The Calm Before the Storm (May 2, 1863)

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Meade’s short note to his wife, written on May 2, is laced with unintentional irony. Indeed, as he noted, some Union officers did believe that the Confederates were evacuating their positions while the Army of the Potomac waited in the Wilderness around Chancellorsville. However, the rebels they saw moving off in the distance, glimpsed through a gap in the trees, were actually the men under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, making a 17-mile march on their way to fall on the unsuspecting Union right. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

“Lee and Jackson intended to end the Union swaggering, and the battlefield’s driving tour takes me to the Lee-Jackson Bivouac, the place where they determined how they would do it. This quiet spot in the woods at the intersection of the Old Plank and Furnace Roads is holy ground in Southern Civil War lore. On the night of May 1 Lee and Jackson met here to plot the destruction of Joe Hooker’s army. As they consulted their maps and talked with their scouts, they realized the Federals appeared vulnerable on their right, where Howard’s XI Corps rested with its flank “in the air,” meaning it had no solid anchor. All Howard had shielding the right of the Union line was the thick, tangled forest of the Wilderness. Howard thought this was protection enough, but Lee and Jackson, sitting on cracker boxes as they talked into the night, believed otherwise.

“Lee never lacked audacity, and the plan he hatched on the night of May 1 may have been his most audacious move yet. Although badly outnumbered, and with part of his army still confronting Sedgwick behind Fredericksburg, he decided to divide his army even more by sending Jackson and thirty thousand men on a wide swing against the Union right while he remained in place only about fifteen thousand men to distract the rest of the Federals.

“Jackson set out the next morning, his long column of men marching four abreast down narrow trails through the forest. The line stretched for almost ten miles–two hours after the head of the column began marching the tail end had yet to move. It was a huge, gray-clad, and tattered serpent snaking through the Virginia woods, making slow but steady progress to pounce on unsuspecting prey. At the ironworks of Catharine Furnace, of which only a single chimney remains today, the column veered south on its roundabout course. Once it reached the Brock Road it turned north, heading for the Plank Road and the unsuspecting men of the XI Corps.

“Jackson’s movement did not remain a secret from Hooker’s army, though. The marching troops were clearly visible off in the distance as they passed a clearing. Union artillery took the opportunity to send some shells their way. Hooker sent a message to Howard and Slocum. ‘We have good reason to suppose that the enemy is moving to our right,’ it warned. ‘Please advance your pickets for purposes of observation as far as may be safe, in order to obtain timely information of their approach.’ He warned Howard that he was not in position to withstand a flank attack. In response Howard did pretty much nothing.”

Meade’s short note, written from a then-quiet battlefield, is his last communication home before the Battle of Chancellorsville began in earnest.

We have had no great fighting as yet, though Sykes’s division, of my corps, had quite a skirmish yesterday. It is doubtful what the enemy are going to do, but many believe they are evacuating.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 370. Available via Google Books.

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