The Campaign of Chancellorsville

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
slow.” (Lee.)

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
subsequent events.

Following are the important despatches which passed, during the latter
part of these operations, between Hooker and Sedgwick:–

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.

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.

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.

Assistant Adjutant-General.

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

Brigadier-General and Aide-de-Camp.

SIXTH CORPS, May 4, 1863, 11 A.M.

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
brigade alone.
J. S.

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
the Rappahannock.

Brigadier-General and Aide-de-Camp.

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.

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.

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.

May 4, 1863, 11.50 P.M. (Received 1 A.M., May 5.)
United-States Ford.

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.

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.

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.

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
and wounded.

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?

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