May 2, 1863
While holding a steaming cup of Yankee coffee in his hand, the Confederate Major stood by the fire, warming his backside. He turned to the officer sitting on the log across from him and said,
“Joe Hooker stole a march on Bobby Lee; that’s for sure. But I guess we made him wish he’d stayed camped in Fredericksburg.”
The man on the bench, who was eating a bacon sandwich, replied,
“Yeah, we ruined his day for sure. I’d march another twelve miles to get into the Yankee supply train again. The only time we get real coffee and fresh bacon, is when we take it from the blue bellied bastards.”
Both men were junior officers on General Thomas Jackson’s Corp’s staff, and both had been in the saddle for over twelve hours. They were taking advantage of the lull in the action, following their devastating roll up of the Union left flank earlier in the evening. Both had been present the night before, when General Lee and General Jackson met at Salem Church. General Lee had finally realized that Fighting Joe Hooker had managed to move most of his 100,000 men from their winter quarters in Fredericksburg, several miles upriver, and push them across the Rappahannock, threatening Lee’s rear.
He and Jackson were meeting to figure out how to counter the Union move. Lee had detached Lt. Gen. Longstreet with his Corp of 15,000 men to Southeastern Virginia, and he’d left Gen. Jubal Early to hold Marye’s Heights, and contain Union General Sedgwick. That left less than 35,000 men to face Hooker’s 100,000. Lee knew Joe Hooker from the old army, and he appreciated Hooker’s organizational and administrative skills, but doubted his willingness to actually fight.
The big question facing Lee and Jackson, was how to take advantage of Hooker’s reluctance to attack. Jackson urged Lee to take the offensive, and Lee agreed that the best chance to defend, was to attack. While they were discussing their plans, Cavalry General Fitzhugh Lee rode up and reported that Hooker’s left flank was hanging open, completely undefended, and that he had found a road that would allow troops to move undetected right into the Yankee flank.
The Major who had been drinking the coffee came and sat by the officer on the log and said,
“Last night when the General heard about the Yankee flank, I saw his eyes light up. He convinced General Lee to split his forces and allow us to attack the exposed left flank. Reminded me of Second Manassas all over again.”
“That it did,” the other officer replied. “I knew we’d have one of the General’s foot cavalry marches this morning.”
“And dang if we didn’t do it again. We’d have driven Hooker into the river if we’d had another hour of daylight. As it is, the last blue coat I saw was high tailing it for home.”
The two young staff officers had discovered a Union Colonel’s tent, and liberated a box of Cuban cigars. They each lit one and took a deep draws. They were just about to doze off, when a Colonel walked up to the fire and said,
“Okay boys, put out those stogies. You know how General Jackson feels about tobacco. Grab your horses and follow me. The General wants to take a look at tomorrow’s attack lanes.”
The two officers stubbed out their smokes, put the butts in their pocket, mounted their horses, and fell in behind the Colonel and the rest of Jackson’s staff. The group was being led by a civilian who lived in the area, who knew these dense woods firsthand. The mounted men moved through the picket lines of an Alabama regiment in Rode’s Division, and into the no-man’s land between the Armies. They reached a ridge top, with a clear view of the Yankee lines.
There was no sign of a solid line, just scattered fires of individual groups of men. The Union front had been destroyed, and had yet to be re-established. General Jackson turned to General Rodes and said,
“General, if we were to mount a night action, there’s a good chance we could destroy General Hooker’s whole army.”
“General Jackson, my men are exhausted from today’s long march, and they need to rest, but if you give the order, we’ll give it our best.”
“No, General. Of course you’re right. Tired men stumbling around in the dark shooting each other would be a disaster. Better we wait until first light to press our attack. My guess is Hooker is deciding to pull back across the river tomorrow, and we’ll have to hit him early and hard. Your division will lead the way, so I’ll let you get back to make your preparations.”
Rode’s saluted Jackson, and he and his staff rode off into the darkness. General Jackson and his senior officers sat on their horses, deep in conversation, until finally the General said,
“Tomorrow will be the best opportunity we’ll ever have to destroy Lincoln’s army. We can win this war in the morning. All is in the hands of the Lord, and may he be merciful and bless our efforts.”
The riders turned their horses and began to move back to the Confederate lines. The civilian leading, veered off on a trail to the left, and said that it would be much shorter than retracing their original route. They had ridden a couple of hundred yards, when a voice rang out,
“Halt! Who goes there?”
Before anyone could reply, a volley of Minnie balls came crashing through the dense brush. Two of the officers with General Jackson fell from their saddles, and the General clutched his right hand. The guide cried out,
“Hold your fire; this is General Jackson’s party.”
A voice with a North Carolina twang rang out saying,
“Don’t let em fool you boys, give another dose.”
Again a hail of Minnie balls came roaring through the night, and two more officers fell to the ground. General Thomas J. Jackson held his seat, but his left arm dangled to his side, mangled by two rifle balls.
The next morning the Confederate attack failed to rout Hooker’s army, and the Yankees were able to escape across the Rappahannock to fight another day. General Jackson was moved to a field hospital, where his left arm was amputated. He developed pneumonia and died within days, and Robert E. Lee lost the sharp pointed end of his spear.
The photo of Stonewall Jackson is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to commons.wikimedia.org