A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG.
II The Wilderness
The "Wilderness," as the region around Chancellorsville is called, is so strange a country, and the character of the ground had so important a bearing upon the result of the great battle fought there, that a brief description of the locality will be here presented.
The region is a nearly unbroken expanse of dense thicket pierced only by narrow and winding roads, over which the traveller rides, mile after mile, without seeing a single human habitation. It would seem, indeed, that the whole barren and melancholy tract had been given up to the owl, the whippoorwill, and the moccasin, its original tenants. The plaintive cries of the night-birds alone break the gloomy silence of the desolate region, and the shadowy thicket stretching in every direction produces a depressing effect upon the feelings. Chancellorsville is in the centre of this singular territory, on the main road, or rather roads, running from Orange Court-House to Fredericksburg, from which latter place it is distant about ten miles. In spite of its imposing name, Chancellorsville was simply a large country-house, originally inhabited by a private family, but afterward used as a roadside inn. A little to the westward the "Old Turnpike" and Orange Plank-road unite as they approach the spot, where they again divide, to unite a second time a few miles to the east, where they form the main highway to Fredericksburg. From the north come in roads from United States and Ely's Fords; Germanna Ford is northwest; from the south runs the "Brock Road" in the direction of the Rapidan, passing a mile or two west of the place.
The whole country, the roads, the chance houses, the silence, the unending thicket, in this dreary wilderness, produce a sombre effect. A writer, familiar with it, says: "There all is wild, desolate, and lugubrious. Thicket, undergrowth, and jungle, stretch for miles, impenetrable and untouched. Narrow roads wind on forever between melancholy masses of stunted and gnarled oak. Little sunlight shines there. The face of Nature is dreary and sad. It was so before the battle; it is not more cheerful to-day, when, as you ride along, you see fragments of shell, rotting knapsacks, rusty gun-barrels, bleached bones, and grinning skulls.... Into this jungle," continues the same writer, "General Hooker penetrated. It was the wolf in his den, ready to tear any one who approached. A battle there seemed impossible. Neither side could see its antagonist. Artillery could not move; cavalry could not operate; the very infantry had to flatten their bodies to glide between the stunted trees. That an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men should have chosen that spot to fight forty thousand, and not only chosen it, but made it a hundred times more impenetrable by felling trees, erecting breastworks, disposing artillery _en masse_ to sweep every road and bridle-path which led to Chancellorsville--this fact seemed incredible."
It was no part of the original plan of the Federal commander to permit himself to be cooped up in this difficult and embarrassing region, where it was impossible to manoeuvre his large army. The selection of the Wilderness around Chancellorsville, as the ground of battle, was dictated by Lee. General Hooker, it seems, endeavored to avoid being thus shut up in the thicket, and hampered in his movements. Finding that the Confederate force, retiring from in front of Ely's and United States Fords, had, on reaching Chancellorsville, continued to fall back in the direction of Fredericksburg, he followed them steadily, passed through the Wilderness, and, emerging into the open country beyond, rapidly began forming line of battle on ground highly favorable to the manoeuvring of his large force in action. A glance at the map will indicate the importance of this movement, and the great advantages secured by it. The left of General Hooker's line, nearest the river, was at least five miles in advance of Chancellorsville, and commanded Banks's Ford, thereby shortening fully one-half the distance of General Sedgwick's march from Fredericksburg, by enabling him to use the ford in question as a place of crossing to the south bank, and uniting his column with the main body. The centre and right of the Federal army had in like manner emerged from the thickets of the Wilderness, and occupied cleared ground, sufficiently elevated to afford them great advantages.
This was in the forenoon of the 1st of May, when there was no force in General Hooker's front, except the eight thousand men of Anderson at Tabernacle Church. Jackson had marched at midnight from the Massaponnax Hills, with a general order from Lee to "attack and repulse the enemy," but had not yet arrived. There was thus no serious obstacle in the path of the Federal commander, who had it in his power, it would seem, to mass his entire army on the commanding ground which his vanguard already occupied. Lee was aware of the importance of the position, and, had he not been delayed by the feint of General Sedgwick, would himself have seized upon it. As it was, General Hooker seemed to have won the prize in the race, and Lee would, apparently, be forced to assail him on his strong ground, or retire in the direction of Richmond.
The movements of the enemy had, however, been so rapid that Lee's dispositions seem to have been made before they were fully developed and accurately known to him. He had sent forward Jackson, and now proceeded to follow in person, leaving only a force of about six thousand men, under Early, to defend the crossing at Fredericksburg. The promptness of these movements of the Confederate commander is noticed by Northern writers. "Lee, with instant perception of the situation," says an able historian, "now seized the masses of his force, and, with the grasp of a Titan, swung them into position, as a giant might fling a mighty stone from a sling." [Footnote: Mr. Swinton, in "Campaigns of the
Army of the Potomac." Whether the force under Lee could be justly described as "mighty," however, the reader will form his own opinion.]
Such were the relative positions of the two armies on the 1st of May: General Hooker's forces well in advance of Chancellorsville, and rapidly forming line of battle on a ridge in open country; General Lee's, stretching along the whole distance, from Fredericksburg to Tabernacle Church, and certainly not in any condition to deliver or accept battle. The Federal commander seemed to have clearly outgeneralled his adversary, and, humanly speaking, the movements of the two armies, up to this time, seemed to point to a decisive Federal success.
General Hooker's own act reversed all this brilliant promise. At the very moment when his army was steadily concentrating on the favorable ground in advance of Chancellorsville, the Federal commander, for some reason which has never been divulged, sent a peremptory order that the entire force should fall back into the Wilderness. This order, reversing every thing, is said to have been received "with mingled amazement and incredulity" by his officers, two of whom sent him word that, from the great advantages of the position, it should be "held at all hazards." General Hooker's reply was, "Return at once." The army accordingly fell back to Chancellorsville.
This movement undoubtedly lost General Hooker all the advantages which up to that moment he had secured. What his motive for the order in question was, it is impossible for the present writer to understand, unless the approach of Lee powerfully affected his imagination, and he supposed the thicket around Chancellorsville to be the best ground to receive that assault which the bold advance of his opponent appeared to foretell. Whatever his motive, General Hooker withdrew his lines from the open country, fell back to the vicinity of Chancellorsville, and began to erect elaborate defences, behind which to receive Lee's attack.
In this backward movement he was followed and harassed by the forces of Jackson, the command of Anderson being in front. Jackson's maxim was to always press an enemy when he was retiring; and no sooner had the Federal forces begun to move, than he made a prompt attack. He continued to follow them up toward Chancellorsville until nightfall, when the fighting ceased, the Confederate advance having been pushed to Alrich's house, within about two miles of Chancellorsville. Here the outer line of the Federal works was found, and Jackson paused. He was unwilling at so late an hour to attempt an assault upon them with his small force, and, directing further movements to cease, awaited the arrival of the commander-in-chief.
Lee arrived, and a consultation was held. The question now was, the best manner, with a force of about thirty-five thousand, to drive the Federal army, of about one hundred thousand, beyond the Rappahannock.