer was in charge of us, but I do remember that in retiring to our former position we passed very close to Gen. Lafayette McLaws, commanding the division to which generally, as on this occasion, we were attached. I was more deeply stirred than I had ever before been, and have some indistinct recollection of urging one or two of our artillery officers that the eight guns we had with us should be advanced to the position our two guns had just left, accompanied by infantry support.

The suggestion was not approved by them, and I went to General McLaws with it. He received me without the slightest reproof for my impertinence, but said we had done our work with two rifles, and that from what he knew of the ground the distance must be too great for smooth-bore guns. I assured him that he was misinformed, and that I [174] knew what I was talking about, as I had helped to estimate the distance and cut the fuses. I do not now exactly recall what the distance was, but I am positive now, as I was then, that it was within range of our shortest-ranged guns, and I insisted that with our eight guns in action on that hill (the other eight had been left at Fredericksburg with Early) we could fairly blow up Chancellorsville. While I was saying this Major Goggin, adjutant-general of the division, and a fine soldier, rode up and confirmed all I had said. I have an indistinct recollection that we boosted the general, who was short and stout, to the top of an old tobacco barn, but his view was very little extended even from that vantage ground. Nevertheless, he came to our opinion and sent the order for all our eight guns to advance to the position indicated, supported by Semmes' brigade.

I was almost delirious with joy, and ran back to the guns, anticipating a scene of destruction and of triumph such as no one of us had ever before witnessed. But just as the two batteries were drawn out in column on the road we learned that our troops had carried the enemy's works, that he had abandoned the position we were to have shelled, and our opportunity was gone. Semmes, however, went right on, and by a skilful movement and a short, sharp fight, cut off and captured a Federal force which seemed to have been sent forward with the view of capturing our two rifled guns. A little later he marched his prisoners into the clearing we had occupied, and it turned out that he had an entire regiment, I think of “hundred-day men,” from New Haven, Conn.

General Lee, convinced that there was, for the present at least, no more dangerous fight in Hooker, had ridden through to General McLaws' position to talk with him about turning back to help Early take care of Sedgwick. He and McLaws were conferring, I think, at the moment on horseback. My enthusiasm had spent itself, or rather had oozed out with our disappointment, and I was walking down the front of the captured regiment, kept, however, at proper distance by the guard which had been placed over them. I had heard where the prisoners hailed from and was carefully scanning their faces, recognizing many of them. At last a [175] little fellow who had been in my Sunday-school class in New Haven recognized me. How he happened to do this is a mystery, as there was not a trace of my former self visible, except my height and my muscular figure. I had lost my hat, my hair was close-shingled, skin tanned red brown; I had on only flannel shirt, pants, belt and shoes; shirt front wide open, sleeves rolled up, clothes and skin spattered black with powder water from the sponge-indeed I was, all in all, about as desperate-looking a ruffian as could well be found or imagined. But when this little chap, through all this disguise and transformation, recognized me and called out my name, there was a simultaneous shout of “Bob Stiles” from many throats. General Lee called me to him and asked whether I really knew “those people,” the peculiar phrase which he employed habitually in speaking of the Northern people or the Federal soldiery,--and upon my telling him that I did, he ordered the guard to pass me in the lines, telling me to find out what I could and let him know. He also offered to do anything in his power for any prisoner whose circumstances I might think required his intervention, and in this way I arranged a special exchange for a young man named Sheldon, whom I had known at Yale or at a preparatory school in New Haven. I also gathered considerable information, which I gave to the commanding general.

A short time after this, I cannot say exactly how long, but that same evening and before we started back after Sedgwick, General McLaws called me to him and said I ought not to be in the ranks; that I was right about that movement of all our guns to that advanced position, and this showed I had a gift for handling artillery; that he would send for a commission as captain and have me assigned to the command of a certain Georgia battery which he mentioned; that it was true this battery had a way of getting its captains killed and wounded, but that bad luck like that didn't last forever, and that it was time the luck was turning with this battery. I thanked him heartily, but told him that I had not discovered the commanding position he referred to and didn't know who was entitled to the credit [176] of pointing it out; that I had simply reported what we had seen and done-other men no less than I; that as to the battery he had mentioned, while I thought I could sincerely say that the fate of its former captains would not deter me, yet I presumed there were officers in this battery who deserved and would expect promotion, and if so I would not be willing to cut them out of their proper dues; and besides, I much questioned whether I was really competent to be put at once in command of a battery in the field. He seemed to be a little disappointed at what he evidently thought my lack of proper ambition, but said he would talk with me further about it, and I left him, making a great effort not to show how profoundly moved I was. Here, for the third time within a week, was promotion offered and a door opened before me; for while I had returned the commission in the engineer troops, yet I could not be sure it was not intended for me, especially as it began to appear as if there was a general consensus that I should be promoted.

Shortly after I left General McLaws, he and General Lee resumed their conference, and, just as they did so, there occurred an incident which beautifully revealed the equipoise of General Lee's character and the charm of his manner.

If any of the minor characters mentioned in these reminiscences has a distinct personality every way worthy of approval and of remembrance, it is “Brother William,” the consecrated, courageous chaplain of the Seventeenth Mississippi, or rather of Barksdale's brigade — the real hero of the great revival at Fredericksburg. He, of course, had remained behind there, with his brigade, under the general command of Early, to watch Sedgwick.

I was standing in the shade of a tree, near our guns, which had been ordered to draw out on the road, head of column to the rear, that is, toward Fredericksburg,--an order and movement which we all well understood,--when my attention was called to a horseman coming at full speed from the direction in which we were heading, and as he drew near I saw it was “Brother William,” and that he was greatly excited. My recollection is that he did not have a saddle, but was riding upon a blanket or cloth of some [177] kind, and that his horse was reeking with sweat and panting from exertion. When his eye fell upon General Lee he made directly for him, and I followed as fast as I could. He dashed to the very feet of the commanding general, indeed, almost upon him, and gasping for breath, his eyes starting from their sockets, began to tell of dire disaster at Fredericksburg-Sedgwick had smashed Early and was rapidly coming on in our rear.

I have never seen anything more majestically calm than General Lee was; I felt painfully the contrast between him and dear little Brother William. Something very like a grave, sweet smile began to express itself on the General's face, but he checked it, and raising his left hand gently, as if to protect himself, he interrupted the excited speaker, checking and controlling him instantly, at the same time saying very quietly:

I thank you very much, but both you and your horse are fatigued and overheated. Take him to that shady tree yonder and you and he blow and rest a little. I'm talking to General McLaws just now. I'll call you as soon as we are through.

I said Brother William was at once dominated and controlled, and he was-but not quite satisfied. He began a mild protest: “But, General!” but he did not persist in ithe simply could not. He had already dismounted, and he started back with me to the tree, leading his horse.

Unfortunately, I had none of General Lee's power over him, and he began to pour out to me his recital of disaster and prediction of ruin. All was lost below, Sedgwick had stormed the heights and seized the town, the brigade had been cut off, and, he feared, captured; Early had been beaten and pushed roughly aside, and at least 30,000 victorious troops were rapidly pressing on in our rear. Substantially, he alone was left to tell the tale, and had fortunately been able to secure this horse on which to come to tell it. If not already too late, it very soon would be, to do anything even to moderate the calamity.

In vain I suggested that General Lee could not be ignorant of all this; that his scouts had, doubtless, given him information; [178] that General Early certainly would have found means to communicate with him; that Lee had beaten Hooker and his calm and self-reliant bearing clearly indicated that he felt himself to be master of the entire situation. But Brother William would not be comforted or reassured. General Lee had not been upon the spot and could not know; he had been and did know. The very calmness of the general showed he did not appreciate the gravity of the situation. While we were thus debating the matter, General Lee finished with McLaws, who at once started his division on the back track to reinforce Early and help him take care of Sedgwick-and, true to his promise, Marse Robert now called for Brother William, and, as he approached, greeted him with a smile, saying:

Now what were you telling us about Major Sedgwick?

Brother William again told his tale of woe-this time with somewhat diminished intensity and less lurid coloring. When he had finished the general thanked him, saying again:

I am very much obliged to you; the major is a nice gentleman; I don't think he would hurt us very badly, but we are going to see about him at once. I have just sent General McLaws to make a special call upon him.

I did not, at the time, quite appreciate the marked peculiarity of General Lee's allusion to Sedgwick, but, as I now understand, the latter had been a major in the old service, of the regiment of which Lee was colonel, and they had been somewhat intimate friends.

There is a decided difference of opinion, and that among both Federal and Confederate authorities, as to whether or not Sedgwick heartily and vigorously supported and cooperated with Hooker's plans in this campaign. Both Hooker and Warren reflect seriously upon him for failure to do so, and Early and Fitzhugh Lee, on the Confederate side, take a like view. The two latter estimate Sedgwick's force at thirty thousand troops, while Early had only some ten thousand to oppose him. Fitz says in substance that Sedgwick's attacks were desultory, nerveless, and easily repulsed, even by our very inferior force, until the extreme weakness of our lines was discovered under flag of truce [179] granted him to take care of his wounded. Then he attacked with more determination and captured Marye's Heights and several pieces of artillery, but even then did not push his advantage with vigor. Barksdale seems to have been for the time separated from Early, and it was at this juncture that Mr. Owen procured the horse and galloped to Chancellorsville with his blood-curdling tale of disaster. A staff officer of General Early had, however, preceded him, as we afterwards learned.

It was currently reported at the time that the whole of the Mississippi brigade would have been captured, as part of it was, had not the giant musketeer of the Twenty-first Regiment clubbed his gun and rushed bare-headed down the hill upon the Federal troops who were climbing it. At this fearful apparition they broke and ran, and in the gap and confusion thus occasioned a large part of the brigade made its escape.

After McLaws joined forces with Early, Sedgwick, though still outnumbering his foes, became the hunted rather than the hunter, and seems to have counted himself happy, under cover of the friendly darkness, to make his escape across the river.

It is fair to say that some military critics take a different view of Sedgwick's operations, and it may well be, after all, that Hooker's lieutenant has suffered in general estimation mainly by reason of his being brought, under the circumstances, into comparison with Lee's matchless second and his absolutely perfect appreciation, support, and execution of the plans of his great chief in this the most brilliant of his battles.

Hooker's own part in these operations would seem to have been more creditable, but his great weakness was a tendency to boasting. There was a striking contrast between the records he made for himself in his order book and in the field. When, on the 26th of January, 1863, he took command of the Army of the Potomac, his first act was to christen it in the memorable, high-sounding phrase-“The finest Army on the Planet.” On the same day, in General Order No. 1, he emphasized the inferiority of its enemy, and [180] added: “Let us never hesitate to give him battle whenever we can find him.” After just three months of waiting he did find him, right across the river where he had all the time been, and moved upon him. Then, after three days of really skilful maneuvering, on the 30th of April, as he took up his position at Chancellorsville, he issued his General Order No. 47, congratulating his army that now, “Our enemy must ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” The rash enemy chose the latter alternative, but objected strongly to the predicted result of “certain destruction.” And lastly, on the 6th day of May, after he had abandoned his famous and almost impregnable position, and retired across the river in the dark, as Sedgwick had already done, he published his General Order No. 49, of which he asked, but apparently never got, President Lincoln's opinion — in which “The Major-General Commanding tenders to the army his congratulations on its achievements of the last seven days ... ,” and adds: “The events of the last week may swell with pride the heart of every officer and soldier in this army.”

All these, however, are but the blasts of the war trumpet, and are calculated to blind us to the admirable character of Hooker's general plan and his creditable maneuvers in the attempted execution of it. In parting with him I cannot refrain from saying that no soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia can fail to kindle toward him, at least a little, upon reading his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, in which he gives the following curious and tortuous, yet, upon the whole, manly explanation of the defeat and failure of “The finest Army on the Planet :”

Our artillery had always been superior to that of the rebels, as was also our infantry, except in discipline; and that, for reasons not necessary to mention, never did equal Lee's army. With a rank and file vastly inferior to our own, intellectually and physically, that army has, by discipline alone, acquired a character for steadiness and efficiency unsurpassed, in my judgment, in ancient or modern times. We have not been able to rival it, nor has there been any near approximation to it in the other rebel armies.


It is strange that I cannot recall when I first heard of Jackson's being wounded, nor even of the overwhelming calamity of his death. There is an impression on my mind that I saw his body lying in state in the Capitol at Richmond; but upon reflection I am inclined to think this is an error and that I am confounding impressions derived from reading the detailed accounts in the daily press with the actual sight of the eye. The only reliable data I have, bearing upon the time of this visit to Richmond, is Beers' burial there, at which I certainly was present. He fell on the 3rd of May and was buried on the field. It was warm weather and his re-interment at Richmond could not have been many days later. Jackson did not die until the 10th of May, and I could not have witnessed the funeral obsequies in Richmond unless I remained there longer than I now think I did.

Under these circumstances, there being nothing of value I can add in the way of personal reminiscence, nothing would be gained by my repeating the familiar story of that week of fearful suspense or the heroic recital of the last interchange of confidence, admiration, and affection between the great leader and his peerless lieutenant. Suffice it to say, there are few passages in human story as lofty, as tender, or in every way as creditable to human nature. The following is the order which General Lee issued to his army announcing the death of Jackson:

General order no. 61.

headquarters Army of Northern Virginia.
With deep regret the commanding general announces the death of Lieutenant-General T. J. Jackson, who expired on the ioth instant, at quarter past three P. M.

The daring, skill, and energy of this great and good soldier, by the decree of an All-wise Providence, are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his spirit still lives, and will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage and unshaken confidence in God as our hope and strength. Let his name be a watch-word to his corps who have followed him to victory on so many fields. Let his officers and soldiers emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our loved Country.

R. E. Lee, General.


Meanwhile the commission in engineer troops had been returned to me, accompanied by directions to report at Richmond for orders. This seemed to settle the question. Evidently I could not wait for the chance of the reopening of the appointment on Jackson's staff, or for the captaincy in artillery of which General McLaws had spoken, either of which I should have greatly preferred to the engineer appointment. I had informed the Bureau when I returned the commission that I was not an engineer and, with this knowledge, the appointment had been confirmed. Besides, either before or when I reported in Richmond, I found that I owed my appointment to a lady; that Mrs. Gilmer, the wife of General Gilmer, the head of the Engineer Bureau of our service, had told her husband that she wished to nominate one officer when he made his appointments in engineer troops, and had nominated me, without any previous personal acquaintance, basing her action upon what she had heard of me from others and particularly from my father, and out of regard for him.

Under these circumstances, to decline the appointment was out of the question. So I tore myself away from my dear comrades, my own brother among them, and reported at Richmond for my orders, as directed.

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