The Campaign of Chancellorsville

XXIX.

SALEM CHURCH.

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
front.

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but were soon withdrawn for lack of ammunition.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line was withdrawn some three hundred yards within the wood, where a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
the toll-house.

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
Newton’s regiments.

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
Salem Church.

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.

XXX.

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.”

And later:–

“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
page.

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
Church.

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
our front.

“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
Sedgwick’s divisions.

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