LEE OF VIRGINIA.
FREDERICKSBURG AND CHANCELLORSVILLE.
AFTER the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam (September 17th, 1862), General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia might well have rested for the year and season upon the uniformly successful results of their last three months’ campaigning. But before that year reached its close, the name of Fredericksburg was destined to be added to those proudly inscribed upon their banners — Fredericksburg, a splendid and unequivocal victory, won with absolute ease.
Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, having, contrary to his own inclination it is said, superseded General McClellan in the command of the Army of the Potomac, started upon his new line of tactics by concentrating that army on the left or northern bank of the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg is the old Virginia town where lived and died Mary, the mother of George Washington. It is the half-way point on the railroad line between Richmond and Washington, being about sixty miles distant from either of those capital cities. General Burnside’s idea evidently was to mask from Lee the concentration of his troops at Fredericksburg, with the Potomac in his rear open for communication with Washington, and move rapidly upon Richmond before the Army of Northern Virginia could reach there to defend it. In this plan, however, the Union commander was checkmated at the outset. Burnside’s six army corps, in three grand divisions commanded respectively by Hooker, Franklin, and Sumner, were 20 in position on the heights of Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg, as early as November 19th; and Lee, having already divined their purpose, proceeded promptly, yet without undue haste, to bring up his army on the south or Fredericksburg side of the Rappahannock, occupying the hills of Spottsylvania County, behind the town. General Sumner, commanding one of the divisions of the Federal army, had threatened to shell Fredericksburg, as Longstreet approached the place; but upon the latter announcing that he would not occupy it for military purposes, the threat was not put into execution.
The preparations and equipment of Burnside’s army for offensive operations were delayed, so that more than three weeks elapsed before he was ready to “deliver battle.” This afforded Lee time to line up on a position so strongly defensible that it might well give pause even to the superior numbers of the legions in blue. On December 10th, Burnside had 116,000 men of all arms present for duty. Lee counted 78,000; but this included the cavalry brigade of Hampton and W. E. Jones, neither of which was at Fredericksburg. Lee’s army had to be stretched up and down the river for twenty-five miles or more, to watch the different crossings. Between the two forces lay the Rappahannock, — a deep, rapid stream, something less than three hundred yards wide, — the town, and the almost level plain upon which the latter rests. The Federal batteries, along the Stafford Heights on the north bank, commanded the town; while the Confederate guns, on the hills to the south, covered every foot of the open plain over which the hosts of Burnside would have to pass to make their assault. Three hundred cannon, about equally divided between the two armies, were scientifically placed in position along their respective heights; and it was evident, as the event fully confirmed, that a tremendous artillery duel would be one feature of the battle of Fredericksburg.
Before daybreak on the 11th of December the construction of Burnside’s pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock was begun, at points a mile or two below the town, and directly in Lee’s front. The Confederate generals were at once apprised of the movement, but no serious resistance to the crossing had been contemplated. To quote the language of General Lee himself: —
“The plain of Fredericksburg is so completely commanded by the Stafford Heights that no effectual opposition could be made to the construction of bridges or the passage of the river. Our position was therefore selected with a view to resisting the enemy’s advance after crossing, and the river was guarded only by a force sufficient to impede his movements until the army could be concentrated.”
The impeding was done by sharpshooters along the southern bank of the river, at the points where the bridges were being constructed. So effective was their work, that the Federal army was delayed sixteen hours in crossing, and was not in readiness for the attack until the night of the 12th.
By this time, the natural strength of Lee’s position had been augmented to the utmost advantage by earthworks constructed under the direction of General Pendleton, the Confederate chief of artillery, and the engineer officers. The strongest point on the line was Marye’s Hill, of lower elevation than the surrounding heights, but standing out in front of them, and directly behind the town. The batteries of the famous Washington Artillery, from New Orleans, occupied the crest of this hill; while at its base, in a sunken road protected by a stone wall, were intrenched Cobb’s brigade of McLaws’ division, and a North Carolina regiment. Jackson held the right of the line, and Longstreet the left. Stuart, with two cavalry brigades, commanded by Generals Fitzhugh Lee and W. H. F. Lee — General Lee’s nephew and son respectively — was on Jackson’s right.21
Lee watching the battle from Telegraph Hill (since called Lee’s Hill), December 13th, 1862.
General Lee himself viewed the battle of Fredericksburg from a lofty height near the centre of his line, since named in his honour, but then known as Telegraph Hill. It was a picture of surpassing splendour and terrible sublimity, says Fitzhugh Lee, that here met his gaze, on that morning of December 13th, 1862. While “the roar of over three hundred cannon formed an orchestra which had the city of Fredericksburg for an audience, as well as both armies,” Burnside’s hundred thousand troops in line of battle, both flanks being in sight, their bayonets gleaming through the mist as it melted in the rays of the morning sun, marched in magnificent array upon those impregnable hills, where the Confederate forces waited. No wonder the great-hearted Lee at this moment exclaimed, “It is well that war is so fearful, otherwise we should grow too fond of it!”
The opening attack was made upon A. P. Hills’ front, of Jackson’s corps. It appears that “Stonewall,” on the day of Fredericksburg, almost disguised himself by donning a bright new uniform, which caused misgivings among his men. They thought that “Old Jack would be afraid of spoiling his clothes, and wouldn’t get down to his work.” At one moment it seemed as if their fears were about to be realised, when General Meade (the subsequent victorious Federal commander at Gettysburg), supported by the divisions of Gibbon and Doubleday, broke furiously through a gap in Jackson’s line. But in vain; for Jubal Early came up in the nick of time to “mend that fence,” and the three assaulting divisions were driven back with a loss of three thousand men in the single brief struggle on the Confederate right.
A little later, and during the middle of the day, a determined and persistent effort was made by Franklin’s and Sumner’s troops to crush Lee’s left, and then to overwhelm his centre by a concentrated attack. Marye’s Hill, the strongest point of the Confederate line, and upon which the main streets leading from the town debouched, naturally invited attack. Upon that iron-bound, fire-fringed height was hurled division after division of the Army of the Potomac’s bravest, in heroic but vain sacrifice. No troops could ever had lived to cross that plain, raked as 22 it was by a continuous storm of shot, shell, and canister, then to encounter the concealed infantry in the sunken road behind he stone wall. And even could they have passed this, and climbed the hill, a converging fire from the surrounding heights in the rear would have swept them from the face of the ground.
General Jubal A. Early.
General Burnside, who had directed the operations of his army from headquarters on the other side of the Rappahannock, two miles from the battle-field, finally called a halt, and the shattered lines of blue fell back to the banks of the river. They were not pursued in their retreat. It is generally understood that both Lee and Jackson, the latter in particular, would have preferred to fight this battle at North Anna, a defensive point farther back from Fredericksburg, where they might have hoped to follow up and destroy as well as repulse the aggressive foe. But the circumstances, and Burnside’s own movements, determined it otherwise; and Lee had to be content to fight a defensive battle to the finish. Jackson, in his report, speaking of the close of the fighting on the 13th, says: —
“The enemy making no forward movement, I determined, if prudent, to do so myself; but the first gun had hardly moved from the woods a hundred yards when the enemy’s artillery reopened, and so completely swept our front as to satisfy me that the projected movement should be abandoned.”
The Federals remained in position, and General Lee expected heavier fighting than ever the next day. To his great surprise, the attack was not renewed; and on the night of the 14th, under cover of a storm, Burnside’s demoralised army was withdrawn across the river. It was diminished by a loss of 12, 653. Less then half of Lee’s army had been engaged; and he lost, in killed, wounded, and missing, only 5, 377. “Thanks be to God!” he exclaims, in his dispatch announcing the victory at Fredericksburg.
It was indeed the one ray of brightness and hope in a season of disaster to the Confederate arms in other parts of the country — a season darkened for them by the fall of Fort Donelson, Nashville, Corinth, Roanoke Island, New Orleans, Yorktown, Norfolk, Fort Pillow, Island Number Ten, Memphis, General Bragg’s defeat at Murfreesboro’, the burning of the ironclad Virginia and the ram Mississippi, the sinking of the Arkansas, and a succession of minor misfortunes.
This condition of things, so early as the close of the year 1862, emphasizes the indisputable fact, not to be overlooked in the estimate of General Lee’s military record, that the final fall of Richmond and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia were mainly the consequences of events of the war at the South and West, and not directly at the operations in Virginia.
The battle of Fredericksburg terminated the campaign of 1862, and the opposing armies settled down in winter quarters, facing one another on their respective sides of the Rappahannock. General Lee remained in his headquarters tent on the recent battlefield, ever active and vigilant, labouring for the comfort and efficiency of his troops against the reopening of hostilities with the coming spring. In 23 January, Burnside made one or two feeble and futile attempts to cross the river and reach Lee. Then, having lost prestige with his men and quarrelled with his principal officers, he tendered his resignation, which President Lincoln promptly accepted.
General Joseph Hooker.
General Burnside was succeeded in the command of the Army of the Potomac by one of his dissenting officers, — Major-General Joseph Hooker, of Massachusetts, subsequently distinguished by the sobriquet of “Fighting Joe.” Hooker had been a successful corps commander, was popular with his troops, and possessed many soldierly qualities. His sprit and tone, when he assumed supreme command of the army, and set about its reorganisation, verged upon the bombastic; yet it must be admitted that the quality and morale of that army justified his pride, while its numerical superiority to that of his antagonist might reasonably inspire him with confidence of victory.
General Joseph Hooker, U. S. A.
When Hooker began, in April 1863, the operations against Lee which led up to the battle of Chancellorsville, the Federal returns credited him with 133,708 men “present for duty equipped.” This included the infantry corps commanded by Reynolds, Couch, Sickles, Meade, Sedgwick, Howard, and Slocum; Stoneman’s cavalry corps of 13,400 sabres; and 375 cannon. The Army of Northern Virginia, as present for duty with Lee at Chancellorsville, amounted to 53,303 effectives of all arms, including 2700 cavalry (Hampton’s and Jones’ brigades being absent), 24 and 170 pieces of artillery. Hood’s and Pickett’s divisions of Longstreet’s corps had been sent to Suffolk, south of the James River, in order to relieve the commissary department, and possibly as a safeguard against any sudden attack upon Richmond from that quarter. The Confederate force confronting Hooker comprised McLaws’ and Anderson’s divisions of Longstreet’s corps; and Jackson’s corps, embracing the divisions of A. P. Hill, Jubal Early, D. H. Hill under Rodes, and Trimble under Colston. Briefly and in round numbers, Hooker’s numerical superiority over Lee on the field of Chancellorsville was 80,000.
But on that field was to be demonstrated the truth of the great Napoleon’s saying, “In war, men are nothing: a man is everything.”
Chancellorsville was Lee’s masterpiece, and the most brilliant victory ever achieved on American soil. Without the campaigns that preceded and followed, it alone would suffice to rank its hero high among “the great captains of history.” It is a battle that fills the soldier’s heart with exultant admiration and wonder. To study its detail is to feel irresistibly that “delicious excitement” which Stonewall Jackson used to say he felt when under heavy fire. Here the genius, the military imagination of Lee finds full scope in the exalted realms of strategy; while every soldierly resource of courage, cunning, promptness, presence of mind, and technical skill was called forth, tested to the utmost, and not found wanting.
Yet how clearly now can we mark the inevitable hand of destiny in it all! From the supreme moment of triumph dates the commencement of decline. With General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Chancellorsville, and not Gettysburg, was the beginning of the end. At Chancellorsville fell the incomparable Jackson. “Any victory,’ as Lee exclaimed in his grief and despair, “would be dear at such a price.”
When Jackson fell Chancellorsville was won, but Gettysburg was lost.
Chancellorsville Centre or “crossroads” is on the right or south bank of the Rappahannock River, near its junction with the Rapidan, and about ten miles west of Fredericksburg. The famous Chancellorsville House, a large brick mansion, used then as a tavern, stood in a clearing on the edge of the Wilderness. Roads converged thither from various directions through the tangled forest.
General Hooker, early in April (1863), began putting into execution his design of manœuvring Lee from his position behind Fredericksburg. On the 29th of that month, while General Sedgwick crossed the river below Fredericksburg with three corps, and made a demonstration there, Hooker crossed above, near Chancellorsville, with four more corps — a force of 73,000, besides cavalry, or more than Lee’s whole army — to hurl upon the Confederate’s left flank, and attack its fortifications in reverse.
Having thus successfully hemmed in Lee with 100,000 of “the finest soldiers on the planet,” the Federal commander felt so sure of a victory within his grasp that he issued a congratulatory order to his army, dated April 30th. He says:
“It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding General announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defences and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”
If Lee was “outgeneralled” in these preliminary movements, he gave no evidence of being in the least disconcerted. On the contrary, his plans developed into action with startling suddenness and effect. It did not take him four days to perceive that Hooker had 100,000 men on the wrong side of the river; that this force was divided into two wings, separated by a distance of thirteen miles, with his own 25 (Lee’s) army directly between them. This was a familiar situation to Lee and Jackson, and presented an opportunity which they were not likely to let slip.
Grave of Stonewall Jackson, Lexington, Va.
Leaving Jubal Early with his own division, one brigade of another, and a portion of the reserve artillery, to occupy Sedgwick’s force at Fredericksburg on the south, Lee marched boldly northward towards Chancellorsville, to strike Hooker’s main army. It was in the forenoon of May 1st that the two Confederate columns under McLaws and Anderson, with Jackson closely following, moved upon Chancellorsville. Hooker, who was coming southward over the same roads, in the expectation of finding Lee at Fredericksburg and crushing him there, suddenly met the Confederate advance. If this encounter surprised the Federal general, he was still more amazed when General Lee, immediately upon confronting him, assumed the offensive. General Hooker was constrained to adopt defensive tactics, provide for the safety of his army, and finally take refuge in the lines around Chancellorsville. Here he occupied a position of great natural strength, surrounded on all sides by a dense forest filled with tangled undergrowth, in the midst of which breastworks had been constructed with trees felled in front, forming an impenetrable abattis. His artillery covered the roads by which his position could be approached from the front. His line of battle was five miles long, with the left extending from Chancellorsville to the Rappahannock River. Of this line, as Lee faced it at a distance of scarcely more than a mile, the front was impregnable, and the left flank offered no available point of attack. The right alone remained sufficiently exposed to tempt the bold strategy of a flanking movement by Jackson; this was what Lee conceived, determined upon, and ordered.
At sunrise on the morning of May 2nd, Jackson started upon his momentous march, with 28,000 men, to gain by a wide circuit the right rear of Hooker’s army, now reinforced from Fredericksburg to 92,000, whose front Lee held with a meagre 14,000. The flanking force marched diagonally across the front of Hooker’s line of battle, screened by the forest, yet near enough to be reported to the Federal general, who, however, interpreted the movement to mean that Lee was in full retreat towards Gordonsville.26
Jackson’s advance column reached the “plank road,” three miles west of Chancellorsville, about three o’clock in the afternoon. General Fitz Lee, commanding the cavalry, had already made a reconnaissance, locating the enemy’s position; he now guided Jackson to a wooded eminence overlooking the rear of the Federal right.
“Below and but a few hundred yards distant ran their line of battle, with abattis in front and long lines of stacked arms in the rear. Cannon in position were visible, and the soldiers were in groups, chatting, smoking, and playing cards, while others in the rear were driving up and butchering beeves. Stonewall’s face bore an expression of intense interest during the five minutes he was on the hill. His eyes had a brilliant glow. The paint of approaching battle was colouring his cheeks, and he was radiant to find that no preparations had been made to guard against a flank attack. He made no remarks to the officer with him; his lips were, however, moving. Sitting on his horse in sight of and close to Howard’s troops, he was engaged in an appeal to the God of Battles.”
There is preserved to-day, in the library of the Capitol at Richmond, a soiled half-sheet of note-paper, upon which may be read, scrawled in lead pencil, the last note written by Jackson to General Lee. It is as follows:
“Near 3 p.m., May 2nd, 1863.
“The enemy has made a stand at Chancellor’s, which is about two miles from Chancellorsville. I hope as soon as practicable to attack.
“I trust that an ever kind Providence will bless us with great success.
“T. J. JACKSON, Lieut. General.
“GENERAL R. E. LEE .
“The leading division is up, and the next two appear to be well closed.
“T. J. S.”
It was not until six o’clock that Jackson’s troops were all up, and the various commands organised for the attack. Then, with his twenty-eight thousand men, he fell like a cyclone upon the Federal right, striking in reverse the position occupied by the Eleventh Corps, under General Howard, seizing the guns before they could be turned, and driving in a blind panic the German divisions, whose soldiers, but a few minutes before, had been preparing supper. Rout and confusion spread, until, as darkness came on, the entire army seemed in danger of a stampede. Whole divisions fled pell-mell; yet here and there one stood firm, and some batteries of artillery, hastily put in operation, played fearful havoc with the ranks of the Confederates, as they swept on over the level ground. “Press onward!” was Jackson’s battle-cry. He was most eager to work to the rear of Hooker’s main army, cutting off its retreat to the ford of the Rappahannock, driving it upon the lines of Lee beyond Chancellorsville, and so corralling it in the woods. Lee, as soon as the sound of firing announced Jackson’s attack, pressed hard upon Hooker’s front and left, to prevent his sending reinforcements to the “rolled up” right.
About nine o’clock in the evening, Jackson in person, closely followed by A. P. Hill, was at the front of his advancing line. In his impatience he rode ahead, with a squad of couriers and signalmen, and was fired upon by Federal skirmishers. This caused him to wheel about and return to his lines, but at a different point from that at which he had left them. Here his own troops, of a North Carolina regiment (“skeery folks, anyhow,” as a Virginian veteran remarked, 27 describing the occurrence), mistook his party for Federal cavalry, and opened upon them with a volley of musketry. General Jackson was struck in the left arm by three balls simultaneously. He fell fainting from his saddle, and was borne away on a litter to the field hospital — not, however, before he had given, in a feeble voice, his last order: “General Pender, you must keep your men together, and hold your ground.”
Statue of Stonewall Jackson in Capitol Square, Richmond, Va., presented by English admirers.
General J. E. B. Stuart was now called to the command of Jackson’s corps (A. P. Hill having been wounded shortly after his chief), and the desperate work went on. The Federal troops fought all night, finally falling back into their lines at Chancellorsville, which were carried by the combined assault of Lee and Stuart the next morning (Sunday, May 3rd).
One of General Lee’s staff-officers (Colonel Charles Marshall, of Baltimore, whose promised “Life of Lee” is still eagerly awaited) depicts in a few graphic 28 words the grand and awful scene that ensued after the final assault at the Chancellorsville House: —
“General Lee accompanied the troops in person, and as they emerged from the fierce combat they had waged in the depths of that tangled wilderness, driving the superior forces of the enemy before them across the open ground, he rode into their midst. The troops were pressing forward with all the ardour and enthusiasm of combat. The white smoke of musketry fringed the front of the line of battle, while the artillery on the hills in the rear of the infantry shook the earth with its thunder, and filled the air with the wild shrieks of the shells, that plunged into the masses of the retreating foe. To add greater horror and sublimity to the scene, the Chancellorsville House and the woods surrounding it were wrapped in flames. In the midst of this awful scene General Lee mounted upon that horse which we all remember so well, (the famous gray, Traveller, which survived him,) rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His appearance was the signal for one of those uncontrollable outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers, their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with their feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realisation of all that soldiers dream of — triumph! And as I looked upon him, in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from some such scene that men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of the gods.”
At this moment a courier brought him a note from Jackson, who, not mentioning that he was mortally wounded, congratulated General Lee upon the great victory. A shadow passed over the face of the noble commander, as he said, in a voice of pained emotion: “Tell General Jackson that the victory is his, and that the congratulations are due to him.” When this message reached Jackson, the only reply he made was to say, “Then General Lee should give the glory to God.” It was the only dispute that in five-and-twenty years’ comradeship ever passed between these two soldiers of the Lord.
Although the battle was now won, the fighting was not yet over. Hooker, retreating from Chancellorsville, took up a position on another line, nearer the Rappahannock River. There Lee was preparing to attack him again, on the same day (May 3rd), when his operations were arrested by the intelligence that Sedgwick was moving upon his rear from Fredericksburg. Sedgwick, after sending back to Hooker two of the three corps which he had taken down the river to cross at Fredericksburg, still had nearly 30,000 men, against the 9000 with which Jubal Early was holding the heights and Marye’s Hill. It was not until the morning of the 3rd, however, that he succeeded in breaking through Early’s attenuated line; and then every yard of his progress in the direction of Chancellorsville was disputed by Wilcox, reinforced later by McLaws and Anderson. These latter reinforcements were sent by Lee, who, the next day (the 4th), left Stuart in Hooker’s front, and joined them in an attack which drove Sedgwick precipitately and with heavy loss to the river. The lateness of the hour saved his command from annihilation, and during the night he escaped across the Rappahannock. General Lee then countermarched, and turned his attention once more to Hooker, whom he expected to encounter in a final battle near Chancellorsville, the next day. But on the night of the 5th, amidst a heavy storm that lasted three days, Hooker in his turn had withdrawn his army across the river on a bridge laid down for him, leaving Lee in victorious and undisputed possession south of the Rappahannock.29
Lee took desperate chances in this extraordinary battle, and the victory achieved was correspondingly great. If the hazards of the terrene and the sheltering forests favoured the execution of his boldly conceived plan, it is also true that the loss of Jackson, the disabling of A. P. Hill, and at the last the intervention of the storm, prevented the logical military outcome of his successful strategy — namely, the complete destruction of Hooker’s army. As it was, the Federal losses at Chancellorsville were 18,000 in killed, wounded, and missing. The Confederate’s losses are not authoritatively stated, but they probably reached 15,000. Their loss of Jackson was the greatest suffered by either army during the whole war in the fall of one officer.
Like Bayard and Turenne, Stonewall Jackson met his death on the glorious field, amidst the flame and thunder of battle. Yet a week passed before his heroic soul took final leave of the fallen and mutilated body. His wounded arm having been amputated, he was removed to a house at Guinea Station, on the railroad from Fredericksburg to Richmond. At first there seemed hope of his recovery; but when this began to fail General Lee “wept like a child,” and exclaimed, “Surely God will not visit us with such a calamity! If I have ever prayed in my life, I have pleaded with the Lord that Jackson might be spared to us.” The end came on the next Sabbath day, May 10th, 1863. In his dying delirium, Stonewall Jackson was once more at the head of his corps. “Tell A. P. Hill to prepare for action!” he shouted. Then, with a sigh of relief, he said, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” His body lay in state for three days in the Capitol at Richmond. Then it was taken to Lexington, his old home, and laid to rest there, in the beautiful Valley, where Lee, too, now sleeps, and
“Where Death and Glory keep eternal Sabbath.”
The Army of Northern Virginia added lustre to its undying fame at Chancellorsville. General Hooker, who with all his gasconading was a fine solider and a magnanimous one, did not claim that his defeat had been due to odds against him. On the contrary, in his testimony before the Federal committee on the conduct of the war, he rendered the following remarkable tribute to the army of Lee: —
“Our artillery has always been superior to that of the rebels, as was also our infantry, except in discipline; and that, for reasons not necessary to mention, never did equal Lee’s army. With a rank and file vastly inferior to our own, intellectually and physically, that army has, by discipline alone, acquired a character for steadiness and efficiency unsurpassed, in my judgment, in ancient or modern times. We have not been able to rival it, nor has there been any near approximation to it in the other rebel armies.”
(To be continued.)