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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Getting ready to attack

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Date published: Sat, 07/06/2002

Part 18 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

IN THE EARLY afternoon of May 2, 1863, Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson jotted a note to army commander Robert E. Lee. Hurry and excitement rendered his penmanship, never graceful, even more awkward and choppy than usual. Based on the distinct evidence he had seen from a nearby hilltop, Jackson told his chief: "The enemy has made a stand at Chancellor's which is about 2 miles from Chancellorsville. I hope as soon as practicable to attack." An optimistic scrawled postscript, signed with the initials "T. J. J.," closed what would be the last correspondence Jackson ever sent to Lee.

Even as Jackson jotted his rushed note, the troops of his corps streamed past the intersection of the Plank and Brock roads, moving steadily northward toward the newly revised target. One and one-half miles north, Brock Road (modern State Route 613) reached a dead end (as it still does) at the Orange Turnpike (modern State Route 3). There the Confederate column would turn right and feel its way eastward toward the exposed flank of the Federal 11th Corps.

The note to Lee eventually reached its destination, though too late to be of any immediate consequence. As the last correspondence between two enormously popular Southern legends, the scrap of paper became a much-copied relic. Carefully rendered facsimiles, produced in Richmond in the 1880s, sold well and graced many Virginian walls.

More than a century later, the facsimiles have bewildered some librarians and collectors. About 20 years ago the Maryland Historical Society issued a proud press release about having found in its archives the original of the Last Message. Only after the news received wide national circulation did someone point out the embarrassing truth that the genuine original reposes at the Virginia State Library.

Recently I received a call from a small town in Montana that serves as headquarters for a famous country-music singer who avidly collects historic Americana. Someone had referred the fellow's business manager to me as an expert on Jackson matters. Did I think that $30,000 was too much to pay for a note written by Stonewall Jackson? Well, it depended on the content and the addressee. What about if it had been written to Robert E. Lee, and was actually Jackson's last message to Lee? In that case, $30,000 would be at least one zero (probably two or three zeroes) too few--but if genuine, the document had to have been stolen in Richmond.

Both the Marylanders and the guitarist had been dazzled by the appearance of a legitimately historic facsimile, an item now 120 years old, but not 140, and produced by a press, not a pen. The facsimiles, which include a printed legend across the bottom unless some charlatan has carefully cut that off, are worth perhaps $75, although Fredericksburg's leading bookman has never had one in stock.

Oblivious to the future worth of his jottings, original or otherwise, Jackson eagerly turned from correspondent to tactician, hurrying to design the details of the attack made possible by his bold march. The "Chancellor's which is about 2 miles from Chancellorsville" was the home of the Rev. Melzi Chancellor, opposite Wilderness Church. Local residents called Chancellor's building "Dowdall's Tavern."

Country Baptists fervently embraced temperance in those days, so the Rev. Chancellor's house name seems ironic. On the other hand, Melzi Chancellor's grandson years ago relayed to me family lore about a Sunday dinner that the reverend ate at a church member's home, in which brandied peaches were served for dessert. When offered a second helping, Melzi said he needed no more peaches, but was willing to have some more of the syrup. The grandson also solved the mystery of the given name "Melzi," unusual in a clan that customarily used two or more family names for any child's given names. Melzi's mother had been reading an Italian novel, whose protagonist was called Melzi, as she carried the infant who would become a preacher.

Dowdall's Tavern survived the war, but burned to the ground in 1869.

West of Dowdall's Tavern and Wilderness Church, beyond where the Federal right flank dangled, heavily wooded high ground gave Jackson a chance to marshal his strength and prepare to attack. Southern cavalry had protected the march, intermittently driving away blue-clad counterparts. As Jackson's column reached its final target, in the woods beyond and behind the enemy, clouds of Confederate cavalry and infantry spread across the front to intercept any curious prowlers. The dense woods, of course, provided invaluable help in protecting the secret. Even so, the success with which Jackson maintained tactical surprise is astounding. Many Federals who fell victim to the onslaught that evening swore--usually under the penetrating glow of hindsight--that they knew something ominous was afoot, but none of them did anything substantive about it.

Confederates who reached the designated front line on the Orange Turnpike swerved out to the right (south) or left (north), one brigade at a time in each direction. Georgians went farthest south, their far right nearly a mile from the Turnpike. For a few seconds the whole front line included only the front marching file of four men as they arrived. Moments later there were eight, then hundreds, and finally thousands of them. North Carolinians of the second brigade to arrive headed far north of the Turnpike, in mirror image of the Georgians' maneuver. Two more brigades, Alabamians and more Georgians, filled in between the outer brigades to complete the front line. A second division, made up mostly of Virginians and Louisianians, duplicated the formation with a second line at an interval behind the first. Eventually--after three hours of piling up regiments as they arrived--about 20,000 Confederates had arrayed themselves in long ranks in the brush.

Hindsight reveals something that Stonewall Jackson could not have known. He must have itched to launch the attack as soon as the front division had shaken itself into formation. Precious daylight dwindled while Jackson patiently, methodically steered the second division into line. He had come so very far, miles beyond any friendly assistance, that the attack must be successful--at once, and utterly overwhelmingly. In the event, the Confederate effort did not need the second division at once, and would have benefited two ways from an earlier attack with just the first division in line. That of course would have saved important time (at least an hour). It also would have left the second division still in column, well positioned to forge briskly ahead along the road to a point of impact, unfettered by the need to struggle through the Wilderness on a wide, clumsy front.

Jackson's career as the quintessential tactical aggressor removes any doubt about his preferred mode of operation in battle. But ensuring an immediate, crushing success stood at the top of his military needs on the afternoon of May 2, and he waited stoically for the moment when he had enough force to make certain of such a result.

The sun was sliding steadily down the western horizon when Jackson finally had things the way he wanted them. A gamble at long odds, brought to fruition by a daylong, danger-fraught march, had brought Stonewall to the brink of a rich dividend.

Next week: The oblivious targets of Jackson's imminent 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.