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America’s Civil War: XI Corps Fight During the Chancellorsville Campaign

6/12/2006 • America's Civil War

At 8 a.m. on May 2, 1863, Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, reined in his horse about 2 1/2 miles west of Chancellorsville, Virginia, and studied the XI Corps’ position. Nearby, on the Orange Turnpike, a road connecting Fredericksburg and Orange Court House, stood the XI’s new commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard. Though the troops cheered Hooker, he did not feel comfortable with either Howard or his men. Both were untested–the first as a corps commander, the second as a fighting unit.

After the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, the I Corps of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia became the XI Corps of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. During the Antietam campaign, the XI Corps remained on guard in Washington, and by the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the XI Corps had been combined with the XII Corps into a Grand Division led by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, though Sigel’s command did not see action at that Union debacle.

Even though 16 of the XI Corps’ 27 regiments had seen combat, they had fought in actions considered ‘minor’ by the survivors of Antietam and Fredericksburg, and the corps was held in contempt. In many cases, the hostility was based on nothing more than prejudice. It was a common but erroneous belief that regiments composed of German immigrants made up the corps. Actually, close to 50 percent of the corps were American citizens by birth, and a large portion of the foreign-born were naturalized citizens.

After he took command, Hooker disbanded Sigel’s Grand Division. Unhappy with the change, Sigel submitted a letter of resignation on February 12, 1863, and on March 31 Hooker announced that Howard ‘being the senior major-general not in command of a corps is temporarily assigned to the command of the XI Corps.’

At age 33, Howard was Hooker’s youngest corps commander. A devout teetotaler, Howard had fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg and earlier at Fair Oaks, where he was severely wounded, resulting in the amputation of his right arm. But to the men of the XI Corps, their new commander was unacceptable. The loyalty and spirit reflected in their boast, ‘I fights mit Sigel,’ was replaced with suspicion and distrust between Howard and his troops. The situation soon became worse.

At Hooker’s request, Brig. Gen. Charles Devens, Jr., a Massachusetts blue blood, left his VI Corps brigade and took the helm of Howard’s 1st Division on April 20; Brig. Gen. Nathaniel C. McLean, the division’s temporary commander since January, returned to lead the division’s 2nd Brigade. That was an unpleasant surprise, particularly to the Ohio regiments that made up the brigade and had served with McLean since early 1862.

As Hooker’s inspection party approached the region west of Chancellorsville, McLean’s brigade cheered the general. The troops were in high spirits because they had just been part of a successful turning movement that placed three Federal corps in General Robert E. Lee’s rear, forcing the Army of Northern Virginia to either flee or fight. Characteristically–but evidently to Hooker’s surprise–Lee chose the latter.

By May 1, five Federal corps were at or near Chancellorsville in Virginia’s Wilderness, an eerie, sparsely populated region of thick second-growth forest. From west to east were aligned the XI, III, XII, II and V corps. Below Fredericksburg, the I and VI corps were across the Rappahannock River. On April 30 they had held Lee in place while Hooker marched past the Confederate left and crossed the river. Except for Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s division, Confederate forces had quickly marched west toward Chancellorsville. After the Southerners clashed with Federals east of Chancellorsville on the afternoon of May 1, the Union commander reasoned that if Lee wanted to continue the fight, he would have to do so on ground chosen by Hooker. ‘Fighting Joe’ voluntarily gave up the initiative, had his troops at Chancellorsville dig in and waited for events to unfold in his favor.

Hooker tried to minimize the XI Corps’ role in the coming fight by placing the unit on the extreme Federal right. Beginning east of Dowdall’s Tavern, the corps’ battle line ran more than 1 1/2 miles, first along the Orange Plank Road. Where that road turned to the southwest, Howard’s line continued westward along the Orange Turnpike, ending about three-quarters of a mile west of the Talley farm. The ground was thick with stunted trees and undergrowth. Clearings existed only at Dowdall’s, Wilderness Church and Talley’s.

Hooker was upset with what he saw on the morning of May 2. Entrenchments constructed by the XI Corps were ‘decidedly inferior’ to those of the II, V and XII corps. Two miles behind Devens was the Rapidan River, and the intervening gap had been left undefended. To protect his right and rear, Hooker issued orders at 1:55 a.m. to move Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds’ I Corps from below Fredericksburg to Howard’s right. By sunset, the Federals should have a continuous line from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan.

The night before, Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had decided to make their own turning movement. If successful, it would place Jackson’s II Corps on the Federal right flank. While Hooker inspected Howard’s corps, Jackson’s troops set out on a 15-mile march across the Army of the Potomac’s front. Through a gap in the trees, scouts from Brig. Gen. David B. Birney’s III Corps division spied Confederate infantry marching west past Catherine Furnace, and at 8 a.m., Birney sent couriers to alert Hooker and Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, the III Corps commander, of the development.

Completing the inspection before 9 a.m., Hooker returned to his headquarters at the Chancellor House, where he was informed of the enemy column moving past Catherine Furnace. Hooker considered the information from Birney important enough to include in his 9:30 a.m. dispatch to Howard and ordered Sickles to make a reconnaissance to the south and east.

Major General Carl Schurz, the XI Corps’ 3rd Division commander, received Hooker’s dispatch at Dowdall’s Tavern, Howard’s headquarters. In it was the’suggestion’ that the corps be ready for an attack from the west. Around 10 a.m., Schurz recommended that they pull back to Wilderness Church and reposition Devens’ 1st Division, on the corps’ right flank, to face west. Howard disagreed. Of his own accord, Schurz changed the front of four of his regiments from south to west.

Devens, like his corps commander, took no action. On the 1st Division’s right was Colonel Leopold von Gilsa’s 1st Brigade. Only two regiments faced west, the 54th New York and the 153rd Pennsylvania. The units had cut some tree limbs to form meager abatis, but neither unit had any substantial protection. Their two sister regiments, the 41st and 45th New York, faced south along the road. The New York units were almost exclusively German.

Next in line, McLean’s 2nd Brigade contained three veteran Ohio regiments–the 25th, 55th and 75th–plus two rookie units–the 107th Ohio and 17th Connecticut. Except for the 107th, a predominantly German regiment, nearly all the brigade’s officers and enlisted men were U.S. citizens. Three regiments were on the turnpike, the 17th Connecticut, 55th and 107th Ohio. Supporting von Gilsa’s brigade, the 75th Ohio was positioned 700 yards to the right rear. The 25th Ohio filled a similar reserve role for McLean. All the regiments faced south. To their left was Schurz’s division.

An hour after Hooker’s departure that morning, Devens and several 2nd Brigade officers stood on the crest of a hill near Talley’s and watched enemy infantry, two miles to the south, marching west. McLean was told of the movement, and Devens sent word to corps headquarters. At Dowdall’s, Howard included the sighting in a 10:50 a.m. dispatch to Hooker, reporting that ‘I am taking measures to resist an attack from the west.’ Devens’ staffers were concerned about an attack, but the general did not think the ground held by his division was the enemy’s objective.

Sickles, meanwhile, joined Birney at Hazel Grove and concluded that the enemy was either retreating toward Gordonsville or preparing to attack the Federal right. Near 11 a.m. the ever-aggressive Sickles sent a dispatch to Hooker recommending that the entire III Corps attack the Confederate column. An hour later the army commander ordered Sickles to ‘advance cautiously…and harass the enemy’ with Birney’s and Brig. Gen. Amiel W. Whipple’s III Corps divisions. Birney’s two brigades left for Catherine Furnace at 12:30 p.m. Their departure inadvertently opened a gap between the XI and XII Corps.

Moving north on the Brock Road, Stonewall Jackson reached the Orange Plank Road before noon and halted his advance. Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee took him to the crest of a hill near Burton’s Farm. From that vantage point, they observed Federal troops at Talley’s, Dowdall’s and Wilderness Church. Before 2 p.m., the flank march resumed. Brigadier General Robert Rodes’ leading division had orders to stop at the Orange Turnpike. Brigadier General E.F. Paxton’s Stonewall Brigade and two artillery batteries, meanwhile, left the column and headed east on the Orange Plank Road.

Skirmishers stationed south of the 1st Division’s 55th Ohio suddenly started firing, and Colonel John C. Lee ordered the regiment into line. A company officer scouted forward to investigate and reported to Lee that Southern infantry and artillery were crossing the Orange Plank Road and moving north. They may have seen Confederate cavalry guarding Jackson’s right. The justifiably concerned Lee made three trips to divisional headquarters at Talley’s to give the information to McLean and Devens.

Colonel Seraphim Meyer of the 107th Ohio reported the same thing from his picket line. Devens neither verified the sightings nor passed them on to Howard. Unconfirmed warnings had been arriving since the previous morning. Thirty-five Union cavalrymen were assigned to the 1st Division, but their attempts to reconnoiter west and south were driven back.

In the early afternoon, Colonel William P. Richardson of the 25th Ohio sent out scouts to the south and west. They returned and claimed that Confederate infantry and artillery were seen to the west, most likely Paxton’s flank guard. Richardson, accompanied by Lt. Col. Edward Culp, went to Talley’s and gave this information to both generals. Devens snapped back, ‘I know that Robert E. Lee is retreating.’ He turned to McLean and said, ‘I guess that Colonel Richardson is somewhat scared; you had better order him to his regiment.’ About this time, Rodes’ lead regiment reached the Orange Turnpike and turned east.

Something alerted Federal sharpshooters picketing the turnpike. From their skirmish line, Major Owen Rice, 153rd Pennsylvania, sent an urgent plea to Colonel von Gilsa at 2:45 p.m.: ‘A large body of the enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake, make dispositions to receive him!’ Afterward, the colonel recorded that he carried the dispatch to Devens and then to Howard. The latter dismissed him with the airy taunt, ‘No force could penetrate the outlying thickets.’

It is unlikely that any of the warnings from Colonels Lee and Richardson reached Federal corps headquarters. Except for insulting other messengers, Devens took no action. McLean’s loyalty remained with his division commander, and most likely he never seriously considered challenging Devens’ orders that afternoon.

Birney’s men, meanwhile, had belatedly engaged Jackson’s rear guard near Catherine Furnace. Misreading the situation, Sickles concluded that heavy damage could still be inflicted on Lee’s retiring army. He sent a 3 p.m. request for reinforcements to Hooker, Howard and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, commanding the XII Corps. Hooker responded at 4 p.m. by sending Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton and the only Union cavalry brigade near Chancellorsville to support III Corps. Howard, however, replied that he had no troops to spare.

Forgetting earlier concerns about his right flank and rear, Hooker ordered Howard to send a full brigade to reinforce Sickles. Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, was chosen. The XI Corps’ reserve as well as its largest brigade at close to 3,000 men, Barlow’s brigade held a fortified position north of the pike, where it could effectively counter an attack from either the right or rear. It also supported three batteries of reserve artillery. The order sending the brigade south reached Dowdall’s around 4 p.m. Ignoring the numerous picket warnings, Howard accompanied Barlow south, leaving no one in charge at headquarters.

After losing the brigade, the XI Corps had 8,600 infantry facing south and only 2,200 facing west. Without infantry support, the reserve artillery’s effectiveness dropped considerably. And since Barlow’s and Birney’s departures had opened a mile-wide gap between the XI and XII corps, Howard’s command was vulnerable to attack from either right or rear, and was isolated from the rest of the Federal army.

During the afternoon, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry launched three probing attacks against McLean’s and von Gilsa’s pickets. Farther west, Jackson placed four of Rodes’ five brigades in the first line. Brigadier General Raleigh E. Colston’s division then formed the second line. Major General A.P. Hill’s leading regiments deployed behind Colston. Those in the rear remained on the turnpike and the Brock Road. Rodes deployed skirmishers across a front nearly two miles wide. Behind minor breastworks and a few felled trees, von Gilsa’s regiments heard little of the enemy’s approach through the dense Wilderness.

To the east, at about 4:30 p.m., Slocum ordered Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams’ division to advance southeast in support of Birney. Sickles then directed Whipple’s division to fill the gap between Williams and Birney. Barlow’s brigade, with Howard at the head, reached Birney’s shortly before 5 p.m.

The departure of the additional units further isolated the XI Corps. The gap to the XI Corps’ left near Dowdall’s Tavern now yawned nearly two miles eastward to the Chancellor House. If Jackson succeeded in destroying Howard’s corps, he could drive northeast, seize U.S. Ford and cut off Hooker’s line of retreat.

Shortly before the Confederate attack, Robert Reily and three other 2nd Brigade colonels rode west and discussed the situation with von Gilsa. Resigned to the fact that Devens would not approve any changes, they returned to their commands. Reily called the 75th Ohio together and addressed them. Lieutenant E.R. Monfort remembered Reily’s exact words: ‘Some of us will not see another sun rise. If there is a man in the ranks who is not ready to die for his country, let him come to me and I will give him a pass to the rear, for I want no half-hearted, unwilling soldiers or cowards in the ranks tonight. We need every man to fight the enemy.’ When Reily finished, he told the men to lie down but to keep their guns close by. The colonel remained mounted, his regiment in double columns by division.

As the afternoon passed, a general uneasiness prevailed throughout the 1st Division. When evening arrived, though, officers and men relaxed and the 55th Ohio’s band played popular tunes. Word passed along the line for everybody to eat supper, and some units stacked muskets prior to eating.

The Confederates, however, were not resting. Their first objective was the Talley farm. At 5:15 p.m. Jackson asked Rodes if his troops were ready. After an affirmative reply, Jackson said, ‘You can go forward, then.’ In a few minutes, Confederate pickets struck Federal sharpshooters posted west of von Gilsa’s position. They fired and fell back. Deer and small game ran ahead of the 18,000 Confederate infantrymen. Then bugles rang out in the evening air and a mighty roar of human voices shook the forest as the Confederate onslaught began in earnest. ‘Like a crash of thunder from the clear sky there came a volley of musketry from the right,’ was the way 1st Sgt. Luther B. Mesnard of Company D, 55th Ohio, described it 40 years later. As he looked down the road, Mesnard saw ‘German officers trying to rally the men as everything seemed to be giving way.’

Von Gilsa’s brigade was staggered by enemy fire from three directions. There was no time to change front. Men from the 41st and 45th New York either crossed the road to re-form or fled eastward. The 153rd Pennsylvania and 54th New York staggered into a thin battle line and opened fire. After one or two volleys, the 1st Brigade’s flanks were turned. Three options existed: death, flight or surrender. Fearing capture as much as being killed, the men ran for the rear, pursued by Alabamians, Georgians and North Carolinians. Von Gilsa’s command disintegrated; McLean’s was next.

Colonel John Lee heard the firing at 5:30 p.m. and rode rapidly toward von Gilsa. Looking down the road, he saw enemy cavalry followed by a battery galloping toward him. Turning around, Lee rode to Talley’s, where he found Devens and McLean mounted outside the house. Solid shot struck the road as Lee told them that there was firing to the west but no activity to his front. Should he change front to meet the enemy? Devens said nothing. McLean replied, ‘Not yet.’ Lee found his regiment standing in the woods to escape enemy fire–they had charged across the road between canister rounds. In a few minutes, Lee returned to Talley’s and reported that the 1st Brigade was falling back. Once again failing to receive orders from either general, the frustrated colonel departed.

During the Southern advance, two guns of Stuart’s horse artillery took up position on the turnpike and fired into the retreating Federals. A second section came forward, relieved the first, and continued the chase.

At the first sound of fighting, the men in the 75th Ohio grabbed their muskets and deployed into line. Under heavy fire, Colonel Reily ordered a change of front to the west. Before the movement could be completed, von Gilsa’s men appeared. Some stopped and rallied on the 75th. Most, however, continued their flight to the rear, followed by horses, mules, stragglers and a few wagons. Reily threatened to shoot the fugitives as they ran by, but opened his ranks instead. The 75th came into line and delivered a volley that slowed the Rebel infantry, now less than 30 yards away. Enemy fire struck them from the front and right. Shot in the leg, Reily fell off his horse. After firing a few volleys and suffering 150 casualties, the 75th fell back to a new line in front of the Talley farm. Among those left behind was their wounded colonel.

Following McLean’s orders, Richardson deployed the 25th Ohio into line and changed front to the west. The regiment stood 300 yards east of the 75th. The open ground to the north was full of enemy troops. Alonzo Keller, a private in Company C, recorded in his diary that the 55th ‘was attacked on our right by a hurricane force.’ Driven out of position by enfilading fire, many from the 55th and 107th Ohio ran across the road. McLean tried to re-form them behind the 25th. The 17th Connecticut remained west of the Talley house as Confederate pressure from the left eased. Deployed to the south, the 55th Ohio’s pickets delayed Brig. Gens. Alfred H. Colquitt’s and Stephen D. Ramseur’s brigades. Reinforced by some of von Gilsa’s men, the 2nd Brigade made a stand.

Not knowing what to do, Devens watched as his command was destroyed. Confederate artillery opened with canister at short range. Two Rebel infantry brigades enveloped the division’s front and right. After momentarily stopping Rodes’ advance with three volleys, the 25th broke and ran. Behind them, the 55th fired two or three more rounds, then followed. Every mounted officer in McLean’s brigade was down. Talley’s clearing quickly was filled with panic-stricken soldiers. Facing the same three choices as von Gilsa’s men, they ran at top speed toward Wilderness Church. Here, Schurz hurriedly formed a westward-facing battle line of about 5,000 men. Wounded in the foot, Devens gave McLean divisional command and left the field.

Rushing eastward to escape enemy fire, the remnants of Devens’ division broke through two of Schurz’s regiments, sweeping some of the men along with them. A few stalwarts stopped in the open fields and joined the 3rd Division, but most headed for Dowdall’s and Wilderness Church. Having just returned from his fruitless trip with Barlow to Catherine Furnace, Howard saw the fugitives, and holding a flag with the stump of his right arm, bravely rode into the mob. Joining Schurz and McLean, Howard desperately tried to rally the men, but most ignored him and continued eastward. No one remembered to send a warning to Hooker.

Around 6:15 p.m. sledgehammer blows from the front and right broke Schurz’s second line. The Rebel tidal wave halted briefly at Wilderness Church, reformed and surged forward again, leaving two wrecked divisions in its wake. Sitting on the Chancellor house’s veranda, Hooker heard cannon fire but attributed it to Birney. Fifteen minutes later, an aide looked down the Plank Road and saw a torrent of fugitives, ambulances, cattle and mules racing toward him.

At 6:30 p.m. Rodes’ and Colston’s infantry reached the XI Corps’ last line of resistance, Colonel Adolphus Buschbeck’s 2nd Division brigade. Four Federal regiments, plus support from Devens and Schurz, now totaled less than 5,000 men. They occupied the works abandoned earlier by Barlow just east of Dowdall’s. The Confederate front line formed a semicircle with both ends past the Federal flanks. The last XI Corps line held the longest, but could not stop Jackson’s two oncoming divisions. By 7:15 p.m., both flanks were crushed, and Buschbeck’s front completely collapsed.

The XI Corps fought on for another hour and a half without support. After breaking Buschbeck, Jackson’s advance petered out at about 7:30. The halt, plus the fading light, enabled Howard’s men to escape. Near the Chancellor house, Buschbeck placed his regiments south of the Plank Road. Close by were 150 men from McLean’s brigade under Colonel Lee. Having recovered from being pinned by a wounded horse, Lee had caught up with 2nd Brigade at Buschbeck’s line. Other survivors from Devens’ and Schurz’s divisions retreated to the northeast. As night approached, Schurz re-formed the battered regiments. Three miles away, Reynolds’ 1st Corps divisions were finally crossing the Rappahannock at U.S. Ford. Hooker used them in a new defensive line he succeeded in pulling together before midnight.

Severe fighting continued for three more days. During the night of May 5-6, the Army of the Potomac withdrew across the Rappahannock River at U.S. Ford, officially ending the Chancellorsville campaign. For the XI Corps survivors, May 3, 1863, marked the beginning of a new battle, one for honor and reputation, which persisted for the rest of their lives. First Sergeant J.H. Peabody, of the 61st Ohio Infantry, later lamented: ‘The burning shame of that stigma has followed us nearly twenty-eight years, and will follow us on to the grave, and still on to the end of time.’


This article was written by John F. Krumwiede and originally appeared in the May 2001 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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