The dawn of Saturday, 2 May, 1863, illuminated the golden haired "frat boy" of the Army of the Potomac, 49 year old Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker (above), standing atop the pinnacle of success. He looked the part - handsome, athletic and audacious, a candle burning brilliantly at both ends. H is diligent attention to the welfare of his soldiers had rebuilt the army after the twin disasters at Fredricksburg and the Mud March.
At the same time his alcohol soaked headquarters became so infamous for its female contingent that forever after prostitutes bore his name. But in the previous 24 hours, "the inevitable" Major General Hooker had achieved what every other Federal general had failed to. He had stolen a march on Robert E. Lee.
The man who had boasted, "May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none" had planted 70,000 men and 108 cannon facing south and east at Chancellorsville clearing, 11 miles in the rear of the 50,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia. His enemy was now trapped between his great host and the 40,000 Yankees of the VI Corps facing west on the Rappahannock River. One simple command, and the massive vice would snap shut, crushing the rebellion. And yet, for hour after hour that Saturday, the anxious Federal soldiers heard only silence from their Caesar.
And the astounding rumor began to trickle through the ranks that their boastful, vain and beautiful Napoleon was cowering in Mister Chanellor's brick mansion "...in a crumpled trance, helpless, lethargic, entirely demoralized." His senior corps commander, 41 year old Major General Darious Nash Couch said later, "I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a whipped man.” This before a shot had been fired.
General Robert Edward Lee (above) was not going to wait for Hooker to recover his arrogance. First the Virginia aristocrat left 10,000 men to watch Major General John Sedwick's VI corps, and marched west to meet Hooker with the remaining 40,000. Forty thousand men against 70,000 - it was a direct violation of Napoleonic generalship - never divide an inferior force in the face of a superior enemy. But having done it once, Lee now did it again.
He fixated Hooker by dangling 13,000 men to his west, while sending 23,000 on a 12 mile, 10 hour eastward flanking march under the puritanical, lemon sucking 39 year old Major General Thomas Johnathan "Stonewall" Jackson. Lee's only hope for success was if Hooker stayed right where he was, with that handsome chin of his, daring the entire universe to strike it.
A thousand miles to the west, as eastern Louisiana turned to face that same morning, the sun revealed some 950 federal troopers of the 6th and 7th Illinois volunteer cavalry, swimming their mounts across a the rain swollen Comite River. Rising from the warm waters, their commander, 36 year old Colonel Benjiman Harrison Grierson (above), drove his men on another two hours southwestward before he allowed his weary troopers to dismount and collapse in sleep. However the one time civilian music teacher felt the need himself to stay awake and watch over his men. He discovered a piano in a nearby house, and startled his unwilling hosts by playing on it for some time. About noon a sentry alerted him to approaching cavalry. And for the first time in 16 days, he was not worried.
That same Saturday morning, Major General John McClernand's troops edged down the Rodney Road and about 9:00am marched into the "Pretty little village" of Port Gibson (above). They found it filled with rebel wounded from Friday's battle. There was some gunfire from rebel pickets across the South Fork of Bayou Pierre, but a few cannon rounds drove them back out of range. The men then stacked their muskets on the sidewalk and under "fine weather" started dismantling buildings to construct a pontoon bridge across the river.
Two divisions from General McPherson's corps also came down the road to filter through the town and move to the ford east of Port Gibson. It was Grant's intent to give Loring's men no chance to recover from their exertions of Friday.
As soon as it was dark he would push both corps across the river, to advance the 8 miles to Grindstone Ford over the North Fork of Bayou Pierre toward the Big Black River. On then would he allow his men to rest.
In Virginia, shortly after noon, scouts of the 25th Ohio regiment of the 2nd Brigade, First Division of the XI corps, stationed on the far right flank of the Army of the Potomac, spotted rebel infantry and artillery moving toward their front.
They dutifully reported this to their commander, 38 year old Colonel William Pitt Richardson (above). That officer went to look at the situation himself, and raced back to deliver the alarming information to his division commander, 43 year old Worcester, Massachusetts lawyer and now Brigadier General Charles Devins Jr.,
The General (above), who had little respect for his mostly German Catholic immigrant soldiers, dismissed the information. He bluntly told Richardson, "I know that Robert E. Lee is retreating." He then turned to his aides and announced, "I guess Colonel Richardson is somewhat scared You had better order him to (return to) his regiment."
High above the Mississippi River at Grand Gulf, General Bowen (above) returned to the gunners who were still denying Federal transports access to Bayou Pierre. He added the weight of his star to the commandeering of horses and wagons from the merchants of the town and surrounding plantations. The river road ran from these bluffs 30 miles north to lower bluffs at Warrenton. Bowen knew the minute Grant crossed the North Fork of Bayou Pierre, this fortress which had defied the Yankees 48 hours earlier, must fall to an attack from the rear. So he also supervised preparations to destroy the heavy guns and the magazines filled with powder and shells, to prevent them falling into the hands Admiral Porter's Yankee sailors.
Colonel Benjiman Grierson rode just a half mile south of his sleeping men before meeting dust covered riders coming up the road from Baton Rouge. Grierson greeted them by waving a mud spattered white handkerchief. The approaching horsemen were 2 companies of the First Louisiana Cavalry - Federal. The single most important cavalry raid of the American Civil war was over. During a 600 mile ride through Confederate territory, Grierson's raiders had destroyed or damaged 60 miles of replaceable railroad tracks and telegraph lines, destroyed or damaged 3 steam locomotives and burned a dozen boxcars and their contents.
Back in Virginia, and almost three hours later, Major Owen Rice of the 153rd Pennsylvania regiment sent an even more alarming message back from his picket line on the Orange Turnpike to the commander of the 1st Brigade of the First Division, Colonel Leopold Von Gilsa. It read, "A large body of the enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake, make dispositions to receive him!"
Colonel von Gilsa personally delivered this message to General Devens (above). He again dismissed the information as merely more proof the rebels were retreating. But von Gilsa persisted.
He now delivered the warning to the commander of the XI Corps, 34 year old one armed Major General Oliver Otis Howard (above). This pious Protestant "Christian General" held his Germanic Catholic soldiers in no less contempt than Devens, and he dismissed von Gilsa with an insult.
In Louisiana, Colonel Grierson's raiders were allowed to parade through Baton Rouge. (above) The cost of the 16 day raid was 3 men killed, 7 wounded, 9 missing and 5 men left behind because of illness. The profit for the Illinois troopers was 100 rebel soldiers and militiamen killed or wounded and 500 captured and paroled as prisoners. When Grierson's raiders rode into Baton Rouge they were still leading 100 POW's. During their 16 day 600 mile ride the Yankees also destroyed 3,000 muskets, pistols and cannon, and had stolen 1,000 fresh horses and mules. The troopers also led into the Federal lines 500 self-emancipated slaves armed with shotguns and hunting rifles, all on horseback and each leading 2 or 3 more horses. By the end of the year, most of these "contrabands" would be wearing Union Blue and fighting for their own freedom in Mister Lincoln's armies.
In Virginia, Colonel William Richardson had grown so certain that he and the 2nd Brigade was about to be outflanked, that he and his officers rode over to consult with von Gilsa and the staff of the 1st Brigade. When they realized Devens arrogance would permit no adjustments in their south facing lines, they returned to their regiments.
One of them, Colonel Robert Reily (above) of the 75th Ohio regiment, 2nd Brigade gathered his men together and delivered an amazing speech. He told his men, "Some of us will not see another sun rise. If there is a man in the ranks who is not ready to die for his country, let him come to me and I will give him a pass to the rear, for I want no half-hearted, unwilling soldiers or cowards in the ranks tonight. We need every man to fight the enemy." Reily then told his men to lie down but to keep their guns close by. Many of the other regiments began to prepare a last meal.
The most important act committed by the Grierson raiders in Mississippi was their approach to Union Church. Confederate Lieutenant General John Pemberton became so frantic to stop the Yankees he ordered the cavalry out of Grand Gulf to catch him. Grierson had preferred to avoid the fight and turned south, but the rebel troopers went galloping after his raiders across across southern Mississippi, just at the moment Grant's men were crossing the river and attacking Port Gibson and Grand Gulf. It had all worked so smoothly it might have been an intricate plan. But the truth was that after 2 years of warfare the Yankee professionals were at least as good as their Confederate enemies. Maybe better. And it was the quality of the Yankee soldier which helped make Grant a better general.
But the greatest prize Colonel Grierson brought out of central and southern Mississippi was a lesson which he shared with an admiring Yankee chapelin. He told the man, "The Confederacy is a hollow shell." In modern military vernacular, the South was over mobilized. Every available man had been swept forward to meet the invading Federal armies. But that left too few troops in the rear to maintain the supply line of food, ammunition and new recruits. And once the outer shell had been punctured, as Grierson had done, and as Grant was doing now, the South had little to defend itself.
Just before 5:30pm that Saturday evening, 2 May, 1863 the woods along the Orange Turnpike west of Chancellorsville, Virginia, spewed forth 28,000 rebels of the II Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, 4 divisions under Lieutenant General "Stonewall" Jackson. "‘Like a crash of thunder from the clear sky", they slammed into the 153rd Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Valley Germans fired off a single volley before the rebels washed over both their flanks. To their east, Colonel Reily just had time to order the 75th Ohio to deploy in line and charge into the attack. They managed to stem the Confederate tidal wave for a moment, but it cost them 150 causalities, including Colonel Reily, shot in the leg and left behind to die. Every regiment in Deven's ill-prepared division collapsed and retreated. The shock and confusion spread until Howard's entire XI Corps was being driven back to Chancellors mansion.
Jackson's sledgehammer captured 4,000 prisoners and dove the Union troops back two miles before darkness finally brings the fight to a close. It was an overwhelming Confederate victory, confirmed even to the confused General Hooker after two more days of indecisive fighting. But the triumph is marred by tragedy. As the 18th North Carolina regiment reformed to continue the advance they spotted what might have been Federal Cavalry to their front and challenge them. The reply was unclear and the regiment fired a volley. But it is not Union cavalry to their front but General Jackson and his staff. Many of the officers are killed, and Jackson was wounded three times. He was carried from the field on a stretcher.