The Campaign of Chancellorsville

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.



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.

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