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Chancellorsville: Attacking at dawn
Chancellorsville: Attacking at dawn
Date published: Sat, 10/05/2002
Part 31 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
SUBORDINATES OF Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson had become accustomed to receiving orders to march, or to attack, at "early dawn." Jeb Stuart, filling in during the emergency, conformed to that energetic scheduling pattern. The Confederate attack that must reunite Robert E. Lee's wings, at whatever cost, swept forward at "about daylight" on Sunday, May 3. Daylight meant about 4:30 a.m. in that era before Congress had conjured up daylight-saving time.
Everyone across a wide arc would fight before the sun had fully risen, but perhaps the most important Southern initiative unfolded against almost no opposition. A dozen or so hours earlier, Gen. James J. Archer's Brigade had played an important role near Catharine Furnace as a rearguard, deflecting the venturesome probes by Union Gen. Daniel Sickles. At dawn on May 3, Stuart assigned Archer's Alabamians and Tennesseans to take "Hazel Grove," the open hilltop that artillerist Porter Alexander had discovered by moonlight during the night. Hazel Grove and Catharine Furnace are only two miles apart, but Archer's troops had covered an immense loop about 15 miles in length to reach the point where they now would go into action.
About 1,500 Confederates surged up the western and northwestern sides of the Hazel Grove knoll in the dawn's early light, ready to do whatever they must to secure the crucial position. They arrived in time to capture 100 men and four pieces of artillery, the last residue of the Federal force attempting to leave the site. Joe Hooker had abandoned the key to the battlefield.
The newly installed battalion system, in which Confederate artillery batteries had been clumped together in large blocks, worked precisely as intended at Hazel Grove. Instead of having to coax individual batteries out of the clutches of infantry commanders, skilled professional artillerists had plenty of firepower readily at hand. Porter Alexander briskly wedged three dozen guns into the open space and opened fire.
The cannonade that Alexander unleashed did much to win the battle. His guns did not necessarily kill or wound enemies in profusion, nor batter down the Federal fortifications in the woods; but they did create a tide that would allow Southern soldiers to sweep the field. The drumroll of fire from Hazel Grove heralded a victory for Lee's army, though only after bitter fighting and dreadful losses.
Douglas Southall Freeman, that army's legendary chronicler, wrote aptly: "At Hazel Grovethe finest artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia were having their greatest day." Not everything went their way, of course. Enemy fire killed young officers and men. Confederate ordnance, as usual, did not work properly. The fuses in Southern shells functioned erratically if at all. A fancy new device fitted over the noses of the shells to ensure ignition failed miserably ("one shell out of fifteen exploded").
The artillery hammering away from Hazel Grove accomplished its primary results against Federal infantry, but its most direct opposition came from a cluster of Northern cannon 1,200 yards to the northeast. On "Fairview," an open knoll on still another Chancellor family farm, Union Capt. Clermont L. Best commanded artillery that looked straight through a narrow open space toward Hazel Grove. Best was a New Yorker who had attended West Point in the same class as Stonewall Jackson. On May 3, with rank six full grades below that of his one-time classmate, the captain delivered a sturdy performance. Despite coming under fire from several directions--the "converging fire" for which gunners strive--Best manfully held his guns to the task. Only when beset at close range by approaching infantry did he fall back to Chancellorsville intersection, then on north toward the river.
Capt. Best and the other Northern artillerymen probably would have accomplished notably more than they did but for the absence of the controlling influence of the army's chief of that arm, Gen. Henry J. Hunt. Joe Hooker had exiled the brilliant Hunt because the artillerist did not agree with Hooker's own, outmoded, views. The entire Federal army suffered for Hooker's peevishness.
Today, original artillery pieces mark the positions at both Hazel Grove and Fairview, south of the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3), facing each other across the 1,200 yards of open space that makes a corridor through the woods.
While the artillery roared, terrified young men from North and South slogged determinedly into the woods on both sides of the artillery duel. A horrifying number of them went to their deaths. The brush that smothered the landscape everywhere, except in the artillery-swept vista between Hazel Grove and Fairview, compounded the inevitable chaos of mortal combat.
Some units groped through the gunsmoke-choked thickets south of the artillery positions and escaped relatively intact. A large, veteran Georgia brigade covered nearly a mile without running afoul of major resistance, then warily pulled back. Other units that waded into the mêlee almost immediately found their flanks exposed to an unknown enemy, suffered heavy casualties, and then lost their cohesion.
Confusion always rules in battle, despite the efforts of historians (me among them) to make sense of what happened and reduce it to neat, understandable maps. A British officer destined to become renowned during World War II wrote in a training precis in 1933: "War is always a far worse muddle than anything you can produce in peace." The muddle in the Spotsylvania County woods near Chancellorsville intersection on May 3, 1863, certainly fit that premise.
A Confederate officer who played a crucial role on May 3, and who visited the battlefield after the war, wrote a sentence in a classic study of the army's campaigns that nicely encapsulates the confused nature of the action in the woods east of Hazel Grove. "It would be useless," he admitted, to attempt to "follow in detail the desperate fighting which now ensued and was kept up for some hours."
A monument erected by the veterans of an Indiana regiment supplies three-dimensional evidence of the nature of the fighting. The Hoosiers came back to Chancellorsville in 1901 and installed a memorial stone to commemorate the regiment's performance, and to remember their comrades who had died there.
In addition to the central stone, the Indiana veterans placed small flank markers where their unit's right and left had stood, in the woods south of the vista between Hazel Grove and Fairview, on May 3, 1863. The three markers clearly delimit a position that faced nearly 90 degrees away from the primary axis through which the Confederates advanced. That is not to suggest that the Indiana men stood misaligned, for they evidently performed well (Confederate bullets hit 150 of them); but it depicts unmistakably the confusion rampant in the thickets as regiments and brigades fought from uncertain positions against a dimly perceived foe.
While chaos reigned supreme in the thickets south of Hazel Grove and Fairview, another struggle raged in the half-square-mile of scrubby woodland north and east of Hazel Grove, but still south of the Orange Plank Road. Fighting in that sector would kill or maim thousands of soldiers, including a general who had been Stonewall Jackson's special friend and protege. It also would expose Gen. Jeb Stuart to the most intense infantry operations that he commanded during the entire war.
Next week: A predestinarian's premonition and a singing major general
ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & 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.