Battles and campaigns

Jackson's Flank March at Chancellorsville

Frank O'Reilly lecture. John Murray report

 

On 1st May 1863, Lee faced a daunting task. Hooker had created a good plan. He would split his forces and strike at the front and rear of Lee's men who occupied the area around Fredericksburg. Hooker sent some troops under Sedgwick as a feint to Fredericksburg while he took the rest across the Rappahannock using various fords to come around behind Lee. Stuart informed Lee of Union movements and Lee sent some troops to hold the junction at Chancellorsville. Lee at this time was without Longstreet. Lee left 10,000 men at Fredericksburg to outfox the feint and moved the rest towards the Wilderness with Jackson in the vanguard. Union forces were concentrating at Chancellorsville and some, including Meade, expected to continue the advance. Hooker, however, ordered the advance to stop and formed a defen­sive position. Frank considered that Lee had done two important things: first, he had forced Hooker back into the extremely dense Wilderness where Hooker could not bring his larger force to bear: secondly. Lee had seized the initiative! The Confederates were on the offensive and must continue to attack the unhinged Union forces.

 

 


On the evening of 1st May 1863, Lee and Jackson met to discuss their plans. Fitzhugh Lee reported some good news. He had discovered the western end of the Union flank beyond the Wilderness Church and it was "up in the air". Moreover, while the Federal troops in front of Lee were entrenching, those on the flank under O.O. Howard had set up camp without fortifying it and were in a weak position. It was a 12-mile route around the Federal army. The Confederates did not have a map of the area but they had camped there for the winter when they were focused on the Rappahannock. Now both sides were maneuvering in the fog of war. Lee asked Jackson what he proposed to do. Jackson would go around the Union right flank with his Corps leaving the divisions of Anderson and McLaws with Lee. Now Lee's forces were further weakened being divided into three in the face of a large and aggressive enemy with the risk that Hooker might take the initiative.

 

At 6.00 a.m. Jackson and his 27,000 men set off, leaving 13,000 with Lee to hold the attention of 80,000 Union troops. Jackson's troops had a difficult march and found the Wilderness unforgiving. However, they were once again actively campaigning after a long winter's rest. No undertaking was too difficult for them. Veterans would later recall that they moved "by the double quick", and "exceedingly fast".

 

The Furnace Road was a hard one. A new road, it wound through the dense Wilderness. The march, largely made in silence, upset the local wildlife such as deer, foxes and snakes. Some Southern troops mistakenly thought the march was a retreat to Gordonsville, to fall back to a better position. But they saw Jackson's earnestness. The weather had its part to play. It had been raining for 4 days when, on 2nd May, the sun carne out and the temperature rose dramatically. It was unseasonably warm. Although some moisture would evaporate. some was retained in the Wilderness giving a sauna like atmosphere. As a result, some men would drop out, fainting, exhausted. Overheated men got rid of blankets and overcoats. The moisture had one benefit: there was no dust to choke on or to raise above the tree line.

 

As for Jackson himself, he was freezing! He had woken up ill. The illness, a cold or flu, was bronchial, which left Jackson shivering all day. Quite ill. Jackson pressed on.

 

At 3.30 p.m. the vanguard reached the Orange Turnpike, behind it a column stretching 7 miles. By 5.00 p.m., Jackson's men were ready to attack with Rodes' men in the first line followed by Colston's in the next line, followed in turn by A.P. Hill's men. Jackson was aware he faced two enemies: the Union army and time. The Confederate attack in lines of separate divisions was difficult to co-ordinate.

 

Against them was IX Corps under new commander 0.0. Howard. Howard did not like his Corps, often referred to as the "German Corps" but in fact only 40% germanic, and they reciprocated. Apart from internal discord within the Corps, there was external discord. IX Corps was not of the old Army of the Potomac - it had not fought on the Peninsula. They were considered outsiders. From Hooker's point of view, they were supposed to be the rear of his force and they were placed along the Orange Turnpike. With no other Union forces within a mile and a half, they were isolated and most vulnerable.

 

At 5.15, Jackson gave Rodes the order to " go forward ". It would be a difficult advance but not impossible. A veteran described the scene with " the sun round, red and low - perfectly romantic" .

 

For the Union forces, it seemed the day was over and the crisis had passed. When told that Jackson's column had been spotted, Hooker became convinced that it was a retreat. IX Corps were issuing rations when foxes, squirrels and deer were seen to bolt from the woods - nature had gone awry.

 

The Confederates, ordered to cheer, raised the rebel yell, sounding like "all the imps of hell" to one Union soldier. Von Gilsa's 41st, 45th and 54th New York and 153rd Pennsylvania were struck by George Dole's troops. Surprised, they broke and fled. Von Gilsa was obliged to fall back but could not find the reserve position. The reserve under Barlow had been removed to a meaningless position. The IX Corps position collapsed. "How surprised the Union troops were " recalled one Confederate. "There was the wildest rout and greatest disorder ".

 

The Confederates remarked on the physically obese enemy troops - they caught many fat ones! Some Southern troops stopped briefly to snatch some food or booty from the Union camp. Federal troops tried to make defences and at the Wilderness Church the attack was temporarily checked before continuing. However, the Confederates began to find themselves in some disarray. Disorganised by the woods and the darkness, their lines became entangled with units getting mixed up. The result was that the Confederate lines were getting shorter. By 9.00 p.m. some troops who had been on the far left flank found them­selves on the Orange Turnpike.

 

Jackson had to break off the attack, with Rodes and Colston going to the back to reform. Jackson still had A.P. Hill's troops, his largest division. Jackson wanted to attack up the Bullock Road to the north east and cut off the Union forces from US Ford. He was still battling both Union troops and time. Union forces from three Corps were digging in in front of Jackson. The Union lines were now longer than the Confederates', threatening both of Jackson's flanks.

 

Jackson felt he needed to press the attack and he and his staff officers, nine horsemen, rode out to reconnoitre. His guide was David Kyle, a 19-year old private in the 9th Virginia cavalry, who had grown up in the area which he knew well. Since the Federals would see the group of horsemen on the Orange Plank Road, Kyle led them off the highway to the Mountain Road. AP Hill formed his line. Jed Hotchkiss said Hill and Jackson had made amends after past differences. It was a fragile relationship. Hill reconnoitred as well in a group of 10 horsemen - down the Orange Plank Road.

 

Firefights took place in the dark. The 18th North Carolina had moved into the woods north of the Orange Plank Road while the 37th North Carolina had moved into the woods south of the road. These anxious Confederates fired blindly into the woods. AP Hill and his group rode back to their lines at the gallop. Seeing a road full of riders and fearing an enemy cavalry attack, the 18th North Carolina fired a volley. Hill was unscratched but some riders were wounded and killed and some horses had bolted.

 

Hearing men ahead - Union troops - preparing defences, Jackson turned to go back to his lines. Shots rang out and three of Jackson's party were hit. Jackson himself was hit twice in the left arm and a third ball hit the base of the thumb on his right hand. The upper wound coagulated and there was little blood. Jackson was being carried down the Turnpike when Union artillery at Fairview opened up tearing the highway with shrapnel. One of the stretcher bearers was hit in the arms. From face up to face down, Jackson was thrown from his stretcher. His injured arm hit the ground and the wound burst open.

 

Jackson was bleeding profusely and a tourniquet was applied. Jackson ordered his officers to form tight around him to disguise the fact that he was wounded. Behind Lane's lines, Pender showed no remorse to the wounded Jackson who glared at him ordering him to hold his ground. Then Jackson collapsed. At a field hospital near Dowdell's Tavern, his medical officer Dr Maguire amputated Jackson's arm. Jackson died a few days later from pneumonia. Frank reminded his audience how Jackson had been ill, shivering in the great heat of 2nd May.

 

Frank referred to Jackson's indelible accomplishment of the 2nd May, commenting that the mistaken volley altered the course of the Corps forever. Chancellorsville was the pinnacle of his achievements.

 

During the question and answer session, a query was raised whether an unfinished railroad could have been used by Jackson but Frank thought it would have been too close to Union lines . No one was court martialled for the shooting of Jackson - an honest mistake by Lane's seasoned veterans.

 

There was discussion about prisoners and stragglers. The suggestion was made that since artillery slowed the march and was useless in the woods it should have been left with Lee's weaker force: Frank did not consider that the artillery hindered the march and the Confederates did not know the roads - the land could have opened up giving other opportunities.

 

Art: Mort Kunstler