and the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers
By Rudy VanVeghten
PART 5: An Even More Brilliant Plan
Meanwhile, Lee was now aware of the federal movement. Defying military textbook logic, he divided his smaller army, sending more than three-quarters of his troops west along the parallel Orange Turnpike and lumber-covered Orange Plank Road.
On the afternoon of May 1, Lee’s Rebels and the Yankees of Slocum’s corps clashed. Although hardly a serious confrontation, with no advantage gained either way, Hooker responded by pulling both Slocum’s and Couch’s corps into more defensive positions. Most analysts agree that had Hooker counterpunched Lee’s offense, he would have won a decisive victory.
Instead, Hooker’s hesitation allowed Lee and his most respected lieutenant, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to formulate a plan. Lee suggested that they further divide their army. At first hesitant, Jackson not only came around to Lee’s idea, but surprised his commander with his own audacity, saying he would take two-thirds, all but about 14,000, of the available soldiers with him.
He put the plan into action the morning of May 2, marching regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade – some 28,000 men in all – south and west along back roads and an
unfinished railroad bed before turning his lines back to the north. He then turned as quietly as possible back toward the east facing the far right flank of the Union line.
Hooker received word of the troop movement, eventually convincing himself that Lee was retreating south to protect supply lines to Richmond. He sent Whipple’s and Birney’s divisions of Sickles’ corps to cautiously harass the Rebs, but the Union leader showed no inclination to destroy or pursue his enemy. Sickles’ third division, commanded by General Amiel Weeks Whipple, included the 12th New Hampshire.
Bartlett recalled that the regiment paused in their advance about noon atop a hilltop clearing known then and now as Hazel Grove. From there, they proceeded southeast toward a small iron foundry called Catherine’s Furnace, a short distance from Jackson’s line of march. After wading “nearly waist deep” across a brook at the bottom of a marshy ravine, the Twelfth climbed through brush and briars up a hill near the iron works.
Here for the first time, they came under musket fire by Rebel skirmishers who were aligned to mask Jackson’s flanking maneuver. H.S. Hutchins of Meredith’s Company I became the regiment’s first battle casualty when, raising himself for a better look, he was “hit in the elbow by trying to see the ‘Johnnies’ and avoid their fire at the same time.”
Back at headquarters in the Chancellor House, Hooker and his generals were congratulating each other on an apparent victory as the afternoon drew to a close. A couple of miles to the west, troops on the Union right flank in O.O. Howard’s 11th Corps were just settling down for supper when they were surprised by a couple of spooked deer running through their position. Before they had time to assess what was going on, they heard the sound that all Union soldiers had come to fear – the shrill yell that signaled a rebel charge.
Successfully completing his flanking march, Jackson had positioned his troops in a three-line-deep attack formation. The attack commenced about 5:45 p.m., and the surprise on the relaxed federal troops was so complete, they left their supper, their muskets, and in many cases their self-respect as they ran panicked from the field. Efforts by first Gen. Howard and then Gen. Hooker himself were unable to stem the rout.
General Sickles had trouble believing the early reports that the Union’s west flank had collapsed. (Their fellow soldiers had a word for it – “skedaddle.”) Suddenly, “the fugitives of the Eleventh Corps swarmed from the woods and swept frantically over the cleared fields,” wrote Sickles in his report. “The exulting cannon and caissons, draggons, cannoneers, and infantry could never be disentangled from the mass in which they were suddenly thrown.”
Asa Bartlett described the panic as “the first blast of a cyclone that swept the 11th Corps from its position on the right of the Union line like chaff from a threshing floor.”
Confirmation of the collapsed west flank soon came in the form of orders from Hooker for Sickles to pull back his two divisions from Catherine’s Furnace back to Hazel Grove.
It could have been a total disaster for the North, but, in Bartlett’s words, “night and Jackson fell, and the army was saved.” Fighters from both sides scrambled to relocate their regiments as dusk descended on the battlefield. Generals, hyped with adrenalin, pondered their next moves. On the Union side, Gen. Sickles successfully launched a midnight raid to recapture some artillery lost to the enemy.
On the Confederate side, Stonewall Jackson, hoping to further press his advantage, was critically injured by his own troops who mistook him in the darkness for a Union infiltrator. Jackson’s arm was amputated later that night, leading to his friend and commander Gen. Lee making his famous statement, “Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.”
The inspirational hero of the two Bull Runs and many other engagements contracted pneumonia during his recovery. Eight days after he engineered one of most respected military moves in history, Thomas Stonewall Jackson uttered the words “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of trees” and died.