Part 3 out of 4
Kane's brigades had, during this change of front, become separated from
the command, and had retired to a line of defence north of the
Chancellor House. But on regaining the old breastworks, Geary found two
regiments of Greene's brigade still holding them.
Now ensued a thorough-going struggle for the possession of these
breastworks, and they were tenaciously hung to by Geary with his small
force, until Wright had advanced far beyond his flank, and had reached
the Chancellor clearing; when, on instructions from Slocum, he withdrew
from the unequal strife, and subsequently took up a position on the left
of the Eleventh Corps.
Anderson now moved his division forward, and occupied the edge of the
clearing, where the Union forces were still making a last stand about
McLaws, meanwhile, in Couch's front, fought mainly his skirmishers and
artillery. Hancock strengthened Miles's outpost line, who "held it
nobly against repeated assaults."
While this is transacting, Couch orders Hancock to move up to the
United-States Ford road, which he imagines to be threatened by the
enemy; but the order is countermanded when scarcely begun. There is
assuredly a sufficiency of troops there.
But Hancock is soon obliged to face about to ward off the advance of
the enemy, now irregularly showing his line of battle upon the
Chancellorsville clearing, while Sickles and Williams slowly and
sullenly retire from before him.
The enemy is gradually forcing his way towards headquarters. Hancock's
artillery helps keep him in check for a limited period; but the
batteries of Stuart, Anderson, and McLaws, all directing a converging
fire on the Chancellor House, make it, under the discouraging
circumstances, difficult for him to maintain any footing.
When Couch had temporarily assumed command, Hancock, before Geary was
forced from his intrenchments by Anderson, disposed the Second Corps,
with its eighteen pieces of artillery, in two lines, facing respectively
east and west, about one mile apart. But Geary's relinquishment of the
rifle-pits allowed the flanks of both the lines to be exposed, and
prevented these dispositions from answering their purpose. Hancock
clung to his ground, however, until the enemy had reached within a few
hundred yards. Then the order for all troops to be withdrawn within the
new lines was promulgated, and the removal of the wounded from the
Chancellor House was speedily completed,--the shelling by the enemy
having set it on fire some time before.
Hancock's artillery at the Chancellor House certainly suffered severely;
for, during this brief engagement, Leppien's battery lost all its horses,
officers, and cannoneers, and the guns had to be removed by an infantry
detail, by hand.
The Confederate army now occupied itself in refitting its shattered
ranks upon the plain. Its organization had been torn to shreds, during
the stubborn conflict of the morning, in the tangled woods and marshy
ravines of the Wilderness; but this had its full compensation in the
possession of the prize for which it had contended. A new line of
battle was formed on the plank road west of Chancellorsville, and on the
turnpike east. Rodes leaned his right on the Chancellor House, and
Pender swung round to conform to the Federal position. Anderson and
McLaws lay east of Colston, who held the old pike, but were soon after
replaced by Heth, with part of A. P. Hill's corps.
In the woods, where Berry had made his gallant stand opposite the fierce
assaults of Jackson, and where lay by thousands the mingled dead and
wounded foes, there broke out about noon a fire in the dry and
inflammable underbrush. The Confederates detailed a large force,
and labored bravely to extinguish the flames, equally exhibiting their
humanity to suffering friend and foe; but the fire was hard to control,
and many wounded perished in the flames.
THE NEW LINES.
The new lines, prepared by Gens. Warren and Comstock, in which the Army
of the Potomac might seek refuge from its weaker but more active foe,
lay as follows:--
Birney describes the position as a flattened cone. The apex touched
Bullock's, (White House or Chandler's,) where the Mineral-Spring road,
along which the left wing of the army had lain, crosses the road from
Chancellorsville to Ely's Ford.
Bullock's lies on a commanding plateau, with open ground in its front,
well covered by our artillery. This clearing is north of and larger
than the Chancellor open, and communicates with it. The position of the
troops on the left was not materially changed, but embraced the corps of
Howard and Slocum. The right lay in advance of and along the road to
Ely's, with Big Hunting Run in its front, and was still held by
Reynolds. At the apex were Sickles and Couch.
The position was almost impregnable, and covered in full safety the line
of retreat to United-States Ford, the road to which comes into the Ely's
Ford road a half-mile west of Bullock's.
To these lines the Second, Third, and Twelfth Corps retired, unmolested
by the enemy, and filed into the positions assigned to each division.
Only slight changes had been made in the situation of Meade since he
took up his lines on the left of the army. He had, with wise
forethought, sent Sykes at the double-quick, after the rout of the
Eleventh Corps, to seize the cross-roads to Ely's and United-States
Fords. Here Sykes now occupied the woods along the road from Bullock's
to connect with Reynolds's left.
Before daylight Sunday morning, Humphreys, relieved by a division of the
Eleventh Corps, had moved to the right, and massed his division in rear
of Griffin, who had preceded him on the line, and had later moved to
Geary's left, on the Ely's Ford road. At nine A.M., he had sent Tyler's
brigade to support Gen. French, and with the other had held the edge of
Chancellorsville clearing, while the Third and Twelfth Corps retired to
the new lines.
And, when French returned to these lines, he fell in on Griffin's left.
About noon of Sunday, then, the patient and in no wise discouraged Union
Army lay as described, while in its front stood the weary Army of
Northern Virginia, with ranks thinned and leaders gone, but with the
pride of success, hardly fought for and nobly earned, to reward it for
all the dangers and hardships of the past few days.
Gen. Lee, having got his forces into a passable state of re-organization,
began to reconnoitre the Federal position, with a view to another
assault upon it. It was his belief that one more hearty effort would
drive Hooker across the river; and he was ready to make it, at whatever
cost. But, while engaged in the preparation for such an attempt,
he received news from Fredericksburg which caused him to look anxiously
in that direction.
The operations of Sunday morning, in common with many of our battles,
furnish scarcely more than a narrative of isolated combats, having more
or less remote or immediate effect upon each other.
The difficulty of the ground over which our armies were constantly
called upon to manoeuvre explains "why the numerous bloody battles
fought between the armies of the Union and of the secessionists should
have been so indecisive. A proper understanding of the country, too,
will help to relieve the Americans from the charge, so frequently made
at home and abroad, of want of generalship in handling troops in
battle,--battles that had to be fought out hand to hand in forests,
where artillery and cavalry could play no part; where the troops could
not be seen by those controlling their movements; where the echoes and
reverberations of sound from tree to tree were enough to appall the
strongest hearts engaged, and yet the noise would often be scarcely
heard beyond the immediate scene of strife. Thus the generals on either
side, shut out from sight and from hearing, had to trust to the
unyielding bravery of their men till couriers from the different parts
of the field, often extending for miles, brought word which way the
conflict was resulting, before sending the needed support. We should
not wonder that such battles often terminated from the mutual exhaustion
of both contending forces, but rather, that, in all these struggles of
Americans against Americans, no panic on either side gave victory to the
other, like that which the French under Moreau gained over the Austrians
in the Black Forest." (Warren.)
The Confederates had their general plan of action, viz., to drive their
opponents from the Chancellor House, in order to re-unite their right
and left wings, and to obtain possession of the direct road to
Fredericksburg, where lay Early and Barksdale. To accomplish this end,
they attacked the centre of Hooker's army,--the right centre
particularly,--which blocked their way towards both objects.
It had been no difficult task to divine their purpose. Indeed, it is
abundantly shown that Hooker understood it, in his testimony already
quoted. But, if he needed evidence of the enemy's plans, he had
acquired full knowledge, shortly after dawn, that the bulk of Stuart's
corps was still confronting Sickles and Williams, where they had fought
the evening before; and that Anderson and McLaws had not materially
changed their position in front of Geary and Hancock. He could have
ascertained, by an early morning reconnoissance, (indeed, his corps-
commanders did so on their own responsibility,) that there was no enemy
whatsoever confronting his right and left flanks, where three corps,
the First, Fifth, and Eleventh, lay chafing with eagerness to engage the
foe. And the obvious thing to do was to leave a curtain of troops to
hold these flanks, which were protected by almost insuperable natural
obstacles, as well as formidable intrenchments, and hold the superfluous
troops well in hand, as a central reserve, in the vicinity of
headquarters, to be launched against the attacking columns of the enemy,
wherever occasion demanded.
Hooker still had in line at Chancellorsville, counting out his losses of
Saturday, over eighty-five thousand men. Lee had not exceeding half the
number. But every musket borne by the Army of Northern Virginia was put
to good use; every round of ammunition was made to tell its story.
On the other hand, of the effective of the Army of the Potomac, barely a
quarter was fought au fond, while at least one-half the force for duty
was given no opportunity to burn a cartridge, to aid in checking the
onset of the elated champions of the South.
Almost any course would have been preferable to Hooker's inertness.
There was a variety of opportune diversions to make. Reynolds, with his
fresh and eager corps, held the new right, protected in his front by
Hunting Run. It would have been easy at any time to project a strong
column from his front, and take Stuart's line of battle in reverse.
Indeed, a short march of three miles by the Ely's Ford, Haden's Ford,
and Greenwood Gold Mines roads, none of which were held by the enemy,
would have enabled Reynolds to strike Stuart in rear of his left flank,
or seize Dowdall's clearing by a coup de main, and absolutely negative
all Stuart's efforts in front of Fairview. Or an advance through the
forest would have accomplished the same end. To be sure, the ground was
difficult, and cut up by many brooks and ravines; but such ground had
been, in this campaign, no obstacle to the Confederates. Nor would it
have been to Reynolds, had he been given orders to execute such a
manoeuvre. Gen. Doubleday states in his testimony: "The action raged
with the greatest fury near us on our left." "I thought that the simple
advance of our corps would take the enemy in flank, and would be very
beneficial in its results. Gen. Reynolds once or twice contemplated
making this advance on his own responsibility. Col. Stone made a
reconnoissance, showing it to be practicable."
The same thing applies to the Eleventh and portions of the Fifth Corps
on the left. A heavy column could have been despatched by the Mine and
River roads to attack McLaws's right flank. Barely three miles would
have sufficed, over good roads, to bring such a column into operating
distance of McLaws. It may be said that the Eleventh Corps was not fit
for such work, after its defeat of Saturday night. But testimony is
abundant to show that the corps was fully able to do good service early
on Sunday morning, and eager to wipe off the stain with which its flight
from Dowdall's had blotted its new and cherished colors. But, if Hooker
was apprehensive of trusting these men so soon again, he could scarcely
deem them incapable of holding the intrenchments; and this left Meade
available for the work proposed.
Instead, then, of relying upon the material ready to his hand, Hooker
conceived that his salvation lay in the efforts of his flying wing under
Sedgwick, some fifteen miles away. He fain would call on Hercules
instead of putting his own shoulder to the wheel. His calculations were
that Sedgwick, whom he supposed to be at Franklin's and Pollock's
crossings, three or four miles below Fredericksburg, could mobilize his
corps, pass the river, capture the heights, where in December a few
Southern brigades had held the entire Army of the Potomac at bay,
march a dozen miles, and fall upon Lee's rear, all in the brief space of
four or five hours. And it was this plan he chose to put into execution,
deeming others equal to the performance of impossibilities, while
himself could not compass the easiest problems under his own eye.
To measure the work thus cut out for Sedgwick, by the rule of the
performances of the wing immediately commanded by Gen. Hooker, would be
but fair. But Sedgwick's execution of his orders must stand on its own
merits. And his movements are fully detailed elsewhere.
An excuse often urged in palliation of Hooker's sluggishness, is that he
was on Sunday morning severely disabled. Hooker was standing, between
nine and ten A.M., on the porch of the Chancellor House, listening to
the heavy firing at the Fairview crest, when a shell struck and
dislodged one of the pillars beside him, which toppled over, struck and
stunned him; and he was doubtless for a couple of hours incapacitated
But the accident was of no great moment. Hooker does not appear to have
entirely turned over the command to Couch, his superior corps-commander,
but to have merely used him as his mouthpiece, retaining the general
direction of affairs himself.
And this furnishes no real apology. Hooker's thorough inability to
grasp the situation, and handle the conditions arising from the
responsibility of so large a command, dates from Thursday noon, or at
latest Friday morning. And from this time his enervation was steadily
on the increase. For the defeat of the Army of the Potomac in Sunday
morning's conflict was already a settled fact, when Hooker failed at
early dawn so to dispose his forces as to sustain Sickles and Williams
if over-matched, or to broach some counter-manoeuvre to draw the enemy's
attention to his own safety.
It is an ungracious task to heap so much blame upon any one man.
But the odium of this defeat has for years been borne by those who are
guiltless of the outcome of the campaign of Chancellorsville; and the
prime source of this fallacy has been Hooker's ever-ready self-
exculpation by misinterpreted facts and unwarranted conclusions, while
his subordinates have held their peace. And this is not alone for the
purpose of vindicating the fair fame of the Army of the Potomac and its
corps-commanders, but truth calls for no less. And it is desired to
reiterate what has already been said,--that it is in all appreciation of
Hooker's splendid qualities as a lieutenant, that his inactivity in this
campaign is dwelt upon. No testimony need be given to sustain Hooker's
courage: no man ever showed more. No better general ever commanded an
army corps in our service: this is abundantly vouched for. But Hooker
could not lead an hundred thousand men; and, unlike his predecessor,
he was unable to confess it. Perhaps he did not own it to himself.
Certainly his every explanation of this campaign involved the shifting
of the onus of his defeat to the shoulders of his subordinates,--
principally Howard and Sedgwick. And the fullest estimation of Hooker's
brilliant conduct on other fields, is in no wise incompatible with the
freest censure for the disasters of this unhappy week. For truth awards
praise and blame with equal hand; and truth in this case does ample
justice to the brave old army, ample justice to Hooker's noble aides.
The plan summarized by Warren probably reflected accurately the
intentions of his chief, as conceived in his tent on Saturday night.
It was self-evident that Anderson and McLaws could be readily held in
check, so long as Jackson's corps was kept sundered from them. Indeed,
they would have necessarily remained on the defensive so long as
isolated. Instead, then, of leaving the Third Corps, and one division
of the Twelfth, to confront Jackson's magnificent infantry, had Hooker
withdrawn an entire additional corps, (he could have taken two,) and
thrown these troops in heavy masses at dawn on Stuart, while Birney
retained Hazel Grove, and employed his artillery upon the enemy's flank;
even the dauntless men, whose victories had so often caused them to deem
themselves invincible, must have been crushed by the blows inflicted.
But there is nothing at all, on this day, in the remotest degree
resembling tactical combination. And, long before the resistance of our
brave troops had ceased, all chances of successful parrying of Lee's
skilful thrusts had passed away.
Hooker's testimony is to the effect that he was merely lighting on
Sunday morning to retain possession of the road by which Sedgwick was to
join him, and that his retiring to the lines at Bullock's was
The following extract from the records of the Committee on the Conduct
of the War, illustrates both this statement, and Hooker's method of
exculpating himself by crimination of subordinates. "Question to
Gen. Hooker.--Then I understand you to say, that, not hearing from
Gen. Sedgwick by eleven o'clock, you withdrew your troops from the
position they held at the time you ordered Gen. Sedgwick to join you.
"Answer.--Yes, sir; not wishing to hold it longer at the disadvantage I
was under. I may add here, that there is a vast difference in
corps-commanders, and that it is the commander that gives tone and
character to his corps. Some of our corps-commanders, and also officers
of other rank, appear to be unwilling to go into a fight."
But, apart from the innuendo, all this bears the stamp of an after-
thought. If an army was ever driven from its position by fair fighting,
our troops were driven from Chancellorsville. And it would seem, that,
if there was any reasonable doubt on Saturday night that the Army of the
Potomac could hold its own next day, it would have been wiser to have at
once withdrawn to the new lines, while waiting for the arrival of
Sedgwick. For here the position was almost unassailable, and the troops
better massed; and, if Lee had made an unsuccessful assault, Hooker
would have been in better condition to make a sortie upon the arrival of
the Sixth Corps in his vicinity, than after the bloody and disheartening
work at Fairview.
Still the inactivity of Hooker, when Sedgwick did eventually arrive
within serviceable distance, is so entire a puzzle to the student of
this campaign, that speculation upon what he did then actually assume as
facts, or how he might have acted under any other given conditions,
becomes almost fruitless.
SEDGWICK'S CHANGE OF ORDERS.
Let us return to the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where
operations now demanded Lee's undivided skill. This was properly the
left wing of the army, which, under Sedgwick, had made the demonstration
below Fredericksburg, to enable the right wing, under Hooker, to cross
the river above, and establish itself at Chancellorsville. It had
consisted of three corps; but, so soon as the demonstration had effected
its purpose, it will be remembered that Hooker withdrew from Sedgwick's
command both the First and Third Corps, leaving him with his own,
the Sixth, to guard the crossings of the river; while Gibbon's division
of the Second Corps did provost duty at the camp at Falmouth, and held
itself in readiness to move in any direction at a moment's notice.
From this time on, the Sixth Corps may be more properly considered as a
detached command, than as the left wing of the Army of the Potomac.
And, beyond some demonstrations in aid of Hooker's manoeuvring, Sedgwick
had been called on to perform no actual service up to the evening of May 2.
On May 1, a demonstration in support of Hooker's advance from
Chancellorsville had been ordered, and speedily countermanded, on
account of the despatch having reached Sedgwick later than the hour set
for his advance.
On the forenoon of May 2, Hooker had given Sedgwick discretionary
instructions to attack the enemy in his front, "if an opportunity
presents itself with a reasonable expectation of success."
Then came the despatch of 4.10 P.M., May 2, already quoted, and received
by Sedgwick just before dark:--
"The general commanding directs that Gen. Sedgwick cross the river as
soon as indications will permit; capture Fredericksburg with every thing
in it, and vigorously pursue the enemy. We know the enemy is flying,
trying to save his trains: two of Sickles's divisions are among them."
This despatch was immediately followed by another: "The major-general
commanding directs you to pursue the enemy by the Bowling-Green road."
In pursuance of these and previous orders, Sedgwick transferred the
balance of the Sixth Corps to the south side of the Rappahannock,
one division being already there to guard the bridge-head. Sedgwick's
orders of May 1 contemplated the removal of the pontoons before his
advance on the Bowling-Green road, as he would be able to leave no
sufficient force to guard them. But these orders were received so late
as daylight on the 2d; and the withdrawal of the bridges could not well
be accomplished in the full view of the enemy, without prematurely
developing our plans.
The order to pursue by the Bowling-Green road having been again repeated,
Sedgwick put his command under arms, advanced his lines, and forced the
enemy--Early's right--from that road and back into the woods. This was
late in the evening of Saturday.
On the same night, after the crushing of the Eleventh Corps, we have
seen how Hooker came to the conclusion that he could utilize Sedgwick in
his operations at Chancellorsville. He accordingly sent him the
following order, first by telegraph through Gen. Butterfield, at the
same time by an aide-de-camp, and later by Gen. Warren:--
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
May 2, 1863, 9 P.M.
The major-general commanding directs that Gen. Sedgwick crosses the
Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on the receipt of this order, and at once
take up his line of march on the Chancellorsville road until you connect
with us, and he will attack and destroy any force he may fall in with on
the road. He will leave all his trains behind, except the pack-train of
small ammunition, and march to be in our vicinity at daylight. He will
probably fall upon the rear of the forces commanded by Gen. Lee, and
between us we will use him up. Send word to Gen. Gibbon to take
possession of Fredericksburg. Be sure not to fail. Deliver this by
your swiftest messenger. Send word that it is delivered to Gen. Sedgwick.
J. H. VAN ALEN,
Brigadier-General and Aide-de-Camp.
(Copy sent Gen. Sedgwick ten P.M.)
At eleven P.M., when this order of ten o'clock was received, Sedgwick
had his troops placed, and his dispositions taken, to carry out the
orders to pursue, on the Bowling-Green road, an enemy indicated to him
as in rapid retreat from Hooker's front; and was actually in bivouac
along that road, while a strong picket-line was still engaged
skirmishing with the force in his front. By this time the vanguard of
his columns had proceeded a distance variously given as from one to
three miles below the bridges in this direction; probably near the
Bernard House, not much beyond Deep Creek.
It is to be presumed that the aide who bore the despatch, and reached
Sedgwick later than the telegram, gave some verbal explanation of this
sudden change of Hooker's purpose; but the order itself was of a nature
to excite considerable surprise, if not to create a feeling of
Sedgwick changed his dispositions as speedily as possible, and sent out
his orders to his subordinates within fifteen minutes after receipt of
Hooker's despatch; but it was considerably after midnight before he
could actually get his command faced about, and start the new head of
column toward Fredericksburg.
Knowing the town to be occupied by the Confederates, Sedgwick was
obliged to proceed with reasonable caution the five or six miles which
separated his command from Fredericksburg. And the enemy appears to
have been sufficiently on the alert to take immediate measures to check
his progress as effectually as it could with the troops at hand.
Fredericksburg and the heights beyond were held by Early's division and
Barksdale's brigade, with an adequate supply of artillery,--in all some
eighty-five hundred men. Sedgwick speaks, in his testimony before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War, as if he understood at this time
that Early controlled a force as large as his own; but he had been
advised by Butterfield that the force was judged to be much smaller than
it actually was.
In his report, Early does not mention Sedgwick's advance on the
Bowling-Green road, nor is it probable that Sedgwick had done more than
to advance a strong skirmish-line beyond his column in that direction.
Early's line lay, in fact, upon the heights back of the road, his right
at Hamilton's Crossing, and with no considerable force on the road
itself. So that Sedgwick's advance was skirmishing with scouting-
parties, sent out to impede his march.
Early had received general instructions from Lee, in case Sedgwick
should remove from his front, to leave a small force to hold the
position, and proceed up the river to join the forces at Chancellorsville.
About eleven A.M. on the 2d, this order was repeated, but by error in
delivery (says Lee) made unconditional. Early, therefore, left Hays
and one regiment of Barksdale at Fredericksburg, and, sending part of
Pendleton's artillery to the rear, at once began to move his command
along the plank road to join his chief.
As this manoeuvre was in progress, his attention was called to the early
movements of Sedgwick, and, sending to Lee information on this point,
he received in reply a correction of the misdelivered order. He
therefore about-faced, and returned to his position at a rapid gait.
It is doubtful whether by daylight, and without any considerable
opposition, Sedgwick could have marched the fifteen miles to
Chancellorsville in the few hours allotted him. Nor is it claimed by
Hooker that it was possible for Sedgwick to obey the order of ten P.M.
literally; for it was issued under the supposition that Sedgwick was
still on the north bank of the river. But Hooker does allege that
Sedgwick took no pains to keep him informed of what he was doing; whence
his incorrect assumption. To recross the river for the purpose of again
crossing at Fredericksburg would have been a lame interpretation of the
speedy execution of the order urged upon Sedgwick. He accordingly
shifted his command, and, in a very short time after receiving the
despatch, began to move by the flank on the Bowling-Green road towards
Fredericksburg, Newton's division in the advance, Howe following,
while Brooks still held the bridge-head.
It was a very foggy night; which circumstance, added to the fact that
Sedgwick was, in common with all our generals, only imperfectly familiar
with the lay of the land, and that the enemy, active and well-informed,
enveloped him with a curtain of light troops, to harass his movement in
whatever direction, materially contributed to the delay which ensued.
And Sedgwick appears to have encountered Early's pickets, and to have
done some skirmishing with the head of his column, immediately after
passing west of Franklin's Crossing, which, moreover, gave rise to some
picket-firing all along the line, as far as Deep Run, where Bartlett
confronted the enemy. As the outskirts of the town were entered,
four regiments of Wheaton's and Shaler's brigades were sent forward
against the rifle-pits of the enemy, and a gallant assault was made by
them. But it was repulsed, with some loss, by the Confederates, who,
as on Dec. 13, patiently lay behind the stone wall and rifle-pits,
and reserved their fire until our column was within twenty yards.
Then the regiments behind the stone wall, followed by the guns and
infantry on the heights, opened a fire equally sudden and heavy, and
drove our columns back upon the main body. The assault had been
resolute, as the casualties testify, "one regiment alone losing
sixty-four men in as many seconds" (Wheaton); but the darkness, and
uncertainty of our officers with regard to the position, made its
failure almost a foregone conclusion. This was about daylight. "The
force displayed by the enemy was sufficient to show that the
intrenchments could not be carried except at great cost." (Sedgwick.)
The officer by whom the order to Sedgwick had been sent, Capt. Raderitzchin,
had not been regularly appointed in orders, but was merely a volunteer
aide-de-camp on Gen. Hooker's staff.
Shortly after he had been despatched, Gen. Warren requested leave
himself to carry a duplicate of the order to Sedgwick, (Capt. Raderitzchin
being "a rather inexperienced, headlong young man,") for Warren feared
the "bad effect such an impossible order would have on Gen. Sedgwick
and his commanders, when delivered by him." And, knowing Warren to be
more familiar with the country than any other available officer,
Hooker detached him on this duty, with instructions again to impress
upon Sedgwick the urgent nature of the orders. Warren, with an aide,
left headquarters about midnight, and reached Sedgwick before dawn.
As daylight approached, Warren thought he could see that only two
field-pieces were on Marye's heights, and that no infantry was holding
the rifle-pits to our right of it. But the stone-wall breastworks were
held in sufficient force, as was demonstrated by the repulse of the
early assault of Shaler and Wheaton.
And Warren was somewhat in error. Barksdale, who occupied Fredericksburg,
had been closely scanning these movements of Sedgwick's. He had some
fourteen hundred men under his command. Six field-pieces were placed
near the Marye house. Several full batteries were on Lee's hill,
and near Howison's. And, so soon as Fredericksburg was occupied by our
forces, Early sent Hays to re-enforce Barksdale; one regiment of his
brigade remaining on Barksdale's right, and the balance proceeding
For, at daylight on Sunday, Early had received word from Barksdale,
whose lines at Fredericksburg were nearly two miles in length, that the
Union forces had thrown a bridge across the river opposite the Lacy
house; and immediately despatched his most available brigade to sustain
Early's line, however, was thin. Our own was quite two and a half miles
in length, with some twenty-two thousand men; and Early's eighty-five
hundred overlapped both our flanks. But his position sufficiently
counterbalanced this inequality. Moreover his artillery was well
protected, while the Union batteries were quite without cover, and in
Gibbon's attempted advance, his guns suffered considerable damage.
Brooks's division was still on the left of the Federal line, near the
bridge-heads. Howe occupied the centre, opposite the forces on the
heights, to our left of Hazel Run. Newton held the right as far as the
Telegraph road in Fredericksburg.
Gibbon's division had been ordered by Butterfield to cross to
Fredericksburg, and second Sedgwick's movement on the right. Gibbon
states that he was delayed by the opposition of the enemy to his laying
the bridge opposite the Lacy house, but this was not considerable.
He appears to have used reasonable diligence, though he did not get his
bridge thrown until daylight. Then he may have been somewhat tardy in
getting his twenty-five hundred men across. And, by the time he got his
bridge thrown, Sedgwick had possession of the town.
It was seven A.M. when Gibbon had crossed the river with his division,
and filed into position on Sedgwick's right. Gibbon had meanwhile
reported in person to Sedgwick, who ordered him to attempt to turn the
enemy's left at Marye's, while Howe should open a similar movement on
his right at Hazel Run. Gens. Warren and Gibbon at once rode forward to
make a reconnoissance, but could discover no particular force of the
enemy in our front. Just here are two canals skirting the slope of the
hill, and parallel to the river, which supply power to the factories in
the town. The generals passed the first canal, and found the bridge
across it intact. The planks of the second canal-bridge had been
removed, but the structure itself was still sound.
Gibbon at once ordered these planks to be replaced from the nearest
houses. But, before this order could be carried out, Warren states that
he saw the enemy marching his infantry into the breastworks on the hill,
followed by a battery. This was Hays, coming to Barksdale's relief.
But the breastworks contained a fair complement before.
Gibbon's attempt was rendered nugatory by the bridge over the second
canal being commanded from the heights, the guns on which opened upon
our columns with shrapnel, while the gunners were completely protected
by their epaulements. And a further attempt by Gibbon to cross the
canal by the bridge near Falmouth, was anticipated by the enemy
extending his line to our right.
Gen. Warren states that Gen. Gibbon "made a very considerable
demonstration, and acted very handsomely with the small force he
had,--not more than two thousand men. But so much time was taken,
that the enemy got more troops in front of him than he could master."
Gen. Howe had been simultaneously directed to move on the left of Hazel
Run, and turn the enemy's right; but he found the works in his front
beset, and the character of the stream between him and Newton precluded
any movement of his division to the right.
By the time, then, that Sedgwick had full possession of the town,
and Gibbon and Howe had returned from their abortive attempt to turn the
enemy's flanks, the sun was some two hours high. As the works could not
be captured by surprise, Sedgwick was reduced to the alternative of
assaulting them in regular form.
It is not improbable that an earlier attack by Gibbon on Marye's heights,
might have carried them with little loss, and with so much less expense
of time that Sedgwick could have pushed beyond Salem Church, without
being seriously impeded by troops sent against him by Gen. Lee.
And, as the allegation of all-but criminal delay on the part of
Gen. Sedgwick is one of the cardinal points of Hooker's self-defence
on the score of this campaign, we must examine this charge carefully.
Sedgwick asserts with truth, that all despatches to him assumed that he
had but a handful of men in his front, and that the conclusions as to
what he could accomplish, were founded upon utterly mistaken premises.
Himself was well aware that the enemy extended beyond both his right and
left, and the corps knew by experience the nature of the intrenchments
on the heights.
Moreover, what had misled Butterfield into supposing, and informing
Sedgwick, as he did, that the Fredericksburg heights had been abandoned,
was a balloon observation of Early's march to join Lee under the
mistaken orders above alluded to. The enemy was found to be alert
wherever Sedgwick tapped him, and his familiarity with every inch of the
ground enabled him to magnify his own forces, and make every man tell;
while Sedgwick was groping his way through the darkness, knowing his
enemy's ability to lure him into an ambuscade, and taking his
Now, when Sedgwick had concluded upon a general assault, he can scarcely
be blamed for over-caution in his preparations for it. Four months
before, a mere handful of the enemy had successfully held these defences
against half the Army of the Potomac; and an attack without careful
dispositions seemed to be mere waste of life. It would appear to be
almost supererogatory to defend Sedgwick against reasonable time
consumed in these precautions.
There had been a more or less continuous artillery-fire, during the
entire morning, from our batteries stationed on either side of the
river. This was now redoubled to prepare for the assault. Newton's
batteries concentrated their fire on the stone wall, until our troops
had neared it, when they directed it upon the crest beyond; while like
action was effected to sustain Howe.
Instructions were issued to the latter, who at once proceeded to form
three storming columns under Gen. Neill, Col. Grant, and Col. Seaver,
and supported them by the fire of his division artillery.
Sedgwick at the same time ordered out from Newton's division two other
columns, one under Col. Spear, consisting of two regiments, supported by
two more under Gen. Shaler, and one under Col. Johns of equal size,
to move on the plank road, and to the right of it, flanked by a line
under Col. Burnham, with four regiments, on the left of the plank road.
This line advanced manfully at a double-quick against the rifle-pits,
neither halting nor firing a shot, despite the heavy fire they
encountered, until they had driven the enemy from their lower line of
works, while the columns pressed boldly forward to the crest, and
carried the works in their rear. All the guns and many prisoners were
captured. This was a mettlesome assault, and as successful as it was
brief and determined.
Howe's columns, in whose front the Confederate skirmishers occupied the
railroad-cutting and embankment, while Hays and two regiments of
Barksdale were on Lee's and adjacent hills, as soon as the firing on his
right was heard, moved to the assault with the bayonet; Neill and Grant
pressing straight for Cemetery hill, which, though warmly received,
they carried without any check. They then faced to the right, and,
with Seaver sustaining their left, carried the works on Marye's heights,
capturing guns and prisoners wholesale.
A stand was subsequently attempted by the Confederates on several
successive crests, but without avail.
The loss of the Sixth Corps in the assault on the Fredericksburg heights
was not far from a thousand men, including Cols. Spear and Johns,
commanding two of the storming columns.
The assault of Howe falls in no wise behind the one made by Newton.
The speedy success of both stands out in curious contrast to the deadly
work of Dec. 13. "So rapid had been the final movement on Marye's hill,
that Hays and Wilcox, to whom application had been made for succor,
had not time to march troops from Taylor's and Stansbury's to
Barksdale's aid." (Hotchkiss and Allan.)
The Confederates were now cut in two: Wilcox and Hays were left north of
the plank road, but Hays retreated round the head of Sedgwick's column,
and rejoined Early. Wilcox, who, on hearing of Sedgwick's manoeuvres
Sunday morning, had hurried with a portion of his force to Barksdale's
assistance at Taylor's, but had arrived too late to participate in the
action, on ascertaining Sedgwick's purpose, retired slowly down the
plank road, and skirmished with the latter's head of column. And he
made so determined a stand near Guest's, that considerable time was
consumed in brushing it away before Sedgwick could hold on his course.
Early appears to deem the carrying of the Fredericksburg heights to
require an excuse on his part. He says in his report about our
preliminary assaults: "All his efforts to attack the left of my line
were thwarted, and one attack on Marye's hill was repulsed. The enemy,
however, sent a flag of truce to Col. Griffin, of the Eighteenth
Mississippi Regiment, who occupied the works at the foot of Marye's hill
with his own and the Twenty-first Mississippi Regiment, which was
received by him imperfectly; and it had barely returned before heavy
columns were advanced against the position, and the trenches were
carried, and the hill taken." "After this the artillery on Lee's hill,
and the rest of Barksdale's infantry, with one of Hays's regiments,
fell back on the Telegraph road; Hays with the remainder being compelled
to fall back upon the plank road as he was on the left." Later, "a line
was formed across the Telegraph road, at Cox's house, about two miles
back of Lee's hill."
Barksdale says, "With several batteries under the command of Gen. Pendleton,
and a single brigade of infantry, I had a front of not less than three
miles to defend, extending from Taylor's hill on the left, to the foot
of the hills in the rear of the Howison house."
Gen. Wilcox, he goes on to state, from Banks's Ford, had come up with
three regiments as far as Taylor's, and Gen. Hays was also in that
vicinity; but "the distance from town to the points assailed was so
short, the attack so suddenly made, and the difficulty of removing
troops from one part of the line to another was so great, that it was
utterly impossible for either Gen. Wilcox or Gen. Hays to reach the
scene of action in time to afford any assistance whatever. It will then
be seen that Marye's hill was defended by but one small regiment,
three companies, and four pieces of artillery."
Barksdale further states that, "upon the pretext of taking care of their
wounded, the enemy asked a flag of truce, after the second assault at
Marye's hill, which was granted by Col. Griffin; and thus the weakness
of our force at that point was discovered."
The bulk of Early's division was holding the heights from Hazel Run to
Hamilton's Crossing; and the sudden assault on the Confederate positions
at Marye's, and the hills to the west, gave him no opportunity of
sustaining his forces there. But it is not established that any unfair
use was made of the flag of truce mentioned by Barksdale.
The loss in this assault seems heavy, when the small force of
Confederates is considered. The artillery could not do much damage,
inasmuch as the guns could not be sufficiently depressed, but the
infantry fire was very telling; and, as already stated, both colonels
commanding the assaulting columns on the right were among the casualties.
The enemy's line being thus cut in twain, sundering those at Banks's
Ford and on the left of the Confederate line from Early at Hamilton's
Crossing, it would now have been easy for Sedgwick to have dispersed
Early's forces, and to have destroyed the depots at the latter place.
But orders precluded anything but an immediate advance.
The question whether Sedgwick could have complied with his instructions,
so as to reach Hooker in season to relieve him from a part of Lee's
pressure on Sunday morning, is answered by determining whether it was
feasible to carry the Fredericksburg heights before or at daylight.
If this could have been done, it is not unreasonable to assume that he
could have left a rear-guard, to occupy Early's attention and forestall
attacks on his marching column, and have reached, with the bulk of his
corps, the vicinity of Chancellorsville by the time the Federals were
hardest pressed, say ten A.M., and most needed a diversion in their
Not that Hooker's salvation in any measure depended on Sedgwick's so
doing. Hooker had the power in his own hand, if he would only use it.
But it should be determined whether Hooker had any legitimate ground for
Putting aside the question of time, Sedgwick's whole manoeuvre is good
enough. It was as well executed as any work done in this campaign,
and would have given abundant satisfaction had not so much more been
required of him. But, remembering that time was of the essence of his
orders, it may be as well to quote the criticism of Warren--
"It takes some men just as long to clear away a little force as it does
a large one. It depends entirely upon the man, how long a certain force
will stop him."
"The enemy had left about one division, perhaps ten thousand or twelve
thousand men, at Fredericksburg, to watch him. They established a kind
of picket-line around his division, so that he could not move any thing
without their knowing it. Just as soon as Gen. Sedgwick began to move,
a little random fire began, and that was kept up till daylight. At
daylight, the head of Gen. Sedgwick's troops had got into Fredericksburg.
I think some little attempt had been made to move forward a skirmish-line,
but that had been repulsed. The enemy had considerable artillery in
"My opinion was, that, under the circumstances, the most vigorous effort
possible ought to have been made, without regard to circumstances,
because the order was peremptory." But this statement is qualified,
when, in his examination before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,
to a question as to whether, in his opinion, Gen. Sedgwick's vigorous
and energetic attempt to comply with Hooker's order would have led to a
different result of the battle, Warren answered: "Yes, sir! and I will
go further, and say that I think there might have been more fighting
done at the other end of the line. I do not believe that if Gen. Sedgwick
had done all he could, and there had not been harder fighting on the
other end of the line, we would have succeeded."
If, at eleven P.M., when Sedgwick received the order, he had immediately
marched, regardless of what was in his front, straight through the town,
and up the heights beyond, paying no heed whatever to the darkness of
the night, but pushing on his men as best he might, it is not improbable
that he could have gained the farther side of this obstacle by daylight.
But is it not also probable that his corps would have been in
questionable condition for either a march or a fight? It would be
extravagant to expect that the organization of the corps could be
preserved in any kind of form, however slight the opposition. And,
as daylight came on, the troops would have scarcely been in condition to
offer brilliant resistance to the attack, which Early, fully apprised of
all their movements, would have been in position to make upon their
flank and rear.
Keeping in view all the facts,--that Sedgwick was on unknown ground,
with an enemy in his front, familiar with every inch of it and with
Sedgwick's every movement; that he had intrenchments to carry where a
few months before one man had been more than a match for ten; that the
night was dark and foggy; and that he was taken unawares by this
order,--it seems that to expect him to carry the heights before daylight,
savors of exorbitance.
But it may fairly be acknowledged, that more delay can be discovered in
some of the operations of this night and morning, than the most rigorous
construction of the orders would warrant. After the repulse of Wheaton
and Shaler, a heavier column should at once have been thrown against the
works. Nor ought it to have taken so long, under the stringency of the
instructions, to ascertain that Gibbon would be stopped by the canal,
and Howe by Hazel Run; or perhaps to organize the assaulting columns,
after ascertaining that these flank attacks were fruitless.
All this, however, in no wise whatsoever shifts any part of the
responsibility for the loss of this campaign, from Hooker's to
Sedgwick's shoulders. The order of ten P.M. was ill-calculated and
impracticable. Hooker had no business to count on Sedgwick's corps as
an element in his problem of Sunday at Chancellorsville.
Sedgwick's movements towards his chief were certainly more rapid than
those of Sickles on Saturday, and no one has undertaken to criticise the
latter. Nor would Lee be lightly accused of tardiness for not attacking
Sedgwick in force until Monday at six P.M., as will shortly be detailed,
when he had despatched his advance towards him shortly after noon on
Sunday, and had but a half-dozen miles to march. And yet Lee, precious
as every moment was to him, consumed all these hours in preparing to
assault Sedgwick's position in front of Banks's Ford.
In order to do justice to all sources of information, and show how
unreliable our knowledge often was, it may be well to quote from
Gen. Butterfield's testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War.
"From the best information I had at the time the order came, there was
not over a brigade of the enemy in the vicinity of Fredericksburg.
This information was confirmed afterwards by prisoners taken on Sunday
by Gen. Sedgwick. They told me they were left there with orders, that,
if they did not receive re-enforcements by a certain time, to withdraw;
that they did withdraw about eleven o'clock on Saturday night, but met
re-enforcements coming up, and turned back and re-occupied the works.
The statement may have been false, or may have been true." It was
clearly Early's march under his mistaken instructions, which the
prisoners referred to. "If true, it would show that a bold movement of
Gen. Sedgwick's command on Saturday night, would have taken Marye's
heights, and put him well on the road towards Gen. Hooker before
daylight." To the question whether the order could have been actually
carried out: "There was a force of the enemy there, but in my judgment
not sufficient to have prevented the movement, if made with a determined
attack. Night attacks are dangerous, and should be made only with very
disciplined troops. But it seemed to me at the time that the order
could have been executed."
Gibbon, on the contrary, is of opinion that the strict execution of the
order was impracticable, but that probably an assault could have been
made at daylight instead of at eleven A.M. He recollects being very
impatient that morning about the delay,--not, however, being more
specific in his testimony.
SEDGWICK MARCHES TOWARDS HOOKER.
So soon as Sedgwick had reduced the only formidable works in his front,
he made dispositions to push out on the plank road. Gibbon was left in
Fredericksburg to prevent the enemy from crossing to the north side of
the river, and to shield the bridges.
"Gen. Brooks's division was now given the advance, and he was farthest
in the rear, not having got moved from the crossing-place." Brooks had
so extensive a force in his front, that he was constrained to withdraw
with extreme caution. "This necessarily consumed a considerable time,
and before it was completed the sound of the cannonading at
Chancellorsville had ceased." (Warren.)
This postponement of an immediate advance might well, under the
stringency of the orders, have been avoided, by pushing on with the then
leading division. Not that it would have been of any ultimate
assistance to Hooker at Chancellorsville. At the time the storming
columns assaulted Marye's heights, Hooker had already been driven into
his lines at White House. And though none of his strictures upon
Sedgwick's tardiness, as affecting his own situation, will bear the test
of examination, time will not be considered wholly ill-spent in
determining where Sedgwick might have been more expeditious. It no
doubt accords with military precedents, to alternate in honoring the
successive divisions of a corps with the post of danger; but it may
often be highly improper to arrest an urgent progress in order to
accommodate this principle. And it was certainly inexpedient in this
case, despite the fact that Newton and Howe had fought their divisions,
while Brooks had not yet been under fire.
"The country being open, Gen. Brooks's division was formed in a column
of brigade-fronts, with an extended line of skirmishers in the front and
flank in advance, and the artillery on the road." (Warren.) The New
Jersey brigade marched on the right, and Bartlett's brigade on the left,
of the road. This disposition was adopted that the enemy might be
attacked as soon as met, without waiting for deployment, and to avoid
the usual manoeuvres necessary to open an action from close column,
or from an extended order of march.
Gen. Newton followed, marching by the flank along the road. This
"greatly extended the column, made it liable to an enfilading fire,
and put it out of support, in a measure, of the division in advance."
(Warren.) Howe brought up the rear.
Meanwhile Wilcox, having arrested Sedgwick at Guest's, as long as his
slender force enabled him to do, moved across country to the River road
near Taylor's. But Sedgwick's cautious advance gave him the opportunity
of sending back what cavalry he had, some fifty men, to skirmish along
the plank road, while he himself moved his infantry and artillery by
cross-roads to the toll-house, one-half mile east of Salem Church.
Here he took up an admirable position, and made a handsome resistance to
Sedgwick, until, ascertaining that McLaws had reached the crest at that
place, he withdrew to the position assigned him in the line of battle
now formed by that officer.
When Early perceived that Sedgwick was marching his corps up the plank
road, instead, as he expected, of attacking him, and endeavoring to
reach the depots at Hamilton's, he concentrated at Cox's all his forces,
now including Hays, who had rejoined him by a circuit, and sent word to
McLaws, whom he ascertained to be advancing to meet Sedgwick, that he
would on the morrow attack Marye's heights with his right, and extend
his left over to join the main line.
It was about noon before Lee became aware that Sedgwick had captured his
stronghold at Fredericksburg, and was where he could sever his
communications, or fall upon his rear at Chancellorsville. Both Lee and
Early (the former taking his cue from his lieutenant) state that at
first Sedgwick advanced down the Telegraph road, with an assumed purpose
to destroy the line in Lee's rear, but that he was checked by Early.
The nature, however, of Sedgwick's orders precluded his doing this,
and there is no mention of such a purpose among any of the reports.
And it was not long before Lee heard that Sedgwick was marching out
towards the battle-ground in the Wilderness, with only Wilcox in his
McLaws, with his own three brigades, and one of Anderson's, was
accordingly pushed forward at a rapid gait to sustain Wilcox; while
Anderson, with the balance of his division, and fourteen rifled guns,
was sent to the junction of the River road and Mine road to hold that
important position. McLaws arrived about two P.M., and found Wilcox
skirmishing, a trifle beyond Salem Church. He was drawn back a few
hundred yards, while Kershaw and Wofford were thrown out upon Wilcox's
right, and Semmes and Mahone on his left. Wofford arrived somewhat late,
as he had been temporarily left at the junction of the Mine and plank
roads to guard them. McLaws's guns were concentrated on the road,
but were soon withdrawn for lack of ammunition.
Some troops were thrown into Salem Church, and into a schoolhouse near
by, in front of the woods, forming a salient; but the main Confederate
line was withdrawn some three hundred yards within the wood, where a
clearing lay at their back.
When Sedgwick's column reached the summit along the road, about a mile
from Salem Church, Wilcox's cavalry skirmishers were met, and a section
of artillery opened with solid shot from a point near the church,
where Wilcox was hurrying his forces into line. The intervening ground
was quite open on both sides the road. The heights at Salem Church are
not considerable; but a ravine running north and south across its front,
and as far as the Rappahannock, furnishes an excellent line of defence,
and the woods come up to its edge at this point, and enclose the road.
Brooks was pushed in to attack the enemy, the main part of his division
being on the left of the road, while Newton filed in upon his right,
so soon as his regiments could be got up. Disposing his batteries
(Rigby, Parsons, and Williston) along a crest at right angles to the
road, not far from the toll-gate, where good shelter existed for the
caissons and limbers, Brooks sharply advanced his lines under a telling
fire, and, passing the undergrowth, penetrated the edge of the woods
where lay Wilcox and Semmes and Mahone. Wilcox's skirmishers and part
of his line gave way before Brooks's sturdy onset, which created no
little confusion; but Wilcox and Semmes in person headed some reserve
regiments, and led them to the charge. An obstinate combat ensues.
Bartlett has captured the schoolhouse east of the church, advances,
and again breaks for a moment the Confederate line. Wilcox throws in an
Alabama regiment, which delivers a fire at close quarters, and makes a
counter-charge, while the rest of his brigade rallies on its colors,
and again presses forward. The church and the schoolhouse are fought
for with desperation, but only after a heroic defence can the
Confederates recapture them. Bartlett withdraws with a loss of
two-fifths of his brigade, after the most stubborn contest. The line on
the north of the road is likewise forced back. A series of wavering
combats, over this entire ground, continues for the better part of an
hour; but the enemy has the upper hand, and forces our line back towards
Though obstinately fighting for a foothold near the church, Brooks had
thus been unable to maintain it, and he has fallen back with a loss of
nearly fifteen hundred men. Reaching his guns, where Newton has
meanwhile formed in support of his right, and where part of Howe's
division later falls in upon his left, the enemy, which has vigorously
followed up his retreat, is met with a storm of grape and canister at
short range, the distance of our batteries from the woods being not much
over five hundred yards. So admirably served are the guns, as McLaws
states, that it is impossible to make head against this new line; and
the Confederates sullenly retire to their position near the church,
which they had so successfully held against our gallant assaults,
followed, but not seriously engaged, by a new line of Brooks's and
Wheaton's brigade manages to hold on in a somewhat advanced position on
the right, where Mahone had been re-enforced from Wofford's line; but
our left, after the second unsuccessful attempt to wrest more advanced
ground from the enemy, definitely retires to a line a short mile from
The Confederate artillery had been out of ammunition, and unable to
engage seriously in this conflict. Their fighting had been confined to
the infantry regiments. But our own guns had borne a considerable share
in the day's work, and had earned their laurels well.
It was now dark, and both lines bivouacked in line of battle.
Gen. Russell was placed in command of our front line.
The Union wounded were sent to Fredericksburg.
Gen. Warren, before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, passes the
following comment upon this action:--
"Gen. Sedgwick carried the heights at Fredericksburg, and then moved on
about three miles farther, and had a fight at Salem heights, but could
not carry them. I think that by fighting the battle at Salem heights
differently, we might have won that place also."
"Gen. Brooks carried Salem heights, but not being closely enough
supported by other troops, he could not hold the heights. It was just
one of those wavering things that a moment settles. If we had been
stronger at that moment, we would have won; not being so, they won."
It is probable, that, had Brooks's attack been delayed until Newton and
Howe could reach the scene, their support might have enabled him to keep
possession of the ground he came so near to holding single-handed.
But it was a dashing fight, deserving only praise; and it is doubtful
whether the capture of Salem heights would have materially altered the
event. It was the eccentric handling of the Chancellorsville wing which
determined the result of this campaign. Sedgwick's corps could effect
nothing by its own unaided efforts.
SEDGWICK IN DIFFICULTY.
So soon as Wilcox had retired from Banks's Ford to oppose Sedgwick's
advance towards Chancellorsville, Gen. Benham threw a pontoon bridge,
and established communications with the Sixth Corps. Warren, who up to
this time had remained with Sedgwick, now returned to headquarters,
reaching Hooker at eleven and, as a result of conference with him,
telegraphed Sedgwick as follows:--
"I find every thing snug here. We contracted the line a little, and
repulsed the last assault with ease. Gen. Hooker wishes them to attack
him to-morrow, if they will. He does not desire you to attack again in
force unless he attacks him at the same time. He says you are too far
away for him to direct. Look well to the safety of your corps, and keep
up communication with Gen. Benham at Banks's Ford and Fredericksburg.
You can go to either place if you think best. To cross at Banks's Ford
would bring you in supporting distance of the main body, and would be
better than falling back to Fredericksburg."
"I have reported your situation to Gen. Hooker. I find that we
contracted our lines here somewhat during the morning, and repulsed the
enemy's last assault with ease. The troops are in good position.
Gen. Hooker says you are separated from him so far that he cannot advise
you how to act. You need not try to force the position you attacked at
five P.M. Look to the safety of your corps. You can retire, if
necessary, by way of Fredericksburg or Banks's Ford: the latter would
enable you to join us more readily."
The former communication reached Sedgwick about four P.M. next day,
and was the only one which up till then he had received. Warren,
in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, rather
apologizes for the want of clear directions in this despatch, on the
score of being greatly exhausted; but its tenor doubtless reflects the
ideas of Gen. Hooker at the time, and is, indeed, in his evidence,
fathered by Hooker as his own creation. It shows conclusively that
there was then no idea of retiring across the river.
And it is peculiarly noteworthy, that, at this time, Hooker does not,
in tone or by implication, reflect in the remotest degree upon Sedgwick,
either for tardiness or anything else. Hooker was wont to speak his
mind plainly. Indeed, his bluntness in criticism was one of his pet
failings. And had he then felt that Sedgwick had been lacking in
good-will, ability, or conduct, it is strange that there should not be
some apparent expression of it. It was only when he was driven to
extremity in explaining the causes of his defeat, that his after-wit
suggested Sedgwick as an available scapegoat.
During the night, Lee came to the conclusion that he must absolutely rid
himself of Sedgwick, before he could again assault Hooker's defences.
And, trusting to what he had already seen, in this campaign, of his
opponent's lack of enterprise, he detailed Anderson's remaining three
brigades to the forces opposing Sedgwick's wing, leaving only Jackson's
corps, now numbering some nineteen thousand men, to keep Hooker, with
his eighty thousand, penned up behind his breastworks, while himself
repaired to the battle-ground of Monday at Salem Church, with the
intention of driving Sedgwick across the river, so that he might again
concentrate all his powers upon our forces near Chancellorsville.
By daylight Monday morning, Early advanced from his position at Cox's,
and with very little difficulty recaptured the heights, held by only a
few of Gibbon's men. Barksdale was again posted in the trenches,
and instructed to keep Gibbon in check. Early meanwhile moved out to
join McLaws, feeling our position with Smith's brigade, and ascertaining
the left of our line to lie near Taylor's, and to extend from there down
to the plank road.
At an early hour on Monday morning, it came to Sedgwick's knowledge,
that the Confederates had re-occupied the heights in his rear, and cut
him off from Fredericksburg, thus leaving him only Banks's Ford as a
possible outlet in case of disaster. An attempt was made by Early to
throw a force about Howe's left, and seize the approaches to the ford;
but it was timely met, and repulsed by our men, who captured in this
affair two hundred prisoners and a battle-flag. And, to forestall any
serious movement to cut him off from Banks's Ford, Sedgwick had already
formed Howe's division in line to the rear, extending, as we have seen,
from the river to the plank road.
In his report, and particularly in his testimony before the Committee on
the Conduct of the War, Howe speaks as if he had received from Sedgwick
only general--in fact, vague--and rare instructions, as to the
dispositions to be made of his division; and that all his particular
manoeuvres were originated and completed on his own responsibility,
upon information, or mere hints, from headquarters of the corps.
His line, over two miles long, was covered by less than six thousand men.
The despatch from Warren reached Sedgwick while matters were in this
condition. To retire to Fredericksburg was impossible; to retire across
Banks's Ford, except by night, equally so, unless he chose to hazard a
disastrous attack from the superior force in his front. For Sedgwick
had scarce twenty thousand men left to confront Lee's twenty-five
thousand, and imagined the odds to be far greater. Our line was formed
with the left on the river, midway between Fredericksburg and Banks's
Ford, running southerly to beyond the plank road, following this on the
south side for nearly two miles, and then turning north to the crest
which Wheaton had held the night before. This was a long, weak position,
depending upon no natural obstacles; but it was, under the circumstances,
well defended by a skilful disposition of the artillery, under charge of
Col. Tompkins. Gen. Newton's division held the right of this line,
facing west; Gen. Brooks had Russell's brigade, also posted so as to
face west, on the left of Newton, while Bartlett and Torbert faced south,
the former resting his left somewhere near Howe's right brigade.
This portion of the line was, on Monday afternoon, re-enforced by
Wheaton's brigade of Newton's division, withdrawn from the extreme
right; and here it rendered effective service at the time the attack was
made on Howe, and captured a number of prisoners. The bulk of Howe's
division lay facing east, from near Guest's house to the river. The
whole line of battle may be characterized, therefore, as a rough convex
order,--or, to describe it more accurately, lay on three sides of a
square, of which the Rappahannock formed the fourth. This line
protected our pontoon-bridges at Scott's Dam, a mile below Banks's Ford.
No doubt Sedgwick determined wisely in preferring to accept battle where
he lay, if it should be forced upon him, to retiring to Banks's Ford,
and attempting a crossing in retreat by daylight.
Under these harassing conditions, Sedgwick determined to hold on till
night, and then cross the river; having specially in view Hooker's
caution to look well to the safety of his corps, coupled with the
information that he could not expect to relieve him, and was too far
away to direct him with intelligence.
Subsequent despatches instructed Sedgwick to hold on where he was,
till Tuesday morning. These despatches are quoted at length on a later
Having re-occupied Fredericksburg heights, in front of which Hall's
brigade of Gibbon's division was deployed as a skirmish-line, and
occasionally exchanged a few shots with the enemy, Early communicated
with McLaws, and proposed an immediate joint assault upon Sedgwick; but
McLaws, not deeming himself strong enough to attack Sedgwick with the
troops Early and he could muster, preferred to await the arrival of
Anderson, whom he knew to be rapidly pushing to join the forces at Salem
Anderson, who, prior to the receipt of his new orders, had been making
preparations for a demonstration against Hooker's left at Chancellorsville,
and had there amused himself by shelling a park of supply-wagons across
the river, broke up from his position at the crossing of the Mine and
River roads, headed east, and arrived about eleven A.M. at the
battle-ground of Sunday afternoon. In an hour he was got into line
on Early's left, while McLaws retained the crest he had so stubbornly
defended against Brooks.
Lee now had in front of Sedgwick a force outnumbering the Sixth Corps by
one-quarter, with open communications to Fredericksburg.
The general instructions issued by Lee, after a preliminary
reconnoissance, were to push in Sedgwick's centre by a vigorous assault;
and, while preparations were making for this evolution, a slight touch
of the line was kept up, by the activity of the Confederate pickets in
"Some delay occurred in getting the troops into position, owing to the
broken and irregular nature of the ground, and the difficulty of
ascertaining the disposition of the enemy's forces." (Lee.) But more or
less steady skirmishing had been kept up all day,--to cover the
disposition of the Confederate line, and if possible accurately to
ascertain the position and relative strength of the ground held by
Not until six were Lee's preparations completed to his satisfaction; but
about that hour, at a given signal, the firing of three guns, a general
advance was made by the Confederate forces. Early, on the right of the
line, pushed in, with Hoke on the left of his division, from the hill on
which Downman's house stands, and below it, Gordon on the right, up the
hills near the intrenchments, and Hays in the centre.
On Early's left came Anderson, whose brigades extended--in order, Wright,
Posey, Perry--to a point nearly as far as, but not joining, McLaws's
right at about Shed's farm; Mahone of Anderson's division remained on
McLaws's extreme left, where he had been placed on account of his
familiarity with the country in that vicinity; and Wilcox occupied his
ground of Sunday.
Alexander established his batteries on a prominent hill, to command the
Union artillery, which was posted in a manner to enfilade McLaws's line.
It was Alexander's opening fire which was the signal for the general
The attack on the corner held by Brooks, was not very heavy, and was
held in check chiefly by his skirmish-line and artillery. "The speedy
approach of darkness prevented Gen. McLaws from perceiving the success
of the attack until the enemy began to re-cross the river." "His right
brigades, under Kershaw and Wofford, advanced through the woods in the
direction of the firing, but the retreat was so rapid, that they could
only join in the pursuit. A dense fog settled over the field,
increasing the obscurity, and rendering great caution necessary to avoid
collision between our own troops. Their movements were consequently
Early's assault on Howe was made in echelon of battalions, and columns,
and was hardy in the extreme. It was growing dark as the attack began,
and Hays's and Hoke's brigades (says Early) were thrown into some
confusion by coming in contact, after they crossed the plank road,
below Guest's house. Barksdale remained at Marye's hill, with Smith on
his left in reserve.
The weakness of Howe's long line, obliged that officer carefully to
study his ground, and make arrangements for ready withdrawal to an
interior line, if overmatched by the enemy; and he stationed his
reserves accordingly. To the rear of the centre of his first line,
held by Gen. Neill's brigade, and two regiments of Grant's, was a small
covering of woods; here a portion of his reserves, and sufficient
artillery, were concentrated. The main assault was made upon his left
by Hoke and Hays. Their first onset was resolutely broken by Howe's
firm front, though made with easy contempt of danger. The simultaneous
attack upon his right was by no means so severe. It was speedily dashed
back, and, by suddenly advancing this wing, Howe succeeded in capturing
nearly all the Eighth Louisiana Regiment; but the gap produced by the
over-advance of our eager troops, was shortly perceived by Gordon's
brigade, which was enabled to move down a ravine in rear of Howe's right,
and compelled its hasty withdrawal.
Meanwhile Neill's brigade, on Howe's left, was overpowered by Early's
fierce and repeated onslaughts; but no wise disordered, though we had
lost nearly a thousand men, it fell slowly and steadily back to the
previously selected rallying-point, where, on being followed up by Hoke
and Hays, the Vermont brigade, two regiments of Newton's division and
Butler's regular battery, sent to Howe's support by Sedgwick, opened
upon them so sharp a fire, that they retired in headlong confusion,
largely increased by the approaching darkness. This terminated the
fight on the left, and Howe's line was no further molested during the
Howe is clearly mistaken in alleging that his division was attacked by
McLaws, Anderson, and Early. The position of these divisions has been
laid down. It is one of those frequent assertions, made in the best of
faith, but emanating solely from the recollection of the fierceness of a
recent combat and from unreliable evidence.
Foreseeing from the vigor of Lee's attack the necessity of contracting
his lines, as soon as it was dark, Newton's and Brooks's divisions and
the Light Brigade (Col. Burnham's), were ordered to fall rapidly back
upon Banks's Ford, where they took position on the heights in the
vicinity, and in Wilcox's rifle-pits. Howe was then quietly withdrawn,
and disposed on Newton's right.
In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,
Gen. Howe appears to think that he was unfairly dealt with by Sedgwick;
in fact, that his division was intentionally left behind to be sacrificed.
But this opinion is scarcely justified by the condition of affairs and
Following are the important despatches which passed, during the latter
part of these operations, between Hooker and Sedgwick:--
HEADQUARTERS SIXTH CORPS,
May 4, 1863, 9 A.M.
I am occupying the same position as last night. I have secured my
communication with Banks's Ford. The enemy are in possession of the
heights of Fredericksburg in force. They appear strongly in our front,
and are making efforts to drive us back. My strength yesterday morning
was twenty-two thousand men. I do not know my losses, but they were
large, probably five thousand men. I cannot use the cavalry. It
depends upon the condition and position of your force whether I can
sustain myself here. Howe reports the enemy advancing upon
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
SEDGWICK'S HEADQUARTERS, NEAR BANKS'S FORD, VA.,
May 4, 1863, 9.45 A.M.
The enemy are pressing me. I am taking position to cross the river
wherever (? whenever) necessary.
J. SEDGWICK, Major-General.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
May 4, 1863, 10.30 A.M.
Commanding Sixth Corps.
The commanding general directs that in the event you fall back, you
reserve, if practicable, a position on the Fredericksburg side of the
Rappahannock, which you can hold securely until to-morrow P.M. Please
let the commanding general have your opinion in regard to this by
telegraph from Banks's Ford as soon as possible.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
CHANCELLORSVILLE, VA., May 4, 1863, 11 A.M.
The major-general commanding directs me to say that he does not wish you
to cross the river at Banks's Ford unless you are compelled to do so.
The batteries at Banks's Ford command the position. If it is
practicable for you to maintain a position south side of Rappahannock,
near Banks's Ford, you will do so. It is very important that we retain
position at Banks's Ford. Gen. Tyler commands the reserve artillery
J. H. VAN ALEN,
Brigadier-General and Aide-de-Camp.
SIXTH CORPS, May 4, 1863, 11 A.M.
MAJOR-GEN. BUTTERFIELD AND GEN. HOOKER.
I hold the same position. The enemy are pressing me hard. If I can
hold until night, I shall cross at Banks's Ford, under instructions from
Gen. Hooker, given by Brig.-Gen. Warren.
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
SEDGWICK'S HEADQUARTERS, May 4, 1863, 11.15 A.M.
The enemy threatens me strongly on two fronts. My position is bad for
such attack. It was assumed for attack, and not for defence. It is not
improbable that bridges at Banks's Ford may be sacrificed. Can you help
me strongly if I am attacked?
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
P. S.--My bridges are two miles from me. I am compelled to cover them
above and below from attack, with the additional assistance of Gen. Benham's
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
CHANCELLORSVILLE, VA., May 4, 1863, 11.50 A.M.
If the necessary information shall be obtained to-day, and if it shall
be of the character he anticipates, it is the intention of the general
to advance to-morrow. In this event the position of your corps on the
south side of the Rappahannock will be as favorable as the general could
desire. It is for this reason he desires that your troops may not cross
J. H. VAN ALEN,
Brigadier-General and Aide-de-Camp.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
May 4, 1863, 1.20 P.M.
Commanding Sixth Corps.
I expect to advance to-morrow morning, which will be likely to relieve
you. You must not count on much assistance without I hear heavy firing.
Tell Gen. Benham to put down the other bridge if you desire it.
J. HOOKER, Major-General.
HEADQUARTERS SIXTH CORPS,
May 4, 1863, 1.40 P.M.
I occupy the same position as yesterday when Gen. Warren left me.
I have no means of judging enemy's force about me--deserters say forty
thousand. I shall take a position near Banks's Ford, and near the
Taylor house, at the suggestion of Gen. Warren; officers have already
gone to select a position. It is believed that the heights of
Fredericksburg are occupied by two divisions of the enemy.
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
May 4, 1863. (Hour not stated.)
Banks's Ford, Va.
It is of vital importance that you should take a commanding position
near Fredericksburg, which you can hold to a certainty till to-morrow.
Please advise me what you can do in this respect. I enclose substance
of a communication sent last night. Its suggestions are highly
important, and meet my full approval. There are positions on your side
commanded by our batteries on the other side I think you could take and
hold. The general would recommend as one such position the ground on
which Dr. Taylor's is situated.
GEN. HOOKER (?)
May 4, 1863, 2.15 P.M.
I shall do my utmost to hold a position on the right bank of the
Rappahannock until to-morrow.
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
BANKS'S FORD, VA.,
May 4, 1863, 11.50 P.M. (Received 1 A.M., May 5.)
My army is hemmed in upon the slope, covered by the guns from the north
side of Banks's Ford. If I had only this army to care for, I would
withdraw it to-night. Do your operations require that I should jeopard
it by retaining it here? An immediate reply is indispensable, or I may
feel obliged to withdraw.
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
BANKS'S FORD, VA.,
May 5, 1863. (Received 1 A.M.)
I shall hold my position as ordered on south of Rappahannock.
May 5, 1863, 1 A.M. (Received 2 A.M.)
Despatch this moment received. Withdraw. Cover the river, and prevent
any force crossing. Acknowledge this.
By command of Major-Gen. Hooker.
May 5, 1863, 1.20 A.M.
Yours received saying you should hold position. Order to withdraw
countermanded. Acknowledge both.
BANKS'S FORD, VA.,
May 5, 1863, 2 P.M. (should be 2 A.M.).
Gen. Hooker's order received. Will withdraw my forces immediately.
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
HEADQUARTERS SIXTH CORPS,
May 5, 1863, 7 A.M.
I recrossed to the north bank of the Rappahannock last night, and am in
camp about a mile back from the ford. The bridges have been taken up.
JOHN SEDGWICK, Major-General.
These despatches explain themselves, if read, as is indispensable,
with the hours of sending and receipt kept well in mind. No fault can
be imputed to either Hooker or Sedgwick, in that the intention of the
one could not be executed by the other. The apparent cross-purpose of
the despatches is explained by the difficulty of communication between
headquarters and the Sixth Corps.
The order to withdraw, though sent by Hooker before the receipt of
Sedgwick's despatch saying he would hold the corps south of the river,
was received by Sedgwick long before the countermand, which was
exceptionally delayed, and was at once, under the urgent circumstances,
put into course of execution.
As soon as the enemy ascertained that Sedgwick was crossing, Alexander's
artillery began dropping shells in the neighborhood of the bridges and
river banks; and Gen. Wilcox, with his own and Kershaw's brigades,
followed up Sedgwick's movements to the crossing, and used his artillery
When the last column had almost filed upon the bridge, Sedgwick was
taken aback by the receipt of Hooker's despatch of 1.20 A.M.,
countermanding the order to withdraw as above quoted.
The main portion, however, being already upon the left bank, the corps
could not now re-cross, except by forcing the passage, as the
Confederates absolutely commanded the bridge and approaches, and with a
heavy body of troops. And, as Lee was fully satisfied to have got rid
of Sedgwick, upon conditions which left him free to turn with the bulk
of his army upon Hooker, it was not likely that Sedgwick could in any
event have successfully attempted it. The situation left him no choice
but to go into camp near by. An adequate force was sent to watch the
ford, and guard the river.
The losses of the Sixth Corps during these two days' engagements were
4,925 men. Sedgwick captured, according to his report, five flags,
fifteen guns (nine of which were brought off), and fourteen hundred
prisoners, and lost no material. These captures are not conceded by the
Confederate authorities, some of whom claim that Sedgwick decamped in
such confusion as to leave the ground strewed with arms, accoutrements,
and material of all kinds. But it is probable, on comparison of all
facts, and the due weighing of all testimony, that substantially nothing
was lost by the Sixth Corps, except a part of the weapons of the dead
Gibbon's division, about the same time, crossed to the north bank of the
river, and the pontoon bridge at Lacy's was taken up. Warren says,
"Gen. Sedgwick was attacked very heavily on Monday, fought all day,
and retreated across the river that night. We lay quiet at
Chancellorsville pretty nearly all day." This Warren plainly esteems a
poor sample of generalship, and he does not understand why Hooker did
not order an assault. "I think it very probable we could have succeeded
if it had been made." "Gen. Hooker appeared very much exhausted,"--
"'tired' would express it."
Lee's one object having been to drive Sedgwick across the river, so as
to be relieved of the troublesome insecurity of his rear, he could now
again turn his undivided attention to his chief enemy, who lay
listlessly expectant at Chancellorsville, and apparently oblivious of
his maxim enjoined upon Stoneman, "that celerity, audacity, and
resolution are every thing in war."
Early and Barksdale were left, as before, to hold the Confederate lines
at and near Fredericksburg, while McLaws and Anderson were at once
ordered back to the old battle-field. "They reached their destination
during the afternoon (Tuesday, 5th) in the midst of a violent storm,
which continued throughout the night, and most of the following day."
Wilcox and Wright lay that night in bivouac on the Catherine road;
Mahone, Posey, and Perry, along the plank road.
Kershaw was sent to relieve Heth at the crossing of the River and Mine
roads, and the latter rejoined his division.
The night of Tuesday Lee spent in preparations to assault Hooker's
position at daylight on Wednesday. The Confederate scouts had been by
no means idle; and the position occupied by Hooker, in most of its
details, was familiar to the Southern commander. He was thus able to
develop his plans with greater ease than a less familiarity with the
terrain would have yielded. He was satisfied that one more vigorous
blow would disable his antagonist for this campaign, and he was
unwilling to delay in striking it.
Let us now examine into Hooker's various criticisms upon Sedgwick's
Hooker, in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,
baldly accuses Sedgwick of neglecting to keep him advised of his
movements, the inference being that he was debarred thereby from
intelligently using him; and states that when he sent Sedgwick the
despatch to join him at Chancellorsville, "it was written under the
impression that his corps was on the north side of the Rappahannock."
But could Hooker rationally assume this to be the case when he had,
five hours before, ordered Sedgwick to cross and pursue a flying enemy,
and well knew that he had a portion of his forces already guarding the
bridge-heads on the Fredericksburg side?
"The night was so bright that . . . no special difficulty was
apprehended in executing the order." In the vicinity of Fredericksburg,
shortly after midnight, a fog appears to have arisen from the river,
which considerably impeded the movements of the Sixth Corps. This
Hooker knew from Sedgwick's report, which he was bound to believe,
unless evidence existed to show the contrary. "As will be seen, the
order was peremptory, and would have justified him in losing every man
of his command in its execution."
Hooker also states that Warren was sent to Sedgwick on account of his
familiarity with the ground, and to impress upon the latter the
necessity of strict compliance with the order.
"I supposed, and am still of the opinion, that, if Gen. Sedgwick's men
had shouldered arms and advanced at the time named, he would have
encountered less resistance and suffered less loss; but, as it was,
it was late when he went into Fredericksburg, and before he was in
readiness to attack the heights in rear of the town, which was about
eleven o'clock A.M. on the 3d, the enemy had observed his movement,
and concentrated almost their entire force at that point to oppose him."
"He had the whole force of the enemy there to run against in carrying
the heights beyond Fredericksburg, but he carried them with ease; and,
by his movements after that, I think no one would infer that he was
confident in himself, and the enemy took advantage of it. I knew
Gen. Sedgwick very well: he was a classmate of mine, and I had been
through a great deal of service with him. He was a perfectly brave man,
and a good one; but when it came to manoeuvring troops, or judging of
positions for them, in my judgment he was not able or expert.
Had Gen. Reynolds been left with that independent command, I have no
doubt the result would have been very different." "When the attack
was made, it had to be upon the greater part of the enemy's force left
on the right: nevertheless the troops advanced, carried the heights
without heavy loss, and leisurely took up their line of march on the
plank road, advancing two or three miles that day."
Now, this is scarcely a fair statement of facts. And yet they were all
spread before Hooker, in the reports of the Sixth Corps and of Gibbon.
No doubt Sedgwick was bound, as far as was humanly possible, to obey
that order; but, as in "losing every man in his command" in its
execution, he would scarcely have been of great eventual utility to his
chief, he did the only wise thing, in exercising ordinary discretion as
to the method of attacking the enemy in his path. Hooker's assumption
that Sedgwick was on the north side of the Rappahannock was his own,
and not Sedgwick's fault. Hooker might certainly have supposed that
Sedgwick had obeyed his previous orders, in part at least.
Sedgwick testified before the Committee on the Conduct of the War: "I
have understood that evidence has appeared before the Committee
censuring me very much for not being at Chancellorsville at daylight,
in accordance with the order of Gen. Hooker. I now affirm that it was
impossible to have made the movement, if there had not been a rebel
soldier in front of me."
"I lost a thousand men in less than ten minutes time in taking the
heights of Fredericksburg."
Sedgwick did "shoulder arms and advance" as soon as he received the
order; but the reports show plainly enough that he encountered annoying
opposition so soon as he struck the outskirts of the town; that he threw
forward assaulting columns at once; and that these fought as well as the
conditions warranted, but were repulsed.
It is not intended to convey the impression that there was no loss of
time on Sedgwick's part. On the contrary, he might certainly have been
more active in some of his movements. No doubt there were other general
officers who would have been. But it is no exaggeration to insist that
his dispositions were fully as speedy as those of any other portion of
the army in this campaign.
Hooker not only alleges that "in his judgment, Gen. Sedgwick did not
obey the spirit of his order, and made no sufficient effort to obey it,"
but quotes Warren as saying that Sedgwick "would not have moved at all
if he [Warren] had not been there; and that, when he did move, it was
not with sufficient confidence or ability on his part to manoeuvre his
troops." It is very doubtful whether Warren ever put his opinion in so
strong a way as thus quoted by Hooker from memory. His report does
speak of Gibbon's slowness in coming up, and of his thus losing the
chance of crossing the canals and taking the breastworks before the
Confederates filed into them. But beyond a word to the effect that
giving the advance to Brooks's division, after the capture of the
heights, "necessarily consumed a considerable time," Warren does not in
his report particularly criticise Sedgwick's movements. And in another
place he does speak of the order of ten P.M. as an "impossible" one.
Gen. Warren's testimony on this subject is of the highest importance,
as representing Gen. Hooker in person. As before stated, he carried a
duplicate of Hooker's order of ten P.M., to Sedgwick, with instructions
from the general to urge upon Sedgwick the importance of the utmost
celerity. Moreover, Warren knew the country better than any one else,
and was more generally conversant with Hooker's plans, ideas, and
methods, being constantly at his side. "Gen. Sedgwick was ordered to be
in his position by daylight: of course that implied, if he could be
"If Sedgwick had got to Chancellorsville by daylight, I think we ought
to have destroyed Lee's army. But it would depend a great deal upon how
hard the other part of the army fought; for Gen. Sedgwick, with his
twenty thousand men, was in great danger of being destroyed if he became
Moreover, Hooker in this testimony says: "Early in the campaign I had
come to the conclusion that with the arms now in use it would be
impossible to carry works by an assault in front, provided they were
properly constructed and properly manned;" and refers to the
Fredericksburg assault of Dec. 13, to illustrate this position, saying
that they (the enemy) "could destroy men faster than I could throw them
on the works;" and, "I do not know of an instance when rifle-pits,
properly constructed and properly manned, have been taken by front
And yet his order to Sedgwick was (as he construes it), blindly to throw
himself into this impossible situation, and lose every man in his
command rather than not make the attempt at once, and without waiting
properly to dispose his men, or feel the enemy.
As to the leisurely marching of two or three miles on Sunday, we have
seen how Brooks's march was summarily arrested at Salem Church, and how
his attempt to force a passage, cost him alone some fifteen hundred men.
There is a good deal of evidence difficult to deal with in this movement
of the Sixth Corps. The report of Gen. Howe, written immediately after
the campaign, states facts dispassionately, and is to the point and
nothing more. This is as it should be in the report of a general to his
superior. It has but one error of consequence, viz., the assumption
that the three divisions of Anderson, McLaws, and Early, all under
command of Gen. Lee, attacked his line, leaving no force in front of
Brooks and Newton. It was Early alone, or Early assisted by a brigade
of Anderson, who attacked Howe.
But his testimony a year later, before the Committee on the Conduct of
the War, cannot be commended as dispassionate, and contains serious
errors. Gen. Howe states that the order to advance towards
Chancellorsville was received "just after dark, say eight o'clock,"
whereas it was not sent until nine P.M. from Chancellorsville, and ten
P.M. from Falmouth; nor did Sedgwick receive it until eleven P.M.
Howe evidently remembered the order to pursue by the Bowling-Green road,
as the one to march to Chancellorsville,--when speaking of time of
delivery. The deductions Gen. Howe makes from errors like this are
necessarily somewhat warped. But let us give all due weight to the
testimony of an able soldier. He states that his attack on Marye's
heights was made on a mere notice from Sedgwick, that he was about to
attack, and desired Howe to assist; that he received on Sunday evening a
bare intimation only from Sedgwick, that the left of the corps must be
protected, and that he consequently moved his own left round to the
river; and later, that Sedgwick sent him word to strengthen his position
for defence; but complains that Sedgwick did not properly look after his
division. "Not receiving any instruction or assistance from Gen. Sedgwick,
I felt that we were left to take care of ourselves. It seemed to me,
from the movements or arrangements made during the day, that there was
a want of appreciation or a misunderstanding of the position which we
held." Sedgwick's entire confidence in Howe's ability to handle his
division, upon general instructions of the object to be attained,
might account fully for a large part of this apparent vagueness.
But Howe does not look at it in this light. His opinion was, that no
necessity existed for the Sixth Corps to fall back across the river.
Gen. Howe's testimony is very positive as to the possibility of the
Sixth Corps complying with Hooker's order as given. He thinks a night
attack could have been made on the Fredericksburg heights, and that they
could have been speedily carried, and the corps have been well on the
road to Chancellorsville long before daylight. He also is of opinion
that Brooks's division could have forced its way beyond Salem Church,
with proper support. But we also know how gallant an attempt Brooks
made to do this very thing, and how hard he struggled before yielding to
It is in no wise intended to begrudge Gen. Howe his opinion; but he has
certainly arrived at some of his conclusions, from premises founded on
errors of fact.
The testimony of Col. Johns, which follows Gen. Howe's before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War, bears only the weight to which the
report of the commander of a brigade is entitled, whose duties allowed
him to have but a partial view of the general features of the march.
Though his opinion agrees with Gen. Howe's, he, too, mistakes the hour
of the urgent order; and it is difficult to see why he was summoned
before the Committee, unless as a partisan.
"My object" (continues Hooker) "in ordering Gen. Sedgwick forward at the
time named, was to relieve me from the position in which I found myself
at Chancellorsville on the night of the 2d of May." This statement is
not only characteristic of Hooker's illogical method, but disingenuous
to the degree of mockery. For this position, it will be remembered,
was a strongly intrenched line, held by eighty thousand men, well armed
and equipped, having in their front less than half their number of
Confederates. In view of Hooker's above-quoted opinion about rifle-
pits; of the fact that in his testimony he says: "Throughout the
Rebellion I have acted on the principle that if I had as large a force
as the enemy, I had no apprehensions of the result of an encounter;"
of the fact that the enemy in his front had been cut in two, and would
so remain if he only kept the salient, just seized by Sickles and
Pleasonton, at the angle south-west of Fairview, well manned; and of the
fact that he had unused reserves greater in number than the entire force
of the enemy,--is it not remarkable that, in Hooker's opinion, nothing
short of a countermarch of three miles by the Sixth Corps, the capture
of formidable and sufficiently manned intrenchments, (the work of the
Army of Northern Virginia during an entire half year,) and an advance of
nearly twelve miles,--all of which was to be accomplished between eleven
and daylight of a day in May,--could operate to "relieve him from the
position in which he found himself on the night of the 2d of May"?
"I was of the opinion, that if a portion of the army advanced on Lee's
rear, sooner than allow his troops to remain between me and Sedgwick,
Lee would take the road Jackson had marched over on the morning of the
2d, and thus open for me a short road to Richmond, while the enemy,
severed from his depot, would have to retire by way of Gordonsville."
Well enough, but was Sedgwick's corps the only one to accomplish this?
Where were Reynolds, and Meade, and Howard, forsooth?
There is no particular criticism by Hooker upon Sedgwick's authority to
withdraw to the north side of the river, or upon the necessity for his
so doing. And we have seen how hard-pressed and overmatched Sedgwick
had really been, and that he only withdrew when good military reasons
existed, and the latest-received despatch of his superior advised him to
do so. But Hooker states that "my desire was to have Gen. Sedgwick
retain a position on the south side of the river, in order that I might
leave a sufficient force to hold the position I was in, and with the
balance of my force re-cross the river, march down to Banks's Ford,
and turn the enemy's position in my front by so doing. In this, too,
I was thwarted, because the messenger who bore the despatch to Sedgwick
to withdraw and cover Banks's Ford, reached Sedgwick before the one who
bore the order countermanding the withdrawal."
Hooker had indicated to Sedgwick that he wished him to take and hold a
position at Taylor's, the point where the Fredericksburg heights
approach the river, above the town, and terminate. But as these heights
were by that time held by Early, and there were no pontoon-bridges there,
the proposal was one Sedgwick knew could not be seriously entertained,
with two-thirds of Lee's whole army surrounding his one corps, though he
did reconnoitre the ground in a vain effort to carry out his chief's
But was it not simpler for Hooker, who had now only Jackson's corps in
his front,--some eighteen thousand men to eighty thousand,--to move upon
his enemy, "attack and destroy him," and himself fall upon Lee's rear,
while Sedgwick kept him occupied at Banks's Ford? And Hooker had all
Sunday afternoon and night, and all day Monday, to ponder and arrange
for attempting this simplest of manoeuvres.
It is hard to understand how the man, who could cut out such a gigantic
piece of work for his lieutenant, as Hooker did for Sedgwick, could lack
the enterprise to execute so trivial a tactical movement as the one
indicated. From the stirring words, "Let your watchword be Fight,
and let all your orders be Fight, Fight, FIGHT!" of April 12, to the
inertia and daze of the 4th of May, is indeed a bewildering step.
And yet Hooker, to judge from his testimony, seems to have fully
satisfied himself that he did all that was to be expected of an active
and intelligent commander.
The impression that an attack should have been made, prevailed among
many of his subordinates. Gen. Wadsworth thus testified before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War: "Question.--Can you tell why it was
not ordered to attack the enemy at the time Gen. Sickles with his Third
Corps was driven back; or why it was not ordered to attack the next day,
when you heard the sound of Gen. Sedgwick's engagement with the enemy?
Answer.--I have no means of knowing; at the time we were ordered to
re-cross the river, so far as I could judge of the temper and spirit of
the officers and men of the army, they were ready to take the offensive.
I do not know why we were withdrawn then; I think we should not have
withdrawn. I think the enemy were whipped; although they had gained
certain advantages, they were so severely handled that they were weaker
than we were."
"Question.--Is it your opinion as a military man, that, if our army had
been ordered to take the offensive vigorously, we would have gained a
victory there? Answer.--I think we should have taken the offensive when
the enemy attacked Gen. Sedgwick."
Again Hooker: "During the 3d and 4th, reconnoissances were made on the
right," (i. e., at Chancellorsville,) "from one end of the line to the
other, to feel the enemy's strength, and find a way and place to attack
him successfully; but it was ascertained that it could only be made on
him behind his defences, and with slender columns, which I believed he
could destroy as fast as they could be thrown on to his works.
Subsequent campaigns have only confirmed the opinion I then ascertained."
Now, Hooker, at the time of giving this testimony, (March 11, 1865),
had had nearly two years in which to become familiar with the true state
of facts. He must have known these facts from the reports of his
subordinates, if not from the accounts of the action in the Southern
press. He must have known that all day Monday, he had only Jackson's
corps opposed to him. He must have known that these troops had time
enough to erect none but very ordinary intrenchments. And yet he
excuses himself from not attacking his opponents, when he outnumbered
them four to one. Would not his testimony tell better for him, if he
had said that at the time he supposed he had more than eighteen thousand
men before him? It is a thankless task to pursue criticism upon such
capricious and revocatory evidence.
Sickles also, in his testimony, states that from our new lines we felt
the enemy everywhere in his front, and that Gen. Griffin with his entire
division made a reconnoissance, and developed the enemy in great force
on our right flank. This work of reconnoitring can scarcely have been
done with great thoroughness, for we know to a certainty what force Lee
left behind. It would be well to say little about it. But it is not
strange that the purposelessness of the commander should result in
half-hearted work by the subordinates.