Kershaw's Brigade at Chancellorsville

Kershaw's Brigade At Chancellorsville

By: Mac Wyckoff
Mwyckoff@erols.com

The following article will appear in a booklet to be sold during the 135th Anniversary of Chancellorsville ceremony in May of 1998. The Ashley Tract, also known as McLaws' Wedge, is a 99 acre tract on the Chancellorsville battlefield that the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has contracted to purchase. Had not this preservation group stepped to purchase this key part of the battlefield, state and county officials intended to place a huge shopping center on this and nearby ground. As of January of 1998, $150,000 of the $450,000 had been paid. The additional $300,000 is due on March 20, 1998. All proceeds from this booklet will go to buying this ground. Once the payments have been completed, the C.V.B.T. will turn the deed over to Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park and for the first time visitors will have access to this important ground.

People interested in Kershaw's Brigade and McGowan's Brigade (Orr's Rifles and the 14th South Carolina fought on this ground on May 1, 1863) should consider donating money to this worthy cause. All donations are used to buy land, not for office or personnel expense.

The Trust can be reached at: 604-A William Street, Suite 1, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401. (540) 374-0900.
Check out their website at http://www.cvbt.org.

"We occupied some important positions:"
Kershaw's Brigade on the Ashley Tract at Chancellorsville

To many, the battle of Chancellorsville consists of "Stonewall" Jackson's famous march and flank attack capped by the mortal wounding of the Confederate icon. In reality since it was a campaign of maneuvering by both sides, the Chancellorsville Campaign is much more than that as it sprawls across the woods and fields of the Virginia Piedmont. A portion long ignored and yet crucial to the eventual outcome occurred on land purchased recently by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust known as the Ashley Tract. On this land, two brigades of General Lafayette McLaws Division helped hold General Joseph Hooker's attention allowing Jackson's men to complete their lengthy hike on May 2, 1863. The following day, these Southerners pushed northwest as part of a three-way pincher movement on the Union force near the Chancellorsville intersection.

One of the units involved in this action was General Joseph Brevard Kershaw's Brigade. The command consisted of the 2nd, 3rd, 3rd Battalion, 7th, 8th, and 15th South Carolina. The lengthy history of this brigade outlasts all and outshines most Civil War units. Some of the companies were formed in the immediate aftermath of South Carolina's secession and the brigade did not surrender until seventeen days after Appomattox. When Virginian Edmund Ruffin pulled the lanyard to fire the first shot toward Fort Sumter, the gun was manned by the Palmetto Guard which became Company I of the 2nd South Carolina. This famous company was commanded by George Barnwell Cuthbert a wealthy planter from the South Carolina low country.

Prior to Chancellorsville, the 2nd, 3rd, 7th and 8th regiments had gained valuable combat experience at 1st Manassas, Williamsburg, Savage Station, Malvern Hill, Maryland Heights, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. The 15th had fought at Port Royal and the 3rd Battalion had joined them at 2nd Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg. Kershaw's Brigade began the Chancellorsville Campaign in the trenches on Telegraph Hill (now called Lee Hill) exactly the same place they had started the previous battle. Kershaw had sent out one company from each of his six regiments into the open fields to observe Union activity.

Joseph Hooker's plan consisted of several components for his massive 130,000 man army. He began by swinging his cavalry south on a raid to cut the Confederate rail line. Then, three corps marched west and after crossing the Rappahannock River and its tributary the Rapidan concentrated at a rural crossroads called Chancellorsville. Meanwhile two corps crossed the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg and two corps remained in reserve. By the evening of April 30th, Lee's 55,000 army had one force larger than his in their front and one in their rear. Hooker analyzed than with Lee's supply line snipped he would either have to come out of his trenches and attack Hooker's entrenched position at Chancellorsville or, in Hooker's memorable words, "ingloriously fly" southwest to the railroad at Gordonsville.

Lee, by that evening, had concluded that the main threat lay at Chancellorsville. Therefore, he would deify napoleon's maxims and simple logic by divided his army in the face of a larger force and challenge the braggadocio Hooker at Chancellorsville. Lee ordered General Richard Herron Anderson to deploy three of his brigades to block Hooker's flanking effort. Three of Jackson's divisions and three of McLaws' brigades would march to Anderson's support leaving about 10,000 men on the line at Fredericksburg.

On the night of the 30th, the Carolinians set bonfires to disguise their departure. In the excitement, apparently Kershaw forgot to recall the men on the skirmish line. When a dense fog lifted the next morning, the forgotten skirmishers discovered to their astonishment that the Federals who had been in their front and their friends who had been in their rear had disappeared. Without food and a clue as to their brigade's whereabouts, they soon heard firing in the distance to the west and decided to march to the sounds of the guns. They guessed correctly and rejoined their command that night.

Meanwhile, the rest of the brigade had marched west to a ridge at Zoan Church. Anderson's men had taken position here on the 30th and had begun to entrench. It was a superb defensive position. To find higher ground to the east, one would have to travel all the way to the Iberian Peninsula. To the west, Anderson's men blocked possible Union advance along three roads. A long stone's throw from the church lay the intersection of the Mine Road with the Orange Turnpike. A few hundreds south of the church, the Orange Plank Road crossed the ridge. Anderson squarely blocked any advance by Joe Hooker upon Lee's rear.

Jackson's arrival on the scene changed everything. Arriving around 8:00 on the morning of May 1st, Jackson told Anderson's men to lay down their shovels and pick up their guns. They were going forward. Jackson gave up the certainty of success defensively for the unknown possibilities that awaited action. Lee and Jackson were playing to win. To their minds, another tactical success like Fredericksburg was not enough. They must win a strategical success and that meant taking the offensive.

Kershaw's Brigade arrived about daybreak and took up a position in the rear, on the right side of the Turnpike. Anderson's and McLaws' soldiers met General George Sykes' Division in the open fields about a half mile west of the church about 11:00 a.m. Around noon Kershaw advanced about a half mile in front of the church and formed on the left side of the Turnpike behind General Paul Semmes' Brigade. Anderson's men soon overlapped Sykes' flank forcing them to withdraw to a ridge about a mile east of the Chancellorsville intersection. In mid-afternoon, Hooker made the crucial decision to pull back to Chancellorsville where they would fight with the advantage of holding the defensive and disadvantage of their opponent controlling the initiative. A major mistake if your opponent was named Robert E. Lee.

The Confederates moved forward and occupied the ridge, where McLaws Drive is located today.

Kershaw placed his six regiments on this high ground with his left on the Orange Plank Road. The regimental alignment is unknown, except for the 15th South Carolina on the right. To the their right stood the Georgia brigades of Paul Semmes and William Wofford with Wofford's right touching the Orange Turnpike. They stood in a densely wooded area of young trees and undergrowth that the locals called The Wilderness. Today, the ground along McLaws' Drive occupied by Kershaw's Brigade is owned by the National Park Service. Their skirmishers maneuvered and fought on the Ashley Tract and adjacent private property. Semmes' and Wofford's brigades skirmished on the Ashley Tract. (See map)

That evening, a few yards to the brigades' left, Lee and Jackson sat down on cracker barrels and held one of the most famous conferences in American military history. During this lengthy meeting Lee decided that the next morning Jackson would march his 30,000 corps around Hooker's army and attack its rear. Kershaw detached the 8th South Carolina to accompany Jackson's Corps as a link between Jackson's foot soldiers and "General "Jeb" Stuart's cavalry who were protecting the flank of Jackson's marching column. The role of Anderson's and McLaws' 15,000 men were to aggressively keep Hooker's attention so Jackson could move as secretly as possible and after Jackson attacked hold a large force of the Northern army in place. While not receiving the attention that Jackson's march and attack have attained, it was perhaps a more difficulty role and one that if played well would greatly increase the chance of Jackson's efforts. If they were too tentative, Hooker might realize what Jackson's men were up to and fatally strike him while he was on the march. On the other hand, if they were too aggressive, they might invite attack by Hooker's near 100,000 man force which logically would result in the destruction of Lee's army and the loss of the war. For the riverboat gambling Lee and his country, the stakes were enormous.

The key Confederate players would not be Anderson and McLaws, but rather the regimental andcompany commanders on the skirmish line. In other words, those officers and their men on what is now the Ashley Tract and adjacent private property. Somewhere between the extremes of acting too passively and too aggressively lay the middle ground that these officers needed to find. Hooker learned of Jackson's march shortly after it began and initially he correctly diagnosed its purpose. However, he soon dismissed that idea and did nothing to protect his right flank.

Major D. B. Miller of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion commanded thirteen companies, probably those of this own battalion plus four companies of the 15th South Carolina. During the skirmishing, Captain Charles W. Boyd of the 15th South Carolina was killed and ten men in his company were wounded. One of his privates noted that "We regret the loss of him very much. I always wanted him to be with us when we go in a battle. He was such a gallant, brave officer." Boyd's body was buried on the field where it possibly remains, on or near the Ashley Tract. Over half of the brigades' casualties during this campaign occurred in the 15th South Carolina, probably most of them during this skirmishing. Throughout the day, the skirmish line kept Hooker's attention. Back on the main line, Corporal Tally Simpson of the 3rd South Carolina sat reading a book. Even when a shell burst a few yards away, Simpson kept reading until the book was finished.

About 4:30 McLaws' and Anderson's men advanced which provoked fierce fighting. Firing continued until sunset. Shortly, thereafter, the Southerners heard a great commotion within the Yankee lines. A member of the 2nd South Carolina shouted, "That is Stonewall Jackson in the rear of the Yankee army." Apparently, there was no effort by Lee to attack Hooker's front while Jackson hit the rear. The shouting and commotion continued for some time before silence returned to the battlefield.

Early on the morning of May 3rd "a similar force" was sent back out on the skirmish line, this timeunder the command of Captain George Cuthbert of the 2nd South Carolina. 'With his accustomed etuosity" Cuthbert pushed the Federals up a ridge, possibly the finger of land of the Ashley Tract between the two private owned tracts along the Plank Road. Suddenly, a bullet tore into Cuthbert's ribs, perforating his lungs and exiting just under his shoulder blade. Major Franklin Gaillard of the 2nd South Carolina hurried forward to take command of the skirmishers. Cuthbert remained calm and gave Gaillard a clear and concise statement of the situation. Cuthbert, the man whose battery had fired the first shot toward Fort Sumter, was described as doing well three days later. On the fateful day of May 10, 1863, Captain Cuthbert died in a Chandler House near Guniea Station. On the same day, about a half mile away at another Chandler House, "Stonewall" Jackson passed over the river.

Private Jonathan Calvin Davis of the 3rd South Carolina acting "reckless beyond all reason," stepped from behind a tree and took deliberate aim. Despite repeated urging of his comrades, Davis continued to risk his life until he was struck and killed, Back on the main line, men climbed trees to direct artillery fire. Soon a general advance commenced all along Anderson's and McLaws' line. Somewhere in the dense woods, possibly on the Ashley Tract, Major Robert Clayton Maffett and several other members of the 3rd South Carolina were captured by the 122nd Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvanians tried to convince Maffett to surrender his sword peacefully. The major refused to do so except to an officer of his own rank. Pennsylvania Private Henry Nixdorf pointed his rifle at Maffett and said, "Are you going to unstrap that sword, or rather take the consequences of being run through with the bayonet." The major reluctantly surrendered his pearl-handed dress sword. Maffett soon escaped his captors in the dense woods, what happened to his sword is unrecorded. Maffett was again captured the following summer in the Shenandoah Valley. He died in prison on the same day that Kershaw's Brigade was surrendered.

The South Carolinians continued on to the Chancellor House. They soon were sent to Salem Church where from their position in the woods they mostly watch the action along the Turnpike. Throughout most of May 4th, McLaws kept them passively inactive much to the disgust of General Lee. That evening they finally advanced, but it was too late to be of much help as the Union Sixth Corps escaped across the Rappahannock River at Banks Ford. Late on the 5th, they again marched west as Lee for the first in the campaign united his command. However, Hooker slipped across the river under cover of darkness and everyone returned to the same camps they were in before this all began.

The brigade lost 100 men killed and wounded at Chancellorsville with the most important losses being captains Boyd and Cuthbert, both who may have fallen on the Ashley Tract. Lieutenant William Lowndes Daniel, a fighting physician in the 2nd South Carolina, wrote home after the battle, "Our brigade occupied some important positions, but had very little active fighting."