While the ball was opening around Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, many gloss over the fact that there was another battle going on down by the Rappahannock on May 3rd of 1863.
“Uncle John” Sedgwick had been tasked with keeping an eye on the Confederates around Fredericksburg at the start of Joseph Hooker’s campaign. Five pontoon bridges had been established across the river prior to Hooker’s initial movements further upstream. John Gibbon and his troops were held in reserve at Falmouth while Sedgwick could rely on the guns on Stafford Heights to support his infantry when the action began.
This development wasn’t lost on the Confederates. Robert Lee sent Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to investigate and judge whether Sedgwick and his corps were a serious threat. While the Federals remained stationary at the bridgeheads of the pontoons, Jackson made the call that it would be unwise to attack – very uncharacteristic for him, given his typical style of striking hard and fast. Right around that time, reports were coming in from the Confederate rear that the bulk of Hooker’s army was crossing the fords to the west. Attention was diverted for the time, but Lee couldn’t abandon Fredericksburg completely. He gave orders to William Barksdale to hold Marye’s Heights, while Jubal Early guarded further south east of the town. This left only 10,000 gray coats to hold the position they fought so hard for the prior December.
Sedgwick’s instructions on May 1st were to put on some demonstrations against the enemy around the town and downstream at what had been dubbed Franklin’s Crossing. This was intended to distract the Confederates from what Hooker was doing in their rear. It was made clear that Sedgwick was not to bring on a general engagement, but make the show convincing. He wanted Lee’s forces divided. They would divide, but not as Hooker intended.
However, with the brief confrontation between Jackson and elements of Darius Couch’s II Corps just south of the Chancellor house around the Orange Turnpike, Hooker revoked the order to Sedgwick and told him to lay off. That was around 2pm, one hour after Sedgwick should have attacked. Luckily, that first memo never arrived due to faulty telegraph communications that would be the bane for the Federals throughout this engagement.
May 2nd dawned and with it new information. Fighting Joe Hooker gathered false recon that Confederate General James Longstreet might have come up from his foraging expedition to join Lee in Virginia. Prisoners taken during the action along the Orange Turnpike were supposedly from John Bell Hood’s division and Federal balloons reported back similar information to give rise to this assumption. Hooker began to think that their forces were actually evenly matched for once.
Hooker issued his urgent order, which wasn’t received until well after nightfall. “The major-general commanding directs that General Sedgwick crosses the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on the receipt of this order, and at once take up his line of march on the Chancellorsville road until [he] connect with us, and he will attack and destroy any force he may fall in with on the road… He will probably fall upon the rear of the forces commanded by General Lee, and between us we will use him up. Send word to General Gibbon to take possession of Fredericksburg. Be sure not to fail.”
These orders, however, weren’t sent until the evening of May 2nd, so Sedgwick did not plan to act until morning when he had more daylight to work with. He was sure that the forces facing him were insignificant compared to his own – despite the “hollering duty” the gray coats were given to make them appear to be a larger body of troops – but the Union army had also outnumbered the Confederates in December, and look how well that turned out. Also, he was confused by the wording of the message regarding to crossing the river. He had already crossed it, so what exactly did Hooker expect him to do?
On the western front, Jackson made his surprise charge on the dangling Union right flank, which then led to his wounding and a rearranging of leadership. Stuart was now in charge of that wing of the Confederate army, but Sedgwick’s orders hadn’t changed. He needed to come to Hooker’s rescue with his corps, even though Hooker had been calling over reinforcements since May Day, depleting the old general’s resources for the task at hand.
Gibbon was given orders to cross from Falmouth and take the town while Sedgwick worked his way north up the Bowling Green Road toward the town. Barksdale’s Mississippian pickets harassed the blue coats, making it difficult for them to cross, just as they had back in December. However, in the small hours of the morning, Federal boots touched that hallowed ground in Fredericksburg once again at about 7am and the pickets fell back, leaving the town. By then, elements of John Newton’s division had already entered the streets and were looking to take on the formidable heights beyond the town. Most of Early’s division had been concentrated in front of Franklin’s Crossing, with dug in entrenchments along the railroad cut that the Union almost broke through the previous winter. That left only Barksdale’s regiments along Marye’s Heights.
In the first wave against Marye’s Heights, four brigades were sent in and cut down just as they had been last December. “It was at once felt that a desperate encounter was to follow, and the recollections of the previous disaster were by no means inspiriting,” wrote Sedgwick. However, the Connecticut general could now understand the urgency of Hooker’s pleads for him to take the town and reconnect with the main body of troops.
He formulated a plan that might have worked if the terrain itself weren’t against him. Gibbon’s two brigades were ordered to come up through the town and take up the Union right flank facing the heights. To his left was Newton just above Fredericksburg, and to his left were Albion Howe along Hazel Run and Deep Run, and then William T.H. Brooks to take up the far left to guard over Franklin’s Crossing. In all, the Washington Artillery would have a four-mile front line to contend with. Sedgwick told Newton to demonstrate in the middle while Gibbon and Howe would flank the heights and overtake them. An impassible millrace stalled Gibbon and the turn of Hazel Run prevented Howe from crossing safely. Early’s cannon blasted into the approaching Federals and they had to fall back as an artillery duel opened up to the south along the Bowling Green Road where Brooks had been placed.
Early sent for reinforcements and were given Harry Hays’ Louisiana Brigade, along with Cadmus Wilcox’s 10th Alabama regiment to help the main effort in Fredericksburg. These additions boosted his numbers to 12,000, but they were outnumbered 2 to 1 by Sedgwick’s 27,000. It didn’t help that the seven-mile defense of the Rebels was only one line deep in most places, making the battlefront spread thin. And Sedgwick knew it.
His new plan was to punch straight through Marye’s Heights. Ten brigades were formed into two narrow columns and one wide column to smash through the meager five regiments holding the high ground. To the Union left, Howe gathered his own nine brigades in three lines to converge on the Confederate flank. The charge would be done double-quick and with bayonets fixed. Artillery fired into the advancing columns, but the infantry behind the notorious stone wall – the unobtained prize of last December – weren’t given the order to fire until the Federals were within 40 yards.
The charge was stopped and repulsed. Though efforts were made to reinvigorate it, they proved useless as they had five months before. One soldier, Morton Hayward sums up the attitude of the soldier in his account as he braved the charge upon Marye’s Heights in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg.
“One man was killed right by my side and several wounded. But one does not seem to think anything of it while in action. You have something else to take up your mind with the bullets whistling by your ears and the shell with awful shriek rushing through the air. It is true that I felt kind of a queer feeling steal over me when I knew that I had got to go where the Angel of death would be fast thrusting in his sickle but no sooner were we engaged than this feeling vanished and I had no more thought of being suddenly struck down by the shower of bullets that went hissing on all sides of me. The enemy were giving vent to their yells and we were yelling back to them in earnest loading and firing till it become our destiny to be killed or wounded everything is all excitement the men dropping by your side telling you in their last gasp to give it to them boys don’t spare the pills the enemy advancing or retreating the shouts of the foe the cryes of the wounded and the roar of the artillery and rattle of muskets all combined together do not give one chance to take a sober thought of anything. I was more afraid of being hit when I left the rank than anytime before for when I was firing I did not notice much about the balls but when you see them go zipping into the dirt beside you begin to think that before you get out of range that some stray ball may overtake you and that is not very pleasant to think of getting hit in the back.”
As the Federals fell back, some noticed a weak spot in this daunting line of defending gray coats. To investigate, they ran up the white flag to collect the dead and wounded from the field. They were allowed and once they confirmed that the Confederate left flank was not as strongly defended as the rest, they were ordered to charge again. The 7th Massachusetts, led by Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Harlow, stormed the stonewall and took the Rebels by surprise. They fired point-blank and then it turned into an all-out hand-to-hand brawl with rifle butts and bayonets along the wall. Seeing this, the 5th Wisconsin were bolstered into action by their commander’s words, “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!”
With attacks coming in from their flank and center, the railroad cut flushed out by Howe’s columns to the south, and over 60 Union guns pounding at their works, the Confederates were finally forced off of Marye’s Heights, giving the ground to the enemy. The Confederate line was effectively cut in two with survivors fleeing to the north and the south. The artillery upon Marye’s Heights had put up a stiff fight, keeping to the tenacious reputation of men from New Orleans. Still, they were pushed back or died protecting their guns.
When Early found Barksdale to address the situation, the old Fire-Eater told him, “Our center has been pierced, that’s all. We’ll be all right in a little while.” A new thin line of defense was formed on Lee’s Hill near Leach’s house along the first rise on a plateau. But new artillery fired canister into them and they pulled back even further down the Telegraph Road to Cox’s house almost three miles south of Marye’s Heights.
Wilcox, defying suggestions from Barksdale to help hold off the rushing blue tide toward Lee’s supply lines to the south, set up his Alabamians to the west along the Plank Road. He was the only force standing between Sedgwick and Lee’s rear, which was the ultimate target. They were pushed back by artillery and a solid flanking movement, all but clearing the way for Sedgwick to do as he had been ordered. The Union commander gave his men a moment to rest as the divisions and brigades were brought together to continue their advance west. Brooks’ men were the freshest, and therefore were ordered to the front to lead the way as the next phase would unfold.
But throughout the hospitals and around the campfires, the general attitude was one of absolute jubilation. The slaughter in December had been vindicated, the deaths of their comrades avenged. As the morning drew to a close, their new objective stood glaring at them from the west, from Chancellorsville.