An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
Charles Marshall

VIII
CHANCELLORSVILLE

AS among Colonel Marshall’s papers there is nothing dealing specifically with the campaigns of Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville except the drafts of Lee’s dispatches, the editor must again intervene. But about Chancellorsville Marshall made a statement which is of peculiar interest, and adds the final piece of evidence which should settle a question long discussed. Among soldiers generally there has been very little doubt as to whom the credit for Chancellorsville is due. Lee was in command and on the spot, the responsibility was his, the blame for failure would have fallen on him, and therefore his must be the reward of victory. But the public is always curious to trace the origin of a great idea. Browning’s “Who fished the murex up?” is a question it is eager to have answered; and till to-day there has been some doubt as to whether Lee or Jackson first devised the bold scheme for turning Hooker’s right. The doubt arose in Lee’s lifetime, and was given some currency by Dabney, the author of the Life of Stonewall Jackson. Mrs. Jackson wrote to Lee on the subject, and he replied:—

LEXINGTON, VA. 25th January, 1866

MY DEAR MRS. JACKSON,

Dr. Brown handed me your note of the 9th, when in Richmond on business connected with Washington College. I have delayed replying since my return, hoping to have sufficient time to comply with your request. Last night I received a note from Mrs. Brown, enclosing one from Dr. Dabney, stating that the immediate return of his manuscript was necessary. I have not been able to open it, and when I read it when you were here it was for the pleasure of the narrative, with no view of remark or correction and I took no memoranda of what seemed to be errors. I have not thought of them since, and do not know that I can now recall them; and certainly have no desire that my opinions should be adopted in preference to Dr. Dabney’s. . . .

I am misrepresented at the battle of Chancellorsville in proposing an attack in front, the first evening of our arrival. On the contrary I decided against it and stated to General Jackson, we must attack on our left as soon as practicable; and the necessary movements of the troops began immediately. In consequence of a report received about that time from General Fitz Lee describing the position of the Federal army and the roads which he held with his cavalry leading to its rear, General Jackson after some enquiry concerning the roads leading to the Furnace, undertook to throw his command entirely on Hooker’s rear, which he accomplished with equal skill and boldness; the rest of the army being moved to the left flank to connect with him as he advanced.

Lee’s statement that he told Jackson “We must attack on our left,” would appear conclusive, while his “I decided against it” suggests that Jackson or someone else had proposed an attack in front; but to the minds of critics some doubt still remained as to the originator of the enterprise, because of Lee’s further statement: “General Jackson after some enquiry concerning the roads leading to the Furnace undertook to throw his command entirely on Hooker’s rear.” This would seem to imply that Lee’s proposal was no more than a suggestion and that the responsibility for making the decision rested with Jackson.

Accordingly, General Long, in his Memoirs of R. E. Lee, reopened the question and produced a reply from Lee to the direct question asked by Dr. Blesdoe, whether the flank movement at Chancellorsville originated with Jackson or with himself. Lee’s answer was:—1

DR. A. T. BLESDOE, Office Southern Review, Baltimore, Maryland,

MY DEAR SIR:

In reply to your enquiry, I must acknowledge that I have not read the article on Chancellorsville in the last number of the Southern Review, nor have I read any of the books published on either side since the termination of hostilities. I have as yet felt no desire to revive any recollections of those events, and have been satisfied with the knowledge I possessed of what transpired. I have, however, learned from others that the various authors of the life of Jackson award to him the credit of the success gained by the army of Northern Virginia when he was present, and describe the movements of his corps or command as independent of the general plan of operations and undertaken at his own suggestion and on his own responsibility.

I have the greatest reluctance to do anything that might be considered detracting from his well-deserved fame, for I believe no one was more convinced of his worth or more highly appreciated him than myself; yet your knowledge of military affairs, if you have none of the events themselves, will teach you that this could not have been so. Every movement of an army must be well considered and properly ordered, and everyone who knew General Jackson must know that he was too good a soldier to violate this fundamental principle. In the operations round Chancellorsville I overtook General Jackson, who had been placed in command of the advance, as the skirmishers of the approaching armies met, advanced with the troops to the Federal line of defences, and was on the field until their whole army recrossed the Rappahannock. There is no question as to who was responsible for the operations of the Confederates, or to whom any failure would have been charged.

What I have said is for your information. With my best wishes for the success of the Southern Review and for your own welfare, in both of which I take a lively interest, I am with great respect, your friend and servant,

R. E. LEE

This letter throws no light on the origin of the plan, though it makes it clear that Lee took full responsibility for it—a matter on which there was little or no doubt. This letter from Lee then does not help us to a conclusion.

Next comes the evidence that Henderson gives in his Stonewall Jackson, and this appears to tilt the balance in favor of the conclusion that Jackson conceived the plan and Lee approved of it. Henderson quotes a letter written to himself by Major Hotchkiss of Jackson’s staff:—2

About daylight on May 2 [says Major Hotchkiss], General Jackson awakened me, and requested that I would at once go down to Catherine Furnace, which is quite near, and where a Colonel Welford lived, and ascertain if there was any road by which we could secretly pass round Chancellorsville to the vicinity of Old Wilderness Tavern. I had a map which our engineers had prepared from actual surveys of the surrounding country, showing all the public roads, but with few details of the intermediate topography. Reaching Mr. Welford’s, I aroused him from his bed, and soon learned that he himself had recently opened a road through the woods in that direction for the purpose of hauling cordwood and iron ore to his furnace. This I located on the map, and having asked Mr. Welford if he would act as a guide if it became necessary to march over the road, I returned to headquarters. When I reached those I found Generals Lee and Jackson in conference, each seated on a cracker box, from a pile that had been left there by the Federals the day before.

In response to General Jackson’s request for my report, I put another cracker box between the two generals, on which I spread the map, showed them the road I had ascertained, and indicated, as far as I knew it, the position of the Federal army. General Lee then said, “General Jackson, what do you propose to do?” He replied, “Go round here,” moving his finger over the road I had located on the map. General Lee said, “What do you propose to make this movement with?” “With my whole corps,” was the answer. General Lee then asked, “What will you leave me?” “The divisions of Anderson and McLaws,” said Jackson. General Lee after a moment’s reflection remarked, “Well, go on,” and then, pencil in hand, gave his last instructions. Jackson with an eager smile on his face, from time to time nodded assent, and when the Commander-in-Chief ended with the words, “General Stuart will cover your movements with his cavalry,” he rose and saluted, saying, “My troops will move at once, sir.”

Lee’s question, “General Jackson, what do you propose to do?” and Jackson’s answer, “Go round here,” appear to indicate that the idea was Jackson’s; but there really is nothing in the reported conversation of the two generals incompatible with the supposition that Lee had given Jackson orders for the march round Hooker’s flank and that Jackson was awaiting the result of the reconnaissance of his staff to decide on the exact route which he would take.

Major T. M. R. Talcott of Lee’s staff was also directed by his general to make a reconnaissance and appears to have returned about the same time as Major Hotchkiss, for he gives a very different account of what is clearly the same conversation. He says:—3

My recollections of the night before the battle of Chancellorsville are briefly as follows:

About sunset General Jackson sent word to General Lee (by me) that his advance was checked and that the enemy was in force at Chancellorsville. This brought General Lee to the front, and Jackson met him in the south-east angle of the Chancellorsville and Catherine Forge roads.

General Lee asked General Jackson whether he had ascertained the position and strength of the enemy on our left, to which General Jackson replied by stating the result of an attack made by Stuart’s cavalry near Catherine Forge about dusk. The position of the enemy immediately in front was then discussed, and Captain Boswell and myself were sent to make a moonlight reconnaissance, the result of which was reported about 10 P.M., and was not favourable to an attack in front.

At this time Generals Lee and Jackson were together, and Lee, who had a map before him, asked Jackson, “How can we get at these people?“ To which Jackson replied, in effect, “You know best. Show me what to do and we will try to do it.” General Lee looked thoughtfully at the map; then indicated on it and explained the movement he desired General Jackson to make, and closed by saying, “General Stuart will cover your movement with his cavalry.” General Jackson listened attentively, and his face lighted up with a smile while General Lee was speaking. Then rising and touching his cap, he said, “My troops will move at four o’clock.”


LEE AND JACKSON IN CONFERENCE ON THE NIGHT BEFORE CHANCELLORSVILLE

Still it is not possible to form a final conclusion from the varying recollections of two officers of a conversation overheard in circumstances of great stress and anxiety. Each quite naturally and quite honestly gives to his own chief the credit for the plan which brought victory. Mr. Gamaliel Bradford is therefore justified in saying, on the evidence so far produced, that it is “impossible to say where Lee’s conception ended and Jackson’s began.”4

Next we come to the evidence of Jackson himself. In his last moments he said: “Our movement was a great success. I think the most successful military movement of my life. But I expect to receive far more credit for it than I deserve. Most men will think that I planned it all from the first, but it was not so. I simply took advantage of circumstances that were presented to me in the providence of God. I feel that His hand led me—let us give Him the glory.”5

When Jackson said, “Most men will think I planned it all from the first, but it was not so,” did he mean that the plan was Lee’s, or was this an ascription, by a man of exceptional piety, of all his achievements to his Maker?

This is the question which, it seems to me, Colonel Marshall settles conclusively. He says not only that the plan was Lee’s, but that Jackson at first demurred to it as being too hazardous. However, on learning that Lee had decided that a frontal attack on Hooker’s entrenchments in the Wilderness was out of the question, and that a way had been found round Hooker’s flank, Jackson at once accepted Lee’s plan and threw himself with enthusiasm into the task of carrying it through. Marshall adds to this statement an interesting comparison between Jackson and Longstreet. He says that whenever Jackson disagreed with a plan of Lee’s, he said so; but having stated his objection, he always deferred to Lee’s decision and executed his orders with as much zeal and energy as if he had designed the plan himself. Longstreet, on the other hand, when he disagreed with Lee, always maintained that his own plan was best, and to the last moment of action endeavored to get his plan adopted.

We now have Lee’s statement to Mrs. Jackson that he had told her husband that he was opposed to a frontal attack and that the attack must be made by the Confederate left; Talcott’s statement that Jackson said to Lee, “Show me what to do and I will try to do it”; Jackson’s statement: “Most men will think I planned it all from the first but it was not so”; and finally Marshall’s statement that “Jackson was at first opposed to the flank movement.” This accumulation of evidence is decisive, and should settle forever a matter which has been debated for sixty years.

I cannot leave Chancellorsville without giving in full a speech delivered by Marshall in Baltimore on an anniversary of Lee’s death, from which one passage, that describing Lee in the hour of victory, has been freely quoted, but the whole is worthy of preservation:—

“In presenting the Resolutions of the Committee, I cannot refrain from expressing the feelings inspired by the memories that crowd upon my mind, when I reflect that these resolutions are intended to express what General Lee’s soldiers feel towards General Lee. The Committee are fully aware of their inability to do justice to the sentiments that inspire the hearts of those for whom they speak. How can we portray in words the gratitude, the pride, the veneration, the anguish, that now fill the hearts of those who shared his victories and his reverses, his triumphs and his defeats? How can we tell the world what we can only feel ourselves? How can we give expression to the crowding memories called forth by the sad event we are met to deplore?

“We recall him as he appeared in the hour of victory—grand, imposing, awe-inspiring, yet self-forgetful and humble. We recall the great scenes of his triumph when we hailed him victor of many a bloody field, and when, above the paeans of victory, we listened with reverence to his voice as he ascribed “all glory to the Lord of Hosts, from whom all glories are.” We remember that grand magnanimity that never stooped to pluck from the tree of victory those meaner things that grow nearest the earth, but which, with eyes turned to the stars and hands raised towards heaven, gathered the golden fruits of mercy, pity, and holy charity, that ripen on its topmost boughs, beneath the approving smile of the great God of Battles.

“We remember the sublime self-abnegation of Chancellorsville, when in the midst of his victorious legions, who, with the light of battle still in their faces, hailed him conqueror, he thought only of his great lieutenant lying wounded on the field, and transferred to him all the honour of that illustrious day. I will be pardoned, I am sure, for referring to an incident which affords to my mind a most striking illustration of one of the grandest features of his character.

“On the morning of May 3, 1863, as many of you will remember, the final assault was made upon the Federal lines at Chancellorsville. General Lee accompanied the troops in person, and as they emerged from the fierce combat they had waged in the depths of that tangled wilderness, driving the superior forces of the enemy before them across the open ground, he rode into their midst. The scene is one that can never be effaced from the minds of those who witnessed it. The troops were pressing forward with all the ardour and enthusiasm of combat. The white smoke of musketry fringed the front of the line of battle, while the artillery on the hills in the rear of the infantry shook the earth with its thunder, and filled the air with the wild shrieks of the shells that plunged into the masses of the retreating foe. To add greater horror and sublimity to the scene, Chancellor House and the woods surrounding it were wrapped in flames. In the midst of this awful scene, General Lee, mounted upon that horse which we all remember so well, rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His presence was the signal for one of those outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them.

“The fierce soldiers with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, andconfidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient days rose to the dignity of gods.

“His first care was for the wounded of both armies, and he was among the foremost at the burning mansion where some of them lay. But at that moment, when the transports of his victorious troops were drowning the roar of battle with acclamations, a note was brought to him from General Jackson. It was brought to General Lee as he sat on his horse, near the Chancellor House, and, unable to open it with his gauntleted hands, he passed it to me with directions to read it to him. The note made no mention of the wound General Jackson had received, but congratulated General Lee upon the great victory.

“I shall never forget the look of pain and anguish that passed over his face as he listened. With a voice broken with emotion, he bade me say to General Jackson that the victory was his, and that the congratulations were due to him. I know not how others may regard this incident, but to myself, as I gave expression to the thoughts of his exalted mind, I forgot the genius that won the day in my reverence for the generosity that refused its glory.

“There is one other incident to which I beg permission to refer, that I may perfect the picture. On the 3rd day of July, 1863, the last assault of the Confederate troops on the heights of Gettysburg failed, and again General Lee was among the baffled and shattered battalions as they sullenly retired from their brave attempt. The history of that battle is still to be written, and the responsibility for the result is yet to be fixed.

“But there, with the painful consciousness that his plans had been frustrated by others, and that defeat and humiliation had overtaken his army, in the presence of his troops he openly assumed the entire responsibility of the campaign and of the last battle. One word from him would have relieved him of the responsibility, but that word he refused to utter until it could be spoken without fear of doing the least injustice.

“Thus, my fellow soldiers, I have presented to you our great commander in the supreme moments of triumph and defeat. I cannot more strongly illustrate his character. Has it been surpassed in history? Is there another instance of such self-abnegation among men? The man rose high above victory in the one instance, and, harder still, the man rose superior to disaster in the other. It was such incidents as these that gave General Lee the absolute and undoubting confidence and affection of his soldiers.

“Need I speak of the many exhibitions of that confidence? You all remember them, my comrades. Have you not seen a wavering line restored by the magic of his presence? Have you not seen the few forget that they were fighting against the many, because he was among the few?

“But I pass from the contemplation of his greatness in war to look to his example under the oppressive circumstances of final failure—to look to that example which is most useful for us now to refer to for our guidance and instruction. When the attempt to establish the Southern Confederacy had failed, and the event of the war seemed to have established the indivisibility of the Federal Union, General Lee gave his adhesion to the new order of affairs.

“His was no hollow truce; but with that pure faith and honor that marked every act of his illustrious career, he immediately devoted himself to the restoration of peace, harmony, and concord. He entered zealously into the subject of education, believing, as he often declared, that popular education is the only sure foundation of free government. He gave his earnest support to all plans of international improvement designed to bind more firmly together the social and commercial interests of the country; and among the last acts of his life was the effort to secure the construction of a line of railway communication of incalculable importance as a connecting link between the North and the South. He devoted all his great energies to the advancement of the welfare of his countrymen, while shrinking from public notice, and sought to lay deep and strong the foundations of the new fabric of government which it was supposed would arise from the ruins of the old. But I need not repeat to you, my comrades, the history of his life since the war. You have watched it to its close, and you know how faithfully and truly he performed every duty of his position.

“Let us take to heart the lesson of his bright example. Disregarding all that malice may impute to us, with an eye single to the faithful performance of our duties as American citizens, and with the honest and sincere resolution to support with heart and hand the honor, the safety, and the true liberties of our country, let us invoke our fellow-citizens to forget the animosities of the past by the side of this honored grave, and joining hands around this royal corpse, friends now, enemies no more, proclaim perpetual truce to battle.”