“So Perfect a Slaughter”: Ruger’s Brigade at Chancellorsville on May 3

Thomas H. Ruger

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Nathan Varnold

As a park guide working for the National Park Service, it is nearly impossible to tell a story of Chancellorsville without mentioning the dominating figure Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. His legend commands attention and looms over the battle. Usually visitors also want to know about the larger figures – Jackson, Robert Lee, Oliver Otis Howard, Joseph Hooker, etc. – without recognizing the impact smaller characters play on the outcome of places like Chancellorsville.

Therefore, let’s step away from the famed figures that loom tall to discuss a lesser known, yet pivotal point of the Battle of Chancellorsville; May 3, 1863. We’ll trace the footsteps of Thomas Ruger’s Union brigade and reimagine the horrific scenes of conflict that Sunday morning 156 years ago.

Ruger’s Brigade awaited that morning in the woods south of Fairview. The brigade belonged to the Union XII Corps commanded by Henry Slocum and the formed the third brigade of Alpheus William’s division. Under Ruger’s command, the 27th Indiana, 2nd Massachusetts, 13th New Jersey, 107th New York, and 3rd Wisconsin prepared for a new day of battle.

The previous evening had brought a rout of the Union right. A night attack by the Union XII Corps had amounted to very little, but the Union line reestablished their strong position. Up to this point Ruger’s Brigade played a small role at Chancellorsville over the first two days. That would change in the upcoming hours.

At 3 and 3:30 A.M., Robert Lee sent two orders and prompted J.E.B. Stuart, who replaced Jackson, to attack at early light. “It is necessary,” dispatched Lee, “that the glorious victory thus far achieved be prosecuted with the utmost vigor, and the enemy given no time to rally.” As soon as possible Stuart needed to unite both wings of Lee’s Confederate army. Lee’s orders spoke to rectify the division of the army. The Confederate forces lay in a precarious position due to Jackson’s flank attack – a Union salient at Hazel Grove prevented the reunion of both wings. Now, Stuart carried the burden to reunite the army and help Lee find victory against Joseph Hooker and the Union Army of the Potomac.[i]

“Looking Towards Fairview” – standing atop a slight rise, this picture is taken from the position of McGowan’s South Carolinians. They moved down this grade and met the 27th IN emerging from the woods opposite.

A slight fog rose on May 3rd and from the Union left, the battle commenced. Alonzo Quint, a chaplain in the 2nd Massachusetts, remembered this fight as “Jackson’s favorite method.” The enemy amassed large numbers and “rushed on with yells.”[ii] James Archer’s Confederate brigade took Hazel Grove with relatively little bloodshed. Next, Archer’s troops turned their attention toward Ruger’s brigade. For ten minutes the Confederates and the 27th Indiana Infantry fought, which produced quick and deadly consequences. “The sloping hillside had the appearance of having had many wagon loads of rusty, grey rags brought and dumped upon it in heaps,” wrote E. B. Brown of the 27th Indiana. Eventually Archer fell back under a constant “sheet of fire blazing into the woods,” kept up by the Hoosiers who pursued the Confederate force.[iii] As Archer melted into the trees a second wave of Confederate soldiers attempted to break Ruger’s line and connect with Lee.

Chancellorsville, early on May 3, 1863 [West Point maps]

That assignment fell upon Samuel McGowan’s all South Carolina Brigade. They emerged from the woods and forced the Union advance to slow. George Thayer recalled, “steadily, the men of the Second [Massachusetts] stood up and delivered their fire.”[iv] For the better part of one hour, the opposing forces stood face-to-face, neither wanting to back down. As described through the pageantry of regimental battle flags, Henry Comey, a member of the 2nd Massachusetts noted that his regiment’s flag and the Confederate Palmetto flag opposite him repeatedly fell, but each time the banners were raised and the attacks continued.[v] At this point the Union brigade ran low on ammunition. To preserve the handful of shots remaining, orders were given to fix bayonets. The Union brigade charged. The storming blue wave pursued the enemy up slight rises, down small ravines, across the trickle of a stream, and through marshy land until they became entangled in the abatis constructed on May 1st.[vi] While driving the Confederates away, Ruger’s men captured approximately 150-200 prisoners. From this advanced position, Ruger’s Brigade awaited another attack.

The final attack against Ruger came from E. F. Paxton, leading the Confederate “Stonewall Brigade.” The Virginians moved forward and attempted to rally the tired South Carolinians. According to John H. S. Funk of the 5th Virginia, no one budged. Without the help of McGowan’s brigade the Stonewall Brigade lunged forward with some soldiers making snide comments at the South Carolinians – “We will show you how to clear away a Yankee line.” The line pushed to within 70 yards of Ruger’s stout brigade before being repulsed. Ruger, by this time, had faced three assaults. Archer. McGowan. Paxton. The men were tired and had depleted their ammunition.[vii] With no ammunition the line fell back towards the Chancellor Mansion. Here they came under the barrage of enemy artillery. “As we moved up to the road the shells from the enemy’s batteries bursted all around us,” wrote Samuel Toombs of the 13th New Jersey, “and several men were wounded…”[viii] Eventually the brigade took a defensive position on the US Ford Road, part of Hooker’s last defensive line. On May 5th, Henry Comey wrote his father about the events that transpired on May 3rd. “I have seen what was called fighting before, but I never saw anything equal to the fighting on the third. Our own Brigade fired away all its ammunition, sixty rounds per man, and were driving the enemy from our own breastworks when our ammunition gave out. The 3rd Wisconsin, the 27th Indiana and the 2nd Mass. fought like demons…”[ix]

From Fairview towards Hazel Grove. In the foreground is the “swale” that the 27th IN will meet McGowan’s South Carolinians. [photo by author]

May 3rd is often overlooked because Jackson’s flanking movement and subsequent flank attack is one of the most well-known movements of the American Civil War. He marched around Hooker. Two of Jackson’s three divisions routed Howard’s XI Corps, and pushed the pockets of resistance aside with little difficulty. However, if we stop our interpretation on May 2nd we lose sight of the larger narrative. Jackson’s movement completely divided Lee’s Army into four wings; a similar design that almost brought Lee to ruin in September the previous year.[1] As a result, J.E.B. Stuart received orders in the early hours of May 3rd to attack the Union position at once. Fighting from Hazel Grove to Fairview, the attacks along Bullock Road, and the final thrust across the Orange Plank Road pushed Hooker to his final line; all of which took place without Jackson present.  The fortitude and the tenacity of men in Ruger’s brigade, grouped with their position that Sunday morning, helped prevent a total collapse of the Union army.[x]

Nathan Varnold received his MA from Colorado State University in 2016. He has worked with the National Park Service for three summers – internship with Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania in 2015, Petersburg in 2017, and a return to Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania in 2018. His true interests are political and social history, but he dabbles in military history periodically.

Sources:

[1] James Longstreet and elements of the First Corps were down in Suffolk, VA. Jubal Early watched Fredericksburg with approximately 11,000 soldiers. Lee held Hooker in position with approximately 13,000 men. And Jackson took approximately 28,000 soldiers on his flank attack.

[i] OR, Vol. 25, pt. 2, page 769.

[ii] Quint, Alonzo H. The Record of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-65. Cambridge: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1867, 165.

[iii] Thayer, George Augustine. History of the Second Massachusetts Regiment of Infantry. Chancellorsville. A Paper Read at the Officers’ Reunion in Boston, May 11, 1880, by George A. Thayer. Boston: G. G. Ellis, Printer, 1882, 27.

[iv] Thayer, 27.

[v] Comey, Henry Newton. A Legacy of Valor: The Memoirs and Letters of Captain Henry Newton Comey, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004. Edited by Lyman Richard Comey, 112.

[vi] Thayer, 28.

[vii] Bigelow, 354.

[viii] Toombs, Samuel. Reminiscences of the War, Comprising a Detailed Account of the Experiences of the Thirteenth Regiment New Jersey Volunteers in Camp, on the March, and in Battle. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House, 1994, 54-55.

[ix] Comey, 113.

[x] Casualties for Ruger’s brigade can be found in the OR, Vol. 25, pt. 1, 710. Losses totaled 613; 80 killed, 435 wounded, and 67 missing, the majority coming on May 3.

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