‘Men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of the gods’

Part 35 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

Date published: 11/6/2002

CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS who had been fighting for nearly six hours swarmed into the Chancellorsville clearing late on the morning of May 3, 1863. By the time they converged on the intersection, Chancellorsville Inn had burst into flames.

The war had thoroughly dislocated Virginia’s commerce and economy, but from the perspective of 16-year-old Susan Margaret Chancellor, the experience had afforded more of excitement than of terror—until this violent weekend. Through the winter of 1862–1863, Southern soldiers on outpost duty in the vicinity had supplied Sue and her cousins with exhilarating entertainment. Dashing young Gen. J.E.B. Stuart gave the Chancellorsville girls a gold dollar that they saved as a great treasure.

Joe Hooker’s headquarters in the house represented an enemy occupation, beginning on April 30, but without any apparent personal danger. Young staff officers in blue uniforms treated the girls nearly as well as had the Southerners. Col. (later Gen.) Joseph Dickinson of Pennsylvania, one of Hooker’s aides, kept a protective eye on the women and children. When the battle focused on Chancellorsville intersection on May 3, and the inn caught fire, Dickinson shepherded them up Elys Ford Road (modern State Route 610) to the rear. Another officer shielded the womenfolk from rapacious Yankees who sought to wrench away the baskets of belongings they had saved. A young musician found some lemonade for the weary and frightened civilians. Three decades later, Gen. Dickinson would play an important role in an earnest—but eventually abortive—attempt to preserve Chancellorsville battlefield.

Sue Chancellor left a detailed description of the ordeal she faced in company with 15 other women and girls, including relatives, neighbors, and a young abandoned black girl. Water stood shin deep in the basement where they crouched for protection.

“Oh! Such cannonading on all sides,” Sue wrote of May 2, “such shrieks and groans, such commotion of all kinds!”

 When Dickinson fetched the women from the basement on May 3, they emerged into a nightmarish scene: “Oh the horror of that day! There were piles of legs and arms outside of the sitting room window and rows and rows of dead bodies … If anybody thinks that a battle is an orderly attack of rows of men, I can tell him differently, for I have been there … The woods around the house were a sheet of fire; the air was filled with shot and shell; horses were running, rearing, and screaming; the men were … moaning, cursing, and praying.”

Sue Chancellor survived the battle and the war, married her cousin Vespasian Chancellor, and lived in Fredericksburg until 1935. She is buried in the family cemetery within sight of the ruins of Chancellorsville.

The gray-clad men who had fought steadily forward all morning knew when they loped into the Chancellorsville clearing that they had accomplished something remarkable. Without a precise understanding of relative strengths, they knew they had been outnumbered enormously; they recognized the startling risks—and stunning success—of Jackson’s May 2 maneuver; they knew that occupying Chancellorsville signaled a great triumph; they sensed, one of them wrote, that they had participated in “the most spectacular episode of the war.”

Walter H. Taylor of Lee’s staff, a VMI-educated banker in his 20s, wrote that when the Confederate enlisted ranks saw Lee ride into the clearing, they “rent the air with their cheers … and pushed forward more rapidly, waving their hats on high and calling his name.”

An artillery officer whose guns had helped to win the battle from Hazel Grove and Fairview described the scene vividly: “The troops were wild with excitement and success. The past with its horrors was forgotten, and they knew only the delirium of victory. The welkin rang with shouts and cheers, and the war-worn veterans almost wept for joy.”

The quote most often used about Chancellorsville describes the unbridled victory celebration in feeling, vivid prose and with allusion to the mythical figures of antiquity. Charles Marshall of Baltimore, on staff duty at army headquarters, obviously still found the scene transfixing when he recalled it seven years later:

“The troops were pressing forward with all the ardor and enthusiasm of combat … The Chancellorsville house and the woods surrounding it were wrapped in flames. In the midst of this awful scene, Gen. Lee … rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His presence was the signal for one of those uncontrollable outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers, with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle; the wounded, crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seem possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle …

[Lee] sat in the full realisation of all that soldiers dream of-triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage and confidence in his army had won, I thought it must have been from some such a scene that men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of the gods.”

Had Lee won Chancellorsville a millennium B.C., Marshall’s scenario surely would have carried through. Oral tradition, abetted or confused by a few papyrus fragments, would have expanded at the hands of countless generations of Greeks and Egyptians and Romans. Myths would have gathered about the godlike figure, no doubt complete with several supernatural wives, ensconced atop Mediterranean mountains.

In 1863, though, Lee had only about 15 minutes in which to enjoy his enshrinement. Entirely characteristically, he at once began examining options for exploiting the momentum the army had created. With the Rappahannock flowing behind Hooker’s crestfallen army, might Lee not use the river as an anvil against which to hammer his foe?

Before that idea could be fully formed, news arriving from eastward imposed a firmly negative answer. Yankees had broken through the Confederate rear guard on Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg and threatened to press westward toward Lee’s rear.

Hard-won triumph had dissolved almost at once into a new crisis. To the amazement of a London newspaperman with Lee at the time, the general remained “calm, unruffled, evenly balanced, but not, even at that time, wholly devoid of that quaint humour of which so rich a vein runs through his composition.” The Confederate commander would have to deal with the new threat before returning his attention to Hooker’s main army.

Copyright 2009, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Virginia,