July 25, 2019

Aaron Riker at Chancellorsville

This excerpt from the Civil War journal of Aaron Denton Riker (1830-1914) of the 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry describes his regiment's role in the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia (edited for spelling, punctuation, and consistency).
At that time in the spring of 1863, the regiment was part of the Army of the Potomac,  commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. The regiment (Lieut. Col. Eugene Powell) was in the first brigade (Col. Charles Candy) of the second division (Brig. Gen. John W. Geary) of the twelfth army corps (XII Corps), led by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum.

Chancellorsville, Virginia, April-May 1863

We remained at Aquia Creek from the 22nd to the 27th of April, when we again marched with the Army of the Potomac in the direction of the Rappahannock [River], arriving at Kelly's Ford on the 29th.

We crossed the river without opposition and traveled down the river, surprised and captured two hundred of the enemy at the crossing [Germanna Ford] of the Rapidan [River]. From the Rapidan we traveled on the [Orange] Plank Road in the direction of Fredericksburg, arriving at Chancellorsville on the 30th of April. Here the army halted in line of battle and rested for the night. The enemy were disposed to dispute our further march.

Maj. Gen. Hooker's forces arrived at Chancellorsville, the site of the Chancellor family home and roadside inn, on April 30, 1863. The large building stood at the intersection of three roads, each of which led to Fredericksburg, and Hooker and his staff established his headquarters at the house.

May 1st
Reconnoitering parties were send out and had some heavy skirmishing with the Rebels. The 66th [regiment] was of the skirmishers. It now became evident a big fight must come off soon. Entrenchments were hastily thrown up by our army behind which they sheltered themselves from the balls of the enemy. The Rebels advanced to the attack and were promptly met by our troops. Heavy fighting afternoon and night.

Much of the battle was fought in the dense, scraggly woods and tangled thickets of the area known as the Wilderness. Maj. Gen. Slocum's Twelfth Corps threw up earthworks and entrenched themselves in these woods until they were finally forced to fall back after several days of fierce combat.

May 2nd
This afternoon, the enemy under Jackson were massed on our right where the 11th corps were stationed. Here the fighting was terrific. After a stout resistance of nearly two hours, the 11th corps gave way and broke their lines. The enemy followed up this advantage, thereby gained a crossfire on the right center 12th corps, causing that to give way.

Our lines fell back slowly and formed anew and checked the tide of battle, which for a time had set against us. The 12th corps was now relieved from the right center and assigned to the left of our line of battle.

May 3rd
The battle raged all day. The cannonading was terrific. There was scarcely any intermission between reports but was almost a constant roar.

Confederate artillery on a hilltop known as Hazel Grove dueled with Union guns at a farmstead know as Fairview, a half mile away, in a furious cannonade.

While the rattle of musketry was almost deafening yet, remarkable as it may appear, I could distinctly hear the cheers of those who were then engaged in deadly strife. Our army held their new position and repulsed every attempt made by the enemy to dislodge them. Yet owing to the disaster of the preceding day, our forces could not successfully advance.

On May 3, Confederate forces converged on the Chancellor house, their artillery shells striking the brick building. One shell hit a porch column on which Hooker was leaning, causing it to collapse and injure the general. Another shell set the building on fire. The house burned to the ground. Only a few remnants of the house's foundation are visible now.

May 4th
On the fourth, the fighting was again renewed and continued throughout the day at intervals, neither army seemingly gaining any advantage. The slaughter of human life has been dreadful. The 66th has again suffered severely, though our loss in killed has been light. This evening, the enemy attempted to cross the Rappahannock at Banks Ford so as to gain our rear. But after a hard fight they were repulsed with great slaughter.

May 5th
This morning, our army fell back, crossing the Rappahannock at United States Ford, each corps falling back to its former camp around Falmouth, Aquia Creek, and Stafford. The Rebels did not pursue, and our retreat from the battlefield was very successfully accomplished.

Thus ended another campaign in which our army has lost much in officers and men, though good authority says the Rebel loss greatly exceeds ours. We have taken a large number of prisoners, while the enemy have taken about an equal number from us. In the assault on our right on the evening of the 2nd, the Rebel General Jackson received a mortal wound and died in a few hours.

This plaque near the site of the Chancellor house summarizes the Battle of Chancellorsville. Contrary to Riker's account, "Stonewall" Jackson died of pneumonia on May 10, eight days after he was accidentally shot by Confederate pickets.

Our division fell back to camp near Aquia Creek.

Aaron Denton Riker (1830-1914) of Champaign County, Ohio, enlisted as a private in the 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on October 11, 1861. The regiment was mustered in for three years service on December 17, 1861, under the command of Colonel Charles Candy. In April 1862, while in Strasburg, Virginia, during the Shenandoah campaign, Riker was assigned to the commissary department, handling supplies for the troops. In October of that year, he found himself in charge of the regiment's commissary and subsequently attained the rank of sergeant while his regiment was stationed in Dumfries, Virginia.

Riker was mustered out of the regiment in 1865 as a first lieutenant.

Aaron D. Riker, Columbus, Ohio, July 27, 1865.

Riker kept a journal recounting his experiences during the Civil War. The journal is now housed at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine. JournalTranscript.

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