Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Echoes from Chancellorsville

What's in the names?

These were people once.

I have been thinking much about the Battle of Chancellorsville lately.  Firstly, I have great regret I cannot be there to participate in the 150th anniversary commemorations.  (I made it to about five sesquicentennial events last year and am rightly disappointed my tally will be significantly less this year.)  Regardless, my thoughts are wandering in and out of May 1863 today.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of our perceptions about the popular memory of Chancellorsville remain unhinged.  The romanticized mythos of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson overshadows many of the other equally dramatic sagas.  This week, Jackson devotees will pay nocturnal homage at the site of the general's wounding by his own men.  They will visit the burial site of his left arm at the Ellwood Cemetery.  Lemons will be left as tokens of appreciation and memorial.  The pilgrimage will climax on May 10 at the general's shrine in Guinea Station as hundreds will stand hushed surrounding the white clapboard house where Lee's right hand man gasped his last breath.

While Jackson's triumphs and demise should be recognized, let us step back and allow the broader horrors of this battle to settle in.  To do this, imagine yourself in the mud and brick covered streets of 1863 Philadelphia.  The newspapers are filled with rumor and conjecture.  A May 6 article describes General Joseph Hooker's great triumph as he pushes southward into Virginia.  Days later, word of battle outside Fredericksburg splashes across the newsprint pages.  Southern leader A. P. Hill is said to have been killed in the thick wilderness fighting.  Flames consume the wounded unable to evade the fiery wrath.  The Democratic Banner of Clearfield, Pennsylvania wrote that a night attack during this scrap "was the most grand and terrific thing of the war.  The moon shone bright, and an enemy could be seen at good musket range.  The air was very still, and the roar and reverberation of the musketry and artillery past [sic] all conception.  Malvern Hill was a skirmish compared with this, save in the degree of slaughter."  Word of yet another Federal defeat sullies aspiration of Union victory and hope.

The day after "Stonewall" breathed his last, mothers and fathers of young men in the 68th Pennsylvania Volunteers, among other units engaged, read of similar fates.  Within this list of names below, printed in the May 11 issue of Philadelphia's Press, rests the bigger picture of Chancellorsville.  We see the names of men killed, maimed, and about to die.  Sergeant Charles Babe of Company A, the first one listed in the casualties here, enlisted less than two weeks after Fort Sumter with the 20th PA.  He re-enlisted on July 16, 1862 with the 68th.  By this time, he was an experienced non-commissioned officer.  In his prior life, he had varnished wood and furniture.  He was thirty two years of age when death took him at Chancellorsville.  William McCarron of Company D, age thirty-three, survived his two leg wounds and was mustered out June 9, 1865.  With scars marking his limbs, he was nevertheless a lucky one.  Captain John D. Powling of Company I, recorded as severely wounded in the knee, was not as fortunate.  He succumbed to his wounds two days after this article was published.  He was only twenty-three.

You will not find any of these names in a book or on a shrine, but Chancellorsville is as much their story as it is "Stonewall" Jackson's.  Like so many others, their whole lives ahead of them were cut short by pieces of lead and shrapnel.  Young Powling passed away in agony as flies ate away at his decapitated leg in a Washington, D.C. infirmary--hardly the gallant death people envision when considering the Civil War.  While the article below noted that the men of the 68th "covered themselves with glory," it's important for us to also remember something else 150 years later: The only thing many of these young men were covered with was dirt in their shallow graves.

That is what Chancellorsville was.  Look at the list of youngsters below.  Multiply it by 430.  Then, you'll have some understanding of what Chancellorsville claimed.  Bigger than "Stonewall" indeed.

Two months later, more of these and other men of the Third Corps would find themselves in an even more precarious situation in a seemingly unremarkable peach orchard in Pennsylvania.  We'll talk more about that this summer.  For those of you exploring Chancellorsville this week, just try to remember the Henry Wagners, Bernard Hagans, and William Smiths of the battlefield.  We must.


  1. Nice post, Jared. A good reminder to keep things in perspective.