Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson
On May 2, 1863, the day that Lt. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, his Second Corps “foot cavalry” fought two separate times with the Army of the Potomac. The first encounter took place in the afternoon at the Catharine Furnace ironworks, south of the main Union positions in and around the town, along the Orange Turnpike. Regiments of the Federal Third Corps engaged there in intense skirmishing with the rear guard of Jackson’s 28,000-strong force, capturing nearly an entire regiment. That small success, however, proved inconsequential. Most of the Second Corps column had marched south, then stealthily circled to the west for their second combat of the day, emerging a half mile from the endpoint of the Union army’s right flank. Stonewall launched a ferocious attack from there at about 5:30 p.m., surprising and completely routing the 11,000 men of the federal Eleventh Corps, and setting the stage for a significant Confederate victory.
I’ve found only one Union soldier whose writing provides first-person accounts of both engagements. The stories are contained in a series of letters about the Battle of Chancellorsville written by my great grandfather, George A. Marden. At the time, he was a 24-year-old lieutenant and a recently-appointed Acting Assistant Adjutant General for the U.S. Sharpshooters Brigade (U.S.S.S.), 3d Division of Third Corps. Marden provides a ripping-good narrative of the sharpshooters in action at Catharine Furnace. His second account, about escorting prisoners taken that afternoon to a supposedly-secure federal position on the turnpike, evolves into a survival story. Nearing their destination as rifle and artillery fire sounded to the west, Marden’s party was confronted by a stampede of panicked Union soldiers being driven by Stonewall’s oncoming charge.
May 2 was the second day of fighting at Chancellorsville. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the Federal commander, discretely had moved four of his corps across the Rappahannock River to the town, ten miles west of Confederate-held Fredericksburg. Seventy-two thousand Union troops and 184 artillery pieces now occupied the town. Meanwhile, a federal force was left near Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, to be ready to attack the Rebels from the east. The general’s complex campaign plan— which he at one point declared “perfect”— was to trap his enemy between these two wings of his Army. In a written message circulated among his officers on April 30, he predicted that Army of Northern Virginia commander Gen. Robert E. Lee would be forced to “ingloriously fly or come out from his defenses [at Fredericksburg] and give us battle on our own ground, where destruction awaits him.” Marden, a collector of documents for a history of the Sharpshooters he hoped to write, copied Hooker’s decree verbatim and later mailed it home.[i]
Hooker’s strategy worked, insofar as Lee and Jackson were made to “come out” from their Fredericksburg defenses with reinforcements for the small Confederate force positioned east of Chancellorsville. Lee now had 48,300 men on hand to oppose “Fighting Joe’s” 72,000.
There was limited fighting on May 1, but Hooker pulled his men back when they met resistance moving towards Fredericksburg. Lee reckoned that pursuing and attacking his well-entrenched opponent from the east could lead to his army’s destruction. He and Jackson sat up late that night to hatch an audacious plan to counter the Union battle strategy. Lee would stay put with 14,000 soldiers, demonstrating enough to keep the Yankees expecting an attack on their well-manned left flank. Jackson would march Second Corps along narrow roads south of Hooker’s army and circle around to its rear, emerging on the opposite side of Chancellorsville from Lee. He either would seize U.S. Ford on the Rappahannock or attack the reportedly weak federal right flank on the Orange Turnpike. If Stonewall attacked and succeeded, Lee would move in from the east. If the day did not go well, retreat was an option.[ii]
In the early-morning light of May 2, Union lookouts in Hazel Grove, a meadow south of the Turnpike, spied the Confederates rapidly marching through a clearing at the Catharine Furnace ironworks, about a mile south of their post. Hooker moved Third Corps, under Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, to the meadow. His artillery opened up, with little effect. Shortly after noon, Hooker approved Sickles’ request to cautiously advance on Jackson’s column. Nine regiments of the Third moved out, spearheaded by Col. Hiram Berdan’s two-regiment Sharpshooter Brigade. Additional regiments followed, in case Jackson counterattacked. Following a creek bed south, the men thrashed their way through the thick, scrubby woods native to the region locals called the Wilderness. “I came very near to losing all my clothes as well as my eyes,” Marden declared.
As his men approached the Furnace, Berdan ordered Marden to “superintend” a skirmish line and advance on the Confederates’ rear guard, the Georgia 23d Infantry. A staff aide and quartermaster prior to his promotion to A.A.A.G., the sharpshooter had chaffed for such an assignment. He was anxious, however: this would be his first combat experience on a skirmish line. In an April letter home, he revealed his previous duties “hardly served to show what sort of stuff I was made of… I feel myself but an untried soldier.” Once the fighting commenced, however, his apprehensions apparently faded. “The bullets began to whistle uncomfortably close but in a few minutes I got so excited I did not think of them,” the soldier later wrote.[iii]
The sharpshooters moved forward, steadily firing their breech-loading Sharps rifles, which could reload and fire up to three times faster than the muzzle loading Springfield and Enfield rifle-muskets commonly carried by infantry on both sides. A soldier in a supporting Pennsylvania regiment got a demonstration of the marksmanship, teamwork and tricky tactics for which Berdan’s men were becoming well-known. Creeping through the long grass along the creek bed, the Pennsylvanian wrote, one of the sharpshooters raised his cap on a ramrod. When fired upon, the soldier instantly “gave a leap and fell on the grass as if dead. This caused several Rebs to look out from their hiding places.” Other sharpshooters then opened fire.
The men in the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S., mostly seasoned veterans, slowly pushed their foe out of the woods and into the ironworks clearing. Once there, the lieutenant watched “the rebel train skedaddling double quick.” Although losing ground, the outnumbered Confederate rear guard had delayed their attackers and most of Second Corps had passed south. Fighting continued and some in the 23d Georgia sheltered in an ironworks building. Their pursuers formed a line about 400 yards away and took aim.
The U.S.S.S. 2nd Regiment chaplain Alonzo Barber— known for both his marksmanship and his popular sermons— was on the skirmish line. The so-called “Fighting Preacher” carried a custom-made two barreled rifle, a combination long-range target rifle and shotgun. Marden’s letter captured him in action:
“When the enemy showed their flag of truce he thought it was some trick and wanted to fire. The sight of a butternut looking through a barn window at 400 yards was too much for him, and as they did not come out right away he blazed away and the rebs dropped out of sight like so many prairie dogs… In a few moments the rebs showed a white rag and came in.”
The sharpshooters took 56 prisoners from the building, noted Marden. When he later asked them why they didn’t flee, the men told him “the balls came too close whenever they showed themselves.”[iv]
The fighting continued, with additional artillery and regiments from both sides drawn into the battle. Eventually, the rear guard was ordered to retreat. The remaining soldiers of the 23rd Georgia never got the summons, continued to fight and were pushed south of the furnace, into a cut for an unfinished railroad.
“We then advanced those of us still on the left and in sight firing and keeping their attention, those on the right in the woods quickly and silently until they had entirely outflanked them,” wrote Marden, describing the scene. “Then they opened fire and [when the enemy] could not retreat they gave up, with… the single exception of the Lt. Col. who being mounted got away.”[v]
Was this a Rebel retreat? Hooker initially thought it might not, earlier expressing concern that later there might be an attack on the federal right. When Sickles reported his successes at the furnace, however, “Fighting Joe” overruled his initial caution. Thinking his “perfect” plans were working, the general began planning for the pursuit of what he thought was a fleeing Army of Northern Virginia.[vi]
Marden later wrote home that the afternoon fight at the furnace had been “a most splendid affair” for the sharpshooters. His evaluation of the evening adventure he was about to have on the Orange Turnpike was the opposite. The young lieutenant would recall that event as one of his most unusual and more dangerous wartime experiences, writing “I don’t know how I escaped.”
To be continued…
[i] Edward J. Stackpole, Chancellorsville: Lee’s Greatest Battle (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Co., 1958) 95, quoted in CAPT Margaret Harris, “Lee Uses Audacity, Surprise to Defeat Union Forces,” Infantry Magazine, April-June, 2015, 73.; Stephen Sears, Chancellorsville (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996) 120, 236.; George Marden, Civil War letters, April 30, 1863, available at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H.)
[ii] Sears 198, 212, 252; Theodore Dodge, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, (Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1881) Retrieved at : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5715/5715-h/5715-h.htm#link2H_4_0013 P. 32.
[iii] Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (New York, Alfred A. Knoph, 1992) 148, 150; Sears, 254; Dodge, 67-69; Marden letters, May 8, April 16.
[iv] Furgurson, 151; Sears, 255-256; Marden, May 8
[v] Sears, 255; Marden, Ibid.
[vi] Sears, 256; May 2 dispatch from Brig. Gen. J.H. Van Alen to Gens. Howard and Slocum, quoted in Furgurson, 148.