Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Where 'bleeding warrior' fell: A visit to Chancellorsville in 1881

A circa-1900 view of the old Chancellor family house, which burned down in 1927. The structure suffered
significant damage during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
(Photo courtesy Pat Sullivan | Click on all images to enlarge.)
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In 1881 and 1882, George Morgan of the Philadelphia Times lived what many of us today would consider a charmed life. Traveling throughout the South, the 27-year-old reporter visited Civil War battlegrounds from Franklin in Tennessee to Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia to report a series of lengthy stories for the Philadelphia newspaper.

George Morgan's story about his Chancellorsville
battlefield visit was published on Page 1
of the Philadelphia Times on Aug. 9, 1881.
A little less than two decades after the war, the battlefields looked much as the soldiers who fought there saw them. On his excursions, Morgan examined parapets, viewed soldiers' skulls in the woods, discovered war relics and chatted with locals who lived on hallowed ground.

In the summer of 1881, accompanied by a black man named Cato, Morgan rode about 10 miles from Fredericksburg, Va., to visit the old Chancellorsville battleground, (in)famous for where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded May 2, 1863. A pilgrimage to the Jackson wounding site, marked by a large stone, obviously made an impression on Morgan.

"The stone is as still as though the bones of the man of fame were beneath," wrote Morgan, a gifted writer, in his Page 1 story in the Philadelphia Times. "Squirrels skip over it. Bucks and does rub lazily against it and acorns dropping from the boughs above lose their cups as they crack against its brown sides."

On his Chancellorsville journey, the reporter also visited "a church full of bullets," saw the "towering pine" under which Robert E. Lee and Jackson may have sat to plot strategy and examined "shrapnel bolts" embedded in the Chancellor house, vortex of the battle. And almost in passing, Morgan wrote about a grisly discovery by a local farmer.

Here's Morgan's Philadelphia Times account about his Chancellorsville visit, published Aug. 9, 1881.

Special Correspondence of The Times

The Wilderness P. O., August 7

Coming within sight of Chancellorsville I tried to make close scrutiny of the one historic house that is the all in all of the settlement, but my own gaze, as well as the questioning stare of the driver, Cato, became fixed upon a much prettier picture in the yard. Under the shade of an elm sat a young couple who looked as though they were out for a picnic. The young woman was fair of face and of gentle manners, and the moustached youth who paid her such smiling attention evidently was something more than a brother. Both wore traveling costumes of the Northern cut and I was not surprised to learn that they hailed from Hartford, Connecticut.

''Who am dem people, Moss Oliver?" asked Cato, speaking in an undertone, as the sun browned tenant of the Chancellor House stepped out to the buggy with his hearty invitation to "light and walk in."

"Young married folkses"said Farmer Oliver.

 "On dere weddin'  skurshun, am dey ?"

"I 'low so, you 'quisitive niggah; you'd better take keer o' yo hosses," and turning to me Farmer Oliver continued: "The young lady says as how her father was killed on this heah battlefield the day she was bo'n. He was an officer with Gennul Sickles an' was killed over thah by Hazel Grove same time as Genuul Berry was. Do 'light and walk in, sir! Any marks about the old house? Well, I should say so! Come in. come in."

A church full of bullets

When reporter George Morgan visited Salem Church in 1881, wartime damage was evident. Here is an
 early post-war view of the church, today located "amongst a virtual sea of shopping malls."
(Photo courtesy Pat Sullivan)
It needed some such pleasant introduction as this to Chancellorsville, because the morning sun had been hot, the horses slow, Cato sleepy and the ride from Fredericksburg barren of interest, except at one point -- the battle-scarred surroundings of Salem Church. Leaving Marye's Heights behind, a trot of a few miles over the Orange turnpike had brought us to the church around which [John] Sedgwick fought on the days that witnessed the death-grapple of [Joseph] Hooker and [Robert E.] Lee, a little further to the north. The church, which is a small brick building, stands in the corner of dense woods somewhat to the left of the road. Its grove of oaks differs from the adjoining forest trees in that they grow several yards apart and shelter a circular plot of pasture grass. A few feet in the rear of the church is a line of breastworks, now no higher than the knees and thickly overgrown with weeds.

The church walls contain shell-holes and countless bullet marks, while the overhanging oaks show many scars. Indeed, it may be said that as many minie balls have been put into the church as there have been prayers sent from it. Moving on by a red clay road bordered by pine and oak and poor cornfields, in which were negro cabins made of logs, we had at eleven o'clock reached the Furnace road. Along this road stretched the Confederate right and under a towering pine tree, plainly in sight, it is said that Lee and Jackson sat upon their cracker boxes on the evening of May 1 when they planned their daring attack upon Hooker's Eleventh Corps. But the pine and the guide's cracker-box story had proved very dry indeed and it was with the pleasure of a thirsty man approaching a well that I drove up to the Chancellor House, with its shady yard and happy bridal party.

A famous place of one house

Another early post-war view of the old Chancellor house, visited by reporter George Morgan in 1881.
Chancellorsville is a desolate clearing on the southern edge of the Wilderness. Time was when a hundred Virginians of the first families clinked glasses in the long dining hall of the hostelrie, and many a day did Jefferson, Madison and those who came after take noontide rest under the surrounding elms. But the planks of the Plank road are gone. Coaches and four no longer shake dust from the shallow ruts of the pike and lovers no longer seek the cross roads tavern as the half way to Gretna Green.

In the old days the Chancellor House was a massive brick building, shaped like a squat T. Around it on every side were level fields that stretched for a quarter of a mile or more, while three important stage roads came together in front of the yard. Now only one-third of the building -- the northern end --  stands, and even that had to be re-erected after battle, when fire left nothing but bare walls, shot shattered and bullet-pierced. From the northern end of this poor remnant of the ruined inn stick out five pieces of shrapnel bolts that, as Mr. Oliver fears, may yet play the mischief. Above these grim things is a ragged rent in the gable end near the roof, showing where shells knocked for admission as they paused in their screaming flight eighteen years ago. The porch pillar, near which Hooker had the misfortune to stand when it was shattered by a round shot, was destroyed by the fire and in the places of the pillars are wooden columns freshly painted and without a scratch. In the yard the visitor sees the outlines of the old house marked by shrubs, weeds and stray bricks, while a dozen sweet hollyhocks growing near the porch remain as sentinels of garden beauties long since gone.

The spot where Jackson fell

THEN & NOW: Approximate site of Stonewall Jackson's wounding on May 2, 1863. He died of complications of the wound eight days later. Use slider to toggle from 1866 to present-day view.

The sun is overhead as the lazy horses, white with lather, jog along a level road between two cornfields and come once more to where trees grow thickly on either side. Thus moving in the midst of timber for somewhere near a half mile we come to a big stone planted steadfastly by the roadside. Cato is nodding and I hit him a smart crack with a soldier's skull which Farmer Oliver gave me and the points of which I had been studying since we left Hooker's shattered headquarters behind. Cato gave a grunt and a jerk and mumbling: "I'se mos' aseep," spied the stone.

Stonewall Jackson
Then it was amusing to watch the change come over the darkey's dull expanse of jaw and lip. He lifted his eyebrows, showed his teeth and said, with animation: "Bress my soul, sah, us am right heah."

 "What's ' heah ?'  What's that stone for ?"

"Doan yo kno, sah, whut dat ar' markable stone am tendin to memmorate?"

"No, what is it?"

"Dar's whar Genuul Stonewall was kilt. Moss Tucker  Lacey, do preacher up dar by Wilderness sto, he put stone dar, sah."

I remembered that Jackson clung to life for several days after he had been wounded, but by further questioning I learned that this was the spot where the bleeding warrior fell from his horse in the very hour of his crowning triumph The stone is a rough block of white flint, quarried here in the Wilderness. It stands three feet eight inches high and is two feet ten inches in breadth. Its surface shows dents and sears where from loving pilgrims have scaled bits of it as relics, and all around are smaller pieces of hard rock that have been used as hammers with which to crack it. Immediately around the stone the ground is in small undergrowth. Huckleberry bushes, chinkapins and the like, but at a few feet it is encompassed by pines and oaks of large growth.

Early post-war image of the Orange Plank Road and Mountain Road intersection.
Stonewall Jackson is believed to have been shot at the far right or farther down the road,
out of view of the camera. (Library of Congress | CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

Bullet marks in a red oak

Between the stone and the road is a red oak of such size that it must have sprung up thirty years ago. I noticed a dozen or more bullet holes in this oak and asked Cato why they were there. His reply, that they came with the volley by which Jackson was killed, seemed to be disproved by the fresh appearance of the holes.

"How can that be?" I asked. "The holes look as though they were made within the last year."

"Easy 'nuff, sah, easy 'nuff," Cato said with a hearty he-haw of a laugh; "doan yo' see, sah, dat do volley come from do No'rf, where do rebels was? 'en doan yo' see dat do visiters heah hab bin pickin' wid dere pen-knives at dem bullet-holes lookin' fur relics?"

Then I understood: the bullet marks had been kept fresh for nearly a score of years by such of the great leader's admirers as hungered to bear away with them the fellow bits of lead of those that flew to their deadly work so long ago. And this is the place where [Stonewall] Jackson for the first time grew weak! The silent woods are around. The stone is as still as though the bones of the man of fame were beneath. Squirrels skip over it. Bucks and does rub lazily against it and acorns dropping from the boughs above lose their cups as they crack against its brown sides. But even here in the Wilderness romance may be spoiled. Nailed against the red oak is a broad board with the sign:

Willis & Grasty
Sowing Machine Agents,
Dry Goods, Shoes and Hats
Cheap for Cash

Thus within hand's reach of Stonewall's stone trade leaves its mark and enterprising dealers reap profit from the glances of the reverential passer-by. In this way sentiment is lost, and even Cato makes the droll suggestion that he let the kicking horse of his team use his hind hoofs to chip a bit of the flint as a memento for me.

Where Pleasonton took his stand

Union General Alfred Pleasonton
(Library of Congress)
Cato is asleep over by Jackson's stone as I come out upon one of the Hazel Grove clearings more than a half mile to the west. While I rest here alone among rank dock weeds that cover the ruins of a parapet, the flesh creeps to think of the mad thing that [Peter] Keenan started from this very spot to do. Daylight fades now as it did then. A red moon looks through the tree tops, and on that May evening eighteen years ago her light was no less reflective of fiery clouds down by the path of the sun.

Twelve thousand panic-stricken men are pressing down the road, through the woods and across the fields in utter rout, each eager to save himself and reckless of the fate of others. [Alfred] Pleasanton, riding wildly on a horse flecked with foam, strives to stem the tide of Howard's flight and to meet the terrific onslaught of Jackson's victorious men. He looks here and there for Keenan, and finding him says: " Major, yon must charge the enemy. Save me ten minutes, to get my guns ready; go, Keenan !" The young Philadelphian, in peace as soft-hearted as a girl, generous, chivalric, the pride of the cavalry, knows that it is certain death, but if Pleasanton is willing to sacrifice his right arm the right arm is ready, and Keenan, with a smile, says: " I will."

Riding down to death

In an early post-war image, a snake rail fence and the old Wilderness Church in the left background. 
(National Park Service via Pat Sullivan)
Then Keenan takes a grip upon his reins, says jocularly "good-by" and wheels his horse with such a touch as the beast never felt before. He nods as he passes [Pennock] Huey and a moment thereafter says: "Cavalry, charge!" and so quiet is his voice that the three hundred troopers barely hear it in the great uproar. But what terrible words to say! The men know the grit of them, and if any one of the three hundred pales at the awful thing about to be done there is no sign of it to Pleasonton, watching eagerly but in perfect confidence as they respond.

In a headlong drive the squadrons cut a swath from the mass of fugitives and come to the edge of the woods. The pause there is for a moment as then Keenan and Huey ride abreast into a narrow road and the cavalrymen follow two by two. Caps are raked off by the brushwood, faces are scratched and torn by the hanging briars, but Keenan rides fast and all come after. From the right now and then whistles up a handful of bullets and a dozen saddles are emptied, but no notice is taken of the skirmishers, and so Keenan, wheeling to the left, dashes into the plank road. And what a sight is before him!

Line upon line of Jackson's veterans -- great hosts of them -- are coming on the double quick straight up the road. Keenan throws aside his cap, shouts "Sabres!" and spurs his horse plumb into the wall of bayonets. The first battalions are blinded by one flash and another and nearly half of the three hundred fall, but Keenan. Huey, [Charles] Arrowsmith and [J. Hazelton] Haddock, backed by their comrades, gather their horses under them and strike such hot blows that they shock the oncoming line for a thousand yards on either side. It is tooth to tooth. Never before did three hundred men cast themselves with such true aim and so impetuously against twenty thousand victorious and advancing veterans. They struck the head and front of the moving mass and left it like a thunderbolt.

"And full in the midst rose Keenan, tall
in the gloom like a martyr, awaiting his fall,
While I lie circle-stroke of his sabre, swung
'round his head, like a halo there luminous hung."

Over Keenan's dead body

Major Peter Keenan of the
8th Pennsylvania was killed
at Chancellorsville
on May 3, 1863
But though Jackson recovers from the shock and pushes on over the prostrate bodies of Keenan, [Duncan] McVicar, Arrowsmith, Haddock and their comrades, ten full minutes have passed and not a moment has Pleasonton been idle. He gathers about him twenty-one guns, double-shotted, and set steadfastly to sweep the approach. He hides his time until the enemy shall appear. Here they come, fresh from the taking of Keenan's blood, wild with the news of Jackson's death wound, swarming in deep masses, waving a dozen battle-flags, keen, eager, thirsty. Pleasanton opens. Every gun speaks on the instant -- a lurid flash, a crash, a roar, live thunder voiced a hundred fold! Hooker, among the desperate fugitives of the Eleventh Corps, a mile away, hears and rejoices. A hundred and twenty thousand soldiers feel that some good is being done at last. [Hiram] Berry and [David] Birney, Sickles and [John] Geary see, from the burning sky, a new daylight spring up in the dusk and they place their legions at Pleasonton's back with the thought that once more the army is saved.

It is too dark to see the ruins of parapets, the old graveyard and the well full of war relics on Fairview crest, and I go back to Cato. That sleepy citizen puts his whip down with a meaning and we leave behind us Jackson's stone, the Dowdall clearing, the old Wilderness church, and come to the Wilderness store. In less than an hour the horses have taken us from one battle-field to another. Just down the road is the place where Lee whipped Hooker, and here in this upland forest is the place where, a year later, Lee tried so hard to throttle [Ulysses] Grant.


An early post-war image of Wilderness Church. (Central Rappahannock Heritage Center via Pat Sullivan)

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  1. Very interesting account John. Thanks! The photos are a great supplement to his account.

  2. Excellent article! I love these old photos! I was born and raised in this area, just up the street from the Wilderness battlefield about 15 miles. I have been to these places many times in my life and I still live in the same region, and I still visit these battlefields. I have never seen a photo of the Chancellor House like the one here. I just recently done a photo journalism piece for the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair photo contest, and I went to the Chancellor House Ruins to snap a few photos. Thanks for sharing this information!

  3. Thanks for taking us back in time and showing us what that battle was like. Incredible what those men went through.

  4. Great, well written post. Thank You, for your excellent post each day. I enjoy them.