The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz/Volume Two/8 Fredericksburg — Chancellorsville

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ON the 2d of September, General McClellan was assigned to the "command of the fortifications of Washington, and of all the troops for the defense of the Capital." Three days later General Pope was relieved of his command, and the Army of Virginia was merged in the Army of the Potomac. Of this army, General Sigel's corps became the Eleventh. Between the 4th and 7th of September, General Lee crossed the Potomac for the purpose of invading Maryland, and in Washington an army was hastily put together to march forth and beat him. General Sigel's corps, the Eleventh, was kept within the fortifications for the immediate protection of the Capital City. The corps had been greatly reduced in strength by heavy losses on the battlefield, as well as by sickness caused by the extraordinary fatigues of the recent campaign. Now it was still further weakened by the withdrawal of General Milroy's brigade which was sent to West Virginia to protect railroads and to hunt bushwhackers. General Milroy was, if I remember rightly, an Indianian, gaunt of appearance and strikingly Western in character and manners. When he met the enemy he would gallop up and down his front, fiercely shaking his fist at the "rebel scoundrels over there," and calling them all sorts of outrageous names. His favorite word of command was: "Pitch in, boys; pitch in!" And he would "pitch in" at the head of his men, exposing himself with the utmost recklessness. He was a man of intense patriotism. He did not fight as one who merely likes fighting. The cause for which he was fighting — his country, the integrity of the Republic, the freedom of the slave — was constantly present to his mind. It was the advantage won or the injury suffered by his cause, that made him rejoice over our victory, or mourn over our defeat. General McDowell, in his report on the battle of the 30th of August, describes him as he appeared when our left wing yielded to the enemy's assault, as "Brigadier General Milroy, a gallant officer of General Sigel's corps, who came riding up in a state of absolute frenzy, with his sword drawn, and gesticulating at some distance off, shouting to send forward reinforcements to save the day, to save the country," etc., etc. And in his own report he gave vent to his feelings about the order to retreat, in these words: "I felt that all the blood, treasure, and labor of our government and people for the last year had been thrown away by that unfortunate order, and that most probably the death-knell of our glorious government had been sounded by it." His notions of military discipline were somewhat singular. He lived on a footing of very democratic comradeship with his men. The most extraordinary stories were told of his discussing with his subordinates what was to be done, of his permitting them to take amazing liberties with the orders to be executed. At the different headquarters of divisions and brigades of the corps, "Old Milroy's" latest was always eagerly expected, and then circulated, frequently amplified and adorned with great freedom of invention. But he did good service, was respected and liked by all, and we saw him depart with great regret. The gap left by the departure of this brigade was filled by some newly levied regiments of which I may have more to say anon.

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On the 17th of September, the battle of Antietam was fought, in which McClellan might have made a victory of immense consequence, had he not, with his usual indecision and procrastination, let slip the moments when he could easily have beaten the divided enemy in detail. As it was, General Lee came near being justified in calling Antietam a "drawn battle." He withdrew almost unmolested from the presence of our army across the Potomac. But the battle of Antietam became one of the landmarks of human history by giving Abraham Lincoln the opportunity for doing the great act which crowned him with eternal fame. There is something singularly pathetic in the story — and it is a true story — that Abraham Lincoln, harassed by anxious doubts as to whether the issue of the emancipation proclamation, already once postponed, would not cause dangerous dissension among the Northern people, at last referred the portentous question to the arbitrament of heaven, and vowed in his heart to himself and "to his Maker" that the proclamation should certainly come forth, if the result of the next battle were in favor of the Union. And so, after the battle of Antietam, the great proclamation, in Lincoln's heart sanctioned by the decree of Providence, did come forth, and it made our Civil War not only a war for a political Union, but also a war against slavery before all the world.

The effect produced by the appearance of the proclamation did much to justify the previous hesitation of the President. In the first place, it did not at once bring about the confusion in the internal conditions of the Southern States that had been expected by the anti-slavery men who advised the measure. They had, indeed, not looked for nor desired a servile insurrection. But they had expected the ruling class, and with it the Confederate Government, to fear the possibility of such a calamity, and, for that reason, to withdraw a part of their forces from the fighting line to watch the negroes. They had also expected that the number of negro fugitives from the Southern country would become much larger, and that thereby the laboring force of the South necessary for the sustenance of the army would be greatly reduced. One of the most remarkable features of the history of those times is the fact that most of the slaves stayed on the plantations or farms, and did the accustomed work with quiet, and, in the case of house servants, not seldom even with affectionate fidelity, while in their hearts they yearned for freedom, and prayed for its speedy coming. Only as our armies penetrated the South, and especially when negroes were enlisted as soldiers, did they leave their former masters in large numbers — and even then there was scarcely any instance of violent revenge on their part for any wrong or cruelty any of them may have suffered in slavery.

At the North the emancipation proclamation was used by Democratic politicians to denounce the administration for having turned the "War for the Union" into an "abolition war," and much seditious clamor was heard about the blood of white fellow-citizens being treacherously spilled for the sole purpose of robbing our Southern countrymen of their negro property, and all this in direct violation of the Federal Constitution and the laws. While this agitation, on the whole, affected only Democratic partisans, it served to consolidate their organization, to turn mere opposition to the Republican administration into opposition to the prosecution of the war. On the other hand, it greatly inspired the enthusiasm of the anti-slavery people, and gave a new impetus to their activity. Moreover, it produced a powerful impression in Europe. It did not, indeed, convert the enemies of the American Union in England and France; but it created so commanding a public sentiment in favor of our cause that our enemies there could not prevail against it.

But the political situation at the North assumed a threatening aspect. Hundreds of thousands of Republican voters were in the army, away from home. Arbitrary arrests, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and similar stretches of power had disquieted and even irritated many good men. But — more than this — our frequent defeats in the field and the apparent fruitlessness of some of our victories, like that of Antietam, had a disheartening effect upon the people. Our many failures were largely ascribed to a lack of energy in the administration. The consequence was, that at the November elections in 1862, the Democrats achieved some startling successes, winning the States of New York and New Jersey, and a good many congressional districts in various other important States, and boastfully predicting that the next time they would obtain the control of the National House of Representatives. Many of the sincerest friends of the country's cause and of those in power became alarmed at the situation, and impulsively held the administration responsible for it. And not a few of them, to ease their minds, could think of nothing better to do than to "write to Mr. Lincoln." Listening to everybody that had the slightest claim to be heard, and kindly replying to what he was told through interviews or letters or other methods of public utterance, Mr. Lincoln had, so to speak, kept himself in constant correspondence with the people, and to "write to Mr. Lincoln" was therefore not considered by anybody an extraordinary undertaking. From this popular impression Mr. Lincoln had at times — at this time, for instance — seriously to suffer.

In Nicolay and Hay's biography of Lincoln (Vol. VII., p. 363), the situation is thus described: "In the autumn of 1862 Mr. Lincoln was exposed to the bitterest assaults and criticisms from every faction in the country. His conservative supporters reproached him with having yielded to the wishes of the radicals; the radicals denounced him for being hampered, if not corrupted, by the influence of the conservatives. On one side he was assailed by a clamor for peace, on the other by vehement and injurious demands for a more vigorous prosecution of the war. To one friend who assailed him with peculiar candor, he made a reply which may answer as a sufficient defense to all the radical attacks which were so rife at the time." That "friend" was I.

I had, while in the field, carried on a more or less active correspondence with my political friends to keep myself informed of what was going on in the country. I had also while stationed near Washington, visited that city and conversed with public men, among whom were Secretary Chase and Senator Sumner. The impressions I received from my letters as well as from my conversations were very gloomy. There was a discouragement in the popular mind which urgently demanded successes in the field for its relief. Such successes were indeed achieved in the West, but not in the East, where the principal theater of the war, upon which the final, decisive blows were to be struck, was supposed to be. It was observed with disquietude that reckless operations of the enemy, such, for instance, as those of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and the raid on Manassas Junction, which would have resulted in his destruction, if our ample means had been promptly and vigorously used, had been accomplished with astonishing success.

The apparent lack of hearty co-operation between different commands, to which Pope's disastrous discomfiture seemed in great part to have been owing, formed the subject of much anxious talk. There was a suspicion current that the enemy had spies in the Adjutant General's office in Washington who despatched intimate information about our condition and plans southward. Rumors of occasional utterances dropped by this or that General or high staff-officer in the Army of the Potomac that some of those in command did not wish the Union Army to achieve decisive success, but looked for general exhaustion on both sides, which would render a compromise favorable to slavery possible, went from mouth to mouth in the camps as well as among the public. The failure of the Army of the Potomac to follow up the advantages gained in the awful slaughter of Antietam was used to serve as proof. These suspicions survived long after the war. More than thirty years later I heard a retired officer of the regular army who, in 1862, occupied a staff position in the Army of the Potomac, assert positively that he knew of a conspiracy then on foot in that army, the object of which was to resist and balk the policy of the government. The foundation of all this was probably little more than mere headquarters bluster; but at the time it caused serious concern.

It was under these circumstances that I wrote from my camp to Mr. Lincoln, giving voice to the widespread anxiety as I understood and felt it. I thought myself all the more at liberty to do so since Mr. Lincoln, when I joined the army, had asked me personally to write to him freely whenever I had anything to say that I believed he should know. I have never again seen that letter, and do not clearly remember all it contained. One of its main points probably was that, in view of the suspicions current in the army and among the people, the administration should select for the discharge of important duties only men whose hearts were in the struggle and who could, therefore, be depended upon. Perhaps I intimated also that the government had been too lax in that respect. Mr. Lincoln's prompt reply took me to task for my criticism in his peculiar clean-cut, logical style, and there was in what he said an undertone of impatience, of irritation, unusual with him — this time, no doubt, induced by the extraordinary harassment to which he was subjected from all sides.[1]

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 24, 1862.


General Carl Schurz:
My Dear Sir — I have just received and read your letter of the 20th. The purport of it is that we lost the late elections, and the Administration is failing, because the war is unsuccessful, and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it. I certainly know that if the war fails, the Administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me. I understand you now to be willing to accept the help of men who are not Republicans, provided they have "heart in it." Agreed. I want no others. But who is to be the judge of hearts, or of "heart in it"? If I must discard my own judgment, and take yours, I must also take that of others; and by the time I should reject all I should be advised to reject, I should have none left, Republicans or others — not even yourself. For be assured, my dear Sir, there are men who have "heart in it" and think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine. I certainly have been dissatisfied with the slowness of Buell and McClellan; but before I relieved them I had great fears I should not find successors to them who would do better; and I am sorry to add that I have seen little since to relieve those fears. I do not clearly see the prospect of any more rapid movements. I fear we shall at last find out that the difficulty is in our case rather than in particular generals. I wish to disparage no one — certainly not those who sympathize with me; but I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers than from those who are denounced as the contrary. It does seem to me that in the field the two classes have been very much alike in what they have done and what they have failed to do. In sealing their faith with their blood, Baker, and Lyon, and Bohlen, and Richardson, Republicans, did all that men could do; but did they any more than Kearney, and Stevens, and Reno, and Mansfield, none of whom were Republicans, and some at least of whom have been bitterly and repeatedly denounced to me as secession sympathizers? I will not perform the ungrateful task of comparing cases of failure. In answer to your question, Has it not been publicly stated in the newspapers, and apparently proved as a fact, that from the commencement of the war the enemy was continually supplied with information by some of the confidential subordinates of as important an officer as Adjutant General Thomas? I must say "No," as far as my knowledge extends. And I add that if you can give any tangible evidence upon the subject, I will thank you to come to this city and do so.

Very truly your friend,    
A. Lincoln.


This letter was selected by Hay and Nicolay for publication in their history as a specimen of Mr. Lincoln's answers to his critics at that period, and, curious to relate, more than thirty-five years later, it was used by my opponents in debate — perhaps for want of a better argument — as a weapon of attack to show that I was an utterly impracticable person who would never be satisfied with anything or anybody and who had even forced so good and amiable a man as Mr. Lincoln to break off his friendly relations with him. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, I know of no instance more characteristic of Mr. Lincoln's way of treating occasional differences with his friends. Two or three days after Mr. Lincoln's letter had reached me, a special messenger from him brought me another communication from him, a short note in his own hand asking me to come to see him as soon as my duties would permit; he wished me, if possible, to call early in the morning before the usual crowd of visitors arrived. At once I obtained the necessary leave from my corps commander, and the next morning at seven I reported myself at the White House. I was promptly shown into the little room up-stairs which was at that time used for Cabinet meetings — the room with the Jackson portrait above the mantel-piece — and found Mr. Lincoln seated in an arm chair before the open-grate fire, his feet in his gigantic morocco slippers. He greeted me cordially as of old and bade me pull up a chair and sit by his side. Then he brought his large hand with a slap down on my knee and said with a smile: "Now tell me, young man, whether you really think that I am as poor a fellow as you have made me out in your letter!" I must confess, this reception disconcerted me. I looked into his face and felt something like a big lump in my throat. After a while I gathered up my wits and after a word of sorrow, if I had written anything that could have pained him, I explained to him my impressions of the situation and my reasons for writing to him as I had done. He listened with silent attention and when I stopped, said very seriously: "Well, I know that you are a warm anti-slavery man and a good friend to me. Now let me tell you all about it." Then he unfolded in his peculiar way his view of the then existing state of affairs, his hopes and his apprehensions, his troubles and embarrassments, making many quaint remarks about men and things. I regret I cannot remember all. Then he described how the criticisms coming down upon him from all sides chafed him, and how my letter, although containing some points that were well founded and useful, had touched him as a terse summing up of all the principal criticisms and offered him a good chance at me for a reply. Then, slapping my knee again, he broke out in a loud laugh and exclaimed: "Didn't I give it to you hard in my letter? Didn't I? But it didn't hurt, did it? I did not mean to, and therefore I wanted you to come so quickly." He laughed again and seemed to enjoy the matter heartily. "Well," he added, "I guess we understand one another now, and it's all right." When after a conversation of more than an hour I left him, I asked whether he still wished that I should write to him. "Why, certainly," he answered; "write me whenever the spirit moves you." We parted, as better friends than ever.

While Sigel's corps was camped within the defenses of Washington, events of great importance took place. A fortnight after the battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest days of the war, which McClellan claimed as a great victory, the President visited the Army of the Potomac, which was still lying idle in Maryland. After his return to Washington the President ordered General McClellan to move forward, but McClellan procrastinated in his usual way three weeks longer, while the government as well as the Northern people fairly palpitated with impatience. When McClellan at last had crossed the Potomac and then again failed in preventing the Confederate army from crossing the Blue Ridge and placing itself between the Army of the Potomac and Richmond, the President removed him from his command and put General Burnside in his place.

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Who commanded the disastrous attack on Fredericksburg

The selection of Burnside for so great a responsibility was not a happy one. Burnside had, indeed, some operations on a comparatively small scale to his credit. At the battle of Antietam he had stormed a bridge which retained his name, perhaps even to this day; and storming and holding a bridge seems to have — ever since Horatius "held the bridge" in the old days of Rome — a peculiar charm for the popular imagination. He was also a very patriotic man whose heart was in his work, and his sincerity, frankness, and amiability of manner made everybody like him. But he was not a great general, and he felt, himself, that the task to which he had been assigned was too heavy for his shoulders. When the Army of the Potomac had crossed into Virginia, our corps was sent to Thoroughfare Gap to guard the left flank of our army, and so it happened that I was present at a little gathering of generals who met General Burnside after his promotion to congratulate him. If I remember rightly, it was at a little hamlet called New Baltimore. Burnside in his hearty way expressed his thanks for our friendly greeting and then, with that transparent sincerity of his nature which made everyone believe what he said, he added that he knew he was not fit for so big a command; but since it was imposed upon him, he would do his best, and he confidently hoped we all would faithfully stand by him. There was something very touching in that confession of unfitness, which was evidently quite honest, and one could not help feeling a certain tenderness for the man. But when a moment later the generals talked among themselves, it was no wonder that several shook their heads and asked how we could have confidence in the fitness of our leader if he had no such confidence in himself? This reasoning was rather depressing, because so natural, and destined soon to be justified.

The complaint against McClellan having been his slowness to act, Burnside resolved to act at once. The plan of campaign he conceived was to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and thence to operate upon Richmond. His army of about 120,000 officers and men, which was then in splendid condition, he divided into three grand divisions and a reserve corps — the "Right Grand Division," under General Sumner, to consist of the Second and Ninth corps; the "Center Grand Division," under General Hooker, to consist of the Third and Fifth corps; and the "Left Grand Division," to consist of the First and Sixth corps, under General Franklin. The "Reserve Corps" was to consist of the Eleventh corps and some other troops, under the command of General Sigel. The whole campaign was a series of blunders, mishaps, ill-conceived or ill-executed plans, and finally a horrible butchery, costing thousands of lives. On the 17th of November, Sumner's corps arrived at Falmouth opposite Fredericksburg, and the rest of the army followed within two days. But the pontoon trains for crossing the river did not appear until the 25th. Meanwhile General Lee had drawn his forces together and strongly fortified his position for defense. Only on the 11th of December, Burnside began laying his pontoon bridges and crossing his troops for the attack. Sigel's "Reserve Corps" remained on the left bank of the river, where we could overlook a large part of the battlefield — the open ground beyond the town of Fredericksburg stretching up to Marye's Heights, from which Lee's entrenched batteries and battalions looked down. In the woods on our left, where Franklin's Grand Division had crossed and from where the main attack should have been made, the battle began December 13th, soon after sunrise, under a gray wintry sky. Standing inactive in reserve, we eagerly listened to the booming of the guns, hoping that we should hear the main attack move forward. But there was evidently no main attack, the firing was desultory and seemed to be advancing and receding in turn. At eleven o'clock Burnside ordered the assault from Fredericksburg upon Marye's Heights, Lee's fortified position. Our men advanced with enthusiasm. A fearful fire of artillery and musketry greeted them. Now they would stop a moment, then plunge forward again. Through our glasses we saw them fall by hundreds, and their bodies dot the ground. As they approached Lee's entrenched position, sheet after sheet of flame shot forth from the heights, tearing fearful gaps in our lines. There was no running back of our men. They would sometimes stop or recoil only a little distance, but then doggedly resume the advance. A column rushing forward with charged bayonets almost seemed to reach the enemy's ramparts, but then to melt away. Here and there large numbers of our men, within easy range of the enemy's musketry, would suddenly drop like tall grass swept down with a scythe. They had thrown themselves upon the ground to let the leaden hail pass over them, and under it to advance, crawling. It was all in vain. The enemy's line was so well posted and protected by a canal and a sunken road and stone walls and entrenchments skillfully thrown up, and so well defended, that it could not be carried by a front assault. The early coming of night was most welcome. A longer day would have been only a prolonged butchery. And we, of the reserve, stood there while daylight lasted, seeing it all, burning to go to the aid of our brave comrades, but knowing also that it would be useless. Hot tears of rage and of pitying sympathy ran down many a weather-beaten cheek. No more horrible and torturing spectacle could have been imagined.

Burnside, in desperation, thought of renewing the attack the next day, but his generals dissuaded him. During the following night, aided by darkness and a heavy rainstorm, the army recrossed the Rappahannock without being molested by the enemy. This was one of the instances in which even so great a general as Robert E. Lee was, failed to see his opportunity. Had he followed up his success in repelling our attack with a prompt and vigorous dash upon our shattered army immediately in front of him, right under his guns, he might have thrown our retreat into utter confusion and driven the larger part of our forces helplessly into the river. We heaved a sigh of relief at escaping such a catastrophe.

General Burnside bore himself like an honorable man. During the battle he had proposed to put himself personally at the head of his old corps, the Ninth, and to lead it in the assault. Reluctantly he desisted, yielding to the earnest protests of his generals. After the defeat he unhesitatingly shouldered the whole responsibility for the disaster. He not only did not accuse the troops of any shortcomings, but in the highest terms he praised their courage and extreme gallantry. He blamed only himself. His manly attitude found a response of generous appreciation in public opinion, but the confidence of the army in his ability and judgment was fatally injured. The number of desertions increased alarmingly, and regimental officers in large numbers resigned their commissions. A little later 85,000 men appeared on the rolls of the army as absent without leave. Burnside, deeply mortified, at once resolved upon another forward movement to retrieve his failure. He intended to cross the river at one of the upper fords, but a severe rainstorm set in and made the roads absolutely impassable. The infantry floundered in liquid mud almost up to the belts of the men, and the artillery could hardly be moved at all. I remember one of my batteries being placed where we camped over night on ground which looked comparatively firm, but we found the guns the next morning sunk in sandy mud up to the axles, so that it required all the horses of the battery to pull out each piece. The country all around was fairly covered with mired wagons, ambulances, pontoons, and cannons. The scene was indescribable. "Burnside stuck in the mud" was the cry ringing all over the land. It was literally true. To say that the roads were impassable conveys but a very imperfect idea of the situation, for it might more truthfully be said that there were no roads left, or that the whole country was "road." In that part of Virginia north of the Rappahannock, where there had been, for so long a period, constant marching and countermarching, the fences had altogether disappeared, and the woods had, in great part, been cut down, only the stumps left standing. When the existing roads had become difficult, they were "corduroyed," that is, covered with logs laid across close together, so as to form a sort of loose wooden pavement. So long as the weather was measurably dry, such roads, although rough, were fairly passable. But when heavy rains set in, the corduroy was soon covered with a deep slush which hid the road-bed from sight. Some of the logs of the corduroy under that slush were worn out or broken through, and thus the corduroy roads became full of invisible holes, more or less deep, real pitfalls, offering the most startling surprises. Foot soldiers floundering over such roads would, unexpectedly, drop into those pits up to their belts, and gun carriages and other vehicles become inextricably stuck. Of course, marching columns and artillery and wagon trains would, under these circumstances, try their fortunes in the open fields to the right and left of the roads, but the fields then also soon became covered with the same sort of liquid slime a foot or more deep, with innumerable invisible holes beneath. Thus the whole country gradually became "road," but road of the most bewildering and distressing kind, taxing the strength of men and horses beyond endurance. One would see large stretches of country fairly covered with guns and army wagons and ambulances stalled in a sea of black or yellow mire, and infantry standing up to their knees in the mud, shivering and swearing very hard, as hard as a thoroughly disgusted soldier can swear. I remember having passed by one of the pontoon trains that were to take the army across the Rappahannock, stuck so fast in the soft earth that the utmost exertions failed to move it. Such was "Burnside stuck in the mud."

A further advance was not to be thought of, and, as best he could, Burnside moved the army back to its camps at or near Falmouth. It was fortunate that the condition of the roads rendered Lee just as unable to move as Burnside was, for the demoralization of the Army of the Potomac had reached a point almost beyond control. The loyal people throughout the land were profoundly dejected. There seemed to be danger that the administration would utterly lose the confidence of the country. A change in the command of the Army of the Potomac was imperatively necessary, and the President chose General Hooker.

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Although a bitter critic of the Administration, he was appointed by Lincoln to supersede Burnside

If Burnside lacked self-confidence, Hooker had an abundance of it. He had been one of the bitterest critics of McClellan and Burnside, and even of the administration — perhaps the loudest of all. He had even talked of the necessity of a military dictatorship. But he had made his mark as a division and corps commander and earned for himself the by-name of "Fighting Joe." The soldiers and also some — although by no means all — of the generals had confidence in him. Lincoln, as was his character and habit, overlooked all the hard things Hooker had said of him, made him commander of the Army of the Potomac in view of the good things he expected him to do for the country, and sent him, with the commission, a letter full of kindness and wise advice. Hooker was a strikingly handsome man, — a clean-shaven, comely face, somewhat florid complexion, keen blue eyes, well-built, tall figure, and erect soldierly bearing. Anybody would feel like cheering when he rode by at the head of his staff. His organizing talent told at once. The sullen gloom of the camps soon disappeared, and a new spirit of pride and hope began to pervade the ranks. By the 30th of April, the Army of the Potomac attained an effective force of more than 130,000 men, with over 400 pieces of artillery, ready for duty in the field.

Hooker abolished the "Grand Divisions," the chiefs of which were otherwise disposed of. He himself one of them, had become commander of the army. General Sumner was retired on account of old age, and General Franklin was shelved, having come out of the Burnside campaign under a cloud — I think undeservedly. Sigel, having commanded the "Reserve Corps," which had passed for the fourth "Grand Division," also left the Army of the Potomac. The reasons why he did so he never discussed with me. I know, however, that his relations with his superior officers on the Eastern field of action had never been congenial. He was always regarded as a foreign intruder who had no proper place in the Army of the Potomac and whose reputation, won in the West, was to be discredited. Whenever he did anything that gave the slightest chance for criticism, he could count upon being blamed without mercy. I have seen a despatch addressed to him by General Pope during the Bull Run campaign in which he was severely censured for having given insufficient or incorrect information and made faulty dispositions. In his reply he insisted upon the correctness of his conduct, and asked, if General Pope was dissatisfied with him, to be relieved of his command. General Pope did not relieve him, and it turned out that the information Sigel had given was truthful and his movements proper. General Halleck, then in chief command of the armies of the United States, seems to have persecuted him with especial bitterness, which is said to have been owing to the unauthorized and much-regretted publication of a private letter of General Sigel to his father-in-law in which General Halleck was severely criticised. Halleck's bitterness went so far that in one of his official utterances, he said: "Sigel ran away. He has never done anything else." The officers and men of the corps heard of General Sigel's departure with keen sorrow. General Hooker selected Major General Howard as commander of the Eleventh Corps. In various writings I have since seen it stated that General Hooker made that appointment to prevent me from remaining at the head of the corps. I had been promoted to a major-generalship on March 14, 1863, and when Sigel left, the command of the corps fell temporarily to me as the ranking officer, and Sigel strongly recommended me for the permanent command. It appeared to me perfectly natural that under existing circumstances a regular army officer of merit should be put into that place, and I therefore welcomed General Howard with sincere contentment. He was a slender, dark-bearded young man of rather prepossessing appearance and manners; no doubt a brave soldier, having lost an arm in one of the Peninsular battles; a West Point graduate, but not a martinet, and free from professional loftiness. He did not impress me as an intellectually strong man. A certain looseness of mental operations, a marked uncertainty in forming definite conclusions became evident in his conversation. I thought, however, that he might appear better in action than in talk. Our personal relations grew quite agreeable, and even cordial, at least on my side. But it soon became apparent that the regimental officers and the rank and file did not take to him. They looked at him with dubious curiosity; not a cheer could be started when he rode along the front. And I do not know whether he liked the men he commanded better than they liked him.

Major General Schurz.png


Commander of the Third Division of the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville

Schurz' division, posted on the exposed right flank of the Federal Army, bore the brunt of the Confederate attack.

There were other new-comers in the corps. The division formerly commanded, by General Schenck was given to Brigadier General Charles Devens of Massachusetts. I was to meet him again fourteen years later as a fellow-member of President Hayes' cabinet, he being Attorney General and I, Secretary of the Interior; and then we became very warm friends. His appointment to the command of the First Division of the Eleventh Corps, however, was rather unfortunate, for it displaced from that command and relegated back to his old brigade General McLean, thus disappointing the legitimate expectations of a meritorious and popular officer; and General Devens' manners, although there was a warm and noble heart behind them, were somewhat too austere and distant to make the officers and men of the division easily forget the injustice done to General McLean. There was, therefore, some unkind feeling between the commander and the command. Another new-comer was General Francis Barlow, whose record in the war puts him on the roll of the bravest of the brave. But at that period his record was still short, and his appointment to the command of a brigade in our Second Division also had the misfortune of displacing a very brave and popular officer, Colonel Orland Smith, who was entitled to much honor and consideration.

My command remained the same — the Third Division of the Eleventh Corps, but it was strengthened by the addition of some fresh regiments. There was the Eighty-second Illinois, commanded by no less a man than Colonel Friedrich Hecker, the most prominent republican leader in the Germany of 1848, now an ardent American patriot and anti-slavery man, no longer young, but in the full vigor of ripe manhood. Among his captains was Emil Frey, a young Swiss, who had interrupted his university studies to come over and fight for the cause of human liberty in the great American Republic. After the war he returned to his native land, and then came back to the United States as Minister of Switzerland; and he has since held some of the highest political offices in his native country. There was also the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin, mainly composed of young men of the best class of German-born inhabitants of Milwaukee. There was, finally, the One Hundred and Nineteenth New York, commanded by Colonel Elias Peissner, a professor at Union College, Schenectady. His face bore a very striking resemblance to Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, and rumor had it that he was a natural son of that eccentric monarch, who in his day cultivated art and poetry along with his amours. I have good reason for believing that, in this instance, rumor spoke the truth. Colonel Peissner was a gentleman of the highest type of character, exquisite refinement, large knowledge, and excellent qualities as a soldier. And in his lieutenant colonel, John T. Lockman, whom I have cherished as a personal friend to this day, he had a worthy companion. Of my two brigade commanders, Schimmelfennig had been made a brigadier general, as he well deserved. Krzyzanowski was less fortunate. The President nominated him too for that rank, but the Senate failed to confirm him — as was said, because there was nobody there who could pronounce his name.

I have read in print that "in the review of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln, in April, just before the battle of Chancellorsville, the Eleventh Corps made a most excellent appearance, and the division commanded by General Schurz impressed the presidential party as the best drilled and most soldierly of the troops that passed before them." This was too much praise, although Mr. Lincoln, to whom I paid my respects at headquarters, seemed to be of the same opinion. I was indeed very proud of my division and confidently expected to do good service with it.

By the middle of April Hooker was ready to move. His plan was excellent. Lee occupied the heights on the south side of the Rappahannock skirting the river to the right and left of Fredericksburg in skillfully fortified positions. Hooker set out to turn them by crossing the upper Rappahannock so as to enable him to gain Lee's rear. A cavalry expedition under General Stoneman, intended to turn Lee's left flank and to fall upon his communications with Richmond, miscarried, but this failure, although disagreeable, did not disturb Hooker's general scheme of campaign. On the morning of April 27th, the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Fifth Corps started for Kelly's Ford, 27 miles above Fredericksburg, which they reached on the afternoon of the 28th. I remember those two days well. The army was in superb condition and animated by the highest spirits. Officers and men seemed to feel instinctively that they were engaged in an offensive movement promising great results. There was no end to the singing and merry laughter relieving the fatigue of the march. A pontoon bridge was thrown across the river, and our corps crossed before midnight. The Seventeenth Pennsylvania cavalry regiment was sent ahead to clear the country immediately opposite. Something singular happened to me that night. While it was still light, one of General Howard's staff officers pointed out to me a strip of timber at some distance on the other side of the river, at the outer edge of which I was to stay until morning. Between that timber and the river there was a large tract of level, open ground, — meadow or heath, perhaps three-quarters of a mile across, — which I was to traverse. When I set out at the head of my division to pass the pontoon bridge, General Howard gave me a cavalryman as a guide who "knew the country perfectly." Meanwhile a dense fog had arisen over the open ground in which we could distinguish nothing a few paces ahead. With the guide who "knew the country perfectly" at my side, I marched on and on for a full hour without reaching my belt of timber, which I ought to have reached in much less than half that time. I asked my guide whether he knew where we were. He stammered that he did not. Almost at the same moment I heard a well-known voice say something emphatic a short distance ahead of me. It was Colonel Hecker, whose regiment, the Eighty-second Illinois, was, as I knew, at the tail of my column. A short investigation revealed the fact that my whole division was standing on the open ground in a large circle, and that we had been marching round and round in the fog for a considerable time. We struck matches, examined our compasses, and then easily found our way to my belt of timber, which was close by. There I halted again to ascertain my location, and seeing the glimmer of a light through the window of what I found to be a little house near at hand, I dismounted and went in, accompanied by Brigadier General Schimmelfennig, to look at our maps. We had hardly entered the lighted room, when one of my orderlies rushed in, excitedly exclaiming: "There is rebel cavalry all around. They have already taken Captain Schenofsky prisoner." Captain Schenofsky, a Belgian officer, whom the government had assigned to my staff, was one of my aides whom I had ordered to look for the Pennsylvania cavalry regiment supposed to be ahead of us. The orderly had seen him "run right into a bunch of rebels," who promptly laid hold of him. As fast as we could we hurried back to our column, which we found in a curious condition. The men, having marched all day and several hours of the night, had dropped down where they stood, overwhelmed by fatigue. With the greatest effort we tried to arouse some of them to form something like out-posts, and as this was a slow and rather unsuccessful proceeding, I and my officers, as well as the brigade staffs, stood guard ourselves, revolver in hand, until day broke. Then it turned out that the Pennsylvania cavalry regiment which was to clear the ground and to cover our front, had gone astray — we could not ascertain where — and that rebel scouting parties had been hovering closely around us. Captain Schenofsky rejoined me several months later, having spent the intermediate time in Libby Prison at Richmond until he was liberated by an exchange of prisoners.

After our two days' march up stream on the northern bank of the Rappahannock, we now had two days' march down stream on its southern side. We forded the Rapidan, and on the afternoon of April 30th, we reached the region called the Wilderness. We stopped about two miles west of Chancellorsville. The following night four army-corps camped in that vicinity, the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Fifth, which had come down from Kelly's Ford, and the Second, under General Couch, which had crossed at United States Ford as soon as that ford was uncovered by our advance, — a force of 50,000 men. This flanking movement had been masked by an operation conducted by General Sedgwick, who crossed the Rappahannock a few miles below Fredericksburg with a force large enough to make Lee apprehend that the main attack would come from that quarter. This crossing accomplished, the Third Corps under Sickles joined Hooker at Chancellorsville. Until then, Thursday, April 30th, the execution of Hooker's plan had been entirely successful, and with characteristic grandiloquence the commanding general issued on that day the following general order to the Army of the Potomac: "It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him — the operations of the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps have been a succession of splendid achievements." It sounded somewhat like Pope's bragging order.

The impression made upon the officers and men by this proclamation was by no means altogether favorable to its author. Of course, they were pleased to hear themselves praised for their achievements, but they did not forget that these had so far consisted only in marching, not in fighting, and that the true test was still to come. They hoped indeed that the Army of the Potomac, 130,000 strong, would prove able to beat Lee's army, only 60,000 strong. But it jarred upon their feelings as well as their good sense to hear their commanding general gasconade so boastfully of having the enemy in the hollow of his hand, — that enemy being Robert E. Lee at the head of the best infantry in the world. Still we all hoped, and we explored the map for the important strategical point we would strike the next day. But the "next day" brought us a fearful disappointment.

On the morning of Friday, May 1st, Hooker ordered a force several divisions strong, to advance towards Fredericksburg and the enemy's communications. Our corps, too, received marching orders, and started at 12 o'clock M. But the corps was hardly on the road in marching formation when our movement was stopped and we were ordered back to the position we had occupied during the preceding night. What did this mean? General Hooker had started out to surprise the enemy by a grand flank march taking us into the enemy's rear. We had succeeded. We had surprised the enemy. But the fruits of that successful surprise could be reaped only if we followed it up with quick and vigorous action. We could not expect a general like Lee to stay surprised. He was sure to act quickly and vigorously, if we did not. And just this happened. When we stopped at Chancellorsville on the afternoon of Thursday, April 30th, we might, without difficulty, have marched a few miles farther and seized some important points, especially Bank's Ford on the Rappahannock, and some commanding positions nearer to Fredericksburg. It was then that Lee, having meanwhile divined Hooker's plan, gathered up his forces to throw them against our advance. And as soon as, on Friday, May 1st, our columns, advancing toward Fredericksburg, met the opposing enemy. Hooker recoiled and ordered his army back into a defensive position, there to await Lee's attack. Thus the offensive campaign so brilliantly opened was suddenly transformed into a defensive one. Hooker had surrendered the initiative of movement, and given to Lee the incalculable advantage of perfect freedom of action. Lee could fall back in good order upon his lines of communication with Richmond, if he wished, or he could concentrate his forces, or so much of them as he saw fit, upon any part of Hooker's defensive position which he might think most advantageous to himself to attack. As soon as it became apparent that Hooker had abandoned his plan of vigorous offensive action, and had dropped into a merely defensive attitude, the exuberant high spirits which so far had animated the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac turned into head-shaking uncertainty. Their confidence in the military sagacity and dashing spirit of their chief, "Fighting Joe," was chilled with doubt. The defensive position into which the Army of the Potomac was put could hardly have been more unfortunate. It was in the heart of the "Wilderness." That name designated an extensive district of country covered by thick woods of second growth with tangled underbrush of scrub oak and scrub pine. There were several clearings of irregular shape which afforded, in spots, a limited outlook. But they were surrounded by gloomy woods, which were not dense enough to make the approach of a hostile force impossible, but almost everywhere dense enough to conceal it.

I must ask pardon for describing the position of the troops somewhat elaborately to make the tragedy which followed intelligible. It may be somewhat dull reading, but I pray the kind reader not to skip it. The westernmost of the clearings, or openings, in the wilderness occupied by our army was Talley's farm, crossed by the "Old Turnpike" running east and west from Fredericksburg to Orange Court-house. Along that turnpike the first division of the Eleventh Corps, under General Devens, was strung out, the first brigade of which, Colonel Gilsa's, was posted west of the clearing on the road; dense woods on all sides. To protect the right flank and rear, two of Colonel Gilsa's regiments were placed at a right angle with the road, and two pieces of artillery in the road. The rest of the brigade was on the road itself, facing south, with thickets in front, flank, and rear. The second brigade, under General McLean, also facing south, on the road, with the same thicket in its rear, the southern front protected by hastily constructed breastworks. Four pieces of artillery, Dieckmann's battery, were posted on the Talley farm, also facing south. Next came my division, partly also strung out in the road, facing south, breastworks in front and thickets in the rear, partly in reserve on a large opening containing Hawkins' farm, an old church in a little grove, and Dowdall's Tavern, a wooden house situated on the Pike, where the Corps Commander, General Howard, had his headquarters. On that clearing, near Dowdall's Tavern, another road, coming from the southwest, called the Plank-road, joined the turnpike at a sharp angle, and at that angle Dilger's battery was placed, also facing south. Connecting with Dilger's left was Colonel Buschbeck's brigade of the Second, Steinwehr's division, with Captain Wiedrich's battery, behind a rifle pit, also facing south, General Barlow's brigade with three batteries of reserve artillery stood near the eastern border of the opening as a general corps reserve.

Thus the Eleventh Corps formed the extreme right of the army. East of it there was another body of thick woods through which the turnpike led to the third great opening, in the eastern part of which stood the Chancellor house, in which General Hooker had established his headquarters. On the left of the Eleventh Corps, the Third (Sickles) and the Twelfth (Slocum) were posted, and further east the rest of the army in positions which I need not describe in detail.

H W Slocum.png



Early on Saturday morning, May 2d, General Hooker with some members of his staff rode along his whole line and was received by the troops with enthusiastic declamations. He inspected the position held by the Eleventh Corps and found it "quite strong."

The position might have been tolerably strong if General Lee had done General Hooker the favor of running his head against the breastworks by a front attack. But what if he did not? "Our right wing," as I said in my official report, "stood completely in the air, with nothing to lean upon, and that, too, in a forest thick enough to obstruct any free view to the front, flanks or rear, but not thick enough to prevent the approach of the enemy's troops. Our rear was at the mercy of the enemy, who was at perfect liberty to walk right around us through the large gap between Colonel Gilsa's right and the cavalry force stationed at Ely's Ford." As we were situated, an attack from the west or northwest could not be resisted without a complete change of front on our part. To such a change, especially if it was to be made in haste, the formation of our forces was exceedingly unfavorable. It was almost impossible to maneuver some of our regiments, hemmed in as they were on the old turnpike by embankments and rifle pits in front and thick woods in the rear, drawn out in long deployed lines, giving just room enough for the stacks of arms and a narrow passage; this turnpike road being at the same time the only line of communication we had between the different parts of our front. Now, the thing most to be dreaded, an attack from the west, was just the thing coming.

The firing we had heard all along the line of our army during the preceding day, May 1st, indicated that the enemy was "feeling our front" along its whole length. Toward evening the enemy threw some shells from two guns placed on an eminence opposite General Devens' left. General Schimmelfennig, the commander of my first brigade, was ordered to push forward a regiment for the purpose of capturing or at least dislodging those pieces. That regiment, after a sharp little skirmish, came back with the report that the guns had departed. The night passed quietly.

But next morning, May 2d, not long after General Hooker had examined our position, I was informed that large columns of the enemy could be seen from General Devens' headquarters moving from east to west on a road running nearly parallel with the plank-road, on a low ridge at a distance of about a mile or more. I hurried to Talley's, where I could plainly observe them as they moved on, passing gaps in the woods, infantry, artillery, and wagons. Instantly it flashed upon my mind that it was Stonewall Jackson, the "great flanker," marching towards our right, to envelop it and attack us in flank and rear. I galloped back to corps headquarters at Dowdall's Tavern, and on the way ordered Captain Dilger to look for good artillery positions fronting west, as the corps would, in all probability, have to execute a change of front. I reported promptly to General Howard what I had seen, and my impression, which amounted almost to a conviction, that Jackson was going to attack us from the west.

In our conversation I tried to persuade him that in such a contingency we could not make a fight in our cramped position facing south while being attacked from the west; that General Devens' division and a large part of mine would surely be rolled up, telescoped, and thrown into utter confusion unless the front were changed and the troops put upon practicable ground; that, in my opinion, our right should be withdrawn and the corps be formed in line of battle at a right angle with the turn-pike, lining the church grove and the border of the woods east of the open plain with infantry, placing strong echelons behind both wings, and distributing the artillery along the front on ground most favorable for its action, especially on the eminence on the right and left of Dowdall's Tavern. In such a position, sweeping the opening before us with our artillery and musketry, and checking the enemy with occasional offensive returns, and opposing any flanking movements with our echelons, we might be able to maintain ourselves even against greatly superior forces, at least long enough to give General Hooker time to take measures in our rear, according to the exigencies of the moment.

I urged this view as earnestly as my respect for my commanding officer would permit, but General Howard would not accept it. He clung to the belief which, he said, was also entertained by General Hooker, that Lee was not going to attack our right, but was actually in full retreat toward Gordonsville. I was amazed at this belief. Was it at all reasonable to think that Lee, if he really intended to retreat, would march his column along our front instead of away from it, which he might have done with far less danger of being disturbed? But General Howard would not see this, and he closed the conversation, saying that General Hooker had a few hours before inspected the position of the Eleventh Corps and found it good. General Hooker himself, however, did not seem quite so sure of this at that moment as he had been a few hours before.

Some time before noon, General Howard told me that he was very tired and needed sleep; would I, being second in command, stay at his headquarters, open all despatches that might arrive, and wake him in case there were any of urgent importance. Shortly after, a courier arrived with a despatch from General Hooker calling General Howard's attention to the movement of the enemy toward our right flank, and instructing him to take measures to resist an attack from that quarter. At once I called up General Howard, read the despatch aloud to him and put it into his hands. We had exchanged only a few words about the matter when another courier, a young officer, arrived with a second despatch of the same tenor. At a later period I saw the document in print and recognized it clearly as the one I had read and delivered to General Howard on that eventful day. It runs thus:

Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,
Chancellorsville, May 2d, 1865, 9:50 a. m.


Major Generals Slocum and Howard:
I am directed by the Major General commanding to say that the disposition you have made of your corps has been with a view to a front attack of the enemy. If he should throw himself upon your flank, he wished you to examine the ground and determine upon the position you will take in that event, in order that you may be prepared for him in whatever direction he advances. He suggests that you have heavy reserves well in hand to meet this contingency. The right of your line does not appear to be strong enough. No artificial defenses worth naming have been thrown up, and there appears to be a scarcity of troops at that point, and not, in the general's opinion, as favorably posted as might be. We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right. Please advance your pickets as far as may be safe, in order to obtain timely information of their approach.

J. H. Van Alen,
Brig. Gen. and Aide-de-Camp.


To my utter astonishment I found, many years later, in a paper on "The Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville," written by General Howard for the Century Magazine, the following sentence: "General Hooker's circular order to Slocum and Howard neither reached me nor, to my knowledge, Colonel Meysenburg, my adjutant general." How he could have forgotten that I had read and delivered to him that identical despatch I find it difficult to understand, especially as it touched so vital a point, and its delivery was followed by another animated discussion between us, in which I most earnestly — although ineffectually — endeavored to convince him that in case of such an attack from the west, our right, as then posted, would be hopelessly overwhelmed.

We were standing on the porch of Dowdall's Tavern. I saw Major Whittlesey, one of General Howard's staff-officers, coming out of the woods opposite, not far from the turnpike. "General," I said, "if you draw a straight line from this point over Major Whittlesey's head, it will strike Col. Gilsa's extreme right. Do you not think it certain that the enemy, attacking from the west, will crush Gilsa's two regiments, which are to protect our right and rear, at the first onset? Is there the slightest possibility for him to resist?" All General Howard had to say was: "Well, he will have to fight," or something to that effect. I was almost desperate, rode away, and, on my own responsibility, took two regiments, the Fifty-eighth New York and the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin, from my second line facing south and placed them facing west on Hawkins' farm in the rear of Gilsa's forlorn right, with a third regiment, the Eighty-second Ohio, a little further back, so that, when the attack on our flank and rear came, there should be at least a little force with a correct front. When I reported this to General Howard, he said that he did not object. This was all, literally all, that was done to meet an attack from the west, except the tracing of a shallow rifle pit, the embankment of which reached hardly up to a man's knees, running north and south, near Dowdall's Tavern, and the removal of the reserve artillery, three batteries, to the border of the woods on the east of the open ground. As for the rest, the absurdly indefensible position of the corps remained unchanged.

A little after 3 p.m. we were startled by two discharges of cannon followed by a short rattle of musketry, apparently near Gilsa's position. Could this already be Jackson's advance? I jumped upon my horse and rode with all speed to the spot from which the noise came. No, it was not Jackson's advance. I found that only a few rebel cavalrymen had shown themselves on the old turn-pike west of our right, and that the two pieces of artillery posted on the road had been fired off without orders. Evidently Jackson was still feeling our lines. But my horse was surrounded by regimental officers of Devens' division, telling me with anxious faces that their pickets had, time and again during the day, reported the presence of large bodies of rebel troops at a short distance from their right flank, and that, if an attack came from that quarter, they were not in a position to fight. What did I think? I was heartsick, for I could not tell them what I did think, for fear of producing a panic. Neither would I deceive. So I broke away from them and hurried to General Devens to try whether I could not get him to aid me in another effort to induce General Howard to order a change of front. To my surprise I found him rather unconcerned. He had reported all his information to corps headquarters, he said, and asked for instructions, and the officer carrying his message had been told there that General Lee seemed to be in full retreat. He, Devens, thought that at corps headquarters they were better informed than he was, and that he could only govern himself by the instructions received from his superior.

To corps headquarters I returned to make another effort. There General Howard met me with the news that he had just been ordered by General Hooker to send Barlow's brigade to the aid of General Sickles, who had, about noon, set out with his corps to attack and capture Stonewall Jackson's rear-guard with his wagon trains — and that was the meaning of the cannonading we had heard since noon. This, General Howard added, was clear proof that General Hooker did not expect us to be attacked in flank by Jackson, for, if he really expected anything of the kind, he would certainly not at that moment deprive the Eleventh Corps of its strongest brigade, the only general reserve it had. I replied that, if the rebel army were really retreating, there would be no harm in a change of front on our part; but that, if the enemy should attack us on our right, which I still anticipated, then would the withdrawal of Barlow's brigade make a change of front all the more necessary. But all my reasoning and entreating were in vain, and General Howard rode off with Barlow's brigade on what proved to be a mere wild-goose-chase, to see, as he said, that the brigade be well put in.

There we were, then. That the enemy was on our flank in very great strength had become more certain every moment. Schimmelfennig had sent out several scouting parties beyond our regular pickets. They all came back with the same tale, that they had seen great masses of rebel troops wheeling into line; that they had even heard the commands of rebel officers. The pickets and scouts of McLean and Gilsa reported the same. My artillery captain, Dilger, returned from an adventurous ride. He had made a reconnaissance of his own, had been right among the rebels in Gilsa's front, had been chased by them, had been saved from capture by the speed of his horse, had been at army headquarters at the Chancellor house where he told his experience to a major belonging to the staff, had been told by him to go to his own corps with his yarn, and had finally come back to me. In fact, almost every officer and private seemed to see the black thunder-cloud that was hanging over us, and to feel in his bones that a great disaster was coming — all felt it, except the corps commander and, perhaps, General Devens, who permitted his judgment to be governed by the corps commander's opinion. Could there be better reason for this unrest? Within little more than rifle-shot of our right flank there stood Stonewall Jackson with more than 25,000 men, the most dashing general of the Confederacy with its best soldiers, forming his line of battle, which at the given word was to fold its wings around our feeble flank; and within his grasp the Eleventh Corps — originally 12,000 strong, but reduced to 9,000 men by the detachment of its strongest brigade and main reserve, and its commanding general gone away with that brigade; and, to cap the climax, hardly a Federal soldier within two miles on its left and rear, to support it in case of need, for Sickles' corps and a large part of Slocum's had moved into the woods after Jackson's wagon train — and in addition to all this, the larger part of the corps so placed as to be helpless against an attack from the west. It may fairly be said that, if there had been a deliberate design, a conspiracy, to sacrifice the Eleventh Corps — which, of course, there was not — it could not have been more ingeniously planned. This was the situation at 5 o'clock of the afternoon.

Schurz Chancellorsville Battlefield.png



Showing the position of the Eleventh Corps at half-past five on the afternoon of May 2nd.

Prepared from data left by Carl Schurz

At last the storm broke loose. I was with some of my staff at corps headquarters, waiting for General Howard to return, our horses ready at hand. It was about 5:20 when a number of deer and rabbits came bounding out of the woods bordering the opening of Hawkins' farm on the west. The animals had been started from their lairs by Jackson's advance. Ordinarily such an appearance of game might have been greeted by soldiers in the field with outbreaks of great hilarity. There was hardly anything of the kind this time. It was as if the men had instinctively understood the meaning of the occurrence. A little while later there burst forth a heavy roar of artillery, a continuous rattling of musketry, and the savage screech of the "rebel yell" where Gilsa stood, and then happened what every man of common sense might have foreseen. Our two cannon standing in the road threw several rapid discharges into the dense masses of the enemy before them, and then the men made an effort to escape. But the rebel infantry were already upon them, shot down the horses, and captured the pieces. Gilsa's two regiments, formed at a right angle with the turn-pike, were at once covered with a hail of bullets. They discharged three rounds — it is a wonder they discharged as many — and then, being fired into from front and from both flanks at close quarters, they had either to surrender or beat a hasty retreat. They retreated through the woods, leaving many dead and wounded on the field. Some of Gilsa's men rallied behind a reserve regiment of the first division, the Seventy-fifth Ohio, whose commander, Colonel Riley, had been sensible and quick enough to change front, and to advance, without orders, to help Gilsa. But they were promptly assailed in front and flank by several rebel regiments, and completely wrecked, Colonel Riley being killed and the adjutant wounded. Meanwhile the enemy had also pounced upon the regiments of the first division, which were deployed in the turn-pike. These regiments, being hemmed in on the narrow road between dense thickets, and being attacked on three sides, many of the men being shot through their backs, were not able to fight at all. They were simply telescoped and driven down the turn-pike in utter confusion.

While this happened, a vigorous attempt was made to form a line of defense which in some way might stem the rout of our sacrificed regiments and impede the progress of the enemy. As soon as I heard the firing on our right I despatched an aide-de-camp to Colonel Krzyzanowski to turn about all his regiments and front west. For the same purpose I hurried to the point where the plank-road and the turn-pike united. There I found General Schimmelfennig already at work. Our united efforts succeeded in changing the front of several regiments, and in forming something like a line facing the attack, but not without very great difficulty. Several pieces of the artillery of the first division, as well as some wagons and ambulances, came down the turn-pike at a full run, tearing lengthwise through the troops still deployed in line on the road. They were followed by the telescoped regiments of the first division in the utmost confusion. We had scarcely formed a regiment in line fronting west, when that rushing torrent broke through its ranks, throwing it into new disorder. Thus it could happen to General Devens to state in his report that, being carried by, wounded, he failed to see any second line behind which his dispersed troops might have rallied, while, after seeing him taken to the rear, we held that point twenty minutes. For, in spite of the terrible turmoil which almost completely wrecked two of my best veteran regiments, we did succeed, in the hurry, in forming a line, somewhat irregular and broken, to be sure, near the church-grove, consisting of the Sixty-first Ohio, One Hundred and Nineteenth New York, One Hundred and Fifty-seventh New York, and the Eighty-second Illinois, and, farther to the right, the Eighty-second Ohio, the Fifty-eighth New York, and the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin, the regiments I had placed front west earlier in the afternoon. Captain Dilger quickly moved his six guns a little distance back upon higher ground, where he could sweep the turn-pike and the plank-road. He poured shot and shell into the enemy's battalions as they advanced on the heels of the wrecked regiments of our first division. On they came, with fierce yells and a withering fire of musketry, widely overlapping our lines on both sides. At their first onset, the noble Colonel Peissner of the One Hundred and Nineteenth New York dropped dead from his horse, but Lieutenant-Colonel Lockman held his men bravely together. My old revolutionary friend, Colonel Hecker of the Eighty-second Illinois, who had grasped the colors of his regiment to lead it in a bayonet charge, was also struck down, wounded by a rebel bullet, and was taken behind the front. Major Rolshausen, who promptly took command of the regiment, met the same fate. A multitude of our dead and wounded strewed the field. But in spite of the rain of bullets coming from front, right, and left, these regiments held their ground long enough to fire from twenty to thirty rounds.

On my extreme right, separated from the line just described by a wide gap, which I had no forces to fill, things took a similar course. A short time after the first attack a good many men of Colonel Gilsa's and General McLean's wrecked regiments came in disorder out of the woods. A heavy rebel force followed them closely with triumphant yells and a rapid fire. The Fifty-eighth New York, a very small regiment, and the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin received them firmly. Captain Braun, in temporary command of the Fifty-eighth New York, was one of the first to fall, mortally wounded. The regiment, exposed to flanking fire from the left, where the enemy broke through, and most severely pressed in front, was pushed back after a desperate struggle of several minutes. The Twenty-sixth Wisconsin, a young regiment that had never been under fire, maintained the hopeless contest for a considerable time with splendid gallantry. It did not fall back until I ordered it to do so. Colonel Krzyzanowski, the brigade commander, who was with it, asked for immediate reinforcements, as the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin, being nearly enveloped on all sides, could not possibly maintain its position longer. Not having a man to send, I ordered the regiment to fall back to the edge of the woods in its rear, which it did in perfect order, facing about and firing several times as it retired.

In the meantime, the enemy completely turned my left flank, and had not the rebel general, Colquitt, who commanded a force of seventeen regiments to execute that flanking movement, made the mistake of stopping his advance for a while, believing that his right was threatened, a large part of the Eleventh Corps might have been captured before it could have reached the open ground surrounding the Chancellor house. But the Confederate force which actually did attack my left was far more than strong enough to press back the One Hundred and Nineteenth New York, and to fall upon the left of Captain Dilger's battery. Captain Dilger kept up his fire with grape and canister to the last moment. He gave the order to limber up only when the enemy's infantry was already between his pieces. His horse was shot under him, and the two wheel- horses and a lead-horse of one of his guns were killed. After an ineffectual effort to drag this piece along with the dead horses hanging in the harness, he had to abandon it to the enemy. The rest of the battery he sent to the rear, with the exception of one piece, which he kept in the road, firing against the pursuing enemy from time to time as he retreated.

The rebels were now pressing forward in overwhelming power on our right and left, and the position in and near the church-grove could no longer be held. We had to fall back upon the shallow rifle pit running north and south near Dowdall's Tavern, which had been dug when General Howard had a dawning suspicion that we might be attacked by Jackson from the west. This rifle pit was partly occupied by Colonel Buschbeck's brigade of our second division. It stood on the extreme left of the corps, had ample time to change front, and was therefore in perfect order. On its left several companies of the Seventy-fourth Pennsylvania, of the Sixty-first Ohio, and the One Hundred and Nineteenth New York took position, and on its right the Eighty-second Ohio and the fragments of other regiments. Several pieces of the reserve artillery were still firing over the heads of the infantry. It was there that I found General Howard again, who meanwhile had come back from Barlow's detached and wandering brigade and rejoined his corps about the time when Jackson's attack on our right flank began, or soon after. He was bravely engaged in an effort to rally the broken troops, and exposed himself quite freely. I did my best to assist him. So did General Schimmelfennig. But to reorganize the confused mass of men belonging to different regiments was an extremely difficult task under the constant attack of the enemy. I succeeded once in gathering a large crowd, and, placing myself at its head, led it forward with a hurrah. It followed me some distance, but was again dispersed by the enemy's fire pouring in from the front and from both flanks. One of my aides was wounded on that occasion. Two or three similar attempts had the same result. The enemy advancing on our right and left with rapidity, the artillery ceased firing and withdrew, and the rifle pit had to be given up. As I said before, it was too shallow to afford any protection to the men behind it. The infantry fell back into the woods, the density of which naturally caused renewed disorder among regiments and companies that had remained well organized, or had been successfully rallied. I joined Captain Dilger with his one gun on the road to Chancellorsville. He was protected by two companies of the Sixty-first Ohio. His grape and canister checked the enemy several times in his pursuit. When I entered the woods I looked at my watch. It was 7:15 o'clock. The fight of the 9,000 men of the Eleventh Corps, so posted as to present their unprotected flank to the enemy, against Stonewall Jackson's 25,000 veterans had, therefore, lasted, at the lowest reckoning, one and one-half hours. Not a man nor a gun came to their aid during their hopeless contest. They had to retreat a mile and a half before they met a supporting force. But when this was found, the wrecked corps was soon fully reorganized, each regiment around its colors and under its own officers before 11 o'clock. Early next morning, Sunday, May 3d, we were put on the extreme left of the army. I rode to General Hooker's headquarters to ask him that we be given another opportunity for showing what we could do, after the disaster of the previous evening. He seemed to be in a very depressed state of mind, and said he would try. But we remained on the extreme left, with nothing but slight skirmishing in our front, until the army recrossed the Rappahannock on the morning of May 6th.

I must now permit myself a few remarks on the progress of the battle after the discomfiture of the Eleventh Corps. It is a curious story, full of psychological puzzles. As I have already stated, there was behind us no supporting force, within two miles. Only Birney's division of the Third Corps was near the Chancellor house, the rest of the Third Corps and the Twelfth Corps had disappeared from the ground between the Chancellor house and Dowdall's long before. Jackson's march toward our right had been observed early in the morning. It was ascertained to be a movement in great force. It could mean only one of two things: Either a retreat of Lee's army, or an attack on our right flank and rear. In either case a prompt attack, also in great force, on Jackson's flank naturally suggested itself. It was a great opportunity to interpose between Lee and Jackson and beat them in detail. Sickles was ordered, at his own request, to make an attack, but the order to move in any force was given only at noon-several hours too late and Sickles was instructed to push on "with great caution," instead of with the utmost celerity and vigor. The result was that Sickles did not reach Jackson's line of march until Jackson, with the exception of a small rear guard, was miles away. The second result was that all the troops which might have supported the Eleventh Corps in case of a flank attack, and even the reserve brigade of that corps itself, were immersed in the woods in front, about two miles from where, as the event turned out, they were most needed. Instead of beating Lee and Jackson in their state of separation, this movement only completed the absolute isolation of the right flank of our own army.

When at last Jackson's overwhelming assault had wrecked the helpless Eleventh Corps, there was no other power of resistance between Jackson's triumphant force and the Chancellor house — the very heart of the position of the Army of the Potomac — but the remnants of the Eleventh Corps in a disorganized condition, and what troops could be hastily summoned from other points. As already mentioned, Berry's division, standing north of the Chancellor house, was promptly thrown forward. Captain Best, the chief of artillery of the Twelfth Corps still on the ground, soon had his guns trained upon the advancing Confederates. The retreating batteries of the Eleventh Corps joined him. Several divisions that had been engaged in the bootless chase after Jackson's rear guard and wagon train in the woods were brought up in a hurry. But other circumstances coöperated to help us over the critical situation. Although the moon shone brightly, it grew dark in the shadows of the forest, and, moreover, the first two lines of the Confederates, owing partly to the temporary resistance of the Eleventh Corps, partly to the breaking of the formations in their advance through tangled woods, had fallen into great confusion, which was increased by the murderous fire now bursting from the hastily-formed Federal front. Thus some time was consumed in restoring order in the Confederate brigades. But Jackson was still hotly intent upon pressing his advantage in getting into Hooker's rear. Then fate stepped in with an event of great portent. The victorious Confederates lost their leader. Returning from a short reconnaissance outside of his lines, Stonewall Jackson was grievously wounded by bullets coming from his own men, and died a few days later. The attack stopped for that night.

The next morning, Sunday, May 3d, found the Army of the Potomac, about 90,000 men of it under General Hooker's immediate command, strongly entrenched in the vicinity of the Chancellor house, and about 22,000 men, under General Sedgwick, near Fredericksburg, moving up to attack General Lee in his rear. Never did General Lee's genius shine more brightly than in the action that followed. He proved himself, with his 60,000 men against nearly double that number, a perfect master of that supreme art of the military leader: to appear to have superior forces at every point of decisive importance. First he flung Jackson's old corps, now under the command of General "Jeb" Stuart, against some of Hooker's breastworks in the center, carrying one line of entrenchments after another by furious assaults. Then, hearing that Sedgwick had taken Marye's Heights and was advancing from Fredericksburg, he detached from his front against Hooker a part of his force large enough to overmatch Sedgwick, and drove that general across the Rappahannock. Then he hurried back the divisions that had worsted Sedgwick to make his own forces superior to Hooker's at the point where he wished to strike. Hooker meanwhile seemed to be in a state of nervous collapse. On the second day of the battle, standing on the porch of the Chancellor house, he was struck by a wooden pillar as it fell, knocked down by a cannon ball. For an hour he was senseless, and then recovered. But before and after the accident his mental operations seemed to be equally loose and confused. I have spoken of some curious psychological puzzles presented by the conduct of some commanders in this battle. There was Hooker, "Fighting Joe," literally spoiling for the conflict, and having successfully initiated an emphatically offensive campaign, suddenly losing all his enterprise and dash, as soon as he came into the presence of the enemy, and dropping into a tame defensive which utterly dampened the morale of his army. On the 2d of May, he warned Slocum and Howard of Jackson's dangerous movement on our right flank, and then, on the very same evening, he indulged in the preposterous delusion that Lee and Jackson were retreating on a road parallel to our front; on the 3d of May, he permitted himself to be pounded by the Confederates wherever they chose, from one position into another, and to be literally cooped up in his entrenchments by a greatly inferior force without making any effort to bring into action some 35,000 to 40,000 men of his own who had hardly fired a shot, and stood substantially idle all the time; and finally, he knew nothing better than to recross the Rappahannock and to say that, really, he had not fought any battle because one-half of his army had not been under fire — although he had lost over 17,000 men.

There has been much speculation as to whether those who accused General Hooker of having been intoxicated during the battle of Chancellorsville, were right or wrong. The weight of the testimony of competent witnesses is strongly against this theory. It is asserted, on the other hand, that he was accustomed to the consumption of a certain quantity of whiskey every day; that, during the battle of Chancellorsville, he utterly abstained from his usual potations for fear of taking too much, inadvertently, and that his brain failed to work because he had not given it the stimulus to which it had been habituated. Whichever theory be the correct one — certain it is that to all appearances General Hooker's mind seemed, during those days, in a remarkably torpid condition. On no similar theory can we explain General Howard's failure to foresee the coming of Jackson's attack upon our right flank — for he was a man of the soberest habits. How, in spite of the reports constantly coming in, in spite of what, without exaggeration, may be called the evidence of his senses, he could finally conclude, on the 2d of May, that Jackson, instead of intending to attack, was in full retreat, I have never been able to understand, except upon the theory that his mind simply failed to draw simple conclusions from obvious facts.

Our corps remained inactive on the left flank of the army all through the 3d, 4th, and 5th of May. Eager to be led to the front again, all we could do was to listen anxiously to the din of battle near us, straining our senses to discern whether it approached or receded. In fact, it approached, indicating that our army was giving up position after position, and that the battle was going against us. At last, on the evening of the 5th, we received orders to be ready to move at 2 o'clock the next morning. We understood it to be a general retreat across the river. During the afternoon a heavy rain began to fall, which continued into the night. Wet through to the skin, we shivered until 1:20 o'clock, when, without the slightest noise, the troops were formed into line, ready to wheel into column of march. So we stood without moving from 2 until 6 o'clock. At last the order to march came. We had to withdraw from the presence of the enemy unobserved, and in this we succeeded. When we reached the large clearing at United States Ford, where the river was bridged for the army to cross, an appalling spectacle presented itself. The heavy rains had caused a sudden rise in the river, which threatened to sweep away the pontoon bridges. There were three of them, one of which was taken up to strengthen the others. General Hooker with his staff had already passed over the preceding evening. The artillery, also, except that of the corps covering the retreat, had crossed during the night. But here on that open ground on the river bank was the infantry, probably some 70,000 to 80,000 men, packed together so close that there was hardly an interval between the different organizations wide enough to permit the passage of a horse, waiting to file away in thin marching columns, regiment after regiment, over the bridges. Had the enemy known of this, and succeeded in planting one battery in a position from which it might have pitched its shells into this dense, inarticulate mass of humanity, substantially helpless in its huddled condition, the consequences would have baffled the imagination. A wild panic would have been unavoidable, and a large part of the Army of the Potomac would have perished in the swollen waters of the Rappahannock. But General Lee did not disturb our retreat, and by 4 o'clock in the afternoon the whole army was safely over. It is not too much to say that every officer and man of it greeted the northern river bank with a deep sigh of relief.

But no sooner were we settled in camp again than we of the Eleventh Corps had to meet a trial far more severe than all the dangers and fatigues of the disastrous campaign. Every newspaper that fell into our hands told the world a frightful story of the unexampled misconduct of the Eleventh Corps; how the "cowardly Dutchmen" of that corps had thrown down their arms and fled at the first fire of the enemy; how my division, represented as first attacked, had led in the disgraceful flight without firing a shot; how these cowardly "Dutch," like a herd of frightened sheep, had overrun the whole battlefield and come near stampeding other brigades or divisions; how large crowds of "Eleventh Corps Dutchmen" ran to United States Ford, tried to get away across the bridges, and were driven back by the provost guard stationed there; and how, in short, the whole failure of the Army of the Potomac was owing to the scandalous poltroonery of the Eleventh Corps. I was thunderstruck. We procured whatever newspapers we could obtain — papers from New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee — the same story everywhere. We sought to get at the talk of officers and men in other corps of the army — the verdict of condemnation and contempt seemed to be universal. Wherever, during the night from the 2d to the 3d of May, any confusion had occurred — and there had been much — or any regiment been broken and thrown into disorder — it was all the Eleventh Corps. Only two prominent generals, Couch and Doubleday, were heard from as expressing the opinion that there might be another side to the story. All the rest, as far as we could learn, vied with one another in abusive and insulting gibes. The situation became unendurable. Would not justice raise its voice?

On the 10th of May I received a letter from General Schimmelfennig. It ran thus:

General: The officers and men of this brigade of your division, filled with indignation, come to me, with newspapers in their hands, and ask if such be the reward they may expect for the sufferings they have endured and the bravery they have displayed. The most infamous falsehoods have been circulated through the papers in regard to the conduct of the troops of your division in the battle of the 2d inst. It would seem as if a nest of vipers had but waited for an auspicious moment to spit out their poisonous slanders upon this heretofore honored corps. Little would I heed were these reports but emanations from the prurient imaginations of those who live by dipping their pens in the blood of the slain, instead of standing up for the country, sword and musket in hand; but they are dated, "Headquarters of General Hooker," and they are signed by responsible names.

He then went on, stating what had actually happened, and concluded as follows:

General, I am an old soldier. To this hour I have been proud to command the brave men in this brigade; but I am sure that unless these infamous falsehoods be retracted and reparation made, their good-will and soldierly spirit will be broken, and I shall no longer be at the head of the same brave men whom I have heretofore had the honor to lead. In the name of truth and common honesty, in the name of the good cause of our country, I ask, therefore, for satisfaction. If our superior officers be not sufficiently in possession of the facts, I demand an investigation; if they are, I demand that the miserable penny-a-liners who have slandered the division, be excluded, by a public order, from our lines, and that the names of the originators of these slanders be made known to me and my brigade, that they may be held responsible for their acts.

A. Schimmelfennig, Brigadier-General.


On May 12th, I sent up my official report. It contained a sober and scrupulously truthful recital of the events of the 2d of May — at least, scrupulously correct according to my knowledge and information — and closed with these words: "I beg leave to make one additional remark. The Eleventh Corps, and, by error or malice, especially the third division, have been held up to the whole country as a band of cowards. My division has been made responsible for the defeat of the Eleventh Corps, and the Eleventh Corps for the failure of the campaign. Preposterous as this is, yet we have been overwhelmed by the army and the press with abuse and insult beyond measure. We have borne as much as human nature can endure. I am far from saying that on May 2d everybody did his duty to the best of his power. But one thing I will say, because I know it: these men are not cowards. I have seen most of them fight before this, and they fought as bravely as any. I am also far from saying that it would have been quite impossible to do better in the position the corps occupied on May 2d, but I have seen with my own eyes troops who now affect to look down upon us with sovereign contempt, behave much worse under circumstances far less trying. Being charged with such an enormous responsibility as the failure of a campaign involves, it would seem to me that every commander has a right to a fair investigation of his conduct and of the circumstances surrounding him and his command on that occasion. I would, therefore, most respectfully and most urgently ask for permission to publish this report — every statement contained therein is strictly truthful, to the best of my knowledge and information. If I have erred, in any particular, my error can easily be corrected. But if what I say is true, I deem it due to myself and those who serve under me, that the country should know it."

In order to avoid every possible objection to the publication of my report, I had been studiously moderate in my description of occurrences and circumstances; I had refrained from accusing anybody of anything; I had even mentioned with the greatest mildness of statement my urgent efforts to induce General Howard to make the necessary change of front. In spite of all this, the permission to publish my report was refused. General Hooker wrote: "I hope soon to be able to transmit all the reports of the recent battles, and meanwhile I cannot approve of the publication of one isolated report."

I appealed to Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War — of course, through the regular military channels — repeating my request that my report be published as soon as it reached the War Department, and adding that, if the publication of my report should be deemed inexpedient, I urgently asked for the calling of a court of inquiry to investigate publicly "the circumstances surrounding my command on the 2d day of May, the causes of its defeat, and my conduct on that occasion." General Howard's endorsement on this letter was as follows: "Respectfully forwarded. With reference to the court of inquiry asked for, I recommend that the request be granted. I do not know of any charges against General Schurz from any official quarter, but I do not shrink from a thorough investigation of all the circumstances connected with the disaster of May 2d. O. O. Howard, Major-General." This could be interpreted as meaning that, as to me, a court of inquiry was not necessary, there being no official charges against me; and as to him, he did not shrink from a thorough investigation of the event, but did not ask for it. The result was that the court of inquiry was not granted. The only answer I received was from General Halleck: "Publication of partial reports not approved till the general commanding has time to make his report." The general commanding, General Hooker, never made any report; mine was simply buried in some pigeonhole. My request for a court of inquiry was not even mentioned. I could not publish my report without permission, for that would have been a breach of military discipline. So I found myself completely muzzled.

While thus the official world seemed determined to take no notice of our distress, the flagrant injustice done us created much excitement among the German-born people of this country. Some prominent German-American citizens in New York called a mass-meeting — so far as I know entirely without incitement or suggestion from members of the Eleventh Corps — and expressed their indignation at the scandalous treatment meted out to us. The leaders of that movement had taken steps to inform themselves from official sources, and it was easy for them to show, first, that the Eleventh Corps was not a German corps, that not one-half of its men, in fact, only a little more than one-third, belonged to that nationality; second, that it was not my division, but a division commanded by General Devens, a native Massachusetts man, that was first overthrown and put to flight; third, that it was not a German brigade that yielded "almost without firing a shot," but one composed entirely of American regiments — General McLean's — and very brave regiments, too, that made no fight because they were so placed that they positively could not fight; fourth, that regiments of my division which were not telescoped on the turn-pike, as well as Buschbeck's brigade, composed mainly of Germans, did make a fight, and a stubborn one, too, detaining Jackson's overwhelming force for more than an hour; fifth, that the story of the Eleventh Corps throwing down their arms and running away like sheep was a lie cut out of the whole cloth, it being proved that after the battle only seventeen muskets were missing in Gilsa's brigade, and only fifteen in Schimmelfennig's, rather less than the average after any severe engagement; sixth, that the story about large crowds of Eleventh Corps men seeking to escape across the bridges at United States Ford was also utterly false, it being testified by General Patrick, who had charge of the provost guard at the bridges and on the roads leading to them, that the stragglers or skulkers arrested there had not been Eleventh Corps men. And so on.

But while such demonstrations and showings might make an impression upon a comparatively small number of unprejudiced persons, they did not in any perceptible degree affect our standing in the army and in the press. As a last resort, I applied for a hearing before the Congressional "Committee on the conduct of the War."

But when this application, too, remained without a response, I found myself driven to the conclusion that there was, in all the official circles concerned, a powerful influence systematically seeking to prevent the disclosure of the truth; that a scapegoat was wanted for the remarkable blunders which had caused the failure of the Chancellorsville campaign, and that the Eleventh Corps could plausibly be used as such a scapegoat — the Eleventh Corps, which had always been looked at askance by the Army of the Potomac as not properly belonging to it, and which could, on account of the number of its German regiments and officers, easily be misrepresented as a corps of "foreigners," a "Dutch corps," which had few friends, and which might be abused, and slandered, and kicked with impunity. But for this, why was my demand for a court of inquiry ignored? General McDowell had been granted a court of inquiry on the ground of a hasty letter written shortly before his death by a colonel of cavalry whose name was never publicly disclosed — a letter which probably never would have become known to the public but for that court of inquiry. Not for my own sake, but in the name of thousands of my comrades I asked for nothing but a mere opportunity by a fair investigation of the facts to defend their honor, not against a mere anonymous letter, but against the most infamous slanders and insults circulated from mouth to mouth in the army, and throughout the whole country by the press; when that opportunity was denied me, was there not ample reason for the conclusion that there was a powerful influence working to suppress the truth, and that the Eleventh Army Corps, and especially the German part of it, was to be systematically sacrificed as the scapegoat?

It might have been expected that one general, at least, who knew the truth as to where the responsibility for the disaster rested, would have spoken a frank and sympathetic word to remove the stain of ignominy from the slandered troops. It would have been much to the honor of the corps commander, General O. O. Howard, had he done so promptly. He would have stood before his countrymen as Burnside did when, after the bloody defeat at Fredericksburg, he frankly shouldered the responsibility for that calamity, and exonerated his officers and men; or as, two months after the battle of Chancellorsville, General Lee did on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg when that great soldier said to his distressed men, looking up to him: "It is my fault, my men! It is my fault!" Alas, the attitude of our corps commander was different. In a council of war during the night of the 2d to the 3d of May, as was reported, he complained of the "bad conduct" of his corps. In his official report on the battle he spoke of the density of the woods preventing the whereabouts of the enemy from being discovered by scouts and patrols and reconnaissances — an assertion glaringly at variance with the facts, for the scouts and patrols saw and reported the advance of Jackson. He actually spoke of a "panic produced by the enemy's reverse fire, regiments and artillery being thrown suddenly upon those in position," and of a "blind panic and a great confusion at the center and near the plank-road," about "a rout which he and his staff officers struggled to check," — but not a word about a large part of the corps being so posted that it could not fight; not a word to take the responsibility for the disaster from the troops; not a word to confess that he was warned early in the day, and repeatedly as the day advanced, of what was coming; not a word to take the stigma of cowardice from his corps.

Even twenty-three years later, when he contributed an article on the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville to the "War Series" of the Century Magazine, he sought to sustain the impression that the troops, rather than their commander, were chargeable with the disaster. He had nothing better to say than: "We had not a very good position, it is true, but we did expect to make a good strong fight should the enemy come." Not a very good position, forsooth! As if there could be a worse and more absurd position than one presenting flank and rear unprotected to the enemy! As if anyone had a right to expect a "good strong fight" with the certainty of being telescoped and wrecked in every possible way! "Should the enemy come!" As if the general commanding had not been most pointedly warned, again and again, that the enemy most surely was coming! General Howard, in that article, said further: "General Schurz was anxious." This is true. I was anxious, indeed. And it would have been much better for the corps, for the whole army, and for himself, had General Howard been as anxious as I was. But General Howard does not say that I explained to him again and again why I was anxious, and that I most urgently warned him of the things which would come, and which actually did come. He did not emphasize that I was not only anxious, but also right. He positively denied having received General Hooker's "Howard and Slocum" despatch, warning him, of the danger threatening his right, which I had personally read and delivered to him; and then he adds: "But Generals Schurz and Steinwehr, my division commanders, and myself, did precisely what we should have done, had that order come." This again is a misstatement, for, as my official report explained, I proposed entirely to withdraw the corps from its exposed position fronting south, and to form it fronting west, on the eastern side of the Dowdall clearings proposition which General Howard rejected. To justify that rejection he argues in his Century article: "In his report after the battle General Schurz says: 'Our right ought to have been drawn back towards the Rappahannock, to rest on that river at or near the mouth of the Hunting Run, the corps abandoning so much of the plank-road as to enable it to establish a solid line.' This position, which Schurz recommended in his report, was the very one into which Hooker's whole army was forced two days afterward. He was so cramped by it that he did not dare to take the offensive." I must be pardoned for saying that this is incomprehensible, for I did not recommend "this" position for the whole army, but for the Eleventh Corps — not for 90,000 men, but for 12,000. It is a pity that the General insisted upon presenting, by such statements, so sorry a spectacle. I am sincerely grieved that I have to say all this. I owe it not only to myself but to the much maligned men under my command.

At the time, his attitude was a matter of very serious importance. It may well be imagined what effect the whole affair produced upon the morale of the troops. They were most painfully smarting under the terrible injustice which was being inflicted upon them. They had lost all confidence in the competency of their corps commander. It is greatly to their, credit that, under circumstances so discouraging, they did not desert en masse. There were, in fact, very few cases of desertion.

But what was to be done to revive the spirits of the men and to restore the efficiency of the corps? It was proposed by some to disband the corps altogether. For various reasons, however, this suggestion was dropped. Some time before the battle of Chancellorsville I had foreseen that General Howard and that corps would not work well together, and I had conceived a desire to be transferred with my division to some other command. Under the circumstances produced by that battle, the same desire suggested itself again, and it would probably have been accomplished, had I insisted. But upon sober consideration I rejected it. The matter became the subject of some correspondence, in which I declared that, however welcome such a transfer upon other conditions might have been, I could not consent to it now, for it might be regarded as a voluntary confession on my part that the outrageous slanders circulated about us were founded on fact, and that I accepted for my men the responsibility for the disaster. I asked, and would continue to ask, for one of two things: either the publication of my report, or a court of inquiry, so that the truth might come to light. Under then existing circumstances, I was satisfied with my command as it was and where it was, and I held it to be my duty to myself and to my men to stand with them right there until the cloud hanging over us be lifted.

The one way most surely and most quickly to restore the morale of the Eleventh Corps would have been to give it another commander whom the men could trust and respect. But that might have destroyed the myth that the "misconduct" of the soldiers of the Eleventh Corps was wholly accountable for the failure at Chancellorsville; and that the ruling influences would not permit.

The mist hanging over the Eleventh Corps and the events of the 2d of May, 1863, has at last been dissipated by historical criticism — not as soon as we had hoped, but thoroughly. The best military writers — notably Colonel Theodore A. Dodge of the United States Army — have, after arduous and conscientious study, conclusively shown, not only that the Chancellorsville defeat was not owing to the discomfiture of the Eleventh Corps, but that the conduct of the Eleventh Corps was as good as could be expected of any body of troops under the circumstances. The most forcible vindication of the corps, however, has come from an unexpected quarter. Dr. August Choate Hamlin, formerly Lieutenant-Colonel and Medical Inspector, United States Army, a nephew of Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin, had, in the course of the war, become acquainted with many of the officers and men of the Eleventh Corps. The frequent repetitions be heard of the old stories about the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville — not, indeed, from serious military critics, but from that class of old soldiers who were fond of vaunting their own brave deeds at the expense of others — provoked him so much, that, prompted by a mere sense of justice, he undertook to investigate the happenings at Chancellorsville, so far as they touched the Eleventh Corps, to the minutest detail. He not only studied all the documents bearing upon the subject, but he visited the battlefield, inspected the positions, measured to the yard and to the inch the distances between the various points mentioned in the reports, and sought out every person, North and South, who could give him any information of consequence. In his painstaking way he has produced a book of rare historical value. After sifting his evidence with unsparing rigor, he delivered his judgments with absolute impartiality, not only sweeping away the slanders that had been heaped upon the Eleventh Corps, but also putting under merciless searchlight many of the fanciful stories told of the heroic deeds performed in the dark of night to repair the mischief done by the so-called "misconduct" of that ill-fated body of brave soldiers.

  1. The letter, while not incorporated in the Reminiscences by Mr. Schurz, is added here for the convenience of readers who have not read it elsewhere.