In 1861, the Confederates had routed McDowell at First Manassas. In June and July 1862, Lee had clubbed McClellan’s army off the Peninsula before Richmond.
In August 1862, Stonewall Jackson had chewed up Pope’s Army of Virginia from the rear at Second Manassas.
In December 1862, Lee had decimated Burnside’s river crossing at Fredericksburg.
Now another new commander, General Joseph Hooker, had taken over the Union army. Hooker had the greatest advantage in numbers of any Union general who faced Lee – 130,000 men to 60,000, more than twice the number. Half of Longstreet’s corps of Lee’s army had gone foraging in southwest Virginia, 130 miles away. Hooker promised Lincoln defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia.
“My plans are perfect,” Hooker wrote. “May God have mercy on General Lee for I will have none.”
In late April 1863, Hooker slipped his army across two fords of the Rapidan River into the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. The Federals advanced quickly out of the Wilderness along two strategic roads. But when Stonewall Jackson moved against them on May 1, Hooker retreated into a defensive crouch.
On May 2, Lee divided his Army of Northern Virginia in the face of the enemy. At 7 a.m., Lee split off Jackson’s corps of 28,000 men. They began a 12-mile flank march. At 5:15 in the afternoon, Jackson drew up his army corps on the extreme right flank of Hooker. He turned to General Robert Rodes, commanding the lead division.
“Are you ready, General Rodes?”
“You can go forward, then.”
Thus began one of the greatest tactical victories in the history of warfare.
The 4th Georgia, part of Doles’s Brigade, formed part of the first assault wave. Sergeant William C. Cherry and his brother James – Crab and Judge — stood waiting near Jackson.
Robert K. Krick, in a recent commemorative speech to the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, quoted General Doles. Doles took off his cap, raised himself in his stirrups, gave a yell and shouted, ‘Charge them, boys.’”
First, deer ran in panic into the Union lines, then a flock of turkeys, then songbirds and rabbits. Then a high screeching yell arose out of the woods as the infantry moved forward: the Rebel Yell.
The historian Ernest B. Furgurson, from whom I take many of these details, quotes a company officer of the 153rd Pennsylvania Regiment as he watched the “wild enthusiasm” of the assault:
“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. The wrath of God pervaded it. . .” Quoted in Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863, p. 174 (New York, 1992)
Here is how Crab described the attack:
About 3:00 p.m. on the next day after we began to march we fell into the wide plank road running north and south. We turned to the right end of it. Before we went far, we came upon a piece of artillery belonging to Gen’l E. P. Stewart then firing into the woods nearby. This was the only reason we had for thinking the enemy were nearby or near the artillery.
Gen’l Stonewall Jackson was sitting on his horse with his leg thrown over the horn of his saddle giving directions to his officers, who were placing the troops in position preparatory for hot work. We had not more than got into position just on the right side of the road when orders came to “charge.” We had not gone forward more than 100 yards before we received a terrible volley of musketry from the enemy, which either killed or wounded half of our company.
We went on, though, and pretty soon emerged from the thicket into an open field where we could see the enemy’s breastworks. But we went on, firing as we went, and ran up to their works, when they began to run pell-mell. We crossed their works and had a regular foot race for two miles, taking prisoners by squads without firing a gun at them.
Two brigades – Doles’s and Colquitt’s – attacked south of the Orange Turnpike. Two other brigades attacked to the north. The flank attack rolled up the Union right almost as far as Chancellorsville itself – a single large house in which Hooker made his headquarters. Crab discovered he was wounded:
On the first fire the day we charged the enemy above described, I found that a musket ball struck me on my left side near my heart, passing through my coat and shirt and, grazing the skin, left an ugly blue mark, which was sore and swollen for sev’ral days. Another went through my haversack. Many of our company were shot down.
Jackson’s objective was to destroy the Union army by seizing the fords across the river to surround them and cut off retreat. As night fell, Jackson began planning a night attack. He and his staff rode ahead of the Confederate lines to reconnoiter. Cannon- and musket-fire rattled around the armies. Crab wrote:
Of course we were in great confusion, but towards about dark we were checked up by a simultaneous fire from a long line of the artillery of their reserves. So sudden was it that it looked like one solid blaze for over a mile. The fire was too high and did no damage to us, but we stopped very suddenly and fell back to get “in order.” So close did the artillery come to us that we had to crawl to avoid the balls. Pretty soon we had formed a line of battle to resist any onset of the enemy, which it appears Gen’l Jackson expected.
On the way back from his reconnaissance, Jackson’s own troops mistook him and his staff for the Yankees. They opened fire and severely wounded Jackson in his left arm. Crab wrote:
Owing to confusion and darkness, some of our own troops near us fired a volley into Gen’l Stonewall Jackson and his staff, thinking they were the enemy. I remember that we were so near there that we could hear them being stopped by our own officers, telling them that they were our people.
Jackson was taken to a hospital in the rear and his left arm amputated. He had lost half his blood. Crab saw him there:
We had taken so many prisoners that our company was one of them that guarded them. I think we had over three thousand of them as prisoners by night, and the next day our company was in the rear guarding them. I went back to the hospital tents looking for some of my friends who been shot in battle. By mistake, I went into the tent of Gen’l Stonewall Jackson, who was lying on a cot. The doctor told me it was him who was shot the night before by mistake by our men.
We did not participate in this battle any more for the reasons above. After we had taken the prisoners to Richmond for
safekeeping, I heard there that Gen’l Jackson had died that day, some ten days after he got shot.
An ambulance had taken Jackson to Guinea Station, the northern terminus of the rail line from Richmond, after removal of his arm. General Lee sent him a message after his surgery:
“Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm — but I my right.”
Jackson’s wife and baby daughter joined him. He seemed to be recovering, but then pneumonia set in and he died on Sunday, May 10, 1863. The death of Jackson was the turning point of the Civil War.