May 4, 1863 (Monday)
Union General John Sedgwick was a fighting man. His VI Corps had been left behind at Falmouth, while the rest of the Army of the Potomac, under Joe Hooker, attempted to outflank General Lee. Over the past three days, of course, things didn’t go as planned and the bulk of the Union Army was in a defensive position, its back against the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers.
Sedgwick’s Corps had crossed over into Fredericksburg, making demonstrations hoping to keep Lee’s entire Army in their trenches above and south of the town. Lee left only a division behind and went a few miles west to deal with Joe Hooker’s machinations.
After several attempts, Sedgwick was able to break the thin Rebel line at Fredericksburg, capturing Marye’s Heights, the scene of the bloodiest fighting at the December battle. Following this success, he slowly made his way towards Hooker’s Army, attempting to come in behind Lee at Chancellorsville. But it was not to be. Lee detached troops to stop him and, by nightfall, Sedgwick’s VI Corps was stood still near Salem Church.
And on the morning of this date, that is where he remained. At 6:30am, Sedgwick received a message from Joe Hooker. Everything, according to the Union commander, was going well. He optimistically hoped that Lee would attack him. Hooker wished for the Confederates to dash themselves upon the rocks of his defenses. He also wanted Sedgwick to retreat towards Banks Ford on the Rappahannock should things get too hot.
Through the night, General Lee had sent reinforcements to Salem Church, hoping to keep Sedgwick confined. This was a great risk, leaving 36,000 to face Hooker’s 75,000. But Lee believed he knew his opponent wasn’t about to attack.
The previous day, Hooker suffered what was probably a concussion. Perhaps that explains why, around 8am, he wanted Sedgwick to have two brigades positioned so as to aid the main body. What 75,000 troops up against a half of their number needed with two extra brigades was anybody’s guess.
General Jubal Early, commanding the right of Lee’s lines near Salem Church, launched an attack to sever Sedgwick’s link with Fredericksburg and the Union base at Falmouth. Led by John Gordon’s Georgia Brigade, they stormed and screamed up Telegraph Road, crossed Hazel Run and crashed into Sedgwick’s stretched out left. Taking a bit of uncontested high ground, they fell upon the Yankees, quick to retreat.
Sedgwick refused his line, giving up the connection with Fredericksburg, as well as with Marye’s Heights. This put the entire corps in a vise, surrounded on three sides by Rebels, and on the fourth side by the Rappahannock River.
But Early’s attack had run out of steam and was unable to drive Sedgwick’s left off the ridge it now occupied. Hoping to make a concerted effort with the entire force at hand, Early sent word to McLaws’ Division to join in. McLaws’ sent to Lee for more reinforcements, and so Anderson’s Division was pulled from the line at Chancellorsville with orders to make for Fredericksburg.
This was yet another gamble. It left behind only 25,000 troops to face Hooker’s 75,000. What it did, however, was even the odds against Sedgwick. Lee wanted to destroy his entire corps and assembled 21,000 men, nearly half his infantry, to do it. Lee, who had been with the troops at Chancellorsville, left just before Anderson’s Division took to the road, soon placing it between McLaws and Early.
Lee wanted a lightening strike, but what he got was a very worn out fizzle. The troops, especially Anderson’s, were exhausted. All afternoon Lee waited, his patience growing shorter, as Anderson looked for a way to get between McLaws and Early – Sedgwick’s Federals were still blocking road.
Finally, at 6pm, with daylight fading, the assault began. Mostly on the Confederate left, they pressed the Federals, pushing them back towards the river. The Union artillery, blasting canister and grapeshot at the rushing Southerners, did everything they could to stop the charge. But it was only darkness that drew it to a close.
Sedgwick’s lines had been pushed back, but he was not broken. Lee was furious, believing that come the next morning, the Federal lines before him would be so compact they would be impossible to carry.
Around midnight, back at Chancellorsville, Hooker called a meeting of all his corps commanders near Chancellorsville. So late was the meeting that Butterfield had time to make it from Falmouth to Hooker’s headquarters before it began.
Hooker started by reiterating the broad and general order to “cover Washington” and not jeopardize his army. It was then, right away, that all in attendance knew he was about to call for a retreat. Hooker described the situation the army was now in and then left with Butterfield, allowing the corps commanders to discuss the next action.
All but Dan Sickles wanted to stay and fight. Sickles believed that a retreat would not be too hard on the country. When Hooker again entered, he asked them to give opinions, which they did. Hooker, who had already made up his mind, then told them that they were going to cross back over the river at dawn.
Around that same time, General Sedgwick wired Hooker, asking what to do. “An immediate reply is indispensable,” wrote Sedgwick, “or I may feel obliged to withdraw.” An hour later, Hooker replied, telling Sedgwick to retire across the Rappahannock. But before Hooker’s reply arrived, due to a bit of advice from his engineer, Sedgwick decided not to retire without express orders to do so. He wired Hooker, telling him that he was going to stay.
Hooker received this message twenty minutes after sending the orders to retire. Hoping that Sedgwick wouldn’t have had time to call a full retreat, he send another message countermanding the order to withdraw.
Then a curious thing happened. Hooker’s first order – the one calling for a withdrawal – arrived in a timely fashion. Hooker wrote it at 1am, it reached Sedgwick at 2am. Sedgwick responded, “Will withdraw my forces immediately.” The second message, however, took a much longer time getting to Sedgwick, not arriving until 3:20am. By then, it was much too late.
“Yours just received, countermanding order to withdraw,” Sedgwick replied. “Almost my entire command has crossed over.”
Through the increasingly foggy night, the Union troops filed towards the crossing as McLaws’ Confederates edged close to Banks Ford, just up the river. The fog and darkness kept McLaws from launching any attack to stop them.1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; A Glorious Army by Jeffry Wert; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest Furguson; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. [↩]