Saving the Right: An Ohio Gunner Remembers Chancellorsville

                                                                                              Five Days at Chancellorsville

Private John Pray of Waterville, Ohio reported that Major General Dan Sickles credited his Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery with helping to stem the panic that engulfed the Federal right at Chancellorsville on the evening of May 2, 1863. 

    "The whole of the Eleventh Corps appeared panic-stricken as it moved by," observed the Ohioan. "You can readily judge how difficult it is to command troops at such a time as that. The confusion was so great that it was with some difficulty the enemy was checked. The batteries were placed in position by the command of our company officers.  The position only enabled us to use canister which was used to great disadvantage to the Rebs. At their approach, the batteries poured the canister by volleys and just as much between volleys as could be done with effect. This concentrated blaze of artillery halted the enemy on that spot for the evening. Our corps commander (Major General Sickles) manifested great pleasure with the efforts of the three batteries that checked the charging enemy on Saturday evening."

    John Pray's account of the fight at Chancellorsville, written about a week after the conclusion of the campaign, first saw publication in May 18, 1863, edition of the Toledo Daily Commercial. During the campaign, Battery H under the command of Captain James F. Huntington was attached to the artillery battalion of the Third Division, Third Army Corps. 


This image, taken in April 1863 while the battery was encamped near Falmouth, Virginia, shows Detachment C of Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery under the command of Lieutenant William A. Ewing. The Ohioans lost three guns on the morning of May 3, 1863 but this wasn't one of them: Detachment C brought off both of their cannons during the wild retreat. Corporal William Perigo and Private William Parmalee, both quoted in this post and natives of northwestern Ohio, are pictured above as members of Detachment C. 


Camp near Falmouth, Virginia

May 11, 1863

          You have heard more or less of the late battle of Chancellorsville. I will give you something of our critical position, for such it proved to be.

          On the 28th of April we were ordered out again from our old quarters in which we have spent a very comfortable winter (at least for soldiers) and which had been left twice before under similar circumstances. But this time our prospects were so encouraging that we little suspected that we should have occasion to them again. We were at first ordered to the left, where we only participated for the length of 36 hours when the Third Corps was ordered to the right. A forced march soon brought us in the vicinity of Chancellorsville and on Friday night [May 1, 1863] we encamped where General Hooker afterwards established his last line of battle.

          On Saturday, we moved on to the Chancellor House, General Hooker’s headquarters, where we took a plank road for a mile to the right, then a half mile to the left brought us to a field which proved the location of a great disaster to Whipple’s division. We moved to this place about the middle of the afternoon when everything along the line was very promising in behalf of the Union arms. Whipple’s skirmishers and sharpshooters were bringing in squads of Rebs and everything was moving nicely for the Third Corps.

          Presently a very sharp engagement was heard on our right. We had no fears as to the result of that engagement until we heard the firing approach our rear. As the attention of the Third Corps was directed wholly to the front, so great a change of maneuvering had to be gone through with that Johnny Reb was upon us quite as soon as we were ready to meet him. The field in which the batteries of Whipple’s division were lying was so bounded with dense woods that the opportunity for using artillery in the new direction was a very poor one.

 

“Everything went off finely until just before dark when the Rebels under Jackson charged upon the 11th Corps who behaved very badly, indeed. Our general, supposing everything perfectly safe, had ordered us to unbridle our horses and fed them, but soon the infantry of the 11th Corps came running by us saying the Rebels were coming and would every one of us in fifteen minutes.” ~Corporal William H. Perigo, Battery H, 1st O.V.L.A.

 

But the whole of the Eleventh Corps appeared panic-stricken as it moved by. You can readily judge how difficult it is to command troops at such a time as that. Officers shot their own men to halt them.  This, however, did more harm than good for while the shot would only stop perhaps one man, all were too frantic to profit by example, and many would become more alarmed at the firing. The first informants that came to us were the fleeing troops, and as they passed we could bear them condemning the Germans. The confusion was so great that it was with some difficulty the enemy was checked. The batteries were placed in position by the command of our company officers. Our General was maneuvering in another direction.

Private John L. Pray of Waterville, Ohio
Battery H, 1st O.V.L.A.
Memorial Record of the Soldier Spirit of Waterville


The position only enabled us to use canister which was used to great disadvantage to the Rebs. At their approach, the batteries poured the canister by volleys and just as much between volleys as could be done with effect. This concentrated blaze of artillery halted the enemy on that spot for the evening. Our corps commander (Major General Sickles) manifested great pleasure with the efforts of the three batteries that checked the charging enemy on Saturday evening: Battery H, 1st Ohio, 11th New York, and one of General Pleasonton’s batteries were the three. General Hooker might well feel grateful for their success for had they given way like the Eleventh Corps, the Chancellor House would not have been a very safe place for his headquarters. During Saturday night, several very desperate charges were made near the plant road by the Third and Fifth Corps, but without gaining much ground.

About half an hour after daylight on Sunday morning, the enemy made another attack from the same direction as on the previous evening. Previous to this all the batteries were drawn off and our batteries seemed left to cover the retreat. They did not take us napping for everything was in readiness, so far as we were able. The firing was as rapid as would be effectual until our infantry support had fled and our cannoneers were left alone. The enemy was within a few paces of our pieces, a number of the horses had been shot and some of the men were already victims of their musketry. The order to limber up was at length given and had it not been for a very bad slough on the road of retreat, our pieces would all have been brought away, but three were obliged to be abandoned and fell into the hands of the enemy.

 

“We lost our battery wagons, some lost their knapsacks, blankets, and guns. Had our infantry that were to support us done their duty, we should have come us with all our guns.” ~ Private William E. Parmalee, Battery H, 1st O.V.L.A.

 

The entertainment given us that Sabbath morning was not such as we like to have on such days. There was desperate fighting nearly all day Sunday, but Battery H escaped all after the first engagement in the morning. General Berry, one of the division generals of this corps, was killed on Sunday. Our division General Amiel Whipple was shot by a Rebel sharpshooter on Monday morning. We regret his loss very much; he was highly esteemed by his command.

Owing to the overwhelming mass of Rebels that were pushed upon our army it was slowly driven back- but their charges upon the muzzles of our artillery must have a telling effect upon their muster rolls, we think we can safely say that there were one third more Rebels killed than Yankees.

While General Hooker was maneuvering the right, General Sedgwick was carrying on extensive operations at the city of Fredericksburg where he succeeded in capturing a number of pieces (said to be 26) of artillery and a number of prisoners but was obliged to recross. The whole army has again fallen back to its old encampment and everything is being put in readiness for another move. Although we have been repulsed and our army has sustained a great loss, I am pleased to see that the men are still of good cheer and are willing to go out on another raid with the “old J.” We all think that another such victory for the Rebels would ruin the Confederate army. Our army does not seem so smitten as when repulsed at Fredericksburg in December.

Battery H’s loss was eight men (six wounded and two missing, supposed killed), 30 horses, and three pieces of artillery. We are being fitted up again with the necessary equipment and will soon be ready for the field. The two-year and nine-months troops are fast returning home as their time had expired. Recruits that joined old regiments last fall are held in the service for three years.

The weather is very beautiful and we expect to move soon. We shall hope for success when we make the next attack, for we cannot think that fortune is so prejudicial to the Army of the Potomac that we cannot be favored with a victory. We regret very much that the Copperheads of the North will have an opportunity of croaking over our misfortunes.

Our ambulances are still engaged in getting the wounded from the battlefield of Chancellorsville. The wounded that fell into the enemy’s hands are being brought away as General Lee cannot provide for them, his communications from Richmond being cut off by General Stoneman. 

To learn more about artillery at Chancellorsville, please check out the following posts:

Among the Guns at Chancellorsville

A Few Rounds of Canister: Bowling with Dilger at Chancellorsville

Sources:

Letter from Private John Lansing Pray, Jr., Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Toledo Daily Commercial (Ohio), May 18, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from Corporal William H. Perigo, Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Wood County Independent (Ohio), May 15, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from Private William E. Parmalee, Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Toledo Daily Commercial (Ohio), May 14, 1863, pg. 1


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