The Campaign of Chancellorsville

Perhaps no officers, during our Civil War, were placed in a more
lamentably awkward position than Devens, and in a less degree Schurz,
on this occasion. Having been fully convinced by the events of the
afternoon that an attack down the pike was highly probable, having
carefully reported all these events to his immediate commander, Devens
was left without inspection, counsel, or help. He might have gone in
person to Howard, but he did not dare leave his division. He might have
sent messages which more urgently represented his own anxiety. But when
the blow came, he did all that was possible, and remained, wounded,
in command, and assisted in re-organizing some relics of his division
behind the Buschbeck works.

Schurz was with Howard a good part of the day, and his opinions were
expressed to that officer. To Schurz’s personal bearing here, or on any
other occasion, no possible exception can be taken.

XVII.

THE CONDUCT OF THE ELEVENTH CORPS.

There can be no attempt to gainsay that the Eleventh Corps, on this
luckless Saturday, did not do its whole duty. That it was panic-
stricken, and that it decamped from a field where as a corps it had not
fought, is undeniable. But portions of the corps did fight, and the
entire corps would doubtless have fought well under favorable
circumstances. It is but fair, after casting upon the corps the
aspersion of flight from before the enemy, to do it what justice is
possible, and to palliate the bad conduct of the whole by bearing
testimony to the good conduct of some of its parts.

It has been called a German corps. This is not quite exact. Of nearly
thirteen thousand men in the corps, only forty-five hundred were
Germans. But it must be admitted that so many officers high in rank
were of that nationality, that the general tendency and feeling were
decidedly unlike the rest of the army. Moreover, there is not wanting
testimony to show that there were some who wore shoulder-straps in the
corps who gave evidence of having taken up the profession of arms to
make money, and not to fight.

The artillery of the corps did well. Those general officers who most
severely rebuke the conduct of the corps, all say a word in favor of the
service of the guns. Dilger, on the road, just at Buschbeck’s line,
fired with his own hands from his last gun a round of canister when the
Confederates were within a dozen yards. Most of the guns had been well
served, but had been sent to the rear in time to save them from capture.

The reserve artillery did its duty, nor limbered up until the
Confederate line had outflanked its position, rendered it useless,
and jeopardized its safety.

All the guns that were saved were put into action an hour later, and did
effective service on the Fairview crest, in company with the artillery
of the Third and Twelfth Corps.

At the time of the attack, which was made by Jackson without an advance
of skirmishers, Devens’s reserve regiments were ordered up to support
von Gilsa. There appears to have been something like a stand attempted;
but the left wing of the Confederate line speedily enveloped von Gilsa’s
front, and showed in rear of his right flank, when his regiments melted
away.

Devens states in his report that a new line might have been formed on
Gen. Schurz’s division, if the latter had maintained his ground, but
acknowledges that the falling-back of his own troops “must undoubtedly
have added to the difficulties encountered by the command of that
officer.”

Schurz’s report is very clear and good. This is partly attributable to
the avalanche of abuse precipitated upon his division by the press,
which called forth his detailed explanation, and an official request for
permission to publish his report. There existed a general understanding
that Schurz held the extreme right; and the newspapermen, to all
appearance, took pleasure in holding a German responsible, in their
early letters, for the origin of the panic. This error, together with
the fact of his having discussed the situation during the day with Gen.
Howard, and of his having remained of the opinion that an attack on our
right was probable, accounts for the care exhibited in his statements.
That he did harbor such fears is proved by his having, of his own motion,
after the attack of three o’clock, placed the Fifty-Eighth New York,
Eighty-Second Ohio, and Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, near
Hawkins’s farm, in the north part of the Dowdall clearing, and facing
west. Still Schurz’s report is only a careful summary of facts
otherwise substantiated. He deals no more in his own opinions than a
division commander has a right to do.

Schurz states that he strongly advised that the entire corps should take
up the Buschbeck line, not considering the woods a reliable point
d’appui. For they were thick enough to screen the manoeuvring of the
enemy, but not, as the event showed, to prevent his marching through
them to the attack.

When the onset came, it was impossible quickly to change front.
Schurz’s regiments were all hemmed in between the rifle-pits before them
and the woods in their rear. Still, more than half of the regiments of
this division appear to have maintained their credit, and the testimony
would tend to show that the men burned from five to thirty rounds each.
But without avail. They were telescoped. Their defences were rendered
useless. The enemy was on both sides of and perpendicular to them.
It is an open question whether, at that time, any two divisions of the
army could have changed front and made a good defence under these
circumstances. Later in the war our soldiers were more habituated,
particularly in the West, to fighting on either side of their
breastworks. But these were raw troops. And this was not the first,
nor was it the last, panic in the Army of the Potomac. But the corps
had, as ill-luck willed it, nothing in its rear to repair or conceal its
discomfiture.

Buschbeck’s brigade had better opportunities, and acted correspondingly
better. It had time to occupy the rifle-pits facing west before the
enemy had completed the destruction of the first and third divisions.
Buschbeck’s stand covered a full half-hour. He was re-enforced by many
fragments of broken regiments, holding together under such officers as
had escaped utter demoralization. The troops remained behind these
works until outflanked on right and left, for Jackson’s front of over
two miles easily enveloped any line our little force could form.

During the early part of the attack, Colquitt’s brigade ran across the
pickets of Devens’s and Schurz’s south front, which there had been no
time to call in. Instead of joining in the advance, Colquitt remained
to engage these latter, deeming it essential to protect Jackson’s right.
This was the nucleus of one of the many detached engagements of this
day. Several bodies of Union troops thus isolated were captured en
masse.

The reports of the officers concerned, as a rule, possess the merit of
frankness. As an instance, Col. Hartung, of the Seventy-Fourth New York,
relates that he had no opportunity to fire a shot until after he arrived
behind the Buschbeck intrenchments. The facts would appear to be given
in an even-handed way, in all the reports rendered.

Little remains to be said. The Eleventh Corps was panic-stricken,
and did run, instead of retreating. It was a mere disorganized mass in
a half-hour from the beginning of the attack, with but a few isolated
regiments, and one brigade, retaining a semblance of orderliness.

But was it so much the misbehavior of the troops as the faultiness of
the position they occupied?

The corps was got together again before Sunday morning, in a condition
to do good service. Had it been tested, it would, in all probability,
have fought well.

The loss of the corps was one-quarter of its effective.

Some time after the battle of Chancellorsville, a motion was made to
break up the Eleventh Corps, and distribute its regiments among the
others; but it was not done. Hooker then remarked that he would yet
make that corps fight, and be proud of its name. And it subsequently
did sterling service. Gen. Thomas remarked, in congratulating Hooker on
his victory at Lookout Mountain, that “the bayonet-charge of Howard’s
troops, made up the side of a steep and difficult hill, over two hundred
feet high, completely routing and driving the enemy from his barricades
on its top, . . . will rank with the most distinguished feats of arms of
this war.” And it is asserted that this encomium was well earned,
and that no portion of it need be set down to encouragement.

In their evidence before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,
Hooker and Sickles both testify that the panic of the Eleventh Corps
produced a gap in the line, and that this was the main cause of disaster
on this field. But the fatal gap was made long before the Eleventh
Corps was attacked. It was Hooker’s giddy blunder in ordering away,
two miles in their front, the entire line from Dowdall’s to
Chancellorsville, that made it.

This was the gap which enabled Jackson to push his advance to within a
few hundred yards of Chancellorsville before he could be arrested.
This was what made it possible for him to join his right to Lee’s left
wing next day. Had Hooker but kept his troops in hand, so as to have
moved up Birney sharply in support, to have thrown forward Berry and
Whipple if required, the Confederate advance would, in all human
probability, have been checked at Dowdall’s; Lee and Jackson would still
have been separated by a distance of two miles; and of this perilous
division excellent advantage could have yet been taken at daylight
Sunday by the Army of the Potomac.

Hooker’s testimony includes the following attempt to disembarrass
himself of the onus of the faulty position of the Eleventh Corps and its
consequences: “No pickets appear to have been thrown out; and I have
reason to suppose that no effort was made by the commander of the corps
on the right to follow up and keep himself advised of Jackson’s
movements, although made in broad daylight, and with his full knowledge.
In this way the Eleventh Corps was lost to me, and more than that,
because its bad conduct impaired the confidence that the corps of the
army had in one another. I observed this fact during the night, from
the firing on the picket-lines, as well as from the general manner of
the troops, if a gun was fired by the enemy: after that, the whole line
would let off their pieces. The men seemed to be nervous; and during
the coming-in of the Eleventh Corps I was fearful, at one time, that the
whole army would be thrown into confusion by it. Some of my staff-
officers killed half a dozen of the men in trying to arrest their
flight.”

It is not intended, by what has been said, to exonerate Howard at the
expense of Hooker. To Howard will always be imputed, and justly,
a certain part of the blame; for there were, during the afternoon,
enough indications of a probable attack down the pike to make a prudent
corps-commander either assume the responsibility of a change of
front,–as it could advantageously be made on the Buschbeck line
prolonged,–or else, at least, so strongly urge the facts on his
superior that no blame could cling to his own skirts. But neither can
Hooker’s larger share of blame he shifted off his own to Howard’s
shoulders. While it may be said that the latter did not exhibit the
activity which the questionable aspect of affairs demanded,–for he did
not personally inspect his lines after the early morning hours,–it is
equally true that the commander of the army utterly neglected his right
wing, though he had every circumstance relating to its danger reported
to him.

XVIII.

HOOKER’S PARRY.

The position of the Army of the Potomac is critical in the extreme.
But several circumstances come to the rescue. It is almost dark.
The rebel lines have become inextricably mixed. Colston, who has
gradually moved up to Rodes’s support, is so completely huddled together
with this latter’s command, that there is no organization left. Still
Jackson’s veterans press on, determined to crush our army beyond
recovery, and drive it from United-States Ford. Stuart has in fact,
at his own suggestion, got orders to move his cavalry division in that
direction, and occupy the road to Ely’s. A. P. Hill’s division is still
intact in rear of the two leading lines, now shuffled into one quite
unmanageable mass, but still instinctively pushing forward.

So faulty have Hooker’s dispositions been, in advancing his entire right
centre without filling the gap, that the only available troops to throw
into the breach, after the rapid destruction of the Eleventh Corps,
are Berry’s division of the old Third. These hardened soldiers are
still in reserve on the clearing, north of headquarters. It is
fortunate, indeed, that they are still there; for Sickles has just asked
for their detail to join his own column out in the woods, and an hour
ago Berry would certainly have been sent.

This division is at once thrown across the pike on the first crest below
Fairview, west of Chancellorsville. The artillery of the Eleventh Corps
is in part re-assembled. Capt. Best, chief of artillery of the Twelfth
Corps, has already trained his guns upon the advancing Confederate
columns, to protect the new line. But Berry is almost alone. Hays’s
brigade of the Second Corps, on his right, is his only support. The
Excelsior brigade is rapidly pushed into the woods, north of the plank
road; the Fourth Excelsior and the First Massachusetts south. Carr’s
brigade is kept in second line, one hundred and fifty yards in the rear.
The men, with the instinctive pride of self-reliance, move up with the
steadiness of veterans on drill, regardless of the stream of fugitives
breaking through their intervals.

The flight of the Eleventh Corps has stampeded part of the Third Corps
artillery. But it is re-assembled in short order, and at once thrown
into service. Capt. Best manages by seven P.M. to get thirty-four guns
into line on the crest, well served. Himself is omnipresent. Dimick’s
and Winslow’s batteries under Osborn, Berry’s chief of artillery,
join this line on the hill, leaving a section of Dimick on the road.
And such part of the disjecta membra of the Eleventh Corps as retains
semblance of organization is gathered in support of the guns. Capt. Best
has begun to fire solid shot over the heads of Berry’s men into the
woods beyond; and, as Gen. Lee says, the Confederate advance is checked
in front of this crest by the vigorous opposition encountered.

Hurried orders are despatched to Geary to withdraw his attack, and
re-occupy his breastworks. This he straightway accomplishes. Similar
orders are carried to Williams. But, before the latter can retrace his
steps, Jackson’s columns have reached the right of his late position.
Anderson also advances against him; so that Williams is obliged to move
cautiously by his left, and change front when he arrives where his line
had lately joined Geary’s and, being unable to take up his old post,
he goes into position, and prolongs Berry, south of the pike. It is
long after dark before he ascertains his bearings, and succeeds in
massing his division where it is needed.

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