Thursday, June 20, 2013

Georgians at Chancellorsville: Days 2 and 3

1st Lt. William Carraway
Public Affairs Office, Georgia Dept. of Defense

A Map of Jackson's flank attack on May 2, 1863
Courtesy of the Civil War Trust (
Jackson’s March Begins
General Robert E. Lee surveyed the marching column of Infantry before him as it snaked generally west. At the head of the column of nearly 30,000 Confederates was the Georgia brigade of Brig. Gen. Alfred Colquitt. These Georgians were at the vanguard of what was to become the greatest flanking attack of the American Civil War.

As they passed Lee’s position at 7 a.m., May 2, 1863, Colquitt’s Georgians might have seen a mounted officer exchange a salute with the commanding general. No words were overheard, but the mounted figure gestured to the head of the column as his eyes blazed with a fierce blue intensity. Lee nodded and the figure rode on. Although they could not have known it at the time, Colquitt’s Georgians had witnessed the last meeting between Lee and his most trusted subordinate, Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Tactical Situation
While the conversation – and Lee’s thoughts – are lost to history, one can deduce from the tactical situation what Lee must have felt at that moment. Desperately outnumbered, Lee was dividing his forces in the face of the enemy. To his north was Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker and his 70,000-man Army of the Potomac. With a holding force present south at Fredericksburg, and Jackson’s corps executing a 12-mile flank march, Lee would have approximately 12,000 men positioned to counter those 70,000. To succeed, Jackson’s flanking march must not be detected, nor could Hooker learn of the inadequacy of Lee’s lines.

Lee’s Deception
To conceal his intent, Lee ordered the division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws to demonstrate on the Union left to confuse Hooker and draw his attention away from the flank march. McLaws had at his disposal the Georgia brigades of brigadier generals William Wofford, Paul Semmes and Ambrose Wright to effect his ruse. The 10th Georgia was so successful in these endeavors that it captured the 27th Connecticut. The number of prisoners taken (340) exceeded the number of men in the 10th Georgia.

Catherine Furnace at the intersection of Plank Road
and Catherine Furnace Road was the site of a desperate
defense by the 23rd Georgia on the second day of battle.
Georgia Defends Jackson’s March
Jackson’s most immediate concern was concealing and protecting his route of march. To that end, Jackson detailed the 23rd Georgia to guard the intersection of Plank Road and Catherine Furnace Road, the site of his earlier meeting with Lee.

While absorbed with McLaw’s attacks, Hooker received reports of a large rebel force moving to the rear. Suspecting a retreat, Hooker nevertheless issued orders to Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard, who commanded the XIth Corps on Hooker’s right flank, to advance pickets and be cautious of possible enemy movements. Howard replied that he was taking precautions against such an attack.

Hooker also sent orders to III Corps commander Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles to advance on the retreating Confederate column and disrupt it as practicable. Sickles sent the division of Brig. Gen. David Birney directly into the path of the 23rd Georgia. Although desperately outnumbered, the 23rd bought time for Jackson’s column to escape. The delay, however, was bought at high cost to the 23rd Georgia, which suffered nearly 300 casualties before reinforcements from Wright’s Georgia Brigade arrived to weaken further Union advances. Jackson march was secured. Perhaps more importantly, Sickles, and much of the Union command, was now convinced that the Confederates were in retreat.

Jackson Strikes
By 5:30 p.m., the bulk of Jackson’s Corps had reached the line of departure west of the Union’s XI Corps. Jackson chose Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes to spearhead the attack. Two of Rodes’ five brigades were Georgia brigades, those of brigadier generals Colquitt and George Doles.

The smell of boiling beef lingered in the tents of the New York regiments of Col. Leopold Von Gilsa as they prepared for dinner. These Soldiers were shocked when the woods to their west erupted with Doles screaming Georgians. Overwhelmed, the New Yorkers began a contagious stampede that would result in an entire Union Corps being driven three miles east. So swift was the retreat that food was left cooking on campfires and, rifles were left stacked in camp. Ohio regiments east of the New Yorkers attempted to make a stand at the direction of the 75th Ohio’s Col. Robert Reily, but their lines were disrupted first by their fleeing comrades, and then by musket fire from the jubilant Confederates. Reily was killed along with 150 of his Ohioans.

In the meantime, the balance of the 75th joined the rush to the rear.

The Union retreat became utter chaos as men, wagons and artillery caissons all contended for the same precious ground. Men, wagons and panicked horses streamed past Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor’s House. Hooker, realizing whatever force had caused the collapse would not be far behind personally directed the placement of artillery and infantry from III Corps to stop the Confederates.

The Confederate attack also became disorganized due to rough terrain and pockets of resistance. Jackson, riding with the vanguard of the assault, urged his men to press on, but they were tangled in unfamiliar terrain and separated from their chains-of-command. Jackson, along with Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill and staff rode forward of the main battle line on a leader’s reconnaissance. As the party returned, Confederate pickets from the 18th North Carolina opened fire. Struck twice in the left arm and once in the right hand, Jackson was carried from the field on a stretcher, and the advance halted for the night.

The Battle Continues
On the morning of April 3, with Confederate cavalry Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart temporarily in command of the left wing, Lee launched coordinated attacks that drove the Union army back. Having captured a key rise of terrain known as Hazel Grove, Lee packed the rise with artillery and pummeled Hooker’s center. Pressed on both flanks, and shelled by effective artillery fire, Hooker conceded the ground and retreated north across the Rappahannock. The Confederate victory was stunning and complete, but it had come at a terrible price. Lee’s army had suffered 13,000 casualties to the North’s 17,000. But the loss of Jackson was a critical blow to Confederate war aspirations.

Jackson’s arm was amputated by his surgeon, and – at first – it appeared the general would recover. However, he later contracted pneumonia and died May 10, 1863.

The loss of the audacious Jackson was a severe blow to Lee personally and strategically. He had lost his most trusted lieutenant. At the same time, his improbable victory at Chancellorsville seemed to suggest that the Army of Northern Virginia would prevail against any Union army. For nearly a year, Lee had defeated a succession of Union generals. Prospects for the South had never been better. Lee, flush with victory, seized the initiative and carried it north where he hoped to achieve a victory on northern soil, thereby winning foreign recognition for the Confederacy.

It would be then that President Abraham Lincoln would choose a new commander for the Union Army. That commander would go on to lead a demoralized army against a seemingly unconquerable foe at the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

Next month: Gettysburg

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