Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to his Mother regarding the Battle of Chancellorsville
BROOKS' STATION, May 14, 1863.
DEAREST MOTHER, Since we came back to this camp, I have been very much occupied with reports, inventories, and other matters which are necessarily attendant upon a great battle, and so I just dispatched you a line on the 6th. I have felt very much depressed in spirits, and hardly equal to having a good talk, even with you. But I have to-day received your letter, dated May 5, and I feel impelled to let you know all about it at once, that you and the friends at home, who are the only ones whose opinion I care much for, may not be led by newspaper stories or prejudiced reports, to do injustice to our Corps, whose misdeeds are now in every one's mouth, and upon whom is cast the entire weight of blame, that belongs in higher quarters.
I do not know that I can do better than tell you about the whole affair from the beginning of the march on, as you may take an interest in what is already beginning to be historic. The first "eight days rations," which we draw in the expectation of making our attempt, about the middle of April, were quietly consumed in camp, as a series of violent storms swelled the streams, and made moving impracticable, but on Sunday, April 26, we received a renewal of the same order, which was speedily complied with, and soon after came the order of march, which was to begin at 5½ o'clock the next morning. At about midnight who should turn up but our Paymaster, and as the rolls were all signed, he made a quick job of it, and paid the Battery off in just thirteen minutes; this added to the excitement of breaking up winter-quarters, drove away sleep from the camp, and the hum of conversation and laughter was heard until the bugle blew reveille, and we prepared to bid farewell to our pleasant winter-quarters, little thinking that in ten days more we should be re-occupying them again, broken but not beaten. Everything was packed up, six days forage was fastened on the pieces and caissons, and on the off horses, shelter-tents were distributed among the men while our comfortable wall tents and stately Sibleys were left standing, for the benefit of the Hospital Department, a branch of the service destined in a few days to surpass all others in importance. Our march was at first rather slow, as the Second and Third Divisions, which lay more towards the front, had first to get their unwieldy lengths in motion. Everything not absolutely necessary had been curtailed; one ambulance accompanied each brigade, but not a team-wagon was to be seen in the whole line of march, the trains being all in the rear, and arranged in the order in which they were likely to be used, viz: ammunition, ambulances, supplies. Every man had eight days rations and sixty rounds of ammunition, and thus provided, we could afford to have our teams in the rear and to move on in light marching rig.
The first day we reached Hartwood church, a distance of about fifteen miles; but even this march, though not a long one, tried the infantry very much, as they were soft from the long idleness of winter-quarters and their haversacks and cartridge-boxes were unusually heavy.
At different points on the road we were joined by the Twelfth Corps, General Slocum, and the Fifth Corps, General Meade, which fell in behind us. The next day we reached Kelly's Ford early in the afternoon, and went into camp, preserving the utmost silence, all orders being given by word of mouth without drum-beat or bugle signal, and the men were not permitted to show themselves on the bank. The value of these precautions was shown by the fact that we took the enemy entirely by surprise; a detachment from Steinwehr's Division crossed the river, drove the enemy out of the rifle pits, and occupied the opposite shore, and then, with great dispatch and success, the engineers laid down the pontoons, and, under cover of night, our whole Corps passed the river and gained the heights about half a mile back. This was a pretty hard job for the artillery as they sent us no guide to take us through the level swamp lying between the river and the hill; and we floundered about in mud and mire until nearly daybreak; two hours sleep, on a plank taken from a fence, and a wash in a dirty pool, quite refreshed me, and by six o'clock we stood in readiness to renew our march, now upon the south side of the Rappahannock. The Twelfth Corps crossed at daybreak, and filed past us, taking the advance, and the Fifth Corps followed us in the rear. We marched steadily on, the roads were good and we were in high spirits, and everything looked well. Before long we struck upon the Fredericksburg plank-road and when approaching the ford over the Rapidan, at Germania Mills the artillery of our Corps was ordered to pass through the infantry of the Twelfth Corps at double-quick, so as to take position and drive away any hostile artillery that might dispute the passage. While trotting over this road, which was a good deal worn and full of ruts, we had a chapter of disagreeable accidents; a caisson, in the first section, broke in the middle from a sudden jolt, and two men sitting on the rear box were thrown violently to the ground and seriously injured, one having his ribs broken and his hip put out. Almost at the same time a man was jolted off from a caisson, in the second section, and the wheel passed over his leg, cracking the bone. I had ordered my drivers not to go quite so rapidly and had no trouble. Our arrival at Germania Mills, on the Rapidan, was so sudden that a body of rebel infantry and cavalry had scant time to get across the river and escape, while a company of pioneers and engineers, who were engaged in building a large bridge over the river, and had all the timbers ready collected and shaped for that purpose, were made prisoners, to the number of about eighty men. It would seem from the building of this bridge, that Lee had the intention of making much the same movement that we were making, going to one of the upper fords of the Rappahannock in order to cross and flank us, and thus we had anticipated him in his own maneuver. Our own engineers took hold of the bridge timber, and laid down enough of the string pieces to enable the infantry to pass over dry shod; in the meantime the artillery had to ford the river, which was no small undertaking, as the stream was deep, the current very swift, and the bottom full of large stones. A line of cavalry, standing over their girths in water, showed where we were to pass; but the violence of the current was go great, and the footing so uncertain, that I felt almost sure that some carriage would be swept away; but nothing of the kind happened, and, as our ammunition chests were pretty water-tight, we managed to "keep our powder dry." I did not succeed in doing the same by my own person, as my horse had to swim once, which necessitated a very wet seat to me; and the Captain's horse went headforemost into a hole from which I never expected to see him emerge. There were some ludicrous incidents; one of the pack-mules, loaded on each side with a box of rifle cartridges, walked deliberately off the string piece into the river, saying, probably, with Hamlet "Who would fardels bear," etc.; once in, a few desperate plunges freed him from his burden and he swam ashore and rushed off friskily, switching his tail as joyously as if he had not just been a four-legged caisson, the slave of an ordnance officer. When the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps were all safely over the (Fifth Corps had crossed at another point) the bridge was destroyed and our guns were planted along the banks to prevent the enemy from coming up in our rear from the direction of Culpepper or Gordonsville, and disturbing our peaceful slumbers, which we enjoyed that night in a pouring rain. The next day, April 30, we continued our line of march on the Fredericksburg plank-road, passed through the small village of Wilderness, and advanced nearly to Chancellorsville, where General Hooker had his head-quarters. General Howard established his head-quarters near the intersection of the Orange Court House road, or Plank Road, with another road running about northwest; and our Division head-quarters was at a farm-house upon the last-mentioned road, about half a mile from the intersection. Close by this farm-house our Battery went into camp, and General McLean's Brigade lay all around us, the Seventeenth Connecticut to our right, the Fifty-fifth, Twenty-fifth, Seventy-fifth, and One Hundred and Seventh Ohio behind us, and to the left of us. The point of attack indicated to us was the front, viz., towards the Plank Road, which came converging from the southwest, and upon which, the theory seemed to be, the rebels were sure to make their attack; the idea did not seem to occur to the generals that the enemy might go a little further to the west and northwest, and attack our right wing on the flank and rear. Friday, May 1 came, and the infantry commenced entrenching themselves in the road, front as before to the Plank Road, by digging rifle pits and banking the earth up on the fence, securing it with fence rail and strong pegs. In the evening there was considerable firing to the left, with some musketry; we sent off our first section, with Colonel Gilsa's Brigade, to take position on the extreme right and protect the flank; a very good precaution against an enemy of moderate force, but not much against forty thousand men.The next morning we received an order from General Howard to carefully measure the distance from our Battery to a clear elevated spot in front, near the Plank Road, on which it was apprehended the rebels might endeavor to place a battery and shell our position, and we were told that "we would find it of the greatest importance to have an accurate knowledge of the distance," thus showing that still the attack was expected in front, and a heavy flank attack not dreamed of. In the meantime Jackson was silently massing his army in front of the First Brigade, and on its flank, and yet with such perfect secrecy and skill that the miserable scouts we sent out reported three or four hundred dismounted cavalry, and nothing more. Lieutenant Bohn, thinking that dismounted cavalry were getting too numerous, threw a couple of shrapnels among them but was ordered by General Devens to stop, as he was "shooting our own men." About this time General Hooker rode down through our lines, seemed well satisfied with the state of affairs, and returned; and yet at the very moment when he cast his approving glance over the right wing, the enemy's swarms were closing in upon it, unseen but sure, and there was not a single cavalry vidette to bring us certain information of this deadly snare. Frequent intelligence was sent both to Howard's and Hooker's head-quarters announcing the heavy massing of the enemy on the right, and yet no reinforcements were sent, and no orders to retire to a more favorable position. Perhaps they thought that our weak Divisions, of about 4,000 each, were going separately to withstand the sudden onset of ten times their number, and that in a position most unfavorable, and where the intrenchments, built against the front, were nothing but a weakness when taken in flank. Noon came, no information of an attack, and still we kept our guns trained on the clear spot in front. At 3 P.M., all was still; suddenly the silence was broken by the shots of skirmishers, then sharp volleys of musketry with rapid firing of canister from the right, where Lieutenant Bohn was with his section, and almost at the same moment our Battery was enfiladed from the right by the enemy's shells which fell and burst with most fatal effect. The first shell struck two pole horses in Lieutenant Carlisle's section, then burst, and one piece cut in two the pole of my first piece, while another went on and killed a lead horse on the second. The next two shells were almost equally destructive. We endeavored to place our pieces in the new direction, but before we could do so, the First Brigade came, forced back on McLean's, bringing Bohn's section with it, and it was impossible to fire for fear of killing our own men, who blocked up the road. So we had nothing for it, but to retire to the first hill, where we could take position and accomplish something. I limbered. up my first piece with the limber of the caisson and then got both my pieces off safe, retiring quietly. I was just about to mount my horse when the attack began, and gave him to a cannoneer to hold while I unlimbered the caisson. While he was holding him a bullet hit the poor little Frank on the haunch and he broke away and ran past the Battery which was now moving on ahead, giving the Captain and the men the idea that I had been shot from his back. Well I got my piece off all right and followed on foot; as I came a couple of rods further where, through a depression in the ground, the pieces had passed from the field into the road, I found Lieutenant Carlisle with his whole section in a sorry plight, all the horses on one gun had been shot, and all but the pole horse on the other, together with two or three of the drivers, and in a fit of desperation C. had ordered his men to unlimber and fire canister. But the depression was so deep that no sight could be got of the enemy who were on the plain above. I took hold of the third piece and tried to help run it up the bank, but we could not do it. I then sprang to the other gun and told Carlisle that the only possible safety was to cut out the dead horses, limber up the gun and take it off with the pole horse alone. It had been great folly to unlimber then, in the first place, and though he was brave as a lion the predicament rather puzzled him, as well it might. The sergeant cut out the lead and middle horses, and the corporal raised the trail to limber up the gun when a shot struck him, and he dropped the trail on my toes, at the same moment the rebs rushed over the hill and poured a volley into us at very close range, severely wounding poor Carlisle in three places. I don't see how I escaped. I suppose I owed it to the fact that I was on foot. I then made rapid tracks to catch my section; the first hill was full of artillery in position, and firing, and our Battery had found no room to take position, and so was compelled to go further back. At the Third Division breastworks I amused myself in rallying our infantry, but they could not be held.
The vehemence, energy, and desperation with which the rebels came on was really superb, and the numbers were so overwhelming that a brigade or division line of battle made no show at all, but was immediately flanked and enveloped on both wings. The Third Division, commanded by the celebrated Republican orator Schurz, did worst of all; it vanished like the dust of the balance at the first assault, and gave no support to McLean's gallant Brigade which did its best to keep back the tide of gray backs, but in vain, and Steinwehr's First Brigade was too weak to stand up against the refluent wave of Schurz's runaways. I don't tell you anything now from hearsay, but what I saw with my own eyes, for as I knew that my section was not in position on this hill, and was in safety on this road, I felt some curiosity to see how the thing went and so I took it pretty easy, keeping as near the enemy's front and our rear as I conveniently could.All at once I heard my name called, and saw at my side Major Fineauff of the One Hundred and Fifty-third Pennsylvania Regiment, of whom you have heard me speak as my fellow student at Berlin, one of my few friends out here on the field. He had been on General Devens' staff, and was wounded in the leg, or rather lamed and severely contused. I lugged him along for some distance, resisting his frequent requests to me to lay him down and leave him. I gave him a drink of whiskey which gave him life, and at last had the satisfaction of leaving him with a party of his own regiment who brought him safely off. Arrived at the foot of the hill leading to the plateau on which General Hooker's head-quarters stood, i.e., the village of Chancellorsville, I found the Twelfth Corps hastening to our relief, and across the crest of the hill a large number of batteries, mostly brass twelve pounders, medium range, placed in position, while most of the rifled long range guns had been sent further to the rear. I spent some time in searching for our Battery, but without success, and then went back up the hill and served as cannoneer in Dilger's Battery of our Corps, during the whole of the fierce attack of the rebels that ensued. It was queer that the officer in whose section I served, had within a fortnight been a trembling candidate before a board of examination of which I had been secretary, and where I had put him through with all sorts of questions. At the foot of the hill was a wood, which was held partly by the rebs and partly by the Twelfth Corps; the enemy made several attempts to drive our men out, and the steady roll of musketry was really appalling. Once they succeeded, but then the batteries on the hill opening drove them back with great loss, and our men retook their position. The next (Sunday) morning I found my section in the right, in the new line, with the First Corps, General Reynolds. The rest of the Battery was at the United States Ford, to which place most of the long range artillery was sent, as being of little use in such close hand to hand bush fighting. Here I was ordered to report to General Reynolds with two guns of Schirmer's Battery and my own section. General Reynolds sent me to General Wadsworth, who commanded one of his Divisions, and he placed me in a fine position, above his Division, who were splendidly intrenched, and I got the regiment which covered me to throw up a breastwork before my gun, high enough to cover the bodies of the gunners. While reporting to General Wadsworth I had the pleasure of meeting young Carrington of the Class of 1859, who was on his staff. There were ten pieces of us all together on this hill, and I longed for an attack, as we had capital infantry with us, and could have repulsed almost anything. But nothing did turn up then, and towards evening I was ordered down to the United States Ford, where we lay for a day and a half, and then, on the 5th crossed the river in a dense fog, and marched back to our old camp, arriving here in a rain and hail storm which was the most extensive one I ever saw. The hailstones being in some instances, actually larger than hen's eggs, and knocking men off their horses. So, here we are, after an absence of eight days, in the old camp again, having lost two guns, three caissons, twenty-five horses, one officer, and thirteen men, having not had the smallest chance to accomplish anything valuable. In fact there was far too much artillery in that fight, and too many rifled guns which were of no use at all. If a battery was not very well supported by infantry, it might be taken in one desperate rush, as there was no good opportunity to retire. With regard to the conduct of the Eleventh Corps, I have heard some say that they would not fight because they did not have Sigel; this is absurd, and yet allowance must be made for the great influence on the men, produced by their losing the man on whom they leaned unreservedly, and whom they would follow to the death, and getting in his place a person unknown, peculiarly uncongenial to the German mind, and considered by them as a parson in uniform. But any Corps so scattered, and strung along an extended line, could not have failed to be overwhelmed by the force brought so suddenly against it; and a most steadfast bearing to the enemy would have brought with it annihilation, without staying their progress; would have doubled the lists of killed and wounded without having been of benefit. I know that the regiments by our Battery, viz., McLean's Brigade, fought as well as men can fight, and only fell back when further fighting was madness. The fact lies in this nutshell. General Hooker allowed this nutshell. General Hooker allowed General Howard to scatter his corps along too great a line, and then allowed the Corps thus scattered to be flanked, and now it seems to be the fashion to throw the blame of this mismanagement upon the conduct of the Corps, which seems to me most unjust. Well! enough of this vindication; if any of my friends ask what I have to say about the "flight ", "panic", etc., of the Eleventh Corps, you can show them this. Both of my horses were hit, but neither severely. Jenny got a spent ball right on the side of her nose, but the wound is now entirely healed. Frank got a ball on his haunch, but the wound was improving finely, when, what should he do the other night but commit suicide, by hanging himself in his halter; in the morning he was quite dead. He was a beauty and a fine trotter. I felt miserably about it. My poor darkey boy took it so much to heart, that, after burying him with many tears, he could not bear to stay any longer about the place and decamped, which was even more painful to me than losing the horse, as I had taken much interest in him and was really fond of him. We were afraid that we might lose Lieutenant Carlisle; he was shot in the arm, the leg, and the side. What troubled him the most was the loss of his section, and when he became delirious he was crying cannoneers to do this and that and not to desert the gun. He is better now and has been sent off to Washington with a fair prospect of recovery. Most of our wounded are doing well except the Corporal who was shot at my side; he will probably lose his leg. As to the whole affair I do not feel discouraged. I am sure that the enemy received greater loss than he inflicted, and that he cannot stand many such blows, while we on the contrary seem, like Antæus to gather strength from our falls. The death of Stonewall Jackson is a great misfortune to the rebels, but I do not feel like exulting over the grave of such a brave, wise, and energetic antagonist "peace be to his ashes." You must make this long letter do for sometime now, as I have a great deal of writing to do.
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13th Independent Battery - NY Light Artillery
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