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Turning the wrong direction on purpose
Date published: Sat, 06/22/2002
Part 16 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsrville
WHEN INQUISITIVE Feder-
als under Gen. Daniel Sick-
les captured Col. Emory F. Best's Georgian rearguard not far south of Catharine Furnace, they bid fair to turn Confederate plans into a snarled tangle. Pushing south and then west in pursuit of the column led by Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson would turn the troop configurations into a sort of military club sandwich. Confederates marching on a supposedly secret route would have Federalists marching right behind them. In rear of those Yankees, more Confederates stood near where Jackson had started, with still more Northerners to their north and northwest. Such chaos would hardly bode well for a Southern plan that hinged on secrecy, daring, brisk marching, and firm execution.
Fortunately for Jackson, some officers near the tail of his column took it upon themselves to resolve the problem. Stonewall looked askance at initiative among subordinates. His stern world view made the general rigidly hierarchical in both directions: He always did precisely what superior officers ordered him to do, and expected similar rote adherence from those who answered to him. In the aftermath of the March 1862 Battle of Kernstown, Jackson had savaged Gen. Richard B. Garnett for exercising his judgment at a crucial moment, when it seemed obvious to Garnett that old orders had become outmoded and no longer relevant. Everyone in the army knew of that incident, and of others like it.
Free-lancing was dangerous behavior in Jackson's corps, but Gen. James J. Archer of Maryland grasped the nettle when it was thrust upon him. Word of the threat to the rearguard prompted Archer to turn around his own and another brigade and hurry back. By the time he reached the point of crisis near the railroad, two captains had spun around on their own volition and provided a barrier to Sickles' farther advance. Capts. George Lemmon and William S. Moore spread a thin screen of Tennessee infantry at the northern base of the ridge that rises to the site of the Wellford House. The high ground around the house provided good positions for a battalion of Confederate artillery led by Col. J. Thompson Brown, a 28-year-old lawyer from Charlottesville who would be killed a year later in this same Wilderness.
Col. Brown and his infantry helpers played a crucial role for perhaps two hours. They obviously needed to keep the Federals from following Jackson. Equally importantly, they must hold open the back door to Jackson's route for the artillery and wagon trains that had detoured around the Catharine Furnace hot spot.
Evelina Wellford had spent the morning in the house and yard, taking breakfast with Gen. Jeb Stuart and his staff. Stonewall Jackson stopped briefly: "glad I saw him," Evelina wrote a few days later in a letter to her sister. The column marching on "that grand flank movement" included many of the young woman's friends. Joy turned to terror when "the Yankees planted their cannon on the Furnace hill[and] brought on a battle at this very spot." The civilians dashed into nearby woods to escape. "The shells came whizzing by, burstingnear us, andour feelings were not of the most comfortable kind."
The Wellford civilians wandered bewildered "through thicket and marsh" until they came upon an isolated house away from the military turmoil and spent the night there. Meanwhile, their house and yard and hilltop had served as an ideal ready-made defensive point for Brown and Lemmon and Moore. (The large brick Wellford House stood, abandoned, on the west side of Jackson's route--what the National Park Service now calls Jackson Trail East--well into living memory. Residents of the neighborhood carried away the reusable bricks soon after World War II.) Col. Brown's artillery lashed the low ground toward Catharine Furnace with canister and explosive shells. No Yankees would follow Jackson farther.
Long before trouble began and ended at the tail of his column, and entirely oblivious of it, Stonewall Jackson had led his troops away from their goal, apparently in the wrong direction. The wagon roads he followed south from the furnace angled southwest beyond the Wellford House for a mile or so. Then they turned due west to an intersection with the Brock Road (modern State Route 613). That road provided the only major north-south corridor headed toward the dangling enemy flank. Jackson would have to go north on the Brock Road. When he reached it, though, he turned south.
Military maxims--in fact, adages of every sort--usually sound patently obvious once enunciated. One attributed to Stonewall Jackson runs: "Always mislead, mystify, and confuse your enemy." Well, of course that's a desirable result! Jackson's intense commitment to secrecy often perplexed his friends, in the process of confounding his foes. Turning the wrong way on the Brock Road certainly fit the general's style. It must have been designed to mislead and mystify anyone watching with hostile intent. Stonewall characteristically never said, and there is no evidence that any observant Federal noticed.
After marching only a few hundred yards south on the Brock Road, across two intervening ridge lines, the head of the column swung right, back onto woods roads. The Southern soldiers' course swerved northwest and then north. Two and one-half miles after they left the Brock Road, the leading ranks came back to it, much farther north. Did the deviation from a shorter, more obvious, route pay off? No proof survives; no Yankee mentioned watching that unused stretch of road that Jackson avoided; no Confederate sighted a specific lurking threat. The march retained its secrecy, though, and would surprise a whole corps of enemy infantry farther north. Jackson's customary caution may well have been worth the effort, though within a few hours he would be longing for more daylight to reap the fruits of the surprise attack at the end of the march.
One mile after they turned off the Brock Road, dusty, thirsty, weary Confederates found a delightful treat in their path: drinkable water. The Wilderness abounded with wet spots, and still does. However, the murky, fetid, stagnant water in the marshy bottoms is just about as far from potable as any liquid found in nature. Copperheads seem to appreciate it; scrawny, unwholesome vegetables grow in it; humans must not drink it, and few are tempted.
Poplar Run, however, bisected Jackson's route with some downhill momentum, heading east. Cars following the flank march still splash through a rocky ford today. The U.S. Army, improving the road a bit in the 1930s to accommodate tourists' automobiles, resisted the urge to throw a bridge across a stream that remains almost always fordable (no matter what make the vehicle).
The ford on Poplar Run lies almost precisely halfway along the route of Jackson's secret march. The sturdy infantry whose rapid marches had earned them the nom de guerre "Jackson's Foot Cavalry" had fallen into poor condition during the winter. Desuetude had robbed their limbs of endurance. Wretched rations, of inadequate volume, had brought on scurvy and night blindness and other symptoms of vitamin deprivation. Men who had in 1862 covered twice the distance expected on May 2, 1863, struggled to keep up. Officers noticed veterans collapsing by the roadside on this relatively short march; some even reported deaths from exertion.
Drinkable water must have looked to the marchers as delicious as a Saharan oasis to a lost American soldier in North Africa in 1942. The first drinkers soon stirred up mud in the streambed, and subsequent ranks had to push farther and farther upstream to find the fresh water they so much wanted. For some of the thirsty lads, the lusty gulps from Poplar Run would be their last drinks.
Next week: "I hope as soon as practicable to attack"
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.