A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG.
VI. Flank Movement of General Sedgwick
Lee hastened to bring the Southern troops into order again, and succeeded in promptly reforming his line of battle, his front extending, unbroken, along the Old Turnpike, facing the river.
His design was to press General Hooker, and reap those rich rewards of victory to which the hard fighting of the men had entitled them. Of the demoralized condition of the Federal forces there can be no doubt, and the obvious course now was to follow up their retreat and endeavor to drive them in disorder beyond the Rappahannock.
The order to advance upon the enemy was about to be given, when a messenger from Fredericksburg arrived at full gallop, and communicated intelligence which arrested the order just as it was on Lee's lips.
A considerable force of the enemy was advancing up the turnpike from Fredericksburg, to fall upon his right flank, and upon his rear in case he moved beyond Chancellorsville. The column was that of General Sedgwick. This officer, it will be remembered, had been detached to make a heavy demonstration at Fredericksburg, and was still at that point, with his troops drawn up on the southern bank, three miles below the city, on Saturday night, while Jackson was fighting. On that morning General Hooker had sent for Reynolds's corps, but, even in the absence of this force, General Sedgwick retained under him about twenty-two thousand men; and this column was now ordered to storm the heights at Fredericksburg, march up the turnpike, and attack Lee in flank.
General Sedgwick received the order at eleven o'clock on Saturday night, about the time when Jackson was carried wounded to the rear. He immediately made his preparations to obey, and at daylight moved up from below the city to storm the ridge at Marye's, and march straight upon Chancellorsville. In the first assaults he failed, suffering considerable loss from the fire of the Southern troops under
General Barksdale, commanding the line at that point; but, subsequently forming an assaulting column for a straight rush at the hill, he went forward with impetuosity; drove the Southern advanced line from behind the "stone wall," which Generals Sumner and Hooker had failed in reaching, and, about eleven in the morning, stormed Marye's Hill, and killed, captured, or dispersed, the entire Southern force there. The Confederates fought hand to hand over their guns with the enemy for the possession of the crest, but their numbers were inadequate; the entire surviving force fell back over the Telegraph road southward, and General Sedgwick promptly advanced up the turnpike leading from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, to assail General Lee.
It was the intelligence of this threatening movement which now reached Lee, and induced him to defer further attack at the moment upon General Hooker. He determined promptly to send a force against General Sedgwick, and this resolution seems to have been based upon sound military judgment. There was little to be feared now from General Hooker, large as the force still was under that officer. He was paralyzed for the time, and would not probably venture upon any attempt to regain possession of Chancellorsville. With General Sedgwick it was different. His column was comparatively fresh, was flushed with victory, and numbered, even after his loss of one thousand, more than twenty thousand men. Compared with the entire Federal army, this force was merely a detachment, it was true, but it was a detachment numbering as many men, probably, as the effective of Lee's entire army at Chancellorsville. He had carried into that fight about thirty-four thousand men. His losses had been heavy, and the commands were much shaken. To have advanced under these circumstances upon General Hooker, without regard to General Sedgwick's twenty thousand troops, inspired by recent victory, would have resulted probably in disaster.
These comments may detract from that praise of audacity accorded to Lee in making this movement. It seems rather to have been the dictate of common-sense; to have advanced upon General Hooker would have been the audacity.
It was thus necessary to defer the final blow at the main Federal army in his front, and General Lee promptly detached a force of about five brigades to meet General Sedgwick, which, with Early's command, now in rear of the Federal column, would, it was supposed, suffice.
This body moved speedily down the turnpike to check the enemy, and encountered the head of his column about half-way, near Salem Church. General Wilcox, who had been sent by Lee to watch Banks's Ford, had already moved to bar the Federal advance. When the brigades sent by Lee joined him, the whole force formed line of battle: a brisk action ensued, continuing from about four in the afternoon until nightfall, when the fighting ceased, and General Sedgwick made no further attempt to advance on that day.
These events took place, as we have said, on Sunday afternoon, the day of the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville. On Monday morning (May 4th), the theatre of action on the southern bank of the Rappahannock presented a very remarkable complication. General Early had been driven from the ridge at Fredericksburg; but no sooner had General Sedgwick marched toward Chancellorsville, than Early returned and seized upon Marye's Heights again. He was thus in General Sedgwick's rear, and ready to prevent him from recrossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. Sedgwick meanwhile was moving to assail Lee's flank and rear, and Lee was ready to attack General Hooker in front. Such was the singular entanglement of the Northern and Southern forces on Monday morning after the battle of Chancellorsville. What the result was to be the hours of that day were now to decide.
Lee resolved first, if possible, to crush General Sedgwick, when it was his design to return and make a decisive assault upon General Hooker. In accordance with this plan, he on Monday morning went in personal command of three brigades of Anderson's division, reached the vicinity of Salem Church, and proceeded to form line of battle with the whole force there. Owing to unforeseen delays, the attack was not begun until late in the afternoon, when the whole line advanced upon General Sedgwick, Lee's aim being to cut him off from the river. In this he failed, the stubborn resistance of the Federal forces enabling them to hold their ground until night. At that time, however, they seemed to waver and lose heart, whether from receiving intelligence of General Hooker's mishap, or from other causes, is not known. They were now pressed by the Southern troops, and finally gave way. General Sedgwick retreated rapidly but in good order to Banks's Ford, where a pontoon had been fortunately laid, and this enabled him to cross his men. The passage was effected under cover of darkness, the Southern cannon firing upon the retreating column; and, with this, ended the movement of General Sedgwick.
On Tuesday morning Lee returned with his men toward Chancellorsville, and during the whole day was busily engaged in preparation for a decisive attack upon General Hooker on the next morning.
When, however, the Southern sharp-shooters felt their way, at daylight, toward the Federal position, it was found that the works were entirely deserted.
General Hooker had recrossed the river, spreading pine-boughs on the pontoon bridge to muffle the sound of his artillery-wheels.
So the great advance ended.