Jackson’s Flank Attack: The Advance

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign
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Jackson and Lee ConferThe second day of the Battle of Chancellorsville was to see one of the most daring offensive actions of the Civil War: “Stonewall” Jackson’s Flank Attack. Jackson would lead 28,000 around to attack the Union right flank and attack them by surprise.

The reason that the way was open to a surprise flank attack was due to the communication chaos that existed among the Union commanders. On May 1st Hooker realized that by Lee’s very movements he was under no pressure from Sedgwick forces at Fredericksburg. The Union forces had crossed the Rappahannock River but had done little else to attack the Confederate lines which were under the command of Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early.

Hooker decided to move Maj. Gen. John Reynolds I Corps from there to Union right flank next to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps. Hooker thought that Sedgwick had pulled back across the Rappahannock and that his entire force was on the north side of the river. This was not the case. Reynolds’ I Corps and Sedgwick’s VI Corps were still on the south side of the river.

At 1:55 AM, Hooker ordered Reynolds to begin his redeployment, expecting him to begin before dawn. Unfortunately, the telegraph communications was delayed and Reynolds did not receive the orders until after dawn. The I Corps spent the entire day marching west. By the afternoon of May 2nd, when Hooker expected these forces to be digging in to new positions, Reynolds’ Corps was still marching on the north side of the Rappahannock.

Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee was dividing his army yet again. Jackson would lead his force of 28,000 on a 12 mile long march using back roads and unmapped byways. Lee would remain in position with 13,000 men and 24 guns facing the immobile Army of the Potomac.

In order for the attack to succeed four things had to happen. Jackson’s force had to remain undetected. Hooker needed to remain on the defensive and immobile. Early had to maintain his positions east of Fredericksburg despite Sedgwick’s numerical advantage. And when Jackson commenced his attack, the Union defenders had to caught by surprise.

Mostly, these conditions were fulfilled. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry was able to keep Union forces from getting a full picture of Jackson’s movement. The Confederate’s movement to the Union flank began between 7:00 and 8:00 AM. Several Confederate soldiers saw the Union observation balloon Eagle soaring overhead and assumed that they could likewise be seen, but no such report was sent to headquarters.

When men of the III Corps spotted a Confederate column moving through the woods, their division commander, Brig. Gen. David B. Birney, ordered his artillery to open fire, but this proved little more than harassment. The corps commander, Daniel Sickles, rode to Hazel Grove to see for himself and he reported after the battle that his men observed the Confederates passing for over three hours.

Hooker did receive reports of the movement but he surmised that the Confederates were beginning their withdrawal from the area. The terrain wasMap of Jackson's Advance so dense that neither side could really determine the other side’s intentions.

However, Hooker sent a message at 9:30 a.m. to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard on his right flank: “We have good reason to suppose 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.” At 10:50 a.m., Howard replied that he was “taking measures to resist an attack from the west.”

Hooker’s second action was to send orders to Sedgwick (“attack the enemy in his front” at Fredericksburg if “an opportunity presents itself with a reasonable expectation of success”) and Sickles (“advance cautiously toward the road followed by the enemy, and harass the movement as much as possible”). Sedgwick did not take action from the discretionary orders.

Sickles, however, sent Birney’s division, flanked by two battalions of Col. Hiram Berdan‘s U.S. sharpshooters, south from Hazel Grove with orders to pierce the column and gain possession of the road. But the action was too late as Jackson had ordered the 23rd Georgia Infantry to guard the rear of the column and they resisted the Union advance at Catherine Furnace.

The Georgians were driven south and they made a stand at the same unfinished railroad bed used by Wright’s Brigade the day before. They were overwhelmed by 5 p.m. and most were captured. Two brigades from A.P. Hill‘s division turned back from the flanking march and prevented any further damage to Jackson’s column, which by now had left the area.

 

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