Volume XXIX Issue #4 • An Excerpt From:


Chancellorsville
Action from April 28-May 2, 1863

by Frank A. O'Reilly

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.



The “Last Bivouac” site of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. They camped here on the night of May 1-2, 1863. The location is the intersection of the old Orange Plank Road and the Furnace Road. Jackson’s corps would depart the next morning on a daring flank march.


General Benham was drunk. The Union engineer flailed his arms, bellowed incoherently, and flopped down on the riverbank exhausted. Just four months earlier, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker had assumed command of the battered and shamed Army of the Potomac. He had rebuilt the army body and soul, and crafted an elaborate plan to destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker commanded 125,000 troops and immodestly proclaimed them “the finest army on the planet.” He knew he enjoyed a favorable 2.5–to-1 odds advantage over his opponent, and intended to use that advantage to launch a spring offensive near the end of April 1863. The first step in Hooker’s scheme required Union troops to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg where Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside had met disaster the previous December. Hooker’s operation seemed somewhat in jeopardy on the morning of April 29, 1863, as the chief of his engineer brigade, Brig. Gen. Henry W. Benham, lay floundering mindlessly on the rocks. This was hardly the auspicious first step in the Union conquest of Virginia, but it was an ominous portent of the unpredictable human failings that characterized the Chancellorsville Campaign, which ended in Hooker’s improbable and ignoble defeat—and Lee’s greatest victory.

Fortunately for Joseph Hooker, as Benham lay soused, others stepped up to take charge. Elements of the Union I and VI Corps commandeered pontoon boats and started ferrying troops across the Rappahannock before the Confederates could prevent them from establishing a bridgehead. As the boats glided through misty morning fog, the crack of Confederate rifles resonated from the distant shore. Federals picked up the pace, and one admitted that “it was the fiercest regatta ever run in this country.” As pontoons ground into the riverbank, Union soldiers swarmed ashore, driving the pickets away. Skirmishers for both sides fanned out across the floodplain below Fredericksburg and popped away for possession of the Richmond Stage Road near an area of intensive combat on December 13, 1862, then christened the Slaughter Pen Farm.

Lt. James Power Smith rapped on the tent post of army headquarters and requested admittance. Robert E. Lee propped himself up on his cot and asked Stonewall Jackson’s trusted aide to enter. Smith reported the Union foray across the river even as the sound of skirmishers punctuated the morning. Good-naturedly, Lee twitted Smith, saying, “Well, I thought I heard firing and was beginning to think it was time some of you young fellows were coming to tell me what it was all about.” His phrase, “you young fellows” might have had some bite to it. Lee was feeling his age in 1863 and then some. Acute pericarditis—the first pangs of heart disease—had left the Confederate chieftain bedridden for part of March, and perhaps it shook his confidence in his ability to effectively endure and lead in a physically demanding military campaign. Despite the fact that his army had been diminished to 60,000 effectives, and their diet had been reduced due to direfully disappearing resources, Lee’s biggest question was: Did he have the stamina to stay sharp and stay ahead of his opponent in the trial of battle?

With Lt. Gen. James Longstreet away with two of his divisions collecting supplies in the Suffolk area of southeast Virginia, most of the troops defending Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock Valley belonged to Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps and the First Corps divisions of Maj. Gens. Richard H. Anderson and Lafayette McLaws. Most of Jackson’s men concentrated on the hills behind and below Fredericksburg. Jackson anxiously wanted to attack and drive the Federals into the river before they had a chance to cross in too much strength. Lee deferred for the moment, waiting to see what Hooker really intended to do.

The Union commander’s plan appeared to be working. With all eyes fixed to the east on Fredericksburg, the Confederates missed the bulk of Hooker’s army spiriting its way up the Rappahannock Valley to Kelly’s Ford. Federals seized the ford on April 28, 1863, and engineers labored into the night erecting a canvas pontoon bridge over the flooded stream. Three Union corps crossed on April 29. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s Northern cavalry then crossed and cut away from Hooker’s column to embark on a deep penetrating raid into the rear of Lee’s army. Stoneman intended to threaten Richmond and wreak havoc with Lee’s line of communications and supplies. Hooker hoped his cavalry leader would be able to disrupt Lee’s logistics and ruin his line of retreat, in effect isolating Lee from Richmond and potential reinforcements. He had instructed Stoneman: “Let your watchword be fight, and let all of your orders be fight, fight, fight.” Robert E. Lee’s son, Brig. Gen. William H. F. “Rooney” Lee, shadowed the Union horsemen with his small cavalry brigade, crowding the Federals without being able to thwart them. Stoneman, however, felt isolated and beset, and handled his assignment rather ineffectively. The most immediate consequence for the Union army was that Hooker operated blindly with minimal intelligence during the next few critical days. It is debatable how effective Stoneman’s cavalry might have been had it stayed with the army and attempted to maneuver through the Wilderness against the likes of Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. As it was, neither army would have more than a brigade of cavalry on the battlefield at Chancellorsville.

The problem of Stoneman’s absence was not immediately apparent and the initiative still favored the Federals. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps had crossed Kelly’s Ford along with Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps; and together they set off for Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s V Corps had crossed last, and took the road to Ely’s Ford to avoid clogging the roads unnecessarily and expediting the march to the Rapidan.

Slocum surprised a Confederate bridge detail at Germanna Ford and took advantage of their bridge to cross most of his troops over the Rapidan dry-shod. Meade’s men found no one guarding Ely’s Ford. Northern soldiers waded the deep and troubled stream. A thin line of cavalry videttes formed downstream to catch the effluvia of infantrymen who lost their footing and were swept away by the current. Soldiers recalled seeing a drummer boy floating downstream clinging to his drum, until his colonel fished him out. In the dark, several soldiers slipped through the cordon and drowned. Many of the Union soldiers spent a cold and miserable evening, wet and shivering, huddled over small blazes for some minute comfort.