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The Battle of Chancellorsville

   


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SEDGWICK RETREATS: MAY 4
Lee leads Anderson's division to Salem Church and joins forces there with McLaws and Early in attacking Sedgwick. Sedgwick successfully resists the Confederates until dark, then retreats across Banks' Ford. Finding himself cut off from Sedgwick by the Confederates. Gibbon too retreats. Stuart meanwhile keeps an eye on Hooker who holds a strong entrenched position covering U.S. Ford.

A promising Confederate start on May 4 soon gave way to frustration. Early's brigades easily reoccupied Marye's and adjacent heights, but the stolid McLaws refused to budge. Lee arrived at Salem Church with the balance of Anderson's division before noon. Approximately 21,000 Confederates now slightly outnumbered Sedgwick's Federals. Even Lee's presence failed to galvanize his two senior subordinates however, and several hours slipped away as Anderson maneuvered his troops into position and McLaws remained a contented bystander. Jubal Early fumed at the loss of precious time. The delays also left Lee angry—thwarted in his desire to hurl every available Confederate soldier against Sedgwick.

Time hung equally heavy along the Union lines. Hooker communicated virtually nothing helpful to Sedgwick, who thought mainly of how to protect his line of retreat to Banks' Ford. A Union colonel recalled the day's building tension: "All the afternoon we watched the Rebels moving through the woods on our front, and every now and then uttering the Rebel yell, at times apparently forming into lines of battle and preparing to attack. It was one of the most anxious six or seven hours that I ever spent. A staff officer expressed the hope to Sedgwick that "if the Sixth Corps goes out of existence today . . . it will be with a blaze of glory." "I will tell you a secret," replied the general with a grim smile, "there will be no surrendering."

LAFAYETTE MCLAWS STOPPED SEDGWICK AT SALEM CHURCH ON MAY 3, BUT HIS HESITATION THE NEXT DAY ALLOWED HIS ADVERSARY TO ESCAPE. (BL)

The Confederates finally attacked shortly before 6:00 P.M. Two of Early's brigades—Harry Hays's Louisianians and Brigadier General Robert E. Hoke's North Carolinians—advanced vigorously and gained a foothold across the plank road on Sedgwick's left center. Anderson's division showed considerably less spirit, and McLaws's soldiers contributed nothing to the assault. After the war, Fitzhugh Lee expressed bafflement at McLaws's behavior. "I know the difference between hindsight & foresight," he stated in a letter to Jubal Early, "but between you & I, what was the matter with McLaws in connection with the attack on Sedgwick on Tuesday 4th May!"

Just as Lee had heard the firing at Salem Church on the afternoon of May 3, so also did Hooker hear it on Monday. Snug behind his bristling lines, he took no steps to assist Sedgwick. In his postwar recollections, Southern artillerist Porter Alexander evinced contempt for Hooker's lack of action on May 4: "I've sometimes thought that if we had given Sedgwick a big fight that morning the noise of the guns & musketry must have stirred Hooker for very shame to put his big force in motion at Chancellorsville."


The curiously bungled Confederate offensive at Salem Church on May 4 marked the end of significant fighting during the Chancellorsville campaign.

The curiously bungled Confederate offensive at Salem Church on May 4 marked the end of significant fighting during the Chancellorsville campaign. Sedgwick withdrew across Banks' Ford early the next morning, freeing Lee to hurry back to Chancellorsville for one last effort against Hooker. Although still badly outnumbered, the Confederate commander issued orders for his artillery to select positions from which to enfilade Hooker's powerful line. The projected attacks, which almost certainly would have been bloody failures, never materialized because during the night of May 4-5 Hooker decided to retreat. He first went through the charade of requesting counsel from his corps commanders. Five weary major generals met at army headquarters at midnight (Slocum and Sedgwick were absent). Reynolds, Meade, and Howard voted to attack Lee. Couch and Sickles preferred to retreat. After the men had voiced their opinions, Hooker announced his intention to recross the Rappahannock. "What was the use of calling us together at this time of night," Reynolds grumbled to Couch as they left Hooker's tent, "when be intended to retreat anyhow?"

AFTER ABANDONING CHANCELLORSVILLE, HOOKER TOOK UP A STRONG DEFENSIVE LINE COVERING U. S. FORD. UNION SOLDIERS INCORPORATED LOGS, KNAPSACKS, LIMBER CHESTS, AND EVEN DEAD HORSES INTO THE WORKS—WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BE AT HAND. (BL)

A UNION SURGEON AT SALEM CHURCH

Aamong those captured on May 4, 1863, in the Union retreat to Scott's Ford was Dr. Daniel Holt, a surgeon in the 121st New York Volunteers. After being confined overnight in a house on the battlefield, Holt received permission to care for the wounded Union soldiers housed inside of Salem Church. The following excerpt, taken from a letter written by Holt on May 15, 1863, less than two weeks after the battle, describes his labors at the church and the assistance he received from Confederate officers.

"Worn out by fatigue and faint through want of proper food (for I had for the three days previous, neither seen meat or bread, and had slept but a very few hours during all that time) I went to work, more dead than alive, but with a will which in some degree compensated, and thus struggled on for four days longer until help arrived from our side of the river. When I now look back upon those days so full of incidents and suffering, I can hardly realize that I have passed through it, and am still alive. Yet I worked and staggered on until it seemed as if I could not drag one foot before another; and while bending over the bodies of our boys dressing their wounds, my eyes, in spite of me, would close, and I have found myself fast asleep over a dying man. Had not General Wilcox (Confederate) kindly supplied me with food from his own table, and made me a guest rather than a prisoner, I believe I should have been compelled to throw myself down with the rest and crave the treatment I myself was yielding. As it was, I kept about, being the recipient of numerous favors from rebel officers, always treated with respect, and in very many cases with marked kindness. Here General Lee came to see me. Four times did this great man call and feelingly inquire if the men were receiving all the care that could be bestowed: at the same time remarking that it was beyond his power to yield such succor as his heart prompted. Their army, he remarked, was not supplied as ours, with Sanitary and Christian Commission supplies, neither was the Medical department as completely and thoroughly equipped—no chloroform for minor cases of Surgery—no stimulents for moderate or severe prostration, and as a consequence no means of alleviating the suffering of their men,—

All that he could do, he did do: he sent the Medical Director of their army to look in upon us and to supply help in amputations &c., which by this time had become imperative. Death was upon our track and most nobly did these Surgeons combat it. Not alone in the breasts of our men dwell humanity. Human nature is about the same the world over, and I found just as sympathetic hearts here as anywhere. I must in justice say for an enemy, that I never was treated with greater consideration by intelligent men, than I was by these very rebs for the ten days I remained among them; and at the same time I might say I never had so hard a time. The experience of a lifetime was crowded into these eventful days."

— Excerpt from A Surgeon's Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., courtesy of Kent State University Press.

AFTER THE BATTLE, UNION AND CONFEDERATE SURGEONS CONVERTED SALEM CHURCH INTO A FIELD HOSPITAL. "THE AMPUTATED LIMBS WERE PILED UP IN EVERY CORNER ALMOST AS HIGH AS A MAN COULD REACH " ONE GEORGIA COLONEL RECALLED, "BLOOD FLOWED IN STREAMS ALONG THE AISLES AND OUT AT THE DOORS."
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