A Yankee’s Tale of Two Encounters with Stonewall’s Foot Cavalry at Chancellorsville (Part 2)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

Part Two: “I don’t know how I escaped”

Click here to go to Part One of this article.

Confederate prisoners and battle flags being taken to the rear at Chancellorsville (Edwin Forbes, May 3, 1863, Library of Congress)

The Yankees were fairly full of themselves when the May 2 fighting wound down at Catharine Furnace ironworks. The last elements of Jackson’s Second Corps rear guard— minus 250 men taken prisoner— were headed south and away from Chancellorsville. Federal Third Corps batteries were blasting away at their withdrawal. Some started to believe the Confederates could be “ingloriously” retreating, as their commander “Fighting Joe” Hooker had suggested could happen when they were confronted by his Army of the Potomac.

In a letter home to New Hampshire, Lt. Marden puffed up a bit about his unit’s performance, reflecting the celebratory mood in the ranks, where “the praise of the Sharpshooters was in everybody’s mouth.” Marden was picked to lead a detail escorting captured Georgians to the rear. While they were marched to the north, some of the prisoners began gloating that Stonewall had a special surprise still to deliver that day. The Sharpshooter’s letter didn’t record exactly what was said, but the threats likely resembled a taunt remembered by another Union soldier: “You may think you done a big thing just now, but wait till Jackson gets around your right.”[i]

Marden and his party were headed for an abattis (a barrier of felled trees) that crossed the planked surface of the Orange Turnpike and extended into the woods on either side. From that point, the federal Twelfth Corps line stretched east, towards Hooker’s headquarters in Chancellorsville center. The army’s right flank, guarded by Eleventh Corps, followed the turnpike to the west for two miles before it abruptly ended. Hooker anticipated the battle’s major combat would occur on the Union left flank.

As they approached the barrier, the sharpshooters could see that their talkative prisoners were not liars. Far from retiring to the south with his men, Jackson had led them around to the west of the Eleventh Corps flank. The Second Corps column had emerged on the Orange Turnpike and formed up for battle, out of sight of Eleventh Corps’ flank. As Marden’s party drew close to the plank road in the fading evening light, Stonewall’s surprise attack was well underway.

“Jackson came around [the flank]… driving the 11th Corps down the plank road regular Bull Run style,” wrote Marden. Chaos reigned as panicked federal soldiers stampeded down the turnpike, many without rifles. Some burst out of the woods in front of his detail, disappearing into the thick growth on the other side.

“They are the men who used to fight mit Siegel*,” the lieutenant spat out in his letter, referring to the thousands of native born Germans who served in the Eleventh. “I never heard a more conglomerate dialect of cursing, fright and blubbering in Dutch English and French than they presented.” (Many troops— especially New Englanders—referred to the immigrant soldiers as “Dutchmen.”) In a later letter Marden’s tone softened. “I am not ready to condemn them,” he wrote. “They had overwhelming odds and were completely surprised.”

Suddenly, Minie balls were buzzing over the Sharpshooter’s party, fired by terrified Eleventh Corps soldiers on the turnpike barrier. The right was now the main front in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Marden and his men, travelling with a large group of gray-uniformed Georgians, were in the confused space between a desperate Yankee line of defense and Stonewall Jackson’s hard-charging infantry.[ii]

The stampede of the Union Eleventh at Chancellorsville. From Harper’s pictorial history of the Civil War (Chicago, Ill/ McDonnell Bros., 1868) Part 2, p. 494. (Artists Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Library of Congress)

While Marden was readying to march his prisoners north, Third Corps commander Daniel Sickles reported his success at the furnace to Hooker. Believing his foe was abandoning Chancellorsville, Hooker pulled 25,000 infantrymen, cavalry troopers and supporting artillery south from his main lines, massing them around Hazel Grove and the ironworks. Sickles would take some of them to pursue Stonewall’s retreat. The other troops would confront the Confederates who had remained east of Chancellorsville with their army’s commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Assuming his enemy also was about to exit Fredericksburg, at 4:10 p.m. Hooker telegraphed the Union force opposite the town to be ready to chase those Rebels when they retreated.[iii]

On the Union right that afternoon there had been reports of Confederate movement south and west of the Eleventh Corps. A few units heeded the warnings and took defensive measures, but most of the Eleventh’s brass, including corps commander Maj. Gen. General Oliver Howard, dismissed the alarms. By late afternoon, most rifles were stacked for the night. Wood smoke, the aroma of cooking meat and strains of fiddle music permeated the air around the Union campsites.

The long red line traces Jackson’s route from the federal left flank to its right flank, on the Orange Turnpike. The Second Corps charge is represented by the red arrow. The Confederates reached and, in places, went over the barrier where Marden had earlier transferred his prisoners. (Creative Commons, map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)

Jackson arrayed his men in mile-long lines facing perpendicular to Howard’s positions and launched his assault about 5:30 p.m. Although hot, exhausted and hungry from a hard march in eighty-degree weather, the Confederates charged full bore down the plank-covered turnpike and through the woods alongside the road. The shrieking attackers drove all manner of wildlife— even a bear— in front of them and through Eleventh campsites. Soon the sounds of rifle and artillery exchanges added to the confusion. Union soldiers were fleeing eastwards, accompanied by galloping horses and terrified mules. Valiant pockets of federal resistance that formed along the line quickly were overrun. There were few nearby troops to rush to the aid of the Eleventh. Many of units that Hooker redeployed south that afternoon had come from positions on the Orange Turnpike.

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (between 1855 and 1865). From the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs.

Howard suddenly appeared riding up the turnpike, an American flag wedged under the stump of an arm lost in an earlier battle, calling on his men to take a stand. Rank held no authority in the midst of this horde. His horse spooked and threw him to the ground.[iv]

Marden’s letter vividly describes the deteriorating scene that he witnessed that unfolded:

Jackson was… sending grape and canister down the plank road. All this happened just as I was going up the road on the left (A to B on his hand-drawn map) with some of my prisoners. I hurried as fast as Rosy [Marden’s horse] would go, but [that] was not fast enough— just as we turned the bend (at B) our Dutchmen were formed behind the abattis at the corner and seeing the graybacks as we went along they supposed the rebs also [were] coming up that road and they gave us the compliment of a volley. Fortunately, they fired high and did not hit me.[v]

This map was drawn in a letter to illustrate the road (marked “a” to “B”) on which Marden and his detail took their Confederate prisoners north from Catharine Furnace. The log abbatis on the Orange Turnpike (“Plank Road” on the map) where the Confederates were transferred is marked “B”. Jackson would be mortally wounded later that evening, just to the north of the barrier (n.b.: on this map, north is to the right of the Plank Road.) Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor House is marked “D.”)

In another letter, the Sharpshooter described the precarious situation he faced while returning to his unit:

I forgave them their volley… the first time, but the second time was not so funny and vastly more dangerous… I got the prisoners and guard over the abattis and turned [back] down the road [to the south]. As I turned our cavalry came rushing up… with sabres [sic] drawn and filled the narrow place. The gallant Howard’s men again took a panic and the whole line fired. I don’t know how I escaped. I could not go backward or forward. I got off my horse and squatted down in the pines, the Minies whistling in a perfect shower about my ears. Several of the Cavalry were killed and the confusion was extreme.[vi]

As darkness approached, federal commanders rallied some of the fleeing soldiers to fight. Troops diverted south by Hooker rushed back to the turnpike, pushing their way through waves of retreating soldiers to counterattack. It grew too dark to fight at about 9 p.m., but sporadic combat continued. Some Confederates had reached to within a half mile from Hooker’s Chancellor House headquarters. Jackson’s men reorganized on a line facing east that crossed the turnpike and included the barrier where panicked Eleventh Corps men fired at Marden and his party. Meanwhile, federal forces fell back and feverishly constructed new works around Hooker’s headquarters.

Sporadic musket and artillery continued, as men on both sides blundered about searching for their units. A Union general later wrote that the May full moon shed “just enough of its light to make darkness visible.” In fact, many of those killed and wounded that night were shot by someone from their own side, as was Stonewall Jackson, near where Marden’s detail delivered their prisoners.[vii]

The sharpshooter slowly rode south to rejoin his brigade. It would not be until the next day he discovered his horse had been hobbled by a musket ball. His letters do not mention any encounters with Second Corps soldiers that night, a remarkable stroke of lucky timing, as Jackson’s men soon would pierce the abattis where he had delivered prisoners.

Exhausted, the lieutenant reached his brigade in Hazel Grove and bedded on the ground, under his coat. The men knew that Third Corps’ positions now lay to the southwest of Hooker’s new defensive lines. The sharpshooters “bitterly thought of the morrow” as they tried to sleep, wrote Marden, knowing they were vulnerable to attack from at least three sides. The next day, May 3, promised a major battle. Confederates now were east and the west of the Army of the Potomac. And from the sounds in the woods around Hazel Grove, they were preparing to fight.[viii]

This detail shows the reconfiguration of the two sides after Jackson halted his assault, at about 9 p.m. What was the Union right is now populated by the Confederate Second Corps. The shattered remnants of Eleventh Corps collected north of Chancellorsville Center. Confederates under Lee are to the east of Union lines. George Marden’s Sharpshooters and the Third Corps, meanwhile, are in and around Hazel Grove, outside the defensive line encircling Hooker’s headquarters. (Battle of Chancellorsville, detail of Map 6, National Park Service, illustrated and produced by John Dove.)

Notes and Sources:

* Marden is referring here to the German-born former commander of Eleventh Corps, Franz Sigel and the popular slogan of German immigrants joining the army, “I’m going to fight mit Sigel.” The slogan became the title of one of the most popular songs of the Civil War.

[i]  Marden Civil War letters, April 30, May 4 (Available at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H); John L. Collins, Battles and Leaders Ed. Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel (New York: Century Co., 1888) Vol. 3, Pg. 183, quoted in Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (New York, Alfred A. Knoph, 1992) 156

[ii] Marden letters, May 4, May 8

[iii] Stephen Sears, Chancellorsville (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996) 268-269; Furgurson, 187; 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.

[iv] Sears, Chancellorsville, 260-271, 275-281, Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863…, 180-181.

[v] Marden, May 4.

[vi] Marden, May 8; Furgurson, 187-188.

[vii] Sears, 286-288; From The Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters Of General Alpheus S. Williams, edited by Milo M. Quaife (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1959), quoted in Sears, 290; Marden, May 4, May 8; The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon, by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White (Emerging Civil War Series, California, Savas Beatie, 2013) 16 [Compare Marden’s above map to the Mackowski/White map locating where Stonewall was shot.]

[viii] Marden, May 4, May 8

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