previous next

Sedgwick at Fredericksburg and Salem Heights.

by Huntington W. Jackson, Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, U. S. V.
From our encampment on the Stafford Heights, the bright camp-fires of the enemy and the scenes of the terrible encounters under Burnside were daily presented to our sight from December, 1862, until the following April. During this period, with the exception of a futile movement on the right known as the “Mud march,” the army remained quiet. The pickets stationed on either bank of the Rappahannock were within hailing distance of each other, and dress and faces could be easily distinguished. By the comity that prevailed, there was no firing from either side. One could ride or walk down to the banks of the river with perfect security. Sometimes “Johnny Reb,” as he was called, would rig up a little raft, and, loading it with tobacco, start it with sails and rudder set for the other shore. When the precious freight was unloaded, the craft, generously burdened with coffee and salt, would be headed by “Yank” in an opposite direction, where it would be received with loud expressions of thanks. In this and other ways the asperities of the war were mollified. As time rolled on and the weather improved, arrangements were made for an advance. The men were well clothed, rested, and eager to move again to test the fortunes of war.

Of the several plans of attack, Hooker determined to march around the enemy's left flank to Chancellorsville, leaving a portion of the army at Fredericksburg to conceal the real movement. The army struck camp on the 27th of April, and on the 30th Hooker established his headquarters at Chancellorsville. The same evening, in general orders, he said, “It is with heartfelt satisfaction the commanding general announces to the army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” Hooker [225] forgot the injunction of Ahab to Benhadad: “Tell him,” he said, “Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off.”

While the right wing was concentrating at Chancellorsville, the corps of Sedgwick and Reynolds, after considerable opposition, crossed the Rappahannock on pontoon-bridges below Fredericksburg, and by the evening of the 30th were deployed on the wide plain where Franklin's Left Grand Division had fought in the previous battle. Sickles's corps was in supporting distance. The position of Lee's army remained unchanged until the 29th, when Lee was informed that large bodies of Federals were moving toward Chancellorsville. It was the first information he had received of Hooker's movement on his left, and it is said he was incensed at the delay of the communication. [See p. 233.] At midnight Anderson's division of Lee's army hurriedly moved from Fredericksburg and intrenched about four or five miles from Hooker's headquarters.

In an address of Fitzhugh Lee delivered to the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia he stated: “General Robert E. Lee said that Jackson had first preferred to attack Sedgwick's corps in the plain at Fredericksburg; Lee told him he felt it was as impracticable as at the first battle of Fredericksburg; it was hard to get at the enemy and harder to get away, on account of the artillery on the north bank, if we drove them into the river; but, said he to Jackson, ‘If your think it can be done, I will give you orders for it.’ Jackson then asked to be allowed to examine the grounds, and did so during the afternoon, and at night came to Lee and said he thought he (Lee) was right; it would be inexpedient to attack them. ‘Move then,’ said Lee, ‘at dawn to-morrow, up to Anderson.’ ”

Sickles's and Reynolds's corps having subsequently been ordered to Chancellorsville by Hooker, Sedgwick was left alone below Fredericksburg with about 24,000 men, the Sixth Corps being by several thousand the largest in the army.

During the evening of the 2d of May Hooker sent word to Sedgwick “to take up his line on the Chancellorsville road and attack and destroy any forces he might meet.” He also added that “he (Sedgwick) would probably fall upon the rear of Lee's forces, and between them they would use Lee up.” If Hooker thought an insignificant force was in Sedgwick's front, the engagement soon to take place showed how mistaken he was. Sedgwick received the order about 11 o'clock at night. He at once advanced his command to the Bowling Green road and then marched by the right flank toward Fredericksburg. Newton's division was in the advance. The night was dark and the road made darker by the foliage of the trees on either side. The progress was necessarily slow. Frequent short halts were made while the skirmishers were feeling their way. Once, when the, halt was prolonged and nothing broke the deep silence of the night except an occasional shot followed by the never-to-be-forgotten ping of the minie-ball, General Newton, who was riding with the third or fourth regiment from the advance, called out: “Is any one of my staff here?” Those present promptly responded, and I was directed to “; ride ahead and tell Colonel Shaler to brush away the enemy's [226]

The Stone wall under Marye's Heights. From a photograph taken immediately after Sedgwick carried the position by assault.

[227] pickets.” The road was filled with soldiers, some lying down, others resting on their guns, but a passage was quickly cleared. At Hazel Run Colonel Shaler and Colonel Hamblin were found standing together. Here the enemy made a determined resistance. Their pickets were but a few yards distant. On the other side of the creek the road made a sharp ascent and curved to the right. In a subdued tone Colonel Shaler said: “Colonel Hamblin, you have heard the order from General Newton?” At once Colonel Hamblin left. In a moment there was the noise of hurrying feet, the troops quickly disappeared in the dark; a shout, a bright, sudden flash, a roll of musketry followed, and the road was open.

It was the gray of morning when the advance reached the rear and left of Fredericksburg. A negro who came into the lines reported the heights occupied and that the enemy were cutting the canal to flood the roads. To ascertain whether this was true, another delay was caused. No one in the command was acquainted with the topography of the country, and the advance was compelled to move with great caution through the streets and in the outskirts of the town. As the morning dawned, Marye's Heights, the scene of the fierce attacks under Burnside in the previous December, were presented to our view. Several regiments were speedily moved along the open ground in the rear of the town toward the heights, and this movement discovered the enemy in force behind the famous stone wall at the base of the hill. Lee had left Early with his division and Barksdale's brigade, a force of about ten thousand men, to hold Fredericksburg Heights. They were protected by strong works and supported by well-served artillery. It was at once felt that a desperate encounter was to follow, and the recollections of the previous disaster were by no means inspiriting.

It was Sunday morning, the 3d of May, and the weather was beautiful. The town was perfectly quiet, many of the inhabitants had fled, not a person was to be seen on the streets, and the windows and blinds of the houses were closed. The marks of the fierce cannonade to which the place had previously been exposed were everywhere visible.

As soon as practicable and as secretly as possible, Sedgwick prepared to attack the heights. Gibbon, of the Second Corps, who had been left on the north bank, crossed shortly after Sedgwick had captured the town and moved to the right, but his advance was stopped by the canal in front, over which it was impossible to lay bridges in face of the fire from the artillery and infantry on the hill. Sedgwick says, “Nothing remained but to carry the works by direct assault.” The attack on Marye's Heights was made under direction of Newton. Two columns, each marching by fours, were formed on the Plank and Telegraph roads, and were supported by a line of infantry from the Light Brigade on the left, commanded by Colonel Burnham. The right column, under Colonel George C. Spear, was composed of the 61st Pennsylvania and the 43d New York. These two regiments belonged to the Light Brigade. This column was supported by the 67th New York and 82d Pennsylvania, under Colonel Alexander Shaler. The left column consisted of the 7th Massachusetts and the 36th New York, under Colonel Thomas D. Johns. [228] The line of battle, commanded by Colonel Hiram Burnham, was composed of the 5th Wisconsin (acting as skirmishers), the 6th Maine, 31st New York (these three regiments also belonging to the Light Brigade), and the 23d Pennsylvania. Howe's division was posted south of Hazel Run, and cooperated handsomely, capturing five guns.1

The order to advance was given at 11 o'clock. Sedgwick and Newton with the deepest interest watched the attack from. the garden of a brick residence situated on the outskirts of the town and to the left

The capture of a gun of the Washington artillery, on Marye's Heights.

of the Telegraph road, which commanded a full view of the assault. The movements of the enemy showed that they were actively preparing to receive the attack, but the men behind the stone wall were concealed from view. As the left column emerged from the town and was passing near Sedgwick and Newton, the enemy's battery opened, and a portion of a bursting shell struck and killed Major Elihu J. Faxon, of the 36th New York, while mounted and riding with his command, and wounded several others. There was an exclamation of horror and a momentary scattering of the rear of the column, but the men quickly closed up and pressed on. Colonel Spear, commanding the right column, was killed at about the same time. Both columns and line, in light marching order, advanced at double-quick without firing a shot. The enemy kept up an incessant artillery fire, and the noise was deafening. Their musketry fire was reserved until our men were within easy range. Then a murderous storm of shot from the stone wall, and grape and canister from the hill, burst upon the columns and line. For a moment the head of the left column was checked and broken. The column on the right was also broken. Colonel Burnham's line of blue on the green field paused as if to recover breath, and [229] slightly wavered. Sedgwick and Newton looked on with unconcealed anxiety, and turned to each other, but remained silent. The suspense was intense. Was it to be a victory or a defeat? Was the place a second time to be a “slaughter-pen?” Was the Sixth Corps to be driven into the river? Staff-officers, waving their swords and hurrahing to the men, dashed down the Telegraph road. A blinding rain of shot pierced the air. It was more than human nature could face. The head of the column as it reached the lowest part of the decline near a fork in the road seemed to melt away. Many fell; others bending low to the earth hurriedly sought shelter from the undulations of ground and the fences and the two or three wooden st ructures along the road. Out of 400 comprising the 7th Massachusetts, 150 were killed and wounded. Colonel Johns, commanding, was severely wounded. Then, as if moved by a sudden impulse and nerved for a supreme effort, both columns and the line in the field simultaneously sprang forward. The stone wall was gained and the men were quickly over it.2 Just as my horse was jumping through a break in the wall one of the enemy, standing slightly to the left and about a horse's length from me, raised his gun and fired. The excitement of the hour must have unnerved his hand, for the ball zipped harmlessly by to my right. In a second a bayonet was thrust into his breast by one of our men on my left. Along the wall a hand-to-hand fight took place, and the bayonet and the butt of the musket were freely used. The brilliant and successful charge occupied perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, and immediately after the wall was carried the enemy became panic-stricken. In the flight they threw away guns, knapsacks, pistols, swords, and everything that might retard their speed. One thousand prisoners were taken, besides several battle-flags and pieces of artillery. The commander of a Louisiana battery handed his saber to Colonel Thomas S. Alien, of the 5th Wisconsin. This regiment out of 500 men lost 123, and the 6th Maine out of about the same number lost 167 in killed and wounded. Over 600 were killed and wounded in the direct assault upon the heights, and the loss to the corps on the entire front was about 1000.

General G. K. Warren, who had arrived that morning with instructions from headquarters, said in his telegram to Hooker: “The heights were carried splendidly at 11 A. M. by Newton.” Upon reaching the summit of the sharp hill, after passing through the extensive and well-wooded grounds of [230] the Marye House, an exciting scene met the eye. A single glance exhibited to view the broad plateau alive with fleeing soldiers, riderless horses, and artillery and wagon trains on a gallop. The writer hurried back to Sedgwick, who was giving directions for Brooks and Howe to come up, and suggested that it was a rare opportunity for the use of cavalry. With evident regret Sedgwick replied that he did not have a cavalryman. The carrying of the heights had completely divided the enemy's

Salem Church. From a recent photograph. The view is from the Plank road. On the left is what remains of the Confederate trenches. The bricks on the four sides of the church are spotted with bullet-marks, and especially on the line of the upper windows toward the road, showing that many Union soldiers aimed high. This church was a refuge for many Fredericksburg families during Burnside's battle.--editors.

forces, throwing either flank with much confusion on opposite roads, and it seemed as though a regiment of cavalry might not only have captured many prisoners, guns, ammunition, and wagons, but also have cleared the way for the corps almost as far as the immediate rear of Lee's army at Chancellorsville.

Newton's division, exhausted by the night march, the weight of several days' rations and sixty rounds of ammunition, and by the heat, fatigue, and excitement of battle, were allowed to halt for a short time. Many were soon asleep, while others made coffee and partook of their first meal that day.

Brooks's division soon came up from below Hazel Run, and took the advance. Newton and Howe followed. The enemy in the meantime had united their forces, and delayed the rapid advance by frequent stands, retiring successively from hill to hill, and opening with artillery. Ravines running at right angles to the main road and the rolling character of the country were favorable for impeding the pursuit, which was continued for three or four miles until we reached Salem Church, an unpretentious red-brick structure situated on a ridge covered with dense woods and undergrowth. To-day it bears many scars of the contest waged around it.

At this point the enemy were in position with four fresh brigades withdrawn from Hooker's front, and prepared to contest any farther advance. Lee had met with such complete success in his attack upon Hooker that he felt he could well spare these troops and not suffer. Brooks on the left of the road and Newton on the right quickly formed their commands and made several gallant assaults. The fight was very severe in the thick woods, and for a time was waged with varying success. The crest of the woods and a little school-house near the church were gained, and once it was thought they could [231] be held, but the enemy, in superior numbers, pressed on, and the ground and the church were left in their possession. The contest did not last long, but nearly 1500 were killed and wounded. Bartlett's brigade, numbering less than 1500, lost 580 officers and men. That night the soldiers slept on their arms.

It was understood throughout the Sixth Corps that as soon as it should become engaged with the enemy Hooker would immediately attack in his front, and prevent any reenforcements from being sent against Sedgwick. All during that Sabbath day and the next the sound of Hooker's guns were eagerly listened for. No sound would have been more welcome. But after 10 o'clock Sunday morning axes and spades were used at Chancellorsville more than the guns. The feeling became widely prevalent that the Sixth Corps would be compelled to take care of itself. At first it was cautiously whispered that Hooker had failed, and soon the worst was surmised, and it was concluded that no help could be expected from him. His dash, promptness, and confidence as a division and corps commander were gone.

Lee that night withdrew his troops, flushed with their brilliant success, from the front of Hooker, with the exception of Jackson's corps, and marched against Sedgwick. Still Hooker remained inactive; with a force greatly in excess of the enemy in his front, he made no effort to relieve Sedgwick from his perilous position. Works were thrown up by the enemy along the Salem Church ridge, and they extended their right until on Monday morning Marye's Heights and Fredericksburg, won at so great a sacrifice, were again theirs.

Sedgwick's position, as finally established, was in the shape of a horseshoe, both flanks resting on the river, the line covering Banks's Ford. His line of battle was between five and six miles in length. Frequent attempts had been made, during Sunday morning, to communicate with Banks's Ford and to direct the laying of pontoon-bridges, but for some time roving bodies of cavalry frustrated this. The late Colonel Henry W. Farrar, then on the staff of Sedgwick, while carrying a message for this purpose, was captured and taken to Richmond. The 4th of May dragged wearily, skirmishing continued all day, the weather was hot, Sedgwick's position was most critical, and the keenest anxiety was felt. Lee was in our front with a force much larger than Sedgwick's then available command of about eighteen thousand men, and an attack was momentarily expected, but fortunately Lee consumed the whole day in establishing his lines. The greatest vigilance and activity were exercised by our men in throwing up rifle-pits. Hooker sent word to Sedgwick to look well to the safety of his corps, and either to fall back upon Fredericksburg or recross at Banks's Ford; he also added that he could do nothing to relieve him.3 Sedgwick accordingly intrusted Newton with the arrangements [232]

The attack on Sedgwick at Banks's Ford, Monday evening, May 4, as seen from the Sand-bag Battery near Falmouth. From a War-time sketch.

for the withdrawal. Newton quickly made himself acquainted with the roads leading to Banks's Ford and succeeded in establishing communication with General Henry W. Benham, who was in charge of the pontoons at that place.

At 6 o'clock in the evening the enemy attacked Brooks and Howe on the center and left, with the design of cutting off the corps from Banks's Ford. Howe not only maintained his position until night-fall, but also made several counter-charges, capturing several hundred prisoners. Brooks also held on until dark, but in retiring was closely pursued by the enemy. The whole corps then successfully fell back to Banks's Ford, and the long and painful suspense of the day was over. The picket line in front and on the left of Salem ridge was withdrawn by General David A. Russell in person. I had been directed to assist him. That sterling soldier dismounted, moved along the line saying, “Quietly, men, quietly; don't make any noise” ; but the jingle of the canteens and other unavoidable sounds on the evening air revealed the movement to the vigilant enemy, and they followed closely, yelling and firing until the double-quick step brought us to our main column on the march, about a mile distant. Several of the enemy's scouts penetrated almost to the ford and threw up rockets to mark our position. The enemy's artillery responded to the signal, shelling both troops and bridges, but with little injury. During the night we recrossed the river and took position to meet the enemy should they, as expected at the time, cross to the north side to renew their attack, or attempt to destroy our depots for supplies near Fredericksburg. We captured 5 battle-flags and 15 pieces of artillery, 9 of which were brought off. Fourteen hundred prisoners were taken, including many officers of rank.

1 Brooks's division was posted along Deep Run as far as Bernard's house. Bartlett's brigade of this division held the railroad crossing at Deep Run to guard against an attack on the flank of the storming column, and was sharply engaged during the forenoon.--editors.

2 A private of Company F, 7th Massachusetts, writes to the editors:

“The assault took place Sunday, May 3d, at about 11 o'clock A. M., the 7th Massachusetts leading the left column, the 36th New York Volunteers in support. Both marched by the flank. Our company (F), leading the 7th, consequently caught the whole body of the first fire of the ‘Johnnies,’ which they withheld until we were certainly within twenty-five yards. As some of the officers sang out ‘Retreat, Retreat,’ the men began to yell ‘Forward! don't go back! we sha'n't get so close up again.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Franklin P. Harlow was the man above all others who held the men up to their work, and I have never yet seen his name even worthily mentioned. Just before and in front of the wall facing down the street is a house standing in a small plat, V-shaped, and inclosed by a high board fence. This wall in our front along the base of the hill was a rough stone wall forming the rear bank of the sunken road, while on our side in front of the sunken road was a good stone wall even with the level of the field. In this sunken road were two Confederate lines of battle, the front line firing on our charging lines on the left of the road and the rear line sitting on their heels, with their backs against the terrace wall at the base of the hill and rear of the road. About opposite the right of our regiment was a depression on the hill made some time, I should think, by water from the land above, but now grassed over; at the head of this depression was a battery placed, I suppose, to rake the ravine or depression. Some one looked through the board fence, and saw the enemy's flank. In a moment the men rushed to the fence, and we went through pell-mell right upon the flank of the Confederates, at the same time giving them the contents of the muskets point-blank without aiming. The whole thing was a surprise; they were not prepared for anything from this quarter, as we were hidden from them, and they from us, by the house and fence.” editors.

3 These instructions to Sedgwick were sent through General G. K. Warren, Hooker's chief of engineers, who had been sent to Sedgwick to render what assistance he might, and who had returned to Hooker on Sunday evening. Warren says:

“ As soon as General Sedgwick's advance had caused the retreat of the troops at Banks's Ford [about 1 P. M., May 3d], General Benham had thrown a bridge across and communicated with him. By this route and the United States Mine Ford, I returned to headquarters, near Chancellorsville, which I reached at 11 P. M. I found, as the result of the battle at that point, that our line had fallen back from the Chancellorsville house about a mile. After reporting to the general, and getting his ideas, I telegraphed the following to General Sedgwick at mid-night:

I find everything snug here. We contracted the line a little, and repulsed the last assault with ease. General 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 from him to direct. Look well to the safety of your corps, and keep up communication with General 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.

This dispatch was written at a time when I was exceedingly exhausted. It did not reach Genera Sedgwick till late in the forenoon of the 4th, so I have been told, and was the only instruction he received. The enemy attacked him in strong force the next day, and, having resisted them till the evening, he withdrew across the river at Banks's Ford.

” editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 3rd (3)
1500 AD (2)
May 4th (2)
December, 1862 AD (1)
1000 AD (1)
December (1)
May 2nd (1)
April 27th (1)
April (1)
4th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: