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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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Fighting at Salem Church

Series archive

Federal soldiers swarm around Salem Church, but are beaten back by the Confederates.

Date published: Sat, 11/16/2002

Part 37 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

BAPTIST ADHERENTS in Spotsylvania Coun- ty outnumbered available pews in 1844, so some country folk launched a new congregation west of Fredericksburg and called it Salem Church. The unpretentious rectangular brick sanctuary that they erected resembled many another of the type throughout the South. Salem Church would become more famous than the rest not for fervor, piety, or liturgy, but rather because of shot and shell.

After his successful conquest of Marye's Heights at midday on May 3, 1863, Gen. John Sedgwick pushed his Federal brigades westward along the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3). When they reached the home of George Guest, they halted to rest and reorganize. Sedgwick made his headquarters in the Guest house, a wooden building that survived until 1985 about 100 yards west of where the Hampton Inn stands today.

Lee had spun four Confederate brigades around and started them eastward to forestall the threat that Sedgwick posed from that direction. Before those reinforcements could come within range of Sedgwick, a small Southern force intervened, blocking the Federal path from positions athwart the Orange Plank Road at Salem Church Ridge. The Confederates, commanded by a vigilant Gen. C. M. Wilcox, had dropped south across country from Banks Ford on the River Road to meet the emergency.

Although a Louisiana brigade refused to join him, Wilcox wrote, "I felt it a duty to delay the enemy as much as possible in his advance, and to endeavor to check him all that I could."

Gen. Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox was born in North Carolina, evidently to parents with classical enthusiasms, and grew up in Tennessee; his brother served in the U.S. Congress from Missis-sippi and in the Confederate Congress representing Texas. Despite that polyglot heritage, the general will always be associated with Alabama because the brigade he led for the first half of the Civil War was made up of five regiments from that state.

Wilcox had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1846, standing 54th in a famous class that counted among its members "Stonewall" Jackson, A.P. Hill, George McClellan and George Pickett. For the final two years of the war, beginning at Gettysburg, Cadmus Wilcox would command a division under a promotion that he earned on May 3, 1863. Despite his subsequent operations at higher rank, Wilcox's alert intervention in a fluid and dangerous situation probably made May 3 his most successful day in military service.

John Sedgwick and Cadmus Wilcox had served together in the prewar U.S. Army. Each had been decorated for bravery in the deadly assault by a handful of Americans on Chapultepec, outside Mexico City. (Some U.S. Marines participated in that 1847 attack, whence comes "the halls of Montezuma" in their familiar anthem.) When Sedgwick received word that Wilcox had taken up positions facing him, he told George Guest that his troops "were after Cadmusand were going to pick him up."

Going after Cadmus proved to be more difficult than Sedgwick hoped, for three reasons: Wilcox's Alabama troops fought tenaciously; reinforcements from Lee arrived in timely fashion; and the Salem Church ridge proved to be ideally configured for defense.

Popular perception typically imagines impregnable military positions to be towering bluffs with sheer sides. In fact, the gentle slope leading westward to the crest upon which Salem Church stood rose at precisely the kind of grade that a military engineer would design. The long, steady rise resembled what an engineer would call a "glacis"--in the definition of the standard 1861 military dictionary, a "slopeextended in a gentle declivity to the surrounding country." A steeper slope would create a "defilade," or space in the attack zone in which an enemy might be out of sight and immune to defensive fire.

Wilcox's Confederates gratefully settled in above the "gentle declivity," and at about 5 p.m., Yankees faithfully trudged across the open, deadly slope toward them. New Jersey troops made up the heart of the attack, with infantry from Maine, Pennsylvania and New York in support. Despite heavy losses--a single division lost 1,500 casualties through the weekend, and Sedgwick's corps lost nearly 5,000--the Northerners grimly closed in on the church. Bullets chipped the brick walls, smashed through the windows, embedded themselves in interior plaster and perforated the balcony facings.

As Federals swarmed across the churchyard, fighting raged with special bitterness around a small wooden schoolhouse that stood a few dozen yards southeast of the church (near what is now the back edge of the rear parking lot for New Salem Church). One company of the 9th Alabama occupied the school house or fired from behind its shelter. A blond-whiskered Yankee lieutenant yelled "No quarter!" A Confederate killed him.

The blue-clad tide that swept beyond the schoolhouse and split at the church forced back the center of Wilcox's line. Bright young Col. Emory Upton of New York, just two years out of West Point, distinguished himself at the forefront. When a bullet killed Upton's horse, the colonel continued on foot, yelling at the top of his lungs. His men followed, at great cost; Upton said that he lost 200 men--about one-half of his regiment's strength--in seven minutes. Despite his youth, Upton would go on to considerable prominence (notably at Spotsylvania Court House) and higher rank in 1864. He committed suicide in 1881.

Col. Young L. Royston led the 8th Alabama Infantry of Wilcox's Brigade in the heart of the fight. The 43-year-old lawyer from Perry County towered above his men; at 6 feet, 7 inches he was the tallest colonel in Lee's army. Royston's bulk provided a target impossible to miss, and a Federal bullet wounded him desperately. The injury knocked the colonel out of the war permanently, but he survived until 1884. Royston's successor in regimental command, 29-year-old Hilary A. Herbert, became secretary of the Navy in the 1890s and lived until 1919.

Federal success around the church proved fleeting. The Confederate reinforcements sent east by Lee gave Wilcox enough support to maintain his position. Georgians went into action north of the Plank Road; South Carolinians extended Wilcox's right, stretching south down the Salem Church Road (modern State Route 639). A Georgian officer recalled that his men fired 60 rounds of ammunition and sent back for more. "The roar of musketry was incessant and terrific," he wrote.

The fresh Confederate troops ensured victory. As the sun set behind them, Sedgwick had been firmly stymied. On May 4, Southerners would do their best to herd him across the Rappahannock.

New Jersey troops returned years after the war to erect monuments where they fought. One of them includes a bronze plaque on which the Jerseymen pay warm tribute to the brave Alabamians against whom they had struggled in mortal combat.

Historic Salem Church still stands, evocative and bullet-scarred. It was opened to the public in the late 1970s, after meticulous restoration, but the obliteration of the rest of the battlefield at about that time made the church nearly useless as a tourist attraction.

Spotsylvania County's one minuscule concession to protecting the battlefield was grotesquely farcical: The county suggested that a gas station going in opposite the church be of "Colonial design." The Colonial epoch ended as long before the Civil War as the gas station was post-Civil War. The Colonial design proved to be some wrought-iron filigree holding up the company logo. The gas station lasted a few years, but was torn down long ago.

The commercialization of the Salem Church battlefield included removal of almost the entire high ground that crossed the road. Bulldozers cut the crest clear off the ridge, it apparently being essential to enter fast-food driveways on a downgrade. The land on which some 20,000 Americans fought for their lives in 1863, and where many lost them, is now covered with asphalt and with what passes for culture in 21st-century Spotsylvania County.

Next week: Driving Sedgwick across the river

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.