Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 25

Camp-Fires of General Lee


GENERAL JACKSON had fallen in battle, as may be said, but the hurrying rush of the furious strife could not be checked or stayed therefor. Stuart, his successor, made his dispositions to renew the battle at daylight, forming the corps in three lines, Hill’s division being the first, Colston’s the second and Rodes’s the third.

On the Federal side the savage doubling up of Hooker’s right by Jackson rendered necessary several important changes in the line. Accordingly, a new front was formed on that flank with Sickles and Berry. Reynolds’s corps had arrived from below Fredericksburg, and greatly added to the spirit of the army. There was no talk of retreating, and the struggle on the morrow, therefore, was certain to assume a tremendous and decisive character. Sedgwick was below Fredericksburg with the Sixth Corps, numbering twenty-two thousand men. General Hooker sent orders to him to occupy the town, seize the heights, move to the plank-road connecting that place with Chancellorsville and join the main body by daylight the following morning.

At early dawn General Stuart opened his attack on the Federal lines, scarcely a half mile distant. Their war-cry was “Charge, and remember Jackson!” Sweeping resistlessly forward, they quickly occupied the ridge of which mention has been made, and, bringing up thirty pieces of cannon, turned them upon their adversaries. The Federals resisted bravely and assailed Stuart’s left with great vigor. For a time it looked as if they could not be checked, but at last they fell back. Meanwhile, General Lee was pressing the Federal left and centre with the divisions of Anderson and McLaws, slowly forging to the right to unite with the Second Corps. Anderson’s division was on his left, and, pushing forward, it gradually formed a connection with Stuart at the moment the latter had repulsed the attack on his left. The Confederate army was now reunited, and General Lee gave the command to storm the Federal works around Chancellorsville. The assault was made with fiery energy, and after a savage struggle the works were captured; but the Federals rallied, and with the same splendid valor drove out the Confederates. Again was the position taken, and again lost. The flame of battle surged back and forth, until, on the fourth charge, when the dead bodies were so thick that the feet of the combatants could not touch the ground, the works were secured, and at ten o’clock the Confederate flag floated over Chancellorsville.

The scene at that time was horrible beyond description. The woods, which were fall of wounded, had been set on fire by the shells and the blazing building, and hundreds of poor fellows were burning to death; many more than is suspected perished in this awful manner. The shouts of combatants, the shrieks of those caught in the roaring flames, the heavy discharge of artillery and the crash and rattle of musketry gave to the picture a terrible grandeur such as must haunt all the participants therein to their last hour.

It is hard to find a satisfactory explanation of Hooker’s course at Chancellorsville, where, it is said, he went in with the stride of a giant and came out with the step of a dwarf. His combinations and plans were excellent, in a military sense, and ought to have ensured success even against such a masterly leader as Lee, whose army numbered less than one-half as many as that of the Federals, while at the beginning of the battle he was placed at great disadvantage as respects position. We are inclined to believe that the true explanation was given by a Federal soldier, which is to the effect that when Hooker was awakened from his exultant dream that Lee would not dare give him battle the Federal commander was scared into a perfect collapse of terror. The knowledge that Lee meant fight, and the fiery disruption of Jackson on his flank, drove all courage from him, and his only thought and hope was to get beyond reach of the impetuous Confederates and their fearless leaders.

As if convinced that defeat awaited him, General Hooker had caused a strongly-entrenched line to be constructed in the rear of his first position, so as to cover the United States Ford. It had the form of a redan thrown forward in the angle between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, and was very strong. The corps of Meade and Reynolds, incredible as it may seem, had been held idle during the struggle of the morning, and they were now formed within it; there for the time the disorganized fragments of the rest of the army found temporary shelter. But, strong as it was, General Lee resolved to attack it; the fire of battle possessed him and his men, and they meant that the Federal army should not escape them again. But at the moment the mailed hand was raised to smite, an alarming sound from the direction of Fredericksburg caught his ear. With his hand still aloft, the warrior listened: the ominous rumble was the tramp of Sedgwick’s legions, who, having vanquished Early at Fredericksburg, were advancing to assail him in the rear.

It will be recalled that Hooker had ordered Sedgwick to attack Early at Fredericksburg Heights, and then to hasten to his assistance. These orders reached Sedgwick about midnight, and he immediately put his column in motion. The town was occupied before daylight Sunday morning, a small Confederate force being driven back. It was not yet light when a detachment was sent to seize the heights occupied by Early. The assault was repulsed, when Gibbons’s division of Couch’s corps, which was opposite Falmouth, was ordered to join the assailants. Early had under him his own division and Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians, of McLaws’s division. This force was attacked by more than three times its number. Before the overwhelming onslaught, the defenders could not sustain themselves: they were driven back, and ere noon the entire Confederate force was killed, captured or dispersed. Unable to stay the resistless torrent, the Confederates retreated over the Telegraph road southward, and General Sedgwick, as instructed by his chief, immediately advanced up the turnpike toward Chancellorsville for the purpose of attacking Lee in the rear. It was this intelligence which arrested Lee when on the very point of storming the Federal works at Chancellorsville.

With that intuitive grasp of all the possibilities which often flashed upon Lee like an inspiration, he determined not to await the arrival of Sedgwick, but to send a force large enough to defeat him. Nine times out of ten such a division of his army in front of an enemy much his superior numerically would have resulted in disaster, but this occasion may be called the “tenth.” Sedgwick was a skilful and brave general with more than twenty thousand men flushed with victory; Hooker was cowed, beaten and paralyzed. Nothing was to be feared from him: everything was to be dreaded from the detachment hurrying along the plank-road. And then and there, in front of the Federal host, General Lee detached five brigades from his little army and sent them back to give battle to Sedgwick. To this force it was expected that Early’s troops would be added, while General Wilcox, who had been sent to guard Banks’s Ford, was already in motion to dispute the Federal advance. When the brigades sent by Lee had united with General Wilcox, they immediately formed in line of battle, which opened at four o’clock and lasted until dark. Sedgwick was effectually checked, and made no effort to advance farther that day.

When he left Fredericksburg, Early returned and took possession of the heights, thus placing himself in the rear of Sedgwick and enabling him to prevent him recrossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. Lee resolved to crush Sedgwick and then to turn and assail Hooker, in accordance with his original plan. With this purpose, he assumed personal command of three brigades of Anderson’s division and on Monday morning marched to Salem Church, where he proceeded to form his line of battle. Unexpected delays prevented the attack until late in the afternoon, when a general advance was made upon Sedgwick with the purpose of cutting off his retreat by way of the river. But the Federals resisted with such stubbornness and bravery that Lee was foiled. They held their ground until dark, when they were so hard pressed that they began slowly falling back. They retreated in good order to Banks’s Ford, where a ponton-bridge had been laid, and over which in the gathering gloom of night the Federals effected a safe passage to the other shore.

Having disposed in this decisive fashion of Sedgwick, Lee returned to finish Hooker, but that leader had improved the hours of grace unexpectedly given him; and when, on Wednesday morning, everything was ready for the grand assault, the Federal works were found deserted. General Hooker and his army had recrossed the river, covering the ponton-bridge with pine-boughs, so as to muffle the sound of the artillery-wheels.

The Confederate loss at Chancellorsville aggregated ten thousand two hundred and eighty-one; the Union loss was seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-seven killed, wounded and missing. Besides the killed and wounded left behind, fourteen pieces of artillery and twenty thousand stand of arms fell into the hands of the Confederates. For them the victory was the grandest of the war. They had disastrously beaten an army of more than double their numbers, and the generalship displayed by General Lee was of the most remarkable character. It was fitting that the noontide of Stonewall Jackson’s life should be crowned by one of the most daring, brilliant and decisive exploits recorded in history.

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