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Driving Sedgwick across the river

November 23, 2002 1:10 am

Part 38 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

THROUGH THE NIGHT of May 3-4, 1863, Confeder- ates formulated plans designed to exploit the successful stand at Salem Church. With Gen. Joe Hooker's main army lurking back at Chancellorsville, prompt disposal of Gen. John Sedgwick became essential. Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to come east toward Fredericksburg to direct the operations in person--no doubt in part because of their vital importance, and in part because he could not fully trust the officers on site.

Across the lines at Federal headquarters, confusion continued its weekend-long reign. Hooker had emerged from his shell-induced stupor and professed to be full of renewed ardor. He would give Lee "tomorrow to attack," Hooker told a colonel grandly. Should Lee refuse to assume the initiative by then, "let him look out." At one point, Hooker concocted an intricate and impracticable pastiche that involved two river crossings and much marching hither and yon. Sedgwick's role would be to pitch into his foe near Fredericksburg, keeping Confederates in his front from returning to Chancellorsville.

In the event, Hooker did nothing at all. Sedgwick remained on his own, with orders to stay south of the Rappahannock as long as he could.

When Lee reached the front near Salem Church, he found a lack of focus and control that provoked him tremendously. Gen. Lafayette McLaws served admirably when in a directed setting, but did not show best when operating independently. On May 4, McLaws's nonchalance irritated Lee enough to crack his customary calm exterior. A Confederate colonel saw Lee "in a temper" for one of only two times in the war, because "a great deal of valuable time had been already uselessly lost." The surprised observer contemplated offering some suggestions. "The old man seemed to be feeling so real wicked," though, that the colonel decided he would "retain my ideas exclusively in my own possession."

Sedgwick's Federals fought on May 4 behind a miles-long front shaped like an enormous shallow "V," with the narrow point aiming south. The west-facing arm of the "V" ran diagonally across the county east of Salem Church. The soldiers manning Sedgwick's eastern arm faced east toward the ground near Fredericksburg that they had conquered briefly on May 3. Marye's Heights had become Confederate territory again.

Southerners driven off Marye's Heights at midday on May 3 filtered back onto the ground early the next morning, cutting off Sedgwick from the city whence he had come. In the battle's aftermath, Georgians and Mississippians would quarrel over credit for retaking the heights on May 4. The lack of opposition they had faced rendered the question sterile. They rounded up plenty of booty but few live enemies. "My boys have helped themselves to Yankee fixins," a colonel from Georgia told his wife in a letter. Gen. Lee later embarrassed Gen. Jubal A. Early by rebuking him sharply for engaging in the unseemly post-battle squabble.

Most of the pressure that Lee levied against Sedgwick on May 4 came from south to north, not from back in the direction of Fredericksburg. Confederates marshaled south of the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3) prepared early in the afternoon to attack the Yankees. The lethargy of their officers, which had irked Lee so much, had spread to the troops who would have to do the bloody work. The arrival of the army commander in their midst turned that attitude around. "I never saw officers & men so utterly and so generally demoralized," wrote Capt. Richard Watson York, the 23-year-old son of a founder of Duke University. Then Lee rode past, and word raced down the line: "all is rightwe will whip them." Because of their proximity to the enemy, the soldiers stifled an impulse to cheer Lee. "The men leaned on their muskets and looked at him," York said, "as tho' a God were passing by."

Federals awaiting the onslaught found no cause to abandon the uncertainty that gripped them. "The day wore silently and listlessly away," one of them wrote.

Lee had hoped to advance by 10 a.m. Some units claimed to have been ready by 1 p.m. The attack, however, did not actually commence "until very late afternoon." Fortunately, as a Confederate officer wrote, "Sedgwick was not found to be a tough morsel at all."

Georgians charged up the slope to Idlewild, an 1859 house that still stands not far south of the Home Depot store, just east of Interstate 95. Next to the Georgians, Louisiana men surged across the road past where the Lone Star Steak House and the Staples store stand today, into the ravine beyond (now covered with apartments), and on toward the high ground now occupied by Hugh Mercer School.

The Louisianians, a contemporary letter boasted, "walked over the enemy as giants over pigmies." The confused Yankees they were chasing suffered further, one of their number reported angrily, when "our own men fired several volleys into the Brigade." More Georgians east of the Louisiana Brigade "advanced with fixed bayonets and a genuine Georgia [w]hoop" along an axis near the modern U.S. 1 Bypass.

Circumstances by this time had made it clear to even the least alert Northern soldiers that the battle's outcome had lodged firmly within Lee's grasp. Dying for no purpose on the downhill phase of a lost campaign afforded little allure. Most Federal troops maintained at least a degree of unit cohesion and resisted the Confederate advance, but without the purposeful elan of soldiers hopeful of victory. The broad Confederate "V" relentlessly compressed the Federal "V" into a steadily narrower space, northward toward the Rappahannock River. Sedgwick's men had not, in the unkind words of a scornful New Yorker, been "badly whipped." They simply had recognized the condition of affairs in Spotsylvania County on that warm May Monday.

Sedgwick's men funneled across the Rappahannock on pontoon bridges at and near Banks Ford most of the night of May 4-5. Confederate Col. Porter Alexander brought indirect artillery fire--then a novel expedient--down on the river crossings. Before dark, Alexander set up an aiming marker "on a high wooded point" in line with Banks Ford, and "sat up there all night long firing shell at that ford." The combative artillerist knew that such random fire "could do no very serious harm, butI caused a good deal of annoyance & that compensated me for the loss of rest."

By dawn on May 5, most of Sedgwick's force had reached the safety of the Stafford bank of the river. Confederates gathered up the stragglers as prisoners of war. "We saw a white flag approaching," a Georgian wrote home, "and 72 of them bluebirds came in and gave themselves upWe soon had over 500 bagged." When they finished that mopping up, the Confederates turned their attention back toward Hooker's main army at Chancellorsville.

Next week--Hooker gives up

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & 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.

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