The Campaign of Chancellorsville

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:–

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.

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
to Stansbury’s.

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
precautions accordingly.



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.

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