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Blue on blue, and a pivotal discovery

September 21, 2002 1:02 am

Part 29 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Chancellorsville

NOT LONG AFTER stretcher bearers carried "Stonewall" Jackson off the battlefield, gunfire erupted far south of the Plank Road (modern State Route 3). Confederates in that sector, on the right of the line, crouched low and prepared for an assault. As the firing increased toward a roaring crescendo, Southern soldiers began to notice that none of it hit the trees around them. It gradually became apparent that Yankees were fighting a pitched battle with other Yankees in the dark woods.

Gen. Dan Sickles, always ready to plunge ahead aggressively, had decided to do something in the smoke-shrouded moonlight that might salvage the day's disasters. His 3rd Corps lay well south of the main battlefield in the vicinity of Catharine Furnace, where the general had stumbled onto Jackson's rearguard during the afternoon. Sickles swung his corps onto something like a northerly heading and ordered a midnight advance past Hazel Grove and on toward the Plank Road. Perhaps the Confederates, disorganized by their long march and victorious attack, could be dislodged from some of the ground the 11th Corps had abandoned. The corps' wagon trains left near Hazel Grove might be recaptured, he hoped (not knowing that most of them had stampeded eastward).

Officers exhorted the 3rd Corps troops, telling them they "were cut off from the main body of our army" and must "drive the Rebels back" or "go to Richmond as prisoners." The soldiers steeled themselves for a difficult undertaking, looking fearfully toward the streams of artillery fire sizzling through the night sky ahead of them. "It seemed as if nothing mortal could come out living from the midst of such an infernal volcano," an Ohioan wrote.

Night attacks simply did not work during the Civil War, and this one matched the rest. A few of Sickles's men crashed into the Carolinians on the far right of the Confederate line, losing prisoners and a regimental flag before they could recoil. Most of the Yankees groping through the darkness did not even manage an unsatisfactory brush with their enemies. The great majority of Federal lead fired in that midnight hour headed toward other Federals.

In an attempt to keep alignment, Sickles sent his regiments forward not in wide battle lines, but rather in tight columns, parallel to one another. The thickets quickly unraveled that arrangement, leaving chaos compounded. A New York colonel described losing track of the direction of advance in the dark: "How can we find it again? We were fired on from the front, from the right, from the left, and even from the rear."

What forward momentum the night attack generated veered northeast, between the lines near the Plank Road and then even farther eastward toward the Union 12th Corps--friends, ostensibly, but unaware of who was where in the darkness. A Michigan regiment managed to charge and capture a battery. One of the Michigan boys described the experience: "in the woods and dark as pitch, with everybody hollowing as loud as he could and making all the noise. We took the breastworks but got badly messed up." Messed up indeed: the battery they "captured" belonged to the Federal 12th Corps. A crestfallen attacker reported, "it was discovered that we were charging our own troops."

Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, commanding a division in the 12th Corps line, looked on with amazement at the blue-on-blue tumult. "Human language can give no idea of such a scene," he told his daughter in a letter, "sound and flame and smoke, and dreadful yells of rage, of pain, of triumph, or of defiance." A Federal officer wrote to his wife that after watching the intramural fight, "I think I could write a fine description of Pandemonium."

Sickles, entirely typically, reported officially on the "brilliant execution" of his "successfully executed" attack, and of an imaginary slaughter of rebellious Southerners. The New York press, alert then as now for the truth, as well as loyal to the duplicitous Sickles, touted a triumphant advance that routed the Confederates "without a struggle." A participant from Michigan, far more accurately and succinctly, referred to the fiasco as "the fizzle in the woods on the night of the 2nd of May." In 1896, a Northern historian of the battle called the midnight fight between two friendly corps "one of the most comical episodes in the history of the Army of the Potomac."

The most important Confederate initiative after midnight involved no noise and just one man, artillerist Edward Porter Alexander. The brilliant young Georgian had been keeping a journal that he eventually would turn into a superb memoir of his war experiences. When published in 1989, Alexander's narrative become one of the half-dozen best Civil War books of any variety.

Despite his Georgian roots, Alexander had prewar associations with Fredericksburg. He had married a Mason girl from King George County and visited during his honeymoon at Brompton, Chatham, and the Guest House (which stood until a few years ago where an Arby's now roasts beef near the Hampton Inn). Alexander's niece married artist Gari Melchers, of Belmont.

Col. Alexander spent several hours on the night of May 2 energetically scouting across the entire front in quest of somewhere to position his artillery with good effect. The dense thickets that covered the battlefield made the task difficult. His diligence eventually paid off when he stumbled upon a vantage point from which he could see a high, open knoll about three-quarters of a mile south of the Plank Road. The Chancellor family whose farmhouse stood at the edge of the clearing called their place Hazel Grove. Dozens of Confederate artillery pieces jammed onto the Hazel Grove hilltop would play a major role in the next day's battle.

Alexander described the plight of Jackson's corps that night as "a desperate one little over 20,000 infantry, with Hooker's 100,000 between us & Gen. Lee . Nothing but a combination of desperate fighting & good luck could save us." Alexander's own moonlit reconnaissance had owed nothing to luck, and everything to determination. The relentless tenacity of one man, carefully examining thousands of yards of confusing woodland, would pay substantial dividends on the morning of May 3.

Having found the position he needed, Col. Alexander rode wearily toward the rear, so "utterly drunk with sleep" that "I could hardly keep in my saddle." After directing another officer to prepare the batteries for a movement forward, the exhausted colonel appropriated his colleague's blankets and "in ten seconds was sounder asleep than I had ever been before, or ever before even realized that it was possible to be." Ten minutes later, Alexander awakened from an "oblivion half conscious refreshed wonderfully, as if by a strong cordial." He faced a busy morning exploiting the artillery position that he had discovered in the darkness.

Next week: Preparing for a climactic morning of battle

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.

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