and the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers
By Rudy VanVeghten
PART 4: A Brilliant Plan
By the time the seven infantry corps of Hooker’s army emerged from the bitter winter of 1863, 19 soldiers of the Twelfth New Hampshire’s 100-man Company I had died, but none of them from battle. Others were incapacitated in Union hospitals. Over the duration of the war, replacements occasionally restocked the ranks of Company I and the other units of the Mountaineers. The Puritan-derived Bickfords, Bryants, Cloughs and Plummers from Meredith received their first lesson in diversity as they were joined by new recruits with names like Luigi Centene, Giro Marchesini, Charles Kohlman, and a new “colored” undercook from Virginia, probably a contraband runaway slave, with the intriguing name Scipio Africanus.
It had been a similarly tough winter on the troops led by General Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the southern bank of the Rappahannock. Lee was entrenched around Fredericksburg, committed to repulsing any new attempts of the Union to move on the Confederate capital of Richmond some 50 miles to the south.
As the spring campaign season opened, Hooker made the first move. Although anxious, Col. Potter’s men of the 12th New Hampshire and their corps were not immediately involved. Instead, they watched and waited as three other corps packed up their gear on April 27 and headed west. Two more corps, directed by General John Sedgwick, shifted to the east to prepare for a new crossing into Fredericksburg. General Daniel Sickles’ Third Corps, to which the Twelfth belonged, and General Darius Couch’s Second Corps were held in reserve.
Troops from Oliver Howard’s 11th, Henry Slocum’s 12th, and George Meade’s 5th corps made a tiring march of over 25 miles northwest to Kelly’s Ford, a crossing on the Rappahannock about 10 miles beyond its junction with the Rapadan River. It wasn’t until after the over 40,000 federal troops had crossed both rivers that Rebel cavalry leader and intelligence officer JEB Stuart discovered Hooker’s movement and sent word to Lee.
Now south of the rivers, Hooker’s Union army moved back east toward the crossroads known as Chancellorsville, named after the Chancellor family who lived and operated an inn there. By April 29, the Federals had secured a more efficient crossing at U.S. Ford, much closer to Falmouth, allowing Couch’s Second Corps to cross and augment the Union’s flanking forces at Chancellorsville.
Finally it was time for Sickles’ corps and the boys of the 12th New Hampshire. “Orders came to strike tents, and soon the regiment was forming in line,” wrote Asa Bartlett, “while the drum corps, at the suggestion of the sergeant major – for it seemed like leaving home – played the tune of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’ ”
During their advance, the troops took a round-about route of about 18 miles over the span of about 12 hours to Hartwood Church. “This was the first forced march the Twelfth had ever made,” said Bartlett. But the soldiers were upbeat, he continued, because “it was confidently believed that the Army of the Potomac at last got a leader who knew what to do.”
After bivouacking north of U.S. Ford on April 30, Sickles’ three divisions were up early and crossed the Rappahannock into enemy territory before 9 a.m. on May 1. “I massed my forces in the forest, near the junction of the roads to Ely’s and the United States Fords,” wrote Sickles in his official report following the battle.