Yesterday, I wrote of the Civil War Trust’s current focus on a tract of land it’s calling the Chancellorsville-Wilderness Crossroads, which saw troop movements during both battles. Separated by a year, the battles shared much of the same geography even though each maelstrom centered in different spots.
That brought to mind, in particular, the men of the II Corps, who spent the night of May 4 camping on the very ground where they had fought a year earlier. Those camps centered around the Chancellorsville intersection itself, a few miles to the east of the Trust’s current focus. The experience of those soldiers, 152 years ago today, remains chilling and, for me, poignant.
When the Federals broke camp around Brandy Station and Culpeper and moved toward the Wilderness, the soldiers had grim memories of their time their a year earlier. “It was a solemn procession that wound its slow length along toward the various fords of the Rapidan . . .” wrote John Haley of the 17th Maine. “Physically, some of us were in a wretched condition. For myself, I can say that this all-night march was more dreaded than battle.
“We moved on through the interminable forest and endless night,” he continued. “The winds tossed the leafless branches of the trees, seeming to moan and shudder.”
The corps crossed at Ely’s Ford and moved south toward Chancellorsville. As they marched into the scene of the previous year’s fight, the landscape changed. “The forest that stood so thick is completely felled by the storm of bullets and shells that swept through them for two days and nights,” wrote Orin Dority of the 1st Ohio Artillery. “Hardly a tree was to be seen, either standing or laying, but which bore marks of a cannon musket ball.”
The ground, wrote another Federal, “everywhere was strewn more or less with human bones and the skeletons of horses. In a spot less than ten rods square, fifty skulls with their cavernous eyes were counted, their foreheads doming in silence above the brown leaves that were gathering about them.”
Haley’s 17th Maine eventually camped for the night on the same ground where they’d fought in 1863. “Relics of the battle were found in abundance, some of a not very cheerful character,” he said; “for instance, one of the men collected within a radius the length of one company fifteen skulls which he piled up as a little monument.”
Many men found the chance for grim exploration to be irresistible. “Now we are at liberty to roam over the field and view the appalling sights and present themselves in any direction one’s fancy might choose to lead him,” wrote Dority. “Hundreds of brave men fell upon that day and today they lay where they fell. They were buried and that is all you can say for them as only a few inches of dirt was thrown over them and now their bones lie bleaching in the sun, scattered about where the beasts of the forest left them.”
George A. Marden of the 1st US Sharpshooters likewise went looking down a dark memory lane:
On reaching the battlefield of Chancellorsville I set off to look over the ground which was familiar enough to me. I found the identical place I lay behind our works in Hookers famous apex, the spot where Gen Whipple was killed and where Gen sickles had his Head Qurs. Looked almost unchanged. A year ago that May morning we had left that very spot after a severe thrashing in a very uncomfortable frame of mind.
The dead horses had dwindled away to bones and the dead men to bones and underclothing. The woods to the right and in front from which we were driven on Sunday, and which I hardly ever expected to see again, was full of graves of our own and the rebel dead. Our men were measly covered up while theirs were put into regular graves. I found a dozen skulls in twice as many rods travel and could doubtless have found scores by a little examination of the thick underbrush.
Now and then a skull showed that its teeth had been taken out and a thighbone sawed in two indicated that the Southern taste for ornaments from Yankee bones was as great as ever. The leaves and underbrush and charred ground with burnt clothing corroborated the statement made last year that wounded men were burned by the woods taking fire. But in the blackened ground grass and young shrubs and beautiful flowers were springing, and I gathered a few, which I have pressed as mementoes mori.
Amos Bean of the 3rd Maine didn’t go looking for the past but, while looking for water, found it anyway. “I went a few rods from camp into the edge of the woods in pursuit of water and soon found a small brook,” he recounted:
When I emerged from the bushes there, to my surprise, at my feet lay the skeleton of a man killed in the battle the year before. He had been shot through the head while in the act of filling his canteen and killed instantly. The skeleton was in perfect place and the bones of the hand still grasping his tin dipper and the left hand on the canteen. All that told to which Army he belonged, was some of his blue clothing still under the bones. It is very likely that I am the only one who saw this sight. I forgot to mention that his old rusty rifle lay on the ground in back on the bank where he had laid it so he could get a drink and fill his canteen. I simply relate this to show a little of the sights after battle and to explain why so many are reported as missing in action.
The centerpiece of the camp was undoubtedly the former Chancellors mansion, where former army commander Joe Hooker had made his headquarters—“completely ruined as it was, burned by the enemy during the fight,” Dority wrote. “The massive walls are still standing and are pierced by shell in many places. One or two shells are still in the wall.”
Marden, too, nosed about the ruins. “I took a piece of a door knob as a relic of the house,” he later admitted. “In a hole in one of the walls a pre-war bird had built a nest and in it were four eggs. This was the sole sign of life about the ruin. . . .”
On the morning of May 5, 1863, these men had been called out of their positions at Chancellorsville to retreat north across the river; on the morning of May 5, 1864, they headed south instead. Originally aimed toward Todd’s Tavern, they were instead called back into the heart of the Wilderness for a fight growing at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection. They would never again see the river behind them. Once in the Wilderness, there would be no turning back.