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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Fighting near Catharine Furnace

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 06/15/2002

Part 15 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

Battle of Chancellorsville occu-
pied most of the daylight hours of May 2, 1863. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's long column disappeared into the woods about 8 a.m., marched for hours and covered about a dozen miles, and launched a major attack in the early evening about 10 hours after the march began.

Barely a mile into the march, perhaps a half hour after it started, Jackson's column ran into a worrisome difficulty. On a high crest near a country house, the Furnace Road ran through a narrow gap in the Wilderness thickets. "The Brick House," as maps styled it, had been the birthplace in 1806 of the renowned scientist and naval innovator, Matthew Fontaine Maury. The clearing around the house made Jackson's column visible from Federal positions to the north, including the high ground at Hazel Grove. (Today, unfortunately, the gap in the thickets has grown nearly shut, and visitors no longer have a chance to imagine the column's exposure.)

A young New York soldier positioned at Hazel Grove wrote: "Near us were some tall pine trees. One of our boys who had been a sailor climbed to the top of one of them, from there he could see a wide stretch of country toward the south. He saw on a road some two miles away a large body of troops going in a southwesterly direction." The agile soldier reported his find to division headquarters. His mates wondered if the Confederates were retreating toward Orange Court House.

Northern artillery began to shoot at the enticing target, at a range long enough that only the rifled pieces could participate. Southerners, of course, scurried rapidly past the danger point, finding shelter in the densely wooded low ground farther west.

Artillery fire at such range could pose nothing more than a nuisance. A far greater threat to the Southern column developed when Federal infantry lunged southward--not toward the "brick house" opening, but in the direction of Catharine Furnace, one mile farther into Jackson's prospective route.

The architect and leader of the Federal probe toward the furnace brought to his task a checkered past. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles had carved out a political career in New York, but was more widely renowned for his venture as a pistoleer and assassin. In 1860, Congressman Sickles discovered that his wife was indulging in a passionate affair with Philip Barton Key, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and a son of Francis Scott Key of anthem fame.

Sickles loaded a couple of pistols, tracked down Key in Lafayette Square, not far from the White House, and murdered him. In doing the deed, Sickles methodically reloaded for additional volleys. Despite the deliberate nature of the crime, lawyers (among them the grim-visaged radical Edwin M. Stanton, destined to be Secretary of War) got Sickles off on the premise of temporary insanity. Popular lore insists that Sickles' was the first successful deployment of that now-popular expedient.

At Chancellorsville, a few dozen months after his foray into assassination, Dan Sickles wore the stars of a major general, United States Army. His political posture pleased the new powers in Washington, ensuring a sort of antinomian immunity to ordinary values. It was that kind of era in the United States.

Sickles' moment closest to center stage during the war came two months to the day after his foray to Catharine Furnace. May 2, 1863, served for Dan Sickles as an incubator for July 2, 1863. On that later day he pushed, without orders, far in front of his army's main line at Gettysburg, to the vicinity of a famous Peach Orchard. The efficacy of that action remains much debated. Sickles, with characteristic immodesty, and notable imprecision, insisted that it saved the Union.

On May 2, Gen. Sickles surely did the right thing by attempting to find out what all the marching Confederates might be up to. By the time Sickles' infantry felt their way to the vicinity of Catharine Furnace, noon had passed and many of Jackson's brigades had marched past. The rest slipped by under protection of a screen of Georgian troops thrown out to hold back pursuit.

Federals probing the thickets near the furnace included a unit known as Berdan's Sharpshooters. Most Civil War-era "sharpshooters" actually performed as skirmishers, not as long-range riflemen. Berdan's men, though, really were specially trained marksmen. They and their comrades gradually gained control of the woods around the furnace in what some called "The Battle of the Cedars."

Family lore passed down through the decades records an unusual interlude in the mayhem. A Mrs. Monroe, the pregnant wife of a Confederate soldier, went into labor in the midst of the contending armies near the furnace on May 2. A friendly Southern lieutenant named Morgan assigned a half-dozen men with white flags to circle the emergency maternity ward during the battle. The baby's gender is not on record (the tradition grows faint), but its grateful mother named the child Morgan Lieutenant Monroe.

Once Sickles took possession of the environs of the furnace, Jackson's original route had been ruptured. All of the Southern infantry had passed the pressure point, but the wagon trains and much artillery remained. Fortunately for the Confederate marchers, the first long leg of their advance described an elongated right angle, with Catharine Furnace at its apex. Flexibly, out of necessity, the Southerners adjusted. Instead of pressing west for two miles to the furnace, then south for a similar distance, the later portions of Jackson's column turned south before the furnace. Then they headed west through the woods, to rejoin the original route at a different point. That westward corridor almost surely again employed the unfinished railroad (though there is no firm evidence to that effect). The detour made up, in essence, the other two sides of a rectangle.

A few hundred Georgians paid the primary price for holding back Sickles near the furnace. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, commanding the leading division on the march, designated the 23rd Georgia to provide a screen to protect that vulnerable point against interlopers. Col. Emory F. Best, commanding the 23rd, had been wounded and captured at Sharpsburg the preceding fall. Despite his rank and prior experience, Best remained a tentative and uncertain youngster. He had only turned 23 years of age a few weeks earlier. Some of his men testified bitterly about their colonel's behavior, going so far as to allege cowardice.

The Georgians eventually retreated southward from the furnace and made a stand in the bed of the unfinished railroad. More than 250 of them fell into enemy hands there. They had done their difficult duty reasonably well. Emory Best made the mistake of escaping the trap, which made him again look like a shirker. A court martial cashiered the young colonel. Political influence (Best had studied law before the war under a Confederate congressman) eventually persuaded Confederate President Jefferson Davis to overturn the sentence, but Best never returned to his unhappy regiment.

Col. Best, eminently appropriately, parlayed his Civil War credentials into a career as a lawyer and bureaucrat in Washington. The colorful saga of Dan Sickles reached the end of its military phase at Gettysburg, where he lost a leg. Soon after the war he became minister to Spain, where his familiarity with the boudoir of that country's queen earned him the working title, "The Yankee King of Spain."

Next week: Turning the wrong direction on purpose

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.