By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the June 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
One of the truly enjoyable aspects of the Civil War is the memorable quotes that were uttered by people who participated in it. No doubt everyone who is interested in the Civil War has some favorite Civil War quotes. Two excellent quotes, one Union and one Confederate, are associated with the battle of Chancellorsville. One quote mentions the rising of the sun, and the other talks about how someone rose to an exalted position in history.
In the battle of Chancellorsville Robert E. Lee violated one of the cardinal rules of tactics and split his force in the face of superior numbers by sending Stonewall Jackson on a circuitous march to slam into the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. All during the day as Jackson’s men moved across the Union front, nervous reports were sent up the chain of command that enemy troops were on the move. Union commanders higher up in that chain interpreted this movement as a retreat by the Confederates. But while Union commanders high in the chain of command contemplated how to pursue the retreating Confederates, Union commanders in the field understood that the ultimate destination of the troops moving across their front was not further away from them, but closer to them, dangerously, mortally close to them. One of those field commanders was Colonel Robert Reily of the 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Reily addressed his regiment by warning them that a great battle was imminent, and he made this foreboding statement to his men. “Some of us will not see another sunrise. If there is a man in the ranks who is not ready to die for his country, let him come to me, and I will give him a pass to go to the rear, for I want no half-hearted, unwilling soldiers or cowards in the ranks tonight.” Reily knew what he was talking about, because his 75th Ohio was part of the XI Corps, and the XI Corps was in the crosshairs of one Stonewall Jackson.
Jackson’s flank attack was the beginning of a stunning victory by the Army of Northern Virginia. The morning after this flank attack, as the two wings of the Army of Northern Virginia were reuniting to make another assault on the retreating Army of the Potomac, Robert E. Lee rode toward the front past the burning Chancellor House that gave the crossroads its name. At the sight of their commander, the Confederate soldiers cheered wildly. After the Civil War, when this incident was recalled by Colonel Charles Marshall of Lee’s staff, Marshall wrote this effusive description. “The scene is one that can never be effaced from the minds of those who witnessed it. The troops were pressing forward with all the ardour and enthusiasm of combat. The white smoke of musketry fringed the front of the line of battle, while the artillery on the hills in the rear of the infantry shook the earth with its thunder, and filled the air with the wild shrieks of the shells that plunged into the masses of the retreating foe. To add greater horror and sublimity to the scene, Chancellor House and the woods surrounding it were wrapped in flames. In the midst of this awful scene, General Lee, mounted upon that horse which we all remember so well, rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His presence was the signal for one of those outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked upon him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient days rose to the dignity of gods.”
These quotes are especially memorable because of the way that what was said came to pass. In his evocative quote, Charles Marshall said of Robert E. Lee that the scene during the final stages of the battle of Chancellorsville was such to raise Lee to god-like stature. After the Civil War, rightly or wrongly, this certainly happened with Lee. Echoing Marshall’s words, one of Lee’s biographers, Emory M. Thomas, wrote of Lee “within the American South he has attained the status of demigod.” Of course, Lee is not a deity, but in the minds of many he has attained a level of historical prominence matched by very few, and the battle of Chancellorsville is one of Lee’s achievements that led to this. Robert Reily’s quote spoke of more poignant consequences. Reily told the men of the 75th Ohio, “Some of us will not see another sunrise.” When Stonewall Jackson’s men came screaming out of the woods, most of the men of the XI Corps were eating supper and were caught off guard and fled. But Reily had the 75th Ohio ready for an enemy attack, and this regiment fought for about ten minutes until they were overwhelmed. In those ten minutes, Robert Reily became one of those who had seen his last sunrise, making his Chancellorsville quote not only memorable, but his last words. These two quotes contain the kind of flowery language that seems to characterize the 19th century, the kind of language that nowadays is considered corny. But it is this kind of language that contributes to the aura of the Civil War and offsets the carnage and the horror with an embellished linguistic beauty that has been lost from our times.