Return to story

A fatal volley in the darkness

September 7, 2002 1:02 am



Part 27 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

HIGH-RANKING Civil War officers led from in front, sometimes making themselves into irresistible targets by waving battle flags. Vastly improved weaponry had made such behavior irrational and obsolete by the 1860s--but that irrefragable wisdom had not yet penetrated military culture and dissolved the old notions. More than one-fourth of Confederate regimental officers died during the war, a stunning mortality level more than 25 times the World War II losses at like rank.

Lieutenant generals commanding corps, however, did not lead charges. When "Stonewall" Jackson came to grief on the night of May 2, 1863, he was not attacking, but rather reconnoitering. How might he exploit the evening's sweeping victory and turn it into an even greater triumph?

The secretive, deadly determined Jackson had resolved such riddles personally and eminently successfully on other battlefields. A confusing array of unpretentious roads rambled through the thickets around Chancellorsville. One surely must lead toward the rivers, and thus toward the enemy's rear.

To examine the options, Jackson rode forward in the darkness, accompanied by eight men. His highest-ranking subordinate, Gen. A. P. Hill, followed a little later with nine more. Jackson's admonition to Hill crackled with characteristic energy: "Press them, Gen. Hill.cut them off from the United States Ford."

The main road (modern State Route 3) ran straight east into the heart of the Yankee positions. The Bullock Road (now a paved park road) ran obscurely northeastward into the woods. Had Jackson's scouting venture succeeded, he would have noticed that Bullock Road served his purpose nicely. Another faint corridor played a part. Local residents called traces of the old east-west roads, long supplanted by the Plank Road, "the Mountain Road." Wagons sometimes swung onto the old parallel tracks when the main road turned muddy.

Two of Jackson's immediate companions held commissions as captain, another--the general's brother-in-law--was a lieutenant. Five enlisted men made up the rest of the party. The most important of them, both in 1863 and for historical purposes, was 19-year-old Pvt. David J. Kyle of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. The dire drama about to unfold in the smoky woods soon became a sort of Confederate Passion Play and generated dozens of accounts by men who saw pieces of what transpired. Those narratives suffered from the impact on their authors of darkness, confusion, flying bullets and, most especially, unfamiliarity with the area.

Only young David Kyle knew where he was. He had lived before the war with his sister and her husband, Oscar Bullock, a few hundred yards up the Bullock Road. David had walked across this ground every day. That earned him a role as Jackson's guide in the moonlit woods. It also made him the best of the witnesses.

Pvt. Kyle pointed Stonewall Jackson northeastward up the Bullock Road. Almost at once the little party came to a stretch of the old, abandoned Mountain Road. They swung east on that corridor toward the Federal lines. In doing so they passed through what soon would be the solid front line of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, although at that juncture the lines remained somewhat amorphous.

In the aftermath of the evening, most narrators would conclude that the North Carolina troops taking position in the woods had not thrown out skirmishers to their front, as tactical doctrine dictated they should do. In fact, an entire regiment of Carolinians had gone forward on that duty. Jackson never reached the skirmishers' position. He paused for several minutes in the woods and cocked an ear (the general heard only poorly) toward the sounds of Yankee officers shouting and axes being wielded by men eager to build protection against attack.

When he reined his horse around and started back whence he had come, Jackson picked precisely the wrong moment. Moments before and almost a mile to the south, a sizable body of Federals wandering lost in the thickets had brushed against a portion of the forming Southern line. As confused troops on both sides attempted to unsort the tangle, a teenage sergeant named Thomas A. Cowan discovered that he had enemy directly in front of him. Cowan ordered his company to fire. Troops to his left (north) followed the example, unleashing volleys aimed eastward toward the enemy.

The musketry rippled steadily northward, racing toward the point where Jackson had left his lines to ride forward. As the muzzle blasts spread like heat lightning toward the Plank Road, Gen. A. P. Hill dismounted and dashed in the direction of the Confederate line, hoping to stop the troops nearest him, the 18th North Carolina, from firing. Hill's party had not yet moved far forward on the main road. Jackson's route by this time had carried him to a point at least 75 yards beyond Hill's location.

Gen. Hill's desperate effort to halt the fire did no good. When he shouted through the darkness that the Tar Heels had friends to their front, a major bellowed back: "It's a lie! Pour it into them, boys!" The boys did. A captain in the firing line saw with horror, by the light flashing from musket muzzles, the familiar figure of Gen. Hill just a few yards away.

All of the hurtling leaden musket balls somehow, miraculously, missed Hill, but several hit his staff members. "You have destroyed my staff," the general screamed toward the Carolinians' line. Every one of the other nine men with Hill suffered to some degree: three killed (including James F. Forbes of Fredericksburg, who is buried just off Princess Anne Street); three wounded; two captured when their panicked horses galloped into enemy lines. The two men not casualties themselves (one of them Murray Forbes Taylor of Fredericksburg's Fall Hill) both had their horses killed.

By all odds, Stonewall Jackson's party, about four times as far away as Hill's, should have suffered far fewer wounds than did the closer group. The odds held true: five bullets hit three of the nine men in Jackson's band. Six men escaped unscathed; so did seven horses, despite the bulky targets they made. Fate inexorably vectored three of the five bullets into the arms of Thomas J. Jackson.

Thousands of Confederates, to a degree astonishing for a battle more than halfway through the war, still carried obsolete smoothbore muskets at Chancellorsville. Nearly 800 men in the North Carolina brigade had them. The one ball that surgeons removed from Jackson's battered body came from a smoothbore. Such weapons did not fire with effect much beyond one hundred yards. Jackson's little troop had been near the farthest reach of such rounds, with the dense thickets of the Wilderness intervening to slow down, deflect, or even stop the bullets. Jackson's unflinching belief in the inexorable role of divine providence in all of men's affairs left him no choice but to conclude that God had no more use for the mortal Thomas Jackson. He admitted as much several times in retrospect. Musket balls flying through dense brush, nearing the end of their range, missed most of the men and horses with the general. But three of them unerringly mangled Stonewall Jackson.

Two bullets shattered Jackson's left arm. Another went nearly through his right hand, lodging just beneath the skin. The general's horse shied violently from the fire, turned toward the Federals, and started to dash through the woods. A low-hanging branch next to the Mountain Road knocked off Jackson's hat and tore open his forehead. Somehow, despite the mangled arm, wounded hand, and stunning blow to the head, Jackson found the strength and determination to rein in his mount. Aides lifted him from the horse and carried him toward the main road. There horrified officers gathered and worriedly considered how to protect the wounded legend from being captured, and how to move him safely to the rear for treatment. The trek toward safety would be a difficult and expensive one.

Next week: Stumbling and bleeding

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.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.