Chaff before the wind: Re-enactors breathe life into Civil War battle

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond J. Piper, Soldiers Live


Union re-enactors fire a volley against Confederate re-enactors as the Union line begins to crumble during a re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond J. Piper, Soldiers Live)

Union re-enactors fire a volley against Confederate re-enactors as the Union line begins to crumble during a re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond J. Piper, Soldiers Live)

The years have changed the battlefield. While there is still much wilderness where the Battle of Chancellorsville took place, the battlefield now is nestled between two highways in Spotsylvania County, Va. Where once only trees and brush covered the land, neighborhoods and homes have grown. Over the weekend of May 1, 2013, on the very soil where soldiers fought and died 150 years ago, re-enactors, spectators and county officials worked to keep the memories of the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Civil War alive.

Civil War historians have called the battle Gen. Robert E. Lee’s “perfect victory.” Outnumbered by a force more than twice the size of his, Lee made decisions that went against conventional military tactics of the time, which benefitted from the timid decisions made by Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The campaign began April 30, 1863, as Union soldiers began to cross Virginia’s Rappahannock River in an attempt to flank the Confederate army.

Hooker believed Lee would retreat before his superior numbers rather than fight, but if Lee did not, Hooker would fight defensively, using his superior numbers to his advantage. Lee, however, opted to attack while Union forces were still in the tangled, brush-choked thickets that covered the area – about 70 square miles – on May 1.

The armies collided at 11:20 a.m. along the two main roads that led into the region, the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. The initial Confederate attack pushed back Union troops, but they quickly rallied. The Army of the Potomac continued to gain ground, and two divisions following the River Road neared their objective at Bank’s Ford. Before they could reach it, however, Hooker ordered his units to retreat to the wilderness. Although Union forces had the advantage, they were outnumbered in that area, about 48,000 Confederates to their 30,000 men. The area near the Zoan Church, basically a small clearing in the wilderness, wouldn’t allow for easy movement into battle lines. In addition, Hooker’s other units were too far away to effectively supply reinforcements.

Hooker’s subordinates were surprised and outraged by this change in the plans.

Darrell Cochran, a re-enactor who portrayed a Union soldier with the 3rd Infantry Regiment, said regular army soldiers from the regiment fought on the first day and were in the advance of the Union army. “When the order was given to withdraw, they were, to say the least, disappointed,” he explained, “They had the Confederate army on the run for one of the first times of the war, and they were required to give up the advantage they had gained. Of course, what transpired over the next two days was just another in a long series of defeats that they experienced.”

Through Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s scouting, Lee learned that the right flank of the Union army wasn’t as fortified as the main force and had no support troops. If troops could be positioned to attack that weak area, Lee believed it would seriously disrupt the Union line. Lee then conferred with Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson to develop a plan that would take advantage of this weakness.

Al Stone, who portrayed Lee at the re-enactment, explained in character that “Gen. Jackson had approximately 28,000 troops in his corps, and I asked him how many did he need and he said, ‘I’ll just take all 28,000.’”

For the plan to work, troops would have to travel 12 miles while remaining undetected by Union forces. A recently constructed road aided in shielding marchers from observation by the Union pickets.

Early on May 2, Jackson and his soldiers began the march to flank the Federal Eleventh Corps, leaving Lee with about 15,000 troops. Lee harassed the Union’s main force throughout the day, waiting for the right opportunity to launch the main attack.

“We positioned them as to keep our front opposite Gen. Hooker’s front,” Stone said. “We were just waiting for some action to be reported from Gen. Jackson.”

Ed Mann, who portrayed Jackson, said in character that as they came up to the Union’s right flank, it was clear that Hooker’s troops had no knowledge that the Confederate forces were massing to attack.

“They must have thought we had retreated somewhere. They were sitting around having rations to eat,” he explained. “It appeared that they were having a fun time, maybe even playing cards. It was fairly easy to come around to that right flank. It was just very amazing that Gen. Hooker’s people were so unaware that we were that close.”

Soon after 5 p.m., with nearly 20,000 Confederate soldiers in position, Jackson began the attack that would take the Union army completely by surprise. In fact, the first sign to soldiers of the XI Corps that something was amiss was a rush of wild animals fleeing from the Confederates’ approach. Then emerging from the thicket, letting loose with the “rebel yell,” 20,000 Confederate soldiers descended on the Union forces. The surprise was so complete that most of the soldiers fled rather than fight the charging Rebels. In the waning hours of daylight, the soldiers rampaged eastward toward Wilderness Church and beyond. Any Union resistance was quickly overwhelmed in a grey tide.

Stone said Confederate forces could hear the sound of weapon fire from what they believed was the Union’s right flank and began to attack Hooker’s front line in earnest.

“The purpose of this was, of course, to make certain Hooker didn’t reposition some of his troops from the front over toward where Jackson is. If we demonstrated here, it would keep those troops here,” Stone said.

The Confederate route of Union forces was so complete that they were pushed back two miles. Surprise broke the Union line and once it began to crumble, southern pressure maintained the momentum. A Confederate soldier from Huntsville, Ala., in a letter home described the Union rout: “The enemy fled like chaff before the wind.”

“I think it was such a bold plan that they never believed we would even consider doing it, which helped make it work,” said Bill Frueh, who portrayed Stuart.

Stone explained that it’s generally not the best idea to separate your forces because if the enemy finds out about it, “They can annihilate this portion, then this portion, and pretty soon you’re without an army altogether.”

The rush of the victory was short-lived. Jackson returned from scouting the Union line and was wounded by his own sentries after they mistook him for a Union soldier. He would die a week later of pneumonia, which was unrelated to the bullet wounds, although the wounds took him out for the rest of the fighting.

Civil War muskets are as accurate and can shoot just as far as modern rifles, said Paul Stier, who portrayed the first sergeant of Company K, 3rd Inf. Regt. The only problem is that the weapon is a single shot, and it takes at least 30 seconds to reload it while standing up. The power and effectiveness of the musket would be leveraged against formations with soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, often 10-20 meters from each other as they closed into range to use their bayonets.

“It makes you wonder what made guys in their late teens, early 20s do that,” Cochran said. “In fact, by the end of the war, they were learning how to dig in and entrench because they realized (it was) better for dirt and logs to stop bullets then their own bodies.”

There were no sneaky or complicated flanking maneuvers on May 3. Instead, the battle became a slugging match in the woods surrounding Chancellorsville. Hooker continued to order his troops to fall back, allowing Confederate cannons to emplace on a key hilltop that supported the Confederate infantry’s push forward. By midmorning, southern forces had defeated the final Union resistance and united in the Chancellorsville clearing. Hooker’s units fell back toward the Rapahannock River to regroup and reform their lines.

The Confederate celebration was interrupted with news of a second Union force approaching from Fredericksburg, Va., after Maj. Gen. John Sedgewick’s units had overwhelmed the defenders at Fredericksburg and opened the road to Chancellorsville.

Stuart, now in charge of Jackson’s corps, and his men stopped the Union advance at Salem Church. When Lee realized Hooker had no plans to attack, he diverted troops to bolster Stuart’s corps on May 5. With the additional troops, Lee was able to defeat Sedgewick and his forces, forcing them to retreat across the Rappahannock River.

Although Hooker decided to retreat, the majority of his generals wanted to continue the fight. By May 6, all of the surviving Union troops had crossed the river.

From May 1 to May 6, about 60,000 Confederate soldiers would defeat nearly 100,000 Union troops, but at a high price for both sides. With only 60,000 men engaged, Lee suffered 13,303 casualties (1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, 2,018 missing), losing some 22 percent of his force in the campaign, as well as his most aggressive field commander, Stonewall Jackson.

Of the 133,000 Union men engaged, 17,197 were casualties (1,606 killed, 9,672 wounded, 5,919 missing), a percentage much lower than Lee’s, partly because it includes 4,000 men of the XI Corps who were captured on May 2.

Such sacrifice made by the soldiers on both sides inspires re-enactors to bring the history of the Civil War to life, so they can educate others, honor the soldiers who fought and died and help keep the memory of the war alive.

Mann, who had two relatives from Petersburg, Va., who fought in the 12th Virginia Infantry, said recreating the battles didn’t really appeal to him, but creating living history and educating people did.

“I can get to young people and older and tell them the true history of the ‘War Between the States,’” he said. “I just felt that this was a great way of portraying and honoring my ancestors, others’ ancestors and veterans in general.”

Frueh’s journey to portray Stuart began with a book. He said he had always been a World War II historian, and when he had surgery on his knee, he decided to learn more about the Civil War. The book he found at the library was “Warriors with Jeb Stuart” by Lt. Col. William Willis Blackford, which inspired him. “When you read a book about the Civil War, a lot of time you will read about battles and horrible stories, but this book was all about the relationships between Stuart and all of his staff members.

“The two things that impressed me … was, first of all, Stuart was never the kind of guy who said go here and do this; it was ‘follow me boys,’” Frueh explained. “He was always at the front. The other thing was the jovial attitude he went about everything. He looked at war as just another game. He loved playing it. From just those two characteristics, I thought that this guy would be a lot of fun to portray.”

Stier finds that re-enacting allows him to see history from a different perspective: “Some folks, if they want to learn, they’ll read a book, some might even go to a battle site and visit it, some might watch a movie to try to understand what took place. This is just the next step in learning about history – full immersion.”

In the end, to Cochran, recreating the battlefield is about helping people understand what the years 1860 to 1865 meant to the United States.

“It took us,” he said, “from being a country of two sections with two different economic systems to being a united nation.”

To watch video features on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville, visit

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