Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Last Triumph of Stonewall Jackson

The story of the battle of Chancellorsville and of Jackson's famous flank movement, with its disastrous result to Hooker's army, and to the Confederates in the loss of their beloved leader, has been often told. But these narratives are from the outside; we propose to give one here from the inside, in the graphic description of Heros Von Borcke, General J. E. B. Stuart's chief of staff, who took an active part in the stirring events of that critical 2nd of May, 1863.

It is a matter of general history how General Hooker led his army across the Rappahannock into that ugly region at Chancellorsville, with its morasses, hills, and ravines, its dense forest of scrub-oaks and pines, and its square miles of tangled undergrowth, which was justly known as The Wilderness; and how he strongly intrenched himself against an attack in front, with breastworks of logs and an abattis of felled trees. It is equally familiar how Lee, well aware of the peril of attacking these formidable works, accepted the bold plan of Stonewall Jackson, who proposed to make a secret flank movement and fall with his entire corps on Hooker's undefended rear. This was a division of Lee's army which might have led to disaster and destruction; but he had learned to trust in Jackson's star. He accordingly made vigorous demonstrations in Hooker's front, in order to attract his attention and keep him employed, while Jackson was marching swiftly and stealthily through the thick woods, with Stuart's cavalry between him and the foe, to the Orange plank-road, four miles westward from Chancellorsville. With this introductory sketch of the situation we leave the details of the march to Von Borrcke.

All was bustle and confusion as I galloped along the lines on the morning of the 2nd, to obtain, according to Stuart's orders, the latest instructions for our cavalry from General Lee, who was located at a distance of some miles to our right. Anderson's and McLaws's sharp-shooters were advancing and already exchanging shots with the enemy's skirmishers—the line of battle of these two divisions having been partially extended over the space previously occupied by Jackson's corps, that they might cover its movements.

"This splendid corps meanwhile was marching in close columns in a direction which set us all wondering what could be the intentions of old Stonewall; but as we beheld him riding along, heading the troops himself, we should as soon have thought of questioning the sagacity of our admired chief as of hesitating to follow him blindly wherever he should lead. The orders of the cavalry were to report to Jackson and to form his advanced-guard; and in that capacity we marched silently along through the forest, taking a small by-road, which brought us several times so near the enemy's lines that the stroke of axes, mingled with the hum of voices from their camp, was distinctly audible.

"Thus commenced the famous flank march which, more than any other operation of the war, proved the brilliant strategical talents of General Lee and the consummate ability of his lieutenant. About two o'clock a body of Federal cavalry came in sight, making, however, but slight show of resistance, and falling back slowly before us. By about four o'clock we had completed our movement without encountering any material obstacle, and reached a patch of woods in rear of the enemy's right wing, formed by the Eleventh Corps, Howard's, which was encamped in a large open field not more than half a mile distant.

"Halting here, the cavalry threw forward a body of skirmishers to occupy the enemy's attention, while the divisions of Jackson's corps—A. P. Hill's, Colston's, and Rode's, numbering in all about twenty-eight thousand men—moved into line of battle as fast as they arrived. Ordered to reconnoitre the position of the Federals, I rode cautiously forward through the forest, and reached a point whence I obtained a capital view of the greater part of the troops, whose attitude betokened how totally remote was any suspicion that a numerous host was so near at hand.

"It was evident that the whole movement we had thus so successfully executed was regarded as merely an unimportant cavalry raid, for only a few squadrons were drawn up in line to oppose us, and a battery of four guns were placed in a position to command the plank-road from Germana, over which we had been marching for the last two hours. The main body of the troops were listlessly reposing, while some regiments were looking on, drawn up on dress parade; artillery horses were quietly grazing at some distance from their guns, and the whole scene presented a picture of the most perfect heedlessness and nonchalance, compatible only with utter unconsciousness of impending danger.

"While complacently gazing on this extraordinary spectacle, somewhat touched myself apparently with the spell of listless incaution in which our antagonists were locked, I was startled with the sound of closely approaching footsteps, and, turning in their direction, beheld a patrol of six or eight of the enemy's infantry just breaking through the bushes and gazing at me with most unmistakable astonishment. I had no time to lose here, that was certain; so quickly tugging my horse's head round in the direction of my line of retreat, and digging my spurs into his sides, I dashed off from before the bewildered Yankees, and was out of sight ere they had time to take steady aim, the bullets that came whizzing after me flying far wide of the mark.

"On my return to the spot where I had left Stuart, I found him, with Jackson and the officers of their respective staffs, stretched out along the grass beneath a gigantic oak, and tranquilly discussing their plans for the impending battle which both seemed confidently to regard as likely to end in a great and important victory for our arms. Towards five o'clock Jackson's adjutant, Major Pendleton, galloped up to us and reported that the line of battle was formed and all was in readiness for immediate attack. Accordingly the order was at once given for the whole corps to advance. All hastened forthwith to their appointed posts, General Stuart and his staff joining the cavalry, which was to operate on the left of our infantry.

"Scarcely had we got up to our men when the Confederate yell, which always preceded a charge, burst forth along our lines, and Jackson's veterans, who had been with difficulty held back till that moment, bounded forward towards the astounded and perfectly paralyzed enemy, while the thunder of our horse-artillery, on whom devolved the honor of opening the ball, reached us from the other extremity of the line. The more hotly we sought to hasten to the front, the more obstinately did we get entangled in the undergrowth, while our infantry moved on so rapidly that the Federals were already completely routed by the time we had got thoroughly quit of the forest.

It was a strange spectacle that now greeted us. The whole of the Eleventh Corps had broken at the first shock of the attack; entire regiments had thrown down their arms, which were lying in regular lines on the ground, as if for inspection; suppers just prepared had been abandoned; tents, baggage, wagons, cannons, half-slaughtered oxen, covered the foreground in chaotic confusion, while in the background a host of many thousand Yankees were discerned scampering for their lives as fast as their limbs could carry them, closely followed by our men, who were taking prisoners by the hundreds, and scarcely firing a shot."

That the story of panic here told is not too much colored by the writer's sympathy for his cause, may be seen by the following extract from Lossing's Civil War in America, a work whose sympathies are distinctly on the other side. After saying that Jackson's march had not passed unobserved by the Federals, who looked on it as a retreat towards Richmond, and were preparing for a vigorous pursuit of the supposed fugitives, Lossing thus describes the Confederate onset and the Federal rout:

"He (Jackson) had crossed the Orange plank-road, and, under cover of the dense jungle of the wilderness, had pushed swiftly northward to the old turnpike and beyond, feeling his enemy at every step. Then he turned his face towards Chancellorsville, and, just before six o'clock in the evening, he burst from the thickets with twenty-five thousand men, and, like a sudden, unexpected, and terrible tornado, swept on towards the flank and rear of Howard's corps, which occupied the National right; the game of the forest—deer, wild turkeys, and hares—flying wildly before him, and becoming to the startled Unionists the heralds of the approaching tempest of war. These mute messengers were followed by the sound of bugles; then by a few shots from approaching skirmishers; then by a tremendous yell from a thousand throats and a murderous fire from a strong battle line. Jackson, in heavy force, was upon the Eleventh Corps at the moment when the men were preparing for supper and repose, without a suspicion of danger near. Leven's division, on the extreme right, received the first blow, and almost instantly the surprised troops, panic-stricken, fled towards the rear, along the line of the corps, communicating their emotions of alarm to the other divisions. . . . In the wildest confusion the fugitives rushed along the road towards Chancellorsville, upon the position of General Carl Schurz, whose division had already retreated, in anticipation of the onset, and the turbulent tide of frightened men rolled back upon General A. Von Steinwehr, utterly regardless of the exertions of the commander of the corps and his subordinate officers to check their flight. Only a few regiments, less demoralized than the others, made resistance, and these were instantly scattered like chaff, leaving half their number dead or dying on the field."

Battle of Chancellorville


With this vivid picture of an army in a panic, we shall again take up Von Borcke's personal narrative at the point where we left it:

"The broken nature of the ground was against all cavalry operations, and though we pushed forward with all our will, it was with difficulty we could keep up with Jackson's 'Foot-cavalry,' as this famous infantry was often called. Meanwhile, a large part of the Federal army, roused by the firing and the alarming reports from the rear, hastened to the field of action, and exerted themselves in vain to arrest the disgraceful rout of their comrades of the Eleventh Corps. Numerous batteries having now joined the conflict, a terrific cannonade roared along the lines, and the fury of the battle was soon at its full height. Towards dark a sudden pause ensued in the conflict, occasioned by Jackson giving orders for his lines to reform for the continuation of the combat, the rapid and prolonged pursuit of the enemy having thrown them into considerable confusion. Old Stonewall being thoroughly impressed with the conviction that in a few hours the enemy's whole forces would be defeated, and that their principal line of retreat would be in the direction of Ely's Ford, Stuart was ordered to proceed at once towards that point with a portion of his cavalry, in order to barricade the road and as much as possible impede the retrograde movement of the enemy.

"In this operation we were joined by a North Carolina infantry regiment, which was already on its way towards the river. Leaving the greater part of the brigade behind us under Fitz Lee's command, we took only the First Virginia Cavalry with us, and, trotting rapidly along a small by-path, overtook the infantry about two miles from the ford. Riding with Stuart a little ahead of our men, I suddenly discovered, on reaching the summit of a slight rise in the road, a large encampment in the valley to our right, not more than a quarter of a mile from where we stood; and, farther still, on the opposite side of the river, more camp-fires were visible, indicating the presence of a large body of troops.

"Calling a halt, the general and I rode cautiously forward to reconnoitre the enemy a little more closely, and we managed to approach near enough to hear distinctly the voices and distinguish the figures of the men sitting around their fires or strolling through the camp. The unexpected presence of so large a body of the enemy immediately in our path entirely disconcerted our previous arrangements. Nevertheless Stuart determined on giving them a slight surprise and disturbing their comfort by a few volleys from our infantry. Just as the regiment, mustering about a thousand, had formed into line according to orders, and was prepared to advance on the enemy, two officers of General A. P. Hill's staff rode up in great haste and excitement, and communicated something in a low tone to General Stuart, by which he seemed greatly startled and affected.

"'Take the command of that regiment, and act on your own responsibility,' were his whispered injunctions to me, as he immediately rode off, followed by the other officers and the cavalry at their topmost speed.

"The thunder of the cannon, which for the last hour had increased in loudness, announced that Jackson had recommenced the battle, but as to the course or actual position of affairs I had not an iota of information, and my anxiety being moreover increased by the suddenness of Stuart's departure on some unknown emergency, I felt rather awkwardly situated. Here was I in the darkness of the night, in an unknown and thickly wooded country, some six miles from our main army, and opposite to a far superior force, whom I was expected to attack with troops whom I had never before commanded, and to whom I was scarcely known. I felt, however, that there was no alternative but blind obedience, so I advanced with the regiment to within about fifty yards of the enemy's encampment and gave the command to fire.

A hail of bullets rattled through the forest, and as volley after volley was fired, the confusion and dismay occasioned in the camp were indescribable. Soldiers and officers could be plainly seen by the light of the fires walking helplessly about, horses were galloping wildly in all directions, and the sound of bugles and drums mingled with the cries of the wounded and flying, who sought in the distant woods a shelter against the murderous fire of their unseen enemy. The troops whom we thus dispersed and put to flight consisted, as I was afterward informed, of the greater part of Averil's cavalry division, and a great number of he men of this command were so panic-stricken that they did not consider themselves safe until they had reached the opposite side of the Rapidan, when they straggled off for miles all through Culpeper County.

"Our firing had been kept up for about half an hour, and had by this time stirred up alarm in the camps on the other side of the river, the troops of which were marching on us from various directions. Accordingly, I gave orders to my North Carolinians to retire, leaving the task of bringing his command back to the colonel; while, anxious to rejoin Stuart as soon as I could, I galloped on ahead through the dark forest, whose solemn silence was only broken by the melancholy cry of hosts of whippoorwills. The firing had now ceased altogether, and all fighting seemed to have been entirely given up, which greatly increased my misgivings. After a tedious ride of nearly an hour over the field of battle, still covered with hundreds of wounded groaning in their agony, I at last discovered Stuart seated under a solitary plum-tree, busily writing despatches by the dim light of a lantern.

"From General Stuart I now received the first intimation of the heavy calamity which had befallen us by the wounding of Jackson. After having instructed his men to fire at everything approaching from the direction of the enemy, in his eagerness to reconnoitre the position of the Federals, and entirely forgetting his own orders, he had been riding with his staff-officers outside our pickets, when, on their return, being mistaken for the enemy, the little party were received by a South Carolina regiment with a volley that killed or wounded nearly every man of them and laid low our beloved Stonewall himself. The Federals advancing at the same time, a severe skirmish ensued, in the course of which one of the bearers of the litter on which the general was being carried was killed, and Jackson fell heavily to the ground, receiving soon afterward a second wound. For a few minutes, in fact, the general was in the hands of the enemy, but his men, becoming aware of his perilous position, rushed forward, and, speedily driving back the advancing foe, carried their wounded commander to the rear."

Jackson received three balls, one in the right hand and two in the left arm, one of these shattering the bone just below the shoulder and severing an artery. He was borne to the Wilderness tavern, where a Confederate hospital had been established, and there his arm was amputated. Eight days after receiving his wounds, on the 10th of May, he died, an attack of pneumonia being the chief cause of his death. His last words were, as a smile of ineffable sweetness passed over his pale face, "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."

Thus died the man who was justly named the "right hand" of General Lee, and whose death converted his last great victory into a serious disaster for the Confederate cause, the loss of a leader like Stonewall Jackson being equivalent to the destruction of an army.