The battle of greatest lustre. From the Times-dispatch, May 4, 1906.An incident in Chancellorsville campaign and what grew out of it.
Operations of Cavalry—e story of General Averett's interview with a Confederate prisoner Retold.
No battle, probably, in which the Federal and Confederate armies were engaged reflected more lustre on Southern generalship and the valor of the Southern soldier than the bloody struggle of Chancellorsville. The events which took place on that historic field and at Salem Church, May 13, 1863, were of a nature so important and brilliant as to eclipse and obscure the co-operating movements and detached services performed at the time in connection with the two contending armies The operations of the cavalry having covered a wide extent of territory and issued in numerous skirmishes without any regular battle, have claimed but slight attention in comparison with the desperate fighting and signal successes on the chief scenes of action. And yet, according to the well laid plan of the Federal commander, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac were carefully prepared, cautiously despatched and confidently expected to add in no small measure to the success of that army. This force, comprising all the cavalry under General Hooker save one brigade, were in two bodies, one under General George Stoneman and the other under General W. W. Averell, and were designed to operate on two distinct lines. The destination and objects of the movements were set forth in orders from General Hooker as early as April 13th. These orders are noteworthy, as showing not only the work assigned to the cavalry, but the spirit and manner in which it was to be done. ‘You will march,’ so the orders read, ‘on the 13th instant with all your available force except one brigade, for the purpose of turning the enemy's position on his left, and of throwing your command between him and Richmond and isolating him from his supplies, checking his retreat, and inflicting on him every possible injury  which will tend to his discomfiture and defeat.’ * * ‘If the enemy should endeavor to retire by Culpeper and Gordonsville, you will endeavor to hold your force in his front and harass him day and night, unceasingly. If you cannot cut off from his columns large slices the general desires that you will not fail to take small ones. Let your watchword be fight, and let all your orders be fight, fight, fight, bearing in mind that time is as valuable to the general as rebel carcasses. It is not in the power of the rebels to oppose you with more than 5,000 sabres and those badly mounted, and after they leave Culpeper without forage or rations. Keep them from Richmond and sooner or later they must fall in our hands. * * It devolves upon you, general, to take the initiative in the forward movement of this grand army, and on you and your noble command must depend in a great measure the extent and brilliancy of our success.’ The orders closed with this emphatic caution: ‘Bear in mind that celerity, audacity and resolution are everything in war, and especially it is the case with the command you have and the enterprise upon which you are about to embark.’ Such were the orders under which, two weeks or more later than was first proposed, Generals Stoneman and Averill crossed the Rappahannock from Fauquier into Culpeper county, and bivouacked near the above river. The passage was made on April 29th, and that evening, as General Stoneman states, the division and brigade commanders assembled together and ‘we spread our maps and had a thorough understanding of what we were to do and where we were to go.’ Early on the following morning Stoneman, with his command, set out for the Rapidan at Raccoon Ford and a ford below and pushed on without serious opposition to destroy the Central Railroad, the James River Canal and the Richmond and Fredericksburg road. Averill moved towards Brandy Station, Culpeper and Rapidan Station, for the purpose of masking Stoneman's movement, and cutting Lee's communications towards Gordonsville. His instructions said: ‘In the vicinity of Culpeper you will be likely to come against Fitzhugh Lee's brigade of cavalry, consisting of about 2,000 men, which it is expected that you will be able to disperse and destroy without delay to your advance. At Gordonsville the enemy have a small provost guard of infantry, which it is expected you will destroy, if it can be done without delaying your forward movement.’  General Averill's command consisted of the two brigades of his division, Davis's brigade of Pleasanton's division and Tiddall's battery, numbering in all about 4.000 men, while opposed to him on the line from Brandy to Rappahannock Station was General W. H. F. Lee with two regiments (Ninth and Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry) with one gun. General Lee with his small force fell back before Averell's advance, one squadron only being kept near the enemy to retard his progress, until the Rapidan was crossed, when he disposed his his men and one gun above the ford near the station, to give battle if the attempt was made to cross. The approach of the enemy was announced by the discharge of his cannon, as also by a feeble attempt to cross a ford a mile or two above the station. The day following, General Lee according to his own report, was engaged all day with one or two brigades of cavalry. One charge was made by Colonel Beale with one squadron to draw them out, took 30 prisoners, but could not bring them off; were pressed very hard. The charge thus sententiously started by General Lee was made for the purpose of developing the enemy's strength, and was made by a rapid trot to the river and dash through it, under the fire of the enemy's sharpshooters, who were forced back on their main line a half mile or more distant. Nothing but the temporary confusion and surprise caused by the suddenness of this dash permitted the squadron to wheel and retreat successfully. Two men of the 9th Regiment, M. U. F. and J. C. Wright, (brothers) borne too far by the impetuosity of their charge, or overtaken in retreating, were made prisoners, and the younger one was basely shot and severely wounded after his surrender. The elder of the two, M. U. F., was taken into the presence of General Averell, who questioned him closely as to the troops opposed to him, their number, etc. Wright replied to the inquiries that there was no cavalry in front of him except W. H. F. Lee's brigade, but that the trains had been hurrying down all the morning from Gordonsville crowded with infantry and artillery. Precisely what effect this answer had on the mind of General Averell, cannot be definitely stated. All the circumstances seem to indicate that it had great weight, for no attempt was made to push his command farther. At 6:30 P. M. that day, the day of the Chancellorsville battle, General Hooker sent a dispatch to Averell, through Captain  Chandler, which read in part: “I am directed by the Major-General commanding, to inform you that he does not understand what you are doing at Rappahannock Station.” To this message, Averell replied at 7:20 A. M. next morning: ‘I have the honor to state in reply that I have been engaged with the cavalry of the enemy at that point, and in destroying communications.’ On the day following General Hooker issued an order as follows: ‘Brigadier-General Pleasanton will assume command of the division now commanded by Brigadier-General Averell. Upon being relieved, Brigadier-General Averell will report for orders to the Adjutant-General of the army.’ In explanation and justification of the above order General Hooker on May 9th, in a report to the Adjutant-General of the army, stated: ‘General Averell's command numbered about 4,000 sabers and a light battery, a larger cavalry force than can be found in the rebel army between Fredericksburg and Richmond, and yet that officer seems to have contented himself between April 29th, and May 4th, with having marched through Culpeper to Rapidan, a distance of twenty-eight miles, meeting no enemy deserving the name, and from that point reporting to me for instructions.’ ‘I could excuse General Averell in his disobedience if I could any where discover in his operations a desire to find and engage the enemy. I have no disposition to prefer charges against him, and in detaching him from this army my object has been to prevent an active and powerful column from being paralyzed by his presence.’ In a report written by General Averell, whilst stung by the order recalling him, he explained his delay at Rapidan Station on the ground that, ‘All the intelligence we had been able to gather from a captured mail and from various other sources, went to show that the enemy believed the Army of the Potomac, was advancing over that line, and that Jackson was at Gordonsville with 25,000 men, to resist its approach.’ When he penned that sentence, he must have had well in mind among the intelligence which he had been able to gather, what young Wright had told him. The two Wrights, named in this communication, are still living (at Oldham's, Westmoreland county, Va.,) and retain vivid recollections of the incidents here recorded in their lives as soldiers. It  is a pleasure to testify to their singular gallantry as soldiers and their substantial worth as citizens.