previous next


The successes and failures of Chancellorsville.

by Alfred Pleasonton, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.

Union cavalry-man's hat.

In the latter part of April, 1863, General Hooker decided to undertake an offensive campaign with the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Lee. At this time the two armies faced each other: Lee's, numbering about 60,000 men, being at Fredericksburg, and the Army of the Potomac, numbering about 130,000 men, at Falmouth, on the north side of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. Hooker directed three corps of the army, the First, the Third, and the Sixth, comprising 59,000 men, under the command of General Sedgwick, to cross the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg and hold Lee's army in that position, while he himself moved secretly and with celerity three corps, the Fifth, the Eleventh, and the Twelfth, numbering 42,000 men, up the river, crossing it and concentrating them at Chancellorsville, ten miles west of Fredericksburg, with the purpose of moving down upon General Lee's army to take it in rear and flank-two divisions of the Second Corps being placed to cover Banks's Ford, the third division being left at Falmouth, while a brigade and battery were stationed at United States Ford to facilitate the crossing. The Cavalry Corps, with the exception of one small brigade of three regiments and a battery of horse artillery, which was left under my command with the army, was ordered under the command of General Stoneman to make a raid in rear of Lee's army, and destroy his railroads and his communications with Richmond.1

Parade at Falmouth of the 110th Pennsylvania Volunteers. From a photograph. This regiment (of Whipple's division, Third Corps) with the 84th Pennsylvania performed desperate service near Fairview on Sunday morning, May 3d, the 84th losing 215 men and the 110th losing 45 men.--editors.


Abandoning the winter camp at Falmouth. From a War-time sketch.

On the 26th of April General Hooker gave his orders for the right wing of the army to move, the Eleventh and Twelfth corps to be followed by the Fifth; the Eleventh and Twelfth to cross the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford, and the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford; the Fifth Corps marching from Kelly's Ford to Ely's Ford, nearer to the mouth of the Rapidan and to Chancellorsville. The left wing of the army, under General Sedgwick, was ordered to cross the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg on the morning of the 29th; its duty was to keep the enemy as long as possible before Fredericksburg, to pursue him if he attempted to fall back on Richmond, and to take possession of his works and his line of retreat if he marched upon Chancellorsville; in other words, Sedgwick was told to hold Lee at Fredericksburg until Hooker could come down upon him from Chancellorsville and crush him.

The right wing of the army crossed Kelly's Ford on the morning of the 29th, and the Eleventh and Twelfth corps reached Germanna Ford that evening. I had the advance of this column with two regiments of cavalry and a battery of horse artillery; the third regiment of the cavalry brigade I sent with the Fifth Corps to Ely's Ford. In the afternoon, at Germanna Ford, I surprised and captured a picket of some fifty of Stuart's cavalry soldiers. With them was an engineer officer belonging to Stuart's staff. On searching the party, as is (lone with all prisoners, I found on this engineer officer a very bulky volume, which proved to be a diary that he had been keeping throughout the war. I spent the greater part of the night in reading it, in hopes of finding something that would be of advantage to us; nor was I disappointed. This diary stated that in the first week in March a council of war had been held at General Stuart's headquarters, which had been attended by Generals Jackson, A. P. Hill, Ewell, and Stuart. They were in conference over five hours, and came to the decision that the next battle would be at or near Chancellorsville, and that that position must be prepared. [174] The next day, the 30th of April, I moved on toward Chancellorsville, and at 1 o'clock in the day I captured a courier or orderly from General Lee, who had a dispatch from Lee, dated at Fredericksburg, noon of that day, and addressed to Major-General McLaws, stating that he had just been informed that the enemy had concentrated in force near Chancellorsville, inquiring why he had not been kept advised, and saying that he wished to see McLaws as soon as possible at headquarters. At 2 o'clock P. M., one hour later, I reported to General Hooker at Chancellorsville, and submitted to him the diary and General Lee's dispatch, both of which he retained, and I suggested that we had evidently surprised General Lee by our rapid movements across the river, and, as Lee had prepared for a battle at Chancellorsville, we had better anticipate him by moving on toward Fredericksburg. A march of three or four miles would take us out of the woods into a more open country, where we could form our line of battle, and where our artillery could be used to advantage; we would then be prepared to move on Fredericksburg in the morning. Besides, such a movement would enable us to uncover Banks's Ford, which would shorten our communication with General Sedgwick over 5 miles, and bring us within 31 miles of Falmouth by that Ford.

I was much surprised to find that General Hooker, who up to that time had been all vigor, energy, and activity, received the suggestion as a matter of secondary importance, and that he considered the next morning sufficiently early to move on Fredericksburg. Up to that time General Hooker's strategy had been all that could have been desired. He had outflanked the enemy and had surprised him by the rapidity of his movements. At 2 o'clock P. M., on the 30th of April, General Hooker had ninety chances in his favor to ten

Union troops crossing the Rapidan at Ely's Ford. From a War-time sketch.

[175] against him. The very cavalry under Stuart that Lee depended on to keep him advised had been cut off by the prompt action of the army, and we had it over the signature of General Lee himself that his army had been surprised. General Hooker had it in his power at that time to have crushed Lee's army and wound up the war. The Army of the Potomac never had a better opportunity, for more than half its work had been done before a blow had been struck, by the brilliancy of its strategy in moving upon Chancellorsville.

I camped my command about a mile from General Hooker's headquarters, which were at the Chancellor House, and such were my misgivings as regarded the situation of the army that about dusk I called upon the general again and stated to him our perilous position.

To the east, toward Fredericksburg, the woods were thick for three or four miles; to the south, toward Spotsylvania Court House, the woods extended about the same distance; to the west, from Hazel Grove, the same condition of things existed; while the country between Chancellorsville and the Rappahannock River, in our rear, was rough, broken, and not at all suitable for the operations required of an army. The position of the army at Chancellorsville extended about three miles from east to west in the narrow clearings, which did not afford sufficient ground to manceuvre an army of the size of the Army of the Potomac. Besides this, we were ignorant of what might be going on outside of this cordon of woods, and were giving the enemy every opportunity to take us at a disadvantage. Every instinct induced me to suggest to General Hooker, to relieve ourselves from our embarrassments, to send the Eleventh Corps, which was in a miserable position in the woods, down to Spotsylvania Court House by the Jack Shop road, and make the line of battle from Chancellorsville to Spotsylvania. This proposition was not approved, and I then asked permission to send some cavalry to Spotsylvania, to find out what was going on in the open country beyond the woods. General Hooker assented to this, and I ordered the 6th New York Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan McVicar, to proceed down the road from Chancellorsville to Spotsylvania, ascertain if the enemy were anywhere in that vicinity, and, having done so, return before daybreak. This could easily be done, as the distance was not more than eight miles. Colonel McVicar executed his orders in splendid style; he went to Spotsylvania, saw no enemy, but on his return, it being moonlight, he found a body of cavalry in his front, barring his passage to Chancellorsville. He immediately deployed his regiment, some three or four hundred strong, and after a murderous fire from the saddle he charged the enemy with sabers and completely routed t hem. This force was the 5th Virginia Cavalry, and with it were General Stuart and staff. They scattered in every direction and were pursued by the 6th New York Cavalry until the 2d Virginia Regiment, coming to their assistance, stopped the pursuit. The 6th New York Cavalry then, unmolested, returned to Chancellorsville, but without their brave commander, who was killed in the thickest of the fray.

This action made a strong impression on the Confederates, and Stuart, in order to avoid another such encounter, started his cavalry in the direction [176] of Spotsylvania Court House, but his rear-guard threw the whole column into confusion by the cry, “The enemy is upon us.” Major von Borcke, a distinguished officer, who was on General Stuart's staff, and was present on this occasion, in describing it, says: “Shots were fired at hazard in every direction. The 1st and 3d Virginia Regiments, no longer recognizing each other, charge upon each other mutually; Stuart's mounted men, generally so brave and so steadfast, no longer obey the orders of their officers, and gallop off in great disorder. At last quiet is restored, and the brigade finally reaches Spotsylvania Court House, while the small band which has caused so much alarm to Stuart was quietly returning to Chancellorsville.”

The next morning at daylight (Friday, May lst) I reported to General Hooker the result of this reconnoissance, and he began to realize the importance of the information that had been conveyed the day before in the

Major-General Hiram G. Berry, commanding Second division, Third Corps, killed May 3, 1863. from a photograph.

diary of Stuart's engineer officer. The 6th New York Cavalry were only able to report that they had cut their way through a heavy body of cavalry, and this by moonlight; they were unable to say whether any infantry or artillery were in that direction.

To move the army down on Fredericksburg with an unknown force on its rear and flank was a hazardous experiment. What could have been done with safety the day before now became doubtful, and it was this uncertainty that paralyzed the vigor and action of General Hooker throughout the 1st of May. Although he started the Second, Fifth, Twelfth, and Third corps in the direction of Tabernacle Church on the way to Fredericksburg, the movement was not of such a character as to bring success. Upon meeting a stubborn resistance from General Jackson's forces, and fearing that if he should become deeply engaged a force from Spotsylvania would take him in the rear and flank, he withdrew the army and placed it in position at Chancellorsville.

From that time the whole situation was changed. Without striking a blow, the army was placed on the defensive. The golden moment had been lost, and it never appeared again to the same extent afterward — an illustration that soldiers' legs have as much to do with winning victories as their arms.

General Lee knew that General Hooker had taken his army back to its position at Chancellorsville. The Third Corps had already been taken from [177] General Sedgwick at Fredericksburg, and at 2 o'clock on the morning of May 2d the First Corps was also ordered up to Chancellorsville, leaving Sedgwick with the Sixth Corps. These movements did not escape the attention of General Lee, so he decided to assume the offensive and put in operation the plan which had been suggested by Generals Jackson, A. P. Hill, Ewell, and Stuart at their council of war in the first week in March. He left a sufficient force at Fredericksburg to watch Sedgwick, while with the bulk of his army he moved on Chancellorsville, sending a force under Generals Jackson, A. P. Hill, and Stuart, to make a turning movement and to attack the Union forces in the rear and right flank, and roll them up. Lee himself, in the meantime, with the remainder of his forces, occupied the attention of the left and center of Hooker's army, to prevent any interference with the flank movement. General Lee's strategy was the same that Hooker had carried out so successfully until he stopped at Chancellorsville. Lee was equally successful in his movements, and we will now investigate the causes of his failure to give the Army of the Potomac a crushing blow.

On the 2d day of May the right of the Army of the Potomac was the Eleventh Corps, in the woods near Dowdall's Tavern (Melzi Chancellor's); the Third Corps connected it with the Twelfth Corps at Fairview and Chancellorsville, facing south toward the woods; while the Second and the Fifth corps were posted to prevent any attack taking the position in the rear and flank from the east. Throughout the morning of the 2d of May, attacks were made on different portions of our line from the east to the west. These attacks occurred at intervals of an hour or more, but always farther to the west. I was satisfied this was done to withdraw our attention from the real point of attack, and I mentioned this to Hooker, who had become more and more impressed with the belief that the information contained in the diary of Stuart's engineer officer was correct, and that Lee had adopted a plan to carry it out.

In the afternoon of May 2d General Sickles, commanding the Third Corps, sent in word that the enemy were retreating toward Gordonsville, and that their wagons and artillery could be seen passing by the Furnace road some three miles to the south. General Hooker sent for me on receiving this report, and stated that he was not sure the enemy were retreating; that he wanted an officer of experience in that part of the field, and that he wished me to take my command there and keep him promptly informed of everything that was going on. I asked him if he considered me to be under the orders of any one. He replied quickly, “You are under my orders only; use your best judgment in doing whatever you think ought to be done.”

On arriving at Hazel Grove, about one mile from Chancellorsville, I found that General Sickles was moving two of the divisions of the Third Corps in the direction of Catherine Furnace, and shortly after he became engaged there with a strong rear-guard. Hazel Grove was the highest ground in the neighborhood and was the key of our position, and I saw that if Lee's forces gained it the Army of the Potomac would be worsted.

General Sickles wanted some cavalry to protect his flanks, and I gave him the 6th New York. This left me with only the 8th and 17th Pennsylvania [178]

Repulse of Jackson's men at Hazel Grove, by artillery under General Pleasonton.

[179] regiments and Martin's New York battery of horse artillery. I posted this command at the extreme west of the clearing, about two hundred yards from the woods in which the Eleventh Corps was encamped. This position at Hazel Grove was about a quarter of a mile in extent, running nearly north-east and south-west, but was in no place farther than two hundred yards from the woods, and on the south and east it sloped off into a marsh and a creek. It commanded the position of the army at Fairview and Chancellorsville and enfiladed our line. The moving out to the Furnace of the two divisions of the Third Corps left a gap of about a mile from Hazel Grove to the right of the Twelfth Corps. Shortly after General Sickles had been engaged at the Furnace, he sent me word that the enemy were giving way and cavalry could be used to advantage in pursuit. Before moving my command I rode out to the Furnace to comprehend the situation. It was no place for cavalry to operate, and as I could hear spattering shots going more and more toward the north-west, I was satisfied that the enemy were not retreating. I hastened back to my command at Hazel Grove; when I reached it, the Eleventh Corps to our rear and our right was in full flight, panic-stricken beyond description. We faced about, having then the marsh behind us. It was an ugly marsh, about fifty yards wide, and in the stampede of the Eleventh Corps, beef cattle, ambulances, mules, artillery, wagons, and horses became stuck in the mud, and others coming on crushed them down, so that when the fight was, over the pile of debris in the marsh was many feet high. I saw that something had to be done, and that very quickly, or the Army of the Potomac would receive a crushing defeat. The two cavalry regiments were in the saddle, and as I rode forward Major Keenan of the 8th Pennsylvania came out to meet me, when I ordered him to take the regiment, charge into the woods, which, as we had previously stood, were to our rear, and hold the enem y in check until I could get some guns into position.2 He replied, with a smile at the size of the task, that he would do it, and started off immediately. Thirty men, including Major Keenan, Captain Arrowsmith, and Adjutant Haddock, never came back. I then directed Captain Martin to bring his guns into battery, load with double charges of canister, and aim them so that the shot would hit the ground half-way between the guns and the woods. I also stated that I would give the order to fire. Just then a handsome young lieutenant of the 4th U. S. Artillery, Frank B. Crosby (son of a distinguished lawyer of New York City), who was killed the next day, galloped up and said, “General, I have a battery of six guns; where shall I go? what shall I do?” I told him to place his battery in line on the right of Martin's battery, and gave him the same instructions I had given Martin as to how I wanted him to serve his guns. These 2 batteries gave me 12 guns, and to obtain more I then charged 3 squadrons of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry on the stragglers of the Eleventh Corps to clear the ground, and with the assistance of the rest of the regiment succeeded in placing 10 more pieces of artillery in line. The line was then ready for Stonewall Jackson's onset. It was dusk when his men swarmed out of the woods for a quarter of a mile in our front [180] (our rear ten minutes before). They came on in line five and six deep, with but one flag — a Union flag dropped by the Eleventh Corps.

I suspected deception and was ready for it. They called out not to shoot, they were friends; at the same time they gave us a volley from at least five thousand muskets. As soon as I saw the flash I gave the command to fire, and the whole line of artillery was discharged at once.3 It fairly swept them from the earth; before they could recover themselves the line of artillery had been loaded and was ready for a second attack. After the second discharge, suspecting that they might play the trick of having their men lie down, draw the fire of the artillery, then jump up and charge before the pieces could be reloaded, I poured in the canister for about twenty minutes, and the affair was over.4

When the Eleventh Corps was routed, the situation was this: The nearest infantry to me was the right of the Twelfth Corps, over a mile off, and engaged by the forces under General Lee, who was trying to prevent them from impeding the movements of General Jackson. The two divisions of the Third Corps were nearly a mile to the west, at the Furnace. Had Jackson [181] captured the position at Hazel Grove, these two divisions would have been cut off from the army. He would have seen General Hooker and his staff getting what troops he could to prevent the routed Eleventh Corps from demoralizing the rest of the army, and the fatal position which that portion of the army occupied rendered it an easy task to have crushed it. Neither the Second Corps nor the Twelfth Corps was in position to have defended itself against an attack by Jackson from Hazel Grove.

For half an hour General Jackson had the Army of the Potomac at his mercy. That he halted to re-form his troops in the woods, instead of forging ahead into the clearing, where he could re-form his troops more rapidly, and where he could have seen that he was master of the situation, turned out to be one of those fatalities by which the most brilliant prospects are sacrificed. When he advanced upon the artillery at Hazel Grove Jackson had another opportunity to win, if his infantry had been properly handled. The fire of his infantry was so high it did no harm; they should have been ordered to fire so low as to disable the cannoneers at the guns. Had his infantry fire been as effective as that of our artillery, Jackson would have carried the position. The artillery fire was effective because I applied to it that principle

Major-General Amiel W. Whipple, commander of the Third division of the Third Corps, mortally wounded by a Sharp-Shooter on the morning of May 4, 1863. from a photograph.

of dynamics in which the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection,--that is to say, if the muzzle of a gun is three feet from the ground and it is discharged so that the shot will strike the ground at a distance of one hundred yards, it will glance from the earth at the same which it struck it, and in another one hundred yards will be three feet from the ground. I knew my first volley must be a crushing one, or Jackson, with his superior numbers, would charge across the short distance which separated us and capture the artillery before the guns could be reloaded.

After the fight at Hazel Grove I sent into the woods and captured a number of Jackson's men. I asked them to what command they belonged. One of them said to General A. P. Hill's corps, and added, “That was a pretty trick you played us this evening.” I asked to what he referred. He replied, “By withdrawing your infantry, and catching us on your guns,”--thus showing that the flight of the Eleventh Corps was looked upon as a ruse. To my question, if they had suffered much, he said that they had been badly cut up; that General Jackson had been badly wounded; also General A. P. Hill, and their chief of artillery. I asked how he knew General Jackson had been wounded. He stated that he saw him when he was carried off the field in a litter. This information I immediately reported to General Hooker, when he directed me to withdraw my command from that position and go into camp on the north side of the Rappahannock River. It was 4 A. M. of the 3d of [182] May when I moved from Hazel Grove. Sickles, with the two divisions of the Third Corps, reached Hazel Grove from the Furnace between half-past 9 and ten on the night of the 2d of May. Some of his troops had fighting in the woods before I left, but I am unable to say what was its character.

On the morning of the 3d of May (Sunday) General Stuart was in command of Jackson's forces, Jackson and A. P. Hill having been wounded, as reported by the prisoner taken the night before. Stuart prepared, with his usual impetuosity, to renew the attack early that morning, and by one of those unfortunate occurrences so prevalent during the war, he caught the Third Corps in motion to take up a new position, connecting with the Twelfth Corps at Fairview, and facing to the west. This withdrawal enabled Stuart to take the position at Hazel Grove from which Jackson had been repulsed the evening before. He saw its advantages at once, and, placing some thirty pieces of artillery there, he enfiladed the Twelfth Corps at Fairview and Chancellorsville, and punished the Third Corps severely. The Third Corps was fighting throughout the day under great disadvantages. To add to the embarrassments of the army, General Hooker that morning was disabled by a concussion, and the army was virtually without a head, the different corps commanders fighting their commands on the defensive. Such extraordinary conditions forced the Army of the Potomac to fall back from Chancellorsville and Fairview, and form a new line of battle to the north and some distance from Chancellorsville. This line presented a front to the enemy that could not be enfiladed or turned. Desultory fighting, especially with artillery, was kept up on the 4th of May; but Hooker's battle ended on the 3d, after the army had gained its new position.

It is useless to speculate what General Hooker would have done if he had not been disabled. Up to the evening of the 2d of May the enemy had suffered severely, while the Army of the Potomac had comparatively but few killed and wounded; but the unfortunate circumstances that contracted the lines of our army enabled the enemy to inflict the severest punishment upon all the troops that were engaged. In fact, the greatest injury was inflicted on the 3d of May, while the army had no commander. Had the First Corps, which had not been engaged, and the Fifth Corps, still fresh, been thrown into the action in the afternoon of Sunday, the 3d of May, when Lee's troops were exhausted from the struggle, they would certainly have made Chancellorsville what it should have been,--a complete success. These two corps mustered from 25,000 to 30,000 men. There was no one to order them into the fight, and a second golden opportunity was lost. The army recrossed the Rappahannock River on the night of May 5th, and took up again the position at Falmouth which they had occupied before the campaign.


When Stonewall Jackson turned our right.

by John L. Collins, 8TH Pennsylvania cavalry.
On the afternoon of May 2d, 1863, the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry were ordered to dismount, slack saddle-girths, and rest in the vicinity of General Hooker's headquarters at Chancellorsville. Some of the men fell asleep holding their horses, some began talking of the battle, while a knot of officers, who always improved such occasions in this way, sat down to their favorite game of poker. Suddenly an order from headquarters made a complete change in the scene. At the word “Mount!” the sleepers as well as the talkers sprang to their saddles, the gamblers snatched up their stakes and their cards, and a regiment of cavalry took the place of a lounging crowd.

Passing to the left of the Chancellorsville House, we crossed our line of battle at the edge of a wood and came up with a reconnoitering party that had captured the 23d Georgia. We had heard that Lee was retreating, and supposed that this unfortunate regiment had been sacrificed to give the main body a chance to escape; but while we were commiserating the poor fellows, one of them defiantly said, “You may think you have done a big thing just now, but wait till Jackson gets round on your right.”

We laughed at his harmless bravado, for we did not think he would betray Jackson's move had he known anything about it; but while we were yet trying to get through the thick wood the roar of musketry and artillery on our right confirmed his speech. We now came back at a gallop toward a point between the place where we were resting and the place where the battle was raging. As we rode into an elevated clearing, called Hazel Grove, the regiment (the 8th Pennsylvania) was brought into line. We surmised a disaster and nervously braced ourselves for the ordeal, not knowing whether we were to make an attack or wait there to receive one.

The roar of musketry was now heavier and nearer; the vast woods between us and Dowdall's tavern seemed to shake with it. There was no time to ask or to wonder what had happened, for the regiment was ordered off at a gallop. After riding about three hundred yards we turned into a narrow road that promised to take us into the midst of the enemy. Half a dozen horsemen in cadet gray — most likely a general's staff reconnoitering, as they did not ride in ranks — were in the road ahead of us, and turned and fled back to their lines.

The word “Charge!” was now passed from the leading squadron, and sabers flew into the air along our line; but none too soon, for we were already in the midst of the foe, and they were ready for us. The unfortunate squadron that led caught all the fire as we dashed along the narrow lane, and we who rode next it got only the smoke from the enemy's guns. We could reach nothing as yet, and could see nothing but fire and smoke, for their line of battle was safely posted behind a thicket that lined the left of the road, while their rifles were aimed through it.

It was a long lane and a hot lane to go through; but the lane had a turn, and we got to it at last when we reached the Plank road and struck Rodes's division right in the front. We struck it as wave strikes a stately ship: the ship is staggered, maybe thrown on her beam ends, but the wave is dashed into spray, and the ship sails on as before.

Major Keenan, who led his battalion in the charge, the captain in command of the leading squadron, the adjutant, and a few score of their followers went down at this shock together. The detail sent over to recover their bodies after the battle said that the major had thirteen bullets in his body, the adjutant nine, and others fewer. It was reported by some who rode close upon the major that in falling he shouted, “To the right!” seeing that the impenetrable masses on his left could not be forced, and that there was no way out but over the thinner lines on the right. When turning at full speed, my horse was killed and I was pitched over his neck on the roadside. Here I parted company with the regiment. When I jumped to my feet I had time to take only one glance at my surroundings. My sole thought was to escape capture or death. On one side were the heavy lines of Confederate infantry doubled and bent by the charge, their officers trying to recover their alignment; on the other side the survivors of the leading squadrons were galloping in the Plank road, the others breaking over the Confederate skirmish lines as far back as I could see into the woods.

By instinct I turned toward the woods on the right of the Plank road as the best way out, and made a dash at the lines, which had just recovered from their surprise that a cavalry regiment should have ridden over them, and were firing after it. They were loading when I ran out between them, and when they began to fire I dropped down behind some trees that had been cut to make an abatis, or had been shot down by the cannon; when the volley was over I jumped up and ran as fast as before.

The Plank road, and the woods that bordered it, presented a scene of terror and confusion such as I had never seen before. Men and animals were dashing against one another in wild dismay before the line of fire that came crackling and crashing after them. The constantly approaching rattle of musketry, the crash of the shells through the trees, seemed to come from three sides upon the broken fragments of the Eleventh Corps that crowded each other on the road. The horses of the men of my regiment who had been shot, mingled with the pack-mules that carried the ammunition of the Eleventh Corps, tore like wild beasts through the woods. I tried in vain to catch one.

This employment of the mules for ammunition [184]

Major Peter Keenan, killed in the charge of the 8th Pennsylvania cavalry.

service was a device of General Hooker's, and this was the only field where they played their part. Each mule carried four or five boxes of spare ammunition, and being tied in couples, they seemed easier to catch than a horse. As a pair of them made for opposite sides of a tree, I ran toward them to get one, but before I could succeed a shell from the direction of the Plank road struck the tree, exploded the ammunition, and slaughtered the mules.

I now gave up hope of a mount, and seeing the Confederate lines coming near me, tried to save myself on foot. Once, when throwing myself down to escape the fury of the fire, I saw a member of my own regiment, whose horse also had been shot, hiding in a pine top that had been cut down by a shell. He had thrown his arms away that he might run the faster, and he begged me to do the same. This I refused to do, and I got in safely with my arms, while he was never seen again. I turned into the Plank road to join the very bad company that came pouring in by that route. More than half of the runaways had thrown their arms away, and all of them were talking a language that I did not understand, but, by their tones, evidently blaming some one for the disgrace and disaster that had befallen their corps. They appeared to share the prevailing confusion on that part of the field, where the front and the rear seemed reversed. Yet, as misery loves company, I cast my lot with them and continued my flight.

I doubt if any of us knew where we were going, further than that we were fleeing before the pursuing lines of the enemy. One of my own company, who was captured in the charge, afterward told me that in leaping an abatis, he was lifted from his saddle by a vine and remained suspended till made a prisoner.

In the very height of the flight, we came upon General Howard, who seemed to be the only man in his own command that was not running at that moment. He was in the middle of the road and mounted, his maimed arm embracing a stand of colors that some regiment had deserted, while with his sound arm he was gesticulating to the men to make a stand by their flag.5 With bared head he was pleading with his soldiers, literally weeping as he entreated the unheeding horde. Under different circumstances I should have considered it my duty to follow and find my command, and report for duty with it. But I could not go past the general. Maimed in his person and sublime in his patriotism, he seemed worthy to stand by, and out of pure compliment to his appearance I hooked up my saber and fell into the little line that gathered about him. As the front became clear, we fired. a few shots at the advance line of the Confederates, but a fresh mass of fugitives in blue soon filled the road, and we had to stop firing. The general now ordered us to cover the whole line of retreat so as to let none pass, and the officers, inspired by his devotion, ran in front of their men, drew their swords, and attempted to stop them. As the number constantly increased, the pressure became greater upon the line that blocked the way; but this line was constantly reenforced by officers and others, and offered some resistance to the pressure. At last the seething, surging sea of humanity broke over the feeble barrier, and General Howard and his officers were carried away by main force with the tide. Pharaoh and his chariots could have held back the walls of the Red Sea as easily as those officers could resist this retreat. I started again on my race for life, this time alone, and toward the slopes of the Chancellorsville plateau, where it seemed to me probable that my regiment would re-form after the charge.

My course was right-oblique from the road, and I had not gone far before I saw lines that I knew were not retreating. Their flags were flying, and my heart took a bound as I beheld battery after battery galloping into position, and regiment after regiment wheeling into line behind them. A line of battle showed itself at last; the Third Corps had come up to stop the successful charge, and Jackson's men would find a difference between attacking the Third Corps in front and the Eleventh in the rear. Seeing the guns unlimber and load, I made my greatest effort at speed, but not caring for a few fugitives, the guns belched forth their fire before I could get in. However, I came safely through, and at last paused for a long breath. While congratulating myself upon my escape, I looked behind the line of battle, and there saw my own regiment drawn up for a charge, the line not so long as half an hour before by one-third, but still as shapely and resolute as ever. The horses were blown and nervous, and the men were, no doubt, a little depressed by the rough usage they had met with. A horse, that had followed the company riderless from the charge, was given to me, [185] and my confidence and self-respect came back as I mounted him, for I was no longer a fugitive, but a soldier.

The fighting now began in earnest. The splendid divisions of Birney, Berry, and Whipple had to be met and vanquished before a farther advance could be made, and before Jackson could attain the great object of his march to our rear. The gathering darkness was favorable to the Confederates, for they could get near the guns before being seen; but it also added to the terror of the batteries, which were discharged double-shotted at the assailants, and lit up the heavens with fire that seemed supernatural. The dusky lines fell back into the woods in disorganized masses as often as they advanced, and the cheers of our troops rang out at each retreat. From. the boldness and the frequency of the Confederate charges it was found necessary to move the infantry in front of the guns, lest the enemy should seize them before being discovered. The slope was so steep that a line of battle could be formed in front of the guns and a double skirmish line in front of that.

Our regiment now moved up to the guns, enabling us to see better the slopes and the woods when lit up by the flashes. Sometimes darkness and stillness would reign for a few minutes, and we would

General Howard striving to rally his troops.

think the long day's fighting was over, but it would presently break out again. The stealthy rush from the woods could be heard first, then the sharp crack of the skirmisher's rifle, then a yell and a louder rushing of their lines met by the loud roll of the line of battle's fire. As the cheer of our men announced that the enemy's line was again in retreat, the blaze of forty or fifty cannons from the right to the left would light up the scene and carry death over the heads of our men into the woods beyond. [186]

At last Jackson's men paused, for they had been marching and fighting since morning, and human nature could endure no more. But they were not allowed to hold the ground they had won; an advance was now ordered on our side, and it was made with a vigor that avenged the discomfiture of our comrades. Though it was now midnight the woods were lit up with the flame of the musketry as the combatants came face to face among the trees, and the battle began anew. The artillerists pushed on their guns by hand a hundred yards behind the infantry line, and shook the woods in their depths, as they had the hills to their foundations. At last, at 2 o'clock in the morning, we were told to sleep on our arms. But who could sleep while counting the dead of our commands? Comrades were gone; file-leaders and file-closers were gone; officers of every grade had perished. Stonewall Jackson himself had gone down in his greatest charge; and his men never again fought as on that day, nor came down on our flank with such fury.

1 This corps did great service by drawing off General Lee's cavalry, under General J. E. B. Stuart, to Brandy Station and Culpeper, thus depriving General Lee of their services; for General Hooker moved the three corps with him with such celerity that they passed between Stuart and Lee's army, and Stuart could not get through to communicate to Lee what was going on. It will be seen later on what a loss this was to Lee, and what a great advantage it was to the Army of the Potomac.--A. P.

2 See also statements of Major Edward J. Carpenter and others on p. 187.--editors.

3 Major Clifford Thomson, a-ide-de-camp on General Pleasonton's staff, in a letter written in 1866 gives the following account of the fight at Hazel Grove:

General Pleasonton rode from gun to gun, directing the gunners to aim low, not to get excited, to make every shot tell; the staff-officers, catching their cue from him, did the same, and while at first there had been considerable excitement and apprehension among us, it soon quieted down, and every thought and action was directed to getting the best service out of those guns that they were capable of rendering. Recovering from the disorder into which Keenan's charge had thrown them, the enemy could be seen forming line of battle in the edge of woods now in our front. They were scarcely two hundred yards distant; yet such was the gloom that they could not be clearly distinguished. General Pleasonton was about to give the order to fire, when a sergeant at one of the guns said:

“ General, aren't those our troops? I see our colors in the line!” This was true, for where he pointed our colors could be seen — trophies picked up on the field. General Pleasonton turned to me and said:

Mr. Thomson, ride out there and see who those people are.”

For myself, I was not at all curious about “those people,” being perfectly willing to wait till they introduced themselves. Riding out between our guns, I galloped to within thirty or forty yards of them; all along the line they cried out to me, “ Come on; we're friends! ” It was quite dark and I could not make out their uniforms, but I could see three of our flags, and these caused me to hesitate; I came to a halt, peering into the darkness to make sure, when a bullet whistled by me, and then came “ the rebel yell.” The line charged up the hill toward our guns, and I led it! Lying down upon my horse's neck, I gave him the spur, and the yells of the ‘Johnnies’ behind further stimulated him, so that we got over the ground in a lively manner. But with the report of the first shot fired at me General Pleasonton had opened fire, and those twenty-two guns belchedforth destruction at a fearfully rapid rate. Although lying down on my horse I kept an eye on the guns and guided my horse between the flashes, and in less time than it takes to tell it I was on the safe side of them. It was load and fire at will for some minutes; the enemy was mowed down in heaps; they could make no headway against such a cyclone, and ran back down the slope to the cover of the woods. But still the canister was poured into them, and a second attempt to charge the guns failed. Soon Sickles's corps moved from its advanced position and interposed between us and the woods; parties sent out over the field which had been swept by our guns found the dead and dying lying in heaps. Old artillery officers have informed me that they never before heard such rapid firing as occurred at that engagement; the roar was a continuous one, and the execution terrific. After it had ceased I rode up to General Pleasonton and said:

“ General, those people out there are rebels!”

There was a grave twinkle in his eye as he held out his hand and replied:

Thomson, I never expected to see you again; I thought if they didn't kill you I should, but that was no time to stop for one man.”

I should have agreed with him more cordially if that one man had been somebody else. After Sickles had made his dispositions in our front, we were withdrawn to get forage for our horses, and our part in the battle of Chancellorsville was done. Word had gone out through the army that Pleasonton and his staff had been killed; so, when tired, sleepy, very dirty, and extremely hungry, we next morning rode quietly into our headquarters camp, at the rear, we were looked upon as persons risen from the dead. One thing I have forgotten to mention, and that is that we had virtually no support for those twenty-two guns during the action. There was a portion of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry under the hill, but the men were new recruits and had not, I believe, been under fire previous to that occasion. Had the enemy succeeded in gaining the crest of the knoll, the support would not have made a mouthful for a single company of Jackson's men. When President Lincoln visited the army a day or two after this fight, General Pleasonton chanced to call at Hooker's headquarters, when that officer said:

Mr. President, this is General Pleasonton, who saved the Army of the Potomac the other night.”

The President acknowledged the service in his usual grateful manner. Only inspiration, or the instinct of a natural soldier, could have enabled Pleasonton to accomplish so much in so short a time with so small a force. The fight at Hazel Grove was one of those sharp and decisive actions pregnant with great results.

4 See also statements of Captain James F. Huntington on p. 188.--editors.

5 See General Howard's description on p. 200.--editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 2nd (6)
May 3rd (4)
April 30th (2)
March (2)
3rd (2)
1866 AD (1)
May 4th, 1863 AD (1)
May 3rd, 1863 AD (1)
May 2nd, 1863 AD (1)
April, 1863 AD (1)
May 5th (1)
May 4th (1)
May 1st (1)
April 26th (1)
29th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: