Saturday, May 18, 2013

May 1863: Battle of Chancellorsville

On January 21, 1863, General Ambrose Burnside was replaced by General Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.  After retraining the troops Hooker felt they were ready to take the offensive again in April 1863.  On May 1, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock river at United States Ford and approached Chancellorsville, Virginia.  Confederate troops rushed up from Fredericksburg and the battle began on May 2, 1863.

The Confederates engaged skirmishers from Belvidere resident Colonel Edward Campbell's 15th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment at a plain at the foot of Salem Heights.  The 15th NJ held the plain so rebel troops shifted their forces to the right of the Federal lines. 

Colonel Robert McAllister's 11th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment was held in reserve with the rest of 3rd Corps at this time.  The 11th NJ moved into the woods to form a line of battle late in the day.

The Federal 11th Corps was hit by a large Confederate force and was routed, pushed from the battlefield, and the Second Division of the 3rd Corps was called up to counterattack at the plank road.  Near dawn on May 3, McAllister and his men were ordered to form a line of battle with the 11th Massachusetts Regiment along the plank road to form a second battle line.  To the left of this line was the 2nd New Jersey Brigade, and in front was the 1st Massachusetts Regiment.  In the rear, the artillery batteries were firing over the heads of their infantry.

McAllister, of Oxford Furnace, wrote in his report, "The enemy made two attacks during the night but did not force our lines. With some changes at dawn of day, we waited the attack of the enemy...The attack was made half past four a.m. and increased in severity until eight and a half a.m., when the line in front gave way; also the regiments of our brigade on my right.  I then changed the front of the regiment slightly, and I returned the fire of the enemy briskly.  The battle was now raging with great fierceness; many of the officers were wounded; two had been killed; large numbers of our wounded men had gone to the rear; and both flag staffs had been completely severed by the bullets of the enemy.  The enemy now pressed my right so heavily that I was compelled  to change my front and form a line with the Second NJ Brigade on my left and General [Alexander] Hays' Brigade on my right.  We sustained this position for some time, losing heavily, when the line on our left gave way, and we fell slowly back under a withering fire of grape and canister.  I formed the regiment on the hill in rear of the battalions, and soon afterwards, with the corps in that vicinity, charged across the fields towards our earthworks, which the enemy had just entered."

After the battle had raged for approximately two hours, the left flank of the 1st Massachusetts began to weaken.  The rebels broke through and began to attack the 1st Massachusetts.  The Confederates attacked on three sides of the Federal lines.  The Federal right flank began to collapse, and the 2nd NJ Brigade began to pull back.  the 11th NJ Regiment held their line and prevented the 2nd NJ Brigade from being outflanked, giving the 5th NJ Regiment the chance to capture an enemy flag.  The artillery positions were lost to the Confederates, but when the Federal troops pulled back to the second line of battle, they counterattacked and recaptured the artillery positions.  The Confederate forces attacked again, gradually forcing the Federal troops to give up the artillery positions again.  
McAllister reported, "They were driven out, and a large number of prisoners taken, mostly of the Second NJ Brigade; our forces could hold it but a short time, when we fell back with the remainder of the troops and joined our brigade, which had fallen back some time before.  With the brigade we came within the entrenchments."
General Daniel Sickles, commanding the 3rd Corps, reformed the line of battle near his headquarters.  The 11th NJ stayed on the field of battle while the Corps pulled back to reform.  Among the last to leave the field were Colonel McAllister, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Moore, and Adjutant John Schoonover.  McAllister came to General Sickles and said, "Here I am with the remainder of my regiment; where my brigade is I cannot tell."  Sickles answered, "Fall into this line without reference to organizations.  You are all my men.  We must hold this line if every man of us should fall."
Sickles' 3rd Corps held the line for several hours of uninterrupted fighting.  McAllister's 11th NJ lost 20 men killed, 115 wounded and 11 missing that day.  The 11th Massachusetts was completely destroyed - only Captain Gammon and eight men survived.  The captain approached McAllister and said, "I am here with eight men and would like to fight with you."  McAllister welcomed the Massachusetts men into his regiment to continue the fight.
Sickles' Corps held off General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Virginia Division and had repelled five bayonet charges.  The NJ troops of the 3rd Corps  had captured eight Confederate flags.
McAllister wrote, "Both men and officers of my Regiment acted nobly, stood well, and fought well; to praise some might do injustice to others; but I cannot pass without personally mentioning Lieutenant-Colonel Moore, who was of great assistance, and acquitted himself with honor; also, the heroic conduct of Captain Kearny and Adjutant Schoonover, who were of incalculable advantage in leading and bringing the men forward.  The color-bearer, Sergeant Albert DuPuget, displayed unusual coolness and bravery.  They all deserve  promotion for meritorious conduct."
On the other side of the battle line, Campbell's 15th NJ Regiment had charged to the turnpike with its brigade under heavy fire.  In a fight at the turnpike, the regiment lost three men killed and 20 captured.  At noon, the 15th NJ was moved to the extreme left of the battle line.  the regiment marched through the town and up to Salem Heights.  At 4:00 p.m. the regiment formed a line of battle and charged through woods against Confederate troops positioned behind a wall and ditch.  The fight raged until 8:00 p.m., when the regiment was forced to withdraw because of a lack of support     from other units.  The regiment lost 130 men killed, wounded or missing in action. 
Chaplain A. Haines, of the 15th NJ, wrote in his journal, "The Color-Sergeant Eugene Hicks, of Clinton [actually of Asbury, Warren County], a fine, noble-looking young man, whose name was on the list for promotion, fell with the colors in his hands, pierced with a bullet through the brain.  Corporal Samuel Rubadon seized the falling flag and carried it right forward through the rest of the fight."
The men of the 31st NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert R. Honeyman, had moved up to support the 29th NJ Regiment on May 1.  Honeyman wrote in his report, "Friday, May 1st, occupied my position undisturbed.  Saturday, 2nd, firing commenced at eight o'clock a.m., from the enemy's batteries.  Sergeant Aaron W. Davis, Company G [from Hope] was wounded - struck above the ear with a piece of shell.  the firing was very heavy ans was directed principally at the batteries.  My position was held without difficulty until ordered to be evacuated.  After all the troops had fallen back, the enemy's fire slackened, enabling me to bring over the river our batteries and to effect a crossing without loss.  Rejoining the brigade near Falmouth Station, without scarcely any time for rest, we were pushed forward rapidly up the river throughout the remainder of this excessively warm day.  The endurance of both officers and men was wonderful, although a number gave out.  Late in the evening, encamped near United States Ford, crossing the river at this point at three o'clock a.m., Sunday, the 3rd instant.  At sunrise, having arrived at our position on the field, near the extreme right, I formed line of battle in support of an advanced line and remained here during the day and night, awaiting an attack - the firing part of the time being near and heavy.  Monday, p.m., 4th instant, moved half a mile further to the right, sent out four companies on picket under the command of Captain B. F. Howey [of Knowlton Township], of Company G, and threw up rifle-pits.  the enemy being reported near and in force, a general alarm was created soon after dark by the firing of one of the pickets, followed by the firing of the regiment next on my right, the firing becoming general, part of the regiment which was formed in rear of my command as support also fired.  That none were killed seemed almost miraculous, the clothing of some being riddled with balls."
Copyright 1997-2013: Jay C. Richards

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