The breastworks are not very substantial. They are hastily run up out
of rails from the fences, logs from barns in the vicinity, and newly
felled trees. The ditch skirting the road has been deepened for this
temporary purpose. Abattis, to a fair extent, has been laid in front.
But the whole position faces to the south, and is good for naught else.
Nor were our men in those days as clever with the spade as we afterwards
became. This is clearly shown in the defences.
There is some carelessness apparent. Ambulances are close by the line.
Ammunition-wagons and the train of pack-mules are mixed up with the
regiments. Even a drove of beeves is herded in the open close by.
All these properly belong well to the rear. Officers’ servants and
camp-gear are spread abroad in the vicinity of each command, rather more
comfortably ensconced than the immediate presence of the enemy may
The ground in the vicinity is largely clearing. But dense woods cover
the approaches, except in some few directions southerly. Down the roads
no great distance can be seen; perhaps a short mile on the plank road,
not many hundred yards on the turnpike.
Little Wilderness Church, in the rear of the position, looks deserted
and out of place. Little did its worshippers on last sabbath day
imagine what a conflict would rage about its walls before they again
could meet within its peaceful precincts.
There may be some absence of vigilance on the part of the pickets and
scouts; though it is not traceable in the reports, nor do any of the
officers concerned remember such. But the advanced line is not
intrenched as Miles’s line in front of Hancock has been. Less care,
rather than more carelessness, is all that can be observed on this score.
Meanwhile Jackson has ranged his corps, with the utmost precaution and
secrecy, in three lines, at right angles to the pike, and extending
about a mile on either side. All orders are given in a low tone.
Cheering as “Old Jack” passes along is expressly prohibited.
Rodes, commanding D. H. Hill’s division, leads, with Iverson’s and
Rodes’s brigades to the left of the road, and Doles’s and Colquitt’s to
the right. Rodes’s orders to his brigades are to push on steadily,
to let nothing delay or retard them. Should the resistance at Talley’s
Hill, which Rodes expects, render necessary the use of artillery,
the line is to check its advance until this eminence is carried.
But to press on, and let no obstacle stand in the way, is the watchword.
Two hundred yards in rear of the first line, Colston, commanding
Trimble’s division, ranges his brigades, Nichols and Jones on the left,
and Colston on the right of the road; Ramseur in support.
A. P. Hill’s division is not yet all up; but, as part reaches the line,
it is formed in support of Colston, the balance following in column on
The second and third lines are ordered to re-enforce the first as
Two pieces of Stuart’s horse-artillery accompany the first line on the
The regiments in the centre of the line appear to have been formed in
columns with intervals, each brigade advancing in line of columns by
regiment. The troops are not preceded by any skirmishers. The line on
the wings is probably not so much massed. It is subsequently testified
by many in the Eleventh Corps, that the centre of the line appears to
advance en echiquier, the front companies of each line of columns firing
while the rear columns are advancing through the intervals.
The march through the woods up to Dowdall’s clearing has not disturbed
the lines so materially as to prevent the general execution of such a
But the Confederate reports show that the regiments were all in line and
not in column. The appearance of columns was due to the fact that the
second and third lines, under Colston and A. P. Hill, were already
pressing up close in the rear of the first under Rodes, thus making a
mass nine deep. The intervals between regiments were accidental,
occasioned by the swaying of the line to and fro as it forced its way
through the underbrush.
It is perhaps no more than fair to say that whatever laxity was apparent
at this hour in the Eleventh Corps was by no means incompatible with a
readiness to give a good account of itself if an attack should be made
upon its front.
Such is the situation at six P.M. Now Jackson gives the order to
advance; and a heavy column of twenty-two thousand men, the best
infantry in existence, as tough, hardy, and full of elan, as they are
ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-looking, descends upon the Eleventh Corps,
whose only ready force is four regiments, the section of a battery,
and a weak line of pickets.
The game, in which these woods still abound, startled at the unusual
visitors, fly in the advance of Jackson’s line towards and across the
Dowdall clearing, and many a mouth waters, as fur and feather in
tempting variety rush past; while several head of deer speedily clear
the dangerous ground, before the bead of willing rifles can be drawn
This sudden appearance of game causes as much jollity as wonder.
All are far from imagining its cause.
The next sound is that of bugles giving the command, and enabling the
advancing troops to preserve some kind of alignment. At this the wary
prick up their ears. Surprise stares on every face. Immediately
follows a crash of musketry as Rodes sweeps away our skirmish line as it
were a cobweb. Then comes the long and heavy roll of veteran infantry
fire, as he falls upon Devens’s line.
The resistance which this division can make is as nothing against the
weighty assault of a line moving by battalions in mass. Many of the
regiments do their duty well. Some barely fire a shot. This is frankly
acknowledged in many of the reports. What can be expected of new troops,
taken by surprise, and attacked in front, flank, and rear, at once?
Devens is wounded, but remains in the saddle, nor turns over the command
to McLean until he has reached the Buschbeck line. He has lost
one-quarter of his four thousand men, and nearly all his superior
officers, in a brief ten minutes.
Schurz’s division is roused by the heavy firing on the right, in which
even inexperienced ears detect something more than a mere repetition of
the picket-fight of three hours gone. Its commanding officers are at
once alert. Regimental field and staff are in the saddle, and the men
behind the stacks, leaving canteens, haversacks, cups with the steaming
evening coffee, and rations at the fires. Arms are taken. Regiments
are confusedly marched and counter-marched into the most available
positions, to meet an emergency which some one should have anticipated
and provided for. The absence of Barlow is now fatal.
On comes Jackson, pursuing the wreck of the First division. Some of
Schurz’s regiments break before Devens has passed to the rear. Others
stand firm until the victorious Confederates are upon them with their
yell of triumph, then steadily fall back, turning and firing at
intervals; but nowhere a line which can for more than a brief space
retard such an onset.
Down the road towards Chancellorsville, through the woods, up every side
road and forest path, pours a stream of fugitives. Ambulances and oxen,
pack-mules and ammunition-wagons, officers’ spare horses mounted by
runaway negro servants, every species of the impedimenta of camp-life,
commissary sergeants on all-too-slow mules, teamsters on still-harnessed
team-horses, quartermasters whose duties are not at the front, riderless
steeds, clerks with armfuls of official papers, non-combatants of all
kinds, mixed with frighted soldiers whom no sense of honor can arrest,
strive to find shelter from the murderous fire.
No organization is left in the Eleventh Corps but one brigade of
Steinwehr’s division. Buschbeck has been speedily formed by a change of
front, before Devens and Schurz have left the field, in the line of
intrenchments built across the road at Dowdall’s at the edge of the
clearing. No sooner in place than a scattering fire by the men is
opened upon friends and foes alike. Dilger’s battery trains some of its
guns down the road. The reserve artillery is already in position at the
north of this line, and uses spherical case with rapidity. Howard and
his staff are in the thickest of the fray, endeavoring to stem the tide.
As well oppose resistance to an avalanche.
Buschbeck’s line stubbornly holds on. An occasional squad, still
clinging to the colors of its regiment, joins itself to him, ashamed of
falling thus disgracefully to the rear. Officers make frantic exertions
to rally their men; useless effort. In little less than half an hour
this last stand has been swept away, and the Eleventh Corps is in
confused retreat down the pike towards headquarters, or in whatever
direction affords an outlet from the remorseless hail.
The general confusion which reigned can scarcely be more accurately
described than by detailing the experience of a single regiment.
The One Hundred and Nineteenth New York Volunteers was in Schurz’s
division. It was commanded by an officer of German birth, but long
since an American citizen. No more gallant, intelligent man wore
uniform, or one better fitted for a pattern soldier. Well read in
military matters, he had never yet been under fire, and was nervously
anxious to win his spurs. The regiment was a good one; but only three
or four officers, and a small percentage of enlisted men, had seen
This regiment faced south on the pike just west of the fork in the
roads. Under arms in an instant, when the firing was heard on the right,
it was soon ordered by one of Schurz’s aides to throw itself across the
fork, and hold it at all hazards. But the suddenness of the attack had
momentarily robbed Col. Peissner of his steadiness, for he was a good
drill-master. Instead of facing to the right, counter-marching, filing
to the left across the road, and coming to a front,–the simplest if
longest movement being the best in times of such excitement,–he faced
to the left because his left was nearest to the fork, filed to the left,
and then, instead of coming on the left by file into line, he moved
astride the roads, and ordered “Front!” This brought the regiment in
line with its back to the enemy. The men instinctively came each to an
about-face, and the file closers broke through to the now rear. There
was no time to correct the error. The regiment, which would have fought
well under proper circumstances, from the start lost confidence in its
officers and itself. Still it held its ground until it had burned
almost twenty rounds, and until the Confederate line was within fifty
yards in its face, and had quite outflanked it. Then the raking volleys
of such a front as Jackson was wont to present, and, more than all,
the fire of Buschbeck’s brigade in its immediate rear, broke it; and it
melted away, leaving only a platoon’s strength around the colors,
to continue for a brief space the struggle behind the Buschbeck line,
while the rest fled down the road, or through the woods away from the
deadly fire. This regiment lost its entire color-guard, and nearly
one-half of its complement killed or wounded.
There is much discrepancy as to the time during which the Eleventh Corps
made resistance to Jackson’s advance. All reliable authorities put the
time of the attack as six P.M. When the last gun was fired at the
Buschbeck rifle-pits, it was dusk, at that season about quarter past
seven. It seems reasonably settled, therefore, that the corps retarded
the Confederate advance over about a mile of ground for exceeding an
hour. How much more can be expected of ten thousand raw troops
telescoped by twenty-five thousand veterans?
Rodes, now quite mixed with Colston’s line, still pressed on, and
between Hooker’s headquarters and his elated foe there was scarce an
organized regiment. Hooker’s fatal inability to grasp the situation,
and his ordering an advance of all troops on Howard’s left as far as the
Second Corps, had made him almost defenceless. The troops which should
have been available to stem this adverse tide were blindly groping in
the woods, two miles in front,–in pursuit of Jackson.
One cannot but wonder just where Sickles expected to find Jackson.
There can be little doubt that he did think he was about to strike
Jackson’s flank. His testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of
the War constantly refers to this belief; and he says that he “was about
to open his attack in full force,” was holding Pleasonton’s cavalry in
hand, desiring to lead the attack with his infantry, when the news of
the disaster to the Eleventh Corps was brought to him; and that every
thing seemed to indicate the most brilliant success from thus throwing
himself upon Jackson’s flank and rear. He refers to McLaws being in his
front, but this is an error. McLaws was on Lee’s right flank, three
miles away. It was with Archer of Jackson’s corps, and with Posey and
Wright of Anderson’s division, that he had to do.
The reports are by no means clear as to the details of these movements.
Birney states in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of
the War, that he found that he and Barlow “had got into the midst of the
rebel army, the supports on the left not having come up.” He therefore
formed his command into a huge square, with the artillery in the centre,
holding the road over which Jackson had passed. “The fire upon his left
flank from musketry was galling.” This came from Anderson’s brigades.
Hayman, Graham and Ward were pushed out along the road, and “found the
enemy in some force on three sides.” This apparently shows that
Birney,–who had the immediate command of the troops in front,–was
quite uncertain of what was before him, or just what he was expected to
This much is, however, clear: Jackson’s small rearguard had succeeded in
holding the road which he had traversed, at some point near Welford’s;
and here this force remained until Jackson was well along towards the
plank road. Then Anderson in his turn made a diversion on the other
side of Birney, which kept the latter busy for at least a couple of
Sickles’s orders were to advance cautiously. This was Hooker’s doing.
Hence exception cannot fairly be taken to either Birney’s or Sickles’s
conduct for lack of energy. But the latter must have singularly
underrated Jackson’s methods, if he thought he could strike him at a
given point, so many hours after his passage. For Jackson was first
observed near the Furnace about eight A.M., and Sickles was just getting
ready to attack him in this same place at six P.M.
The errors of judgment on this entire day can scarcely be attributed to
any one but the general commanding. He was the one to whom all reports
were sent. He had knowledge of every thing transpiring. He it was who
was responsible for some sensible interpretation of the information
brought him, and for corresponding action in the premises.
So much for Sickles’s advance. It could not well have been more
ill-timed and useless. But his gallant work of the coming night and
morrow, when Hooker left him almost alone to resist the fierce assaults
of our victorious and elated foe, was ample compensation for his
subordinate share in the triviality and fatal issue of Saturday’s
manoeuvring. Nor can blame fall upon him in as full measure as upon
Hooker; although he seems illy to have construed what was transpiring in
his front, and what he reported may have seriously misled his chief.