Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 23

Camp-Fires of General Lee


IN this desperate situation of the Confederate army Stonewall Jackson submitted a plan to his chief, which the latter accepted and acted upon at once. The proposal was worthy of the great and daring brain which conceived it, and stamped Stonewall Jackson as one of the most brilliant soldiers of his time. It was this: General Lee with the divisions of McLaws and Anderson was to keep Hooker engaged all the next day by threatening demonstrations, while Jackson moved with his corps around the Federal right wing and by a sudden resistless attack doubled it up upon Hooker’s centre, took his line in reverse and shut him off from his line of retreat by way of United States Ford. In accordance with this admirable scheme, General Lee commenced a series of demonstrations the following morning (Saturday, May 2) against the Federal left. He first attacked Couch’s corps, on the left, then Slocum’s, in the centre, slowly and steadily moving to the right until Hooker was fully convinced that he intended to play into his hands by assailing his powerful army in its entrenched position. But all this time Stonewall Jackson and his battle-tried veterans, twenty-two thousand altogether, were executing their splendid flank movement. A requisite to success was that it should be concealed from the Federal army. Jackson had started at an early hour, and a little more than a mile from Chancellorsville he left the plank-road and took the Old Mine road, in the direction of the Furnace, a group of old buildings used for smelting iron, and lying between two and three miles to the right of Chancellorsville.

Just as Jackson and his men reached this point General Sickles discovered the rapidly-moving soldiers, but, as the road dips to the southward near the hill, Sickles made the natural mistake of supposing the Confederates were retreating toward Richmond. He hastily sent forward two divisions to reconnoitre, and, suddenly surrounding the Twenty-fourth Georgia after the passage of the main column, nearly the whole regiment was captured. General Sickles was so certain the Confederates were withdrawing that he telegraphed the result to Hooker, who, equally positive, sent word to Sedgwick: “We know the enemy is flying, trying to save his trains; two of Sickles’s divisions are among them.”

Pleasanton’s cavalry and two brigades of infantry were sent to the help of Sickles, while Jackson was doing his utmost to reach a position from which to deliver his terrible blow. It was difficult to force their way through the broken country, and the road was very narrow for the passage of artillery. Striking the Brock road; Jackson turned into and followed it until he reached the point where it crosses the Orange plank-road, quite near the Federal flank. A moment later General Fitz Lee pointed out a hill from the top of which could be seen the entire Federal position; acting on this suggestion, Jackson quickly grasped the situation. One of his aids was sent to order the column to cross the plank-road, thus gaining the turnpike. This was effected late in the afternoon, and the Federal line was thus completely turned. Without losing a minute, the troops were made ready for action. Rodes’s division was deployed in line of battle to the left of the turnpike, A. P. Hill and Colston following close after with artillery and advancing along the road in column. Jackson had not only determined to strike the Federal flank, but he was resolved on executing a much more important movement, and one of amazing daring: it was to extend his lines to the left, swing round the left wing, and thus interpose himself between Hooker and the Rapidan. The Federal line, against which Jackson made ready to launch his men like so many thunderbolts, reached across the old turnpike, and behind it was a second line, covered by artillery in the earthworks at Chancellorsville. It was Howard’s Eleventh Corps, that was all unconscious of what was coming.

The Federal troop were mostly at supper, when their blood was curdled by the fierce yells which suddenly rent the air, and Jackson and his brave men burst upon them with the resistless fury of a cyclone. The rout was complete and the demoralization indescribable. Rodes and his men with their frightful outcries stormed the works, swarmed like a mountain-torrent over them, and, pressing on, followed by the division in the rear, captured or killed everybody that came within reach. The Federal artillery dashed off, the horses lashed to a dead run, and the guns, bounding against tree-trunks and stumps, were quickly overturned. No such wild panic had been seen during the war, and it was pushed with resistless impetuosity. Colston’s division overtook Rode’s line, and the two leaped into the Federal works together. Colonel Crutchfield, Jackson’s chief of artillery, lost no time in hurrying his batteries to the front and opening a hot fire on the Federal works at Chancellorsville. The infantry pressed steadily onward until the whole Eleventh Corps were flying like chaff in a whirlwind.

Stonewall Jackson was at the head of his men; 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.*

It was near six o’clock in the evening when the assault was made, and it lasted for two hours, during which the Eleventh Corps was forced back on the Twelfth, which held the centre, and Jackson’s advance was within a half mile of Hooker’s headquarters. By this time it had become dark, and the Confederates suddenly found themselves entangled in the abatis of felled trees with which Hooker had bordered his works around Chancellorsville. The confusion became so great that the troops were halted, and Rodes was ordered to fall back and reform his men, while A. P. Hill’s division was stationed in their front. The scene which followed surpassed the wildest flights of delirium. Soldiers, horses, wagons, cannon and ambulances dashed pell-mell across the clearing around Chancellorsville, men and beasts crazed with terror and aiming straight for the Rappahannock, as though intent on plunging in to escape the yelling demons at their heels. Officers shouted, swore, begged, entreated and showered blows upon the frantic fugitives without producing the slightest effect. A person when thoroughly panic-stricken is a raving lunatic, and therefore beyond control. But for the intervening abatis which entangled the pursuing Confederates, the history of Hooker’s army would have ended then and there.

A momentary flash of genius came to the Federal leader. Quick to note the check in the pursuit, he was equally quick to take advantage of it. He opened with his twenty-two guns upon the woods held by the Confederates, and, placing himself at the head of his old division, became the splendid soldier he had shown himself on many a battlefield. The fire of his daring stayed the disorganized masses, and he posted them on the clearing, directly in front of Jackson, and coolly awaited his charge. Fresh artillery were hurried forward, and were soon driving their fiery missiles into the woods which held the Confederates. It was a storm against which it was idle to beat, and the hurricane-like charge of Jackson was stayed.

It was ten o’clock, and the moon was climbing the sky. The dense gloom of the forest was lit up by flashes of fire, and the missiles described flaming curves high in the air overhead, while the crash of musketry, the scream of shells, the boom of cannon, the shrieks of the dying, the frenzied prayers and yells of those who still grappled in the death-combat, made a scene which belongs not to earth, but to Hades.

Soon it was reported that the Federal line was advancing, and A. P. Hill ordered his men forward to check it. They were in motion, when in the uncertain moonlight they saw two officers walking slowly to the rear, supporting between them another, who was wounded. It was evident he was badly hurt, for he leaned heavily upon his friends and was moving slowly and with great pain.

“Who is he? Who is he?” asked the troops as they hurried by, suspecting that he was some distinguished leader who was thus escorted.

“A Confederate officer,” was the invariable reply to these questions, which were repeated every few seconds.

Suddenly an old veteran thought he saw something familiar in the limp, bareheaded figure staggering like a drunken man between the officers. He took two or three steps forward, stopped short, and, peering intently for a moment, exclaimed,

“Great God! that is Stonewall Jackson!”


* Cooke’s Life of Stonewall Jackson.

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