Stonewall Jackson’s Flank Attack

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign
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Jackson's Flank AttackHaving slipped past the Union army with a minimal of observation, Stonewall Jackson‘s 21,500-man force was prepared to strike a mighty blow against the unsuspecting Union XI Corps on the right flank.

Jackson’s force was prepared to turn right on on the Orange Plank Road, from which his men would attack the Union lines at around Wilderness Church. Upon reconnoitering the area, it became clear that the Union forces were positioned in such a way that any attack at this point would have been a frontal attack against strong defenses.

After observing the Union positions with Brig. Gen Fitzhugh Lee, Jackson was delighted to see that the Union soldiers were resting and unaware of the Confederate threat. He ordered his force to march two miles further west before turning right onto the Orange Turnpike. From that position, the Confederates would have an unimpeded opportunity to strike the Union flank.

The Confederate attack formation consisted of two lines. The divisions of Brig. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Raleigh E. Colston stretched almost a mile on either side of the turnpike, separated by 200 yards, followed by a partial line with the arriving division of A.P. Hill.

Opposing them was the XI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. The XI Corps had three divisions with two brigades and an organic artillery brigade in each unit. Howard had failed to make any provision for a surprise attack, even though he had been ordered to do so by General Hooker. The Union right flank was not anchored on any natural obstacle, and the only defenses against a flank attack consisted of two cannons pointing out into the Wilderness.

The corps had been commanded by Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel, a political general appointed because of his abolitionist views. Although inept as a commander, he was very popular with the Germans, who had a saying “I fights mit Sigel“.

In the spring of 1862, they had been detached from the main army and sent to the Shenandoah. It was here that they met with Stonewall Jackson and suffered a defeat at Cross Keys during Jackson’s Valley Campaign. The corps was also part of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s defeated Army of Virginia at Second Manassas.

After Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac, Sigel was dismissed and replaced by Howard. He also dismissed a number of popular generals and replaced them with men like Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, a ferocious disciplinarian who was known for swatting stragglers with the blunt end of his sword.

Half of the soldiers in this corps were foreign-born men who had poor English language skills and were subjected to discrimination from the other half who were native-born Americans. The corps’ readiness was poor as well. Of the 23 regiments, eight had no combat experience, and the remaining 15 had never fought on the winning side of a battle.

And although many of the immigrants had served in European armies, they tended to not perform well under the loose discipline of the AmericanMap of Jackson's Flank Attack volunteer military. Hooker had placed on the flank of his defensive lines and had no plans for using them in other than mopping up operations. However, Stonewall Jackson had other ideas.

After a long day marching, at about 5:30 PM Jackson’s men came screaming out of the woods. With their distinctive Rebel Yell, they stormed into the Union positions, catching them totally by surprise. Most of the Union soldiers were just sitting down to dinner. Their rifles were unloaded and stacked.

The division of Brig. Gen. Charles Devens, Jr. collapsed almost immediately. The neighboring division was led by Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz who ordered his division to shift from an east-west alignment to north-south, which they did with amazing precision and speed. However, they were overlapped significantly on both sides by the Confederate onslaught and Schurz correctly ordered a retreat at 6:30 p.m before his men were overwhelmed.

General Howard partially redeemed his incompetence by personally attempting to rally his men. However, his valiant attempt was too little and too late with only small groups coalescing around him.

However, several thousand of Howard’s men were able to gather at Fairview, a clearing across the road from Chancellorsville. They joined 37 guns from the XII Corps and were able to stop the now-disorganized advance of Rodes’ Division at about 7:15 PM. Hooker ordered the III Corps division of Maj. Gen. Hiram G. Berry to defend a line a half mile from Chancellorsville with their bayonets, but by that time, the momentum of the attack had passed.

As night fell, the Confederate attack which had advanced about a mile and a quarter petered out. Both sides were exhausted and disorganized and the approaching darkness made matters more confusing. The XI Corps had suffered a total of about 2,500 casualties with 259 killed, 1,173 wounded, and 994 missing or captured. This was about one-quarter of its strength. In addition, 12 of 23 regimental commanders were among the casualties.

Jackson's infantry attacksJackson’s force was now separated from Lee’s men only by Sickles’s corps, which had been separated from the main body of the army after its  attack on Jackson’s column earlier in the afternoon. By 9:00 PM, Sickles’s men had struggled back to Hazel Grove, but their day was not done. Between 11:00 PM and midnight, Sickles organized an assault north from Hazel Grove toward the Plank Road, but called it off when his men began suffering artillery and rifle fire from their own XII Corps.

Jackson wanted to press the attack before Hooker could recover. His actions that night would erase any advantage that the Confederates might have gained that day and cause a loss that they never recovered from.

 

 

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