Chancellorsville

Southern Historical Society Papers.
Vol. XXIV. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1896.
[From the Richmond Dispatch, Feb. 7, 1897.]

Retrospective Glance at the Battlefield.

GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF THE FIGHT.

Gallant Part of the 55th Virginia Regiment. An Interesting Paper. Read before Wright-Latane Camp of Tappahannock.

        At a recent meeting of Wright-Latane Camp, Confederate Veterans, Captain Albert Reynolds, Company F, Fifty-fifth Virginia Regiment, and second lieutenant commander of the camp, read the following paper:

        Ever since the war I have had a desire to revisit some of the fields on which I did battle for my country, but never had an opportunity to do so till last summer, while visiting relatives in Spotsylvania county, when my brother proposed to take me to the Chancellorsville battlefield.
        So early Monday morning, the last day of August, we started towards the courthouse, but leaving that to our right, came to quite a pretty monument situated in the forks of the road and dedicated to Major-General Sedgwick, of the Federal army, who was killed on that spot during the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.
        As I had been wounded a short time before the battle of "The Wilderness," I was not present with my regiment when that battle was fought, and, consequently, knew nothing of the field; so, after inspecting the monument, we struck off again for Chancellorsville, passing by Screamersville, where the Second Adventists were holding a camp-meeting. The tents looked quite pretty, reminding me of the time when the Army of Northern Virginia dwelt in tents--i. e., when they could get them.
        About 11 o'clock we came to the plank road, and turned up towards Chancellorsville.
        I felt as if I was on holy ground; for it was right along here that we marched the 1st day of May, thirty-three years ago, led by Lee and Jackson, and A. P. Hill, and Heth, and Mallory. It is just about as warm and dusky now as then. We soon came to the road that we took to the left by "The Furnace," but our time being limited, we conclude it is not sufficient to take the route we marched around Hooker's army; so we take the right and go by Chancellorsville House, through the battlefield, to the place where the private road, along which we marched, runs into the plank road. It looks now just as I remember it looked then, except that there is a gate across it now. Everything looks so natural that I imagine I see the cavalry pickets standing there still. I got out of the vehicle and walked down the road towards Chancellorsville. It is there where we filed to the left, and a short distance in the woods is where we formed line of battle.
        The order was given, "Forward March!" and our three divisions move off to strike for all that is dear to freeman. Through the woods we go. I am going over the same ground I went over thirty-three years ago, when I was a boy-soldier of the brave and gallant Essex Sharpshooters.

FORGOT HE WAS OLD

        My heart beats strong. I forget that I am an old man now. I glide along, I hardly know how, over the same ground. Presently the rattle of the skirmisher's fire is heard in front. The soldiers cheer and go faster. Here is the field where the enemy left their supper cooking. In imagination I see the soldiers again dipping real coffee from the boilers, and blowing and drinking it as they moved along. Some have junks of beef on their bayonets, while their comrades cut slices. Others are stuffing hardtack in their haversacks as they go; for no one can stop; all must keep dressed now. On we go through the woods, dressing our lines as we pass through the fields and openings.
        How proudly the men march! How enthusiastic they are! How beautifully the emblems of constitutional liberty wave in the breeze! Jackson's corps is sweeping the field! What a grand panorama!
        Our gallant brigadier is on foot in front of us. He turns and salutes his brigade with his sword--a compliment which we intend to prove that we deserve ere we stop.
        And here is where we were when the enemy attempted to made a stand to check us. A volley from a line of battle is poured into our line to the right of us; but only one. We make no stop. The volley is returned, and we go still faster, while the rebel yell rolls from one end of our lines to the other, and back again. We are moving too fast. The officers storm at the men for not moving slower, when they are only keeping up with the officers. And now the artillery is booming, shells are shrieking and bursting, rifles are rattling, and occasionally a volley is fired. The rebel yell is now almost continuous. Still, on we sweep.
        There is the place, near those thick bushes, where the gallant Lieutenant Roane received a shrapnel shot in his abdomen, when one of his men, whom he had just given the flat of his sword for showing the white feather, said: "I'm mighty sorry for Lieutenant Roane, but he oughn't to beat me like he did."
        We are halted. There is a lull in the fire and uproar. The Light Division has been ordered to take the lead. It is beginning to get dark. We move again, and just ahead is where we came out into the plank road (I could not understand before why we came out of the fields and woods into the road, but it is all plain now--we went straight, but the road makes a turn). It is there where we saw the deserted artillery, and the dead and wounded horses. All looks now just as it did then. I do not think the trees have grown a bit; even the bushes seem to be the same.

HERE IS THE PLACE

        We march by the left flank along the road a short distance, and halt, and front. Here is the place. Our left is near the brow of a low hill or rise. It is so dark that we cannot see a man across the road. Lane's skirmishers are in front and open fire just abreast of our left flank.
        In a short while a wounded man is borne along towards the rear, just behind our regiment. Several men were holding him up, and he was trying to walk, when brave Sergeant Tom Fogg recognized him, and said: "Great God, it is General Jackson!" Then the order is given to deploy the regiment as skirmishers, and almost immediately the road was swept by such a destructive artillery fire as can only be imagined. I don't believe the like was ever known before or since.
        The darkness and the fire combined render it impossible to execute the movement. The men drop on the ground. Colonel Mallory calls upon the officers to do their duty (the last words he ever spoke). My company, which was the right company of the regiment, was wheeled to the left and marched through the storm down to the color line. How beautifully the company responded to their captain's orders. They were heroes among heroes. The captain intended to deploy by the right flank as soon as he reached the color line, but to get there was all that we could do. No man could stand and live.
        Being just a little behind the brow before mentioned, most of the shells which missed the brow missed us while lying on the ground, and those which struck the brow ricochetted over us.
        It was impossible for us to rise, so the men only raised their heads to fire, and to add to it all, the men in the darkness behind us, not knowing that we were there, opened fire on us.
        After we had remained sufficient time for our lines to be established in our rear, Major Saunders gave the order for us to fall back.

THE HOUSE GONE

        The old frame of a house is gone, but there is where it stood, and it was by the side of this old house, forty yards from the middle of the road, where I was lying, and by the light of the musketry fire and the bursting of the shells that I saw Major Saunders, and, although I could not hear his voice, I knew by his gestures that his order was to fall back.

A FAMOUS CHARGE

        Both together they numbered about six hundred--just the number that made the famous charge at Balaklava. They had been ordered forward, and could not stop without orders; so on they went.

"Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder'd;
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Marched the six hundred."

        And there is the opening they came to. It is a valley with the hill next to the enemy rising somewhat abruptly, and crowned with fortifications, as far as could be seen, both to the right and to the left, behind which were the enemy's infantry and artillery, and within less than 100 yards of those breastworks, which were wrapped in a flame of fire and a pall of smoke, with

"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they marched and well,
Into the jaws of death
Into the mouth of hell,
Marched the six hundred."

        And when the fire was so severe that the men could stand no longer, and knowing it was all the result of somebody's blunder, they lay on the ground and loaded and fired as fast as they could, waiting for orders to retire. But no order came.
        Officers were falling so fast that no one knew who was in command. And just at this time T. R. B. Wright, who was then a private in the Essex Sharpshooters, seeing our flag fall, ran and seized it and carried it to the front, calling to the men to follow. Ah, Tom, Sergeant Jasper did not perform as brave an act as that, but the men couldn't follow. Had they attempted it, without an interposition of Providence, not one would have been left to tell the tale, and God alone spared your life.
        And, when Adjutant R. L. Williams could find no officer above his own rank to command the regiment, he took the responsibility upon himself, and ordered a retreat; and

"Then they came back,
but Not the six hundred."

        Casualties--Colonel, dead; Lieutenant-Colonel, wounded; Major, dead. Every captain, except one, (*) either dead or wounded. Every first lieutenant either dead or wounded. Every second lieutenant, except four, either dead or wounded. One-third of the men either dead or wounded. And what is left of the 55th Virginia Regiment is commanded by the adjutant and four second lieutenants.
        Cardigan, at Balaklava, left hundreds of prisoners behind. Pickett, at Gettysburg, left thousands; but every man of the 55th Virginia who could walk was brought off the field.

"When can their glory fade
On the wild charge they made."

        I was lying on the ground by the side of Tom Wright at the time. I stood up, gave the order to my company and instantly I was wounded by a piece of shell from the enemy, and Garland Smith, only a few feet from me, was wounded by a bullet from our own men in our rear.
        Yes, brave old Tom Coghill, you took me to that very white oak tree, with scars on it now from top to bottom, and there we lay with Garland Smith behind us, until the fire slackened.
        Jackson and A. P. Hill both being wounded, Stuart was sent for during the night to command the corps, and our brigadier (Heth), was put in command of the Light Division, and Colonel J. M. Brockenbrough succeeded to the command of our brigade.
        And over the same ground our brigade was ordered next morning (the 3d) to advance in line to near the same spot and halt--Fortieth and Forty-seventh on the right of the road, and Fifty-fifth and Twenty-second battalions on the left--and either by a blunder or dereliction of duty on the part of some one, when they arrived at the proper place, the Fortieth and Forty-seventh were halted, and the Fifty-fifth and Twenty-second battalions were not halted, but allowed to keep straight forward and charge the whole of Hooker's army alone.

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