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A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/Chancellorsville

< A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry

Chancellorsville

On the morning of April 27, 1863, we left our winter camp at Stafford Court House and marched to Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock. Pontoon bridges had been laid ahead of us, and the Eleventh Corps had already crossed. Early on the morning of the 29th, we followed, and started at once for Germanna Ford on the Rapidan, twelve miles off. Three corps of the Army of the Potomac were engaged in the expedition—the Fifth, Eleventh and Twelfth. Our Corps, the Twelfth, after crossing, pushed on to the head of the column, and our Brigade was given the position of honor in the advance. We carried eight days' rations and a hundred rounds of ammunition. In addition, several pack mules laden with boxes of cartridges followed each regiment, so that we felt sure we were out for business. The men were in good spirits, however, and notwithstanding the heavy loads marched rapidly.

We arrived at the ford in about four hours, without alarming the enemy. A portion of the Regiment were deployed as skirmishers under cover of the woods, three or four hundred yards from the river bank. At the word of command they moved on the run down to the river. Here each man hastily found for himself such shelter as he could, behind trees and brush, and opened fire on the enemy who were occupying some buildings on the opposite side. As we approached the river about a dozen Confederates started to run up the hill back of their position, in an attempt to escape. Our men were excellent marksmen, however, and after two had been killed and several others wounded, the rest of the enemy hastened back to the shelter of the buildings. Occasionally some fellow would fire at us from a window, but the puff of smoke from his gun would make him immediately the target for every musket within range, and that practice was soon discouraged. In less than ten minutes from the time when the skirmish commenced, the Southerners had hung out a white rag and surrendered. The swift-flowing Rapidan, nearly three hundred feet wide, separated them from us, but we compelled them to wade over. In this way, without a casualty to our selves, we bagged 101 prisoners, and not a man escaped to the enemy to give warning of our approach.

We had just secured our prisoners when General Slocum came up. He immediately took in the situation, and ordered us to cross the river and secure the heights on the other side. We had had a good time laughing at our prisoners as we made them cross over to us, with the water up to their armpits; but when we had to go in ourselves, it did not seem so funny. It was still early in the spring, and the water was icy cold from the melting snow in the mountains. Moreover, the current was so swift that some mounted officers and cavalry who went in ahead of us could scarcely keep a footing. If a horse stumbled, he was washed off his feet in an instant and carried down stream. In fact, one man was drowned in such an accident, and several others had narrow escapes. We prepared for crossing by placing our ammunition and provisions, and such valuables as would be injured by the water, on the ends of the muskets or on our heads, and plunged in. We had the small men distributed among the large ones, and in this way crossed without serious trouble. We were followed in the same manner by the Second Massachusetts. Once across we pushed rapidly for the hill overlooking the ford, where we took a strong position and threw out our pickets.

The pontoon train had by this time come up, and a bridge was soon built. The remainder of our Corps and the Eleventh Corps then crossed and went into camp ahead of us. We now gathered about our fires, and dried out our clothes in order to have them once more in comfortable shape by bed-time.

The next morning we moved to Chancellorsville, where we arrived early in the day. It is a very big name for a very small place; at that time it contained only one house. The position which we had thus gained uncovered the road to United States Ford, on the Rappahannock. Here another pontoon bridge was laid, and General Hooker crossed it with his force. We were all in the best of spirits, for in securing this advantage of position we thought that the victory had already been gained.

On the morning of May 1 our Brigade engaged in a successful reconnoissance toward Fredericksburg, in which we captured a number of prisoners. On our return to Chancellorsville we were sent to occupy a slight rise of ground at Hazel Grove, about a mile southwest of Chancellor House. Here, in a sharp skirmish with the enemy, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott was shot through the head by a chance ball and instantly killed. During the afternoon, General Hooker rode around the lines, jubilant over the success of his movements. Several times he remarked that now he had got the Confederates where he wanted them, and they would have to fight us on our own ground or be destroyed. At that time the army still had unbounded confidence in him; but it seemed to me a bit curious that the man who was ready at Antietam to lead 150 men to a charge on the whole Southern army, should now get into entrenchment when he had at his command 150,000 soldiers.

The night passed off without incident. At about ten o'clock the next morning it was discovered that the enemy were moving wagon trains toward the southwest. Birney's Division of the Fifth Corps, which had been in position somewhere in our rear, was sent out at about noon to stop them. A sharp musketry fire for a minute or two indicated to us that the attack had been made, and soon after several hundred Southern prisoners were sent back to us under guard. At about four in the afternoon, our Regiment was ordered to deploy as skirmishers through the woods upon the left of Birney, to capture Confederate stragglers who were believed to be lurking there in large numbers. Obedient to these orders we piled up our knapsacks, overcoats, and other baggage, behind the breastworks we had built, and moved forward into the woods. We had advanced about half a mile from our entrenchments, when the storm broke loose in the rear. The army of Stonewall Jackson had struck the Eleventh Corps in the flank and rear, and had brushed it away like a swarm of flies before a hurricane. I was afterward told that the defeated Corps came tumbling along through the woods, an indiscriminate mass of flying men, pack mules with their packs turned, and stray artillery horses. Nor did they bring up until they were stopped at Chancellorsville by three regiments of Hooker's cavalry. However, the best troops in the world could not, if struck in the same way, have stood against such an attack.

Our line was now halted to await developments. Very soon a Confederate battery was in position on the hill which we had just left, and was throwing shells over toward Chancellor House. Directly in our front, to the south, another battery was firing in the same direction. We were hidden from this second battery by timber and underbrush, but were so close to it that in the intervals of the firing we could distinctly hear the strokes of swabs and rammers as the guns were swabbed out, and the charges rammed home. From my position I could see the battery near our old entrenchments, as it came up and commenced firing. However, it did not remain there long. The fire from our own batteries, near the Chancellor House, blew up two caissons or their limber chests, and the rest of the Southern battery sought a safer place.

The roar of artillery and musketry still continued around the Chancellor House and to the west of it; but we could tell by the sound of the firing that the Confederate advance had been stayed. By seven o'clock darkness had settled over the field, bringing with it for a time comparative quiet. We began to look around now, for a way out of the woods, and back to our Corps. Our scouts soon found that Geary's Division still held the entrenchments which they had built the night before, and that we might return safely through their lines to the Chancellor House. By nine o'clock, therefore, we were once more in line of battle with the rest of the Brigade, in the woods west of the House.

Shortly after our return, occurred the confusion in which Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded. Our picket line had been driven in by the enemy, and we had fired a volley or two into the woods on our front. At the same time we had been fired on in the darkness by the Thirteenth New Jersey. General Jackson was struck just at this time, in the woods into which we had fired. It has been presumed that he was hit by his own men, but there is a possibility that the bullet came from the Third Wisconsin.

We secured but little sleep that night. Our artillery continued throwing shot and shell over our heads into the woods fronting us, where the enemy were supposed to be in force. At midnight the Confederates again attacked us; but Birney's Division, which had been cut off from us in the afternoon by Jackson's attack, struck them with fixed bayonets in the flank at the same time that we opened on them in the front—and of course we made short work of them. We had now regained the ground where we had left our knapsacks, but for fear of another attack, the officers would not let us go up after them. So we shivered miserably through the night, and in the morning arose thoroughly chilled.

The enemy, however, soon gave us enough to do to warm our blood. Birney's Division had, during the night, taken a new position in our advance, at Hazel Grove. It was attacked early Sunday morning, and in the course of an hour driven back with the reported loss of one of its batteries. As Birney's men passed back over us, the enemy came on, flushed with victory, and in some disorder. But in a few minutes we sent them back, in worse disorder than they had come. We followed them for a quarter of a mile, but there encountered a second line. In a short time we had the satisfaction of seeing their backs, also, dimly in the distance. Colonel Colgrove of the Twenty-Seventh Indiana, who was commanding the Brigade, now ordered a bayonet charge; but before we were fairly started, General Ruger sent orders not to advance any farther. Soon the enemy attacked again; but after a stubborn fight we sent them back for a third time, their ranks disorganized and the ground thickly strewn with their dead.

It was now near nine o'clock. We had been fighting continuously for three hours, and all of the ammunition that we carried had been exhausted. That carried by the pack mules had been distributed, also, and was nearly all fired away. The muskets had become so heated and foul that it was difficult to load them. Some of the pieces were so hot that the cartridge would explode as soon as it struck the bottom of the gun, and before the man had been able to aim. Because of this, we were relieved by a fresh brigade, and marched back about a mile to the rear. From there we were sent to a position a little northeast of the Chancellor House, where we built breastworks and remained until the army was withdrawn across the river.

All the rest of the day we could hear the firing to our right, and the next day, off in the direction of Fredericksburg, where Sedgwick's Corps was engaged; but we made no move. We only sat around, wearily watching the time pass away, until the night of the 5th, when preparations began to be made for the withdrawal of the army to the north bank of the river. The night was cold and rainy. Our blankets and overcoats had been lost, for we had left them on the second night of the battle to pick up stragglers, and fires were not permitted, lest they reveal our movement. As we shivered through the long, dark hours, all the admiration vanished that we had previously felt for Fighting Joe Hooker.

Toward day we silently withdrew from the entrenchments we had made, and marched off to the river. We found when we came near, however, that the approaches to the bridge were still crowded with the moving troops; we had, therefore, to double-quick back to the entrenchments, and wait until the bridge was cleared. Then we crossed over, the last of the army, entirely unmolested except for a few shells thrown by a Confederate battery.

We now returned to Stafford Court House, and at night pitched our tents on the very ground we had left ten days before. We were all thoroughly discouraged over the outcome of our expedition, and feeling, as one of our officers expressed it, "that we had gone out for wool, and come back shorn." The old soldiers who took part in that movement cannot think of it, to this day, but with the strongest feelings of disgust.

The camp that we occupied on our return to Stafford Court House was one of the best we ever had. It was an old orchard, with a vacant field near by for a drill and parade ground. Our friends, the Second Massachusetts, occupied one end of the orchard and we the other. Between us was a good baseball ground, where we amused ourselves at playing ball or pitching quoits. Every night after supper, the officers of the two regiments would get together for a big game, while the rank and file would follow suit, and our drill ground would present an animated sight. Thus we whiled away the time with considerable comfort, often speculating on the possibility of the enemy coming across the river to attack us. So many regiments of two-year men and nine-months men were being mustered out of the service, that we did not consider it at all likely that we would cross the river until our ranks were filled by the conscription which had then been ordered.