The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


THE remainder of the winter Lee occupied in preparing for the Spring campaign, of 1863, and in further efforts to protect his army from the early anticipated attack of the enemy under its new commander-in-chief. He still had to importune the Richmond War Office not only for more regular and adequate supplies for his men, but also for more artillery and better ammunition, as well as for additional troops, for by this time his army had been weakened by the withdrawal of Longstreet’s division, in February 1863, which had been sent so uth of the James River, near Suffolk, to check a threatened demonstration of the enemy in that section, as well as to collect and forward supplies. Lee had also recently suffered heavily in the loss from death or wounds on the field of many of his capable general officers; while increased vigilance was required of him and his staff, now that greater activity in the enemy’s ranks began to show itself under the Hooker régime. He was furthermore at a decided disadvantage in having now opposed to him a largely-strengthened and freshly-recruited army, over 133,000 strong, in fine fighting condition, including a greatly increased cavalry equipment (of 12,000 troopers), and 400 pieces of artillery. This large force gave the Union command a numerical superiority over Lee’s entire army of almost 80,000 men. Unfortunately for the North, with all the advantages it had in possessing a force in the field twice the size of Lee’s, and all the resources of a mighty nation behind it, Hooker’s army was to suffer at Chancellorsville a most disastrous and humiliating defeat; while its leader was to prove himself as great a failure as any of his many predecessors.

Hooker was early informed that Longstreet’s command had been detached from Lee’s strength and despatched to the James River, and this fact made the Union general confident of success, and even boastful. He even went so far as to affirm that “certain destruction” awaited Lee, and that “the Rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac!” The Southern leader, on the contrary, was more modest and tactful (flippant he could never be), as well as more reverential, but hopeful; while, as usual, he took pains personally to see over every defensive site in the region, and omitted no precaution to ensure the safety and wellbeing of his men, and, if Heaven willed it, the triumph of his command. His intuition, coupled with his experience as a great military tactician, moreover, enabled Lee at once to divine Hooker’s probable plan of attack, despite the Northern commander’s successive feints, in the hope of misleading him or throwing him off the true scent. Nor, aside from this, was he lacking in the precautions usually taken by the leader of an army when about to go into action, in availing himself of all that can be learned from watchful outpost commanders, and, by utilizing to the full his intelligent scouting and reconnaissance force. Hence, when the middle of March came (a month even before the battle of Chancellorsville occurred), Lee was able to make such disposition of his army as sound generalship suggested, and was also in a position to direct his right arm, General Stuart, the Confederate cavalry watch-dog, to look to the crossings of the Upper Rappahannock, and, with the assistance of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, checkmate the passage of a Federal column, under General Averill at Kelly’s Ford, some 25 miles above Fredericksburg. On this occasion, the watchfulness was rewarded, for though Averill forced the passage of the river and captured the picket-guard, his cavalry contingent was met by that of Fitzhugh Lee, and, after a hot engagement of many hours’ duration, was driven back, having suffered a serious loss. The encounter at Kelly’s Ford is spoken of as “the best cavalry fight in the War,” and in it the first blood was spilled on both sides in the Chancellorsville campaign, the Southerners losing on their side the gallant young Pelham, Stuart’s chief of horse artillery, who was known as the pride of Alabama for his superb courage and dash.

Over a month later, or, more precisely, on the closing days of April (1863), when the Spring floods had somewhat abated. Hooker’s army began to cross the Rappahannock in force, with the intent of bagging, as it thought, the entire Army of Northern Virginia. The movement was a menacing one to Lee, for its design was not only to turn the Confederate left flank and get in its rear, by way of the fords on the Upper Rappahannock, or rather the Rapidan River; but to make a strong demonstration, by way of the United States Ford, in front of the bend in the Rappahannock, near the Mine Run Road, thence to take up a position around Chancellorsville; while Sedgwick, with a large force, was to cross by way of Bank’s Ford, or lower down the river, and concentrate between the latter and the plain of Fredericksburg. Besides these various environing masses of Union soldiery, Hooker had ordered his chief cavalry commander, Stoneman, to make a wide detour, as Fitzhugh Lee relates, “well around the Southern left and rear, throw 10,000 sabres between Lee and Richmond, breaking up his communications, stopping his supplies, and be in a position to obstruct the Confederate retreat until Hooker could deliver a final blow.” Though Hooker’s braggadocio little affected Lee, Stoneman, however, succeeded in reaching Culpeper, in a movement against Gordonsville; but in the region he had the ever-alert Stuart to deal with, in spite of the flanking column which Hooker had intervened between Lee and his Confederate cavalry. Stuart was, nevertheless, directed to be watchful of all movements, and especially to keep an eye on, and seek to resist, the advance of a Federal column which was known to be crossing the Rapidan at the Germanna Ford. Stuart, on his part, while maintaining a hot skirmishing fire on the vanguard of the Germanna column, ordered W. H. P. Lee with a couple of regiments to oppose Stoneman’s operations at Gordonsville, and himself joined Lee, on the 30th of April, after cutting his way through the Federal cavalry and riding on by way of Ford’s Tavern. Hooker’s army had meantime massed itself at Chancellorsville, 50,000 strong, and got his 12,000 horse in rear of Lee, threatening the latter’s communications. On Lee’s right, Sedgwick’s command of 40,000, had, moreover, crossed the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg and menaced the Confederate right wing. Here, however, Early’s division of Jackson’s command, with the corps of Anderson and McLaws, looked after Sedgwick; while they also prepared to co-operate against Hooker, who, with Sykes’s, Sickles’, and Slocum’s brigades had taken up a fortified position extending between the Plank Road and the Old Turnpike Road, surrounded by a dense forest, with a tangled mass of under-growth. At this time, Hooker had quite 75,000 men in the vicinity of Chancellorsville; but both Lee and Jackson were now fast concerting a movement to surprise “the Feds,” which was presently executed by “Stonewall,” with his accustomed vigor and daring. This was a movement across Hooker’s front to get upon his right flank, and there fall on Howard’s 11th Federal corps; while Lee was to mask the operation by a fierce onslaught on Hooker’s center and left. Jackson’s furtive march was, however, discovered by the Union general. Sickles, as it filed past the Wellford furnace, but before it could be seen what design “Stonewall” had in making it. The cry was at once mistakenly raised by the Federal army, that Lee’s entire command was attempting a retreat towards Richmond. Taking advantage of the false inference and the Federal pursuit of Jackson, Lee directed Anderson’s guns to face about and open fire upon Sickles and prepared an onslaught upon Hooker’s right; while the latter’s center went astray in the wilderness in its effort to pursue Jackson, the purpose of whose movement the Federal army had entirely misconceived.

The day before Jackson made his move upon Hooker’s left (May 2), a spirited dash was made by Hooker to secure and occupy an elevated plateau, held at this time by a weak corps under the Confederate general, Anderson, which commanded the Federal position at Chancellorsville. This ridge Lee was most anxious to retain, but it was captured by a portion of Hooker’s army. Just as it was taken from Anderson’s command, Jackson arrived with portions of several brigades, and, seeing the Confederate commander’s plight in having to abandon it, he daringly pressed forward and retook it; while Hooker, now aware that Lee’s army was not in retreat, recalled his force and fell back upon his main position around Chancellorsville, where he rapidly set to work to fortify himself. Here, on his right and left, the Confederates partly enveloped him; while Sedgwick, off at Fredericksburg, had Early’s divisions to look after him, in front of the city, and between it and the bend of the Rappahannock at Bank’s Ford. On May 2nd, Lee now began to maneuver with a varied play of attack upon Hooker’s center, to draw his attention from Jackson’s movement directed against the Federal left, and especially upon Howard’s 11th corps, which formerly had been Sigel’s. It was six o’clock in the evening when the first shots were fired on Hooker’s left flank, and, two hours later, Jackson had succeeded in driving the 11th corps back upon the 12th, which formed the center of Hooker’s position.

The incidents of this achievement of Jackson are of so thrilling a character, and, unhappily, so calamitous in their consequences personally to the redoubtable “Stonewall,” as well as to the Southern cause in general, that we are here tempted to give a fuller record of them from a contemporary narrative, that of Mr. James D, McCabe, jr., in his interesting work on the “Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee.” “General Jackson,” writes Mr. McCabe, “led his troops in person. Those who saw him declare that he seemed carried away by the excitement of the moment. He leaned forward on his horse, extending his arm far in front, as though he wished to push the men forward, and his voice was heard exclaiming: ‘Press forward! press forward!’ every few minutes during the entire attack. When not thus mastered by the ardor of battle, his right hand was raised aloft with that gesture now familiar to his men, as though he were praying to the God of battles for victory. . . .

“By eight o’clock the advance had been pressed to within half a mile of Hooker’s headquarters, when, in the darkness, the Southern line became entangled in the heavy abatis of felled trees with which Hooker had fringed the works around Chancellorsville. Rodes’ and Colston’s men became mingled in the greatest confusion, so that it was impossible for either officer to distinguish his command. To remedy this the troops were halted, Rodes was directed to fall back and re-form his men, and A. P. Hill’s division was placed in front in the room of the troops thus withdrawn. As the line halted, the Federal batteries opened from the cleared ground around Chancellorsville, which about this time presented a scene of the wildest confusion.

“The panic-stricken soldiers of the 11th corps rushed back upon their center as Jackson’s infantry swept down them. As the terror spread, men, horses, cannon, wagons, and ambulances became mingled in one frightful mass, which sped across the clearing around Chancellorsville with the force of a whirlwind—all aiming straight for the Rappahannock. Officers tried in vain, by threats, entreaties and blows, to stay the fugitives. They were deaf to everything. For a moment it seemed that the career of Hooker’s army was ended, but just at this time the Southern advance was checked by the accident I have mentioned. But for this, Jackson would have slept that night at Chancellorsville, and his valuable life would have been spared to the country.

“Hooker was quick to take advantage of the pause. Opening with every gun he could collect at the moment, twenty-two in all, upon the woods held by the Confederates, he endeavored to form his troops to resist the attack. Leading his old division forward in person, he became for the moment once more the impetuous soldier that had won such admiration even from his enemies. He posted this division at the edge of the clearing, directly in Jackson’s front, and awaited a renewal of the attack. Fresh artillery was brought up, and fifty pieces were soon sweeping the woods with an iron hail.

“It was ten o’clock, and the moon had risen, lighting up the woods with a ghostly glimmer which paled before the fierce glare of the cannonade. Late as it was, Jackson determined to renew the attack and get possession of the road to the United States Ford. As his troops were forming for the assault, he became so anxious to ascertain the exact state of affairs in his front, that he rode forward to reconnoiter, giving orders to his men not to fire, unless cavalry approached from the direction of the enemy. He was accompanied by two of his staff, about half a dozen couriers, and two men of the signal corps.

“Unfortunately, although the enemy were scarcely more than two hundred yards distant, no pickets had been established, and General Jackson found himself considerably beyond his lines, with nothing between him and the enemy. Had this important duty been performed, the sad results of this reconnaissance would have been avoided.

“As he finished his inspection, General Jackson directed one of his staff to go back and order General A. P. Hill to advance. As he rode back to his lines, without giving any warning to his men, who had been ordered to look out for Federal cavalry, he was fired upon by a brigade of his own troops, and severely wounded, twice in the left arm, and once in the right hand. His whole escort, with the exception of two persons, were killed, wounded, or dismounted.

“The scene which ensued was agonizing beyond description. General Jackson was assisted from his horse by the survivors of the fatal volley, almost too weak from loss of blood to stand, and tenderly laid in the shelter of the trees by the roadside. A messenger was dispatched for a surgeon and an ambulance, but before these arrived General Hill, who had also been exposed to the fire, came up, having succeeded in checking it. He was made acquainted with the calamity that had befallen the army, and instructed to assume the command of the corps. In a few minutes General Hill repaired to his post, and shortly afterwards it was reported that the enemy were advancing, and were within only one hundred yards of the spot where the wounded General lay. An effort was now made to assist him back to his lines, and, supported by two of his officers, one of whom had just come up, he walked slowly back, under a fearful fire of artillery, which was suddenly opened from the enemy’s batteries. On the way he passed his troops, who were in motion to check the advance of the enemy, and every effort was made to prevent the men from learning who he was. His escort of officers, however, excited the curiosity of the troops, who repeatedly asked who was wounded. The answer was, invariably, a Confederate officer, but one of his old veterans recognized him, as he walked bareheaded in the moonlight, and, with a cry of anguish, exclaimed: ‘Great God; that is General Jackson!’

“During this time Jackson had not been able to drag himself twenty steps. He was so exhausted that his officers procured a litter for him, but had not gone far before their path was swept by a shower of grape and canister from the Federal batteries. One of the litter-bearers was shot through both arms, and the litter was placed on the ground. For several minutes the firing was terrific, forcing the entire party to throw themselves down on the ground for safety. As soon as the fire of canister veered around, another effort was made to convey the General to a place of safety, and at last he was placed in an ambulance and conveyed to Melzi Chancellor’s house, where he received surgical attention.

“The firing to which General Jackson had been exposed did great execution in the Southern ranks, wounding, among others. General A. P. Hill, who was compelled to relinquish the command of the corps to General Stuart, who was called away from his cavalry for this purpose. Nothing further occurred during the night, which was passed by both armies in preparing for a renewal of the battle the next day.”

Lee was apprised of Jackson’s victory and of the severe wounds he had received at the same instant, and his comment on both was to the effect that “any victory is a dear one that deprives us of the services of Jackson, even for a short time.” Writing personally to his able and loved lieutenant, the Southern commander-in-chief congratulates him on the skill and energy that had won another triumph for the army and their common country. On the occasion, he feelingly adds that, “could I have directed events, I should have chosen, for the good of the country, to have been disabled in your stead.” Jackson’s wounds, unhappily as it turned out, were so grievous that his left arm had to be amputated, and the operation, though borne with his accustomed hardihood, as well as with his wonted Christian resignation, presently proved fatal, his noble life ending a week later, on the afternoon of Sunday, May the 10th. News of Jackson’s death brought woe and lamentation to all ranks of the Confederate army, but no one felt the sorrowful tidings more keenly than did his closest friend and affectionate commander-in-chief, R. E. Lee, who best knew not only the high military genius of his comrade-in-arms, but his great moral worth. Sore, indeed, was the blow to him, for he knew there was no one that could replace Jackson, as, alas! he was soon ruefully to find on the next great battlefield of the war—that of Gettysburg.

Aroused to more than his usual combativeness by what had happened to Jackson, Lee was early astir on the morning of May 3rd, with the purpose of renewing the attack on Hooker’s lines around Chancellorsville. The Federal commander had succeeded during the night in restoring his command to some condition of order and fighting strength, and thus was able to resist Lee’s furious attack on him for some hours; but by ten o’clock the Federals once more became restive and uneasy at the repeated Confederate onslaught, and part of them began to yield and finally to retreat along the road leading towards the Rappahannock and the United States ford across it. Meanwhile, conflict broke out on another section of the field, that around Early’s command in front of Fredericksburg, which was hemming in Sedgwick’s Federal divisions in that quarter. Hooker, in his plight, had instructed his subordinate to attack and press Early vigorously and then come to his assistance at Chancellorsville. This Sedgwick was able to do, in consequence of Early’s command having been weakened on the previous day by the withdrawal from him of McLaws’ and Anderson’s corps. Early was attacked in force on Marye’s Height, and compelled to fall back, and Lee, hearing of this, ordered Wilcox, who was at Bank’s Ford, watching the crossings of the Rappahannock, to intercept and retard Sedgwick’s advance until he could send McLaws and Anderson to his assistance. This was done, and the Federal advance upon Chancellorsville was stayed and in time repulsed. On the following day (May 4), the battle was renewed and hotly fought all day, finally going against Sedgwick, who saved himself and his command by flight across the Rappahannock over night. On the 5th, the coup de grace was now about to be given to the force it was believed Hooker still had behind his defenses at Chancellorsville; but when Lee moved to attack him it was discovered that the enemy had fled, under cover of a dark and stormy night, crossing the Rappahannock at the United States Ford, and thus leaving the hard-won field in the possession of the Confederates. The Federal casualties at Chancellorsville, in killed, wounded, and captured, amounted to 17,197; while the entire Confederate loss was some four thousand less. The latter’s loss, however, consisted of the flower of Lee’s fast-depleting army, including General Paxton, of the “Stonewall” brigade, and its great chieftain, the valiant Christian soldier, General T. J. Jackson. The enemy had left on the field, besides his many dead, 20,000 stand of arms, 30,000 knapsacks, together with over a dozen heavy guns, which became welcome Southern spoil.

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