Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 22

Camp-Fires of General Lee



WHEN the next bloody drama opened, General Lee and his army occupied the heights to the south of the Rappahannock, from Skenker’s Creek to United States Ford—a distance of twenty-five miles. He had closely guarded all the available crossings of the river, and had so disposed his troops that they could readily be concentrated upon any threatened point.

On the morning of March 16, General Stuart received a despatch from his chief informing him that a column of Federal cavalry was in motion and urging him to be on the watch for it along the Upper Rappahannock. A small force was stationed at. Kelley’s Ford and General Fitz Lee’s brigade was placed in readiness to repel any demonstration. Nevertheless, the pickets were lax, and General Averill and his cavalry easily forced the passage of the river on the following morning and captured the picket-guard. Pushing rapidly forward, they collided with Fitz Lee’s brigade, and a rattling fight opened, and lasted several hours. The losses were severe on both sides, those of the Confederates including the gallant young Major Pelham, who had won such remarkable fame as an artillerist. The Federals were finally compelled to withdraw, and a period of inactivity lasted until about the middle of April. Then, when the roads were in good condition, Hooker put in operation his formidable scheme for the capture of Richmond and the crushing of the “rebellion.”

Briefly stated, the Federal campaign was as follows: Hooker proposed to launch his main army against Lee’s left by crossing it at Kelley’s Ford, twenty-seven miles above Fredericksburg, and passing around his flank to Chancellorsville. The Confederate right was so strongly posted that it was secure. This was to be Hooker’s main movement, he thinking, with the best of reason, that if it succeeded Lee would be compelled to abandon his almost impregnable entrenchments and accept battle on ground chosen by his enemy. With a view of masking his real purpose, Hooker’s plan was to cross the Rappahannock directly opposite Fredericksburg with much flourish, as though his real attack was to be made there. The main column was composed of the Fifth Corps, under Meade; the Eleventh Corps, under Howard; and the Twelfth Corps, under Slocum. They arrived at Kelley’s Ford on the 28th of April, and crossed that night with slight opposition, reaching the Rapidan on the afternoon of the same day. The points were Ely’s and Germanna’s fords, where the water was quite deep and swift. Time was all-important for the Federals, and the men were ordered to strip and wade the stream. They did so, supporting their clothes and cartridge-boxes on their bayonets. The crossing was picturesque and ludicrous in the highest degree. The men were in fine spirits, and they frolicked like so many schoolboys. Many a bundle carefully held aloft received a mischievous jolt which brought it into the water, and all sorts of pranks were played upon one another. In the deepest portion the current reached the armpits of the soldiers, numbers of whom were carried off their feet, but they were “speared” by a cavalry picket below, and the following morning saw the entire force safely over. The artillery and trains crossed by means of the ponton-bridges. This force, it will be borne in mind, was under the immediate charge of Hooker himself. Couch’s Second Corps remained at United States Ford to guard the Rappahannock at that point until Hooker had marched far enough down-stream to uncover it, when it was to cross the river and rejoin him at Chancellorsville. This programme was carried out without break or hindrance, and the four corps bivoucked at Chancellorsville that night, Thursday, April 30, after a long and tedious march. At the same time, Hooker established his headquarters in the hamlet, which consisted of a single large brick house and several outbuildings.

The Federal commander had done excellently well so far: he had placed himself in a position which took in reverse Lee’s entire line, and he had fifty thousand well-equipped and disciplined men under his immediate command, all eager for the fray.

While Hooker was prosecuting this movement Sedgwick was equally busy. Early on the morning of the 29th he threw three bridges across the Rappahannock three miles below Fredericksburg. A strong column passed over during that and the succeeding day and made formidable demonstrations, as though it was the intention to attack the Confederate position in the rear of the town. Lee did not penetrate the meaning of Hooker’s movements until after the crossing of the Rappahannock, on the 29th, though the Confederate leader strongly suspected that an attack was intended on his left.

On the afternoon of April 30, Hooker’s troops reached Chancellorsville. Posey and Mahone’s commands had been withdrawn from Banks’s and Ely’s fords by General Anderson and concentrated at Chancellorsville; General Wright’s brigade also reinforced the Confederate forces shortly after. Then General Anderson fell back from Chancellorsville to Tabernacle Church and awaited Lee, who was calmly studying the development of Hooker’s intentions. Though, as we have said, he suspected the meaning of Sedgwick’s demonstrations, he was too prudent to act upon his suspicion until it became certainty; that certainty was reached on the evening of the 30th, when he learned that Sedgwick was sending troops to Hooker at Chancellorsville. Thereupon, General Jackson was ordered to march at once to Anderson’s support with his entire command, excepting Early’s division, which remained to confront Sedgwick. The order to General Jackson was handed him in the evening, and he set out to obey it about midnight, taking A. P. Hill’s, Rodes’s and Colston’s divisions. He marched steadily until the next morning, when he reached Tabernacle Church.

The single brick house honored with the name of “Chancellorsville” is about ten miles from Fredericksburg, and is in the centre of an almost unbroken expanse of thicket and stunted wood, known by the name of the “Wilderness.” One who is familiar with it says, “There all is wild, desolate and lugubrious. Thicket, undergrowth and jungle stretch for miles, impenetrable and untouched. Narrow roads wind on for ever between melancholy masses of stunted and gnarled oak. Little sunlight shines there; the face of Nature is dreary and sad. It was so before the battle; it is not more cheerful to-day, when, as you ride along, you see fragments of shell, rotting knapsacks, rusty gun-barrels, bleached bones and grinning skulls. Into this jungle General Hooker penetrated. It was the wolf in his den, ready to tear any one who approached. A battle there seemed impossible; neither side could see its antagonist. Artillery could not move; cavalry could not operate; the very infantry had to flatten their bodies to glide between the stunted trees. That an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men should have chosen that spot to fight forty thousand, and not only chosen it, but made it a hundred times more impenetrable by felling trees, erecting breastworks, disposing artillery en masse to sweep every road and bridle-path which led to Chancellorsville,—his fact seems incredible.”

But it was no part of Hooker’s scheme that he should be imprisoned in the Wilderness. He followed the retiring Confederate force in the direction of Fredericksburg until clear through the Wilderness, and, reaching the open country beyond, made his preparations for battle on ground admirably fitted for the handling of a large body of men. Besides, the distance separating Hooker from Sedgwick was shortened one-half and communication between the two rendered easy.

A brief way beyond Chancellorsville, toward Fredericksburg is an elevated ridge which commands the former as well as the region known as the Wilderness, and from which the Federal army could advance into the open country behind Fredericksburg. Hooker could not fail to perceive the priceless value of this elevation to whomsoever could secure it On the morning of the 1st of May he pushed on from Chancellorsville, forcing back Anderson’s command, and thus gaining the ridge. While in the act of doing so Jackson arrived. He instantly hurried the brigades of Ramseur, McGowan, Heth and Lane to Anderson’s assistance, holding the rest in reserve.

Jackson appeared at a most critical moment, but Hooker scarcely waited to identify the Confederate force, when, to the amazement of the other officers, he gave orders to withdraw from the elevation and to take position in the Wilderness. The leaders protested against the movement, impressing upon him the enormous value of the ridge just secured; but all the fight seemed to have been knocked out of Hooker. He had decided to fall back to Chancellorsville, assume the strongest position possible, and there await the attack of Lee. The unquestionably brave Federal leader seemed to have been suddenly stricken with an absolute collapse of all the qualities which had won for him the complimentary sobriquet of “Fighting Joe.” His army withdrew as ordered, and took form in the jungle, which was one of the very worst fighting-grounds that could have been chosen. Jackson, as was to have been expected, immediately occupied the ridge which had been turned over to him very much as a gentleman rises from his chair and bows a lady to it Jackson followed the Federals until under the fire of their works at Chancellorsville. He was too wise with his small force to attack his enemies in their strong position, and he fell back a short distance and awaited the arrival of Lee, who joined him at nightfall with the rest of McLaws’s and Anderson’s divisions.

Hooker’s line of battle ran east and west along the Fredericksburg and Orange Court-House plank-road, with Chancellorsville placed in the middle of a clearing. The line was some five miles in length, reaching from a short distance east of Chancellorsville westward in front of the Orange plank-road for three miles, when the right flank bent sharply back in a defensive crotchet. Meade’s corps (Fifth), with one division of Couch’s (Second), formed the left; Slocum’s corps (Twelfth) and one division of Sickles’s (Third), the centre; and Howard’s (Eleventh), the right. The other divisions were held in reserve. As General Hooker had concluded to fight a defensive battle, trees were felled in front of the line to form abatis and rifle-pits were thrown up, and during the whole night the woods resounded with the strokes of a thousand Confederate axe-men engaged at the same work.*

Bad as was the position in which the Federal commander had placed his army, General Lee himself was in a situation so perilous that all his masterly genius was required to avert disaster and to lead it to another of its many triumphant victories.

He had an army of forty thousand men at Chancellorsville, and General Early, with eight thousand more, held the heights of Fredericksburg. It will be observed, therefore, that the Confederate army was in a very critical position; for should General Hooker and his eighty thousand men at Chancellorsville, and Sedgwick with his thirty thousand men at Fredericksburg, seek to come together, the Confederate army would be crushed between them. Again, if Sedgwick should assail Early at Fredericksburg and drive him from his position (as undoubtedly he could do), it would then be an easy matter for Sedgwick to fall upon Lee’s rear, while Hooker could advance from Chancellorsville, and, between the two Federal columns, the Confederate army was in great danger of being ground to atoms.

What should be done?


* Swinton.

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