Volume XXIX Issue #4 • An Excerpt From:

Action from April 28-May 2, 1863

by Frank A. O'Reilly

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

Feature article author Frank O’Reilly at the remains of Catharine Furnace.

The Union columns were once again on the move at daybreak on April 30. Skirmishers pushed ahead of the force, uncovering the United States Ford to the east of Ely’s Ford, and feeling their way south through a forbidding woodland known to the local inhabitants as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, or simply the Wilderness. As they closed on a country crossroads called Chancellorsville, they met their first real resistance. Members of Brig. Gen. William Mahone’s Virginia brigade stumbled upon the Federals quite by accident. Mahone had heard wild reports from his scouts that the Federals were approaching from the north. Determined to alleviate their fear, he ordered Col. Allen Parham of the 41st Virginia to investigate. Parham barely entered the woods north of Chancellorsville when he ran into an ambush that scattered his men and left the colonel badly shaken and minus his brand new hat. Mahone beat a hasty retreat from the Chancellorsville clearing and fell back to the east toward Fredericksburg. Col. Thomas Devin’s Union cavalry shadowed his withdrawal for several miles to a high ridge topped by Zoan Church.

Moments after the Confederates left Chancellorsville, Meade’s V Corps filled the intersection in front of the house. Sue Chancellor and her sisters stood on the front portico “in light, dressy, attractive spring costumes,” and flaunted their Southern sympathies defiantly. According to a half-amused Pennsylvania soldier, the girls “scolded audibly and reviled bitterly” the Yankees who gathered around Chancellors-ville. “They had the assurances from General Lee” that Confederates were “anxiously awaiting an opportunity to extend the ‘hospitalities of the country.’” The Northerner added wryly, “They had little conception . . . that they were to participate in this bountiful hospitality.” Meade came to the Chancellor house at 11:00 a.m. on April 30. He had reached his first objective. Early in the afternoon Slocum’s men arrived from the west. Chancellorsville stood at the hub of five roads that allowed the Union army to concentrate on the Confederate side of the Rapidan River. Until this moment, Federal officers and men had been nervous about the march. Meade’s and Slocum’s columns had splayed across the Wilderness with no roads between them for communication. If Lee wanted to strike Hooker’s army while it was vulnerable, this would have been the time and place. Once the Union army reconcentrated without incident at Chancellorsville, many of the soldiers assumed the worst had passed. Querulous old George Meade, notorious for his hair-trigger temper and dramatic flare-ups, uncharacteristically danced around the Chancellors’ yard, greeting Slocum with an unceremonious bear hug, and exclaiming, “Hurrah for old Joe!” In one fell swoop, Hooker had managed to plant a sizeable force in front of Lee’s army at Fredericksburg and another squarely behind Lee at Chancellorsville just twelve miles to the west. If Hooker acted quickly, he could trap the Confederates in a vise. But Hooker did not act quickly.

The Union commander stopped the advance at Chancellorsville. Instead of pushing ahead, he waited at the crossroads for reinforcements. Once Meade’s V Corps uncovered U. S. Ford, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch and two divisions of his II Corps crossed the Rappahannock, followed by Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps. As soon as Hooker gathered a decisive number of troops around Chancellorsville (about 78,000), he intended to make his next move: getting out of the Wilderness and heading for Lee’s vulnerable rear. He lingered until mid-morning on May 1 before renewing the advance. One Union general thought this would be “the beginning of a day big with the fate of the nation.” Hooker took advantage of the Chancellorsville intersection to put elements of the V Corps on both the Orange Turnpike and the River Road, as well as shuffling the XII Corps onto the Plank Road, all of them pressing east and converging on Fredericks-burg and Lee’s line of retreat. Their immediate objective was to seize Banks’ Ford and the high ground six miles west of Fredericksburg topped by Zoan and Tabernacle churches. Hooker gloated that he had Lee right where he wanted him.

Hooker figured that Lee must either “ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses . . . where certain destruction awaits him.” He boasted to his corps commanders, “God Almighty could not prevent his destroying the Rebel Army.” Such brash pronunciamentos were typical of Hooker, but his subordinates grew weary of such rhetoric. A XII Corps division commander, Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, confided to his daughter, “There is too much boasting and too little planning; swagger without preparation.”

Robert E. Lee also had plans for May 1, 1863. He weighed the intelligence of Union forces marshalling in the Wilderness while watching the posturing Federals in front of Fredericks-burg. He assessed the situation and realized Hooker had stolen a march on him; but he instantly committed to challenging the Army of the Potomac before it could surround his army. The first thing Lee needed to do was secure the Zoan and Tabernacle churches ridge. It featured the highest piece of ground in the area. If Hooker captured the ridge, Lee would be forced to either defend lower inferior ground, or attack uphill into the teeth of Hooker’s legions. Worse still, Lee also had to consider another consequence if he lost the ridge: Union forces would be only six miles apart, leaving Lee no room to maneuver against either one without disastrous results. If Hooker took Zoan Church, Lee would have no recourse but to abandon the Rappahannock River defenses and retreat south. The Confederate chieftain instructed Lafayette McLaws to tell his men: “Let them know that it is a stern reality now, it must be Victory or Death, for defeat would be ruinous.”

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