Chancellorsville, Virginia, May 2, 1863
My God, here they come!” Such was the exclamation of Captain Harry Russell of Joseph Hooker’s staff when he saw panic-stricken men of the Eleventh Corps racing down the Plank Road toward Chancellorsville. Russell’s cry was the first indication Hooker had of “Stonewall” Jackson’s celebrated flank attack, which left the Union commander’s once promising campaign in ruins.1 Also ruined was the reputation of the Eleventh Corps, the object of Jackson’s assault. Unjust censure by Hooker and others left an indelible stain on the corps’ honor, which the blood of subsequent battles could not remove.
The Eleventh Corps, joined the Army of the Potomac late in 1862 following the Battle of Fredericksburg. Their arrival was greeted with suspicion and mistrust. This was due in part to their new affiliation with the army, but it was due in larger measure to the composition of the Corps itself. Army veterans saw two points of concern here. First was the large percentage of new units in the corps. Eleven of 27 regiments–a full 40 percent–had never been tested in battle. Second was the corps’ large foreign element. More than half of the unit’s 12,000 men were born in Germany or were of recent German descent.2 This ethnic preponderance was reflected in the officer corps, which featured names like Schurz, Schimmelpfennig, Buschbeck and von Gilsa.
The commander, too, had been a German. Franz Sigel was not only the military, but also the spiritual leader of these men, and if the expression “I fights mit Sigel” elicited smiles in the rest of the army, it was a matter of solemn pride to those in the Eleventh Corps. Sigel, however, did not remain to fight with the Army of Potomac. A dispute in rank led to his resignation in April 1863, and he was replaced by Oliver O. Howard, formerly of the Second Corps.
Howard at thirty-two was one of the North’s youngest major generals. He had graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1854, and was an assistant professor of mathematics there when the war began. During the first years of the struggle he had proved himself a brave, if not brilliant, commander. In 1862, as brigadier general in the Second Corps, he was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, an injury which cost him his right arm. Yet an empty sleeve and a reputation for valor would not gain him a warm reception when he joined the Eleventh Corps. For all his qualities he was still an outsider; for all his virtues, he was not Franz Sigel.
Optimism filled the ranks when the army broke camp for the opening of the 1863 campaign. The high spirits may be credited to the army’s new commander Joseph Hooker–“Fighting Joe” to the press–who, through various measures had restored the army’s morale and confidence after the recent debacle at Fredericksburg. Hooker had at his command 135,000 eager, well-trained troops forming what he proudly dubbed “the finest army on the planet.”
The Union commander’s opening move was superb. Splitting his army, he left a portion of force within sight of the Confederate line at Fredericksburg to hold his enemy in place, while he personally led the bulk of the army in a forty-mile march around the rebel left, gaining their rear. But then, with victor in his grasp, Hooker lost his nerve and ordered the army into a defensive position centering on a brick house known as Chancellorsville.
Hooker’s line at this point resembled an overturned “L.” The smaller leg of the “L,” held by the Second and Fifth Corps, ran from the Rapidan River south to Chancellorsville. Here the line turned abruptly to the right and followed the Orange Turnpike west two and one-half miles further, ending a short distance beyond the Wilderness Church. This larger leg of the “L” was held by the Twelfth, Third, and Eleventh Corps. The entire line lay within the bounds of the Wilderness, an area of dense thickets and heavy undergrowth.
Howard’s three divisions defended the Federal right. Responsibility for guarding the army’s flank fell to his First Division, commanded by Charles Devens. Devens was a Harvard law graduate and had been a prominent barrister and a state senator in Massachusetts. He was not, however, purely a political general. Prior to the war he had served as a brigadier general in the state militia and for two years he had fought with the Union forces in the East, first in the Fourth Corps, later in the Sixth Corps. Like his commander, O. O. Howard, he joined the Eleventh Corps just days before the campaign opened. Like Howard, too, his arrival was a source of discontent among long-standing Eleventh Corps veterans. 3 At Chancellorsville, Devens would command two brigades, Nathaniel McLean’s “Ohio Brigade” and Leopold von Gilsa’s Brigade of Pennsylvania and New York troops.
Howard’s Second Division was led by Adolph von Steinwehr. Steinwehr had been born into a German military family and had himself received training in several European military academies before emigrating to America. Like his counterpart, Devens, he had been a general of a state militia before the war. Steinwehr’s two brigades maintained the left of Howard’s line. Francis Barlow’s First Brigade acted as corps reserve and was massed north of the Orange Turnpike in the fields surrounding Dowdall’s Tavern. The Second Brigade, under Adolphus Buschbeck, lay in line south of the inn, and connected Birney’s Third Corps Division on the left with Schurz’s Eleventh Corps Division on the right.
Carl Schurz was perhaps the most interesting officer in the corps. Born in Prussia in 1829, he had played a leading role in the 1848 Revolution in Germany. When the uprising failed, Schurz fled his homeland and emigrated to America. Schurz was highly educated and possessed great oratorical skills, which found use in the cause of abolition. His influential support of Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election won him a diplomatic post abroad in 1861 and a commission as brigadier general of volunteers one year later. At Chancellorsville he commanded the Third Division of the Eleventh Corps, which was placed at the center of Howard’s line, near Wilderness Church. His two brigades were led by Alexander Schimmelpfennig and Wladimir Krzyzanowski.
The Eleventh Corps position on May 2nd invited attack. The corps was strung out in a one and one-half mile line along the Orange Turnpike, extending from Dowdall’s Tavern on the east, past the Wilderness Church, and ending a short distance beyond in the thick woods west of the Talley House. The entire line fronted south with the exception of the 153rd Pennsylvania and the 54th New York Volunteers of Gilsa’s Brigade, which faced west toward the open right flank. More troops should have been placed so as to defend the right, especially since the ground itself offered no protection.
Harbored deep in the forest where maneuver was difficult and surprise possible, the flank was entirely “up in the air.” The line was not refused to meet an attack from the west, nor was there any natural barrier like a creek or hill on which to anchor the line. The only protection was the thick brush and the defenses constructed by the men themselves.
These man-made defenses, too, proved woefully insufficient, consisting only of rifle pits supplemented by slashings of trees and brush. These earthworks, like the men who dug them, faced south. The only line facing west toward the open flank was a line of shallow rifle pits, which stretched across the rolling, open fields behind Dowdall’s Tavern. Constructed on May 1st by Barlow’s Brigade, these earthworks were not completed and stood but waist high.4 That the defenses were not stronger nor better placed was largely the fault of Howard, who did not believe Confederate troops capable of penetrating the dense thickets to his front.
At that time the Confederates were miles away, threatening the Union left and center; Howard’s position seemed secure. This changed early on May 2nd when Third Corps scouts high atop trees at Hazel Grove described a sizable Confederate column two miles distant moving east to west across the Union front. Hooker learned of this movement at 9 a.m. From high ground, near the Chancellor house the commanding general could himself see the column. He was baffled, though, as to its meaning. Returning to his headquarters, he spread a map out before him. “It can’t be retreat,” he muttered, “retreat without a fight? That is not Lee. If not retreat, what is it?” Then the answer came to him. “Lee is trying to flank me.”
Immediately Hooker sent a dispatch to Generals Howard and Slocum on the right. Written by his aide-de-camp, J. H. Van Alen, it read:
Major-Generals Howard and Slocum:
I am directed by the major-general commanding to say that the position you have made of your corps has been with a view to a front attack by the enemy. If he should throw himself upon your flank, he wishes you to examine the ground and determine upon the positions you will take in that event, in order that you may be prepared for him in whatever direction he advances. He suggests that you have heavy reserves well in hand to meet this contingency. The right of your line does not appear to be strong enough. No artificial defenses worth naming have been thrown up, and there appears to be a scarcity of troops at that point, and not, in the general’s opinion, as favorably posted as might be. We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe, in order to obtain timely information of their approach.7
The warning proved unnecessary. Before receiving Hooker’s dispatch, Howard had himself spotted the column. At 10:50 a.m. he wrote back:
From Gen. Devens’ headquarters (Taylor) we can observe a column of infantry moving westward on a road parallel with this on a ridge about 1½ to 2 miles south of this. I am taking measures to resist an attack from the west.
The measures taken were minor. They consisted of placing reserve artillery behind Barlow’s rifle pits, and posting Captain D. E. Castle’s signal station beyond the Eleventh Corps right flank. Beyond those two things, nothing was done
Hooker could only speculate as to the measures Howard was taking. It mattered little to him, however, for by noon he was convinced that the Confederates were not attacking, but were in retreat.10 If this was a hasty assumption, it was not an illogical one. Hooker outnumbered Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia by more than two to one, Lee was boxed in on two sides, and Union cavalry would soon be playing upon Confederate lines of communication. What alternative was there but retreat? Such were the thoughts that dominated Hooker’s thinking that day and continued to engross his mind until Russell’s cry broke the spell early that evening.
Hooker was so thoroughly convinced that the Confederate movement was a retreat that at noon he granted Daniel Sickles’ request to allow David Birney’s Division to leave the line and march south and harass the progress of the enemy. 11 Reinforcements were later dispatched, until by late afternoon more than 20,000 men had been sent south, including much of Henry Slocum’s Twelfth Corps. The removal of Slocum and Birney’s men from the defensive line isolated the Eleventh Corps and left it without support. When Jackson’s attack came, Howard’s men would have to fight alone.
Evidence of Jackson’s impending attack was abundant that day had Howard and his officers chosen to heed it. Foremost in neglect was Charles Devens. Sometime after 10 a.m. Captain Castle reported sighting a Confederate column marching west, across the Eleventh Corps front. Devens undoubtedly knew of the report, but did not investigate the matter.12 By noon Union pickets of the First Division were engaged in heavy skirmishing. A short time later Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Friend officer-of-the-day for the division, reported an enemy force moving around the Union right. Much to Friend’s surprise, the general seemed unimpressed by the news and took no action.
Colonel John C. Lee of the 55th Ohio later confirmed Friend’s report, only to be told by Devens that no sizable enemy force could be in the vicinity without Howard notifying him of the fact. Lee returned twice that day to repeat his warnings and brought with him several men who had witnessed the enemy concentration. Still Devens would not listen. When Lee, in his third visit, persisted in his warnings, Devens grew impatient and said to him, “You are frightened, sir!” later remarking, as Lee remembered, that it was “not worth while to be scared before we were hurt.”
Other reports were brought to the Talley house that afternoon. Pickets brought in two men who had seen the Confederates moving on the Union right flank.15 Union cavalrymen reported being fired upon when they tried to advance west on the Orange Turnpike.16 Colonel William Noble of the 17th Connecticut Volunteers warned of a Confederate concentration on the right.17 These warnings only made Devens irritable. When Colonel William P. Richardson of the 25th Ohio arrived at 3 p.m. bearing tidings of danger, the general exploded. The rebels were in retreat, he said, and Richardson was unnecessarily scared. The unfortunate colonel was ordered back to his regiment.
For six hours Devens did nothing while reports of danger circulated through the camp. Only at 5 p.m. did he send a cavalry patrol down the Turnpike to investigate. The horsemen returned after a short time to announce that a large body of Confederate infantry blocked the road a short distance beyond Gilsa’s line. Even now, Devens was unconvinced. “I wish I could get someone who could make a reconnaissance for me!” he complained. “General, I can go further”, replied the squadron leader, “but I cannot promise to return.” The cavalrymen were ordered into bivouac.
If Devens acted unwisely, he did no worse than his superior. From the beginning, O. O. Howard did not believe an attack from the west possible due to the dense thickets which surrounded him. Now, with the sound of Birney’s artillery rumbling in the distance and rumors of Confederate retreat racing through the camp, Howard was blinded from the truth. He rejected out of hand all reports of an enemy threat on his right, dismissing them as the product of a few excited imaginations on the picket line.
To a military man like Howard false information, willful or not, was a serious offense to be dealt with harshly. Colonel Friend was the first to suffer from the general’s misguided wrath. After failing to impress Devens with his report of the Confederate concentration, the colonel reported his intelligence to Howard, who upbraided him for “trying to get up a scare.” When Friend returned an hour later to reiterate his warning, Howard angrily told him that the Confederates were in retreat and charged him with cowardice.
Other reports were received in like manner. Lieutenant A. B. Searles who was sparring with enemy skirmishers on the Union right, heard beyond the rebel line “a queer jumble of sounds, a confusion of orders, and then their bugles sounding the call to deploy.” He correctly surmised that the Confederate army lay just beyond his view. Repeatedly, he sent officers to the rear bearing warnings to this effect, but as he later recalled, “they all came back without anything being done. The last one reported back to me that General Howard said ‘that Lieut. Searles must not be scared of a few bushwackers.'”
Nearby, Major Owen Rice of the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, too, had discovered the enemy’s presence. At 2:45 p.m. he issued the following urgent dispatch to Colonel Leopold von Gilsa:
Col. L. Von Gilsa,
A large body of the enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake make dispositions to receive him!22
Gilsa hand-carried this message to Devens, then to Howard, but he was rebuked.
Had Gilsa’s warning come one hour earlier, Howard might have been more wary and less abrupt. Just before the brigade commander arrived, the general had received another caller. This was Captain Alexander Moore of Hooker’s staff. Moore reported that Birney was handsomely driving in the Confederate rearguard at the Furnace and expected soon to come into contact with the main rebel force. Would Howard be able to send a brigade to his support? The general demurred. The only brigade not in line was that of Barlow, his corps reserve. Moore left to consult with Hooker, but the information he brought remained with Howard. The Confederates were in retreat, and Sickles was among their trains! When Gilsa arrived, his frantic plea took on the appearance of baseless fear. New troops! They could not be trusted. The only enemy Gilsa’s men faced were a handful of rebel cavalrymen covering the withdrawal. Tell the men that they should not be frightened by a few bushwackers!
An hour later Moore returned bearing a dispatch from Hooker ordering that Barlow’s brigade be released immediately for duty at the Furnace. Since his 9:30 order that morning, Hooker had successively removed every supporting unit within two miles of the Eleventh Corps: first Birney’s Third Corps Division, then Williams’ Twelfth Corps Division, and now Barlow’s Brigade. Would he do this if he was not sure of the enemy position? Any doubts Howard might have had were dispelled. No only did he release Barlow’s Brigade for duty with Sickles, but he joined the unit on its march to the Furnace.
There was one high-ranking officer in the corps who was worried that day. This was Carl Schurz. He had been present at Dowdall’s Tavern when many of the earlier warnings had arrived. He was convinced that there was danger on the Union right and urged Howard to face Devens’ entire division west to meet the threat. Howard refused. On his own responsibility, Schurz turned two of his own reserve regiments toward the open flank. It was to be the only precaution taken by a general that afternoon.
Schurz shared his fears with a battery commander, Captain Hubert Dilger. He ordered Dilger to seek out an area whence his guns could fire to the west. Dilger did so, then rode out into the woods beyond the Federal right to make personal reconnaissance. One-quarter mile from Gilsa’s line the dense brush gave way to an open field, wherein thousands of greyclad soldiers were arrayed for battle. Dilger had barely caught a glimpse of the scene when a group of rebel cavalrymen came dashing toward him. Back into the thickets he went, enemy horsemen at his heels. Furiously he galloped across the woodland paths, urging his horse on, until at length the sound of pursuing hoofbeats faded. The artillery chief was alone.
He was also lost. For what seemed like a long time, Dilger stumbled blindly along the meandering forest trails until finally he reached the Federal line north of Chancellorsville. In haste, he rode to Hooker’s headquarters and told his story to one of the general’s aides. The officer laughed and told him to go tell his yarn at Eleventh Corps headquarters. Dilger mounted his weary steed and rode west.
It was past 4 p.m. when he arrived at Dowdall’s Tavern. Howard was not there. He had gone to capture some Confederate regiments, Dilger was told. Again the captain recited his story to staff officers; again he was not believed. Dejected, he returned to his battery.
Meanwhile, not far away, the colonels of McLean’s Brigade were conferring. All knew of the danger lurking in the western woods. Repeatedly they had warned their superiors, only to be rebuffed with taunts and rebukes. The group rode over to Gilsa’s line for observation. Captain Elias R. Monfort of the 7th Pennsylvania remembered that:
when Colonel Riley returned to the regiment, he seemed very much excited, and, calling the regiment to their feet behind their stacked guns, made a very impressive speech that no member of the regiment present can easily forget. Among other things, he said: “A great battle is pending in which many lives will be lost. Some of us will not see another sunrise. If there is a man in the ranks who is not ready to die for his country, let him come to me, and I will give him a pass to go to the rear, for I want no half-hearted, unwilling soldiers or cowards in the ranks tonight. We need every man we have to fight the enemy. If a comrade falls, do not stop to take him away or care for him, but fight for the soil on which he falls and have him by victory.” Concluding his speech, which was made under the appearance of great excitement, he told the men to lie down and rest, but under no circumstances to leave their guns.25
Not all officers were so circumspect. Indeed, a visitor casually viewing the camp late that afternoon would have seen little to indicate the near presence of danger. Soldiers appeared scattered about the landscape, laughing, chatting, and smoking. Some, disburdened of knapsacks and other trappings, played poker; others cooked evening meals over a fire. In the distant fields parties of soldiers were engaged in the butchering of cattle, and nearby a regimental band buoyed the troops’ lagging spirits with song.
A closer inspection, however, belied the carefree appearance. Officers, chatting in hushed tones beside the road wore anxious expressions as they nervously scanned the western horizon. The men, though seemingly in disorder, remained close to their place in line, ready to “fall in” at a moment’s notice. Arms were held by soldiers or carefully stacked, so as to be readily available. Aware of the danger, regimental commanders had prepared their troops for action. When Jackson’s attack came, each man would be at his post, rifle in hand.
On the threshold of disaster: The Eleventh Corps at 5 p.m., May 2, 1863
The attack commenced about 5:30 that evening.27 One man noted that “its first lively effects, like a cloud of dust, driving before a coming shower, appeared in the startled rabbits, squirrels, quail, and other game flying wildly hither and thither in evident terror, and escaping, where possible, into adjacent clearings.”28 Federal soldiers, not yet perceiving the cause of this phenomenon, cheered. Hardly had their cry been raised when it was silenced by the boom of hostile artillery on their flank. In a moment bugle calls filled the air, followed by the shrill cry of the rebel yell. Jackson was upon them. As one Union officer reported:
The enemy rushed forward with an alacrity only explained by the wild enthusiasm that nerved them and fused their manhood. The close array, broken to shreds of alignment by the now bleeding thickets, compacted again and again, at opportunity by the ceaseless ‘Close up’ of the officers, swept forward like a cyclone, reeling amidst a forest of titans. Obstacles that had harassed our advance, and hampered our retreat, yielded to the fierce momentum of an army, in three-fold volume of masses, all saturated with the spirit of their almost superhuman leader. . . . The confident enthusiasm and resolute ardor of that massive attack, clad in ashen gray and simple trappings, have never been surpassed.29
The first victim of Jackson’s assault was the brigade of Leopold von Gilsa on the Federal right. Gilsa had five regiments at his command, but only two faced west toward the enemy. These units fired three rounds before being overwhelmed and forced to flee. Their sister regiments, facing south, were raked by enfilading fire on their right and rear, and ran without a shot.
Within seconds Gilsa’s well-ordered brigade became a panic-stricken mob, each man fending for himself. Many threw down their rifles to facilitate their flight; others retained their weapons and fell back firing and reloading with dogged determination.31 One man, in the center of the fury, became engaged in a personal duel with a member of the opposing army. A comrade remembered that under shelter of a tree, with stagey gesture and a mumbled “ye ca-ant fool me,–ye ca-ant fool me,” he repeatedly loaded, feinted and drew back,–advanced and retired, and with a wild “who-o-o-o!” fired. His vis-a-vis at length, called up a comrade to draw the Yank’s fire, and planted a ball in his exposed knee. Limping to the rear, [he] fairly bellowed: “damn ye, ye fooled me that time,–ye fooled me that time,” his mortification at being fooled overcoming all other suggestions.32
The men of Gilsa’s Brigade fled eastward, where they encountered Colonel Reilly’s 75th Ohio Volunteers of McLean’s Brigade coming to their support. The rush of Gilsa’s men nearly broke the Ohio line, but Reilly managed to hold his unit in place until the crowd had passed. By then the enemy was but 30 yards away. Over the tumult the voice of Reilly was heard ordering his men to fire. A crash of rifles, a cloud of smoke, and the Confederates were thrown back. Before they could recover, another volley was poured into their ranks. Yet the Confederates came on, their mighty force bearing down upon Reilly’s small line like an avalanche. The regiment broke ranks and fled, leaving their gallant colonel mortally wounded in the hands of the foe Colonel William Richardson’s 25th Ohio now advanced into the fray. Like the 75th Ohio, it had been posted in rear of McLean’s main line and turned to meet the enemy when he attacked. Like the 75th too, it took on Jackson’s corps alone, was enveloped, and was quickly driven from the field. Richardson, who Devens had charged earlier with cowardice, fell dangerously wounded at the head of his men.
McLean’s three remaining regiments lay in line facing south along the Orange Turnpike. This placed them in a position to receive Jackson’s fire, but not to return it. Colonel John Lee, commanding one of these regiments, had foreseen this problem, and at the first sign of battle had ridden to division headquarters to urge Devens to change front. “Not yet,” he was told. Lee returned to the right to find Gilsa’s line breaking and McLean’s remaining regiments under a severe enfilading fire. Again he rode to the Talley House and implored Devens to change front. The request was again denied. Lee returned to the open flank in time to see his hapless command crumble beneath the weight of the superior Confederate numbers. Lee was temporarily disabled in the fight and his counterparts Colonel Seraphim Meyer of the 107th Ohio and Colonel William H. Noble of the 17th Connecticut, were wounded.
Over 20 minutes had elapsed since Jackson’s horse artillery had signalled the Confederate advance, yet in that short time the Southern legions had destroyed Devens’ Division and gained their first objective, the Talley house plateau. On a rise a short distance east of the Talley plateau sat General Howard. He had returned from the Catharine Furnace just minutes before Jackson’s attack began. From a vantage point near the Wilderness Church, the general witnessed the whirlwind of his folly.
I could see numbers of our men–not the few stragglers that always fly like chaff at the first breeze, but scores of them–rushing into the opening some with arms and some without, running or falling before they got behind the cover of Devens’ reserves, and before General Schurz’s waiting masses could deploy or charge. The noise and the smoke filled the air with excitement, and to add to it Dieckmann’s guns and caissons, with battery men scattered, rolled and tumbled like runaway wagons and carts in a thronged city. The guns and the masses of the right brigade struck the second line of Devens before McLean’s front had given way; and, more quickly than it could be told, with all the fury of the wildest hailstorm, everything, every sort of organization that lay in the path of the mad current of panic-stricken men had to give way and be broken into fragments.35
Howard’s previous negligence was acquitted in some measure by the courage he now displayed. Seizing a discarded banner from the ground, he rose among Devens’ terrified masses exhorting them to stand their ground. Though bullets filled the air and his horse fell beneath him, he persisted in his efforts to rally his men. Some heeded his cry and joined the line forming near the church. Others shouted “We’ve done all we can!” and ran on.36
The fighting, which heretofore had raged mostly in the woods, now shifted to the open fields around the Wilderness Church. This ground was held by the division of Carl Schurz. Schurz had anticipated an attack from the west and was prepared. He used the brief time allotted him to effectively wheel his southward-facing brigades into a line fronting west across the clearing.37 A picket vividly recalled the pageantry and precision of the movement:
I remember as we came out through that valley we saw the Hawkins house and Schurz’s line of battle, with its flags waving, right toward us. Devens’ First Division had melted away and was screaming back upon him. Round came his line like a top, swinging sharply as though upon a pivot. I never saw anything done so quick. Not more than two minutes before Schurz’s men were facing south. Now their front was to the west–in unbroken line, shoulder to shoulder, to stem the torrent of men.38
In all, Schurz was able to muster 5,000 men to meet the rebel advance. Opposing him were 18,000 Confederates, “a perfectly solid mass of men,” as one hard-pressed Federal noted.39 Howard recalled that “as the attacking force emerged from the forest and rushed on, the men in front would halt and fire, and, while these were reloading, another set would run before them, halt and fire, in no regular line, but in such multitudes that our men went down before them like trees in a hurricane.”40
The gray-clad masses were an inviting target for artillery and Howard’s reserve batteries, posted on the cast edge the clearing, opened on the Confederate lines with telling effect.41 Equally telling was the fire of Dilger’s battery near the Turnpike. In accordance with Schurz’s earlier instructions, this conscientious officer had searched out a position from which his guns could resist an attack from the west. Now, as the Confederate line entered the clearing, Dilger’s canister-filled guns reaped a frightful harvest. “Capt. Dilger’s guns in the road were served with marvelous rapidity, “remarked one soldier, “The ground shook with the frequency of their discharge, and there seemed a continuous thunder peal from their iron throats.”42
Thus aided by artillery, Schurz resisted the rebel advance. His stand was brief. On his right, the 26th Wisconsin and 58th New York were coming under a heavy fire. Few regiments fought better that day. They had been among the first regiments struck by Jackson’s corps, and though heavily outnumbered, had maintained their post until ordered to withdraw. Now, as they held the right of Schurz’s beleaguered line, their flank was again threatened with envelopment.43 On the division’s left the situation was equally bad. There, too, Confederates had gained a flanking position and were enfilading the Federal line. Enveloped on both left and right, Schurz’s line toppled after only 20 minutes.44
Jackson pursued his shattered enemy across the open fields. Though his men had marched more than 12 miles that day and had gone largely without food, they displayed neither languor nor fatigue. Flushed with victory, they advanced with increased vigor toward the last of Howard’s lines. A wounded officer of McLean’s Brigade watched them as they rushed by. “They came on with very little attention to line formation,” he remembered, “and clad in as motley an array of uniforms as could be imagined; but they were all disciplined and eager to go on. I heard one officer cry, ‘Oh, for only one more hour of daylight!'”45
The battle was more than an hour old. The First and Third Divisions had been demolished; only Buschbeck’s Brigade of the Second Division remained unconquered. This unit had been holding the line south of Howard’s headquarters when Jackson struck. For a time, the colonel held his troops in place to defend against an attack from the south. When no attack from that quarter was forthcoming, Buschbeck hurried his men across the road and occupied the shallow shelter trenches Barlow had constructed earlier. There his troops waited until Schurz’s vanquished masses came screaming back upon them. About 2,000 of Schurz’s men were rallied at the new line, raising the Union strength there to 4,000 rifles in all.46
This time the Federal troops would have to fight without the support of artillery. Hemmed in by Barlow’s crowded earthworks ahead and the woods behind, the three reserve batteries could neither fire nor retreat effectively. Howard wisely ordered them to the rear. Dilger’s battery on the road was coming under a heavy fire, and with the exception of a single gun, it too was withdrawn.
Confused, outnumbered, and fighting, without artillery support, the troops behind Barlow’s rifle pits stood little chance of success. Yet they defended themselves stubbornly, resisting Confederate assaults and even launching counterattacks of their own.47 Had they only had to contend with frontal assaults, they might have held the line until dark, but as had happened so often before, Jackson’s long lines overlapped the Union flanks. The Confederates poured a destructive fire down the Northern ranks, and the Buschbeck line, like previous Union lines that day, evaporated.48
The collapse of the Buschbeck line signalled a general panic among Howard’s troops. Men and officers alike fled in confusion down the turnpike and through the woods in an effort to escape capture. Only Buschbeck and Dilger retired in order. The former marched his men down the road in column, while the latter, his battery reduced to one gun by the narrowness of the road, kept up a steady fire of canister as he withdrew. The Confederates did not closely pursue.49
Unaware of this fact, members of the corps continued their mad rush to the rear. John L. Collins of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry described the scene west of Chancellorsville:
The Plank road, and the woods that bordered it, presented a scene of terror and confusion such as I had never seen before. Men and animals were dashing against one another in wild dismay before the line of fire that came crackling and crashing after them. The constantly approaching rattle of musketry, the crash of the shells through the trees, seemed to come from three sides upon the broken fragments of the Eleventh Corps that crowded each other on the road. . . . More than half of the runaways had thrown their arms away, and all of them were talking a language that I did not understand, but, by their tones, evidently blaming some one for the disgrace and disaster that had befallen their corps.50
Even before the fighting on the Buschbeck line had ended, Eleventh Corps refugees were arriving at Chancellorsville, bearing news of the debacle. Their plight excited great alarm but little sympathy among their comrades. Captain T. W. Osborne of the Third Corps noted that Howard’s men
had been routed, and were fleeing to the river like scared sheep. The men and artillery filled the road, its sides, and the skirts of the field; and it appeared that no two of one company could be found. Aghast and terror-stricken, heads bare and panting for breath, they pleaded like infants at the mother’s breast that we should let them pass to the rear unhindered.51
When they reached Chancellorsville, many fugitives turned left onto Ely’s Ford Road, hoping to gain safety north of the river. “‘Var ish de pontoons?'” they cried, “‘Der wash too many mens for us.’ ‘I ish going to mine company,’ they continually exclaimed. . . .”52
One German, unable to find his way in the confusion, asked Winfield Scott Hancock for directions to the pontoons. Unfortunately, the general’s response is not recorded, the chronicler of the episode not wishing to put the words into “cold and unsympathetic type.” Other Eleventh Corps members were so frightened that in their rush to the rear, they passed through Hancock’s lines and were captured by McLaw’s Confederates on the other side of the army.53
Meanwhile, west of Chancellorsville, Eleventh Corps officers were attempting to rally their men. John Collins had joined the stampede and recalled the scene:
In the very the height of the flight, we came upon General Howard, who seemed to be the only man in his own command that was not running at that moment. He was in the middle of the road mounted, his maimed arm embracing a stand of colors that some regiment had deserted, while with his sound arm he was gesticulating to the men to make a stand by their flag. With bared head he was pleading with his soldiers, literally weeping as he entreated the unheeding horde. . . . As the front became clear, we fired a few shots at the advance line of the Confederates, but a fresh mass of fugitives in blue soon filled the road, and we had to stop firing. The general now ordered us to cover the whole line of retreat so as to let none pass, and the officers, inspired by his devotion, ran in front of their men, drew their swords, and attempted to stop them. As the number constantly increased the pressure became greater upon the line that blocked the way. . . . At last the seething, surging sea of humanity broke over the feeble barrier, and General Howard and his officers were carried away by main force with the tide.54
By 9 p.m., officers were successful in rallying about half of the corps’ remaining strength. Howard, with more than 2,000 men, formed to the left of Hiram Berry’s Third Corps Division, while on Berry’s right, astride the Bullock Road, stood Carl Schurz with 1,200 others.55 As the shells whistled overhead, the battered corps infantry awaited an attack which would not come. “Stonewall” Jackson had fallen, and the Confederate advance had stalled.
Eventually, as reinforcements arrived on the field, the Eleventh Corps was withdrawn to Chancellorsville where officers spent the rest of the night reforming their fragmented commands. By morning the depleted corps was placed in line along the Mineral Springs Road near the Union left. Three days remained before the army would recross the river to safety, but for the Eleventh Corps the fighting was over.
If their part in the battle had been short, it had also been severe. More than 2,400 had been lost–over 25 percent of those engaged.56 Losses had been especially high among officers. Of the 23 regimental commanders entering the battle (less Barlow’s Brigade), 12 were casualties, including every colonel in the Ohio Brigade.
The Eleventh Corps was blamed for the defeat at Chancellorsville, but upon reflection this seems unfair. The men in the ranks had performed admirably. In reconnaissance they had been vigilant; in combat, brave; and in defeat, persistent. They had discovered Jackson’s flanking movement early in the day and reported the threat repeatedly to their commanders. When struck in flank and rear by an enemy force twice as large as themselves, the corps fought stubbornly, inflicting about 1,000 casualties on their foe and delaying his advance for one and one-half hours.57
When finally broken and driven from their trenches, members of the corps were quickly reformed and put back in line, ready to fight again.
Yet for all of this, they were denounced by the army and the press alike as the “Flying Dutchmen.” Censure of the corps began with Howard himself, who just hours after the attack ascribed the debacle not to his own negligence, but to a want of resistance by his men.58
Hooker accepted this explanation without question and was quick to disseminate it. On May 7th, he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln: If in the first effort we failed, it was not for want of strength or conduct of the small number of troops actually engaged, but from a cause which could not be foreseen, and could not be provided against. . . . [The troops] should not be discouraged or depressed, for it is no fault of theirs (if I may except one corps) that our last efforts were not crowned with glorious victory.59
Hooker’s criticism of the corps the war was more direct and caustic. He claimed, among others things, that the corps “had been completely surprised and disgracefully routed” and that “they left guns, knapsacks, and everything, and the whole corps ran back like a herd of buffaloes.”60
Hooker was not alone in expressing his opprobrium. Sickles, Pleasonton, Birney, and Warren all blasted the corps in later congressional testimony.61
Howard and Devens remained curiously silent. t is interesting to note that each of the corps’ main detractors played a large role in determining the outcome of that day’s events. Foremost in rank and perhaps culpability was Joseph Hooker. He set the stage for disaster in April when he sent the bulk of his cavalry away on a fruitless raid. Deprived of its “eyes and ears,” the army was left vulnerable to surprise. He must also be criticized for his incredible indolence throughout May 2nd. The Confederate movement, as noted early in the day, could signify one of two things: retreat to Gordonsville, or an attack on the Union right. If a retreat, Hooker should have vigorously pressed all corps forward in pursuit; if an attack, he should have personally reviewed the measures taken by Howard to meet such an assault.62
Hooker did neither. Instead he allowed Birney’s Division to leave the line, thus isolating the Eleventh Corps. He exacerbated the situation still further when he later ordered Barlow’s Brigade to report to Sickles. Deprived of support either within or without the corps, Howard’s troops were destined to ruin. Finally, Hooker’s very demeanor was deleterious to the army. During the afternoon as Jackson impatiently urged his men on, Hooker lounged on the veranda of the Chancellor house enjoying the spring day. His confidence in the Confederate retreat was contagious. It not only impaired his own vigilance, but that of his subordinates.
Second on the list of culpability is O. O. Howard. From the start, he believed an attack on his corps impossible due to the heavy brush. He failed to throw up formidable earthworks, or to take substantial measures to “resist an attack from the west,” even when the threat of attack from that quarter was brought to his attention by Hooker. His confidence in the Confederate retreat was such that he not only disregarded warnings of danger sent to him by his pickets, but on more than one occasion chided them for cowardice. When ordered by Hooker to send Barlow’s Brigade to Sickles’ support Howard did not protest this action, but personally accompanied the movement, leaving the Eleventh Corps leaderless for two hours.
The last major culprit is Charles Devens. As commander of the westernmost division of the army, it was his duty to acquaint himself with the roads of the region and make sure they were well guarded. This he did not do.63 When his pickets were driven in by rebel skirmishers that afternoon, Devens took no steps to ascertain the force confronting him. Later, when officers brought information suggesting the massing of troops on his flank, he refused to credit their reports, or even to make a personal investigation of the situation.64
Other critics of the Eleventh Corps played lesser roles in the tragedy. Sickles, author of the foray to the Catharine Furnace, isolated the Eleventh Corps. Birney’s advance to the ironworks was extremely slow, and he failed to recognize the small force which confronted him there. Warren, as the army’s chief engineer, was partly responsible for the weak defensive line held by Howard. Pleasonton, as commander of Hooker’s cavalry force at Chancellorsville, should have used his force in actively patrolling the exposed Union flank.65
When the reports and testimony of Hooker et al were known, members of the Eleventh Corps were incensed. Led by Carl Schurz and Alexander Schimmelpfennig, they protested the attacks on their reputation and requested a Court of Inquiry. This request was denied. Schurz then asked that his official report be made public. This, too, was refused. In this way, the truth was suppressed.66
After the war, articles were published exonerating the corps from all charges of neglect and cowardice. But it was too late. The image of the “Flying Dutchman” was firmly impressed upon the public mind. A century has passed, and still the image persists. It may be hoped that future historians will disregard the prejudices of the past and examine the facts anew. Only then will the loyal service of the Eleventh Corps be recognized and its stain of dishonor removed.
- John Bigelow, Jr., The Battle of Chancellorsville. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1910), 301.
- For a discussion of the Eleventh Corps composition at Chancellorsville, see Augustus Choate Hamlin, The Battle of Chancellorsville. (Bangor, Maine: Augustus Hamlin, 1896), 38-43.
- Ibid., 43-44. See also Hartwell Osborn, “On the Right at Chancellorsville,” Military Essays and Recollections. Vol. IV, (Chicago: Cozzens & Beaton Co., 1907), 176.
- Hamlin, 37.
- Early on May 2nd, Hooker inspected the Eleventh Corps line. With him came Captain Cyrus B. Comstock of the Engineers. During the inspection Comstock noticed several gaps in Howard’s line and admonished the general to fill them.
“The woods are thick and entangled; will anybody come through there?” Howard asked.
“Oh, they may!” replied the engineer.
Taken from: Oliver O. Howard, “The Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Vol. III, (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1983), 195. This book is cited hereinafter as B & L.
- Bigelow, 276. He quotes J. Watts DePeyster.
- B & L III, 219 fn. A short time later, Hooker sent a second dispatch of like import to Howard alone. The Eleventh Corps commander denied having received these messages, though Carl Schurz asserted that he was with Howard when the dispatches arrived. B & L III, 220. See Howard’s comments on the matter in B & L III, 196. See also Joseph Hooker’s interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 1872.
- Bigelow, 279.
- Hamlin, 22.
- Early in the afternoon Darius Couch, commander of the Second Corps, went to Chancellorsville. He was met outside by the commanding general who exclaimed, “Lee is in full retreat toward Gordonsville, and I have sent out Sickles to capture his artillery.” B & L III, 163.
- Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 386. This source is hereinafter cited O.R.
- Hamlin, 143. Bigelow, 287.
- John Lee, article in Philadelphia Weekly Times, February 1, 1888. A similar article of his appeared in the National Tribune on May 19, 1885. See also Bigelow, 288.
- Osborn, 185. Hamlin, 145.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 633-634.
- Elias R. Monfort, “The First Division, Eleventh Corps, at Chancellorsville,” G.A.R. War Papers. Vol. 1, (Cincinnati: Fred C. Jones, n.d.), 62.
- Ibid. See also Hamlin, 59-60. See also account of man who calls himself “Scalpel,” in the manuscript collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
- Hamlin, 145.
- Lee article, Philadelphia Weekly Times, February 1, 1888.
- Account of Alvey Searles in manuscript collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
- Owen Rice, Afield With the Eleventh Army Corps at Chancellorsville. (Cincinnati: H. C. Sherrick & Co., 1885), 23.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, p. 652.
- Roland Lowery, The Story of Battery I, First Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, 1861-1865. (Cincinnati: Roland Lowery, 1971). See also Hamlin, 56-57.
- Monfort, 62-63.
- James H. Peabody, “Battle of Chancellorsville,” G.A.R. War Papers. Vol. I, (Cincinnati: Fred C. Jones, n.d.), 50.
- Accounts vary widely as to when the attack began. Among Southern sources, George Doles says 5 p.m., Robert Rodes 5:15 p.m., and Raleigh Colston 6 p.m. “precisely.” In general, Confederate sources place the commencement of hostilities at around 5 p.m., while Union sources put it later, at around 6 p.m. O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 941, 966, 1003.
- B & L III, 197.
- Rice, 24-25.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, p. 636. For a good account of Gilsa’s stand by a participant, see Owen Rice, Afield With the Eleventh Army Corps at Chancellorsville.
- Monfort, 64.
- Rice, 28.
- Monfort, 64.
- Scalpel Manuscript. Bigelow, 296. Monfort, 64-67.
- B & L III, 198. Howard and his Chancellorsville biographer, John Carpenter, maintain that he returned just prior to the attack. Other sources, including Augustus Hamlin and John Bigelow, believe that Howard had not yet returned to his headquarters when Jackson struck. Carpenter, 54. Bigelow, 296. Hamlin, 158, 165.
- B & L III, 199. James Peabody, a harsh critic of Howard, says he found the general near the Wilderness Church “completely confused and bewildered.” He further states that Howard wielded a revolver in his left hand and shouted to those who ran past, “Halt! Halt! I’m ruined, I’m ruined; I’ll shoot if you don’t stop; I’m ruined, I’m ruined.” Peabody’s essay is little more than a diatribe against Howard and must be read accordingly. Peabody, 53.
- In his official report, Schurz described the difficulty he encountered in effecting his maneuver. He stated, “The officers had hardly had time to give a command when almost the whole of General McLean’s brigade, mixed up with a number of Colonel von Gilsa’s men, came rushing down the road from General Devens’ headquarters in wild confusion, and, worse than that, the battery of the First Division broke in upon my right at a full run. This confused mass of guns, caissons, horses, and men broke lengthwise through the ranks of my regiments deployed in line on the road. O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 654-655.
- Searles manuscript.
- B & L III, 199.
- Hamlin, 70-74; O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, p. 652.
- Searles manuscript.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 666-667.
- Carpenter, 55.
- Osborn, 189.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, p. 662.
- Ibid., 657.
- Howard claims the Buschbeck line held its ground only 15 minutes, Confederate General George Doles estimates the line stood 20 minutes, and General Schimmelpfennig says the line stood for more than one hour. O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 662, 966. Carpenter, 55.
- Lowery. O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 645-646, 657.
- B & L III, 183-184.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, p. 483.
- Bigelow, 311. He quotes Three Years in The Army of the Potomac, by H. N. Blake of the Eleventh Massachusetts Volunteers.
- Bigelow, 311.
- B & L III, 184.
- Hamlin, 77-78.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, p. 183.
- Hamlin, 127, 131-132.
- Ibid., 158.
- O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. II, p. 438.
- Hooker interview with San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 1872, and the Philadelphia Weekly Times, February 15, 1879.
- Hamlin, 160-166.
- B & L III, 163.
- Scalper manuscript.
- Colonel John Lee, later governor of Ohio, maintained that Devens was drunk at Chancellorsville. If true, this would explain the general’s unusually negligent behavior that day. Lee interview with the Philadelphia Weekly Times, February 1, 1888.
- It is interesting to note that of the seven men here cited for misconduct leading to the disaster, five–Howard, Devens, Pleasonton, Warren, and Birney–were promoted before the war’s end. In contrast of the six men most active in trying to avert the disaster–Schurz, Lee, Dilger, Buschbeck, Friend, and von Gilsa only Schurz later received full promotion.
- Hamlin, 170-172. O.R., Series I, Vol. XXV, pt. I, pp. 658-663.