Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 02/October/General R. E. Rodes' Report of the Battle of Chancellorsville

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 2, Number 4  (1876)  by Robert Emmett Rodes
General R. E. Rodes' Report of the Battle of Chancellorsville
Southern Historical Society Papers, October 1876

SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS.



Vol. II.
No. 4.
Richmond, Va., October, 1876.


General R. E. Rodes' Report of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

[The following report has never been in print so far as we have been able to ascertain, and we feel sure that military men on both sides will be glad to see the report of this gallant soldier who bore so conspicuous a part in the great flank movement, and of whom Stonewall Jackson said, before his death, "General Rodes' promotion should date from Chancellorsville." Whether this recommendation of the dying chieftain was ever conveyed to the authorities at Richmond, we know not; but General Rodes' commission as Major-General did date from Chancellorsville—May 2d, 1863.]

REPORT.

Headquarters Rodes' Division.

Major A. S. Pendleton:

Major—I have the honor to make the subjoined report of the part taken in the engagement at Chancellorsville, and the movements that preceded it, by the division of Major-General D. H. Hill, then under my command, composed of the brigades of Doles, Colquitt, Iverson, Ramseur and Rodes.

Early on the morning of Wednesday, April 29th, it being announced that the Federal army had crossed the Rappahannock river, I marched from Grace church to Hamilton's crossing, and was placed in position on the extreme right of the army, extending perpendicular to the railroad, to Massaponax creek. A portion of Ramseur's brigade being at the time on picket on the river, he was ordered with the whole of his brigade to occupy the south side of the creek, guarding the ford near its mouth. My line was strongly and rapidly fortified by the troops, and held until the morning of 1st of May, without molestation, except from the artillery fire of the enemy.

Much credit is due to Colonel J. Thompson Brown and Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas H. Carter, of the artillery, for their energy and judgment in assisting to render this line impregnable to assault. Ramseur's line was partially exposed to an enfilading fire from the heights across the river, but such was the accuracy of the fire of the Whitworth battery, Lieutenant ——— commanding, stationed with General Ramseur, that their batteries were scattered, and their attempts in this direction rendered unavailing.

At dawn on May 1st my troops were again in motion, advancing from Hamilton's crossing by the Military road to its junction with the Fredericksburg and Orange Courthouse plank road, and thence up the plank road for about two miles. At this point I became aware of a serious engagement on my right between a portion of the troops of Major-General Anderson, then advancing by the old turnpike, and Sikes' division regulars, Federal army. Being in advance of the corps, I continued to move forward for about half a mile, keeping out skirmishers towards the enemy to prevent annoyance. The firing becoming very heavy and close, the column was halted by General Jackson, and General Ramseur's brigade detached by his order to support that portion of Anderson's division which was in front of my division. This brigade became sharply engaged under Anderson, behaving with great coolness and gallantry, as I have been informed by Generals Hill and Anderson. Brigadier-General Ramseur handled his own skirmishers, and with great skill and gallantry. The rest of the division was moved by the right flank to the top of the ridge near the road, and after being established in line of battle, was directed by Lieutenant-General Jackson to shelter itself, and await orders. Subsequently it was moved forward into the woods, but though the skirmishers became engaged—capturing several prisoners—the main body of the enemy had retired before I was permitted to advance. Remaining in line of battle until about sunset, the division then resumed its march up the plank road, and bivouacked that night near Aldrich's tavern, about one and a quarter miles from Chancellorsville.

At an early hour on the morning of the second, Iverson's brigade was ordered to relieve Ramseur's, still on duty with Anderson in front. Iverson subsequently overtook the division on the march. About 8 o'clock the route was resumed, this division still in advance. Turning short to the left about half-mile beyond Aldrich's, we followed the Mine road for the purpose of getting on the right and in rear of Hooker's army.

On arriving at the old furnace on this road, the Twenty-third Georgia regiment—Colonel Best—was detached by General Jackson's order, to guard a road from the direction of Chancellorsville, by which the enemy might threaten the moving column. This regiment, with the exception of the colonel and a few men, was subsequently captured by the enemy, who made a vigorous assault upon the ordnance train and artillery then passing, but were gallantly repulsed by Colonel J. Thompson Brown, commanding battalion artillery. Colonel Best's report of the manner in which his regiment discharged its important duty, and of its fate, is inclosed. A court of inquiry on the subject was prevented by the removal of Colquitt's brigade, to which it was attached, from this Department to that of North Carolina.

On reaching the plank road again, about two miles northwest of Chancellorsville, our cavalry was found skirmishing with that of the enemy, and a delay was caused by an endeavor on our part to entrap them. At this point, it having been determined to make a still further detour towards the enemy's rear, the column was moved across to the old turnpike road, and was formed in line of battle, about four o'clock P. M., two and half miles from Chancellorsville.

The line was formed perpendicular to the road, by which it was equally divided,—Iverson's brigade on the left, Colquitt's on the right, Rodes' on the left centre, Doles' on the right centre—the right of Rodes' and left of Doles' resting on the road. Ramseur's brigade was placed in the rear of Colquitt as a support and to guard the flank.

By five o'clock Trimble's division, under command of Brigadier-General Colston, had formed about one hundred yards in rear of my command and in continuation of Ramseur's line. A. P. Hill's division formed the third line in rear of Colston.

Each brigade commander received positive instructions, which were well understood. The whole line was to push ahead from the beginning, keeping the road for its guide. The position at Talley's house was to be carried at all hazards, as, from the best information that could be obtained, it commanded the second position of the enemy at Melzei Chancellor's house. After taking the heights at Talley's, if the enemy showed a determined front on the next ridge, my men were to be sheltered until our artillery could come up and dislodge them. Under no other circumstances was there to be any pause in the advance. As there was a possibility of pressure on my right flank, Ramseur was directed to watch that flank carefully, thus leaving Colquitt free to push ahead without fear from that quarter. For similar reasons, the left regiment of Iverson was placed perpendicular to the line of battle, with orders to follow the advance by the flank.

At 5¼ P. M., the word was given to move forward, the line of sharpshooters being about four hundred yards in advance. In consequence of the dense mass of undergrowth, and orders not having been promptly given to the skirmishers of Rodes' brigade, some little delay was caused when the main line reached the skirmishers' line. This latter was put in motion again by my order, and soon after the Alabama brigade encountered the fire of the enemy. At once the line of battle rushed forward with a yell, and Doles, at this moment debouched from the woods and encountered a force of the enemy and a battery of two guns entrenched. Detaching two regiments to flank the position, he charged without halting, sweeping everything before him, and pressing on to Talley's, gallantly carried the works there and captured five guns, by a similar flank movement of a portion of his command.

So complete was the success of the whole manœuvre, and such was the surprise of the enemy, that scarcely any organized resistance was met with after the first volley was fired. They fled in the wildest confusion, leaving the field strewn with arms, accoutrements, clothing, caissons and field pieces in every direction. The larger portion of his force, as well as entrenchments, were drawn up at right angles to our line, and being thus taken in the flank and rear, they did not wait for the attack. On reaching the ridge at Melzei Chancellor's, which had an extended line of works facing in our direction, an effort was made to check the flying columns. For a few moments they held this position, but once more my gallant troops dashed at them with a wild shout, and firing a hasty volley, they continued their headlong flight to Chancellorsville. It was at this point that Trimble's division, which had followed closely in my rear, headed by the brave and accomplished Colston, went over the works with my men, and from this time until the close of the engagement the two divisions were mingled together in inextricable confusion.

Pushing forward as rapidly as possible the troops soon entered a second piece of woods thickly filled with undergrowth. The right becoming entangled in an abatis, near the enemy's front line of fortifications, caused the line to halt, and such was the confusion and darkness that it was not deemed advisable to make a further advance. I at once sent word to Lieutenant-General Jackson, urging him to push forward the fresh troops of the reserve line, in order that mine might be reformed. Riding forward on the plank road, I satisfied myself that the enemy had no line of battle between our troops and the heights of Chancellorsville, and on my return informed Colonel Crutchfield, Chief of Artillery of the corps, of the fact, and he opened his batteries on that point. The enemy instantly responded by a most terrific fire, which silenced our guns, but did but little execution on the infantry, as it was mainly directed down the plank road, which was unoccupied except by our artillery.

When the fire ceased, General Hill's troops were brought up, and as soon as a portion were deployed in my front as skirmishers, I commenced withdrawing my men, under orders from the Lieutenant-General.

During this glorious victory and pursuit of more than two miles, I had only three brigades really engaged. General Colquitt soon after starting was misled by the appearance of a small body of the enemy's cavalry, and, notwithstanding the instructions to himself and General Ramseur, halted his brigade to resist what he supposed to be an attack on his flank. This error was discovered too late to enable him to do more than follow the victorious troops of Doles over the fields they had won. Ramseur, being ordered to follow Colquitt, and to watch his flank, was necessarily deprived of any active participation.

On withdrawing my troops, I was directed to see that Jones' brigade of Colston's division was so placed as to guard a road coming in from the direction of the furnace on the right, and to relieve, with one of mine, McGowan's brigade of Hill's division, then guarding a second road from the same direction which entered the plank road further up. Whilst preparing to make these dispositions, a sudden and rapid musketry fire was opened in front, which created a little confusion among the troops. Order was speedily restored, however. Apparently this firing proceeded entirely from our own men, as not a ball from the enemy came within sound.

There being no other place but the open ground at Melzei Chancellor's suitable for such a purpose, I withdrew all my troops, except Colquitt's brigade, to reform them at that point. Finding the entrenchments partially occupied by Paxton's brigade, I formed line of battle in connection with him. At this time the enemy opened a similar terrific fire of artillery to that which had taken place just before my withdrawal, which caused much confusion and disorder, rendering it necessary for me to place guards across the road to stop stragglers.

Shortly after this occurrence I was informed that Lieutenant-General Jackson was wounded, and also received a message from Major-General Hill stating that he likewise was disabled, and that the command of the corps devolved on me. Without loss of time, I communicated with Brigadier-Generals Heth and Colston, commanding respectively the divisions of A. P. Hill and Trimble, and made the necessary arrangements for a renewal of the attack in the morning, it being agreed that the troops were not in condition to resume operations that night. Just at this time (about twelve o'clock) the enemy made an attack on our right, but being feeble in its character, and promptly met, it lasted but a short time. Very soon after, Major-General J. E. B. Stuart, who had been sent for by Major Pendleton, A. A. G. of Lieutenant-General Jackson, arrived on the ground and assumed command.

I deem it proper to state that I yielded the command to General Stuart, not because I thought him entitled to it—belonging, as he does, to a different arm of the service—nor because I was unwilling to assume the responsibility of carrying on the attack, as I had already made the necessary arrangements, and they remained unchanged, but because, from the manner in which I had been informed that he had been sent for, I inferred that General Jackson or General Hill had instructed Major Pendleton to place him in command, and for the still stronger reason that I feared that the information that the command had devolved on me, unknown, except to my own immediate troops, would in their shaken condition be likely to increase the demoralization of the corps. General Stuart's name was well and very favorable known to the army, and would tend, I hoped, to re-establish confidence. I yielded because I was satisfied the good of the service demanded it.

On the morning of May 3d, being the rear division, I established my line with Rodes' and Iverson's brigades on left of plank road, as before. Ramseur's brigade on the right, then Doles, and finally Colquitt on the extreme right. The attack was renewed about 6 o'clock A. M., and soon after I received orders to move forward, which I promptly obeyed, first giving directions to each brigade commander to push forward until the enemy was encountered, and engage him vigorously, running over friend and foe alike, if in the way.

At the moment of starting, our cavalry reported a strong demonstration of the enemy on our extreme left, and Colquitt was detached to oppose it. He was subsequently moved to the extreme right to support a portion of General A. P. Hill's troops, and ultimately got heavily and handsomely engaged on the left of my division, as will be seen hereafter.

On account of the dense forest, the undulating character of the ground, and the want of an adequate staff, it was not in my power during the subsequent movements to give a great deal of personal attention to the actions of any of my command, except Rodes' and Ramseur's brigades, which were next to the road, but my orders were faithfully executed by each brigade commander. Moving forward steadily, with no material stoppage except that occasioned by the tangled undergrowth, they soon encountered a heavy fire of artillery. Pressing on, they soon overtook the second line of battle, then at a halt, except the Stonewall brigade, which was moving under orders from the left to the right of the plank road. I ordered Colonel O'Neal not to wait on this movement but to advance his brigade over the second line. At this moment Colonel O'Neal was disabled by a fragment of a shell, and in person I made his right regiment, the Third Alabama, press forward through the troops, and sent a staff officer with directions to Colonel Hall, who succeeded to the command, to continue his advance. The first line was in turn overtaken and passed, but the confusion arising from passing the two lines, caused the two regiments on the left of this brigade to become separated from the others. These two moved obliquely to the right, under the immediate command of Colonel Hall, and encountered the fire of the enemy's infantry posted behind a barricade on the right of the road, and not more than 200 yards from the epaulements on the heights. At this juncture a portion of Iverson's brigade, and a portion of Pender's troops, under the immediate command of Brigadier-General Pender, coming up, he ordered them all forward. The enemy was compelled to abandon the barricade and fall back, and pressing on, Colonel Hall's two regiments, the Fifth and Twenty-sixth Alabama, together with Twenty-third North Carolina regiment, Colonel Christie, carried the heights in magnificent style, planting their flags inside the works. In this charge the gallant Lieutenant-Colonel Garvin, of the Twenty-sixty Alabama, fell desperately wounded. In the meantime the residue of Rodes', Iverson's and Pender's troops moving forward to the left of Hall and Christie, were met and repulsed by the enemy, thus leaving the flank of the party on the heights exposed to an overwhelming force. They were compelled to fall back behind the plank road, with the loss of over 100 men and both Alabama flags.

A second line of battle having been assembled along the log breast-works on the left of the road, composed of parts of the Third, Sixth and Twenty-sixth Alabama, the Fifth North Carolina, under Lieutenant-Colonel Lea, who had just joined it, and other scattering troops, I ordered it, through Major Whiting, to attack (moving parallel to the plank road). Hall immediately attacked the epaulements again with his two regiments, and gallantly carried them, but the troops just mentioned, who had attacked further to the left, being again repulsed, he again fell back to the breastworks. Whilst this was transpiring in front, the enemy made an attack in force on my left and rear. This attack was met by the Twelfth Alabama (Colonel Pickens), Colonel Lightfoot of the Sixth Alabama, with a small portion of his regiment, and some troops of Nichols' brigade, skilfully placed by General Iverson, and sustained against fearful odds, until I ordered up Colquitt's brigade, which quickly and handsomely repulsed it. The enemy being repulsed decidedly here, barely holding his own in the left centre, and compelled about the same time, by the artillery fire from the right, to abandon the epaulements, withdrew all his forces to the hill back of the Chancellorsville house.

The fighting on the centre and left was of a most desperate character, and resulted in the loss of many valuable officers. Among them and most to be regretted, was Major A. M. Gordon, of the Sixth Alabama, a young officer of great promise and great purity of character. General Pender, in speaking of the first advance of my troops, stated to me that Colonel Christie and his regiment, which he handled in magnificent style, especially attracted his attention, and that the Colonel deserved promotion.

Whilst these movements were taking place on the left, Ramseur and Doles pushed forward on the right, passed the first line of entrenchments, which had already been carried, passed the first and second line of our troops, and became fiercely engaged. Doles, deflecting to the right, passed up a ravine behind the grave-yard on Chancellor's hill, and finally came out in the field nearly opposite the house, driving the enemy before him, and actually getting several hundred yards to the rear of those troops opposing the rest of my division, as well as of those opposing General Anderson's division. Subsequently he was compelled to fall back, and was directed by General Lee to take charge of a large body of prisoners.

Ramseur, after vainly urging the troops in possession of the first line of entrenchments to move forward, obtained permission to pass them, and, dashing over the works, charged the second entrenched line in the most brilliant style. The struggle at this point was long and obstinate, but the charge on the left of the plank road at this time caused the enemy to give way on his left: and this, combined with the unflinching determination of his men, carried the day, and gave him possession of the works. Not being supported, he was exposed still to a galling fire from the right, with great danger of being flanked. Notwithstanding repeated efforts made by him and by myself in person, none of the troops in his rear would move up, until the old Stonewall brigade arrived on the ground and gallantly advanced in conjunction with the Thirtieth North Carolina regiment, Colonel Parker, of Ramseur's brigade, which had been detached to support a battery, and was now on its return. Occupying the works on the right of Ramseur, and thus relieving him when his ammunition was expended, the Stonewall brigade pushed on, and carried the Chancellorsville heights—making the third time that they were captured. They, in turn, were forced to fall back, but recaptured several of the prisoners and one of the flags taken from Colonel Hall.

At this juncture, Lieutenant-Colonel Carter, who had behaved with signal courage and judgment during the whole action, succeeded, in conjunction with Major Pegram, in getting several batteries in position in a field to the right, which opened with such precision and rapidity on such of the enemy's batteries and troops as remained on the plain at Chancellorsville as finally to drive them back in utter confusion. Lieutenant-Colonel Hillary P. Jones, of the artillery, a most accomplished officer, had, however, before this, placed six guns near the plank road, and on the nearest ridge to the enemy's epaulements, which had fired with marked success on the artillery stationed at the Chancellor house, and on the retreating troops.

As soon as our artillery fire would permit, the heights were occupied by the infantry, and by order of General Stuart, I took charge of arranging all the troops found on the field in line of battle parallel to the plank road. The earliest troops on the ground were Colonel Brockenbrough's, and another Virginia regiment, belonging, I think, to the same brigade. These were subsequently withdrawn, and my troops located as follows:

Iverson's brigade on right, extending from the Chancellorsville house up the plank road, next Rodes' brigade, then Ramseur's brigade, and finally Doles' brigade, all parallel and close to the road. Doles was subsequently thrown across the road, and at an angle of 45° with it, connecting with General Pender, by whom this line was continued on to the left. Colston's division, now attached to my command, was located on the turnpike road to the right, and in continuation of my line. Colquitt's brigade was placed en echelon with reference both to Iverson and Colston, and 100 yards in rear, to enable our artillery to operate in the interval. This position was strongly fortified, and was held without molestation until Tuesday morning, when I pushed forward my whole line of skirmishers to feel the enemy. He was discovered to be in very great force, both of infantry and artillery, with formidable entrenchments.

Early on Wednesday morning my outposts reported that the enemy had retired. I again threw forward my skirmishers, and found that the entire force had retreated during the night. Following them in person with a few troops, it was ascertained that they had successfully crossed the river, availing themselves of the very severe storm and darkness of the previous night. The line of their retreat was marked by every evidence of a careful and well conducted march, but little public or private property, except such as was necessary for hospital purposes, being left behind.

On the evening of Wednesday, May 6th, my column was again in motion, and camped that night in their old quarters near Grace church, having been absent eight days, participating in the achievement of a signal victory, capturing 15 pieces of artillery, 10 flags, 75,000 rounds of small-arm ammunition, and four bushels of musket caps, from the enemy. The small-arm ammunition and the caps afterwards fell into the hands of Major Allan, Corps Ordnance Officer, and Captain Marye, Ordnance Officer of Johnson's division.

It is worthy of remark that the enemy abandoned such a large number of knapsacks in retreating to his works, that when this division began its homeward march in the rain, it was thoroughly equipped with oilcloths and shelter tents of the best quality.

The division sustained a heavy loss in killed and wounded, principally on the second day, The conduct of its men and officers was such as to win the highest encomiums from General Jackson, and as had been rarely equaled. Its laurels were dearly bought, however, as will be seen by the tabular statement of killed and wounded herewith filed. I do not think that the enemy's loss was as great as ours, as he fought us generally from behind his barricades and earth works: still, it was heavy.

As an act of justice to them, and for future reference, the names of all the officers who participated in the engagement are presented in the appendices to the reports of brigade commanders. The general, field and staff officers who were present, are herewith presented in Appendix B.

It is impossible for me, within reasonable limits, to mention all the officers and men who were distinguished for gallant and meritorious conduct in this battle. It is, however, my duty to call attention to the great gallantry and efficiency in this action of Brig.-Generals Doles and Ramseur; Colonel Ed. Willis, Twelfth Georgia; Colonel Hall, Fifth Alabama; Colonel Christie, Twenty-third North Carolina; Colonel Pickens, Twelfth Alabama; Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Lea, Fifth North Carolina (Colonel Garrett, of the Fifth North Carolina, who had behaved most gallantly in the first day's fight, was unfortunately wounded by one of our own men, after the close of that day's fight); Colonel Parker, Thirtieth North Carolina; Colonel R. T. Bennett, Fourteenth North Carolina; Captain H. A. Whiting, A. A. G. of Rodes' brigade; Captain Green Peyton, of my staff, and Captain M. L. Randolph, signal corps. The last named officer was remarkable among all these brave and accomplished officers, for his daring coolness and efficiency. Colonel O'Neal, commanding Rodes' brigade, deserves especial notice for his gallantry.

It is proper to mention that Colonel W. R. Cox, of the Second North Carolina, was wounded repeatedly before he left the field. All the other officers did their duty nobly, but those I have mentioned came under my own notice, or were so favorably spoken of by competent persons as to make it my duty to mention them in this manner.

My staff officers, Captain Green Peyton and Captain M. L. Randolph, have been mentioned for their meritorious conduct. Their duties were more than usually arduous during the action, and were nobly discharged. Mr. Ed. O'Neal, volunteer aid, a youth under eighteen, behaved most gallantly, and I am under great obligations to him, Four of my couriers, C. S, Ellis, Company "B," Fourth Georgia; Gilliam James, Company "D," Fifth Alabama; ——, and —— of Stuart's cavalry, Fitz. Lee's brigade, were of great service to me during the battle, and exhibited great courage and intelligence. Both of the former deserve promotion for their conduct.

R. E. Rodes, 
Brigadier-General Commanding.