On the late afternoon of May 2, 1863, thousands of Confederate soldiers waited in the shadowed woods a little more than 3 miles west of the Chancellor crossroads clearing in the Central Virginian Wilderness. Most of them had accomplished a march of approximately 12 miles in the hot hours of the day. Their commander, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, had hurried them along the secretive, wooded trails and up Brock Road, ordering them into position on the Union Army of the Potomac’s right flank. The fields ahead of them hosted the encampments of the XI Corps, most of its soldiers unsuspecting that the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was poised in the bordering forest.
Around 5:15 p.m., “Stonewall” confirmed readiness with his division commanders and said the memorable words, “You can go forward, then.” Moments later, one of the most famous flank attacks in military history charged into the open fields. “Jackson’s veterans . . . bounded forward towards the astounded and perfectly paralysed enemy, while the thunder of our horse-artillery, on whom devolved the honour of opening the ball, reached us from the other extremity of the line . . .” wrote Heros Von Borcke of the Confederate cavalry.
Two guns from the Stuart Horse Artillery under the command of Major Robert F. Beckham rolled along the Orange Turnpike, taking advantage of the rises of high ground on the roadbed to blast projectiles into the camps and fleeing Union soldiers. The tactics employed by the Stuart Horse Artillery had been perfected by Major John Pelham and used with great effect on battlefields like Antietam and Fredericksburg. After Pelham’s mortal wounding at Kelly’s Ford in March 1863, Major Beckham had been transferred to command the highly mobile guns. At Chancellorsville, he kept the guns moving at the infantry’s pace and firing regularly into the Union camps and fleeing groups.
During the early evening surprise attack, some of the Union soldiers believed that the artillery projectiles from Beckham’s guns were aimed at them individually with special vengeance. First Sergeant James Peabody of the 61st Ohio Regiment considered making a stand, but seeing his comrades fleeing, he decided: “It would have not been good generalship on my part to have stopped and made a close examination, so I followed the rest.”
Just east of the intersection of the Orange Plank Road with the Turnpike, Union Colonel Adolphus Buschbeck, who commanded a brigade in the 2nd Division of the XI Corps, rallied some of his regiments and other units willing to make a stand. Known as the “Buschbeck Line,” this defensive position opposed the Confederate advance for a short time, but Beckham’s guns moved into position and fired toward the Union position, helping to break it into retreat.
The new tract of land ready for preservation is the position of Major Beckham’s two guns as he confronted the Buschbeck Line. “Young man, I congratulate you," Jackson told Beckham.
I congratulate you.
Lt. General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to Major Robert Beckham at Chancellorsville, praising Beckham's artillery skill
I was directed by the major-general commanding as our line started forward to advance with them, keeping a few yards in rear of our line of skirmishers. This we did not entirely succeed in doing, owing to the narrow space in which the pieces had to be maneuvered and the obstructions encountered at various points along the road. I am glad, however, that I can report that we were able to keep up almost a continuous fire upon the enemy from one or two guns, from the very starting-point up to the position where our lines halted for the night.
Major Robert F. Beckham,
Chancellorsville Battle Report
For years, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has been working to save land from Jackson’s Flank Attack at the Chancellorsville Battlefield. In triangular corner of historic Orange Plank Road and the historic Orange Turnpike (modern Route 3), all that remains to complete the preservation puzzle is a 1.2-acre parcel—and we now have the chance to save it! This is an extraordinary opportunity and the history connected to the land is quite unique.