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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Intense fighting in the woods

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Date published: Sat, 10/19/2002

Part 33 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

WHILE CONFEDERATE artillery gradually exerted its influence south of the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3) early on May 3, 1863, a separate conflict raged north of that road. Foot soldiers fought deadly battles in the thickets there, just as their mates were doing farther to the south, but north of the road artillery did not much affect their operations.

Across the rolling ground east and northeast of where the National Park Service museum stands today, thousands of soldiers of both sides floundered through the obscuring thickets and waged a deadly struggle at close range. In more open country, the contending lines would have recognized the circumstances they faced far sooner, and reacted accordingly.

Regiments and brigades seeking to advance as ordered, or to defend their ground, frequently only discovered an enemy's line by virtually stumbling upon it. More often than not, that tardy awareness led to casualties and retreat. The sound of volleys supplied vague information before anything could be seen through the leaves and branches--but who was firing at whom? To Federals, the daunting sound of the Rebel Yell seemed to echo ominously from every point of the compass.

A Pennsylvanian officer who took his regiment into the woods recalled that the Georgians opposite him fired a volley at the rustling noises that his men made in advancing. The Confederate muskets belched a long line of sulphurous gunsmoke that hung in the morning air "like a chalk line and indicated their exact position." The Pennsylvanians fired at the visible line of smoke, then advanced.

Confederate Gen. William Dorsey Pender played an important role in the Chancellorsville woods that morning. Pender's letters to his wife survive in gratifying volume, and have reached print in three different editions. In describing the morning of May 3 to Mrs. Pender, the general reported, with mournful pride, that his North Carolina brigade "behaved magnificently and got cut up terribly" (nearly 700 casualties).

One of the surprises in the woods involved an onslaught by Pender's troops against a brigade made up of troops from Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, commanded by Gen. William Hays. The general, a West Point graduate and a veteran of the regular army, had served in the Seminole War and the Mexican War, then on the western frontier. In the confusing Spotsylvania County woods on May 3, 1863, some North Carolinians slid around the flanks of Hays's front and a bullet hit the general. Lt. John R. Ireland, a 22-year-old from Alamance County, and his company of Tar Heels captured the wounded Hays and most of his staff.

Renewed efforts by fresh Federal units forced Pender's men to fall back, carrying with them the unlucky Hays (who six days later would spend his 44th birthday as a prisoner of war). Then Confederate reinforcements regained a temporary upper hand. All across the battlefield on this morning, Southern troops achieved their goals not by a mighty and irresistible onslaught, but rather by a series of attacks that gradually made headway. Typically they advanced until they found no friends to support them on either side, then fell back. Almost every official report of this day includes that refrain. Usually the Confederates did not retire quite as far as their original starting point, so the tide flowed steadily, if slowly, eastward.

Gen. Joseph W. Revere did not fall into Confederate hands, but he suffered an even worse Sunday morning than did Gen. Hays. The 50-year-old Revere was a grandson of Revolutionary-era New England silversmith Paul Revere, made famous by a poem about a horseback ride and lantern signals. In the midst of the crisis near Chancellorsville intersection, and to the astonishment of both subordinates and superiors, Revere simply withdrew his brigade to the rear. In his own quaint language, the general reported that he had planned on "reorganizing and bringing them back to the field comparatively fresh." The gap left in the line by this retrograde movement helped to ensure Federal failure on the field, to which Revere never returned.

Revere's superiors relieved him from command at once and brought him before a court martial. The court cashiered Revere, but Abraham Lincoln adopted the politically expedient route and canceled the sentence. In a thick published memoir (Keel and Saddle, 1872), Revere launched an array of fantastic fables about his experiences. Among them is a fictional account of an encounter with Thomas J. Jackson (later to be known as "Stonewall") in which the prewar Jackson supposedly exhibited a fascination with astrology.

Federals resisting the ring of iron and fire that was closing around Chancellorsville clearing should have been able to thwart their attackers. They outnumbered them substantially, even after Revere headed for safety, and enjoyed the immense advantage of interior lines. Joe Hooker kept thousands of men out of action, however, and Southern artillery from the vantage-point at Hazel Grove that he had abandoned continued to blanket the field with shells.

As the battle approached climax and decision, a Confederate shell knocked Gen. Hooker out of action. A recent good book about Chancellorsville insists that Hooker had taken control of the battle and would have done something about winning it, if only the shell had not intervened. The more traditional view stands scrutiny far better: Had Fate yanked Hooker from control sooner, and more permanently, the Union cause surely would have been better served.

Col. Logan H. N. Salyer, from Virginia's Wise County, had been sabered in the head in the woods and carried into the headquarters at Chancellorsville for treatment. As Salyer lay atop a piano in the parlor, he heard Federal aides who were scrambling up and down the staircase exclaim that a Confederate shell had hit Gen. Hooker. The shell actually did not hit the general. It hit a second-story porch column on which he was leaning, and the column split in half and smashed Hooker to the ground. When the general regained consciousness, the army's chief surgeon told him, Hooker recalled, that he had "remained insensible for half an hour, and that he never expected to see me breathe again."

In the autumn of 1976, a team of professional archaeologists explored the ruins of Chancellorsville Inn, then newly acquired as part of the battlefield park. Under the large stone front steps, which still survive today, their trowels and whisk brooms uncovered an unexploded rifled shell--perhaps the one that had shivered Hooker's pillar. Had the shell killed the general, instead of stunning him, or had it arrived an hour earlier, might the Northern army have salvaged the battle? Perhaps; but by then the Confederate tide was running steadily and with ever-increasing momentum.

Next week: Confederates south and east of the intersection

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.