Capt. Wilkins, of Gen. Williams’ staff, who was captured at the battle of Chancellorsville, gave the following account of his experience with the Confederates. At the time the Eleventh corps was routed he was despatched with important orders from his chief:
“On galloping to convey the orders referred to, Capt. Wilkins found that two regiments had already gained their positions. He communicated the orders to their Colonels, and passed on to convey them also to Gen. Kuger, commanding the Third brigade, who was considerably nearer the enemy. Soon after leaving the embankments he passed a double line of skirmishers, and saw, to his astonishment, that they wore gray coats. Up to this moment he had no idea the enemy were so near. It was now about eight o’clock in the evening, and owing to the darkness and the fact of his riding with such speed directly towards them, the skirmishers evidently mistook him for one of their own officers, and allowed him to pass. At this moment he saw the distinguishing flag of the First brigade of Williams division (every brigade in the Army of the Potomac carries a distinguishing flag of bright colors) to the left, and still farther on. He rode towards it, expecting to deliver the orders to the commander of the brigade. On reaching it he discovered that it had just been captured by a Georgia regiment, and was then in the possession of the enemy, by whom he was surrounded. He threw himself upon the neck of his horse, and endeavored to escape by leaping the abatis; but he found that the rebels were on every side of him. His horse was shot under him, a blow from a musket dislocated his knee, and he was dragged to the ground in a nearly insensible condition.
He was placed in charge of a guard, who took him a short distance to the rear and to the plank road, where he met Gen. Jackson and staff. Jackson had at this time formed a column of attack on the plank road, with the design of flanking our army and obtaining possession of United States Ford. The column consisted of upwards of 15,000 men, massed in columns of sections, having three batteries of artillery on the flank. Jackson was sitting on his horse, at the head of the column, surrounded by his staff. He wore a new suit of gray uniform, and was a spare man, with a weather-beaten face, and a bright, grayish-blue eye. He had a peculiarly sad and gloomy expression of countenance, as though he already saw a premonition of his fate. It was but fifteen minutes later that he was mortally wounded. As they came into his presence the guard announced, ‘A captured Yankee officer.’ Capt. Wilkins asked if it was Maj.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. On being answered in the affirmative, he raised his hat. Gen. Jackson said: ‘A regular army officer, I suppose; your officers do not usually salute ours.’ Capt. Wilkins replied: ‘No, I am not; I salute you out of respect to you as a gallant officer.’ He then asked his name and rank. On being told, he further inquired what corps and commanders were opposed in front. Capt. Wilkins replied that as an officer, he could not return a truthful answer to such questions. Jackson then turned to the guard and ordered them to search him. He then had in the breast-pocket of his coat Hooker’s confidential orders to corps commanders, giving a plan in part of the campaign, the countersigns of the field for a week in advance, and the field returns, giving the effective strength of the Twelfth corps on the preceding day.
Fortunately, before the guard could carry the orders into execution, a terrific raking fire was opened on Jackson’s column by twenty pieces of artillery, commanded by Capt. Best, from an eminence on the plank road. The first eight or ten shots flew over the heads of the column. The men and gunners dismounted, leaving their horses and guns. Our artillery soon got the range with more precision, and the shell and round shot recocheted and ploughed through this dense mass of the enemy with terrific effect. Shells were continually bursting, and the screams and groans of the wounded and dying could be heard on every side. As an instance of the terrible effect of this fire, one of the guard was struck by a solid shot just below the hips, sweeping off both his legs. A battery came dashing up; but when they got into the vortex of the fire, the gunners fled, deserting their guns, and could not be made to man them. An officer, splendidly mounted and equipped, attempted in a most gallant manner to rally them. A ball struck him on the neck, completely severing his head from his body, and leaving his spinal column standing. His body rolled to the ground, and the horse galloped to the rear. One of the shells struck a caisson full of artillery ammunition, which, exploding, ascended in a crater of variously colored flame, and showered down on the heads of the men below a mass of fragments of shot and shell. The loss inflicted by this fire must have been terrible, placing considerably over one thousand men hors du combat, and effectually breaking up the contemplated attack of the column.
An officer of Jackson’s staff subsequently stated that it was about fifteen minutes after this that Gen. Jackson with staff advanced to the front to reconnoitre our position, having accomplished which he returned by a different path towards his own men, who, mistaking his approach for that of a party of our cavalry, fired upon him, killing and wounding four of his staff, and wounding Jackson once in the right arm and twice in the left arm and hand.
While Capt. Wilkins was being taken to the rear he devoted his attention to disposing of the important papers which he had on his person. He dared not take them from his pocket to attempt to tear them up, but cautiously placed his hand in his pocket, and worked the papers into a ball, and as they were passing along, got them into his bosom, and finally into his arm-pit under his arm, where he carried them all that night. The next morning the guard halted to get their breakfasts, and a soldier was trying to kindle a fire to cook some coffee which they had taken from our men. The wood was damp, and the fire refused to burn. The soldier swore at it until his patience gave out, when Capt. Wilkins asked him if he would not like some kindlings, and handed him the important papers. The soldier took them, and, not dreaming of their importance, used them to kindle the fire.”