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Chapter 9:

  • Marye's Hill
  • -- Salem Heights -- Sunday and Monday, 3d and 4th of May, 1863 -- return to White Oak Church -- Third crossing of the Rappahannock

Thus light-weighted, on the 28th of April, 1863, the Sixth Corps, now commanded by Gen. Sedgwick, was once more in column, moving toward the river, creeping through woods, through ravines, behind ridges, to conceal the march from the Confederates. The progress was not rapid. Evidently, it was not designed to bring the corps in sight of the enemy this afternoon, for at night the corps had been moved forward a couple of miles by a circuitous route, and lay in quite compact order, hidden from the observation of those on the south bank. It appears that the First and Third Corps were in motion on the left of the army, at this time, with us; Hooker had discarded the grand division organization. On the 29th, a division of the Sixth Corps was was thrown over the river, nearly at the point of crossing in December, and a division of the First, two miles lower down. Little opposition was made at Franklin's Crossing, there being a heavy fog, but down the river the sharpshooters in the rifle-pits were very troublesome, and it was necessary to bring several batteries to bear upon them before the pontoons could be placed. The remaining divisions of the First and Sixth Corps, and all of the Third Corps, remained upon the north side.

The Confederate lines extended twenty miles below Fredericksburg. Our movement had the effect of hurrying their troops from Port Royal and the vicinity. As the other Federal corps had moved up the river, northwest of the town, it was at this moment doubtful to Gen. Lee where the attack was to be made. He seems, however, to have deemed it necessary on the 30th to bring the major portion of his army to bear against the force which he learned was crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan, at different points above Fredericksburg; one result of this determination of [107] the Confederate commander was that only the corps of Early was left in defence of the heights of Fredericksburg. Now the Third Corps, Gen. Sickles, is silently withdrawn from our vicinity, whither it had accompanied us, and marches up the river to join Hooker.

On Saturday, May 2, while those divisions of the First and Sixth Corps which had crossed were lying upon the plain on the south side, the remaining divisions, by a series of marches and countermarches along the crests of the hills upon the north side, magnified their numbers to the enemy; and in the meanwhile the bulk of the First Corps departed from this vicinity, to join the force that confronted Lee. Through the afternoon of this day there was little change in our situation. We were lying in wait. Gen. Sedgwick was alone in command. In the meanwhile the bulk of the Federal army, consisting of the Eleventh Corps, Gen. Howard; a division of the Third, Sickles, which had arrived from our vicinity; the Twelfth, Gen. Slocum, comprising the right; and the Second, Gen. Couch, with the Fifth, Gen. Meade, on the left, had been engaged with the enemy, with varying fortune, at Chancellorsville, west of Fredericksburg, at the junction of the Gordonsville pike and the Orange, C. H., plank road.

The Eleventh Corps had been routed by a determined attack of Jackson's force, but his advance had been checked by parts of the Second and Third Corps, the artillery under Capt. Best, and 500 cavalry and horse artillery under Gen. Pleasanton. Stonewall Jackson had fallen in this latter engagement.

During the day, Lee had kept up a vigorous attack in front of Hooker, but was invariably unsuccessful in forcing the advanced line of Federal rifle-pits. During the night, Hooker contracted and reformed his lines. The First Corps arrived from below Fredericksburg, and was placed upon the right, where the Eleventh had been, previous to its discomfiture.

It was now, at midnight on the 2d of May, that Gen. Sedgwick received orders to cross the Rappahannock, carry the heights behind the town, and advance on Chancellorsville until he should come up with the rear of Lee's army. All of the available force of the Sixth Corps was on the south side before dawn; then Gen. Gibbon with a division 8,000 strong joins us, he having crossed this morning. Gen. Sedgwick must now have had under his command, [108] 30,000 men. It was proposed to carry Marye's Hill, yonder before Early's corps, which held it, could receive aid from Lee at Chancellorsville.

The land immediately behind the town forms a smooth, elevated plain, extending back a quarter of a mile, then rises to a ridge which ranges east and west, abutting at the east upon a ravine; this is Marye's Hill, upon which guns were planted in every position to rake the plain at its foot.

At the foot of this ridge is the telegraph road, twenty-five feet wide, which in many places is cut in the side of the hill and is not visible above the surface of the ground. The road is flanked by the famous stone-wall, four feet high on the side towards the town, against which, in December, the heroic divisions of French and Hancock were hurled to certain destruction. This position was of such strength that, it is said, in December only 1,700 men were found necessary to occupy it, against an attacking force approaching the town. South of and behind Marye's Hill is another table-land, which emerges on its southern side into another range of hills, then bristling with cannon, as was the ridge below.

In the absence of any considerable Confederate force upon the east of this position, and with a heavy fire upon Marye's Hill from the Union heavy batteries on the superior heights upon the north side of the river, the storming of the position was practicable, and its capture by a determined assault upon its right flank, thus avoiding the direct and enfilade fire from its immediate front, was possible.

The Sixth Corps, and its gallant associate command, Gibbon's division, before noon had carried both Marye's and Cemetery ridges at the point of the bayonet, and, with the prisoners they had captured, were pressing on.

The line of battle of the Sixth Corps extended from the pontoon bridge at Franklin's Crossing, to the right of the town of Fredericksburg. Our First Division, Gen. Brooks, consisting of Torbert's New Jersey brigade, Bartlett's brigade, the Twenty-seventh, Sixteenth, and One Hundred and Twenty-first New York, Fifth Maine, and Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania, and the Third Brigade, embracing the Eighteenth, Thirty-first and Thirty-second New York and Ninety-fifth Pennsylvania, with the batteries of Williston, [109] McCartney, Hexamer, and Walcott, held the plain in front of the crossing. Howe's Second Division was on our right in front of Marye's Hill. On the right of Howe was the light division, consisting of the Fifth Wisconsin, Sixth Maine, Thirty-first and Forty-third New York, and Sixty-First Pennsylvania, commanded by Col. Burnham, and on the extreme right of the corps was Gen. Newton's Third Division. Finally Gibbon's division of the First Corps crossed from Falmouth and established itself on the right of Newton.

The force occupying the heights was said to be as strong as that which repulsed the divisions of French, Hancock, and Humphreys in December. And it is said that General Barksdale, commanding it, was confident that he could repulse any attack which our corps commander could make. The direct assault in front, which began after an unsuccessful attempt to turn the Confederate left, was commenced at ten o'clock, A. M., by the Seventh Massachusetts, and two regiments of Eustis's brigade. On the right and left of this force were respectively Shaler's and Spear's brigades, and the light division. The latter was to capture the ‘stone-wall at the base of the hill.’ The forward movement of all these was made simultaneously under a terrible fire from the Confederates. Spear's brigade was nearly extinguished; its brave leader was killed. The Seventh Massachusetts, advancing through a rocky ravine, swept by the enemy's artillery, twice wavered, each time rallied and pushed on over the Confederate works, reaching the crest of the hill at the same moment as the light division, which on the left of the road had swept through a storm of shot and shell, over the stone-wall. Now there is a conflict for the guns upon the crest. The enemy is completely overpowered. The Sixth Maine, of the light division, having lost six captains and its major and a proportionate number of brave privates, was the first to plant its colors upon the Confederate works.

Early, in retreating, moved south, leaving open to the Federals the plank road to Chancellorsville. Along this road our division, in advance, made an unimpeded march of four miles to Salem Church, where shells from Confederate guns gave us notice of their presence. Bartlett's brigade was formed in line of battle, with the Sixteenth New York holding the skirmish line in front, the Twenty-seventh New York on the right, the Ninety-sixth [110] Pennsylvania on the left, the Fifth Maine and One Hundred and Twenty-first New York in the centre.

Before this line was a dense growth of second growth wood; Gen. Brooks ordered the brigade commander to push on rapidly through the thicket. Advancing perhaps 500 feet, the brigade came upon the Confederate line, the men lying down in a bridle road. They suddenly fired a volley into the ranks of the Union brigade, which the latter returned with interest, driving the Confederates back to their rifle-pits in the rear of the road. The road was now filled with the dead. The Confederates kept up a galling fire from the rifle-pits for twenty minutes, during which time our loss must have been quite 600 men; the whole division was now in action, and Gen. Newton's Third Division was hotly engaged upon the right. Our First Division slowly retiring, the Confederates made a dash from the rifle-pits with great vim upon it. Now the artillery Companies D, Second United States, Lieut. Williston, First Massachusetts, Capt. W. H. McCartney, and First New Jersey, Capt. Hexamer, by excellent service and fine practice repulsed the momentarily successful Confederate lines, and saved the division. The engagement of our division with the force of Wilcox and McLaws commenced at four o'clock, P. M. and shortly after the Third Division of the Sixth Corps came to our support, the Confederates were pushed back and the church and schoolhouse were in the possession of the Federals. Continued reinforcement of the Confederate force, enabling them to rally, resulted in staying the progress of our divisions, and, but for the splendid practice of the Sixth Corps Artillery, the end would perhaps have been the destruction of the Federal infantry.

It was now quite dark, and both weary combatants rested upon the field. After a night of anxiety and suspense, on the part of the rank and file, of uncertainty in regard to the result of the engagement at Chancellorsville, came Monday morning, May 4. Our lines were again reformed, and such disposition of the corps was made as would enable it, if possible, to withstand the attack of an overwhelming force, for it was the superior portion of Lee's army which had now turned to assail the Sixth Corps. Early had in the meantime returned to Fredericksburg and retaken possession of the heights, and our devoted corps was hemmed in on three sides by the enemy. [111]

To have withdrawn last night would have been disobedience of orders by our corps commander, since he had been directed by the commanding general to proceed to Chancellorsville. He had proceeded thus far on Sunday afternoon; the way thence was blocked by an augmented force of the enemy in a stronghold that commanded the route. The light of that day did not last long enough to permit the dislodgement of the foe, despite the skill of Sedgwick, and the spirited, persistent attack of his divisions.

He had no alternative as a soldier, other than to wait the morrow and resume his task. The corps was formed in the three sides of a square enclosing Banks' Ford. The Second Division faced east toward Fredericksburg, against Early, with its left on the Rappahannock; the Third Division, with one brigade of the First Division, faced west against McLaws, with its right upon the river; the remaining brigades of the First Division, Bartlett's and Torbert's, faced south, confronting Anderson, touching the other sides of the square.

The first movement on this Monday morn, May 4, was a Confederate attack upon Neill's brigade of the Second Division, on the left of our line. Here detachments of the Seventh Maine and the Forty-ninth New York, with Battery F, Fifth United States, Lieut. Martin, repulsed a whole brigade, captured two hundred prisoners, and the men of the first named regiment bore off the colors of the Fifty-eighth Virginia Infantry.

Thereafter through the day, however, until five o'clock, the situation was unchanged. Then began perhaps the most fearful struggle of this campaign, which lasted for three hours.

No time was spent by the Confederate commander in feeling the strength of the Federal force which yesterday had scaled the heights and driven before it their defenders. It is said that Gen. Lee personally marshalled the brigades. The initial movement of his troops was a furious onslaught upon our lines. This was repelled with equal vigor; another attack was made, and the advancing Confederate lines received a volley from our artillery that perceptibly thinned their ranks and stayed their progress.

Now a charge was made upon the batteries on our right, and they answer with canister, and the supporting regiments repel the assailants with the bayonet. Four times their lines were broken and driven back. Our company guns were twelve-pound Napoleons, [112] smooth-bores, effective at 1,500 yds. We had exchanged for these at Harrison's Landing four Parrott rifles and two brass howitzers. We had employed these twelve-pounders at South Mountain and Antietam, but probably at no previous time had they been more serviceable than now, in aiding to check the advance of the determined masses that sought first by dogged onsets to break and scatter our ranks on the right, and later, to turn that flank with the hope of capturing a considerable number.

The vastly numerically superior force opposed to General Sedgwick rendered it a triumph of generalship that he should hold his ground for a considerable time, and then, when prudence required the gradual retirement of his troops, so admirably were they handled that what the enemy at first fancied a retreat, he having massed a large part of his force to turn our left, was a prolonged resistance with bold front and resolute defence.

The general seemed intuitively to perceive the mental condition of his troops, as to their confidence or lack of confidence in their ability to do, and he had, moreover, the gift of inspiring confidence when untoward circumstances might beget a temporary faltering in the disposition of some corps. One day, while engaged in exercising this faculty, which he possessed in an eminent degree, he lost his life, his prominent figure having been exposed to the enemy's sharpshooters.

Seven or eight miles above Fredericksburg is a crossing called Banks' Ford; as night approached, the movements of the corps, which the nature of things necessitated, had been in the direction of this crossing. Reaching the vicinity of the ford, in line, the corps intrenched itself in a position to cover the crossing in its rear. It seemed at first that it might be the general's intention to hold this position, but the disastrous fire of Confederate batteries near the Decker House, which were so posted upon higher ground at a bend of the river, as to be able to rake the rear of our force, plainly showed the situation to be indefensible, and it was with extreme difficulty that the corps was able to cross after midnight, one bridge having been destroyed by the Confederate artillery.

The loss of the Sixth Corps in this campaign reached 5,000 men. Our company mourned little Benny Daniels, a brave, smooth-faced, black-eyed lad, whom a casual observer would have [113] deemed to be of too tender years to endure the hardships of military life; but he had a man's courage and fortitude. He fell, nobly doing his duty, on the morning of the 3d of May.

The Sixth Corps, on its return, held relatively the same position on the left of the army that it occupied previous to the 28th of April.


May sped, without developing upon the surface of our existence anything of national importance. On the 4th of June, there were rumors of a flank movement below Fredericksburg. Whatever might have been the design of the commander-in-chief, certainly on the following day the Sixth Corps infantry and artillery, with pontoon train, was in the Rappahannock Valley below the mouth of Deep Run. The Confederates, having a picket line along the bank, were in force in the rifle-pits which our First Division had made at a former time; and they opened a lively fire when the engineers prepared to launch the pontoons. Now all of our artillery, Williston's, McCartney's, McCarthy's, Cowan's, and Harn's, opened upon the works from the plain upon the north side, firing by battery; the assault was terrific, the plain beyond the river being completely obscured by the smoke of bursting shells, and the clouds of dust; the men in the pits were unable to readily lift their heads to sight the Federal engineers and infantry. Two regiments were thrown across in boats; the artillery cease firing as the infantry reach the opposite bank; the latter charge the pits and drive the occupants over the plain,—pursue them and capture prisoners. The bridge being laid, each of our divisions in turn crossed, one relieving another, so that during the five succeeding days, each command spent a day or more on the south side. There was an occasional exchange of papers between the Sixth Corps pickets and those of the enemy, but no further exchange of hostilities.

The first symptom of Lee's great northward movement, so ably did he manoeuvre, was not perceived by the Federals until the 9th of June; when Pleasanton's cavalry struck the enemy's columns at Brandy Station, on the line of the Alexandria and Orange Railroad, east of Culpepper, C. H., this revealed in a degree the purpose of the Confederate general, but too late for preventive opposition; he had in effect, as De Peyster has said, gained [114] a week's march. The Federal commander was now compelled to hasten his army by shorter lines than those pursued by his adversary to positions between the Confederate host, and Washington and Baltimore; what conflict—and with what fruits—would eventually result from the ultimate meeting of these armies, so evenly matched in many respects, God only knew.

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