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Lee’s Army Revisited

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy: The Death of Stonewall Jackson and Other Chapters On the Army of Northern Virginia. By Robert K. Krick. Louisiana State.$34.95.

“Nineteen men in two distinct groups rode forward from the coalescing Confederate lines west of Chancellors-ville at about 9:00 p. m. on May 2, 1863. Only seven of the nineteen came back untouched, man or horse . . . Major General A.P. Hill escaped among the unscathed handful. Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, among those farthest from the flash point, was one of the five men killed or mortally wounded.” So begins “The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy,” the title chapter of prize-winning Civil War historian Robert K. Krick’s latest book—an eclectic but compulsively readable collection of ten essays on Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, most of them focusing on such seminal episodes as Jackson’s death, Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s foot-dragging, and Major General Robert Rodes’ relatively little-known heroics. The result is a brilliant tour de force.

The indispensable Jackson met his end at Chancellorsville, of course, at the hands of his own men. Pursuing the Federals in the moonlit darkness after his storied flanking movement, he continually urged on Powell Hill’s division, intent on damaging the foe still further. James Lane’s battle-hardened North Carolina brigade was in the Confederate van. During a lull in the fighting, while Lane was extending his regiments on either side of the Orange Plank Road, Jackson and some aides rode out to reconnoiter the situation, moving beyond Lane’s lines but within his pickets. Hill, feeling it was his duty to go where his commanding officer led, followed with his own party, some 60 yards behind.

Just as Jackson—deciding he had seen enough—was turning back, a single shot rang out in the gloom. It came from several hundred yards to the south of Hill and Jackson, but would soon embroil them. Krick sums up what happened next: “A tangled skein of tactical developments led a teenaged sergeant to order a shot against a lost Yankee in the woods near Chancellorsville that dark night. . . . The spark inevitably flared into fire from nearby lines. The firing spread northward, instinctive and unreasoning. It eventually led to the discharge of several hundred musket balls and rifle bullets eastward from the front of the 18th North Carolina toward the backs of friendly skirmishers—and through A.P. Hill’s and Thomas J. Jackson’s parties in the intervening ground.”

Hill and his aides, closest to the 18th North Carolina, were struck first. Though he was not hit, seven of his nine companions were killed, wounded or captured when their frantic horses wheeled and carried them into the Federal lines. “You have shot your friends!” Hill screamed. “You have destroyed my staff!” The next volley brought down Jackson, though most of his aides were more fortunate. “Six of the nine men in the group were untouched by bullets,” says Krick. “Since five bullets found their mark in the nine-man cavalcade, Jackson’s odds of being hit were only one in two. For three of the five bullets to hit one man—the devout and invaluable Jackson—defied the odds by a staggering ratio. . . .”

Only one of the three bullets that hit Jackson was recovered, the one that tore through his right hand and was not life threatening. It came from a smoothbore musket, still commonly in use among the ordnance-poor Confederates. His two other wounds were in the left arm, shattering the bone and eventually requiring amputation. Officers and medical staff rushing to the scene found the fiery, impetuous Hill, who had been bitterly quarreling with Jackson since 2nd Manassas, cradling his chiefs head and tending to his wounds. Two painful falls from the litter bearing Jackson to the rear in the darkness reopened the injuries, adding to his loss of blood. Eight days later he succumbed to pneumonia, his body too weakened to resist the disease.

Major James Decatur Barry of the 18th North Carolina, who gave the order to fire on Hill and Jackson, thinking that they and their aides were Federal cavalry that were charging his position, suffered no censure for his error. Indeed, within 12 months he would be named a brigadier general. But James Lane, who continued to serve in the army with distinction through Appomattox, would not advance beyond brigadier, despite the desperate need in the last years of the war for senior officers. Perhaps Lee, grieving for his fallen lieutenant, could not bring himself to forgive.

In “James Longstreet and the Second Day at Gettysburg,” Krick gives us an incisive if harsh critique of Lee’s 1st Corps commander on July 2, 1863, and how his continual delays and near insubordination made defeat in Pennsylvania all but inevitable. Once in action, admittedly, Old Pete could handle large bodies of troops effectively. Unlike Lee and Jackson, however, the Georgian much preferred defensive to offensive war, and he had a tendency to sulk when— according to an aide—”something has not gone to suit him.” He had not wanted to move into Pennsylvania at all and, commanding the Confederate right that fateful July 2, he certainly did not want to advance against Cemetery Ridge.

Ordered by Lee to begin the long and arduous march at dawn, he simply frittered the hours away. “Evander M. Law’s brigade of Alabama troops,” writes Krick, “one of eight brigades scheduled for the march, had not yet closed up to the point from which (it) would begin. Longstreet insisted on waiting for its arrival. . . . While the clock inexorably ticked . . . Longstreet lounged with division commander John B. Hood “near the trunk of a tree” and explained to Hood that General Lee “is a little nervous this morning; he wishes me to attack.”” Thus the whole morning passed. Longstreet was waiting for a single brigade when he could have started off the other seven and then had Law, when he arrived at the jump-off point, fall in at the end of the column.

Once Lafayette McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions did get underway, Krick maintains, Longstreet deepened his sulking. Lee had provided him with the services of Captain Samuel Johnston, an officer who had earlier scouted the terrain. “Longstreet decided to play an ugly game with the misguided Lee—and with thousands of unfortunate soldiers . . . by taking the ludicrous position that Sam Johnston really commanded the march,” Krick writes. “He was Lee’s man on the spot, and this whole silly march and attack were Lee’s idiotic idea, so let him have his way and then we’ll just see who really knows best!”

At one point, with the Rebel column about to come in clear view of the Federals on Little Round Top, Longstreet kept silent, abdicating his responsibility to change the line of march. Porter Alexander of Georgia, his artillery head, moved his cannon on an alternate course with ease—and was dismayed that the main body did not follow him. “The infantry never did follow Alexander’s simple and convenient route,” Krick continues. “Instead they retraced their steps and went on a great looping detour . . . The spectacle of a corps under arms, groping its way without a commander . . .makes one of the most pathetic vignettes in the army’s annals.”

Finally, late in the afternoon, Longstreet reached the section of the Emmitsburg Pike opposite the Peach Orchard and the Round Tops, the line of battle chosen for the assault. He was with McLaws in the van when he received a plea from Hood that the latter be allowed “to turn Round Top and attack the enemy in flank and rear” rather than make a frontal attack against the now-prepared foe. Longstreet, the man who had frustrated Lee’s commands all day, now insisted on staying with the original plan, long undone by his intransigence. “Gen’l Lee’s orders,” he stolidly repeated, “are to attack up the (Emmitsburg) Road.” Two more desperate pleas from Hood were denied. The results, as all who have studied the battle know, were appalling. Even Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet’s chief of staff and a lifetime admirer, admitted that “what was going on (was) to the disadvantage of the army . . . This is all that I shall permit myself to express on this well-worn-subject.”

Why did Lee put up with Longstreet’s behavior, which had evinced itself in previous battles? The reasons, says Krick, were twofold. First, his open, patrician nature could not begin to imagine deceit of this magnitude. Secondly, with Jackson dead, Lee had nowhere else to turn; the other corps commanders, expanded from three to two with Stonewall’s demise, were unproven. Richard Ewell, who had a lost a leg at 2nd Manassas and had just returned to the army, was weak and hesitant at Gettysburg; Powell Hill, suffering from sporadic bouts of prostatitis, was sickly and impaired. Longstreet’s later criticisms of Lee’s tactics at Gettysburg, says Krick, were so much blame shifting. He backs up this opinion with an urbane comment from General Richard Taylor, who fought so well under Jackson in the Shenandoah: “That any subject involving the possession and exercise of intellect should be clear to Longstreet and concealed from Lee, is a startling proposition to those having knowledge of the two men.”

“We Have Never Suffered a Greater Loss Save in the Great Jackson” is Krick’s admiring sketch of the handsome, handlebar-mustachioed Robert Rodes of Virginia, about whose personal life so little is known. Born into a well-to-do family in Piedmont Virginia on March 29, 1829, he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute at the age of 16, and for the next two years served on its faculty. In 1848 and 1849, when he was 19 and 20, he may—or may not—have been twice married, first to a Mary Jones of Lexington and then to a Jane F. Baxter of Lexington. Newspaper announcements seem to confirm the marriages, writes Krick, but “Who Mary and Jane were, and what became of them, is not of record.” In 1857, despite having “been so long suspicious of praise of matrimony,” Rodes married Virginia Hortense Woodruff of Tuscaloosa, whom he described as “the noblest and poorest woman in Alabama.” By all accounts, Mrs. Rodes was “a stunning beauty,” and the two must have made an eye-catching couple. Declared a Charlottesville hostess: “I’ve seldom seen a more attractive woman.” She would outlive her husband by several decades and—says Krick—”destroy willfully her husband’s letters and thereby constrict his place in history.”

Throughout most of the 1850’s Rodes worked as a railroad engineer, principally in his adopted Alabama. When war broke out in 1861, he was elected colonel of the 5th Alabama and reported with his regiment to Virginia, where he served under Richard Ewell at 1st Manassas but saw little action. The next year, by now a brigadier, he was one of the Confederate standouts at Seven Pines, taking a serious arm wound and earning high praise from his new commander, the acerbic Harvey Hill. Though Rodes and his Alabamians added to their laurels during the Seven Days at the critical battle of Games’ Mills, he reopened his wound and was lost to the army until the Maryland Campaign, where his stand at Turner’s Gap kept Union General George McClellan from dividing Lee’s army. Three days later he was fighting in the Bloody Lane at Antietam.

Commanding the lead division during Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville in 1863, Rodes was everywhere, leading with verve and valor. “My dearest wife,” he had scribbled to Virginia hours earlier, “Today we will whip them.” Ewell, recovering from his leg amputation in Richmond, later heard of Rodes’ exploits and remarked that he “seems after Jackson to be the hero” of the battle. Within days he would named a major general.

Combing the letters and dispatches of Rodes’ fellow soldiers, Krick in this essay has compiled a perceptive evaluation of the Alabamian’s qualities. To a 10th Virginia private he was “[A] genial and courtly gentleman (with a) slow, genial smile”; to a 14th North Carolina corporal, he had “a generous . . .cordial and loveable disposition”; to a staff officer, he seemed “upright, truthful . . .soft and genial in his hours of ease and relaxation . . .universally beloved”; to Porter Alexander, “There were never, anywhere, two better fighters than Rodes & (Stephen) Ramseur or two more attractive men.” Though a disciplinarian, Rodes’ devotion to duty was not resented by his subordinates. “We fear him,” said one of his men, “but at the same time we respect and love him.”

He served with the army through Gettysburg and the Overland Campaign, and then was ordered under General Jubal Early to the Shenandoah in 1864. There at 3rd Winchester on September 19, while holding off Union General Phil Sheridan’s assaults, he received a fatal head wound. “The dead general,” says Krick, “left an infant son—”a fine boy!” Rodes boasted—and namesake (the boy eventually fathered eight children), who was eleven days short of one year old, and a daughter yet unborn, Belle Yancey.” Wrote Jedediah Hotchkiss, mapmaker and aide to Jackson and Ewell and Early: “Rodes was the best division commander in the Army of N. Va.”

The Smoothbore Volley contains seven more entertaining—and opinionated—pieces. Five of them deal with events and personalities: Jackson’s harsh, even venomous, treatment of General Richard Garnett, whom he relieved from duty as his successor in command of the Stonewall Brigade; Longstreet’s attempt to cover up his own inadequacies by courts-martial against Lafayette McLaws and others; a look at Maxcy Gregg of South Carolina, gifted politician and gallant general; Jubal Early’s problems with the undisciplined Valley Cavalry during his Shenandoah Campaign; and, as Krick puts it, “The Coward Who Followed J.E.B. Stuart.” The last two essays deal with favorite— and some despised—Confederate books, and with finding and using Confederate records. Krick, who wears his scholarship lightly, has produced a welcome addition to Civil War literature.


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