Battle of Salem Church: Final Federal Assault at Chancellorsville
May 3, 1863
From America's Civil War Magazine (historynet.com)
Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, rode his gray mount Traveller into the clearing around the burning Chancellor mansion at 10 a.m. on May 3, 1863. The clearing was packed with Lee’s triumphant legions, who had just driven the Army of the Potomac from its position. At the moment of triumph they beheld their beloved chieftain, who, they felt, had personally brought them this victory. The Chancellor plain resounded with their thunderous cheers.
Lee, not content with having driven the enemy from Chancellorsville, was already planning the next phase of the attack. For the next two hours he allowed his men some much-needed rest while he made preparations to reopen the offensive. Shortly after noon, he learned that Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick had broken through at Fredericksburg and was marching on his rear.
Sedgwick commanded the left wing of the Union Army under Maj. Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. The left wing was supposed to be Hooker’s ace in the hole during the Chancellorsville campaign, holding Lee in his Fredericksburg position while Hooker and the right wing came in on his flank and rear. Instead, Lee had left behind a small force to hold Sedgwick in position while he had raced west to contend with Hooker. From May 1 to 3, the battle had raged between Lee and Hooker at Chancellorsville. Nothing of much consequence had occurred on the Fredericksburg front.
After Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson unleashed his flank attack on the Federal right on May 2, all illusions of a Southern retreat were dispelled. Hooker decided to play his ace. He directed Sedgwick to march on the Orange Plank Road to Chancellorsville, destroying any force that stood in his way. As Sedgwick attacked Lee’s forces in the rear, Hooker would attack his front. Between the two of them, they would use him up. Sedgwick was expected to be in Lee’s rear by daylight.
Sedgwick began his movements soon after midnight on May 2-3 and marched toward Fredericksburg. His movement was lightly contested by the Confederates, but by daylight the Federals had gained the town and were in front of Marye’s Heights. Sedgwick then ordered Brig. Gen. John Newton to conduct a reconnaissance of the heights. Newton’s force was quickly repulsed, but Sedgwick still did not have any clear information as to how strongly the Confederates held the position.
Sedgwick’s opponent, former West Point classmate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, had with him roughly 10,000 to 12,000 troops and 46 guns. He disposed them in such a way as to give himself the greatest possible strength on his flanks, where he expected Sedgwick would attack in force. Only two Mississippi regiments, the 18th and 21st, under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale — about 1,200 men and eight guns — defended Marye’s Heights. Early’s four remaining Louisiana regiments and Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s brigade from Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division covered the northern flank.
After Newton’s reconnaissance, Sedgwick attacked the flanks of the Confederate line but was stopped cold. The repulse of the Federals’ move against the stone wall below Marye’s Heights resulted in hundreds of casualties. A truce was granted by Colonel Thomas Griffin, who commanded the 18th Mississippi, posted behind the stone wall, to allow the Federals to remove their dead and wounded. As they did so, the Federals took note that the Confederates did not hold the position in great force, a fact duly passed on to Sedgwick.
Having failed to turn Early’s flanks, Sedgwick reasoned that the only thing he could do was attack the foreboding heights across the same plain just outside of town where Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, then the Union Army commander, had met his ruin the previous December. It was a gamble, but Sedgwick believed that if his men kept the Confederate troops on either flank locked in their positions, the heights could not be reinforced. Furthermore, if his attack columns did not stop to fire their weapons or reload, but simply fixed bayonets and charged the position, they could, in theory, overwhelm the Rebel defenders. The plan was set in motion, and Sedgwick wired Hooker that he was optimistic of its success.
Sedgwick’s attacking force was composed of three columns, each directed to hit the line from a different point. Just past 10 a.m. on May 3, the right attack column advanced out of Fredericksburg toward the heights to their front. Just after the men of the 61st Pennsylvania crossed a small bridge over a canal, Southern guns opened on the column, checking the advance.
Soon after the right column began its advance, the center column made for the stone wall. In line of their advance was a depression in the ground that sheltered the troops until they got within rifle range of the troops behind the stone wall. The Federal troops seemed to rise out of the earth, according to Colonel B.G. Humphreys, who watched the action from the heights. As the Federal assault wave advanced, the troops of the 18th Mississippi, together with three companies from the 21st, opened fire, staggering the lead column. The Union center was halted in its tracks.
Before the left-hand column was launched against the stone wall, Colonel Thomas S. Allen of the 5th Wisconsin addressed his men, who were to lead the assault: Boys, you see those Heights. You have got to take them. You think you cannot do it, but you can and you will. When the signal ‘Forward’ is given, you will start at double-quick, you will not fire a gun — and you will not stop until you get the order to halt. You will never get that order.
When the signal was given, the men of the 5th Wisconsin charged with a yell. The southernmost troops of the 18th Mississippi behind the stone wall, and those of the 21st Mississippi above them on Marye’s Heights, were pressed by the weight of the three attacking columns. Ten Federal regiments moved relentlessly against the two Confederate regiments and eight guns opposing them. The pressure proved too much. The left attack column was getting closer to the wall, which was all ablaze and covered with smoke. Confederate fire weakened considerably at this point as many of the defenders broke for the heights to their rear. The Federal troops poured over the wall and clubbed and bayoneted the remaining defenders. Soon after, Griffin and 226 surviving troops surrendered.
The Federal troops continued their push up Marye’s Heights in the face of brutal rifle fire and captured the eight guns arrayed against them. Those Southern troops not killed, captured or wounded hastily retreated south. The Second Battle of Fredericksburg, fought over precisely the same ground as its predecessor, was a Union victory. The Southerners defending the position lost approximately 475 men, more than a third of the total. The Federals lost almost 1,100 men in the assault, which lasted roughly 15 minutes.
Lee’s original instructions to Early in case of an enemy breakthrough had been to fall back south along the Telegraph Road and to guard the rail lines south of Fredericksburg. Early thus moved his men two miles south upon hearing that Sedgwick had overrun Marye’s Heights. He deployed his troops in a line near a crossroads at the Cox house and then rode on to reconnoiter the Federal troop dispositions. He observed Sedgwick’s columns moving slowly on the Orange Plank Road toward Chancellorsville.
The troops Early had observed were those of Newton and Colonel Hiram Burnham’s Light Division. After taking Marye’s Heights, they took time to rearrange themselves into cohesive units and then marched forward on the Plank Road for about a mile and a half before halting at noon. Sedgwick determined it necessary to halt and bring the rest of his VI Corps up before the whole column resumed the march to Chancellorsville. Brigadier General William Brooks’ division had not seen any fighting that day, and it was detailed to head the column. To reach his position, Brooks, at that time deployed below Fredericksburg, had to march his troops through the town and westward on the Plank Road for a total of five miles. Brigadier General John Gibbon’s two brigades of the II Corps were left behind at Fredericksburg, giving Sedgwick approximately 23,000 men with whom to fall on Lee’s rear.
At Chancellorsville, shortly after noon, Lee received word of Sedgwick’s breakthrough. He had planned for the brigades of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws and Brig. Gen. William Mahone to lead the renewed attack on Hooker. Instead, he sent them marching east to face Sedgwick.
General Wilcox moved his Alabama brigade from its position at Banks’ Ford to the Plank Road shortly after the Federals had captured Marye’s Heights. He then deployed his troops across the line of the Federal advance, three to four miles west of Fredericksburg, on either side of the Plank Road on a low wooded ridge. In Wilcox’s immediate front was a clearing where the Salem Church stood near the Plank Road. Behind the church was a schoolhouse. Wilcox posted his skirmish line about a mile east of his main line at a tollgate. By this time, McLaws’ and Mahone’s troops were coming into line behind the ridge, undetected by Northern observers. Wilcox extended his lines to overlap both Federal flanks.
Brooks continued his advance at the head of Sedgwick’s marching column on the Plank Road. Sedgwick believed that he faced at most a brigade of infantry, since he had already ordered Brooks to brush aside any enemy troops in his front. At 3:25 p.m., the two Confederate guns posted at the tollgate opened fire at a distance of 800 yards. Brooks immediately deployed his men in battle formation on either side of the road, and the 2nd New Jersey was sent out in advance as a skirmish line. Two Federal batteries began answering Cobbs’ fire, and the Union line advanced, pushing the Rebel skirmishers back upon their main line.
The Federals, confident that they would not meet with any stronger opposition, continued past the tollgate through the clearing and then entered the woods on either side of the road. To their shock, the Rebel battle line rose and fired upon them at point-blank range. When the Federals on the south side of the road came within range, two Alabama companies posted inside Salem Church and the schoolhouse also opened fire. The Union line halted at first, then swarmed around both buildings and pressed forward, capturing the Alabama troops as they went.
At this point, Colonel Emory Upton led his green 121st New York Regiment in a charge upon the men of the 10th Alabama. As Upton moved forward, his horse was shot from under him, but he quickly sprang up and led his troops on foot. The 121st slammed into the Rebels, who soon broke for the rear. Two companies of the 8th Alabama, which was positioned alongside the 10th, faced to their left and fired into the New Yorkers’ flank, while the 9th Alabama, posted behind the 10th, rose up in line and fired into their front. The 9th Alabama countercharged and Upton’s regiment was smashed, losing 200 of its 453 men. As the 121st New York fell back, the 10th and 51st Georgia joined the 9th Alabama in the counterattack. The 14th Alabama threw in its weight as well, and the whole Federal line rolled back toward the tollgate, pressed hotly by the Confederate troops.
The Federal artillery at the tollgate blasted the oncoming Southerners, first with shell and case shot, and then with canister as they got closer. The counterattack slowed, and the Confederates halted in their tracks, facing Union infantrymen who were poised and ready. Wilcox, seeing he could gain no more and that darkness was approaching, gave the order to fall back.
Sedgwick spent the evening of May 3 anxiously pondering just what to do in his new situation. He was now sandwiched between two Confederate forces, those to his front, with whom he had battled to a standstill that afternoon, and Early’s forces lurking somewhere in his rear. The only instruction he could get from Army headquarters, near Chancellorsville, was a vague recommendation from Hooker to attack the forces in his front the next day — but only if the main army attacked at the same time. Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, who had observed the day’s actions at Fredericksburg and Salem Church and then returned to headquarters, added his own instructions for Sedgwick to cross the Rappahannock River if he thought it best. This gave Sedgwick the discretion to act as events dictated.
At the same time, Lee was making plans of his own to attack Sedgwick. He ordered McLaws and Early to coordinate their forces for a joint attack as early as possible the next day. He wanted McLaws to attack Sedgwick’s forces on the Plank Road and Early to come in and attack his left flank. If the attack was carried out, he wrote McLaws, I think you would demolish them.
On May 4 at 7 a.m., one of Early’s brigades, under Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon, retook the unoccupied Marye’s Heights, which had been won the day before by Sedgwick. Gordon’s men continued west and came upon the main Federal line. Heavy fire halted them in their tracks, and they were compelled to withdraw.
After Gordon’s moves that morning, Sedgwick determined that his best course of action was to form defensive lines and brace himself for the enemy assaults he felt sure were coming. Hooker, convinced that he would be attacked in his own lines that day, did not feel he could come to the aid of Sedgwick, who, upon receiving Warren’s discretionary orders, no longer felt obliged to march on Chancellorsville.
While Sedgwick pondered what to do, Lee’s famed temper was boiling over. He had given responsibility for the combined attacks to Early, who was to coordinate movements with McLaws and move simultaneously against Sedgwick. As the morning dragged on, it was evident that something was wrong, and Lee set out to discover the cause of the delay. He met up with McLaws, who told Lee that he could not possibly attack the enemy lines to his front without reinforcements. Lee ordered Anderson to bring the rest of his division, the three brigades under Brig. Gens. Ambrose R. Wright, Carnot Posey and Edward A. Perry, from Chancellorsville to reinforce McLaws.
A lack of communication between Early and McLaws had led to confusion as to who was to make the first move against Sedgwick. Early thought McLaws was supposed to support his morning move, and McLaws was waiting to hear of Early’s major assault against the main Federal line. As Lee’s temper continued to rise, his two subordinates finally coordinated an assault plan. They discovered that the Federal line was now curved back on itself, with its flanks anchored on the Rappahannock. Anderson was to fill the gap between Early and McLaws. When the Confederate battle line was completed, Early would attack Sedgwick’s line, while Anderson would be on hand to support any breakthrough. Three rapid cannon shots were to be the signal.
By 5:30 p.m., all the dispositions had been made. The artillery shots signaled the opening of the assault. The brigades of Brig. Gens. Harry Hays and Robert Hoke, from Early’s part of the line, headed for the Federal battle line. Gordon’s brigade made for Taylor’s Hill, on the far left flank of the Federal line. Brigadier General William Smith’s brigade was held in reserve.
As Early’s men charged forward, they quickly pushed back the Federal skirmish lines and came upon the main Federal line of defense just beyond the Plank Road. This part of the line was held by Brig. Gen. Albion P. Howe’s troops, and Howe had deployed his men in a layered defense. Out in front was Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Neill’s brigade, deployed on high ground. Approximately 500 yards behind Neill’s men were the five Vermont regiments of Colonel Lewis A. Grant’s brigade, posted on a ridge. Twelve guns covered the gaps between the brigades.
Early’s men came on and the Federal batteries opened on them, tearing gaps in their lines. The Southerners closed the gaps and pushed forward. When they hit Neill’s line, they staggered under the overwhelming impact of musket and artillery fire. The desperate fight lasted for almost an hour and a half, until Colonel Ernst von Vegesack, commanding the 20th New York, fell wounded. His regiment then broke and ran, opening the right flank of Neill’s line. Neill ordered his men to fall back. The attacking Southerners sensed they were on the verge of breaking the Federal line and rushed forward.
As Hoke crossed the Plank Road, he was wounded in the shoulder and fell off his horse. Soon after, his brigade lost direction and collided with Hays’ brigade to its right. After the brigades were separated, they again resumed their charge upon the Federal line they thought was disintegrating. Lying in wait for them were Grant’s Vermonters, concealed behind a ridge. When the Southerners were almost upon them, they suddenly rose and fired into the stunned ranks of their foes. The Confederates were staggered. When the 6th Vermont counterattacked, Early’s men broke and ran to Howe’s first defensive line, which they had taken earlier.
During the attacks on Neill’s line, Gordon’s men pressed toward Taylor’s Hill. Their aim, after occupying the hill, was to push on toward Banks’ Ford and, if possible, cut off the Federal force’s line of retreat. They quickly drove off the skirmishers to their front but were blasted by the Federal guns positioned across the river at Falmouth. Sedgwick quickly sent Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton’s Pennsylvania brigade to contend with Gordon. They halted the Southern advance and drove it back. The Georgians were left in command of Taylor’s Hill but were denied the prize of Banks’ Ford and the Federal rear.
Anderson, from his section of the line, launched Wright’s brigade, followed by Posey and Perry. The Federal skirmish line, backed by artillery firing canister, halted the Confederate advance before it ever reached the main Federal line on the Plank Road. The ground was covered with Confederate dead. Darkness halted the fighting. Sedgwick’s lines had held.
After darkness fell, Sedgwick withdrew to a new defensive line closer to the river and had his men entrench. His new line was even more defensible than the first, and his reserve artillery, 34 guns posted on the north side of the river, could be brought to bear on any attacking force. He was not emboldened by the day’s fight, feeling that at best he had spared his corps from destruction. All during the fighting he had received no assurances from Hooker of any help. His dispositions allowed him to cross the river at any time he thought best, and he was beginning to think the time was near. If he had any doubts, they evaporated when Alexander’s guns began pounding the Banks’ Ford position. Sedgwick wired Hooker that he was in position to recross the river if it proved necessary.
At midnight on May 4-5, Hooker had called a conference of his corps commanders. He sought their opinions on whether the Army of the Potomac should attack the next day or withdraw and end the campaign. A majority voted to renew the attack, but Hooker vetoed the decision. He would march the Army of the Potomac back across the river.
A little before 1 a.m., Hooker received Sedgwick’s dispatch describing his situation and asking for instructions as to whether he should stay and risk his command or withdraw. Hooker replied: Dispatch this moment received. Withdraw. Cover the river, and prevent any force crossing.
Soon after, Hooker received another dispatch from Sedgwick telling him that the VI Corps would hold its current position. It seems Sedgwick had been advised by an aide to hold his position and let the responsibility of the withdrawal fall squarely upon Hooker. After receiving Sedgwick’s second dispatch, Hooker countermanded the order to withdraw and began thinking of renewing the attack. In a twist of fate, the countermanding order did not reach Sedgwick until 3:20 a.m. By that time, nearly all his forces had crossed to the north bank of the Rappahannock.
The Battle of Salem Church was the last fight in the Chancellorsville campaign. The cost to Sedgwick’s VI Corps during the campaign was 4,611 killed, wounded or missing, the largest volume of casualties sustained by any Union corps in the campaign. Early’s casualties were 1,548, and those of Anderson and McLaws were 1,498 and 1,889 respectively.
On May 5, Lee shifted his attention back to Hooker after reconnaissance revealed Sedgwick’s withdrawal. He ordered Early to reoccupy his lines along the Fredericksburg heights and began gathering his remaining forces for the march west. He was determined to attack Hooker that day in his position in front of U.S. Ford.
Heavy rain started to fall at about 4 p.m. and continued into the night. The rain slowed Lee’s westward movement to a crawl, and he suspended his planned attack until the morning of May 6. By that time, the Army of the Potomac had slipped back across the river. Brigadier General William Dorsey Pender found Lee in his headquarters preparing to issue the orders that would launch his final attack on Hooker. When told that the Army of the Potomac had withdrawn, Lee exploded: "This is the way that you young men are always doing. You have again let these people get away. I can only tell you what to do, and if you will not do it, it will not be done."
The two days of fighting in the Fredericksburg area that closed the Chancellorsville campaign were a tactical draw but a strategic victory for Lee. Hooker, in explaining the unraveling of his plans on May 3, seemingly placed the blame on Sedgwick’s failure to attack Lee’s rear as he was expected to do that morning. If Sedgwick could have gotten up, there could have been but one result, he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln.
On balance, the Battle of Salem Church offered Hooker a great opportunity to revive his original plan and trap Lee between the Union pincers. A rephrasing of Hooker’s statement to Lincoln would seem to be in order. If Hooker could have attacked while Sedgwick was engaged, there could have been but one result. As it was, the final result was all too typical — another victory for Robert E. Lee.
This article was written by George Rogan and originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. Used with permission from historynet.com.
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