The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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Lee and Jackson decided, as they sat there on the cracker boxes, that Jackson, with 22,000 men, should undertake to turn Hooker's right flank and assail him in rear, while Lee with 17,000 men should fully occupy him by a threat of front attack, and that if Jackson's movement should succeed, his part of the army should force its way to a junction with Lee. Failing that, the two parts of the army must of course retreat in the not very confident hope of uniting again at Gordonsville and together falling back to the defenses of Richmond. For Stuart with the Confederate cavalry had utterly broken up and defeated that part of Hooker's plan which had contemplated Stoneman's sweep to Hanover Court House and the entrenching of his force there as an obstacle in the way of Lee's retreat.
On Saturday, May 2, 1863, at daylight, or a little before, Lee and Jackson began the execution of their daring stratagem.
Hooker's headquarters were at Chancellorsville. His line stretched eastward and northeastward to the river and westward to a region of high ground unassailable from the front, where his right lay "in the air," in military phrase, that is to say with no natural obstacle, such as a river or a mountain, to defend it. It was Jackson's purpose to march westward on a route parallel with Hooker's line, turn its western end and strike it in flank and rear.
To accomplish that he must completely separate his 22,000 men from Lee's 17,000 and take the chances of battle for a reuniting of the two forces.
It took all day to make the march. All day Jackson kept Stuart's cavalry between his column and the enemy, feeling the enemy's lines to find out how they were posted and what their strength was at every point.
His march was clearly discovered to the Federal troops, and fully reported to their commander, Hooker. But it was completely misinterpreted. It was believed to be the initiatory movement of that retreat upon Richmond, which Hooker – master of logistics that he was – thought that he had by his maneuvers compelled Lee to undertake by way of saving his little army from destruction.
While Jackson, with scarcely any disguise or concealment, was marching along Hooker's front with intent to turn his flank and strike him in rear, Hooker rested easily in the conviction that his adversary, confronted by an irresistible force, was retreating upon Richmond either by way of Culpeper or by the Gordonsville route.
In this belief Hooker broke the continuity of his own lines by throwing forward a part of his forces to assail Jackson's moving column in flank and rear, but he made no effort to advance from Chancellorsville upon Lee's manifestly depleted force in front or in any vigorous way to push a column in between Lee and Jackson. He fought Lee on the skirmish lines all day, but he made no determined attempt to run over the skirmish lines and find out what was behind them. In other words he suffered himself to be completely and disastrously deceived by that tapping at his own lines which Lee ceaselessly kept up by way of misleading him.
As he knew Lee's strength almost to a man, and as he was fully and frequently informed during the day concerning the extent to which Jackson's detachment had weakened it, it is difficult to understand why he did not end the struggle then and there by hurling three men to one against Lee on the one hand and against Jackson on the other, and crushing them separately.
Here was another illustration and proof of the fact that the Federal administration at Washington had not yet found a general fit to command the superb Army of the Potomac.The opportunity at Chancellorsville was the very greatest and completest that was at any time during the war offered to a commanding general on either side to make a quick and complete end of the struggle.
Under like circumstances a Grant or a Sherman would have hurled 40,000 or 50,000 men upon Lee and an equal number upon Jackson, meanwhile employing a lesser but quite sufficient force in keeping the two wings of the Confederate army divided beyond the possibility of reunion. But it is conceivable at least that if Lee had been confronting a Grant or a Sherman, he would never have risked so dangerous a division of his inferior force. The character of the adversary's commanding general is a factor in every military problem, upon which a strategist must reckon as carefully as he does upon the number of that adversary's men or guns.
However that may be, Lee had divided his meager force in the presence of an enemy who greatly outnumbered him, and Hooker took no effective account of the fact. He did not strengthen his own right wing while Jackson was marching around it to assail it in the rear. He took no effective measures either to assail Jackson on his threatening march or to fall upon Lee in front in crushingly overwhelming force. He was content to beat off Lee's pretended attacks in front and to neglect Jackson's movement as very certainly a retreat with which he had not energy enough to interfere.
As a result Jackson succeeded in turning the Federal right flank, and at six o'clock in the evening the great Confederate flanker fell like a thunderbolt upon the rear of Hooker's divisions on the right.
Without skirmishers to give warning of his coming Jackson pushed his columns through the woods and the tangled underbrush. So eager were the Confederates in their work that their divisions, thrown into separate lines for the forward movement, pushed after each other until the several lines became a single mass of humanity pressing forward, each man striving to get in front of his fellow and be first to fall upon the foe.
Jackson knew his men too well to doubt them for a moment, and he therefore rushed them forward to the assault without any of those precautions which the books of tactics prescribe. He threw out no skirmishers to feel the way. He sent no company in advance to ascertain the enemy's disposition. He simply hurled his force upon that of the foe, striking as the tempest does, without warning.
The first intimation Hooker's men had of their enemy's advance came to them in a rush of deer, grouse and other game that had been disturbed and was fleeing through the tangled woodlands before the on-coming mass of armed and belligerent humanity. And before wonder over this rush of animals, serpents and birds had satisfied itself, Jackson's men, nine deep, fell upon the unsuspecting Federals at supper, and swept like a hurricane through their camps and over their lines.
Then occurred the second great panic of the war, in which men fell into such fear as to lose all semblance of soldierly self-control, and in which military cohesion was completely dissipated. Here and there a brigade or a regiment or a company of Federals bravely stood its ground, but the great mass of that German army corps commanded by men of unpronounceable names which had been extensively advertised as intending to show Americans how to fight, fell into hopeless confusion, broke ranks and ran to whatever cover the fugitives could find. Jackson ran over their lines, possessed himself of their defenses, captured their arms and their suppers and completely telescoped the left wing of Hooker's army.
Night alone saved the rest of it. For panic is more contagious than smallpox and, in view of what happened afterwards, it is safe to say that but for the coming of night the panic which so suddenly reduced the right wing of Hooker's force to a mass of fugitives, would quickly have spread throughout the army.
But night called a halt and Jackson's men rested upon their arms, ready to renew their victorious progress with the dawn of day. According to a competent and adverse witness55
But a great calamity was in store for the Confederates that evening. Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men acting under orders of his own giving, while he was making his preparations for the completion of his wonderful work on the following morning. Except in the possible death of Lee, no greater loss could have befallen the Southern arms. The destruction of a division or even of an army corps would have been a trifling disaster in comparison. For upon Jackson as upon no other man, Lee depended for the masterful execution of his plans, and equally for wise counsel and daring initiative. The soldiers of the army, too, had come to look upon the great lieutenant as the one man invincible, and to regard whatever work he might assign them to do as a task that must be accomplished at all costs and all hazards. In the doing of his bidding, the officers and men alike were accustomed to think of their orders as the decrees of an all-wise Providence and of themselves as mere instruments set to accomplish the purposes of a higher authority. No man among them questioned the wisdom of Jackson's plans or doubted the possibility of doing whatsoever he had ordered them to do. In such mood as that which their reverent love for Jackson inspired in them, those incomparable fighters were capable of well-nigh any achievement.
When it was whispered through the army that Stonewall Jackson was wounded unto death there was mourning and distress at every bivouac fire, and depressing sorrow in every soldierly heart. But there was no thought of failure or faltering in the work to be done on the morrow. That work had been marked out for them by Stonewall Jackson himself, and every man of them was resolved to do it or fall fighting in a determined endeavor to accomplish to the uttermost limit of possibility the will of the fallen chieftain.
The command fell upon J. E. B. Stuart and after sustaining a midnight assault upon the Confederate flank by Sickles, which was repulsed with comparative ease, Stuart was prepared, early on Sunday morning, to press forward with the entire detachment and force a junction with Lee in front of Chancellorsville, after destroying or driving into retreat all of Hooker's forces that lay west of that point.
There was terrific fighting at every step. There were formidable breastworks to be assailed and carried, and they were protected by difficult abattis in front. There were superbly served batteries at every defensive point with determined infantry in support. But the men who had been Jackson's yesterday, and were to-day under the dare-devil leadership of Stuart, remembered that Jackson had planned this movement and they were death-resolute to carry it to completion. They pressed forward always. A "fire of hell" meant no more to them than a summer breeze. In face of canister and a murderous fire of musketry, they plunged onward with no thought of hesitation or shrinking.
Jackson lay under a tree somewhere, wounded unto death, but it was Jackson still whom these heroic fellows were serving; it was in obedience to his orders and in execution of his plans that they were advancing, and their inspiration of resoluteness had for one of its elements a mad resentment of Jackson's wounds, as an injury for which the enemy must be made to pay the blood atonement of those old Scriptures in whose words Jackson so devoutly and reverently believed.
Probably never before or since in battle did men fight with a madder impulse than did this "best infantry in existence" on that Sunday morning, in execution of their stricken leader's purpose. They were very maniacs, filled with fury, assailing the enemy at every point with truly demoniacal determination, reinforced by all the strength and skill that long discipline and battle-habit could give to men with arms in their hands.
In spite of numbers, in the face of obstacles that would have appalled the best battalions in any European army, these grief-stricken worshipers of the great leader, swept forward as the hurricane does, regardless of all obstacles and absolutely resistless in their onward progress.
Their impulse was indicated by the battle cry, "Charge and remember Jackson!" which was continually passed up and down the lines by word of mouth throughout the day, by men with set teeth and lips compressed to paleness.
Early in the morning it was Stuart's thought to refresh some of his troops who had been long without food. He ordered an issue of rations and a pause for breakfast, meantime directing a small advance in order to rectify the line at a defective point. The men rushed forward with such impetuosity, abandoning rations and taking the bloody work of war in lieu of breakfast, that Stuart decided to let them have their way and bring on at once the action for which it had been his thought to prepare them by a feeding. The incident is valuably illustrative of the temper in which that Sunday's fight was undertaken, a fight decisive for the time, and ending as it did in the defeat and overthrow of the largest, strongest, and most perfectly equipped army that had ever been assembled on this continent, by a force one third or one fourth its number, ill-fed, ill-clothed and exceedingly ill-looking, as Colonel Dodge has testified in print.
Here it is necessary to make an important distinction, which is often overlooked. When troops are beaten by an adversary having inferior numbers, the fault is not always or even usually with the men. It lies almost always with commanding officers who, through error or incapacity or otherwise, fail to bring the men into such positions as may render their superiority of numbers effective. At Chancellorsville Hooker had quite all of three men to Lee's one – and including Sedgwick's force his odds were even greater than that. On the part of the so-called German corps there seems to have been a distinct inferiority of soldierly quality, while Jackson's men, according to the expert judgment of Colonel Dodge, supported by that of General Hooker, were "the best infantry in existence." But between the men generally of the two armies there was no such superiority on the one side and inferiority on the other as to offset the enormous disparity of numbers and thus to account for the result.
The difficulty was that in the great war game Lee was immeasurably more than Hooker's master. At every point he so handled his forces as to bewilder and embarrass his enemy. In spite of his inferiority in numbers he managed at many points, by deft maneuvering, to assail Hooker's divisions, with more men than they could for the moment bring to bear in resistance.
In reviewing great battles and campaigns it is important to bear these things in mind, and, for the credit of a brave soldiery, to remember that all dispositions of troops are made by men higher up. The skill and alertness of those men higher up, or their lack of skill and alertness, determines whether or not due advantage is to be taken of numbers, the nature of the ground and other adventitious circumstances upon which the outcome of battles in a large measure depends.
At Chancellorsville, for example, there was one position so favorable that the artillery of either army, posted there upon the crest of a commanding hill, could work havoc in the ranks of its adversary. The Federals held that position when night fell on Saturday. They unwisely abandoned it during the night and early in the morning Stuart, always quick to see and alert to seize advantage, occupied it with thirty guns too strongly supported to be dislodged. In like manner the superior generalship of the Confederates at other points enabled them often to bring two men to bear against one in spite of their general inferiority of numbers.
When Hooker found his right wing crushed and reduced to a panic-stricken mass of fugitives, he still had the battle in his own hands and victory easily within his grasp.
After Jackson's blow was delivered on Saturday evening Hooker could not have doubted that Lee's little army of less than forty thousand men had been divided in his front. It was his obvious and easy task to keep it divided and to crush its two parts separately. He had already thrust Sickles in between Lee and Jackson, and in order to maintain the separation he had only overwhelmingly to reinforce Sickles, an enterprising officer. This he might easily have done by drawing troops from his completely unemployed left wing which stretched away superfluously to the fords of the river with no enemy at all in front.
The war problem was simple and easy at that time, and had Hooker been a man of masterful mind, he must have wrought it out to checkmate within twenty-four hours.
But it is to be remembered that Lee knew all old army officers, and knew the capacity and temper of every commander sent to oppose him. It is probable that had Hooker been a man of masterful mind, Lee would never have attempted the strategy which created this opportunity.
Let us leave speculation for facts. Hooker had unaccountably abandoned his brilliant offensive movement at the crowning moment when its success, complete and decisive, seemed certain. Having come out to force Lee to a fight in the open, he had shrunk from the conflict. Having skilfully and brilliantly so maneuvered as to place himself on the flank of Lee's army with intent to assail and overwhelm his adversary, he had suddenly shrunk back, as if appalled, into a defensive attitude and had left it to Lee to determine when and where and how the further fighting should be done. Having advanced from Chancellorsville into the more favorable country beyond, he had quite inexplicably fallen back to Chancellorsville again and fortified there as if he had been confronted by an adversary of superior strength, and when he clearly saw that Lee had divided his inferior force, he had over-confidently assumed that retreat was intended instead of a blow.
But even after the blow had been delivered, with staggering effect, Hooker had the war game in his own hands. It was his obvious policy to order fifty or sixty thousand men or more from his unemployed left wing, to Chancellorsville, to fall destructively upon each of Lee's widely separated detachments, with the purpose of crushing them both.
He did nothing of the kind. Instead he stood upon the defensive against Lee in front and Stuart upon his flank, and utterly failing to prevent a junction between these two he retired still further and stood upon the defensive again to receive their joint assault.
In the meantime he had unemployed troops in vastly superior numbers, lying idly upon his left. Instead of ordering them into the conflict he waited for Sedgwick, who was coming up after driving the Confederates out of their works at Fredericksburg, to save him from defeat and disaster.
In the meanwhile, and for lack of the reinforcements which he had failed to send to the firing line, the Confederates had won a great victory, reuniting their divided army and completely driving Hooker from the defensive position which he had taken up at Chancellorsville.
Stuart's hurricane-like advance, begun early in the morning, resulted long before noonday, not only in effecting the desired junction between the two separated portions of the Confederate Army, but also in the compulsory retirement of Hooker's army from the entire Chancellorsville line and its retreat toward the river.
The fighting by which all this was accomplished has been wonderfully well described in summary, by Colonel Dodge, in his admirably complete and impartial history of this campaign. A quotation from that work seems a quite sufficient showing-forth of what was done, with equal justice to the heroism of the men on both sides of the terrible conflict. Colonel Dodge writes:
It is in this spirit that the present historian desires to write of the events of that time, forty odd years agone. All the military skill, all the heroism, all the personal courage that marked the events of that struggle, whether upon the one side or upon the other, is a part of our common American heritage of glory. For these men who fought each other so gallantly and with such heroic determination, were all Americans, and to all of them Americans owe the tribute of admiration.
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