PIERRE GUSTAVE TOUTANT BEAUREGARD WAS as flamboyant by nature as by name, and over the course of the past two years this quality, coupled all too often with a readiness to lay down the sword and take up the pen in defense of his reputation with the public, had got him into considerable trouble with his superiors, who sometimes found it difficult to abide his Creole touchiness off the field of battle for the sake of his undoubted abilities on it. Called “Old Bory” by his men, though he was not yet forty-five, the Hero of Sumter had twice been relieved of important commands, first in the East, where he had routed McDowell’s invasion attempt at Manassas, then in the West, where he had saved his badly outnumbered army by giving Halleck the slip at Corinth, and now he was back on the scene of his first glory in Charleston harbor. Here, as elsewhere, he saw his position as the hub of the wheel of war. Defying Union sea power, Mobile on the Gulf and Wilmington, Savannah, and Charleston on the Atlantic remained in Confederate hands, and of these four it was clear at least to Beauregard that the one the Federals coveted most was the last, variously referred to in their journals as “the hotbed of treachery,” “the cradle of secession,” and “the nursery of disunion.” Industrious as always, the general was determined that this proud South Carolina city should not suffer the fate of his native New Orleans, no matter what force the Yankees brought against it. Conducting frequent tours of inspection and keeping up as usual a voluminous correspondence—a steady stream of requisitions for more guns and men, more warships and munitions, nearly all of which were returned to him regretfully unfilled—he only relaxed from his duties when he slept, and even then he kept a pencil and a note pad under his pillow, ready to jot down any notion that came to him in the night. “Carolinians and Georgians!” he exhorted by proclamation. “The hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause. Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends. To arms, fellow citizens! Come share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.”
Two approaches to Charleston were available to the Federals. They could make an amphibious landing on one of the islands or up one of the inlets to the south, then swing northeastward up the mainland to move upon the city from the rear; or they could enter through the harbor itself, braving the massed batteries for the sake of a quick decision, however bloody. Twice already they had tried the former method, but both times—first at Secessionville, three months before Beauregard’s return from the West in mid-September, and again at Pocotaligo, one month after he reassumed command—they had been stopped and flung back on their naval support before they could gather momentum. This time he thought it probable that they would attempt the front-door approach, using their new flotilla of vaunted ironclads to spearhead the attack. If so, they were going to find they had taken on a good deal more than they expected; for the harbor defenses had been greatly improved during the nearly two years that had elapsed since the war first opened here. Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Sumter, respectively on Sullivan’s Island, off the mouth of the Cooper River, and opposite the entrance to the bay, had not only been strengthened, each in its own right, but now they were supported by other fortifications constructed at intervals along the beaches and connected by a continuous line of signal stations, making it possible for a central headquarters, itself transferrable, to direct and consolidate their fire. First Beauregard, then Pemberton, and now Beauregard again—both accomplished engineers and artillerists, advised moreover by staffs of specialists as expert as themselves—had applied all their skill and knowledge to make the place as nearly impregnable as military science and Confederate resources would allow. A total of seventy-seven guns of various calibers now frowned from their various embrasures, in addition to which the harbor channels were thickly sown with torpedoes and other obstructions, such as floating webs of hemp designed to entangle rudders and snarl propellers. Not content with this, the sad-eyed little Creole had not hesitated to dip into his limited supply of powder in order to improve the marksmanship of his cannoneers with frequent target practice. Like his idol Napoleon he believed in a lucky star, but he was leaving as little as possible to chance; for which reason he had set marker buoys at known ranges in the bay, with the corresponding elevations chalked on the breeches of the guns. As a last-ditch measure of desperation, to be employed if all else failed, he encouraged the organization of a unit known as the Tigers, made up of volunteers whose assignment was to hurl explosives down the smokestacks of such enemy ships as managed to break through the ring of fire and approach the fortress walls or the city docks. The ironclads might indeed be invincible; some said so, some said not; but one thing was fairly certain. The argument was likely to be settled on the day their owners tested them in Charleston harbor.
This was not to say that Beauregard had abandoned all notion of assuming the offensive, however limited his means. He had at his disposal two homemade rams, the Palmetto State and the Chicora, built with funds supplied by the South Carolina legislature and the Ladies’ Gunboat Fair. The former mounted an 80-pounder rifle aft and an 8-inch shell gun on each broadside, while the latter had two 9-inch smoothbores and four rifled 32-pounders. Both were balky and slow, with cranky, inadequate engines and armor improvised from boiler plate and railroad iron, but as January drew to a close the general was determined to put them to the test by challenging the blockade squadron off the Charleston bar. Orders were handed Flag Officer Duncan Ingraham on the 30th, instructing him to make the attempt at dawn of the following day. Beauregard meanwhile had in mind a more limited offensive of his own, to be launched against the 9-gun screw steamer Isaac Smith, which had been coming up the Stono River almost nightly to shell the Confederate camps on James and John’s islands. That night he lay in wait for her with batteries of field artillery, allowed her to pass unchallenged, then took her under fire as she came back down. The opening volley tore off her stack, stopped her engines, riddled her lifeboats, and killed eight of her crew. Her captain quickly surrendered himself and his ship and the 94 survivors, including 17 wounded. Repaired and rechristened, the Smith became the Stono and served under that name as part of Charleston’s miniature defense squadron, the rest of which was already on its way across the bay, under cover of darkness, in accordance with Ingraham’s orders to try his hand at lifting the Union blockade.
Palmetto State and Chicora, followed by three steam tenders brought along to tow them back into the harbor in case their engines failed, were over the bar and among the wooden-walled blockaders by first light. Mounting a total of one hundred guns, the Federal squadron included the 1200-ton sloop-of-war Housatonic, two gunboats, and seven converted merchantmen. A lookout aboard one of these last, the 9-gun steamer Mercedita, was the first to spot the misty outline of an approaching vessel. “She has black smoke!” he shouted. “Watch, man the guns! Spring the rattle! Call all hands to quarters!” This brought the captain out on deck, clad only in a pea jacket. When he too spotted the stranger, nearer now, he cupped his hands about his mouth and called out: “Steamer, ahoy! You will be into us! What steamer is that?” It was the Palmetto State, but for a time she did not deign to answer. Then: “Halloo!” her skipper finally replied, and with that the ram put her snout into the quarter of the Mercedita and fired her guns. Flames went up from the crippled steamer. “Surrender,” the rebel captain yelled up, “or I’ll sink you!” The only answer was a cloud of oily smoke shot through with steam. “Do you surrender?” he repeated. This brought the reply, “I can make no resistance; my boiler is destroyed!” “Then do you surrender?” “Yes!” So the Palmetto State backed off, withdrawing her snout, and turned to go to the help of the Chicora, which meanwhile had been serving the 10-gun sidewheel steamer Keystone State in much the same fashion. Riddled and aflame, the Federal hauled down her flag to signify surrender, then ran it up again and limped out to sea as the two rams moved off in the opposite direction. At the far end of the line, the Housatonic and the gunboats held their station, thinking the racket had been provoked by a blockade runner venturing out. By full daylight the two improvised ironclads were back in Charleston harbor, their crews accepting the cheers of a crowd collected on the docks.
Beauregard was elated by the double coup. Quick to claim that the blockade had been lifted, at least for a time, he took the French and Spanish consuls out to witness the truth of his words that “the outer harbor remained in the full possession of the two Confederate rams. Not a Federal sail was visible, even with spyglasses.” Next day the blockaders were back again, presumably too vigilant now to permit him to risk another such attempt, but he did not admit that this detracted in the slightest from the brilliance of the exploit. He bided his time, still improving his defenses for the all-out attack which he believed was about to be launched. “Already six monitors … are in the waters of my department, concentrating about Port Royal, and transports with troops are still arriving from the North,” he reported in mid-March. “I believe the drama will not much longer be delayed; the curtain will soon rise.” Three more weeks went past before his prediction was fulfilled. Then on Monday, April 6, the day after Easter—it was also the first anniversary of Shiloh and within a week of the second anniversary of the opening of the war in this same harbor—not six but nine brand-new Union ironclads, some single- and some double-turreted, crossed the Charleston bar and dropped anchor in the channel, bringing their great 15-inch guns to bear on the forts and batteries Beauregard had prepared for their reception. The curtain had indeed risen.
Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont had the flag. It was he who, back in early November of 1861, had conceived and executed the elliptical attack on Port Royal, thereby giving the North its first substantial victory of the war, and it was hoped by his superiors—his desk-bound superiors in Washington, that is, for he had no superiors afloat—that he would repeat the triumph here in Charleston harbor. Son of a wealthy New York importer and nephew of an even wealthier Delaware powder maker, the admiral was approaching sixty, a hale, well-set-up aristocrat with a dignified but genial manner and a growth of luxuriant whiskers describing a bushy U about his chops and under his cleanshaven mouth and chin, all of which combined to give at least one journalist the impression that he was “one of the stateliest, handsomest, and most polished gentlemen I have ever seen.” Gideon Welles admired him, too; up to a point. “He is a skillful and accomplished officer,” the Secretary confided in his diary. “Has a fine address, [but] is a courtier with perhaps too much finesse and management.” This edge of mistrust was returned by the man who was its object. It seemed to Du Pont, whose enthusiasm had been tempered by close association, that the Navy Department was suffering from an affliction which might have been diagnosed as “ironclads on the brain.”
This had not always been the case, particularly in the days when John Ericsson was trying to persuade the brass to give him authority for construction of the Monitor. Grudgingly, despite grave objections, they had finally let him go ahead with a contract which stipulated that he would not be reimbursed in case of failure. But after Hampton Roads and the draw engagement that put an end to the overnight depredations of the Merrimac, the Department not only reversed itself, but went all-out in the opposite direction. Ericsson received an order for half a dozen sister ships of the one already delivered, and other builders were engaged for the construction of twenty-one more, of various shapes and sizes. Assistant Secretary Fox was especially enthusiastic, informing Du Pont that after he had used the new-fangled warships to reduce Charleston he was to move on to Savannah, then send them down to the Gulf to give Mobile the same treatment. Ironclads were trumps, according to Fox. He told Ericsson he had not “a shadow of a doubt as to our success, and this confidence arises from a study of your marvelous vessels.” The Swede was less positive. “The most I dare hope is that the contest will end without loss of that prestige which your ironclads have conferred upon the nation abroad,” he replied, adding the reminder: “A single shot may sink a ship, while a hundred rounds cannot silence a fort.” Unwilling to have his confidence undermined or his ebullience lessened, Fox assured a congressional committee that the monitors (such was the generic name, adopted in honor of the first of what was intended to be a long line of invincible vessels) could steam into southern harbors, flatten the defenses, and emerge unscathed. His only note of caution was injected into a dispatch addressed to Du Pont. “I beg of you,” he pleaded, “not to let the Army spoil it.” He wanted the show to be all Navy, with the landsmen merely standing by to be ferried in to pick up the pieces when the smoke cleared. In late March, having gained nothing from nudging Porter with the promise of a ribboned star and permanent promotion, he informed Du Pont that it was up to him to make up for the reverses lately suffered in the West: “Farragut has had a setback at Port Hudson and lost the noble old Mississippi. It finally devolves upon you by great good fortune to avert the series of disasters that have fallen upon our Navy. That you will do it most gloriously I have no misgivings whatever.”
In point of fact, Du Pont by this time had misgivings enough for them both. What was more, these doubts were shared by a majority of his ironclad skippers—and with cause. Near the mouth of the Ogeechee River, just beyond the Georgia line, the Confederates had constructed as part of the Savannah defenses a 9-gun earthwork called Fort McAllister, which Du Pont decided to use as a sort of test range to determine how well the monitors would do, offensively and defensively, under fire. He gave the reduction assignment to the Montauk, which meant that he was giving the best he had; for her captain was Commander John L. Worden, who had skippered the Monitor in her fight with the Merrimac. Worden made his first attack on January 27 and, after expending all his ammunition in a four-hour bombardment, withdrew undamaged despite repeated hits scored by the guns of the fort, which was not silenced. Returning February 1 he tried again, with like results. Neither the ship nor the fort had done much damage to the other, aside from the concussive strain on the eardrums of the Montant’s crew from the forty-six hits taken on her iron decks and turret. A third attack, February 27, was more fruitful, although not in the way intended. Finding the rebel cruiser Nashville aground beyond Fort McAllister, Worden took her under long-range fire with his 11- and 15-inch guns, set her ablaze, and had the satisfaction of watching her destruction when her magazine exploded. Struck only five times by the guns of the fort, the ironclad pulled back without replying, well satisfied with her morning’s work, only to run upon a torpedo which blew such a hole in her bottom that she had to be beached in the mud at the mouth of the river. While she was undergoing repairs that soon restored her to full efficiency, three more monitors came down from Port Royal on March 3 and tried their hand with an eight-hour bombardment of the fort: with similar results. Neither silenced or seriously damaged the other, and the ironclads withdrew to try no more.
Fruitless though the experiment had been in positive results—aside, that is, from the fortunate interception of the Nashville—a lesson had been learned, on the negative side, as to the capabilities of the monitors. “Whatever degree of impenetrability they might have,” Du Pont reported, “there was no corresponding degree of destructiveness as against forts.” He felt much as one sailor had felt on a test run. “Give me an oyster-scow!” the man had cried. “Anything—only let it be of wood, and something that will float over instead of under the water.” Most of the captains were of a similar mind, and when they looked beyond the present to the impending future, their doubts increased. If these vaunted engines of destruction could not humble a modest 9-gun sand fort, what could they hope to accomplish against multi-gunned bastions like Sumter and Moultrie? They asked the question and shook their heads. “I do not feel as sure as I could wish,” one skipper admitted, while another was more positive in expressing his reservations. “I begin to rue the day I got into the iron clad business,” he wrote home.
Still, orders were orders, and as April came in Du Pont completed his final preparations for the attack. In addition to his flagship the New Ironsides, a high-bulwarked 3500-ton frigate whose ponderous armor and twenty heavy guns mounted in broadside made her the most powerful battleship in the world, he had eight low-riding monitors, mounting one or two guns each in revolving turrets: which meant that, in all, he would be opposing 77 guns ashore with 33 afloat. These odds were rather evened by the fact that the naval guns, in addition to being mounted on moving targets, which made them far more difficult to hit, were heavier in caliber and threw about an equal weight of metal. Other odds were irreducible, however, one being that in order to reach the city from the sea his ships would have to steam for seven winding miles in a shoal-lined channel, much of which had been fiendishly obstructed and practically all of which was exposed to the plunging fire of forts whose gun crews had been anticipating for months this golden opportunity to disprove the claim that monitors were indestructible. On April 2, despite increasing doubts and reservations, Du Pont left Port Royal and reached Edisto Island, twenty-odd miles below the entrance to Charleston harbor, before nightfall. There the ships were cleared for action, the exposed armor of their decks and turrets covered over with slippery untanned hides and their bulwarks slopped with grease to lessen the “bite” of enemy projectiles. (That at least was the hoped-for effect, when the vessels should come under fire. The more immediate result, however, was that they stank fearfully under the influence of the Carolina sun.) On the 5th—Easter Sunday—they cleared North Edisto and crossed the Charleston bar next morning. Du Pont had intended to attack at once, but finding the weather hazy, which as he said “prevent[ed] our seeing the ranges,” he decided to drop anchors and wait for tomorrow, in hopes that it would afford him better visibility. (It would also afford the same for the gunners in the forts; but Du Pont was not thinking along these lines, or else he would have made a night attack.) Finally, against his better judgment—and after much prodding from above, including jeers that he had “the slows” and taunts that identified him as a sea-going McClellan, overcautious and too mindful of comparative statistics—he was going in.
Tomorrow—April 7—brought the weather he thought he wanted, and soon after noon the iron column started forward, the nine ships moving in single file, slowly and with a certain ponderous majesty not lost on the beholders in the forts. Originally the admiral had intended to lead the way in the flagship, but on second thought he decided to take the center position from which “signals could be better made to both ends of the line,” so that the resultant order of battle was Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco; New Ironsides; Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, Keokuk. There was an exasperating delay of about an hour when the lead monitor’s heavy anchor chain became entangled with the bootjack raft designed to protect her bow from torpedoes; then the column resumed its forward motion, passing Morris Island in an ominous silence as the rebel cannoneers on Cummings Point held their fire. As the ships approached the inner works, however, the Confederate and Palmetto flags were hoisted over Sumter and Moultrie, while bands on the parapets struck up patriotic airs and the guns began to roar in salute. Captain John Rodgers of the Weehawken, spotting the rope obstructions dead ahead, commanded the helmsman to swing hard to starboard in order to avoid becoming entangled in the web and immobilized under the muzzles of guns whose projectiles were already hammering the monitor like an anvil. This was well short of the point at which Du Pont had intended to open fire, however, and the result was that the whole line was thrown into confusion by the abrupt necessity, confronting each ship in rapid sequence, of avoiding a collision with the ship ahead. Moreover, as the Weehawken turned she encountered a torpedo which exploded directly under her. “It lifted the vessel a little,” Rodgers later reported, “but I am unable to perceive that it has done us any damage.”
Aboard the flagship, with her deeper draft, the confusion was at its worst. When she lost headway she had to drop her anchor to keep from going aground, and as she hung there, trying to get her nose into the tide, she received two disconcerting butts from two of the monitors astern as they swept past in response to her signal to move up and join the action. Hoisting anchor at last, the Ironsides chugged forward a short distance, only to have to drop it again in order to avoid piling up on a shoal. This brought her, unbeknownst, directly over a huge submerged torpedo which the Confederates had fashioned by packing an old boiler with explosives and connecting it to an observation post ashore, to be used to detonate the charge at the proper time. Now the proper time was very much at hand; the rebel electrician later said that if he himself had been allowed to spot the Yankee flagship he could not have placed her more precisely where he wanted her. However, his elation quickly faded, turning first to dismay and then to disgust, when the detonating mechanism failed time after time to send a spark to the underwater engine of destruction. Meanwhile, happily unaware that he and his ship were in mortal danger of being hoisted skyward in sudden flame and smoke, Du Pont signaled the monitors to “disregard motions of commander in chief” and continue to press the attack without his help. The Ironsides, as one of her surgeons complained, was as completely out of the fight as if she had been moored to a dock in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but this did not prevent her taking long-range punishment from the rebel guns. Presenting if not the closest, then at any rate the largest and least mobile target in the harbor, she was struck no less than ninety-five times in the course of the engagement. Despite the din, according to one of her officers, “the sense of security the iron walls gave to those within was wonderful, a feeling akin to that which one experiences in a heavy storm when the wind and hail beat harmlessly against the windows of a well-protected house.”
No such feeling was experienced by the crews of the monitors, the officer added; “for in their turrets the nuts that secured the laminated plates flew wildly, to the injury and discomfiture of the men at the guns.” Up closer, they were harder hit. “The shots literally rained around them,” a correspondent wrote, “splashing the water up thirty feet in the air, and striking and booming from their decks and turrets.” The flagship was a mile from Sumter, the nearest monitors about half that far, but the captain of the twin-turretedNahant quickly found what it would cost to close the range. “Mr Clarke, you haven’t hit anything yet,” he protested to the ensign in charge of the 15-inch gun, which was throwing its 420-pound shells at seven-minute intervals. When the young man replied, “We aint near enough, Captain,” the skipper went into a rage. “Not near enough? God damn it,” he cried, “I’ll put you near enough! Starboard your helm, Quartermaster!” As the ship came about, a rebel projectile slammed against the sight-slit, killing the helmsman and mangling the pilot. “Retire! Retire!” the captain shouted. Others caught it as hard or harder, with similar results: smokestacks perforated, turrets jammed, decks ripped up, guns knocked out of action. The only effect on the enemy a journalist could see, examining the brick northeast face of Sumter through his glasses, was that of “increasing pock marks and discolorations on the walls, as if there had been a sudden breaking out of cutaneous disease.” But there was no corresponding slackening of fire from within the fort, whose cannoneers were jubilant over the many hits they scored. Frenzied at being kept from a share in the fun of pummeling the ironclads, Confederates locked in the Moultrie guardhouse screamed above the roar of the bombardment: “For God’s sake, let us come out and go to the guns!”
After peering through the drifting smoke for about two hours, Du Pont was told that it was nearly 5 o’clock. “Make signal to the ships to drop out of fire,” he said quietly. “It is too late to fight this battle tonight. We will renew it early in the morning.” Below decks, when the gun captains received word of this decision, they sent up an urgent request that they be allowed to fire at least one broadside before retiring. It was granted, and as the Ironsides turned to steam down the channel an eight-gun salvo was hurled at Moultrie, the only shots she fired in the course of the engagement. This brought the total to an even 150 rounds expended by the flotilla, and of these 55 were scored as hits. The Confederates, on the other hand, had fired 2209, of which no less than 441 had found their mark, despite the fact that the targets had not only been comparatively small, and moving, but had also been mostly submerged. That this was remarkably effective shooting Du Pont himself began to appreciate when the retiring monitors came within hailing distance of the flagship and he got a close-up look at their condition. The first to approach was the Keokuk, limping badly. Last in and first out, she had ventured nearest to Sumter’s 44 guns, and she had the scars of 90 point-blank hits to prove it. She was “riddled like a colander,” one witness remarked, “the most severely mauled ship one ever saw.” That night, in fact, she keeled over and sank at her anchorage off Morris Island. Others also had been roughly handled; Weehawken had taken 53 hits, Nantucket 51,Patapsco 47,Nahant 36, Passaic 35, Catskill 20, and Montauk 14. In general, the damage suffered was in inverse ratio to the individual distance between them and the rebel guns, and none had been closer than 600 yards.
The admiral’s intention to “renew [the battle] early in the morning” was modified by the sight of his crippled monitors. Five of the eight were too badly damaged to be able to engage if ordered, and of these five, one would sink before the scheduled time for action. Equally conclusive were the reports and recommendations of the several captains when they came aboard the flagship that evening. “With your present means,” John Rodgers advised, “I could not, if I were asked, recommend a renewal of the attack.” The redoubtable Worden was no less emphatic. “After testing the weight of the enemy’s fire, and observing the obstructions,” he reported, “I am led to believe that Charleston cannot be taken by the naval force now present, and that had the attack been continued [today] it could not have failed to result in disaster.” This gave Du Pont pause, and pausing he reflected on the risks. Here was no New Orleans, where the problem had been to run the fleet through a brief, furious gauntlet of fire in order to gain a safe haven above the forts and place a defenseless city under the muzzles of its guns; this was Charleston, whose harbor, in the words of a staff officer, “was a cul-de-sac, a circle of fire not to be passed.” The deeper you penetrated the circle, the more you were exposed to destruction from its rim. Moreover, as the admiral saw the outcome, even if he pressed the attack “in the end we shall retire, leaving some of our ironclads in the hands of the enemy, to be refitted and turned against our blockade with deplorable effect.” This last was unthinkable—though he thought about it in his cabin all night long. By daybreak he had made up his mind. “I have decided not to renew the attack,” he told his chief of staff. “We have met with a sad repulse; I shall not turn it into a great disaster.”
Next afternoon he recrossed the bar. “I attempted to take the bull by the horns, but he was too much for us,” he admitted to the army commander whose troops had been standing by to pick up the pieces. By the end of the week the flotilla again was riding at anchor inside Port Royal, swarmed over by armorers hammering the vessels back into shape. The admiral knew the reaction in Washington would be severe, coming as it did on the heels of such great expectations, but he also knew that he had the support of his monitor captains, who stood, as one of them said, “like a wall of iron” around his reputation, agreeing with his chief of staff’s opinion that “Admiral Du Pont never showed greater courage or patriotism than when he saved his ships and men, and sacrificed himself to the clamor and disappointment evoked by his defeat.” In point of fact, however, part of the expressed disappointment, if not the outright clamor, occurred within the fleet itself. A chief engineer was clapped in arrest for complaining in his ship’s mess that the attack had not been pressed to the victory point, and at least one junior officer remarked wryly that “the grim sort of soul like Farragut was lacking.” Welles and Fox, though hot enough at the outcome and in no doubt at all as to where the blame lay, were considerably hampered in their criticisms by the political necessity for delay in bringing the matter out into the open with the publication of the adverse battle reports. After all, it was they—especially Fox—who had announced that the monitors were irresistible, and contracts already had been signed for the delivery of eighteen more of the expensive naval monsters. Two weeks after the repulse, Welles was attempting to shrug it off by telling his diary: “I am by no means confident that we are acting wisely in expending so much strength and effort on Charleston, a place of no strategic importance.”
The grapes had soured for him; but not for Beauregard. The Louisiana general’s only regrets were that the boiler-torpedo had not gone off beneath the Ironsides and that the Yankees had slunk away without attempting a renewal of the assault, which he felt certain would have been even more decisively repulsed. In a congratulatory address to his troops, his enthusiasm knew no bounds. He spoke of “the stranded, riddled wreck” of the Keokuk, whose big guns now were part of the harbor defenses, and of the ignominious flight of “her baffled coadjutors,” whose defeat had reinspired world-wide confidence in the ultimate and glorious triumph of the Confederate cause. In his official report to Richmond, though—for he had recently confided to a friend that, from now on, he was adopting a more restrained style in his dispatches, in order to counteract a rumor that he was prone to exaggerate his accomplishments—the little Creole, with his bloodhound eyes, his swarthy face, and his hair brushed forward in lovelocks at the temples, contented himself for the most part with factual observations. “It may be accepted, as shown,” he wrote, “that these vaunted monitor batteries, though formidable engines of war, after all are not invulnerable or invincible, and may be destroyed or defeated by heavy ordnance, properly placed and skillfully handled.” However, in the glow and warmth of congratulations being pressed upon him, including one that he had made Sumter “a household word, like Salamis and Thermopylae,” he could not resist the temptation to add a closing flourish to the report: “My expectations were fully realized, and the country, as well as the State of South Carolina, may well be proud of the men who first met and vanquished the iron-mailed, terribly armed armada, so confidently prepared and sent forth by the enemy to certain and easy victory.”
Though he grew snappish at the first report that the fleet had been repulsed—“Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston,” he instructed Du Pont in a message sent posthaste down the coast; “or, if you shall have left it, return to it, and hold it till further orders”—Lincoln was in a better frame of mind for the reception of bad news than he had been for months. The reason for this was that he had just returned from a five-day Easter vacation combined with a highly satisfactory inspection of the Army of the Potomac, whose tents were pitched along the Rappahannock in the vicinity of Falmouth. The visit was a heartening experience, not only because it showed him that the condition of the troops was excellent, but also because it abolished his main previous doubt as to the fitness of the man he had appointed as their commander. After saying, “Now there is Joe Hooker. He can fight. I think that is pretty well established,” Lincoln had added: “But whether he can ‘keep tavern’ for a large army is not so sure.” If the trip down the bay had done nothing else, it had reassured the President on that score. Fighting Joe had taken hold with a vengeance, and the results were plain to see on the faces and in the attitude of the men. Fredericksburg and the Mud March, though the letters of the former were embroidered on the rippling blue of their regimental colors, were no longer even a part of their vocabulary.
Hooker could indeed keep tavern. Within a week of his assumption of command he jolted the commissary department by ordering the issue of rations expanded to include fresh vegetables and soft bread; he supervised a thorough cleanup of the unsanitary camps, shrinking the overlong sick lists in the process, and he instituted a liberal system of furloughs which, combined with a tightening of security regulations, did much to reduce desertion. “Ah! the furloughs and vegetables he gave!” one infantryman still marveled years later, “How he did understand the road to the soldier’s heart!” In the midst of all this welcome reform, army paymasters came down from Washington with bulging satchels and surprised the troops with six months’ back pay. It was no wonder another veteran recalled that “cheerfulness, good order, and military discipline at once took the place of grumbling, depression, and want of confidence.” Idleness, that breeder of discontent, was abolished by a revival of the old-time grand reviews, with regiment after regiment swinging past the reviewing stand so that when the men executed the command “eyes right” they saw their chieftain’s clean-shaven face light up with pleasure at seeing their appearance improved by their diurnal spit-and-polish preparations. Unit pride, being thus encouraged, increased even more when Hooker, expanding the use of the so-called Kearny patch—a device improvised by the late Phil Kearny, about this time last year, to identify the men of his division in the course of their march up the York-James peninsula—ordered the adoption of corps insignia of various shapes, cut from red, white, or blue cloth, thus indicating the first, second, or third division, and stitched to the crown of the caps of the troops, so that he and they could tell at a glance what corps and division a man was gracing or disgracing, on duty or off. Moreover, after the gruff and dish-faced Pope and the flustered and fantastically whiskered Burnside, Hooker himself, by the force of his personality and the handsomeness of his presence, infused some of the old McClellan magnetism into the reviving army’s ranks. “Apollo-like,” a Wisconsin major called the forty-eight-year-old Massachusetts-born commander, and a visiting editor wrote of him as “a man of unusually handsome face and elegant proportions, with a complexion as delicate and silken as a woman’s.” Another remarked, along this same line, that the general looked “as rosy as the most healthy woman alive.”
Some claimed that this glow, this rosiness, had its origin in the bottle (the men themselves apparently took pride in the assertion;
“Joe Hooker is our leader—
He takes his whiskey strong!”
they sang as they set off on practice marches) while other dissenters from the prevalent chorus of praise, although admitting that the general was “handsome and picturesque in the extreme,” directed attention to what one of them called his “fatally weak chin.” Still others believed they detected inner flaws, below the rosy surface. “He could play the best game of poker I ever saw,” a former West Coast intimate recollected, “until it came to the point when he should go a thousand better, and then he would flunk.” But the harshest judgment of all came from a cavalry officer, Charles F. Adams, Jr. According to this son of the ambassador to England, the new commander was “a noisy, low-toned intriguer” under whose influence army headquarters became “a place to which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel.” Young Adams’ own “tone” was exceptionally high, which made him something less than tolerant of the weakness of others—particularly the weaknesses of the flesh, from which he himself apparently was exempt—but in support of at least a part of the accusation was the fact that, from this time on, the general’s surname entered the language as one of the many lowercase slang words for prostitute. As for the rest, however, a friend who was with him almost daily insisted that Hooker had gone on the wagon the day he took command. Headquarters might have some of the aspects of a barroom, as Adams said, but according to this observer the general himself did not imbibe.
The fact was, it did indeed appear that he as well as the army had experienced a basic change of character. Much of his former bluster was gone; he had even acquired a dislike for his nom-de-guerre, though perhaps this was largely because the story was beginning to get around that he had come by it as the result of an error made in a New York composing room during the Peninsula Campaign, when a last-minute dispatch arrived from the front with additional news involving his division. “Fighting—Joe Hooker,” the follow-up was tagged, indicating that it was to be added to what had gone before, but the typesetter dropped the dash and it was printed as a separate story, under the resultant heading. The nickname stuck despite the general’s objections. “Don’t call me Fighting Joe,” he said. “[It] makes the public think that I am a hotheaded, furious young fellow, accustomed to making furious and needless dashes at the enemy.” Nor was this the only change in Hooker. All his military life, at West Point, in Mexico, and in the peacetime army—from which he had resigned in 1853, after sixteen years of service, in order to take up California farming and civil engineering, only to fail at both so utterly that when news came that the war had begun his friends had to pass the hat to get up money for his fare back East—he had been quick to resent the authority and criticize the conduct of his superiors. Just recently, he had sneered at the President and the Cabinet as a flock of bunglers and had asserted that what the country needed was a dictator, making it more or less clear that the man he had in mind for the job was himself. Now, though, all that had gone by the board. He had not even resented Lincoln’s “beware of rashness. Beware of rashness” letter, calling him to account for his derogations while appointing him to command the army. Soon afterwards, in the privacy of his tent, Hooker read the letter to a journalist, only taking exception to the charge that he had “thwarted” Burnside. “The President is mistaken. I never thwarted Burnside in any way, shape, or manner,” he broke off reading to say—though even now he could not resist adding: “Burnside was pre-eminently a man of deportment. He fought the battle of Fredericksburg on his deportment; he was defeated on his deportment; and he took his deportment with him out of the Army of the Potomac, thank God.” He returned to the letter, and when he had finished reading it he folded it and put it back into his breast pocket, as if to emphasize the claim that he had taken it to heart. “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son,” he mused aloud, and the reporter thought he saw tears beginning to mist the general’s pale blue-gray eyes. “It is a beautiful letter,” Hooker went on, “and although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.” Again he paused. Then he said, “After I have got to Richmond I shall give that letter to you to have published.”
This last, variously phrased as “When I get to Richmond” or “After we have taken Richmond,” cropped up more frequently in his talk as the spirit and strength of his army grew, and it was one of the few things that struck Lincoln unfavorably when he arrived for his Easter visit. “If you get to Richmond, General—” he remarked at their first conference, only to have Hooker break in with “Excuse me, Mr President, but there is no ‘if’ in this case. I am going straight to Richmond if I live.” Lincoln let it pass, though afterwards he said privately to a friend: “That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is over-confident.” Presently, however, as the inspection tour progressed, he began to see for himself that the general’s ready assurance was solidly based on facts and figures. Even after the detachment of Burnside’s old corps—which took with it, down the coast to Newport News, whatever resentment its members might be feeling as a result of the supersession of their former chief—Hooker still had seven others, plus a newly consolidated corps of cavalry, including in all no less than twenty divisions of infantry and three of horsemen, here on the Rappahannock, with a present-for-duty total of 133,450 effectives, supported by seventy batteries of artillery with a total of 412 guns. Across the way, the Confederates had less than half as many men and a good deal less than half as many guns, and Hooker not only knew the approximate odds, he was also preparing to take advantage of them. On the eve of Lincoln’s arrival he had put his corps commanders on the alert by ordering all surplus baggage sent to the rear, and he had warned the War Department to have siege equipment ready for shipment to him in front of the rebel capital. In addition to 10,000 shovels, 5000 picks, 5000 axes, and 30,000 sandbags, he wanted authentic maps of the Richmond defenses, to be used in laying out saps and parallels, and he requested that a flotilla of supply boats be kept standing by at all times, ready to deliver 1,500,000 rations up the Pamunkey River as soon as the army got that far. He did not say “if,” he said “as soon as,” and when this was repeated at Falmouth on Easter Sunday Lincoln shook his head in some perplexity. He admired determination and self-reliance, especially in a military man, but he also knew there was such a thing as whistling in the dark. He had known men—John Pope, for one—who assumed those qualities to hide their doubts, not only from their associates but also from themselves. In fact, the louder a man insisted that there was no room for doubt in his make-up, the more likely he was to belong to the whistler category, and Lincoln feared that Hooker’s brashness might be assumed for some such purpose. “It is about the worst thing I have seen since I have been down here,” he remarked.
Most of what he saw he found encouraging, however. He agreed with Hooker’s estimation of the army as “the finest on the planet,” and he particularly enjoyed the temporary relief the visit afforded him from the day-to-day pressure of White House paperwork and the importunities of favor-seekers. Not that he was entirely delivered from the latter. Now that the career officers had him where they could get at him, out of channels and yet with no great strain on their ingrained sense of propriety, they did not neglect the opportunity. Even so stiff a professional as Meade, whose testiness had caused his troops to refer to him as “a God-damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,” could not resist the chance to curry favor, difficult though he found it to unbend. “In view of the vacant brigadiership in the regular army,” he wrote his wife, “I have ventured to tell the President one or two stories, and I think I have made decided progress in his affections.” But this was all comparatively mild and even enjoyable—even the stories—in contrast to what the Chief Executive had left behind, and presently would be returning to, in Washington. What was more, his wife and younger son, who accompanied him on the outing, appeared to enjoy it every bit as much as he did. Mary Lincoln responded happily to the all-too-rare opportunity of being with her husband, in and out of office hours, and playing the role of First Lady in a style she considered fitting. Riding one day through a camp of Negro refugees, who crowded about the presidential carriage and lifted their children overhead for a look at the Great Emancipator, she asked her husband how many of “those piccaninnies” he supposed were named Abraham Lincoln. “Let’s see,” he calculated. “This is April, 1863. I should say that of all those babies under two years of age perhaps two thirds have been named for me.” Mrs Lincoln, who enjoyed the notion—it was fairly customary in her native Bluegrass for slaves to name their offspring for the master—smiled. But ten-year-old Tad had an entirely different notion of what was fun. He wanted to see some real, live rebels. And Lincoln obliged him. Proceeding one blustery morning to Stafford Heights, they looked across the Rappahannock and down into the ruined streets of Fredericksburg, where the army had staged its two-day carnival before crossing the “champaign tract” to be brought up short in front of the sunken road at the foot of Marye’s Heights, and to Tad’s delight they saw floating from the eaves of one of the town’s few unwrecked houses the Stars and Bars. Nearby, moreover, alongside a tall scorched chimney like a monument erected to commemorate a home, stood two sentinels: genuine, armed graybacks, though one of them—perversely, as if to lessen Tad’s pleasure—wore a light-blue U. S. Army overcoat. Their voices faint with distance, they began yelling across the river at the Yankee spectators, something about Fort Sumter and the ironclads being “licked,” which brought an officer out of one of the Fredericksburg bomb-proofs to investigate the shouting. He took out his binoculars, beginning to sweep the opposite heights, and when he spotted the presidential group he paused, adjusted the focus, and peered intently. Whether or not he recognized the tall form, made still taller by the familiar stovepipe hat, they never knew; but at any rate he seemed to. He lowered the glasses and struck an attitude of dignity, then removed his wide-brimmed hat, made a low, formal bow, and retired.
For the Confederates across the way—less than 60,000 in all, including the punctilious officer and the two sentinels, one of whom had been lucky enough to scavenge a Yankee overcoat to put between him and the chill of Virginia’s early spring—there had been no corresponding improvement, but rather a decline, in the quantity as well as the quality of the supplies provided by their government. The basic daily ration at this time consisted of a quarter-pound of bacon, often rancid, and eighteen ounces of cornmeal, including a high proportion of pulverized cob, supplemented about every third day by the issue of ten pounds of rice to each one hundred men, along with an occasional few peas and a scant handful of dried fruit when it was available, which was seldom. “This may give existence to the troops while idle,” Lee complained to the War Department, “but [it] will certainly cause them to break down when called upon for exertion.” Scurvy had begun to appear, and though he attempted to combat this by sending out details to gather sassafras buds, wild onions, and such antiscorbutics—together with other, more substantial windfalls, unofficial and in fact illegal; “Ah, General,” he chided Hood, “when you Texans come about, the chickens have to roost mighty high”—Lee felt, as he said, “painfully anxious lest the spirit and efficiency of the men should become impaired, and they be rendered unable to sustain their former reputation or perform the service necessary for our safety.”
Yet their morale was as high as ever, if not higher: not only because they managed to forget, or at least ignore, their hunger pangs by staging regimental theatricals and minstrel shows, attending the mammoth prayer meetings which were a part of the great religious revival that swept like wildfire through the army at this time, and organizing brigade-size snowball battles which served much the same purpose on this side of the river as Hooker’s grand reviews were serving on the other; but also because they could look back on a practically uninterrupted series of victories which they had grounds for believing would be continued, whatever the odds. In the ten months Lee had been in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, including the past three spent in winter quarters, they had fought no less than thirteen battles, large and small, and in all but one of these—South Mountain, where they had been outnumbered ten to one—they had maintained the integrity of their position from start to finish, and in all but one other—Sharpsburg, where the odds were never better than one to three and mostly worse—they had dominated the field when the smoke cleared. Although they had generally assumed the more costly tactical role of the attacker, they had inflicted more than 70,000 casualties, at a cost of less than 50,000 of their own, and had captured about 75,000 small arms while losing fewer than one tenth as many. In guns, the advantage was greatest of all in this respect; losing 8, they had taken 155. (“I declare,” a North Carolina private said as his Federal captors were taking him rearward through their lines. “You-uns has got about as many of them ‘U.S.’ guns as we have.”) The over-all result was confidence, in Lee and in themselves, and a pride that burned fiercely despite privation and grim want. One Confederate, writing home, expressed amazement at the contrast between the army’s bedraggled appearance in camp and its efficiency in combat. He marveled at the spirit of his companions, “so ragged, slovenly, sleeveless, without a superfluous ounce of flesh upon their bones, with wild matted hair, in mendicants’ rags—and to think when the battle-flag goes to the front how they can and do fight!” Nor was praise of Lee’s scarecrow heroes limited to those who stood in his army’s ranks. An exchanged Union officer, returning to his own lines this spring after a term spent beyond them as a captive, put his first-hand observations on the record in a letter home. “Their artillery horses are poor, starved frames of beasts, tied to their carriages and caissons with odds and ends of rope and strips of raw hide; their supply and ammunition trains look like a congregation of all the crippled California emigrant trains that ever escaped off the desert out of the clutches of the rampaging Comanche Indians. The men are ill-dressed, ill-equipped, and ill-provided, a set of ragamuffins that a man is ashamed to be seen among, even when he is a prisoner and can’t help it. And yet they have beaten us fairly, beaten us all to pieces, beaten us so easily that we are objects of contempt even to their commonest private soldiers, with no shirts to hang out the holes of their pantaloons, and cartridge-boxes tied around their waists with strands of rope.”
Lee himself could silence grousing with a jest. “You ought not to mind that,” he reassured a young officer who complained about the toughness of some biscuits; “they will stick by you the longer.” He referred in much the same tone of levity to the threats made by his new opponent, who had no sooner taken charge of the blue army than he began showing signs of living up to his nickname, Fighting Joe. “General Hooker is obliged to do something,” the gray commander wrote home in early February. “I do not know what it will be. He is playing the Chinese game, trying what frightening will do. He runs out his guns, starts wagons and troops up and down the river, and creates an excitement generally. Our men look on in wonder, give a cheer, and all again subsides in statu quo ante bellum.” When nothing came of all this show of force before the month was out, Lee expressed a wry impatience. “I owe Mr F. J. Hooker no thanks for keeping me here,” he told his wife. “He ought to have made up his mind long ago what to do.” At the same time, though, he was warning subordinates that the bluecoats would “make every effort to crush us between now and June, and it will require all our strength to resist them.” His confidence, while as firm as that of the men he led, did not cause him to ignore the present odds or the fact that if they continued to lengthen they would stretch beyond endurance. Within a month of the destructive but fruitless repulse of the Federal host that ventured across the river in mid-December, he made his warning explicit in a dispatch to the Secretary of War. “More than once have most promising opportunities been lost for want of men to take advantage of them, and victory itself has been made to put on the appearance of defeat because our diminished and exhausted troops have been unable to renew a successful struggle against fresh numbers of the enemy. The lives of our soldiers are too precious to be sacrificed in the attainment of successes that inflict no loss upon the enemy beyond the actual loss in battle.” And he added, with a new note of bitterness which had come with the sack of Fredericksburg and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation: “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution [and] our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God in his mercy shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.”
Instead of an increase, what followed hard on the heels of this appeal was a drastic reduction of his fighting strength, beginning January 14 with the detachment of D. H. Hill to contest the further invasion of the crusty Tarheel general’s home state, presaged by the Federals’ mid-December advance on Goldsboro. Lee himself went to Richmond two days later to confer with Davis on this and other problems, but had to hurry back to the Rappahannock on the 18th—the eve of his fifty-sixth birthday—when the high-level council of war was disrupted by news that Burnside’s army was astir in its camps around Falmouth. As it turned out, all that came of this was the Mud March and Joe Hooker’s elevation; Lee detached Robert Ransom’s demi-division, which had played a leading role in Longstreet’s defense of the sunken road the month before, and sent it south to North Carolina, as he had agreed to do at the interrupted strategy conference. Shortly afterwards, however, word came that Burnside’s old corps had boarded transports at Aquia Landing and steamed down Chesapeake Bay to Hampton Roads. It seemed likely that these men were being returned to the scene of their year-old triumph below Norfolk, with instructions to extend their conquest eastward to the Weldon Railroad, Lee’s vital supply connection with the factories and grainfields of Georgia and the Carolinas, or to Petersburg, whose fall would give them access to the back door of the capital itself. This two-pronged menace could not be ignored, whatever risk might be involved in attempting to contest it by a further weakening of the Rappahannock line. On February 15 the dismemberment of Longstreet’s corps was resumed. Pickett’s division was hastened south to Richmond; Hood’s followed two days later, accompanied by Old Peter himself, who was charged with the defense of the region beyond the James. These two divisions combined with the troops already there would give him 44,000 men in all, whereas the Federals had 55,000 on hand, exclusive of the corps that presumably was about to join them from Hampton Roads. It was at best a chancy business for the Confederates, north and south of their threatened capital; for even if these blue reinforcements arrived, as was expected momentarily, the command on the south side of the James would be no worse outnumbered than the one on the south side of the Rappahannock, now that more than a fourth of the latter’s strength had been subtracted in favor of the former. All Lee could do in this extremity was urge Longstreet to be ready to hurry northward, if possible—that is, if he could find a way to disengage without inviting the destruction of his command or the capture of Richmond—as soon as he got word that Hooker had left off playing the Chinese game and was on the move in earnest. “As our numbers will not admit of our meeting [the enemy] on equality everywhere,” the gray commander wrote his detached lieutenant in mid-March, “we must endeavor, by judicious dispositions, to be enabled to make our troops available in any quarter where they may be needed [and] after the emergency passes in one place to transfer them to any other point that may be threatened.”
With fewer First Corps troops on hand than had departed, he was down to 58,800 effectives and 170 guns, to be used in opposing a good deal better than twice as many of both. He was almost precisely aware of his opponent’s numerical preponderance, not only because of information he received from spies beyond the northern lines, but also because he read the northern papers, one of which was quite specific on the point. Quoting Hooker’s medical director, this journal showed 10,777 men on the current sick list, and then went on to state that the sick-well ratio was 67.64 per 1000. By computation Lee arrived at a figure close to 160,000. (Awesome though this total was, it was even a bit low. In late March the Federal commander, lumping teamsters, cooks, and other extra-duty personnel with all the rest, reported an “aggregate present” of 163,005.) Against such odds, and with the knowledge that Hooker would choose the time and place of attack, Lee’s only hope for salvation was superior generalship—his own and that of his chief subordinates—coupled with the valor of his soldiers and the increased efficiency of his army. To help achieve this last, he reorganized the artillery into battalions of four four-gun batteries each, four of which battalions were attached to each of the two corps, with two more in general reserve. His hope was that this arrangement, besides strengthening the close-up support of the infantry on the defensive, would provide the “long arm” with a flexibility that would permit a more rapid massing of fire from several quarters of the field at once, either for counterbattery work or for softening an enemy position as a prelude to attack. Whether such measures would produce the desired effect remained to be seen in combat, but another innovation required no testing, its effectiveness being apparent even to a casual eye. This was a legacy left by Longstreet on his departure beyond the James: left, indeed, not only to the Army of Northern Virginia, but also to military science, since in time it would be recognized as perhaps the Confederacy’s main contribution to the art of war, which was never the same thereafter.
In mid-January, while Lee was away on his brief trip to Richmond, Old Peter had been left in command on the Rappahannock by virtue of his seniority. His corps, still intact at the time, occupied the northern half of the position, from Hamilton’s Crossing to Banks Ford, five miles above Fredericksburg, while Jackson’s occupied the rest, from Massaponax Creek down to Port Royal, twenty miles below the town. Lee had no sooner left than Longstreet invited Stonewall to inspect the First Corps defenses, and what the grim Virginian saw when he arrived was in the nature of a revelation. Located so as to dominate the roads and open ground, the fieldworks had been designed for use by a skeleton force which could hold them against a surprise attack until supports came up from the reserve. There was nothing new about that; Lee had conceived and used intrenchments for the same purpose on the Peninsula, nearly a year ago. The innovation here involved was the traversed trench. Formerly such works had been little more than long, open ditches, with the spoil thrown forward to serve as a parapet, which gave excellent protection from low-trajectory fire from dead ahead but were vulnerable to flank attack and the lateral effect of bursting shells. To offset these two disadvantages—particularly the latter, intensified by the long-range rifled cannon of the Federals, firing from positions well beyond the reach of most Confederate batteries—Longstreet’s engineers had broken the long ditches into quite short, squad-sized rifle trenches, staggered in depth, disposed for mutual support, and connected by traverses which could be utilized against flank attacks and afforded solid protection from all but direct artillery hits. Jackson took a careful look, then returned to his own lines, where the dirt began at once to fly anew. From such crude beginnings, fathered by the necessity for defending a fixed position against a greatly superior foe, grew the highly intricate field fortifications of the future. Presently the whole Rappahannock line, from Banks Ford to Port Royal, was thus protected throughout its undulant, winding, 25-mile length, and when Old Peter left next month with more than half of his men, so well had he and they designed and dug, Lee did not find it necessary to reinforce the two-division remnant by shifting troops from Jackson. “The world has never seen such a fortified position,” a young Second Corps artillerist declared some weeks later. “The famous lines at Torres Vedras could not compare with them.… They follow the contour of the ground and hug the bases of the hills as they wind to and from the river, thus giving natural flanking arrangements, and from the tops of the hills frown the redoubts for sunken batteries and barbette batteries ad libitum, far exceeding the number of our guns; while occasionally, where the trenches take straight across the fields, a redoubt stands out defiantly in the open plain to receive our howitzers.” Hooker might, as Lee said, “make every effort to crush [the defenders] between now and June,” but he was going to find it a much harder job, from here on out, if he tried anything like the approach his predecessor had adopted in December.
On the face of it, that seemed unlikely; Hooker did not resemble Burnside in manner any more than he did in looks. Clearly, if he continued to develop along the lines he had followed so far, Lee was going to have a far thornier problem on his hands, even aside from the lengthened numerical odds, than any he had overcome in frustrating the two all-out offensives that had succeeded his repulse of McClellan, within sight and sound of Richmond, nine months back. The new chieftain’s reorganization of his mounted force was a case in point; “Hooker made the Federal cavalry,” an admiring trooper later declared. Formerly parceled out, regiment by regiment, to infantry commanders whose handling of them had been at best inept, whether in or out of combat, the three divisions—11,500 strong, with about 13,000 horses—were grouped into a single corps under Brigadier General George Stoneman, a forty-year-old West Pointer, all of whose previous service had been with the mounted arm, before and during the present war, except for a brief term as an infantry corps commander, in which capacity he had won a brevet for gallantry at Fredericksburg. His current rank was one grade below that of the other seven heads of corps; Hooker was withholding promotion until Stoneman proved that he could weld his inherited conglomeration of horsemen into an effective striking force. That was his basic task, and he seemed well on the way toward pushing it to fulfillment, helped considerably by the fact that, after nearly two years in the saddle, the early blue-jacket volunteers—formerly sneered at by their fox-hunt-trained opponents as “white-faced clerks and counter jumpers” who scarcely knew the on side from the off—were becoming seasoned troopers, no longer mounted on crowbait nags fobbed off on the government by unprincipled contractors, but on strong-limbed, sound-winded, well-fed animals who, like their riders, had learned the evolutions of the line and had mastered the art of survival in all weathers.
This improvement came moreover at a time of crisis for the gray cavalry on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock. Not only was there a critical shortage of horses in the Army of Northern Virginia; there was also the likelihood that those on hand, survivors for the most part of a year of hard campaigning, would die for lack of forage. This second danger increased the threat implicit in the first. So clean had the region been swept of fodder that such few remounts as could be found outside the immediate theater of war could not be brought northward. For example, four hundred artillery horses procured that winter in Georgia had to be kept in North Carolina because they could not be foraged with the army, all but a dozen of whose batteries had already been withdrawn from the lines in order to save the animals from starvation. A man could subsist, at least barely, on a couple of pounds of food a day, whereas a horse required about ten times that amount, and this was a great deal more than the rickety single-track railroad from Richmond could bring forward, even if that much grain had been available there. The result was that the cavalry’s activity was severely limited. Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s brigade, for instance—the first of Stuart’s three, which contained in all about 5000 men—had staged three highly successful small-scale raids, deep in the Federal rear at Dumfries and Occoquan, immediately before and after the Battle of Fredericksburg, returning with some 300 captives and their mounts, mostly unwary vedettes picked up in the course of the gray column’s advance by starlight, together with a sizeable train of mule-drawn wagons loaded with captured stores, including 300 pairs of badly needed boots—a real windfall. But the end result of these three coups was that Hampton’s underfed horses were so utterly broken down by their exertions that the whole brigade had to be sent south to recover, thus weakening Lee still further at a time when he expected Hooker to make up his mind to come booming over the river any day.
Stuart chafed under the restriction thus imposed. His one exploit this winter was an 1800-trooper raid on Fairfax Courthouse, fifteen miles from the Federal capital, beginning the day after Christmas and ending New Year’s Day; but all it earned him—in contrast to the enormously successful forays by Forrest and Morgan, launched simultaneously in the West—was 200 mounted prisoners, 20 wagons, and the contents of a dozen sutler stalls; which scarcely made up for the wear and tear of the long ride. Though as usual he made the most of the adventure in his report, it was followed by two months spent in winter quarters, where he was obliged to give less attention to the fast-developing enemy cavalry than to the problem of finding forage for his hungry horses. In such surroundings, though he sought diversion for himself and his men in regimental balls and serenades, the plumed hat, red-lined cape, and golden spurs lost a measure of their glitter, at least in certain eyes. “Stuart carries around with him a banjo player and a special correspondent,” one high-ranking fellow officer remarked. “This claptrap is noticed and lauded as a peculiarity of genius, when in fact it is nothing else but the act of a buffoon to attract attention.” Down to two brigades after Hampton’s departure—one under W. H. F. Lee, called “Rooney,” and the other under Fitzhugh Lee, respectively the commanding general’s son and nephew—Jeb was obliged to take his pleasure at second hand, from the occasional exploits of subordinates and even ex-subordinates. Among the latter was Captain John S. Mosby, a former cavalry scout who had been given permission in January to recruit a body of partisans for operations in the Loudoun Valley, part of a region to be known in time as “Mosby’s Confederacy,” so successful were he and his Rangers in bedeviling and defeating the bluecoats sent there to capture or destroy him. Twenty-eight years old and weighing barely 125 pounds, the slim, gray-eyed Virginian first attracted wide attention by his capture, at Fairfax on a night in early March, of Brigadier General E. H. Stoughton, a Vermont-born West Pointer, together with two other officers, 30 men, and 58 horses. Mosby, who at present had fewer men than that in his whole command, entered the general’s headquarters, stole upstairs in the darkness, and found the general himself asleep in bed. Turning down the covers, he lifted the tail of the sleeper’s nightshirt and gave him a spank on the behind.
“General,” he said, “did you ever hear of Mosby?”
“Yes,” Stoughton replied, flustered and half awake; “have you caught him?”
“He has caught you,” Mosby said, by way of self-introduction, and got his captive up and dressed and took him back through the lines, along with virtually all of his headquarters guard, for delivery to Fitzhugh Lee the following morning at Culpeper.
Fitz Lee, a year younger than the clean-shaven Mosby, though he disguised the fact behind an enormous shovel beard that outdid even Longstreet’s in length and thickness, could appreciate a joke as well as the next man, and in this case he could appreciate it perhaps a good deal better, since he and the captive Vermonter had been schoolmates at the Point. Besides, he was in an excellent frame of mind just now, having returned the week before from a similar though less spectacular exploit involving still another fellow cadet of his and Stoughton’s: New York-born Brigadier General W. W. Averell, who commanded the second of Stoneman’s three divisions. Young Lee was sent by his uncle to investigate a rumor that Hooker was about to repeat McClellan’s strategy by transferring his army to the Peninsula. Crossing the Rappahannock well upstream at Kelly’s Ford on February 24, Lee’s 400-man detachment pushed on to the Warrenton Post Road, then down it, penetrating the blue cavalry screen to the vicinity of Hartwood Church, eight miles short of Falmouth. Here the graybacks encountered their first serious opposition in the form of the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry, Averell’s old regiment before his promotion to divisional command. Lee promptly charged and routed the Keystone troopers, capturing 150 of them at a cost to himself of 14 killed and wounded. Then, having secured the information he had come for—Hooker, whose headquarters were a scant half-dozen miles away by now, obviously was planning no such move as had been rumored—Lee successfully withdrew without further incident, leaving behind him a note for his former schoolmate, whose entire division had been turned out, along with two others of infantry, in a vain attempt to intercept the raiders and avenge the defeat of one of its best regiments. The note was brief and characteristic. “I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state, and go home,” Fitz told his old friend, adding in reference to the speed with which the bluecoats had retreated when attacked: “You ride a good horse, I ride a better. Yours can beat mine running.” The close was in the nature of a challenge. “If you won’t go home, return my visit and bring me a sack of coffee.”
Averell returned the visit within three weeks, and he took care to bring along a sack of coffee in his saddlebags. What was more, he repaid the call in force, splashing through the shallows of Kelly’s Ford on the morning of March 17 with 3000 troopers. Lee had fewer than 1000 at the time, but his pickets put up such a scrap at the crossing that Averell, though he was pleased to have captured about two dozen of them in the skirmish, persuaded himself that it would be wise to leave a third of his force there to protect his rear, thereby of his own accord reducing the odds to only a little better than two to one. Also, being aware of his old schoolmate’s impulsive nature, he halted about midmorning, less than a mile beyond the river, dismounted his men, and took up a strong defensive position behind a stone wall crossing a pasture on the farm of a family named Brooks. Sure enough, at noon Lee came riding hard from Culpeper and attacked without delay, his lead regiment charging dragoon-style, four abreast. The result, as the defenders poured a hot fire from behind their ready-made breastworks, was a quick and bloody repulse. Averell cautiously followed it up, but was struck again, one mile north, with like results. While the blue riders held their ground, the Confederates crossed Carter’s Run and reassembled; whereupon the two commands settled down to long-range firing across the creek, relieving the monotony from time to time with limited charges and countercharges which did nothing to alter the tactical stalemate. This continued until about 5.30, when Averell, having learned from captured rebels that Stuart and his crack artillerist Pelham were on the field, decided that the time had come for him to recross the Rappahannock. “My horses were very much exhausted. We had been successful so far. I deemed it proper to withdraw.” So he stated later in his report. However, before terminating the requested “visit” he took care to observe the amenities by leaving the sack of coffee Lee had asked for, together with a note: “Dear Fitz. Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How do you like it? Averell.”
The truth was, Fitz did not much like it. Though he could, and did, claim victory on grounds that he had remained in control of the field after the enemy withdrew, this was not very satisfactory when he considered that the Federals could make the same claim with regard to every similar Confederate penetration, including his own recent raid on Hartwood Church and Stuart’s dazzling “rides” the year before. Then too, there was the matter of casualties. Suffering 133, Lee had inflicted only 78, or not much over half as many. If this was a victory, it was certainly a strange one. But there was more that was alarming about this St Patrick’s Day action: much more, at least from the southern point of view. For the first time on a fair field of fight—the two-to-one odds were not unusual; moreover, they had been the source of considerable underdog glory in the past—Confederate cavalry had fallen back repeatedly under pressure from Federal cavalry. Nothing could have demonstrated better the vast improvement of this arm of the Union war machine, especially when it was admitted that only Averell’s lack of the true aggressive instinct, which twice had left the rebel horsemen unmolested while they reformed their broken ranks, had kept the blue troopers from converting both repulses into routs. Unquestionably, this proof that the Federal cavalry had come of age, so to speak, meant future trouble for the men who previously had ridden around and through and over their awkward opponents almost at will.… Nor was that all either. This light-hearted exchange of calling cards, accompanied in one case by the gift of a pound of coffee, had its more immediate somber consequences, too. After all, a man who died on this small field was every bit as dead as a man who died in the thunderous pageantry of Fredericksburg, and his survivors were apt to be quite as inconsolable in their sorrow. They might possibly be even more inconsolable, since their grief did not take into account the battle or skirmish itself, but rather the identity of the man who fell. What made Kelly’s Ford particular in this respect was that it produced one casualty for whom the whole South mourned.
One of Averell’s reasons for withdrawing had been the report that Stuart was on the field. It was true, so far as it went; Jeb was there, but he had brought no reinforcements with him, as Averell supposed; he had come to Culpeper on court-martial business, and thus happened to be on hand when the news arrived that bluecoats were over the river. Similarly, the day before, John Pelham had left cavalry headquarters to see a girl in Orange, so that he too turned up in time to join Fitz Lee on the ride toward Kelly’s Ford; “tall, slender, beautifully proportioned,” a friend called the twenty-three-year-old Alabamian, and “as grand a flirt as ever lived.” With his own guns back near Fredericksburg—including the brass Napoleon with which he had held up the advance of a whole Federal division for the better part of an hour—he was here supposedly as a spectator, but anyone who knew him also knew that he would never be content with anything less than a ringside seat, and would scarcely be satisfied even with that, once the action had been joined. And so it was. When the first charge was launched against the stone wall, the young major smiled, drew the sword which he happened to be wearing because he had gone courting the night before, and waved it gaily as he rode hard to overtake the van. “Forward! Forward!” he cried. Just then, abrupt as a clap of blue-sky thunder, a shell burst with a flash and a roar directly overhead. Pelham fell. He lay on his back, full length and motionless, his blue eyes open and the smile still on his handsome face, which was unmarked. Turning him over, however, his companions found a small, deep gash at the base of his skull, just above the hair line, where a fragment of the shell had struck and entered. When Stuart, who had ridden to another quarter of the field, heard that his young chief of artillery was dead he bowed his head on his horse’s neck and wept. “Our loss is irreparable,” he said.
Others thought so, too: three girls in nearby towns, for instance, who put on mourning. Word spread quickly throughout the South, and men and women in far-off places, who had known him only by reputation, received with a sense of personal bereavement the news that “the gallant Pelham” had fallen. Robert Lee, who had attached the adjective to the young gunner’s name in his report on their last great battle, made an unusual suggestion to the President. “I mourn the loss of Major Pelham,” he wrote. “I had hoped that a long career of usefulness and honor was still before him. He has been stricken down in the midst of both, and before he could receive the promotion he had richly won. I hope there will be no impropriety in presenting his name to the Senate, that his comrades may see that his services have been appreciated, and may be incited to emulate them.” Davis promptly forwarded the letter, with the result that Pelham was promoted even as he lay in state in the Virginia capitol. For once, the Senate had acted quickly, and the dead artillerist, who just under two years ago had left West Point on the eve of graduation in order to go with his native state, went home to Alabama as Lieutenant Colonel Pelham.
At this time of grief, coupled with uncertainty as to the enemy’s intentions, Lee fell ill for the first time in the war. A throat infection had settled in his chest, giving him pains that interfered with his sleep and made him testy during his waking hours. By the end of March his condition was such that his medical director insisted that he leave his tent and take up quarters in a house at Yerby’s, on the railroad five miles south of Fredericksburg. He did so, much against his wishes, and complained in a home letter that the doctors were “tapping me all over like an old steam boiler before condemning it.” After the manner of most men unfamiliar with sickness, he was irritable and inclined to be impatient with those around him at such times (which in turn provoked his staff into giving him the irreverent nickname “the Tycoon”) but he never really lost the iron self-control that was the basis of the character he presented to the world. Once, for example, when he was short with his adjutant over some administrative detail, that officer drew himself up with dignity and silently defied his chief; whereupon Lee at once got hold of himself and said calmly, “Major Taylor, when I lose my temper don’t let it make you angry.” Nor did his illness detract in any way from the qualities which, at the time of his appointment to command, had led an acquaintance to declare: “His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker, than any other general in this country, North and South.” Confirmation of these words had come in the smoke and flame of the Seven Days, in the fifty-mile march around Pope with half of an outnumbered army, and in the bloody defense of the Sharpsburg ridge with his back to a deep river. Yet nothing gave them more emphasis than his reaction now to the early-April news that Burnside’s old corps, after lingering all this time at Newport News, was proceeding west to join its old commander, who had been assigned to head the Department of the Ohio. This signified trouble for Johnston and Bragg in Tennessee, since it probably meant that these troops would reinforce Rosecrans. At Charleston, moreover, Beauregard even now was under what might well be an irresistible attack by an ironclad fleet, with thousands of bluecoats waiting aboard transports for the signal to steam into the blasted harbor and occupy the city. Lee’s reaction to this combination of pressures, sick though he was, and faced with odds which he knew were worse than two to one here on the Rappahannock, was to suggest that, if this bolstering of the Union effort down the coast and in the West indicated a lessening of the Union effort in the East, the Army of Northern Virginia should swing over to the offensive. “Should Hooker’s army assume the defensive,” he wrote the Secretary of War on April 9, “the readiest method of relieving the pressure on General Johnston and General Beauregard would be for this army to cross into Maryland.” The wretched condition of the roads, plus the cramping shortage of provisions and transportation, made such a move impossible at present, he added; “But this is what I would recommend, if practicable.”
Such audacity, though ingrained and very much a part of the nature of the man, was also based on the combat-tested valor of the soldiers he commanded. He knew there was nothing he could ask of them that they would not try to give him, and he believed that with such a spirit they could not fail; or if they failed, it would not be their fault. “There never were such men in an army before,” he said this spring. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.” And if his admiration for them was practically boundless, so too was his concern. “His theory, expressed upon many occasions,” a staff officer later wrote, “was that the private soldiers—men who fought without the stimulus of rank, emolument, or individual renown—were the most meritorious class of the army, and that they deserved and should receive the utmost respect and consideration.” Not one of them ever appealed to him without being given a sympathetic hearing, sometimes in the very heat of battle, and he turned down a plan for the formation of a battalion of honor because he did not believe there would be room in its ranks for all who deserved a place there. Quite literally, nothing was too good for them in the way of reward, according to Lee, and this applied without reservation. To him, they all were heroes. One day he saw a man in uniform standing near the open flap of his tent. “Come in, Captain, and take a seat,” he said. When the man replied, “I’m no captain, General; I’m nothing but a private,” Lee told him: “Come in, sir. Come in and take a seat. You ought to be a captain.”
• • •
Lincoln apparently felt much the same way about the enlisted men in blue. One correspondent observed that at the final Grand Review, staged on the last full day of his Falmouth visit, “the President merely touched his hat in return salute to the officers, but uncovered to the men in the ranks.” Seated upon a short, thick-set horse with a docked tail, the tall civilian in the stovepipe hat and rusty tailcoat presented quite a contrast to the army commander, who wore a dress uniform and rode his usual milk-white charger. A Maine soldier noticed Hooker’s “evident satisfaction” as the long blue files swung past in neat array, and spoke of “the conscious power shown on his handsome but rather too rosy face,” whereas another from Wisconsin remarked that “Mr Lincoln sat his cob perfectly straight, and dressed as he was in dark clothes, it appeared as if he was an exclamation point astride of the small letter m.” He seemed oddly preoccupied with matters far removed from the present martial business of watching the troops pass in review. This was shown to be the case when he turned without preamble to Major General Darius N. Couch, the senior corps commander, and asked: “What do you suppose will become of all these men when the war is over?” Couch was somewhat taken aback; his mind had not been working along those lines; but he said later, “It struck me as very pleasant that somebody had an idea that the war would sometime end.”
Four days of intimate acquaintance with the Army of the Potomac had indicated to Lincoln, despite the blusterous symptoms of over-confidence on the part of the man beside him on the big white horse—despite, too, the rumored repulse of the ironclads at Charleston, the loss of the Union foothold on Texas, the upsurge of guerillas in Missouri, the apparent stalemate in Middle Tennessee, and Grant’s long sequence of failures in front of Vicksburg—that the end of the war might indeed be within reach, once Hooker decided the time had come for a jump-off. Morale had never been higher, the Chief Excutive found by talking with the troops in their renovated camps and hospitals. Moreover, the reorganizational shake-up seemed to have brought the best men to the top. Sumner and Franklin were gone for good, along with the clumsy Grand Division arrangement which had accomplished little more than the addition of another link to the overlong chain of command, and of the seven major generals now at the head of the seven infantry corps, less than half—Couch, Reynolds, and Henry W. Slocum had served in the same capacity during the recent Fredericksburg fiasco, while the remaining four were graduates of the hard-knocks school of experience and therefore could be presumed to have achieved their current eminence on merit. Daniel E. Sickles, the only nonregular of the lot, had taken over from Stoneman after that officer’s transfer to the cavalry; Meade had succeeded Dan Butterfield, who had moved up to the post of army chief of staff; John Sedgwick had inherited the command of W. F. Smith, now in charge of Burnside’s old corps on its way out to Ohio; Oliver O. Howard, who had lost an arm last year on the Peninsula, had replaced Sigel when that general, already miffed because Hooker had been promoted over his head, resigned in protest because his corps, being next to the smallest of the seven, was incommensurate with his rank. Lincoln had known most of these men before, but in the course of the past four days he had come to know them better, with the result that he felt confident, more confident at any rate than he had felt before, as to the probable outcome of a clash between the armies now facing each other across the Rappahannock. In fact his principal admonition, in a memorandum which he prepared in the course of his visit—perhaps on this same April 9 of the final Grand Review, while Lee was recommending to his government that the Army of Northern Virginia swing over to the offensive in order to break up the menacing Federal combinations—was that “our prime object is the enemy’s army in front of us, and is not … Richmond at all, unless it be incidental to the main object.” Having observed from Stafford Heights the strength of the rebel fortifications, he did not think it would be wise to “take the disadvantage of attacking [Lee] in his intrenchments; but we should continually harass and menace him, so that he shall have no leisure or safety in sending away detachments. If he weakens himself, then pitch into him.”
One further admonition he had, and he delivered himself of it the following morning as he sat with Hooker and Couch before departing for Aquia Landing, where the steamer was waiting to take him and his party back to Washington. “I want to impress upon you two gentlemen,” he said, “in your next fight, put in all your men.” He pronounced the last five words with emphasis, perhaps recalling that in the December fight a good half of the army had stood idle on the left while the conflict wore toward its bloody twilight finish on the right, and then he was off to join his wife and son for the boat ride up the Potomac. Although the trip unquestionably had done him good, providing him with a rare chance to relax, it was after all no more than an interlude in the round of administrative cares, a brief recess from the importunities of men who sought to avail themselves of the power of his office. When a friend remarked that he was looking rested and in better health as a result of his visit to the army, Lincoln replied that it had been “a great relief to get away from Washington and the politicians. But nothing touches the tired spot,” he added.
Longstreet, on his own at last—at least in a manner of speaking—was finding no such opportunities for glory beyond the James as his fellow corps commander Jackson had found the year before, on detached service out in the Shenandoah Valley. There Stonewall had not only added a brisk chapter to military history and several exemplary paragraphs to future tactics manuals, but had also earned for himself, according to admirers, the one thing his senior rival, according to detractors, wanted more than anything on or off the earth: a seat among the immortals in Valhalla. However, this southside venture, being a different kind of thing, seemed quite unlikely to be productive of any such reward. Designed less for the gathering of laurels than for the gathering of the hams and bacon which for generations had made and would continue to make the Smithfield region famous, it was aimed at satisfying the hunger of the stomach, rather than the hunger of the soul. What was more, throughout his ten weeks of “independent” command, Old Peter was obliged to serve three masters—Davis, Seddon, and Lee—who saddled him with three separate, simultaneous, and sometimes incompatible assignments: 1) the protection of the national capital, threatened by combinations of forces superior to his own, 2) the gathering of supplies in an area that had been under Federal domination for nearly a year, and 3) the disposition of his troops so as to be able to hurry them back to the Rappahannock on short notice. To these, there presently was added a fourth, the investment of Suffolk, which had more men within its fortifications than he could bring against them. The wonder, under such conditions as obtained, was not that he failed in part, but that he succeeded to any degree at all in fulfilling these divergent expectations.
In Richmond itself there had been no talk of failure at the outset, only a feeling of vast relief as the battle-hardened divisions of Hood and Pickett arrived to block the approach of blue forces reported to be gathering ominously, east and southeast of the city, beyond the rim of intrenchments mainly occupied by part-time defenders recruited in the emergency from the host of clerks and other government workers who had escaped conscription up to now. One of these, an industrious diarist, influenced perhaps by a far-fetched sense of rivalry—or perhaps by the fact that in the past six months, since Lee’s army had set out northward after Pope, he had forgot what a combat soldier looked like—thought the First Corps veterans “pale and haggard” when he saw them on February 18, slogging through snow deposited calf-deep in the streets by a heavy storm the night before. Four days later, however, Seddon wrote Lee that their “appearance, spirit, and cheerfulness afforded great satisfaction,” not only to the authorities but also to the fretful populace. “General Longstreet is here,” the Secretary added, “and under his able guidance of such troops no one doubts as to the entire security of the capital.” On February 25 he appointed the burly Georgian commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, which was created by combining the three departments of Richmond, Southern Virginia, and North Carolina, respectively under Major Generals Arnold Elzey, Samuel G. French, and D. H. Hill, together with the independent Cape Fear River District under Brigadier General W. H. C. Whiting, who was charged with protecting Wilmington from attack by land or water. Longstreet’s total number of men present for duty, including those in the two divisions he brought with him, plus Ransom’s demi-division forwarded earlier, was 44,193 of all arms, mostly scattered about the two states in ill-equipped and poorly administered garrisons of defense. Already outnumbered by the Federals on hand—whose current strength of 50,995 effectives he considerably overestimated—he was alarmed by reports, received on the day he assumed command, that transports were arriving daily in Hampton Roads, crowded to the gunwales with reinforcements for the intended all-out drive on Richmond. So far, they had unloaded an estimated “40,000 or 50,000” troops at Newport News, he wired Lee, and there were rumors that Joe Hooker himself had been seen at Fort Monroe, presaging the early arrival of the balance of the Army of the Potomac.
In such alarming circumstances, and schooled as he had been in strategy under Lee, Old Peter reasoned that the time had come for him to attack, if only by way of creating a diversion. As he put it, “We are much more likely to succeed by operating ourselves than by lying still to await the enemy’s time for thorough preparations before he moves upon us.” However, it was in the attempted application of this commendable principle that his troubles really began; for it was then that he came face to face with the fact that the exercise of independent command, especially in the armies of the Confederacy, involved a good deal more than a knowledge of tactics and logistics. Like him, his three ranking subordinates were West Pointers in their early or middle forties, and like him, too, they had their share of temperamental peculiarities—as he discovered when he issued instructions for a joint attack on New Bern. Held by the Federals for nearly a year now, the town had been the base for their mid-December advance against the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, sixty miles away at Goldsboro, and it was Longstreet’s belief that an attack on both banks of the Neuse River, farther down, would pinch off the blue garrison and expose it to capture or destruction. His plan was for Hill to move against the place with his whole command, reinforced by one of Whiting’s two brigades, which would give him about 14,000 men in all. Hill was altogether willing, having recently excoriated the Yankee invaders by calling upon his infantry to “cut down to 6 feet by 2 the dimensions of the farms which these plunderers propose to appropriate.” But Whiting was not, even though the brigade asked for was Ransom’s, detached from the First Corps and forwarded to him only the month before. In response to Longstreet’s call for “half your force and as many more as can be spared from the Wilmington garrison,” along with one of his three long-range Whit-worth guns, Whiting—a brilliant thirty-nine-year-old Mississippian who, three years after Old Peter had finished near the bottom of the West Point class of ’42, had not only graduated at the top of his class, but had done so with the highest marks any cadet had ever made—promptly wrote: “I perceive you are not acquainted with this vicinity.… So far from considering myself able to spare troops from here, I have applied for and earnestly urged that another brigade be sent here immediately. The works here are by no means completed and I need the services of every man I can raise.”
The result was that Hill moved against New Bern without the help of Whiting’s men or the loan of the precious long-range gun, and though he converted what was to have been an attack into a demonstration—it was March 14, the anniversary of the fall of the town to the Federals as a follow-up of their capture of Roanoke Island—even that was repulsed decisively when the defenders towed gunboats up the river from Pamlico Sound and opened a scorching fire against the Confederates on both banks, inflicting 30-odd casualties at a cost of only 6. Back in Goldsboro two days later, Hill was furious. “The spirit manifested by Whiting has spoiled everything,” he protested in his report. As he saw it, the proper correction for this was for the government to keep its word that he would be given command of all the troops in the state, including those at Wilmington, in which case he would be able to bend the fractious Whiting to his will. “I have received nothing but contemptuous treatment from Richmond from the very beginning of the war,” he complained hotly, “but I hope they will not carry matters so far as to perpetuate a swindle.” Longstreet, receiving his caustic friend’s report, sought to protect him from the wrath of their superiors. “I presume that this was not intended as an official communication,” he replied, “and have not forwarded it. I hope that you will send up another account of your trip.” Hill neither insisted that the document stand nor offered to withdraw it, but he declined to submit a new or expurgated account of what Old Peter referred to as his “trip.”
For all his obstreperous ways of protesting the injustice he saw everywhere around him, Hill was only one among the many when it came to presenting his chief with problems. Arnold Elzey, in charge of the Richmond defenses north of the James, had only recently returned to duty after a long and painful convalescence from the face wound he had suffered at Gaines Mill. A Marylander, he originally had had the last name Jones, but had dropped it in favor of his mother’s more distinctive maiden name. Erratic and moody, perhaps because of his disfigurement and the internal damage to his mouth which made his words scarcely intelligible, he was said to be drinking heavily—a particular yet not uncommon type among the casualties of war, injured as much in pride as in body. At any rate, neither he nor his command could be counted on for anything more than the desperate last-ditch resistance that was his and their assignment. Moreover, Longstreet had no high opinion of the abilities of Sam French, who was charged with the defense of Petersburg, that vital nexus of rail supply lines connecting Virginia and the deeper South. A New-Jersey-born adoptive Mississippian and a veteran of the Mexican War, French had attained high rank without distinction in the field of the present conflict, and Old Peter had the usual combat officer’s prejudice in this and other such cases he encountered when he crossed the James. Because of Lee’s policy of quietly getting rid of men he found unsatisfactory, not by cashiering them but by transferring them to far or adjoining theaters where he considered their shortcomings would cost their country less, Longstreet might have thought he was back with the old Army of the Potomac, as it had been called before the advent of Lee and its transfiguration into the Army of Northern Virginia, so familiar were the faces of many of the officers he found serving under him when he took over his new department. All too many of those faces reflected failure, and all too many others identified men who were inexperienced in combat.
Not that there appeared to be any considerable need for such experience just now. Foraging operations were in full swing, with commissary details scouring the countryside and sending back long trains of wagons heavily loaded with hams and bacon, side meat, salted fish, and flour and cornmeal, all of which were plenteous in the region. Increasingly, as the Federals failed to press their rumored drive on Richmond, the removal of such badly needed stores was becoming the prime concern of the department commander and his troops.
On March 17 their work was interrupted by a dispatch from Lee. Bluecoats were over the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford; Longstreet was to hurry north with Hood and Pickett to help drive them back. Before he could obey, however, the order was countermanded. The threat had been no more than a cavalry raid; the enemy troopers had retired. Old Peter returned to his foraging duties with new zeal. Now that the nearer counties had been picked clean, he wanted to move eastward into those beyond the Blackwater and Chowan Rivers, out of reach for the past year because of the Union occupation. He figured that if the Yankees could be driven back within their works and held there for a reasonable length of time, his commissary agents—unhampered by the enemy and aided by the citizens of those regions, who had remained intensely loyal to the Confederacy through long months when they might have thought themselves forsaken—would be able to effect a quick removal of the stores. However, this was at best a risky business for him to undertake. He would not only have to keep his two most effective divisions ready to disengage on short notice, in order to be able to speed them north on call from Lee; he would also have to detail a considerable portion of his force for commissary duties behind the lines if he was to accomplish the main purpose underlying his reason for advancing in the first place. In short, with these two disadvantages added to the fact that he was outnumbered before he even began, he would be reversing the required two-to-one numerical ratio between the two parties engaged in siege operations. But he decided to give the thing a try in any event, for the sake of all those thousands of slabs of bacon and barrels of herring awaiting removal from areas previously inaccessible to the soldiers who were fighting here and elsewhere for their eventual deliverance from the blue forces now in occupation.
He made his plans accordingly. Hood and Pickett would join French for a movement against Suffolk, which would serve the double purpose of bringing the fertile Blackwater-Chowan watersheds within the grasp of his commissary agents and of blocking the path of a Federal drive on Petersburg from the lower reaches of the James. Nor was that all. Hill—reinforced at last by Ransom’s brigade, pried loose from Whiting over that general’s violent protest that he was being stripped of two thirds of his infantry on the eve of an all-out assault on Wilmington by the ironclad fleet Du Pont was assembling at Port Royal—would move simultaneously against Washington, North Carolina, the Tar River gateway to a region which was lush with agricultural produce and gave access to the fisheries of upper Pamlico Sound. This lower movement under Hill, while equally rich in foraging possibilities, was more in the nature of a diversion, favoring the main effort against Suffolk, which would be under Longstreet’s personal direction. It was Old Peter’s hope that the Unionists, being threatened in two places at once, would not only be prevented from strengthening either at the expense of the other, but would also be thrown off balance by the expectation of additional strikes, all down the long perimeter of their coastal holdings. Though he made it clear at the outset, to his superiors as well as to his subordinates, that both advances were intended to be no more than demonstrations, staged primarily to drive the bluecoats within their works so that his foraging details would be free to scour the area unmolested, he did not overlook the possibility of taking advantage of any opening the enemy might afford. Food for Lee’s soldiers was his main concern, but he intended to draw blood, too—despite the numerical odds—whenever and wherever the tactical risk appeared slight enough to justify grasping the nettle. “The principal object of the expedition was to draw out supplies for our army,” he reminded the War Department after the movement against Suffolk was under way. “I shall confine myself to this unless I find a fair opportunity for something more.”
Hill took off first, however, advancing so rapidly from Goldsboro that on March 30 he had Washington invested before the Federal department commander, Major General John G. Foster, had a chance to reinforce its 1200-man garrison. With ten times that many troops on hand, the Confederates would have little trouble keeping the defenders penned up, but Hill did not believe their capture would be worth the casualties he would suffer in an assault. Consequently, while his foragers were busily rounding up hogs and cattle, he continued to hover about the place, making threatening gestures from time to time in the face of highly accurate fire from gunboats anchored off the town. His chief worry was that Foster—one of Burnside’s three aggressive brigadiers in last year’s smashing attack on Roanoke Island—would order an advance against his rear by the Union force at New Bern, only thirty miles away. As the siege progressed through the first week in April he vibrated with alternate emotions of jubilation and despair, much to the confusion of Longstreet, who scarcely knew what to make of his lieutenant’s fluctuant dispatches. “Up to the 2d instant,” he replied from Petersburg on April 7, apparently in something of a daze, “you gave me no reason to hope that you could accomplish anything.… Then came your letter of the 2d, which was full of encouragement and hope.… After your letter of the 2d came one of the 4th, which I believe was more desponding than your previous letters.… Your letter of the 5th revives much hope again.” Old Peter was understandably confused, but in point of fact Hill was doing much better than he knew or would admit. Not only were large quantities of supplies moving swiftly back to Goldsboro for forwarding to Richmond and the Rappahannock line, but Foster was reacting exactly as the Confederates had hoped he would do to their pretense of great strength and earnestness. Drawing in his horns in expectation of being struck next at almost any point in his department, he left Hill’s commissary agents a clear field for exploitation. “I am confident,” he warned Halleck on Easter Sunday, “that heavy operations will be necessary in this state, and that the most desperate efforts are and will continue to be made to drive us from the towns now occupied.”
At any rate Longstreet’s main concern was centered presently on matters closer at hand than Hill’s pendulum swings from gloom to elation down on the banks of the Tar. On April 9—the day Lee recommended an advance into Maryland as the best Confederate strategy for contesting the over-all Union menace, East and West, and also the day Hooker staged the last of the Grand Reviews in honor of Lincoln’s Falmouth visit—First Corps troops moved out of their camps near Petersburg and took up the march southeastward in the direction of the lower Blackwater crossings less than twenty miles from Suffolk, which the Federals had been fortifying ever since they occupied it formally in September. Two divisions were quartered there now, under Major General John J. Peck and Brigadier General George W. Getty, with a combined total of 21,108 effectives. Hood, Pickett, and French had 20,192 between them; but Peck, estimating the rebel strength at “40,000 to 60,000 men,” reacted much as Foster had done, ten days ago, to Hill’s advance on Washington. Calling in all his detachments from the surrounding countryside, he skirmished briefly along the Blackwater to gain time for a concentration, then fell back on Suffolk, where he buttoned himself up tightly. While his troops were at work improving the intrenchments, he notified his superiors at Fort Monroe and Washington that he was prepared to fight to the last man, despite the enemy’s “great preponderance of artillery as well as other branches.” Longstreet moved up deliberately. On April 11 he invested the town, taking the bluecoats under fire from the opposite bank of the Nansemond River while extending his right southward all the way to Dismal Swamp. Behind this long, concave front, which he held with a minimum number of men in order to provide details for his all-important foraging operations, commissary officers were soon busy purchasing everything in sight that a man could eat or wear. Long trains of wagons, piled high with goods and forage, soon were grinding westward amid a din of cracking whips, ungreased axles, and teamster curses. After unloading at newly established dumps along the Petersburg & Norfolk Railroad, they returned eastward, rattling empty across the muddy landscape, for new loads. Day and night, to Longstreet’s considerable satisfaction—as well as to that of the hungry men on the Rappahannock, whose rations improved correspondingly—the shuttle work continued. Supplies appeared inexhaustible in this region scarcely touched by war till now.
Meanwhile, by way of keeping up the bluff, the troops on line were demonstrating noisily, as if in preparation for an assault on the blue intrenchments across the way. Although the duty was mostly dull, there were occasional incidents that provided all the excitement a man could want, and more. For instance, there was the affair at Fort Huger, an old Confederate redoubt constructed originally as part of the Suffolk defenses but abandoned by the Federals when they took over. As it turned out, they showed wisdom by this action. On April 16, French moved five guns and three companies of infantry into the fort on the far left of his line, intending to deny enemy gunboats the use of the adjoining Nansemond River. Three nights later, however, six companies of Connecticut infantry crossed the river, a quarter of a mile upstream, and swooped down in a surprise attack that captured the works, along with all five of the guns and 130 officers and men. Joined before dawn by the other four companies of their regiment, they held the place all the following day and returned to their own lines after dark, taking along the captured men and guns. Longstreet had scarcely had time to absorb the news of this setback when he heard from Hill that the Washington siege had been abandoned on the same day Fort Huger was occupied by French. Two weeks had sufficed for the removal of most of the stores from the region; so that when, at the end of that span, the Federals succeeded in running in two ships to replenish the supplies of the garrison, Hill decided the time had come for him to withdraw. Back at Goldsboro before the week was out, he praised his troops for their “vigilance on duty and good behavior everywhere.” His scorn he reserved for homeguarders, especially those of lofty rank, whose avoidance of combat duty he blamed for his lack of the strength required to drive the detested Yankees not only “into their rat holes at New Bern and Washington,” but into Pamlico Sound as well. “And such noble regiments they have,” he sneered at these stay-at-home Tarheel warriors. “Three field officers, four staff officers, ten captains, thirty lieutenants, and one private with a misery in his bowels.… When our independence is won, the most trifling soldier in the ranks will be more respected, as he is now more respectable, than an army of these skulking exempts.”
Longstreet accepted vexation far more philosophically. Even the overrunning of Fort Huger, though it showed, as he said, “a general lack of vigilance and prompt attention to duties,” did not arouse his ire. “Many of the officers were of limited experience,” he concluded his report of the affair, “and I have no doubt acted as they thought best. I do not know that any of them deserve censure. This lesson, it is hoped, will be of service to us all.” Others reacted differently as the Suffolk siege wore on. Hood, for example, had small use for this buttoned-up style of warfare. “Here we are in front of the enemy again,” he wrote Lee toward the end of April. “The Yankees have a very strong position, and of course they increase the strength of their position daily. I presume we shall leave here so soon as we gather all the bacon in the country.” Boyishly the Kentucky-born Texan added: “When we leave here it is my desire to return to you. If any troops come to the Rappahannock please don’t forget me.” Thirty-one and a bachelor, Hood was bored. But that could scarcely be said of his fellow division commander Pickett. This thirty-eight-year-old widower, a handsome if rather doll-faced man with long chestnut curls which he anointed regularly with perfume, was in the full flush of a sunset love affair with a southside girl not half his age. LaSalle Corbell was her name; he styled her “the charming Sally”—his dead wife had been called Sally, too—and wrote her ardent letters signed “Your Soldier” despite the fact that he saw her almost nightly, riding up to her home at Chuckatuck by twilight and back to his lines before the first red glow of dawn. When Longstreet at last began to frown on this inattentiveness to duty, not to mention the abuse of horseflesh, Pickett tried to persuade the corps adjutant, Major G. Moxley Sorrel, to give him permission to take off without Old Peter’s knowledge. Sorrel, who did not approve of what he called “such carpet-knight doings in the field,” declined to accept the responsibility for what might happen in Pickett’s absence, and referred him back to Longstreet. “But he is tired of it and will refuse,” the ringleted Virginian protested. “And I must go; I must see her. I swear, Sorrel, I’ll be back before anything can happen in the morning.” Sorrel still said no; but recalling the scene years later he added that “Pickett went all the same. Nothing could hold him back from that pursuit.”
Increasingly, as spring wore on and the end of the campaign drew near—he himself had set a May 3 closing date by notifying Richmond on April 19 that two more weeks would suffice for draining the region of its stores—Longstreet grew dissatisfied: not so much with what he had done, which was after all considerable, as with the thought of what he had not done. While it was true that he had carried out, practically to the letter, his difficult triple assignment—that is, he had kept the Yankees out of Petersburg, he had secured enormous quantities of previously inaccessible supplies, and he had kept his First Corps troops on the alert for a swift return to Lee—it was also painfully true that he had accomplished nothing that would compare in tactical brilliance with even the smallest battlefield victory scored by Jackson out in the Valley a year ago. As a result, the taking of Suffolk, along with its thousands of bluecoats and tons of matériel, began to appeal to him more and more as a fitting end to these two months of detached service. Moreover, as the notion grew more attractive in his mind’s eye, it also began to appear more feasible to his military judgment, despite the fact that the Federals inside the place were stronger now, by some 9000 reinforcements brought in from Hampton Roads, than they had been at the outset. There were several ways of assessing this last, however, and one was that the grandeur of the triumph would be in direct ratio to the plumpness of the prize. Accordingly, Old Peter wrote to Lee, telling him what he had in mind and asking if he could not be sent the rest of his corps in order to assure the success of his assault on the blue intrenchments. Foreseeing objections—as well he might—he suggested that Lee, if need be, could fall back to the line of the Annas, though it was his own conviction that one corps would be able to stand fast on the Rappahannock in the event of an attack. Lee replied on April 27 that Hooker was far too strong, and just now far too active, for him to consider a further weakening of his army. In fact, he countered by asking his lieutenant if he could spare him any of the troops in North Carolina. But he certainly did not veto the proposal for ending the southside siege with an assault. “As regards your aggressive movement upon Suffolk,” he wrote, “you must act according to your good judgment. If a damaging blow could be struck there or elsewhere of course it would be advantageous.” He added some doubts as to whether the game would be worth the candle in this case, but Longstreet could see in the letter a relaxation of the urgency for keeping his First Corps divisions practically uncommitted in order to have them ready to hurry north on short notice. Consequently, while his foraging crews kept busy, hauling out the last of the precious wagonloads of hogs and corn and herring, he turned his thoughts to tactical details of the assault that would cap the climax by adding the one element—glory—so far lacking in a campaign already productive of much else.
Three days later, however—April 30—his plans were shattered by a wire from Adjutant General Cooper in Richmond, quoting a dispatch just received from Lee. Hooker was over the Rappahannock in great strength, above as well as below Fredericksburg, Lee had announced, “and it looks as if he was in earnest.” Cooper’s instructions to Longstreet were brief and to the point: “Move without delay your command to this place to effect a junction with General Lee.”
Longstreet inquired by telegraph whether this meant that he was to abandon his wagons, still scattered about on foraging operations, and risk a quick withdrawal of his men, which would bring out the Federals hot on his heels. By no means, Cooper replied on May Day. What had been intended was for him “to secure all possible dispatch without incurring loss of trains or unnecessary hazard of troops.” Having thus avoided going off half-cocked, Old Peter turned to the always difficult task of designing a disengagement. After the wagons had been called in and sent rearward, orders were issued on May 2 for all the troops to withdraw from the intrenchments the following evening and retire westward under cover of darkness, burning bridges and felling trees in their wake to discourage pursuit. This came off on schedule, and after some sharp skirmishing by rear-guard elements, the whole command was across the Blackwater by sundown of the 4th. Leaving French to defend that line, Hood and Pickett moved to Petersburg next day. Dawn of the 6th found them on the march for the James, leg-weary but eager, and Longstreet himself was in Richmond before noon, making preparations to speed both divisions northward by rail for a share in the great battle reportedly still raging along the near bank of the Rappahannock. All this ended the following day, however, when he received a wire from Lee: “The emergency that made your presence so desirable has passed for the present, so far as I can see, and I desire that you will not distress your troops by a forced movement to join me, or sacrifice for that purpose any public interest that your sudden departure might make it necessary to abandon.”
“Go forward, and give us victories,” Lincoln had written, and that was what Hooker had in mind when he crossed the Rappahannock. Nor was that all. “I not only expected victory,” he would recall when the smoke had cleared, “I expected to get the whole [rebel] army.” That this had indeed been his intention was confirmed by his chief of staff, who also declared in retrospect that the real purpose of the campaign had been “to destroy the army of General Lee where it then was.” Earlier, on the eve of committing what he called “the finest body of soldiers the sun ever shone on,” Fighting Joe had expressed his resolution in terms that were even more expansive. “My plans are perfect,” he announced, “and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on Bobby Lee; for I shall have none.”
Just what those plans were he was not saying, even to those whose task it would be to translate them into action. In point of fact, however, they were influenced considerably by the man who had preceded him in command. In addition to having demonstrated the folly of launching headlong attacks against prepared intrenchments—intrenchments which, incidentally, had been enormously strengthened and extended since December—Burnside had explored, at least on paper, several other approaches to the problem of how to prise the rebels loose from their works and come to grips with them in the open, where the advantage of numbers would be likely to decide the issue in favor of the Union. Now he had departed, taking “his deportment with him out of the Army of the Potomac, thank God,” but Hooker could remember how the lush-whiskered general had stressed the need for secrecy and then proceeded to talk with all and sundry about his plans, with the result that his opponent’s only surprise had been at his foolhardiness. So the new commander, who, by ordinary, was anything but a close-mouthed man, profited in reverse from his predecessor’s example. He kept his plans to himself.
Not that he did not have any; he did, indeed, and he did not care who knew it, so long as the particulars remained hidden. These too had been inherited, however, for the most part. Originally, like Burnside on the eve of his bloody mid-December commitment, Hooker had planned to cross the Rappahannock well below Fredericksburg; but this had two serious disadvantages. It would uncover the direct route to Washington, which he knew would distress Lincoln, and it would have to be announced to the Confederates in advance by the laying of pontoons. Upstream, on the other hand, the river narrowed and was comparatively shallow. There were fords in that direction—Banks Ford, five miles above the town, and United States Ford, seven miles farther west—behind which he could mass and conceal his troops in order to send them splashing across in a rush that would smother the south-bank gray outpost detachments, thus forcing Lee to face about and meet his assailants without the advantage of those formidable intrenchments. This had been Burnside’s intention in the campaign that ground to a soggy halt in January, but Hooker, by waiting for the advent of fair weather, had greatly reduced the likelihood of the movement’s coming to any such premature and ignominious end. Besides, there would be tactical embellishments, designed to increase the Federal chances for an all-out victory.
Principal among these was a plan for taking advantage of the recently demonstrated improvement of the blue cavalry. With Stoneman outnumbering Stuart better than three to one—just over 11,500 sabers opposed to just under 3500—it was Hooker’s belief that if his troopers crossed the river in strength they would be able to have things pretty much their own way in the Confederate rear. Damage to Lee’s communications and supply lines, coupled with strikes at such vital points as Gordonsville and Hanover Junction, might throw him into sudden retreat; in which case the Federal infantry, coming down on the run from the upstream crossings, would catch him in flight, strung out on the roads leading southward, and destroy him. No one so far in this war had been able to throw Lee into such a panic, it was true, but the reason for this might be that no one had dared to touch him where he was tender. At any rate Hooker thought it worth a try, and he had his adjutant general draw up careful instructions for Stoneman. His entire corps, less one brigade but accompanied by all 22 of its guns, was to cross Rappahannock Bridge, thirty miles above Fredericksburg, not later than 7 a.m. on April 13, “for the purpose of turning the enemy’s position on his left, throwing the cavalry between him and Richmond, isolating him from his supplies, checking his retreat, and inflicting on him every possible injury which will tend to his discomfiture and defeat.” Lest there be any doubt that the cavalry chief was to be vigorous in his treatment of the fleeing Lee, the adjutant then broke into what might one day have become the model for a pregame Rockne pep talk: “If you cannot cut off from his column large slices, the general desires that you will not fail to take small ones. Let your watchword be fight, fight, fight, bearing in mind that time is as valuable to the general as rebel carcasses.”
Stoneman and his 10,000 chosen troopers, along with their 22 guns and a train of 275 wagons containing enough additional food and forage to sustain them for nine days beyond the lines, were poised for a crossing at the specified hour. One brigade had already forded the river a few miles above Rappahannock Bridge, with instructions to come sweeping down and clear out the rebel horsemen watching from across the way. But as the three divisions stood to their mounts, awaiting the order that would send them about their task of cutting slices large and small from Lee’s retreating column, rain began to patter and then to drum, ominously reminiscent of the downpour that had queered the Mud March. Now as then, roads became quagmires and the river began to swell, flooding the fords and tugging at the shaky pilings of the bridge. Stoneman decided to wait it out. Recalling the brigade that had crossed, he wired headquarters that his rolling stock was stalled. Hooker replied that he was to shuck his guns and wagons and proceed without them. Stoneman said he would, and set dawn of the 15th as his new jump-off time. Then the wire went dead. Hooker, having promised to keep the President posted on the progress of the movement, struck an optimistic note in a dispatch sent to Washington on that date: “I am rejoiced that Stoneman had two good days to go up the river, and was able to cross it before it had become too much swollen. If he can reach his position [deep in the enemy rear] the storm and mud will not damage our prospects.” Lincoln was not so sure. It was his belief, he replied within the hour, that “General S. is not moving rapidly enough to make the expedition come to anything. He has now been out three days, two of which were unusually fair weather, and all three without hindrance from the enemy, and yet he is not 25 miles from where he started. To reach his point he still has 60 to go, another river (the Rapidan) to cross, and will be hindered by the enemy. By arithmetic, how many days will it take him to do it? … I greatly fear it is another failure already.”
His fears were confirmed the following day when a courier reached Falmouth with a letter from upstream. “I cannot say what has been the state of affairs away from this vicinity,” Stoneman wrote, “but here, at the hour of my last dispatch, the condition of things may be judged of when I tell you that almost every rivulet was swimming, and the roads next to impassable for horses or pack-mules.… The railroad bridge has been partly carried away by the freshet. The river is out of its banks, and was still on the rise a few hours ago.… My dispatch [setting a new date for the crossing] was based upon the expectation that we were to be favored with a continuation of fair weather. It certainly was not predicated upon the expectation of being overtaken by one of the most violent rainstorms I have ever been caught in.” There was much else by way of explanation and excuse, including the news that three men and several horses had been drowned that morning while attempting to cross what had been a nearly dry stream bed the day before. But the gist of the long letter came about midway: “The elements seem to have conspired to prevent the accomplishment of a brilliant cavalry operation.”
Hooker was disappointed. He told Stoneman to stay where he was, keep up his reserve supply of rations, and be ready to take off southward “as soon as the roads and rivers will permit.” However, the rain showed no sign of a real letup. For nearly two weeks it kept falling, with only a few fair days mixed in to mock the army’s immobility, and all this time Hooker was champing at the bit, anxious to put his troops in motion for the kill. As the days went by, his bitterness increased. He began to doubt that Stoneman and the cavalry were up to carrying out the mission he had assigned them; he began, in fact, to see room for improvement in the plans he had called perfect. Since he had the Confederates outnumbered better than two to one—as he knew by reports from the excellent intelligence service he had established as part of his staff—he had a rare chance to attack them, front and back, with separate columns each of which would be superior to the gray mass clamped between them. Instead of 10,000 cavalry, he would put 60,000 infantry and artillery in Lee’s immediate rear, blocking his retreat while the other 60,000 pounded his front and the troopers far in his rear slashed at his lines of supply and communication. Isolated and surrounded, prised out of his intrenchments and grievously outnumbered, Lee would be pulverized; Hooker would “get the whole army.” It was a pleasant thing to contemplate, not only because of its classic tactical simplicity, but also because it would involve what might be called poetic justice, a turning of the tables on the old fox who so often had divided his own army, but without the advantage of numbers, in hopes of destroying the very soldiers who now were about to destroy him.
What was more, as Hooker pored over his maps to plan the logistical details of the proposed envelopment, he found that the terrain seemed made to order for just such a maneuver. Banks Ford was stoutly defended from across the way, the rebels having honeycombed the dominant south-bank heights with trenches that formed the left-flank anchor of their line, and U. S. Ford was guarded nearly as heavily by an intrenched outpost detachment; besides which, the recent rains had swollen them both well past wading depth, so that his previous design to seize them in a sudden, splashing rush was now impractical. On the other hand Kelly’s Ford, fifteen miles above the junction of the Rappannock and the Rapidan, which occurred just over a mile above U. S. Ford, was lightly held, unfortified, and comparatively shallow. Although crossing there would call for a long approach march and would involve another river crossing when the column reached the Rapidan, the advantages greatly outweighed the drawbacks. For one thing, Kelly’s Ford was far enough out beyond the enemy flank to give hope that, with luck, the march and perhaps both crossings could be accomplished before the rebs knew what was afoot, and for another it would afford a covered approach, along excellent roads traversing a wooded region known locally as the Wilderness, to within striking distance of the Confederate rear. Moreover, as the column moved eastward along the south bank of the Rappahannock it would uncover both U.S. and Banks Fords, which would not only shorten considerably its lines of supply and communication, thereby making it possible for the two halves of the blue army to reinforce each other quickly if an emergency arose in either direction, but would also give the flankers, in the case of the Banks Ford defenses, control of high ground that dominated much of the present rebel line of fortifications; Lee would be obliged to come out into the open, whether he wanted to or not. All this sounded fine to Hooker. Admittedly he was about to engage in the risky business of dividing his army in the presence of the enemy, but Lee had proved on more than one occasion that the profits more than justified the risk, even though he had done so with the numerical odds against him; whereas with Hooker it would be the other way around. It was this last that gave him substantial reason to hope for the Cannae which so far, and for all his vaunted skill in battle, had eluded Lee.
Translating theory into action, Fighting Joe sent orders on April 26 for the corps of Slocum, Howard, and Meade to march for Kelly’s Ford at sunrise the following morning. They were to be in position there not later than 4 p.m. of the 28th, at which time they were to head south for the Rapidan, cross that river at Ely’s and Germanna Fords, and take the roads leading southeast to the Orange Turnpike, then proceed due east along it to a position covering a crossroads hamlet called Chancellorsville, eight miles west of Lee’s line and less than half that far from the ragged eastern rim of the Wilderness. Couch—minus Gibbon’s division, which could not be moved just yet because its Falmouth camp was in plain view of the enemy on Marye’s Heights—was to march at dawn of the 29th to a position in the rear of Banks Ford and stand ready to throw pontoons for a crossing as soon as Slocum’s advance flanked the rebels out of the trenches across the way. Meanwhile, with 60,000 Federal soldiers marching against the Confederate rear, the corps of Sedgwick, Reynolds, and Sickles, aggregating another 60,000, would move down to the riverbank south of Fredericksburg, near the point of Franklin’s crossing in December, where they would establish a west-bank bridgehead on the 29th for the purpose of demonstrating against Lee’s front, thus distracting his attention from what would be going on behind him and keeping him in doubt as to where the heaviest blow would fall. Stoneman would add to the confusion by striking first at the Virginia Central Railroad, then eastward along it to the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, where he was to harass and slow down the gray army if it attempted to escape the jaws of the blue vise by falling back on its threatened capital. Still mindful of the need for secrecy, Hooker enjoined the generals with the upstream column to regard the “destination of their commands as strictly confidential.” Apparently his left hand was to be kept from knowing what his right hand was about, but he lifted the veil a little by telling Sedgwick, who was in charge of the downstream column, to carry the enemy works “at all hazards” in case Lee detached “a considerable part of his force against the troops operating … west of Fredericksburg.” Whether the main attack would be delivered against the enemy’s front or his rear—that is, by Sedgwick’s 60,000 or by Slocum’s—remained to be seen. At the critical moment, probably on the 30th but certainly by May Day, Hooker would ride to Chancellorsville, make his estimate of the situation, and then, like an ambidextrous boxer, swing with either hand for the knockout.
The upstream march began on schedule Monday, April 27, despite a slow drizzle that threatened to undo the good which three days of fair weather had done the roads. Slogging toward Hartwood Church and Morrisville, where they would turn off south for Kelly’s Ford, the veterans chanted as they trudged:
“The Union boys are moving on the left and on the right,
The bugle call is sounding, our shelters we must strike;
Joe Hooker is our leader, he takes his whiskey strong,
So our knapsacks we will sling, and go marching along.”
Sweating under fifty to sixty pounds of weight, which included eight days’ rations, a pair of blankets, a thick wool overcoat, and forty rounds of ammunition each, they interpreted the word “sling” as they saw fit, shedding knapsacks by the roadside to be gleaned by civilian scavengers—“ready finders,” the army called them—who moved in their wake and profited from their prodigality. Hooker’s administrative sensibilities were offended by the waste, but he was consoled by the fact that the march was otherwise orderly and rapid in spite of the showers, which fortunately left off before midday without softening the roads. In response to a wire that afternoon from a fretful Lincoln—“How does it look now?”—he managed to be at once reticent and reassuring: “I am not sufficiently advanced to give an opinion. We are busy. Will tell you all soon as I can, and have it satisfactory.” Riding next day up to Morrisville, through rain that had come on again to slow the march and throw it several hours behind schedule, he was pleased all the same to note that the column had turned south for the Rappahannock, and he sent an aide ahead with a message urging Slocum to make up for lost time: “The general desires that not a moment be lost until our troops are established at or near Chancellorsville. From that moment all will be ours.”
He sounded buoyant, and presently he had cause for feeling even more so. By dusk the head of the flanking column was approaching Kelly’s Ford, and Hooker received word from his chief of staff at Falmouth that Couch had his two divisions in position behind Banks Ford, as ordered, and was improving the waiting time by extending the telegraph to U.S. Ford, in case that proved to be a better point for crossing. Sedgwick had been delayed by the rain, Butterfield added, but he had his three corps on the march and would begin throwing five pontoon bridges across the river below Fredericksburg on schedule in the morning. Moreover, though the weather had been too gusty to permit spyglass observation from the bobbing gondolas of Professor T. S. C. Lowe’s two balloons, the ruse of leaving Gibbon’s division in its exposed camp seemed to have worked as intended; Lowe reported that, from what he could see, the Confederate trenches “appeared to be occupied as usual,” indicating that Lee almost certainly had no intimation that the various Federal columns were on the move for positions from which to accomplish his destruction. All this was about as encouraging as could be, but Hooker, being painfully familiar with the tricks of the old fox across the way, was leaving as little as possible to chance. He wired Lowe to send a balloon up anyhow, despite the wind and darkness, “to see where the enemy’s campfires are,” not forgetting to add: “Someone acquainted with the position and location of the ground and of the enemy’s forces should go up.”
By the time the Professor—the title was complimentary; his official designation was “Chief of Aeronauts, Army of the Potomac,” and his basic uniform was a voluminous linen duster—got a balloon up into the windy night for a look at the rebel campfires, Howard’s corps was over the Rappahannock, crossing dry-shod on a pontoon bridge just completed by the engineers, and had taken up a position on the south bank to guard against a surprise attack while the other two corps were crossing. Slocum came over at dawn, followed by Meade, who struck out southeastward for Ely’s Ford; then Howard fell in behind Slocum, who had already headed south for Germanna Ford. Behind all three came Stoneman, a full day late and complaining bitterly that the alert order had not allowed him time to call in his 10,000 horsemen from their camps around Warrenton. He set out for Raccoon Ford, ten miles west of Germanna, for a descent on the Virginia Central in the vicinity of Louisa Courthouse, leaving Hooker a single 1000-man brigade of three slim regiments to accompany the infantry on the march and another 500 troopers to guard the deserted north-bank camps and installations. The foot soldiers pushed ahead, stepping fast but warily now; for it was here in the V of the rivers that Pope, for all his bluster, had nearly come to grief in August. Neither column encountered any real difficulty, however, in the course of its daylong hike to the Rapidan. Nor did Slocum’s run into much trouble after it got there. His advance guard, splashing its way through the chest-deep water, surprised a drowsy 100-man rebel detachment at Germanna, capturing a number of graybacks before they knew what was upon them. Finding timbers collected here on the south bank for the construction of a bridge, the jubilant bluecoats set to work and put them to use in short order, with the result that the rest of their corps, and all of Howard’s, made a second river crossing without having to wet their socks.
Meade’s troops had no such luck. Though he too encountered no opposition in the V, his march to Ely’s was longer than Slocum’s to Germanna, and he found no bridge materials awaiting him at its end. Coming down to the ford at sunset the advance guard plunged across the cold, swift-running Rapidan, chased off the startled pickets on the opposite bank, and set to work building fires to light the way for the rest of the corps approaching the crossing in the dusk. Regiment by regiment the three road-worn divisions entered the foam-flecked, scrotum-tightening water and emerged to toil up the steep south bank, which became increasingly slippery as the slope was churned to gumbo by the passage of nearly 16,000 soldiers, all dripping wet from the armpits down. Once across, they gathered about the fires for warmth, some in good spirits, some in bad, each arriving cluster somewhat muddier than the one before, but all about equally wet and cold. By midnight the last man was over. Low in the east, the late-risen moon, burgeoning toward the full, had the bruised-orange color of old gold, and while all around them the whippoorwills sang plaintively in the moon-drenched woods, the men lay rolled in their blankets, feet to the fire, catching snatches of sleep while awaiting the word to fall back into column. Meade had them on the go again by sunup of the last day of April, still marching southeast, but now through an eerie and seemingly God-forsaken region; the Wilderness, it was called, and they could see why. Mostly a tangle of second-growth scrub oak and pine, choked with vines and brambles that would tear the clothes from a man’s back within minutes of the time he left the road, it was interrupted briefly at scattered points by occasional small clearings whose abandoned cabins and sag-roofed barns gave proof, if such was needed, that no amount of hard work could scratch a living from this jungle. To make matters worse, rebel cavalry slashed at the column from time to time, emerging suddenly from ambush, then back again, apparently for the purpose of taking prisoners who would identify their units. Meade did not like the look of things any better than the men did. He rode with the van and set a rapid pace, wanting to get them out of here, and for once they were altogether willing. Chancellorsville was less than half a dozen miles from the ford, and though it was still a good three miles short of open country where he could deploy his troops and bring his guns to bear, he remembered that Hooker had said that once the flankers were “established” in that vicinity, “all will be ours.”
Arriving about an hour before noon, still without having encountered anything more than token resistance from the enemy cavalry and none at all from the famed, hard-marching rebel infantry, he found that for all its grand-sounding name the crossroads hamlet—if it could be called even that—consisted of nothing more than a large, multichimneyed brick-and-timber mansion, with tall slim pillars across its front supporting a double-decked veranda, and three or four outbuildings scattered about the quadrants of the turnpike intersection. There was, however, a hundred-acre clearing, which seemed expansive indeed after what he had just emerged from and would re-enter when he moved on, and there were also four ladies, of various ages and in bright spring dresses, who likewise were a relief of sorts despite their show of pique at having to receive unwelcome guests. At any rate, Meade’s spirits rose as he waited for Slocum and Howard, whose troops had the longer march today. Much that he previously had not understood, mainly because of Hooker’s refusal to give out details of his plan—“It’s all right” had been his usual and evasive reply to questions from commanders of all ranks—suddenly became much clearer to Meade, now that he was within a half-day’s march of Lee’s rear without its having cost him anything more than the handful of men gobbled up by the graybacks in the course of his plunge through the heart of the Wilderness. Now that he believed he saw the whole design, his dourness gave way to something approaching exaltation. By 2 o’clock, when Slocum arrived at the head of his two-corps column, Meade was fairly beside himself. “This is splendid, Slocum,” he cried, displaying an exuberance that seemed all the more abandoned because it was so unlike him; “hurrah for Old Joe! We are on Lee’s flank and he doesn’t know it.”
What he wanted now, he added with no slackening of enthusiasm, was to push on eastward without further delay, at least another couple of miles before nightfall, “and we’ll get out of this Wilderness.” Slocum felt much the same way about it. But while they talked a courier arrived with a dispatch signed by Butterfield, relaying an order from Hooker: “The general directs that no advance be made from Chancellorsville until the columns are concentrated. He expects to be at Chancellorsville tonight.”
Somewhat crestfallen, and nearly as puzzled now as he had been before he saw what he had believed was the light, Meade went about the business of getting his troops into bivouac. Slocum and Howard were doing the same when presently, at about 4.30 and true to his word, Fighting Joe himself came riding up on his big white horse, cheered lustily by the men along the roadside, and explained the logic behind the restraining order. The easterly advance along the turnpike had already flanked the rebels out of their U.S. Ford defenses, permitting Couch to sidle upstream for a crossing there instead of at Banks Ford, where the defenders were still in occupation; he was on the march for Chancellorsville even now, and Gibbon had been alerted to join him from Falmouth with his third division. This would put four whole corps in the Confederate rear, as had been intended from the start, but the northern commander had it in mind to do even more by way of cinching the victory already within reach. Sedgwick’s bridgehead having been established across the river below Fredericksburg with a minimal resistance from the rebels on the heights—who thus were clamped securely between two superior Union forces which now could reinforce each other, rapidly and at will, by way of U.S. Ford—Hooker had decided to summon Sickles from the left to add the weight of his corps to the blow about to be delivered against the more vulnerable enemy rear. His arrival tonight or tomorrow morning would bring the striking force up to a strength of 77,865 effectives within the five corps. With three regiments of cavalry added, along with several batteries detached from the artillery reserve, engineer troops, and headquarters personnel, the total would reach about 80,000 of all arms, who then could be flung in mass against Lee’s rear to accomplish his destruction with a single May Day blow.
Meade was considerably reassured; he saw in fact, or believed he saw, a brighter light than ever. A rare attention to detail—pontoons in place on time, road space properly allotted to columns on the march, surprise achieved through ruse and secrecy—had made possible, at practically no cost at all, one of the finest maneuvers in military history. Now this same attentiveness, with regard to the massing of troops for the ultimate thrust, would also make possible one of the grandest victories. Sure enough, Couch arrived before nightfall and went into bivouac a mile north of the crossroads; Sickles sent word that he was on the way. Once more careful planning had paid off. A New York Herald correspondent who had accompanied the flankers shared the pervading optimism. “It is rumored that the enemy are falling back toward Richmond,” he wrote, “but a fight tomorrow seems more than probable. We expect it, and we also expect to be victorious.” Hooker expected it, too, because he knew the rumor to be untrue. Sedgwick, from his low-lying, close-up position south of Fredericksburg, and Professor Lowe, from the gondola of one of his big yellow balloons riding high over Stafford Heights, had both assured him that the Confederates still occupied the ridge beyond the town. Reynolds, in fact, had reported to headquarters this afternoon that he believed some of the troops in his front had just arrived from Richmond: which brought the reply, “General Hooker hopes they are from Richmond, as the greater will be our success.”
His spirits were high, and so were those of his men, who cheered him to the echo, especially when a congratulatory order was read to them that evening in their camps around Chancellorsville: “It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”
Battle on his “own ground”—setting aside for the moment the question of whether any part of the Old Dominion could ever properly be so termed in relation to the man Lee called Mr F. J. Hooker—was exactly what Stonewall Jackson had been aching to give him for the past three months. “We must make this campaign an exceedingly active one,” the Virginian declared as spring approached. “Only thus can a weaker country cope with a stronger. It must make up in activity what it lacks in strength.” Fredericksburg, for all its one-sided tactical brilliance, had been a strategic disappointment to him, and he hoped to compensate for this in the great battle he knew would be fought as soon as the Federals decided the time had come for them to attempt another Rappahannock crossing. “My trust is in God,” he said quietly, seated one day in his tent and musing on the future. But then, anticipating the hour when the blue host would venture within his reach, his patience broke its bounds and he rose bristling from his chair, eyes aglow. “I wish they would come!” he cried.
These past three months had been perhaps the happiest of his military life. In fact, despite his eagerness to interrupt any or all of them with bloodshed, February, March, and April, following as they did his thirty-ninth birthday in late January, had been idyllic, at least by Jacksonian standards. Aside from administrative concerns, such as the usual spate of court-martials and the preparation of battle reports, grievously neglected up to now because he had been too busy fighting to find time for writing—the total was fourteen full-scale battles in the previous eight months, with the reduction and capture of Harpers Ferry added for good measure—his principal occupation was prayer and meditation, relieved from time to time by evenings of unaccustomed social pleasure. His quarters, an office cottage on the grounds of a Moss Neck estate, were comfortable to the point of lavishness, which prompted Jeb Stuart to express mock horror at the erstwhile Presbyterian deacon’s evident fall from spirituality, and Lee himself, in the course of a particularly fine meal featuring oysters, turkey, and a waiter decked out in a fresh white apron, taunted the high-ranking guests and their host with the remark that they were merely playing at being soldiers; they should come and dine with him, he said, if they wanted to see how a real soldier lived. Stonewall took the raillery and the chiding in good part, at once flustered and delighted. But the best of the idyl came at its close. The last nine days, beginning April 20, were spent with the wife he had not seen in just over a year and the five-month-old daughter he had never seen at all.
He had moved by then, back into his tent near Hamilton’s Crossing, which did much to reduce the Calvinistic twinges. “It is rather a relief,” he said, “to get where there will be less comfort in a room.” But for the occasion of the long-anticipated visit he accepted the hospitality of the Yerby house, in which Lee had stayed for a time under doctor’s orders, and was given a large room, with no less than three beds, where he could be alone with his wife and get to know the baby. Outside duty hours, the couple took walks in the woods and along the heights overlooking the Fredericksburg plain whose December scars were beginning to be grassed over. It was the happiest of times for them both. The days went by in a rush, however, for there in full view across the way were the enemy guns and the yellow observation balloons, reminders that the idyl was likely to have a sudden end. And so it was. Dawn, Wednesday, April 29; booted feet on the stairs and a knock at the bedroom door; “That looks as if Hooker were crossing,” Jackson said. He drew on some clothes and went out, was gone ten minutes, and then returned to finish dressing. The visit was over, he told Anna as he buckled on his sword. He would come back if he could, but if he could not he would send an aide to see her to the train. After a last embrace, and a last long look at the baby, he was gone. Presently the staff chaplain arrived to tell her the general would not be coming back. While she was packing she began hearing the rattle of musketry from down by the river. It grew louder behind her, all the way to Guiney Station, where she boarded an almost empty train for Richmond.
Lee expressed even less surprise when an aide sent by Jackson came into his tent before sunup to give him the news. Still abed, Lee said teasingly: “Captain, what do you young men mean by waking a man out of his sleep?” Hooker had thrown his pontoons near the site of the lower December crossing, the aide replied; he was over the river in force. “Well, I thought I heard firing,” Lee said, “and I was beginning to think it was time some of you young fellows were coming to tell me what it was all about. You want me to send a message to your good general, Captain? Tell him that I am sure he knows what to do. I will meet him at the front very soon.”
Shortly afterwards, peering through rifts in the early morning fog, he saw for himself that the Federals had one bridge down and others under construction, all near the point now known as Franklin’s Crossing, just over a mile below the town. They did not attempt an advance across the plain, but seemed content to stay within their bridgehead, at least for the present, covered by the long-range guns on Stafford Heights. Resisting the temptation to attack while the build-up was in progress, Lee decided to make his defense along the ridge, as he had done in December. Accordingly, he told Jackson to bring up the rest of his corps from below, and ordered the reserve artillery to leave its rearward camps and move forward into line. In notifying Richmond of these developments, although he knew it was unlikely that the two detached divisions would arrive in time for a share in the battle now shaping up, he requested that Longstreet be alerted for a return from Suffolk as soon as possible. Before noon, the situation was complicated by a dispatch from Stuart, informing Lee that a blue force of about 14,000 infantry and six guns had crossed at Kelly’s Ford and appeared to be headed for Gordonsville. This was corrected a few hours later, however, when the cavalry commander sent word that the enemy column had turned in the direction of Ely’s and Germanna Fords; so far, Jeb added, he had taken prisoners from three different Union corps, though he did not say whether he thought all three were present in full strength. In reaction, Lee sent instructions for Stuart to move eastward at once and thus avoid being cut off from headquarters. This would leave the Federal cavalry free to operate practically unmolested against his lines of supply; yet, bad as that was, it was by no means as bad as having to fight blind when he and the greatly superior Federal main body came within grappling distance of each other, here on Marye’s Heights or elsewhere. Just after sundown a third courier arrived to report the bluecoats across both Rapidan fords. Though Lee still had no reliable information as to the strength of this flanking column, it was clear by now that some part of Hooker’s army—a considerable part, for all he knew—was in the Confederate rear and moving closer, hour by hour. Whatever its strength, the threat it offered was too grave to be ignored. Nor did he ignore it. Two brigades of Richard Anderson’s division were already at U.S. Ford; Lee instructed him to draw them in and move the others rearward to meet them in the vicinity of Chancellorsville, where the roads leading south and east from Ely’s and Germanna Fords came together, “taking the strongest line you can and holding it to the best advantage.” To McLaws, who commanded Longstreet’s other remaining division, went orders alerting him for a possible westward march, in case it turned out that Anderson was not strong enough to stop the blue columns last reported to be moving in his direction. Anderson pulled out of the line at 9 o’clock, and after a three-hour march through driving rain informed headquarters that his division was concentrated near Chancellorsville by midnight. Knowing that his rear was protected at least to this extent, Lee turned in to rest for tomorrow.
Morning of the 30th disclosed a total of five bridges spanning the river below Fredericksburg. Though the bluecoats had enlarged their west-bank foothold, they showed no disposition to advance. In fact, they were intrenching their perimeter—as if in expectation, not of delivering, but of receiving an attack. Jackson, for one, was eager to give it to them, whereas Lee preferred to draw them farther away from their heavy guns on Stafford Heights. Both men thus reacted as they had done to the similar situation in December; but this time Lee offered to defer to his lieutenant’s judgment. “If you think you can effect anything,” he said, “I will give orders for the attack.” While Stonewall went about conducting a more thorough examination of the bridgehead, preparatory to moving against it, Lee received another cavalry report that the Federals were advancing eastward from Germanna Ford, along the Orange Turnpike, while a substantial train of wagons and artillery was across Ely’s Ford with a heavy infantry escort, following in the wake of the column that had crossed at that point the night before. A little later—it was now past noon—Anderson sent word that he had taken up a good defensive position east of Chancellorsville, along the near fringe of the Wilderness, and was preparing to resist the blue advance. So far, all he had seen of the enemy were cavalry outriders, he added, but he thought he was going to need support when the infantry came up. Lee replied at 2.30 that Anderson was to dig in where he was, providing hasty fortifications not only for his own division but also for McLaws’, which was on call to join him in case it was needed. “Set all your spades to work as vigorously as possible,” Lee urged, and sent him some engineers to assist in drawing his line, as well as a battalion of artillery from the reserve. Then he turned back to see how Jackson was doing.
The fact was, Jackson was not doing so well, at least by his own interpretation. A careful reconnaissance had shown the enemy bridgehead to be stronger than he had supposed; he regretfully admitted that an assault would be unwise. Lee took out his binoculars for a better look at the bluecoats massed on the plain below and on the heights beyond the river. He took his time, evaluating reports while he peered. There was by now much disagreement among his officers as to whether Hooker was planning to deliver his heaviest blow from upstream or down. Presently, however, Lee returned the glasses to their case and snapped it shut with a decisive gesture. “The main attack will come from above,” he said.
Having made this estimate of the situation he proceeded to act on it with an urgency required by the fact that a farther advance by the Federals approaching his rear would put them between him and Richmond, in which case he would have no choice except to retreat. He might have to do so anyhow, under the menace of Hooker’s skillful combinations, but he was determined, now as always, to yield no ground he saw any chance of holding. His decision, then—announced in orders which he retired to his tent to write and issue soon after nightfall—was to turn on the rearward Union column with a preponderance of his badly outnumbered army, leaving a skeleton force to defend his present position against a possible frontal assault by the blue mass on the plain. Early’s division of Jackson’s corps drew the latter assignment, reinforced by a brigade from McLaws, whose other three brigades were to proceed at once to join Anderson in the intrenchments he was digging four miles east of Chancellorsville. Jackson was to follow McLaws with his remaining three divisions “at daylight tomorrow morning … and make arrangements to repulse the enemy.” This would give Lee a total of 45,000 troops, plus Stuart when he came up, to block the path of the enemy columns moving eastward through the Wilderness, and barely 10,000, including the artillery reserve, to hold the Fredericksburg ridge, which by tomorrow would have become his rear. The risks were great, but perhaps no greater than the odds that led him to accept them. At any rate, if it came to a simultaneous fight in both directions, he would have the advantage of interior lines, even though he would have gained it by inviting annihilation.
McLaws pulled back at midnight, leaving Barksdale’s Mississippians behind for a possible repetition of their mid-December exploit. Early spread his lone division all up and down the five-mile stretch of intrenchments from Marye’s Heights to Hamilton’s Crossing, mindful of Lee’s admonition that he was to keep up a bristling pretense of strength and aggressive intentions. Jackson, told to move at daylight, was on the march by 3 a.m. Riding ahead of his troops he arrived soon after sunrise at Tabernacle Church, the left-flank anchor of Anderson’s newly established line, which McLaws was busy extending northward to the vicinity of Duerson’s Mill, covering Banks Ford. His instructions were to “make arrangements to repulse the enemy,” and to Stonewall this meant, quite simply, to attack him. If he had no orders to proceed beyond this point, neither did he have any to remain here. Besides, there was no enemy in sight except an occasional scampering blue horseman in brief silhouette against the verdant background of the Wilderness. Before he could repulse the enemy he would have to find him, and the obvious way to find him would be to go where he was—reportedly, four miles dead ahead at Chancellorsville. So he told Anderson and McLaws to leave off digging and get their men in motion. He would go forward with them. If they ran into trouble up ahead, and it was clear by now that trouble was what they definitely were going to find in that direction, his three divisions would soon be up to lend support.
It was about 11 o’clock of a fine May Day morning by the time they got their troops into march formation and set out, preceded by clouds of skirmishers. The advance was by two main roads, the turnpike on the right and the plank road on the left; McLaws took the former, Anderson the latter, accompanied by Jackson himself. Almost as soon as they entered the green hug of the Wilderness, McLaws made contact with the enemy advancing on the turnpike. At 11.20 the first gun of the meeting engagement boomed. Then others began to roar in that direction. Jackson’s instructions were for both divisions to keep pushing west until they ran into something solid. Presently he received a dispatch from Stuart, who was near at hand. “I will close in on the flank,” Jeb wrote, “and will help all I can when the ball opens.… May God grant us victory.” Stonewall replied, “I trust that God will grant us a great victory.” But he added, by way of showing what he had in mind to reinforce his trust: “Keep closed on Chancellorsville.”
Hooker too had started forward at 11 o’clock, so that the meeting engagement occurred about midway between Chancellorsville and Tabernacle Church. Sickles having come up that morning, the northern commander was set to throw a five-corps Sunday punch. This was no time for wild blows, however, and he made his preparations with the same concern for detail as before. Slocum would advance along the plank road on the right, supported by Howard; Meade would take the left, along the turnpike, supported by Couch; Sickles would remain in general reserve, on call to add the extra weight that might be needed in either direction. Nor was Fighting Joe committing the amateur’s gaffe of forgetting he had another hand to box with. Orders had gone the previous evening to Sedgwick: “It is not known, of course, what effect the advance will have upon the enemy, and the general commanding directs that you observe [Lee’s] movements with the utmost vigilance, and, should he expose a weak point, attack him in full force and destroy him.” This was made even more specific by instructions sent to Sedgwick as the advance got under way. No matter whether the rebels weakened their Fredericksburg line or not, he was “to threaten an attack in full force at 1 o’clock and to continue in that attitude until further orders. Let the demonstration be as severe as can be,” Hooker added, “but not an attack,” unless of course the enemy afforded a real opening, in which case the earlier instructions would obtain and Sedgwick would go for a left-hand knockout.
Slocum and Meade stepped off smartly, much encouraged by a circular prescribing the order of march and closing: “After the movement commences, headquarters will be at Tabernacle Church.” It sounded as if Hooker meant business this time. Also it made considerable tactical sense, for the turnpike and the plank road, after branching off from one another at Chancellorsville, converged near that objective. Out of the woods at last, the two lead corps would be concentrated for the final lunge, supported by Howard, Couch, and Sickles, who would follow close behind. For more than half the distance, however, these two main Wilderness arteries diverged: with the result that as the two columns moved eastward, hemmed in by the dense jungle of stunted trees and brambly underbrush, they lost contact with each other. As an additional complication, Meade had one division on the pike and two on the River Road, which curved northward to outflank the rebel intrenchments at Banks Ford; so that here, too, contact was quickly lost. Two miles from its crossroads starting point, out of touch with Slocum on the right and the rest of its own corps on the left, the division on the turnpike came under fire from enemy skirmishers as it plodded up a long slope whose crest would bring the eastern rim of the Wilderness in view. It so happened that this division, commanded by Major General George Sykes, could lay substantial claims to being the sturdiest in the Army of the Potomac, two of its three brigades being composed exclusively of U.S. regulars, while the third was made up of battle-hardened New York volunteers who had stood fast on Henry Hill and thereby saved the fleeing remnant of Pope’s army from utter destruction at Bull Run. As steady now as then, they went smoothly into attack formation and drove the rebel skirmishers back to the crest of the low ridge. There, however, they came upon the Confederate main body, long gray lines of infantry supported by clusters of guns that broke into a roar at the sight of bluecoats. Calling a halt, Sykes sent back word that he was badly in need of help. Then, as the gray mass started forward, overlapping both of his open flanks, he began a rearward movement down the pike, dribbling casualties as he went. What would be known as the Battle of Chancellorsville had opened.
Couch was already coming up with Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s division, which he threw into the line at once to stabilize the situation preparatory to resuming the advance. Before this last could be accomplished, however, a courier arrived with orders from Hooker: “Withdraw both divisions to Chancellorsville.” Couch was amazed. Here he was, as he later said, with “open country in front and the commanding position,” yet his chief was telling him to retire. Sykes and Hancock were equally puzzled. They too wanted to push ahead in accordance with the original instructions. With their approval, Couch sent an aide to inform Hooker that the situation was under control and the troops were about ready to continue their drive along the pike. Off to the right, a mounting bank of smoke and the rumble of guns told them that Slocum was likewise engaged and seemed to be holding his own, while Meade’s other two divisions apparently had encountered no resistance at all on the left. But within half an hour the aide returned with a peremptory repetition of the order: Pull back to Chancellorsville without delay. Couch considered outright disobedience. Brigadier General G. K. Warren, chief engineer of the army, urged him to adopt just such a course while he himself rode back to explain its advantages to Hooker. He spurred rearward; but as soon as he left, Couch’s West-Point-inculcated instinct for obedience took over. Complying with the order to retire, he withdrew the two divisions, first Sykes, then Hancock. The disengagement had been completed, except for two rear-guard regiments still in line, when a third message arrived from Hooker: “Hold on until 5 o’clock.” Evidently Warren had stated his case persuasively, but Couch by now was disgusted. “Tell General Hooker he is too late,” he replied testily. “The enemy are already on my right and rear. I am in full retreat.”
In point of fact, his right was more seriously threatened than he knew. Slocum, followed as closely by Anderson as Couch himself was being followed by McLaws, had already fallen back down the plank road in accordance with similar instructions from headquarters. Meade too was backtracking by now, but unpursued, having encountered nothing substantial in the way of resistance on the left. As a result he was even more astounded than Couch had been at receiving the order to withdraw. Within sight of Duerson’s Mill, he had been within easy reach of Banks Ford, control of which would shorten greatly the lines of supply and communication between the army’s divided wings. To be told to fall back under such circumstances, with clear going to his front and his lines extending along the crest of the eastward rise, was more exasperating than anything he had encountered up to now. Once again Hooker had built up his hopes only to dash them with a peremptory order which not only called for a halt, as before, but also insisted on a retirement. Meade was furious. “If he thinks he can’t hold the top of a hill, how does he expect to hold the bottom of it?” the Pennsylvanian stormed as he complied with the instructions to fall back.
That was about 2 o’clock. All three corps commanders were hard put to understand what had come over Fighting Joe in the scant three hours since they had set out from the crossroads they now were under orders to return to. At the outset, with the announcement that his headquarters would be leapfrogged four miles forward while the movement was in progress, he had seemed confident of delivering a knockout blow. Then suddenly, at the first sputter of musketry on the turnpike, he had abandoned all his aggressive intentions and ordered everything back for a defense of Chancellorsville, deep in the Wilderness. Why? They did not know, but already they were beginning to formulate theories which they and others down the years would enlarge on. For one thing, that excellent intelligence section back at Falmouth was hard at work, forwarding information disturbing enough to jangle the nerves of the steadiest man alive. According to one rebel deserter, brought in for interrogation the night before, Longstreet’s whole corps had left Suffolk, presumably by rail, and had “gone to Culpeper,” which would place it directly in rear of the Union flanking column and scarcely a day’s march away. The prisoner added “that Lee said it was the only time he should fight equal numbers,” which if true was alarming in the extreme, considering all the old fox had been able to accomplish with inferior numbers in the past. Another deserter—“from New York state originally; an intelligent man,” Butterfield commented—avowed that Hood’s division was already with Lee; he knew this, he said, because he had “asked the troops as they passed along.” One of the two informers must be lying, at least so far as Longstreet’s location was concerned. Indeed, both might be lying; it was not unusual for the Confederates to send out bogus “deserters” to confuse an opponent with misleading information. But the fact was, Lee was not reacting to his present predicament at all as he ought to be doing if he was heavily outnumbered. He was reacting, in fact, as if the numerical advantage was with him even more than either deserter claimed. And just what that reaction was Hooker had learned shortly after Meade and Slocum left him. Until that time, Professor Lowe’s balloons had been fogbound high over Stafford Heights, but all of a sudden the weather faired, permitting the aeronaut to tap out a steady flow of information regarding the panorama now spread out before his eyes. He could see various rebel columns in motion, he wired Hooker at 11 o’clock, but the largest of these was “moving on the road toward Chancellorsville.” This tallied with the intelligence summation forwarded shortly thereafter by Butterfield. Completing his tabulation of the Confederate order of battle, the chief of staff declared: “Anderson, McLaws, A. P. Hill, and Hood would, therefore, be in your front.”
It also explained—all too clearly—the sudden clatter of musketry and the boom of guns, first down the turnpike, then down the plank road, not long after the two columns set out eastward through the forest. In part, as well, it accounted for Hooker’s reaction, which in effect was a surrendering of the initiative to Jackson, who plunged deeper into the Wilderness in pursuit. But there was a good deal more to it than this: a good deal more that was no less valid for being less specific. Perhaps Hooker at last had recalled Lincoln’s admonition, “Beware of rashness.” Perhaps at this critical juncture he missed the artificial stimulus of whiskey, which formerly had been part of his daily ration but which he had abjured on taking command. Perhaps he mistrusted his already considerable accomplishment in putting more than 70,000 soldiers in Lee’s immediate rear, with practically no losses because he had met practically no resistance. It had been altogether too easy; Lee must have wanted him where he was, or at any rate where he had been headed before he called a halt and ordered a pull-back. Or perhaps it was even simpler than that. Perhaps he was badly frightened (not physically frightened: Hooker was never that: but morally frightened) after the manner of the bullfighter Gallo, who, according to Hemingway, “was the inventor of refusing to kill the bull if the bull looked at him in a certain way.” This Gallo had a long career, featuring many farewell performances, and at the first of these, having fought the animal bravely and well, when the time came for killing he faced the stands and made three eloquent speeches of dedication to three distinguished aficionados; after which he turned, sword in hand, and approached the bull, which was standing there, head down, looking at him. Gallo returned to the barrera. “You take him, Paco,” he told a fellow matador; “I don’t like the way he looks at me.” So it was with Hooker, perhaps, when he heard that Lee had turned in his direction and was, so to speak, looking at him. Lowe had signaled at noon that the rebels were “considerably diminished” on the heights behind Fredericksburg. Consequently, at 2 o’clock, Fighting Joe wired Butterfield: “From character of information have suspended attack. The enemy may attack me—I will try it. Tell Sedgwick to keep a sharp lookout, and attack if can succeed.” In effect, now that Lee had turned his attention westward, Hooker was telling Sedgwick: “You take him, Paco. I don’t like the way he looks at me.”
None of this perturbation showed in his manner, however, when the returning generals confronted him at the Chancellor house, which he had taken over as his headquarters. “It’s all right, Couch; I’ve got Lee just where I want him,” he said expansively. “He must fight me on my own ground.” Couch had a cold eye for this blusterous performance. “The retrograde movement had prepared me for something of the kind,” he wrote years later, “but to hear from his own lips that the advantages gained by the successive marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much.… I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.”
Whether or not this was the case remained to be seen. For the present, the order was for the army to intrench itself along lines prescribed with the usual attention to detail. On the map they resembled a double-handled dipper. Couch and Slocum, with two divisions each in the vicinity of Chancellorsville—Gibbon had stayed at Falmouth after all—formed the cup, bulging south of the crossroads to include some comparatively high ground known as Fairview. The cup was just over a mile wide at the rim, tapering slightly toward the base, and just under a mile deep. Sickles’ three divisions were in reserve, poised for a leap into the cup or a quick march out either of the handles, which were between two and three miles long and extended generally northeast and due west. Meade’s three divisions connected the eastern lip of the cup with the Rappahannock, his left resting on a bend of the river south of U. S. Ford, which thus was covered. Howard’s three divisions, the dipper’s western handle, extended out the turnpike past Wilderness Church, where the plank road came in from the southwest, and thus presumably could block the approach of an enemy moving up from that direction. The troops worked into the night with picks and shovels, intrenching the six-mile line from flank to flank. At 2 a.m. Couch, Slocum, and Howard reported themselves satisfied that their respective sectors could be held against assault. Advantageously disposed along Mineral Spring Run, a small boggy creek that covered his front and rendered his position doubly secure, Meade had reported the same thing earlier. Hooker, with his accustomed thoroughness, seemed to have allowed for all eventualities before he retired to a bedroom in the crossroads mansion to sleep and store up strength for whatever tomorrow was going to bring.
He hoped it would bring an all-out Confederate attack; or so at least he had been saying, all afternoon and evening. “The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac,” he announced to the officers gathered about him in the May Day sunshine on the Chancellor veranda. The fact that nearly all of his cavalry had ridden well beyond his reach, while nearly all of Lee’s was in what Hooker called “my immediate presence,” did not seem to him a cause for alarm, but rather an advantage, “which I trust will enable Stoneman to do a land-office business in the interior. I think the enemy in his desperation will be compelled to attack me on my own ground.… I am all right.” Thus he wired the Washington authorities, thinking that such information, besides relieving the President’s concern, might “have an important bearing on movements elsewhere.” If the other Union armies would only keep step with this one, the war would soon be over and done with—won. As the daylight hours wore on and his intrenchments were extended, still with no full-scale rebel assault, his show of confidence reached its zenith. He feared nothing and he wanted it known; not even the artillery of heaven. “The enemy is in my power,” he exulted, “and God Almighty cannot deprive me of them.” In the late afternoon he issued another circular for the encouragement of subordinates: “The major general commanding trusts that a suspension in the attack today will embolden the enemy to attack him.”
Lee and Jackson met at sundown, on the plank road just over a mile southeast of Chancellorsville, for the purpose of deciding how best to go about giving Hooker what he claimed he wanted. They began their conference on the road itself, at the junction where a trail came in from Catharine Furnace, a rural ironworks on Lewis Creek a mile and a half to the west, but they withdrew presently into a nearby clump of pines when a Federal sharpshooter began ranging in on them from a perch in a tree just up the road, beyond the line along which Anderson’s and Slocum’s pickets were keeping up a rackety contention. Seated side by side on a log, the two men continued their discussion in the May Day twilight, the gray-bearded elder impeccably dressed as always, his neat gray tunic devoid of trappings except for the three unwreathed stars on each side of the turned-down collar, and the younger wearing the rather gaudy uniform which had provoked such hoots and catcalls on the day of Fredericksburg. Reconnoitering on the right this afternoon, Lee had found the terrain unpromising, hemmed in as it was by a bend of the Rappahannock, and the few heavily wooded approaches well guarded by troops already dug in along the far side of a marsh. To attempt to come to grips with them in that quarter, he said, would be to invite destruction. How about the center and the left? Jackson had not been far to the west, but he had made a long-range examination of the enemy lines in front of Chancellorsville itself and had found the bluecoats disposed three-deep, hard at work with picks and shovels, and supported by many batteries of artillery. However, he was inclined to believe that the question of how to get at Hooker, here in the Wilderness tomorrow, was largely academic. The ease with which he had repulsed the advancing Union columns today made him suspect that their recoil was prelude to a withdrawal. “By tomorrow morning there will not be any of them on this side of the river,” he declared.
Lee shook his head. So far he had deferred to Stonewall’s judgment, but not in this. Though he too was puzzled by his opponent’s sudden, turtle-like reaction to moderate pressure, he was convinced that Hooker was planning to make his main effort right here. Anyhow, even if that were not the case, they must prepare to deal with him tomorrow on even the outside chance that he would still be in his present intrenched position. Without quite giving over his belief that dawn would show the forest empty to their front, Jackson could not disagree with the logic of Lee’s contention; besides which, he found the prospect so attractive as to overrule his inclination to think that it would not be offered. For him, as for his commander, to “deal with” Hooker meant to attack him. But how? And where? One possibility was that the Federal center might not appear as stout to a close-up view as it had seemed from a distance. The two generals accordingly dispatched an engineer officer from each of their staffs to go take a look at the intrenchments there and report on what they saw.
While this night reconnaissance was in progress, and while Lee and Jackson continued to speculate on ways of bringing the blue army’s current excursion to a violent close, Jeb Stuart came jingling up from Catharine Furnace in fulfillment of his promise to “help all I can when the ball opens.” Glad as he was to see his friend Stonewall decked out in the handsome uniform he had given him, he deferred comment in favor of some interesting information which had just come to hand. According to Fitzhugh Lee, who had ridden west to scout it, Hooker’s right flank was “in the air” on the Orange Turnpike, wide open to attack from that direction. Though this was news of a kind to set both him and his chief lieutenant on tremble, the southern commander suppressed his excitement to ask whether roads were available for a covered approach to that critical point by troops in large numbers. Stuart replied that he did not know but he would do what he could to find out, and with that he swung back onto his horse and rode off westward, his red-lined cape and cinnamon whiskers glistening in the light of the new-risen moon.
From this time on, Lee and Jackson gave little attention to anything but the possibility of launching the suggested flank attack. When the two engineers returned to announce that the Union center was too strongly intrenched to be assaulted, Lee received the anticlimactic report with a nod and kept peering at a map spread on his knees; he peered so intently, indeed, that he seemed to be trying to make it give him information which it did not contain. “How can we get at those people?” he asked, half to himself and half to Jackson, who replied in an equally distracted manner, as he too searched the map for roads that were not on it: “You know best. Show me what to do, and we will do it.” Finally, Lee traced a fingertip westward along the map from their present location, as if to sketch in an ideal route past the front of the enemy position, then northward to intersect the turnpike, where the latter veered abruptly east to address the Union flank end-on. In naval parlance, he was crossing Hooker’s T. That would be the movement, he said; Jackson would lead it and Stuart would cover his march. Smiling, Jackson stood erect and saluted. “My troops will move at 4 o’clock,” he said. In his eagerness, he not only seemed unable to remain seated, he also seemed to have forgotten his prediction that Hooker would clear out before sunup. Lee checked him with a reminder. If there was any doubt about this next morning, he said, Jackson could open from an exposed position with a couple of guns, then judge by the response as to whether the blue army was still behind its Wilderness fortifications.
There was much to be done between now and sunrise: especially by Jackson, to whom Lee had left the choice of a route, the composition of the force to be employed, and the decision as to when and in what manner the flank attack would be delivered. But what both men needed for the present, at the close of a strenuous day and on the eve of what promised to be an even more strenuous morrow, was a few hours’ sleep: again especially Jackson, who had demonstrated on several occasions—the Seven Days, for one—that without at least a minimum of profound rest he would be reduced to a state of somnambulism. They lay down where they were, in separate quarters of the grove, spreading their saddle blankets on the pine needles for a bed and using their saddles for a pillow. Both were soon asleep, but Lee was wakened presently by an officer he had sent to look into conditions on the turnpike to the north. “Ah, Captain, you have returned, have you?” he said, and he sat up slowly. “Come here and tell me what you have learned on the right.” It was the same young man from Jackson’s staff who had wakened him two mornings ago to tell him Hooker was crossing; J. P. Smith was his name, a divinity student before the war. He hesitated, in awe of the general whose massive features and gray beard looked so imposing in the moonlight, but as he leaned forward the seated man put an arm about his shoulder and drew him down by his side while he finished his report. Lee thanked him and then, still retaining his grip, began to chide him by saying that he regretted that Smith and the other “young men about General Jackson” had not done a better job today of locating and silencing an enemy battery that had held up the advance. Young men nowadays, he declared in the accents of Nestor, were a far remove from the young men of his youth. The captain, seeing, as he later said, that the general “was jesting and disposed to rally me,” broke away from the hold Lee tried to retain on his shoulder. As he moved off through the moonlit pines he could hear the Virginian laughing heartily there in the Wilderness where many men now sleeping would be laid in their graves tomorrow and the next day and the next, blue and gray alike, as a result of instructions he had given just before he himself lay down, in apparently excellent spirits, to rest for what he knew was coming with the dawn.
When Lee woke he saw the gaunt figure of Jackson bending over a small fire a courier had built. Rising, he joined him and the two sat on a couple of hardtack boxes the Federals had left behind the day before. It was already past 4 o’clock, the hour set for the column to move out, but Jackson explained that he was awaiting the return of his staff chaplain, who once had had a church hereabouts and was familiar with the region. For this reason he had sent him, together with a skilled cartographer, to explore the roads leading west from Catharine Furnace and then north to the plank road, up which he expected to make his strike. The two sat talking, warming their hands at the meager fire, until the glimmer of dawn showed the staff officers returning from their scout. Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, the cartographer, approached the generals and spread his map on another hardtack box which he placed between them. It was obvious from his manner, before he said a word, that he had found the route he had been seeking, and as he spoke he traced it on the map: first due west to the furnace, then due south, away from the enemy, along a trail that gradually turned back west to enter the Brock Road, which ran northward to the plank road and the turnpike. However, he explained that the column must not turn north at this point, since that would bring it within sight of a Federal signal station at Fairview, but south again for a short distance to another road leading north and paralleling the Brock Road, which it rejoined a couple of miles above in some heavy woods just short of its junction with the plank road. That way, practically the entire route—some ten miles in length from their present position and firm enough throughout to support wagons and artillery—would be screened from the eyes of enemy lookouts. Completing his exposition, Hotchkiss looked from one to another of the generals, both of whom kept their eyes fixed on the map for what seemed to him an inordinately long time. Finally Lee spoke, raising his head to look at his lieutenant: “General Jackson, what do you propose to do?” Jackson put out his hand and retraced, with a semicircular motion of his wrist, the route just drawn. “Go around here,” he said. Lee kept looking at him. “What do you propose to make this movement with?” he asked, and Jackson promptly replied: “With my whole corps.”
Now there was a pause while Lee absorbed the shock the words had given him. “What will you leave me?” he asked. The question was rhetorical; he already knew the answer. But Jackson answered it anyhow, as readily as before. “The divisions of Anderson and McLaws.” This meant that he would have better than 30,000 soldiers off to the rear and on the flank, necessarily out of contact with the enemy and the rest of his own army for most of the day, while Lee would be left with scarcely half as many troops planted squarely across the path of a greatly superior blue host which might resume its forward movement at any minute. However, having weighed the odds—which had to include the by no means improbable chance that Hooker might learn what was afoot and react accordingly—the southern commander made and announced his decision. “Well, go on,” he said.
While they talked the sun had reddened the east, and now it broke clear, fiery above the treetops back toward Fredericksburg, where Early was facing odds almost as long as Lee’s would be when the flanking column left. Jackson informed his chief that the march would be led by D. H. Hill’s old division, now under Brigadier General Robert Rodes; next would come his own old division, commanded by its senior brigadier, Raleigh Colston; A. P. Hill’s division would bring up the rear. He would take all his artillery with him, dispersed along the column, and depend on Stuart to cover his advance. Lee took notes on this, then retired to write the necessary orders while his lieutenant went about making preparations to move out. As Jackson rode past one brigade camp the lounging veterans rose to cheer him, but seeing what one of them later called “battle in his haste and stern looks,” they merely gazed at him and wondered what exertion he was about to require of them. The preliminary dispositions were a time-consuming business, involving the extraction of some units already committed, but at last they were completed. Shortly before 8 o’clock, the lead regiment—Georgians who had fought under him in every battle since McDowell, the prologue to the Valley Campaign, which had opened exactly a year ago today with his descent through Brown’s Gap to put his troops aboard the cars for Staunton—turned off the plank road and set out westward for Catharine Furnace and Hooker’s right. Though he was four hours behind the starting time he had set the night before, Stonewall did not appear to be disturbed by the delay. He was alert but not impatient, one observer remarked, and spoke tersely “as though all were distinctly formed in his mind and beyond all question.” Under the lowered bill of his cap, the battle light was already shining fiercely in his pale blue eyes.
Lee came up and joined him at the turn-off where the sniper had tried to draw a bead on them at sunset. Both mounted—Lee on Traveller, a tall dapple gray, and Jackson on stocky, ox-eyed Little Sorrel—they spoke briefly against a background of skirmish fire which had begun to sputter along the two-mile front now occupied exclusively by Anderson and McLaws, with just over 15,000 troops between them. Nothing in Lee’s manner showed the strain involved in gambling that his opponent, whether or not he became aware in the meantime of what was happening in his front and on his flank, would not exploit his five-to-one numerical advantage by launching an all-out attack—frontal or otherwise; either would be about equally destructive—before the widely divided Confederate wings were reunited. Moreover, Lee was proceeding not only on the assumption that Jackson could gain and strike the Union flank before the bluecoats recovered from their current puzzling lethargy, here in the Wilderness or back in front of Marye’s Heights; he was also proceeding on the belief, or at any rate the hope, that Hooker would be completely unstrung by the explosion on his right. Nothing less would serve. For if Hooker could absorb and then recover from the shock, he might still take the offensive against the outnumbered and divided graybacks to the west and south, or signal eastward for an assault upon the thinly held Fredericksburg ridge in Lee’s immediate rear. This was, in short, the longest gamble of a career which had been crowded with risks throughout the eleven months since Lee first took command at Seven Pines. Now, their brief conversation ended, the two men parted, the elder to stay, the other to go. As they did so, the dark-bearded younger general raised his arm and pointed west, in the direction he was headed. Lee nodded, and Stonewall rode off into the forest, out of sight.
Fighting Joe had been up for hours, conducting a flank-to-flank inspection of his lines. “How strong! How strong!” he marveled as he examined the hastily improvised but elaborate fortifications: particularly those out on the right, where so many of the regiments were composed of foreign-born troops who performed such labor with Germanic thoroughness and a meticulous attention to detail rivaling Hooker’s own. Wherever he went this morning, tall in the saddle and rosy-looking, flushed with confidence and trailing a kite-tail of staff officers behind his big white high-stepping horse, the soldiers cheered him lustily, delighted to see their commander sharing with them the rigors of the field. His mood was as expansive as before; more so, in fact; and with cause. For he had received, the night before, a report from a trusted operative just in from Richmond, who not only had documentary evidence that Lee was receiving barely 59,000 daily rations, but also reported that the southern commander could hope for no reinforcements except from Longstreet, both of whose divisions—despite the contrary fabrications passed on by yesterday’s rebel deserters—were still in front of Suffolk. This last was confirmed by Peck himself, who wired that he had taken prisoners from Hood and Pickett that same day. In reaction, Hooker’s last move before retiring had been to direct that Reynolds’ corps be detached from Sedgwick and sent to join him here at Chancellorsville. When it arrived—as it should do before long, the summons having been issued at 1.55 this morning—he would have better than 90,000 men on hand to repulse the attack Lee seemed to be preparing to deliver against the bulging center of the Union line. If the old fox really believed what he was rumored to have said the day before, that this “was the only time he should fight equal numbers,” he was in for a large surprise. What Fighting Joe was planning was Fredericksburg in reverse, with Lee in the role of Burnside, and himself in the role of Lee: except that this time, when the attackers were exhausted and bled white as a result of their attempts to storm his fortifications, he would be in a position to swing over to the offensive that had been impossible for the Confederates, back in December, because of their numerical inferiority and the guns on Stafford Heights. Hereabouts there were no heights for Lee to mass his guns on, only the blinding and restricting thickets, and Hooker had men aplenty for the delivery of an all-out counterattack and the administration of the windup coup de grâce which would end the final spasmodic twitch of the dying rebel army.
He was in excellent spirits when he got back to headquarters at 9 o’clock to find a courier waiting for him from Brigadier General David Birney, commander of a division Sickles had sent out to some unoccupied high ground southwest of Fairview—Hazel Grove, it was called on the map—for a look at what the graybacks might be up to. According to the information brought back by the courier, they were up to a great deal. Hazel Grove afforded a clear but limited view of Catharine Furnace, less than one mile south, and the advancing bluecoats had spotted a rebel column moving due south of there along a stretch of road that disappeared into the woods. Apparently endless, the column included infantry, artillery, wagons, and ambulances; Birney thought it must signify an important development in the enemy’s plans. Hooker agreed. In fact, after referring to his map, which showed that the road in question veered west beyond the screen of trees, he believed he knew just what that development was. The Confederates were in retreat, probably on Gordonsville, where Stoneman must have struck by now, severing one of their two main supply lines. However, on the off-chance that Lee was attempting at this late date to come up with something out of his bag of tricks, Hooker decided it would be wise to warn Howard of what was going on, and he sent him a message advising him to be vigilant in protecting the western flank: “We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe to obtain timely information of their approach.” He might have followed to see for himself that his instructions were carried out, but presently a dispatch arrived from Howard, sent before his own had been received, stating that he too had sighted the rebel column “moving westward on a road parallel with this,” and adding, of his own accord: “I am taking measures to resist an attack from the west.” It was clear that Howard required no supervision to assure that he did his duty; he had performed it before he was even told what it was, thereby leaving Hooker free to concentrate on the question of pursuit.
In this connection he thought again of Sedgwick, who had been kept by a faulty telegraph connection from getting yesterday’s instructions until the hour was too late for an attack. First Sickles and now Reynolds had been detached from the downstream force, but Sedgwick’s was the largest corps in the army. With Gibbon’s division still available at Falmouth, he had close to 30,000 effectives, plus the support of the long-range guns on Stafford Heights, and though Professor Lowe had reported earlier that a hard wind was bumping him around so much he could not use his telescope, the headquarters intelligence section informed Hooker that only Early’s division remained on the Fredericksburg ridge. Accordingly, he directed Butterfield to pass the word along to Sedgwick and authorize him to attack if there was “a reasonable expectation of success.” Meanwhile Hooker kept his staff busy preparing orders designed to put the whole army on Lee’s trail if he still appeared to be in retreat next morning. A circular issued at 2.30 instructed corps commanders to load up with forage, provisions, and ammunition so as “to be ready to start at an early hour tomorrow.” By the time this was distributed, reports had begun to come in from Sickles, who had been given permission at noon to advance with two divisions to investigate the movement Birney had spotted from Hazel Grove. He sent back word that he had pierced the rebel column near Catharine Furnace, capturing men and wagons, but that practically all of it had moved westward beyond his reach by now. Hooker took fire at this, his confidence soaring: Lee was unquestionably in full retreat, intending to follow the heavily escorted train with the Confederate main body. At 4.30 the jubilant Federal commander wired Butterfield to order Sedgwick to throw his entire force across the river, “capture Fredericksburg and everything in it, and vigorously pursue the enemy.” Previous instructions had been discretionary, and so were these; but Hooker made it clear that a fine opportunity lay before him. “We know that the enemy is fleeing, trying to save his trains,” he added. “Two of Sickles’ divisions are among them.”
As might have been expected with the rebel column filing through the woods to the army’s front, there was a good deal of excitement along the outpost lines. Couriers and even unit commanders began to turn up at the Chancellor house with frantic, sometimes near-hysterical warnings of an impending flank attack. Staff officers had all they could do to keep some of them—especially one persistent artilleryman with the lowly rank of captain, who claimed to have ridden out and seen the graybacks massing—from bothering Hooker himself with their perturbations. When these men finally could be made to understand that the high command was already aware of the alleged danger and had taken steps to meet it in case it developed, they returned to their units, most of them feeling rather sheepish at having presumed to believe they knew more than their superiors. Others, however, remained unconvinced: particularly those through whose ranks the rebel prisoners had been taken rearward after their capture near Catharine Furnace. They were Georgians, hale-looking men in neat butternut clothes, and for the most part they seemed cheerful enough, considering their plight. They had come over, they replied to taunts, to help “eat up them eight-day rations.” But some were surly and in no mood to be chided. Told by a bluecoat, “We’ll have every mother’s son of you before we go away,” one snapped back: “You’ll catch hell before night.” Another was more specific as to how calamity was to be visited upon them, and by whom. “You think you’ve done a big thing just now,” he said, “but wait till Jackson gets around on your flank.” This seemed to its hearers well worth passing on to headquarters, but when they went there to report it they were told to return to their outfits; Lee was in retreat, no matter what the butternut captives said, and Hooker was making plans even now for an orderly pursuit.
Far out on the right flank, as the shadows lengthened toward 5 o’clock and beyond, Howard’s men were taking it easy. They had seen no action so far in the campaign, but that was much as usual; they had seen little real action anywhere in the war, save for a great deal of marching and countermarching, and were in fact a sort of stepchild corps, collectively referred to by the rest of the army as “a bunch of Dutchmen.” Indeed, nothing demonstrated more conclusively Hooker’s lack of concern for his western flank than the fact that he had posted these men here. Mostly New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, large numbers of them were immigrants, lately arrived and scarcely able to speak English; “Hessians,” their enemies called them, with a contempt dating back to the days of the Revolution. Schurz, Steinwehr, and Schimmelfennig were three of their generals, while their colonels had names such as Von Gilsa, Krzyzanowski, Einsiedel, Dachrodt, and Schluemback. Howard himself was by no means popular with them, despite his sacrifice of an arm to the cause and a record of steady progress up the ladder of command. After his maiming, a year ago at Fair Oaks, he had returned to lead a brigade at Antietam and a division at Fredericksburg, both with such distinction that now—to the considerable displeasure of men whose proudest boast had been “I fights mit Sigel” and who rather illogically put the blame for their hero’s departure on his successor—he had a corps. He had had it, in fact, exactly a month today; but in his anxiety to make good he not only had borne down hard on discipline, he also had tried to influence the out-of-hours activities of his troops by distributing religious tracts among them. The latter action was resented even more than the former, for many of the men were freethinkers, lately emerged from countries where the church had played a considerable part in attempting their oppression, and they drew the line somewhere short of being preached at, prayed over, or uplifted. The result of all this, and more, was that army life was not a happy one for them or their commander, whose ill-concealed disappointment at their reaction to his attempt to play the role of Christian Soldier only served to increase their mistrust and dislike of him, empty sleeve and all.
Today was one of the better days, however, with a minimum of work, no drill whatsoever, and a maximum of rest. Extended for more than a mile along the turnpike west of Dowdall’s Tavern, an oversized cabin just east of the junction where the plank road came in from the southwest, they lounged behind the elaborate southward-facing breastworks Hooker himself had admired. Like his chief, Howard was convinced that he was onto the rebel strategy, which seemed to him to be designed to cover a retreat with a pretense of strength and boldness. He too rejected various cries of wolf, including those from an outpost major who sent back a stream of frantic messages from beyond the flank, all patterned after the first at 2.45: “A large body of the enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake make disposition to receive him!” At the outer end of the intrenched line, two guns were posted hub-to-hub on the pike itself, facing west, and two regiments of infantry—not over 900 men in all—were disposed at right angles to the road, strung out northward from the point where the guns were posted. These two regiments and guns were all the flank protection Howard had provided after notifying Hooker that he was “taking measures to resist an attack from the west,” but he considered them ample, since nothing could approach him from that direction except along the turnpike, covered by the two guns, or through a tangle of second-growth timber and briery underbrush which he had pronounced impenetrable. Moreover, there was a half-mile stretch of unoccupied ground between his left and Slocum’s right, marking the former position of his one reserve brigade, which had been detached in the midafternoon and still had not returned from its mission of guarding Sickles’ flank in the course of his advance from Hazel Grove. This gap was critical. Though it went unnoticed, or at any rate unfilled, it meant that if anything struck Howard a hard enough blow from the west, he would be in much the same predicament as a man attempting to sit on a chair he did not know had been removed.
That, or something like that, was what happened. Not long after 5 o’clock, with some regiments already eating supper and others lounging about while waiting for it, their rifles neatly stacked, the troops at the far end of the line were alarmed and then amused to see large numbers of deer break out of the thickets to the west and come bounding toward them, accompanied by droves of rabbits darting this way and that in the underbrush, as if pursued by invisible beaters. The men cheered and hallooed, waving their caps at the startled forest creatures, until presently something else they heard and saw froze the laughter in their throats. Long lines of men in gray and butternut, their clothes ripped to tatters by the briers and branches, were running toward them through the “impenetrable” thickets. They were screaming as they came on, jaws agape, and their bayonets caught angry glints from the low-angled sun pouring its beams through the reddened treetops and over their shoulders.
For all its explosive force, its practically complete surprise, and its rapid gathering of momentum, Stonewall’s flank attack was launched with only about two hours of daylight left for the accomplishment of the destruction he intended. One of the two main reasons for this tardiness was that the start itself had been late, and the other was that the finish was delayed by an extension of the march. Between these two untoward extremes, however, all went smoothly, despite attempted enemy interruptions. The roads, described by one of the marchers as “just wet enough to be easy to the feet and free from dust,” were narrow but firm, so that the column was elongated but its progress was not impeded. Like his men, who were enthused by a sense of adventure before they had even had time to guess what the adventure was going to be, Jackson was in excellent spirits, and though he did not push them to the limit of their endurance as he had done so often in the past, being concerned for once to conserve their energy for the work that lay ahead, he took care to deal with emergencies in a manner that would not hold up the main body. For instance, when the head of the column came under fire from a section of guns just north of Catharine Furnace, he detached the lead regiment of Georgians, with instructions for them to block a possible infantry probe at that point, and had the remaining units double-time across the clearing, being willing to suffer whatever incidental losses this involved rather than to burn more daylight by taking a roundabout route. Similarly A. P. Hill, whose division did not clear the starting point until well after 11 o’clock, dropped off his two rear brigades to assist the hard-pressed Georgians—forty of them had been captured and most of the rest were about to be captured—in fending off an infantry attack launched by the Federals just as he was approaching the furnace about noon, and forged ahead with his other four brigades. Far in the lead and quite unmindful of his rear, which he left to look out for itself after making the original provision, Jackson kept the main body on the go. “Press forward. Press forward,” he urged his subordinate commanders. Including 1500 attached cavalry and 2000 artillerymen in support of his 70 regiments of infantry, Stonewall had better than 31,000 effectives in the column, and his only regret was that he did not have more. “I hear it said that General Hooker has more men than he can handle,” he remarked in the course of the march. “I should like to have half as many more as I have today, and I should hurl him into the river!”
His eyes glowed at the thought, and presently they had occasion to blaze even more fiercely, not only at a thought, but also at what was actually spread before them. About 2 o’clock, as he approached the Orange Plank Road—the intended objective, up which he expected to turn the column northeastward for an attack that would strike the Orange Turnpike just west of Dowdall’s Tavern, where Hooker’s flank presumably was anchored—he was met by Fitz Lee, who approached from the opposite direction, drew rein alongside Little Sorrel, and announced with a barely suppressed excitement that explained his lack of ceremony: “General, if you will ride with me, halting your column here out of sight, I will show you the enemy’s right.” The two officers, accompanied by a single courier so as not to increase the risk of detection, rode past the plank road intersection, then turned off eastward through the trees to a little hill which they climbed on horseback. From the summit, parting the curtain of leaves, Stonewall saw what had provoked the excitement Lee would still be feeling, years later, when he came to write about it: “What a sight presented itself before me! Below, and but a few hundred yards distant, ran the Federal line of battle … with abatis in front and long lines of stacked arms in the rear. Two cannon were visible in the part of the line seen. The soldiers were in groups in the rear, laughing, smoking, probably engaged, here and there, in games of cards and other amusements indulged in while feeling safe and comfortable, awaiting orders. In rear of them were other parties driving up and butchering beeves.” As he observed the peaceful scene, Jackson’s mind was on a different kind of butchery. According to Lee, “his eyes burned with a brilliant glow, lighting his sad face. His expression was one of intense interest; his face was colored slightly with the paint of the approaching battle, and radiant in the success of his flank movement.”
The salient fact was that Hooker’s flank was as completely “in the air” as had been reported the night before, but that an attack up the plank road, such as had been intended, would strike it at an angle, about midway, rather than end-on; which would not do. Correction of this, however, called for a two-mile extension of the march in order to get beyond the farthest western reach of the Union intrenchments and approach them on the perpendicular. That meant a further delay of at least an hour, to which of course would be added the time required to form the three divisions for assault. With the sun already well past the overhead—by now, in fact, the hands of his watch were crowding 2.30—there might not be enough daylight left for the execution of his plans. But Jackson did not hesitate beyond the few minutes it took him to make a careful examination of what was spread before his eyes. Seeing his lips moving as he looked at the enemy soldiers down below, Lee assumed that he was praying. If this was so, there was no evidence of it in his voice as he turned to the courier and snapped out an order for him to take back to the head of the column, halted on the Brock Road to await instructions: “Tell General Rodes to move across the plank road, halt when he gets to the old turnpike, and I will join him there.” The courier took off. Jackson turned for a final look at the lounging bluecoats, disposed as they were for slaughter, then “rode rapidly [back] down the hill, his arms flapping to the motion of his horse, over whose head it seemed, good rider as he was, he would certainly go.” Lee saw him thus; then he too turned and followed, somewhat chagrined that he had not received the thanks he had expected in return for making a discovery which not only would save many Confederate lives but also had made possible what gave promise of being the most brilliant tactical stroke of Stonewall’s career.
Jackson had already forgotten him, along with practically everything else preceding the moment when his mind became fixed on what he was going to do. Retracing his horse’s steps back down the Brock Road he passed Rodes, who had his men slogging northward for the turnpike, and returned to the plank road intersection, where he met and detached Colston’s lead brigade—his own old First Manassas outfit, the Stonewall Brigade—to advance a short distance up the plank road and take position at a junction where the road from Germanna Ford came in from the northwest. With his rear and right flank thus screened and protected, he took a moment to scrawl a note briefly explaining the situation to Lee, who he knew must be fretting at the delay. “I hope as soon as practicable to attack,” he wrote, and added: “I trust that an ever kind Providence will bless us with great success.” The note was headed, “Near 3 p.m.”; time was going fast. He hurried northward to the turnpike, overtook Rodes, and gave him the instructions he had promised. Rodes accordingly moved eastward on the pike for about a mile—unopposed and apparently unobserved, although this brought him within 1000 yards of the western knuckle of Howard’s intrenchments—then formed his division along a low, north-south ridge. Four brigades were in line, two to the right and two to the left, extending about a mile in each direction from the turnpike, which would be the guide for the assault. The fifth brigade took position behind the extreme right, and Colston’s remaining three brigades prolonged this second line northward, 200 yards in rear of the first. Jackson’s orders were that the charge would be headlong. Under no circumstances was there to be even a pause in the advance. If a first-line brigade ran into trouble, it was to call for help from the brigade in its immediate rear, without taking time to notify either division commander. The main thing, he emphasized as he spoke to his subordinates in turn, was to keep rolling, to keep up the pressure and the scare.
Maneuvering the stretched-out column off the road and into a compact mass, like a fist clenched for striking, was a time-consuming business, however, especially when it had to be done in woods so dense that visibility scarcely extended beyond the limits of a single regiment. Also there was the problem of fatigue. Though by ordinary standards the march had been neither long nor hard—an average dozen miles in an average eight hours—none of the troops had had anything to eat since breakfast, and many of them had not had even that. Hunger made them trembly. Moreover, there had been a tormenting shortage of water all along the way, and the men were spitting cotton as they filed into position to await the signal that would send them plunging eastward through the thickets to their front. They knew now, for certain, what they had only assumed before: Hooker’s flank lay dead ahead and they were about to strike it. But the waiting was long. It was 4.30 by the time Colston had formed in rear of Rodes, and Hill was not yet off the road. Another half hour sufficed to get Little Powell’s two leading brigades into position in rear of Colston’s left, while the center two were coming forward on the turnpike; but the last two were miles back down the road, delayed by their rear-guard action at Catharine Furnace. Jackson waited as long as he could, watch in hand. Rodes stood beside him, waiting too; he was a V.M.I. graduate, just past his thirty-fourth birthday, and like his chief a former professor of mathematics. Tall and slender, a Virginia-born Alabamian with a tawny mustache that drooped below the corners of his mouth, he had fought well in almost every major battle since First Manassas, taking time off only for wounds, but he would be leading a division in combat for the first time today. At 5.15—an hour and a half before sundown—Jackson looked up from his watch. His proposed third line was not half formed, but he and the sun could wait no longer.
“Are you ready, General Rodes?”
“You can go forward then.”
He spoke calmly, almost matter-of-factly; yet what followed within the next quarter hour approximated pandemonium. Crashing through the half-mile screen of brush and stunted trees, whose thorns and brittle, low-hanging limbs quickly stripped the trail-blazing skirmishers near-naked, the long lines of Confederates broke suddenly into the clear, where the sight of the enemy brought their rifles to their shoulders and the quavering din of the rebel yell from their throats; “that hellish yell,” one bluecoat called it, though Jackson himself had once referred to the caterwaul as “the sweetest music I ever heard.” He was getting his fill of such music now. All across the nearly two-mile width of his front, the woods and fields resounded with it as the screaming attackers bore down on the startled Federals, who had just risen to whoop at the frightened deer and driven rabbits. Now it was their turn to be frightened—and driven, too. For the Union regiments facing west gave way in a rush before the onslaught, and as they fled the two guns they had abandoned were turned against them, hastening their departure and increasing the confusion among the troops facing south behind the now useless breastworks they had constructed with such care. These last, looking over their shoulders and seeing the fugitives running close-packed on the turnpike immediately in their rear, took their cue from them and began to pull out, too, in rapid succession from right to left down the long line of intrenchments, swelling the throng rushing eastward along the road. Within twenty minutes of the opening shots, Howard’s flank division had gone out of military existence, converted that quickly from organization to mob. The adjoining division was sudden to follow the example set. Not even the sight of the corps commander himself, on horseback near Wilderness Church, breasting the surge of retreaters up the turnpike and clamping a stand of abandoned colors under the stump of his amputated arm while attempting to control his skittish horse with the other, served to end or even slow the rout. Bareheaded and with tears in his eyes, Howard was pleading with them to halt and form, halt and form, but they paid him no mind, evidently convinced that his distress, whether for the fate of his country or his career or both, took no precedence over their own distress for their very lives. Some in their haste drew knives from their pockets and cut their knapsack straps as they ran, unburdening themselves for greater speed without taking the time to fumble at buckles, lest they be overtaken by the horde of tatterdemalion demons stretching north and south as far as the eye could follow and screaming with delight at the prospect of carnage.
Jackson was among the pursuers, riding from point to point just in rear of the crest of the wave, exultant. “Push right ahead,” he told his brigadiers and colonels, and as he spoke he made a vigorous thrusting gesture, such as a man would make in toppling a wall. When a jubilant young officer cried, “They are running too fast for us. We can’t keep up with them!” he replied sternly: “They never run too fast for me, sir. Press them, press them!” It was 6.30 by now; the sun was down behind the rearward treetops. Dowdall’s Tavern lay dead ahead, and from the east the answering thunder of guns and clatter of musketry told Stonewall that Lee had heard or learned of the attack and was applying pressure to keep the tottering Union giant off balance, even though he could scarcely hope to break through the endless curve of fortifications south and east of Chancellorsville. Here to the west, on the other hand, whenever a clump of bluecoats more stalwart than their fellows tried to make a stand, they found themselves quickly outflanked on the left and right by the overlapping lines of the attackers, and they had to give way in a scramble to avoid being surrounded. Every time Jackson heard the wild yell of victory that followed such collapses he would lift his head and smile grimly, as if in thanks to the God of battle. Conversely, whenever he came upon the bodies of his own men, lying where panicky shots had dropped them, he would frown, draw rein briefly, and raise one hand as if blessing the slain for their valor. A staff officer later remarked, “I have never seen him so well pleased with the progress and results of a fight.”
On through sundown his pleasure was justified by continuing success, and presently it was increased. By 7 o’clock, with darkness settling fast in the clearings and the woods already black, his triumph over Howard was complete as the Federals gave way around Dowdall’s Tavern and began their flight across the reserveless gap that yawned between them and the rest of the blue army. On the right, just south of the turnpike, there was a meeting engagement with a column of Union cavalry, which resulted in its repulse, and enemy guns were booming on Fairview Heights, firing blind to discourage pursuit, but Jackson did not believe there was anything substantial between him and the loom of forest screening Chancellorsville itself, just over a mile ahead. The only deterrent beyond his control was the darkness, and soon there was not even that. As if in response to a signal from the southern Joshua, the full moon came up, huge and red through the drifting smoke, then brightened to gold as it rose to light the way for pursuit. Many times in the past Stonewall had ached to launch a night attack; now he not only had the chance, he believed it was downright necessary if he was to prevent the enemy from recovering from the shock and attempting to turn the tables on the still-divided Confederates. Two immediate objectives he had in mind. One was to strike deep in Hooker’s rear, cutting him off from U.S. Ford so as to prevent his escape across the Rappahannock, and the other was to reunite with Lee for a combined assault on the bluecoats who thus would be hemmed in for slaughter. It was more or less obvious by now that Rodes and Colston had done their worst, at least for the present; they would need a breathing spell in which to regain control of their troops, hopelessly mingled in a single wave that was already ebbing because of exhaustion; but Hill’s four brigades were still intact, available as a reserve, and Jackson was determined to use them for a moonlight advance along the pike and up the roads leading northeastward to the single river crossing in Hooker’s rear. Soon he found Little Powell and gave him his instructions. There was no studied calmness about him now, such as there had been three hours ago when he told Rodes he could go forward. His excitement was evident to everyone he met, and his sense of urgency was communicated with every word he spoke, including those in the orders he gave Hill: “Press them! Cut them off from the United States Ford, Hill. Press them!”
Hooker by then was doing all he could to avert disaster, but for the better part of an hour after the first wave of attackers struck and crumpled the tip of his western wing—three miles from the Chancellor gallery where he sat chatting amiably with members of his staff—he had been under the tactical disadvantage of not even knowing that he had been surprised. Because of acoustic peculiarities of the terrain and the cushioning effect of brush and trees, the roar of battle reached him but faintly and indirectly. He and his aides supposed that the racket, such as it was, came from down around Catharine Furnace, a couple of miles to the south, and were exchanging conjectures as to the havoc Sickles must be making among Lee’s trains in that direction. Just before sundown, however, one of the officers strolled out to the road and casually gazed westward. “My God—here they come!” the others heard him shout. Then they saw for themselves what he meant. A stumbling herd of wild-eyed men, the frantic and apparently unstoppable backwash of Howard’s unstrung corps, was rushing eastward, filling the pike from shoulder to shoulder. Fighting Joe reacted fast. At hand was Sickles’ third division—his own in the days before his elevation to corps and army command—left in reserve when the other two moved south; Hooker ordered it to wheel right and stem the rout. “Receive them on your bayonets! Receive them on your bayonets!” he cried, not making it clear whether he meant the demoralized Dutchmen or the rebels somewhere in their rear, as he rode westward through the failing light and into the teeth of the storm.
At Hazel Grove, sealed off from the uproar which by now was just over a mile away, a regiment of Pennsylvania cavalry received at about this same time, between sunset and moonrise, orders to join Howard near Wilderness Church. With no suggestion of urgency in the message and no hint that a clash had occurred, let alone a retreat, the troopers mounted and set out northwestward on a trail too narrow for anything more than a column of twos. They rode at a walk, talking casually among themselves, their weapons sheathed, until they approached the turnpike: at which point the major in command barely had time to cry, “Draw sabers! Charge!” before they ran spang into a whole Confederate division moving eastward through darkness that all of a sudden was stitched with muzzle flashes and filled with yells and twittering bullets. One side was about as startled as the other. The riders managed to hack their way out of the melee, though by the time they reassembled in the moonlight back near Chancellorsville a good many saddles had been emptied and a number of troopers had been captured, along with their unmanageable horses.
For blue and gray alike, whether mounted or afoot, the meeting engagement had some of the qualities of a nightmare too awful to be remembered except in unavoidable snatches. But for other Union soldiers, east of there, such an experience would have been counted almost mild in comparison with the one they blundered into a few hours later, in which blue was pitted not only against gray, but also against blue. Down around Catharine Furnace, deep in enemy territory, Dan Sickles knew nothing of what had been happening until well past sundown, when he heard the roar of batteries massed on the heights at Hazel Grove and Fairview, far in his rear. Informed at last of the enemy flank attack, which placed his two divisions precariously between the superior halves of the rebel army and thus exposed him to the danger of being pinched off and surrounded, he pulled hurriedly back to Hazel Grove—unhindered, so far, but by no means out of the trap whose jaws seemed likely to snap shut at any moment. By now it was past 9 o’clock, and except for occasional bellows by the 22 guns posted here and the 34 at Fairview, the firing had died to a mutter. Placing one division on the left and the other on the right of a trail leading northward through the forest, Sickles prepared to continue his march to the comparative safety of the turnpike. He had scarcely set out, however, before the two columns lost the trail and drifted apart, one veering east and the other west, with the result that they ran into horrendous trouble in both directions. The division on the left angled into a line of Confederates, alert behind hastily improvised intrenchments, while the one on the right stumbled into a similar line along which one of Slocum’s divisions was deployed. Both broke into flames on contact, and a three-sided fight was in progress as suddenly as if someone had thrown a switch. Caught in what a participant called “one vast square of fire,” Sickles’ troops milled aimlessly, throwing bullets indiscriminately east and west. Shouts of “Don’t fire! We’re friends!” brought heavier volleys from both sides of the gauntlet, and consternation reached a climax when rival batteries started pumping shell and canister into the frantic mass hemmed thus between the lines. Somehow, though, despite the darkness and confusion, Sickles finally managed to effect a withdrawal southward, in the direction he had come from. By midnight he had what was left of his two divisions back at Hazel Grove, where the men bedded down to wait for daylight, barely four hours off, and restore their jangled nerves as best they could.
Elsewhere along his contracted line—albeit the contraction had been accomplished more by Jackson’s efforts than his own—Hooker saw to it that the rest of his army did likewise. He did not know what tomorrow was going to bring, but he intended to be ready for it. And in point of fact he had cause for confidence. Reynolds was over the river by now; his three divisions were available as a reserve. Even Howard’s three, or anyhow a good part of them, had managed to reassemble in the vicinity of U.S. Ford, where they were brought to a halt after ricocheting northward off Lee’s intrenchments east of Chancellorsville. Meade’s three had been unaffected by the turmoil across the way. Couch and Slocum, under cover of the 56-gun barrage from Hazel Grove and Fairview, had adapted their four divisions to the altered situation, along with the one Sickles had left behind. Moreover, another brigade of cavalry was at hand, Averell having been called in from near Rapidan Station, where Stoneman had dropped him off, ostensibly to check Stuart’s pursuit but actually, since there was no pursuit, to play little or no part in the southward raid. His total loss, after three days in enemy country, was 1 man killed and 4 wounded; Hooker was furious and relieved him on the spot. “If the enemy did not come to him, he should have gone to the enemy,” Fighting Joe protested with unconscious irony. Apparently he could not see that this applied in his own case. He still depended on Sedgwick for the delivery of any blow that was to be struck, repeating in greater detail at 9 p.m. the instructions sent him earlier in the day. This time they were peremptory; Sedgwick was to “cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on the receipt of this order.” Leaving Gibbon to hold the town, he was to march at once on Chancellorsville and “attack and destroy any force he may fall in with on the road.” This would bring him promptly into contact with Lee’s rear, “and between us we will use him up.… Be sure not to fail.” The pattern was unchanged. Now as before, Gallo-Hooker was leaving the confrontation of the bull to Paco-Sedgwick, while he himself stood fast behind the barrera to cheer him on.
Lulled by what one insomniac called “the weird, plaintive notes of the whippoorwills,” who would not let even a battle the size of this one cancel their serenade to the full, high-sailing moon, the army slept. From point to point the Wilderness was burning—“like a picture of hell,” a cavalryman said of the scene as he viewed it from a hilltop—but the screams of the wounded caught earlier by the flames had died away, together with the growl and rumble of the guns. It was midnight and the Army of the Potomac took its rest.
Though the Army of Northern Virginia was doing the same, west and south of the now one-handled Union dipper, it did so in an atmosphere of tragedy out of all ratio to the success it had scored today. Not only had Stonewall’s plan for continuing the eastward drive by moonlight been abandoned, but Stonewall himself had been taken rearward, first on a stretcher and then in an ambulance, to a hospital tent near Wilderness Tavern, where even now, as midnight came and went, surgeons were laying out the probes and knives and saws they would use in their fight to save his life. Intimations of national tragedy, intensified by a sense of acute personal loss, pervaded the forest bivouacs as the rumor spread that Jackson had been wounded.
After telling Hill to bring his men forward in order to resume the stalled pursuit, he had proceeded east along the turnpike in search of a route that would intercept the expected blue retreat to U.S. Ford. As he and several members of his staff rode past the fringe of Confederate pickets, taking a secondary road that branched off through the woods on the left, they began hearing the sound of axes from up ahead, where the Federals were trimming and notching logs for a new line of breastworks. “General, don’t you think this is the wrong place for you?” an officer asked. Jackson did not agree. “The danger is all over,” he said. “The enemy is routed. Go back and tell A. P. Hill to press right on.” Presently, though, with the ring of axes much nearer at hand, he drew rein and listened carefully. Then he turned and rode back the way he had come, apparently satisfied that the bluecoats, for all their frenzy of preparation, would be unable to resist what he intended to throw at them as soon as Hill got his troops into position. Soon he came upon Little Powell himself, riding forward with his staff to examine the ground over which he expected to advance, and the two parties returned together. To the pickets crouched in the brush ahead—North Carolinians whose apprehensiveness had been aroused by the meeting engagement, a short while ago, with the saber-swinging Pennsylvanians over on the turnpike—the mounted generals and their staffs, amounting in all to nearly a score of horsemen, must have had the sound of a troop of Union cavalry on the prowl or the advance element of a wave of attackers. At any rate that was the premise on which they acted in opening fire. “Cease firing! Cease firing!” Hill shouted, echoed by one of Jackson’s officers: “Cease firing! You are firing into your own men!” Fortunately, no one had been hit by the sudden spatter of bullets, but the Tarheel commander believed he saw through a Yankee trick. “Who gave that order?” he cried. “It’s a lie! Pour it into them, boys!” The boys did just that. Not only the pickets but the whole front-line battalion opened fire at twenty paces and with such devastating effect that the bodies of no less than fourteen horses were counted later in the immediate area.
Little Sorrel was not among them, having returned by then to the allegiance from which Stonewall had removed him, nearly two years ago, with his capture at Harpers Ferry. Frightened by the abrupt first clatter of fire from the pickets crouched in the brush ahead, he whirled and made a rearward dash through the woods. Jackson managed to turn him, though he could not slow him down, and was coming back west, his right arm raised to protect his face from low-hanging branches, when the second volley crashed. Once more Little Sorrel whirled and scampered toward the enemy lines, completely out of control now because his rider had been struck by three of the bullets, two in the left arm, which hung useless at his side, and one through the palm of the upraised hand, which he lowered and used as before, despite the pain, to turn the fear-crazed animal back toward his own lines. There one of the surviving officers, dismounted by the volley, caught hold of the horse’s bridle and brought him to a stop, while another came up and braced the general in the saddle. He seemed dazed. “Wild fire, that, sir; wild fire,” he exclaimed as he sat staring into the darkness lately stitched with muzzle flashes. All around them they could hear the groans and screams of injured men and horses. “How do you feel, General?” one of the officers asked, with the simplicity of great alarm, and Jackson replied: “You had better take me down. My arm is broken.” They did so, finding him already so weak from shock and bleeding that he could not lift his feet from the stirrups. Freed at last of the restraining weight, Little Sorrel turned and ran for the third time toward the Union lines, and this time he made it. Meanwhile the two staffers laid the general under a tree. While one went off in search of a surgeon and the other was doing what he could to staunch the flow of blood from an artery severed in the left arm, just below the shoulder, Jackson began muttering to himself, as if in disbelief of what had happened. “My own men,” he said.
That was about 9.30; the next two hours were a restless extension of the nightmare as Federal batteries at Fairview began firing, the gunners having spotted the moonlit confusion just over half a mile away. Presently the second of Jackson’s two attendant staff officers returned through the storm of bursting shells with a regimental surgeon, who administered first aid and ordered the general taken rearward on a stretcher. This had to be done under artillery fire so intense that the bearers were forced to stop and lie flat from time to time, as much for Jackson’s protection as their own. On several such occasions they almost dropped him, and once they did, hard on the injured arm, which made him groan with pain for the first time. At last they found an ambulance and got him back to the aid station near Wilderness Tavern, where his medical director, Dr Hunter McGuire, took one look at “the fixed, rigid face and the thin lips, so tightly compressed that the impression of the teeth could be seen through them,” and ordered the patient prepared for surgery. “What an infinite blessing … blessing … blessing,” Stonewall murmured as the chloroform blurred his pain. Then McGuire removed the shattered left arm, all but a two-inch stump. Coming out of the anesthetic, half an hour later—it was now about 3 o’clock in the morning—Jackson said that during the operation he had experienced “the most delightful music,” which he now supposed had been the singing of the bone-saw. At that point, however, he was interrupted by a staff officer just arrived from the front. Tragedy had succeeded tragedy. Hill had been incapacitated, struck in both legs by shell fragments, and had called on Jeb Stuart to take command instead of Rodes, the senior infantry brigadier, who until today had never led anything larger than a brigade. Stuart had come at a gallop from Ely’s Ford, altogether willing. Knowing little of the situation and almost nothing of Stonewall’s plans, however, he had sent to him for instructions or advice. Jackson stirred, contracting his brow at the effort. For a moment the light of battle returned to his eyes. Then it faded; his face relaxed. Even the exertion of thought was too much for him in his weakened condition. “I don’t know—I can’t tell,” he stammered. “Say to General Stuart he must do what he thinks best.”
Stuart would do that anyhow, of course, and so would Lee, who was informed at about this same time of the progress of the flank attack and the climactic wounding of his chief lieutenant. “Ah, Captain,” he said; he shook his head; “Any victory is dearly bought which deprives us of the services of General Jackson, even for a short time.” When the officer started to give him further details of the accident Lee stopped him. “Ah, don’t talk about it. Thank God it is no worse.” He was quick to agree, however, when the young man expressed the opinion that it had been Stonewall’s intention to continue the attack. “Those people must be pressed today,” Lee said decisively, and he put this into more formal language at once in a note to Stuart: “It is necessary that the glorious victory thus far achieved be prosecuted with the utmost vigor, and the enemy given no time to rally.… Endeavor, therefore, to dispossess them of Chancellorsville, which will permit the union of the army.”
Hooker did not wait for Stuart or anyone else to dispossess him of Chancellorsville. He dispossessed himself. After establishing in the predawn darkness a secondary line of defense—a formidable V-shaped affair, with Reynolds deployed along Hunting Run, Meade at the southern apex, where the roads from Ely’s and U.S. Fords came together in rear of army headquarters, and the fragments of Howard reassembled in Meade’s old position along Mineral Spring Run, so that the flanks were anchored, right and left, on the Rapidan and the Rappahannock—he rode forward at first light, past the works still held by Couch and Slocum around Fairview, to confer in person with Sickles. Despite last night’s horrendous experience of being mauled by foes and friends, Sickles had got his nerve back and was all for holding his ground; but Hooker would not hear of it, and ordered him to withdraw at once. It was this well-intentioned readjustment, designed to tidy up his lines and consolidate his defenses south of the vital crossroads, which resulted in his dispossession. Hazel Grove turned out to be the key to the whole advance position, since rebel artillery posted there could enfilade the intrenchments around Fairview, which in turn were all that covered Chancellorsville itself. The result was that everything south of the improvised V came suddenly unglued, and Hooker was left, scarcely twelve hours after his apparent delivery from the first, with a possible second disaster on his hands.
Stuart’s advance, south of the turnpike and into the rising sun, coincided with Sickles’ withdrawal, the final stages of which became a rout as the graybacks swarmed into Hazel Grove and overran the tail of the blue column. Immediately behind the first wave of attackers came the guns, 30 of them slamming away from the just-won heights at the Federals massed around Fairview, while another 30 assailed the western flank from a position near Howard’s former headquarters, back out the pike, and 24 more were roaring from down the plank road to the southeast. Lee’s midwinter reorganization of the Confederate long arm, for increased flexibility in close-up support, was paying short-term dividends this morning. Caught in the converging fire of these 84 guns, along with others west and south, the troops of Couch and Slocum were infected by the panic Sickles’ men brought out of the smoke at Hazel Grove. North of the pike, sheltered by the breastworks Jackson had heard them constructing the night before, the bluecoats held fast against repeated assaults by the rebel infantry, but they were galled by the crossfire from batteries whose shots were plowing the fields around the crossroads in their rear and smashing their lines of supply and communication. Not even the Chancellor mansion, converted by now into a hospital as well as a headquarters by surgeons who took doors off their hinges and propped them on chairs for use as operating tables, was safe from the bombardment—as Hooker himself discovered presently, in a most emphatic manner. Shortly after 9 o’clock he was standing on the southwest veranda, leaning against one of the squat wooden pillars, when a solid projectile struck and split it lengthwise. He fell heavily to the floor, stunned by the shock. His aides gathered round and took him out into the yard, where they laid him on a blanket and poured a jolt of brandy down his throat. Revived by this first drink in weeks, Fighting Joe got up, rather wobbly still, and walked off a short distance, calling for his horse. It was well that he did, for just after he rose a second cannonball landed directly on the blanket, as if to emphasize the notion suggested by the first that the war had become an intensely personal matter between the Union commander and the rebel gunners who were probing for his life. He mounted awkwardly, suffering from a numbness on the side of his body that had been in contact with the shattered pillar, and rode for the rear, accompanied by his staff.
Despite the fact that he would succeed to command of the army in the event that its present chief was incapacitated, Couch knew nothing of Hooker’s precipitate change of base until about 10 o’clock, when he received a summons to join him behind Meade’s lines, where the apex of the secondary V came down to within a mile of the Chancellor house. Though he had his hands quite full just then—it was during the past half hour that the lines around Fairview had begun to come unglued in earnest—Couch told Hancock to take charge, and set out rearward in the wake of his chief, whom he found stretched out on a cot in a tent beside the road to U.S. Ford. “Couch, I turn the command of the army over to you,” the injured general said, raising himself on one elbow as he spoke. However, his next words showed that he did not really mean what he had said. Whether or not he had control of himself at this point was open to question, but there was no doubt that he intended to retain control of the army. “You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map,” he added, indicating a field sketch with the V drawn on it to show where the new front lines would run. Couch perhaps was relieved to hear that he would not be given full control, along with full responsibility—“If he is killed, what shall I do with this disjointed army?” he had asked himself as soon as he heard that Hooker had been hurt—but others were hoping fervently that he would take charge; for he was known to be a fighter. “By God, we’ll have some fighting now,” a colonel said stoutly as Couch emerged from the tent. Meade looked inquiringly at his friend, hoping to receive at last the order for which he had been waiting all morning: Go in. Instead, Couch shook his head by way of reply and relayed Hooker’s instructions for a withdrawal.
In any event, such instructions were superfluous by now except as they applied to Hancock, whose division was the only one still maintaining, however shakily, its forward position in a state that even approached cohesiveness. The choice, if the army’s present disjointed condition allowed for any choice at all, lay not in whether or not to withdraw, as Hooker expressly directed, but in whether or not to counterattack and thus attempt to recover what had been lost by the retreat already in progress; which manifestly would be difficult, if not downright impossible, since the Confederates had just seized the heights at Fairview and with them domination of the open fields across which the troops of Sickles, Couch, and Slocum were streaming to find sanctuary within the line of breastworks to the north. Hancock’s rear-guard division was having to back-pedal fast to keep from being cut off or overrun by a horde of butternut pursuers who were screaming as triumphantly now, and with what appeared to be equally good cause, as they had done when they bore down on Howard’s startled Dutchmen yesterday. While Stuart pressed eastward, making his largest gains on the south side of the turnpike, Lee had been pushing north and west up the plank road and reaching out simultaneously to the left, past Catharine Furnace, for the anticipated hookup. It was his belief that the best and quickest way to accomplish the reunion of the two wings of his army would be to uncover Chancellorsville, after which it was his intention to launch a full-scale joint assault that would throw Hooker back against the Rappahannock and destroy him.
For a time it looked as if that might indeed be possible in the ten full hours of daylight still remaining. Never before, perhaps, had the Army of Northern Virginia fought with such frenzy and exaltation, such apparent confidence in its invincibility under Lee. Accompanied by the roar of artillery from the dominant heights, McLaws and Anderson moved steadily westward up the turnpike and the plank road, while Rodes, Colston, and Henry Heth—the senior brigadier in Hill’s division—plunged eastward along both sides of the turnpike, cheered on by Stuart, who rode among them, jaunty in his red-lined cape, hoicking them up to the firing line and singing at the top of his voice some new words set to a familiar tune: “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out the Wilderness?” All advanced rapidly toward the common objective, east and west, as the bluecoats faded back from contact. Shortly before 10.30 the two wings came together with a mighty shout in the hundred-acre clearing around the Chancellor mansion, which had been set afire by the bombardment. Lee rode forward from Hazel Grove, past Fairview, on whose crown two dozen guns had been massed to tear at the rear of the retreating enemy columns, and then into the yard of the burning house, formerly headquarters of the Union army, where the jubilant Confederates, recognizing the gray-bearded author of their victory, tendered him the wildest demonstration of their lives. “The fierce soldiers with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse,” a staff man later wrote. “One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph.… As I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won,” the officer added, “I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient times rose to the dignity of gods.”
In the midst of this rousing accolade a courier arrived with a dispatch from Jackson, formally reporting that the extent of his wounds had compelled him to relinquish command of his corps. Lee had not known till now of the amputation, and the news shook him profoundly. His elation abruptly replaced by sadness, he dictated in reply an expression of regret. “Could I have directed events,” he told his wounded lieutenant, “I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead,” and added: “I congratulate you upon the victory, which is due to your skill and energy.” This done, he returned to the business at hand. He had, as he said, won a victory; but if it was to amount to much more than the killing, as before, of large numbers of an enemy whose reserves were practically limitless, the present advantage would have to be pressed to the point at which Hooker, caught in the coils of the Rappahannock and with the scare still on him, would have to choose between slaughter and surrender. Before this could be accomplished, however, or even begin to be accomplished by a resumption of the advance, the attackers themselves would have to be reorganized and realigned for the final sweep of the fields and thickets stretching northward to the river. Lee gave instructions for this to be done as quickly as possible, and while waiting got off a dispatch to Davis in Richmond. “We have again to thank Almighty God for a great victory,” he announced.
His hope was that he would be sending another announcement of an even greater victory by nightfall. But just as he was about to order the attack, a courier on a lathered horse rode in from the east with news of a disaster. At dawn that morning, with a rush across the pontoon bridge they had thrown under cover of darkness, the Federals had occupied Fredericksburg. Sedgwick then had feinted at the thinly held defenses on the ridge beyond the town, first on the far left and then the right, by way of distracting attention from his main effort against the center. This too had been repulsed, not once but twice, before the weight of numbers told and the bluecoats swarmed up and over Marye’s Heights. In accordance with previous instructions designed for such a crisis, Early had withdrawn southward to protect the army’s trains at Guiney Station; but Sedgwick had not pursued in that direction. Instead, he had moved—was moving now—due west along the plank road, which lay open in Lee’s rear. This was the worst of all possible threats, and the southern commander had no choice except to meet it at this worst of all possible times. Postponing the assault on Hooker, he detached McLaws to head eastward and delay Sedgwick, if possible, while Anderson extended his present right out the River Road to prevent a junction of the two Union forces in case Sedgwick managed to sidestep McLaws or brush him out of the way. By now it was close to 3 o’clock. Holding Rodes and Heth in their jump-off positions, Lee ordered Colston to move up the Ely’s Ford Road in order to establish and maintain contact with Hooker, who might be emboldened by this new turn of events. “Don’t engage seriously,” Lee told Colston, “but keep the enemy in check and prevent him from advancing. Move at once.”
Now as before, he was improvising, dividing his badly outnumbered army in order to deal with a two-pronged menace. While McLaws swung east to throw his 7000 soldiers in the teeth of Sedgwick’s 20,000 or more, Lee would endeavor to hold Hooker’s 80,000 in position with his own 37,000. When and if he managed to stabilize the situation—as Jackson had done, two days ago, with the advance beyond Tabernacle Church—he would decide which of the two enemy wings to leap at, north or east. Meanwhile, as usual, he was prepared to take advantage of any blunder his opponents might commit, and he was determined to recover the initiative. Above all, he kept his head and refused to take counsel of his fears. When an excited officer, alarmed by the threat to the army’s rear, arrived with a lurid eyewitness account of the loss of Marye’s Heights, Lee cut him short. “We will attend to Mr Sedgwick later,” he said calmly.
What with the relentless depletion of his forces, siphoned off westward at the rate of a corps a day for the past two days, and the spate of discretionary orders, generally so delayed in transmission that the conditions under which they had been issued no longer obtained by the time they came to hand, John Sedgwick—“Uncle John” to his troops, a fifty-year-old bachelor New Englander with thirty years of army service, including West Point, the Mexican War, the Kansas border troubles, and frontier Indian uprisings, in all of which he had shown a good deal more of plodding dependability than of flash—had difficulty in maintaining the unruffled disposition for which he was beloved. Even the peremptory dispatch received last night, after the uproar subsided in the thickets across the way, had left him somewhat puzzled. Hooker told him to “cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on receipt of this order,” which was clear enough, so far as the words themselves went; but what did it mean? Surely the army commander knew he was already across the Rappahannock, and in fact had been across it for the past three days.… Deciding that it meant what it ought to mean, he told Gibbon, whose division was still at Falmouth, to cross the river at dawn and seize the west-bank town, preparatory to joining in the attack Sedgwick was planning to launch against the fortified ridge with his other three divisions. He had not taken part in the December battle, having been laid up with three wounds received at Antietam, but he knew well enough what Burnside had encountered on this ground. For a time, indeed, it appeared that Sedgwick was going to do no better, despite his usual methodical preparations. After feinting on the left and right, he sent ten regiments in mass against the sunken road at the foot of the heights where so many men had come to grief, five months ago, when two of Longstreet’s divisions held this section of the line. Now, however, so well had the feints misled the defenders, all that were there were two slim regiments and sixteen guns. Even so, the first two assaults were bloodily repulsed. As the bluecoats dropped back into the swale for a breather, preparatory to giving the thing another try, the colonel of a Wisconsin regiment made a short speech to the men who would lead the third assault. “When the signal forward is given you will advance at double-quick,” he told them. “You will not fire a gun and you will not stop until you get the order to halt.” He paused briefly, then added: “You will never get that order.”
The Badgers gulped, absorbing the shock of this, then cheered and went in fast, the other nine regiments following close on their heels. Beyond the stone wall to their front, Barksdale’s two Mississippi regiments turned loose with everything they had, attempting to shatter the head of the column of assault, while four batteries of the Washington Artillery, a crack New Orleans outfit, broke into a frenzied roar on the ridge beyond. The attackers took their losses and kept going, over the wall and among the defenders with the bayonet, then across the sunken road and up the slope of Marye’s Heights with scarcely a pause, staring directly into the muzzles of the flaming guns on the crest. These too were taken in a rush as the cannoneers got off a final volley and broke for the rear. Within half an hour, and at a cost of no more than 1500 casualties, Sedgwick had his flags aflutter on ground that Burnside had spent 6300 men for no more than a fairly close-up look at, back in December. The bluecoats went into a victory dance, hurrahing and thumping each other on the back in celebration of their triumph; whereas the Confederates, several hundred of whom had been captured, were correspondingly dejected or wrathful, depending on the individual reaction to defeat. One cannoneer, who had managed to get away at the last moment, just as the Union wave broke over his battery, was altogether furious. “Guns be damned!” he replied hotly when a reserve artillerist twitted him by asking where his guns were. “I reckon now the people of the Southern Confederacy are satisfied that Barksdale’s Brigade and the Washington Artillery can’t whip the whole damned Yankee army!”
Having broken Jubal Early’s line and thrown him into retreat, Sedgwick would have enjoyed pursuing his West Point classmate down the Telegraph Road, but another classmate, Hooker himself, had forbidden this by insisting that he push westward without delay, so that between them, as Fighting Joe put it, they could “use up” Lee. Moreover, at 10 o’clock—less than an hour after being stunned by the split pillar, and at about the same time, as it turned out, that his forward defenses began to come unglued—Hooker had his adjutant send Sedgwick a dispatch reminding him of his primary mission: “You will hurry up your column. The enemy’s right flank now rests near the plank road at Chancellorsville, all exposed. You will attack at once.” This reached Sedgwick at about 11.30, amid the victory celebration on Marye’s Heights, and he did what he could to comply. Leaving Gibbon to hold Fredericksburg in his rear, he began to prepare his other three divisions for the advance on Lee. It was a time-consuming business, however, to break up the celebration and get the troops into formation for the march. The lead division did not get started until 2 o’clock, and it was brought to a sudden halt within the hour, just over a mile from Marye’s Heights, by the sight of Confederate skirmishers in position along a ridge athwart the road. Despite Hooker’s assurance that Lee’s flank was “all exposed,” the graybacks seemed quite vigilant, and what was more they appeared to be present in considerable strength, with guns barking aggressively in support. Sedgwick was obliged to halt and deploy in the face of the resistance, at the cost of burning more daylight.
Slowly the rebels faded back, bristling as they went, leapfrogging their guns from ridge to ridge and flailing the pursuers all the time. Near Salem Church, a mile ahead and a mile short of the junction of the plank road and the turnpike, they stiffened. It was 4 o’clock by now; the day was going fast, and Sedgwick was still a good half-dozen miles from Chancellorsville. Without waiting for the others to come up, he sent the troops of his lead division forward on the run. At first they made headway, driving the graybacks before them, but then they encountered a heavy line of battle. Repulsed, they came streaming back across the fields. The second division was up by now, however, with the third not far behind, and between them they managed to check the pursuit, though by the time Sedgwick got them rallied and into attack formation the day was too far gone for fighting. Aware by now that he had run into something considerably stronger than a mere rear guard, he set up a perimetrical defense and passed the word for his 22,000 soldiers to bed down.
Today had been a hard day. Tomorrow gave promise of being even harder. He had set out to put the squeeze on Lee, but it had begun to seem to him that he was the one in danger now. All around him, south and east as well as west, he could hear enemy columns moving in the darkness. “Sedgwick scarcely slept that night,” an observant soldier later recalled. “From time to time he dictated a dispatch to General Hooker. He would walk for a few paces apart and listen; then returning he would lie down again in the damp grass, with his saddle for a pillow, and try to sleep. The night was inexpressibly gloomy.”
The night was inexpressibly gloomy, and he was in graver danger than he knew. All that had stood in his way at the outset, when he began his march from Marye’s Heights, had been a single brigade of Alabamians, stationed for the past three days on outpost duty at Banks Ford, from which point their commander, Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox, had shifted them, on his own initiative, when he learned that Early’s defenses had been pierced. Determined to do what he could to protect Lee’s unguarded rear, he had taken up a position athwart the plank road, spreading his men in the semblance of a stout line of skirmishers, and thus had managed to bluff Sedgwick into caution, delaying his advance until McLaws had had time to post his division near Salem Church and rock the charging bluecoats on their heels. As a result, when darkness ended the fighting here to the east of Chancellorsville, Lee had what he had been hoping for: a more or less stable situation and the opportunity, as he had said, to “attend to Mr Sedgwick.” Early, he learned, had retreated only a couple of miles down the Telegraph Road, then had halted on finding that he was unpursued. Lee wrote him, just after sunset, that McLaws was confronting the Federals east of Salem Church; “If … you could come upon their left flank, and communicate with General McLaws, I think you would demolish them.” A similar message went to McLaws, instructing him to co-operate with Early. “It is necessary to beat the enemy,” Lee told him, “and I hope you will do it.”
A dawn reconnaissance—Monday now: May 4—showed Hooker’s intrenchments well laid out and greatly strengthened overnight, the flanks securely anchored below and above the U.S. Ford escape hatch, and the whole supported by batteries massed in depth. While this discouraged attack, it also seemed to indicate that the Federals had gone entirely on the defensive in the region north of Chancellorsville. At any rate Lee proceeded on that assumption. Canceling a projected feeling-out of the enemy lines along Mineral Spring Run, he shifted half of Heth’s division from the far left, beyond Colston and Rodes, to take up Anderson’s position on the right, and ordered Anderson east to join with McLaws and Early in removing the threat to his rear. His plan, if daring, was simple enough. Stuart and the 25,000 survivors of Jackson’s flanking column were given the task of keeping Hooker’s 80,000 penned in their breastworks, while the remaining 22,000 Confederates disposed of Sedgwick, who had about the same number to the east. This last was now the main effort, and Lee decided to supervise it in person. Riding over to Salem Church at noon, he conferred with McLaws, who was awaiting Anderson’s arrival before completing his dispositions for attack, and then proceeded east, skirting the southward bulge of Sedgwick’s perimeter, to see Early. He found him on Marye’s Heights, which he had reoccupied soon after sunrise, posting the remnant of Barksdale’s brigade in the sunken road to resist another possible advance by Gibbon, who had retired into Fredericksburg. The plan of attack, as McLaws and Early had worked it out, was for Anderson to take up a position between them, confronting Sedgwick from the south, while they moved against him, simultaneously, from the east and west. The result, if all went well, would be his destruction. Lee gave his approval, though he saw that this would involve a good deal of maneuvering over difficult terrain, and rode back toward the center.
It was past 2 o’clock by now, and Anderson was not yet in position. Time was running out for Lee today, as it had done the day before for Sedgwick. Already he was finding what it cost him to be deprived even temporarily of the services of Jackson, of whom he would say before the week was over: “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” More hours were spent examining the approaches and correcting the alignment of the columns so as to avoid collisions. While Anderson continued to balk, McLaws was strangely apathetic and Early floundered in the ravines across the way; it was 6 o’clock before all the troops were in position and the signal guns were fired. The fighting was savage at scattered points, especially on Early’s front, but McLaws got lost in a maze of thickets and scarcely made contact, either with the enemy or with Anderson, whose men added to the confusion by firing into each other as they advanced. Fog thickened the dusk and the disjointed movement lurched to a halt within an hour. Sedgwick had been shaken, though hardly demolished. Anxious to exploit his gains, such as they were, before the Federals reintrenched or got away across the river, Lee for the first time in his career ordered a night attack. While the artillery shelled Banks Ford in the darkness, attempting to seal off the exit, the infantry groped about in the fog, dog-tired, and made no progress. At first light, the skirmishers recovered their sense of direction, pushed forward, and found that the works to their front were empty; Sedgwick had escaped. Though his casualties had been heavy—worse than 4600 in all, including the men lost earlier—he had got his three divisions to safety across a bridge the engineers had thrown a mile below Banks Ford, well beyond range of the all-night interdictory fire.
Word came presently from Barksdale that Gibbon too had recrossed the river at Fredericksburg and cut his pontoons loose from the west bank. This meant that for the first time in three days no live, uncaptured bluecoats remained on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock except the ones intrenched above Chancellorsville; Lee had abolished the threat to his rear. Though he was far from satisfied, having failed in another of a lengthening sequence of attempts to destroy a considerable segment of the Union army, he had at least restored—and even improved—the situation that had existed yesterday, when he was preparing to give Hooker his undivided attention. Once more intent on destruction, he allowed the men of McLaws and Anderson no rest, but ordered them to take up the march back to Chancellorsville, intending for them to resume the offensive they had abandoned for Sedgwick’s sake the day before. Stuart reported that the Federals, though still present in great strength behind their V, had made no attempt to move against him, either yesterday or so far this morning; yet Lee did what he could to hasten the march westward, not so much out of fear that Hooker would lash out at Stuart, whom he outnumbered better than three to one, as out of fear that he would do as Sedgwick had done and make his escape across the river before the Confederates had time to reconcentrate and crush him.
In point of fact, Lee’s fears on the latter count were more valid than he had any way of knowing, not having attended a council of war held the night before at his opponent’s headquarters. At midnight, while Sedgwick was beginning his withdrawal across the Rappahannock, Hooker had called his other corps commanders together to vote on whether they should do the same. Couch, Reynolds, Meade, Howard, and Sickles reported promptly, but Slocum, who had the farthest to come, did not arrive until after the meeting had broken up. Hooker put the question to them—remarking, as Couch would recall, “that his instructions compelled him to cover Washington, not to jeopardize the army, etc.”—then retired to let them talk it over among themselves. Reynolds was much fatigued from loss of sleep; he lay down in one corner of the tent to get some rest, telling Meade to vote his proxy for attack. Meade did so, adding his own vote to that effect. Howard too was for taking the offensive; for unlike Meade and Reynolds, whose two corps had scarcely fired a shot, he had a reputation to retrieve. Couch on the other hand voted to withdraw, but made it clear that he favored such a course only because Hooker was still in charge. Sickles, whose corps had suffered almost as many casualties as any two of the other five combined, was in favor of pulling back at once, Hooker or no Hooker. Fighting Joe returned, was given the three-to-two opinion, and adjourned the council with the announcement that he intended to withdraw the army beyond the river as soon as possible. As the generals left the tent, Reynolds broke out angrily, quite loud enough for Hooker to overhear him: “What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyhow?”
Their instructions were to cut whatever roads were necessary, leading from their present positions back to U.S. Ford, while the army engineers were selecting a strong inner line, anchored a mile above and a mile below the two pontoon bridges, for Meade’s corps to occupy in covering the withdrawal. All were hard at work on their various assignments before dawn on the 5th, at which time Hooker crossed in person, accompanied by his staff. Then at noon, with the pull-back to the inner line completed, rain began to fall. It fell in earnest, developing quickly into what one diarist called “a tremendous cold storm.” By midnight the river had risen six feet, endangering the bridges and interrupting the retreat before more than a handful of regiments had reached the opposite bank. Cut off from Hooker, Couch believed he saw his chance. “We will stay where we are and fight it out,” he announced. But peremptory orders arrived at 2 a.m. for the movement to be continued. One of the bridges was cannibalized to piece out the other, and the crossing was resumed. By midmorning Wednesday, May 6, it was completed. Except for the dead and missing, who would not be coming back, the army’s week-long excursion south of the river had come full circle.
Lee was up by then, after being delayed by the storm the day before, but when his skirmishers pushed forward through the dripping woods they found the enemy gone. He lost his temper at the news and scolded the brigadier who brought it. “That is the way you young men always do,” he fumed. “You allow those people to get away. I tell you what to do, but you won’t do it!” He gestured impatiently. “Go after them, and damage them all you can!” But no further damage was possible; the bluecoats were well beyond his reach. At a cost of less than 13,000 casualties he had inflicted more than 17,000 and had won what future critics would call the most brilliant victory of his career, but he was by no means satisfied. He had aimed at total capture or annihilation of the foe, and the extent to which he had fallen short of this was, to his mind, the extent to which he had failed. Leaving a few regiments to tend the wounded, bury the dead, and glean the spoils abandoned by the Unionists on the field, he marched the rest of his army back through the rain-drenched Wilderness to Fredericksburg and the comparative comfort of the camps it had left a week ago, when word first came that the enemy was across the Rappahannock.
Back at Falmouth that evening, while his army straggled eastward in his wake, Hooker learned that Stoneman’s raid, from which so much had been expected, had been almost a total failure. Intending, as he later reported, to “magnify our small force into overwhelming numbers,” the cavalryman had broken up his column into fragments, none of which, as it turned out, had been strong enough to do more than temporary damage to the installations in Lee’s rear. According to one disgusted trooper, “Our only accomplishments were the burning of a few canal boats on the upper James River, some bridges, hen roosts, and tobacco houses.” Stoneman returned the way he had come, recrossing at Raccoon Ford on the morning of May 7, while other portions of his scattered column turned up as far away as Yorktown. His total losses, in addition to about 1000 horses broken down and abandoned, were 82 men killed and wounded and 307 missing. These figures seemed to Hooker to prove that Stoneman had not been seriously engaged, and it was not long before he removed him from command. However, his own casualties, while quite as heavy as anyone on his own side of the line could have desired—the ultimate total was 17,287, as compared to Lee’s 12,821—were equally condemning, though in a different way, since a breakdown of them indicated the disjointed manner in which he had fought and refrained from fighting the battle. Meade and Reynolds, for example, had lost fewer than 1000 men between them, while Sedgwick and Sickles had lost more than four times that number each. Obviously Lincoln’s parting admonition, “Put in all your men,” had been ignored. Hooker was quick to place the blame for his defeat on Stoneman, Averell, Howard, and Sedgwick, sometimes singly and at other times collectively. It was only in private, and some weeks later, that he was able to see, or at any rate confess, where the real trouble had lain. “I was not hurt by a shell, and I was not drunk,” he told a fellow officer. “For once I lost confidence in Joe Hooker, and that is all there is to it.”
In time that would become the registered consensus, but for the present many of his compatriots were hard put to understand how such a disaster had come about. Horace Greeley staggered into the Tribune managing editor’s office Thursday morning, his face a ghastly color and his lips trembling. “My God, it is horrible,” he exclaimed. “Horrible. And to think of it—130,000 magnificent soldiers so cut to pieces by less than 60,000 half-starved ragamuffins!” An Episcopal clergyman, also in New York, could not reconcile the various reports and rumors he recorded in his diary that night. “It would seem that Hooker has beaten Lee, and that Lee has beaten Hooker; that we have taken Fredericksburg, and that the rebels have taken it also; that we have 4500 prisoners, and the rebels 5400; that Hooker has cut off Lee’s retreat, and Lee has cut off Sedgwick’s retreat, and Sedgwick has cut off everybody’s retreat generally, but has retreated himself although his retreat was cut off.… In short, all is utter confusion. Everything seems to be everywhere, and everybody all over, and there is no getting at any truth.” Official Washington was similarly confused and dismayed. When Sumner of Massachusetts heard that Hooker had been whipped, he flung up his hands and struck an attitude of despair. “Lost—lost,” he groaned. “All is lost!” But the hardest-hit man of them all was Lincoln, whose hopes had had the longest way to fall. Six months ago, on the heels of Emancipation, he had foreseen clear sailing for the ship of state provided the helmsman kept a steady hand on the tiller. “We are like whalers who have been on a long chase,” he told a friend. “We have at last got the harpoon into the monster, but we must now look how we steer, or with one flop of his tail he will send us all into eternity.” Then had come Fredericksburg, and he had said: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” Now there was this, a still harder flop of the monster’s tail, and Hooker and the Army of the Potomac had gone sprawling. Even before the news arrived, a White House caller had found the President “anxious and harassed beyond any power of description.” Yet this was nothing compared to his reaction later in the day, when he reappeared with a telegram in his hand. “News from the army,” he said in a trembling voice. The visitor read that Hooker was in retreat, and looking up saw that Lincoln’s face, “usually sallow, was ashen in hue. The paper on the wall behind him was of the tint known as ‘French gray,’ and even in that moment of sorrow … I vaguely took in the thought that the complexion of the anguished President’s visage was like that of the wall.” He walked up and down the room, hands clasped behind his back. “My God, my God,” he exclaimed as he paced back and forth. “What will the country say? What will the country say?”
Within the ranks of the army itself, slogging down the muddy roads toward Falmouth, the reaction was not unlike the New York clergyman’s. “No one seems to understand this move,” a Pennsylvania private wrote, “but I have no doubt it is all right.” He belonged to Meade’s corps, which had seen very little fighting, and he could not quite comprehend that what he had been involved in was a defeat. All he knew for certain was that the march back to camp was a hard one. “Most of the way the mud was over shoe, in some places knee deep, and the rain made our loads terrible to tired shoulders.” Others knew well enough that they had taken part in a fiasco. “Go boil your shirt!” was their reply to jokes attempted by roadside stragglers. Turning the matter over in their minds, they could see that Hooker had been trounced, but they could not see that this applied to themselves, who had fought as well as ever—except, of course, the unregenerate Dutchmen—whenever and wherever they got the chance. Mostly, though, they preferred to ignore the question of praise or blame. “And thus ends the second attempt on the capture of Fredericksburg,” a Maine soldier recorded when he got back to Falmouth. “I have nothing to say about it in any way. I have no opinions to express about the Gen’ls or the men nor do I wish to. I leave it in the hands of God. I don’t want to think of it at all.”
Unquestionably, this latest addition to the lengthening roster of Confederate victories was a great one. Indeed, considering the odds that had been faced and overcome, it was perhaps in terms of glory the greatest of them all; Chancellorsville would be stitched with pride across the crowded banners of the Army of Northern Virginia. But its ultimate worth, as compared to its cost, depended in large measure on the outcome of Stonewall Jackson’s present indisposition. As Lee had said on Sunday morning, when he first learned that his lieutenant had been wounded, “Any victory is dearly bought which deprives us of the services of General Jackson, even for a short time.”
So far—that is, up to the time when Hooker threw in the sponge and the northern army fell back across the Rappahannock—Dr McGuire’s prognosis had been most encouraging and the general himself had been in excellent spirits, despite the loss of his arm. “I am wounded but not depressed,” he said when he woke from the sleep that followed the amputation. “I believe it was according to God’s will, and I can wait until He makes his object known to me.” Presently, when Lee’s midday note was brought, congratulating him on the victory, “which is due to your skill and energy,” Jackson permitted himself the one criticism he had ever made of his commander. “General Lee is very kind,” he said, “but he should give the praise to God.” Next day, May 4, with Sedgwick threatening the army’s rear, he was removed to safety in an ambulance. The route was south to Todd’s Tavern, then southeast, through Spotsylvania Court House, to Guiney Station, where he had met his wife and child, two weeks ago today, to begin the idyl that had ended with the news that Hooker was on the march. All along the way, country people lined the roadside to watch the ambulance go by. They brought with them, and held out for the attendants to accept, such few gifts as their larders afforded in these hard times, cool buttermilk, hot biscuits, and fried chicken. Jackson was pleased by this evidence of their concern, and for much of the 25-mile journey he chatted with an aide, even responding to a question as to what he thought of Hooker’s plan for the battle whose guns rumbled fainter as the ambulance rolled south. “It was in the main a good conception, sir; an excellent plan. But he should not have sent away his cavalry. That was his great blunder. It was that which enabled me to turn him, without his being aware of it, and to take him by the rear.” Of his own share in frustrating that plan, he added that he believed his flank attack had been “the most successful movement of my life. But I have received more credit for it than I deserve. Most men will think that I had planned it all from the first; but it was not so. I simply took advantage of circumstances as they were presented to me in the providence of God. I feel that His hand led me.”
By nightfall he was resting comfortably in a cottage on the Chandler estate near Guiney Station. He slept soundly, apparently free from pain, and woke next morning much refreshed. His wounds seemed to give him little trouble; primary intention and granulation were under way. All that day and the next, Tuesday and Wednesday, he rested easy, talking mainly of religious matters, as had always been his custom in times of relaxation. The doctor foresaw a rapid recovery and an early return to duty. Then—late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, May 7—a sudden change occurred. McGuire woke at dawn to find his patient restless and in severe discomfort. Examination showed that the general faced a new and formidable enemy: pneumonia. He was cupped, then given mercury, with antimony and opium, and morphine to ease his pain. From that time on, as the drugs took effect and the pneumonia followed its inexorable course, he drifted in and out of sleep and fuddled consciousness. His wife arrived at midday, having been delayed by Stoneman’s raiders, to find him greatly changed from the husband she had left eight days ago. Despite advance warning, she was shocked at the sight of his wounds, especially the mutilated arm. Moreover, his cheeks were flushed, his breathing oppressed, and his senses numbed. At first he scarcely knew her, but presently, in a more lucid moment, he saw her anxiety and told her: “You must not wear a long face. I love cheerfulness and brightness in a sickroom.” He lapsed into stupor, then woke again to find her still beside him. “My darling, you are very much loved,” he murmured. “You are one of the most precious little wives in the world.” Toward evening, he seemed to improve. Once at least, in the course of the night, he appeared to be altogether himself again. “Will you take this, General?” the doctor asked, bending over the bed with a dose of medicine. Stonewall looked at him sternly. “Do your duty,” he said. Then, seeing the doctor hesitate, he repeated the words quite firmly: “Do your duty.” Still later, those in the room were startled to hear him call out to his adjutant, Alexander Pendleton, who was in Fredericksburg with Lee: “Major Pendleton, send in and see if there is higher ground back of Chancellorsville! I must find out if there is high ground between Chancellorsville and the river.… Push up the columns; hasten the columns! Pendleton, you take charge of that.… Where is Pendleton? Tell him to push up the columns.” In his delirium he was back on the field of battle, doing the one thing he did best in all the world.
All that day and the next, which was Saturday, he grew steadily worse; McGuire sent word to Fredericksburg and Richmond that recovery was doubtful. Lee could not believe a righteous cause would suffer such a blow. “Surely General Jackson will recover,” he said. “God will not take him from us now that we need him so much.” The editor of the Richmond Whig agreed. “We need have no fears for Jackson,” he wrote. “He is no accidental manifestation of the powers of faith and courage. He came not by chance in this day and to this generation. He was born for a purpose, and not until that purpose is fulfilled will his great soul take flight.” Jackson himself inclined to this belief that he would be spared for a specific purpose. “I am not afraid to die,” he said in a lucid moment Friday. “I am willing to abide by the will of my Heavenly Father. But I do not believe I shall die at this time. I am persuaded the Almighty has yet a work for me to perform.” On Saturday, when he was asked to name a hymn he would like to hear sung, he requested “Shew Pity, Lord,” Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of the Fifty-first Psalm:
“Shew pity, Lord; O Lord, forgive;
Let a repenting rebel live—”
This seemed to comfort him for a time, but night brought a return of suffering. He tossed sleepless, mumbling battle orders. Though these were mostly unintelligible, it was observed that he called most often on A. P. Hill, his hardest-hitting troop commander, and Wells Hawks, his commissary officer, as if even in delirium he strove to preserve a balance between tactics and logistics.
Sunday, May 10, dawned fair and clear; McGuire informed Anna Jackson that her husband could not last the day. She knelt at the bedside of the unconscious general, telling him over and over that he would “very soon be in heaven.” Presently he stirred and opened his eyes. She asked him, “Do you feel willing to acquiesce in God’s allotment if He will you to go today?” He watched her. “I prefer it,” he said, and she pressed the point: “Well, before this day closes you will be with the blessed Savior in his glory.” There was a pause. “I will be the infinite gainer to be translated,” Jackson said as he dozed off again. He woke at noon, and once more she broached the subject, telling him that he would be gone before sundown. This time he seemed to understand her better. “Oh no; you are frightened, my child. Death is not so near. I may yet get well.” She broke into tears, sobbing that the doctor had said there was no hope. Jackson summoned McGuire. “Doctor, Anna informs me that you have told her I am to die today. Is it so?” When McGuire replied that it was so, the general seemed to ponder. Then he said, “Very good, very good. It is all right.” After a time he added, “It is the Lord’s day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
At 1.30 the doctor told him he had no more than a couple of hours to live. “Very good; it’s all right,” Jackson replied as before, but more weakly, for his breathing was high in his throat by now. When McGuire offered him brandy to keep up his strength, he shook his head. “It will only delay my departure, and do no good,” he protested. “I want to preserve my mind, if possible, to the last.” Presently, though, he was back in delirium, alternately praying and giving commands, all of which had to do with the offensive. Shortly after 3 o’clock, a few minutes before he died, he called out: “Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front.… Tell Major Hawks—” He left the sentence unfinished, seeming thus to have put the war behind him; for he smiled as he spoke his last words, in a tone of calm relief. “Let us cross over the river,” he said, “and rest under the shade of the trees.”