Visiting Chancellorsville (Again)

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Fairview portion of the Chancellorsville battlefield, scene of the worst fighting. This photo is from the Union perspective looking toward Hazel Grove, where Confederate cannon pounded the northern lines.

By Colin Woodward

This month marks the anniversary of the Chancellorsville campaign. Shelby Foote once called battle of Chancellorsville “Lee’s masterpiece.” Indeed, the battle showed Lee at his best, where he defeated an army that outnumbered him 2:1. Scholars know well the story of Jackson’s immortal flank attack and Hooker’s notorious loss of nerve on the eve of the battle. And yet, after visiting the battlefield again, I learned a lot I didn’t know about one of war’s greatest fights.

To get a head start on the battle’s anniversary, I visited Chancellorsville in late April, when I figured the weather would be the most spring-like. I’ve been through the battlefield numerous times while heading to points west. Only a few times, however, have I left my car and walked around. My most recent visit was the most in-depth.

I decided to follow the path of Jackson’s troops as they formed and marched to attack Joseph Hooker’s right flank on May 2. The National Park Service road is paved and has room for two cars, but in 1863, the road probably looked more like this one nearby. Actually, it probably wasn’t even this good.

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The Wilderness

Jackson’s men marched through the gloomy Wilderness area, which would be the scene of an equally vicious battle in 1864, fought on much of the same ground. In 1863, the Wilderness was a tangled area of second growth. The region might have been good one lumber, but not farming. The locals referred to the area as the “Poison Fields” due to the high concentration of iron in the soil.

The rich minerals in the ground, however, provided the iron for the Catharine Furnace, pictured here. The furnace helped make iron for Confederate munitions, though Federal troops destroyed it in 1864.

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To fire the furnaces, workers needed plenty of wood, which the Wilderness had in abundance. The woods were of use to locals making a living, but it was a nightmare for marching soldiers. “It is impossible to conceive a fields worse adapted to the movements of a grand army,” wrote John Davis Billings, a Massachusetts artillery officer, concerning the Wilderness.

Jackson’s Flank March

At around eight in the morning on May 2, Jackson’s men passed Catharine’s Furnace. In one of the war’s worst moments of recon, Union eye witnesses saw the Rebel movements, but convinced themselves that Jackson’s men were retreating. Some fighting took place. Especially hard hit were the men of the 23rd Georgia.

Lee waged the Chancellorsville campaign at great risk to his army. He split his army twice: once when he left 10,000 troops to defend against Yankees Fredericksburg and a second time in the Wilderness. Hooker’s army outnumbered Lee’s 2:1, but Lee sent half of his army with Jackson to smash Hooker’s right flank. Jackson’s infantry assault was one of the largest single attacks of the war. His troops stretched out for ten miles, and it took six hours for all of his men to pass a single spot along the march.

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The Wilderness, photographed in the spring of 1866

Jackson didn’t launch his assault until late in the afternoon. His attack sent the Union forces reeling, but did not crush the Yankee forces, and Stonewall wanted to resume the fighting that night. While patrolling for a night assault, Jackson was seriously wounded by his own men and died a week later.

Hazel Grove and Fairview

In the course of the battle, the Federals made the serious mistake of abandoning the high ground at Hazel Grove. Seeing their opportunity, the Rebels took Hazel Grove, from where they placed their artillery to fire at Yankees defending the area near the Chancellor house, where Hooker had his headquarters.

Jackson’s afternoon flank attack is the most famous part of the battle. But the bloodiest combat took place on May 3 in the area known as Fairview, where Federal troops and artillery batteries fought determined attacks by the Confederates, who closed in on three sides. It was one of the ugliest mornings of the war. In the early hours, more than 17,500 men were killed, wounded, or captured. The NPS writes it was “perhaps the bloodiest morning in America’s history.”

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Hazel Grove, looking toward what would have been the Union lines

The fighting on the 3rd was vicious. Hooker himself was wounded when an artillery shell dislodged a chunk of the Chancellor house, which fell on his head. Other major fighting took place at Salem Church, though it is considered a separate battle.

Visitors to Chancellorsville have the advantage of being at the center of some of the war’s major battles. Chancellorsville overlaps with the Wilderness as well as the Fredericksburg battlefield. Spotsylvania is not far away either. Last month, I took the opportunity to visit the Fredericksburg battlefield again, where significant fighting took place in May of 1863.

Fredericksburg, Part II

Just as Chancellorsville is overshadowed by Jackson’s flank attack, it is tempting to think that the battle of Fredericksburg = Marye’s Heights. The fighting there on 1862 December 13 was dramatic and unforgettable. But there was much happening on other parts of the field. And in May of 1863, six months after Burnside’s failed offensive, Union troops under John Sedgwick again attacked Marye’s Heights. This time, in what has been called the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, they were successful in driving the Confederates from the infamous sunken road. The fighting was far less bloody, but it was dramatic.

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Site of Lee’s headquarters on Fredericksburg battlefield. Cannon is pointed toward the historic part of the town.

Lee Drive

If one follows Lee Drive, it will take you through the heart of the Fredericksburg battlefield. The area is heavily wooded in parts. Ironically, it feels more like the Wilderness at times than the Wilderness battlefield. A steep climb will take you to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters, which had a good view of the town. Throughout the park, Confederate entrenchments are still visible.

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Scene of the extreme right of the Confederate line at Fredericksburg. The “Meade Pyramid” is located on the other side of the railroad tracks.

The Fredericksburg battlefield stretches to Hamilton Crossing. There, Lee Drive ends at what is one of the prettiest parts of the park. One gets a view of the railroad and the “Meade Pyramid,” which commemorates the only Union breakthrough of December 1862.

A Matter of Trust

Civil War parks, of course, have value for historians and non-historians alike. Lee Drive is a perfect spot for joggers and cyclists. And the battlefields themselves double as hiking trails. In September of last year, the Civil War Trust announced it had bought 25 acres of the Fredericksburg battlefield. Hopefully, such efforts will continue, while respecting Virginians’ willingness to expand living and commercial space in the area.

In the meantime, visiting battlefield such as Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg remain one of the most thrilling aspects of studying Robert E. Lee and the Civil War.

Colin Woodward is editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall. He welcomes submissions from those interested in the Lee family of Virginia and the Civil War.

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Podcast: David Cox

REL book religion

David Cox is a UVA graduate, doctor of theology, and the author of The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee. He and Colin talk in Lexington (where Lee is buried) about the general’s religious beliefs and how he tried to live the life of a good Episcopalian. David also discusses his work on a new project concerning the Lee Chapel.