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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   

Four Union divisions stood opposite Early's soldiers by 7:00 A.M. on May 3. John Gibbon's men were farthest north, their right resting on the Rappahannock above town. The commands of Major General John Newton, Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, and Brigadier General William T. H. Brooks—all Sixth Corps divisions—ran from Fredericksburg south across Deep Run. Early's line defended everything from the plank road to a point well beyond Brooks's position. Barksdale's Mississippians held the Confederate left; Early understandably allocated most of his men to the right, where Burnside's Federals had achieved their only success in the battle of Fredericksburg five months earlier. A last-minute adjustment shifted Brigadier General Harry T. Hays's Louisiana brigade from the far right to Barksdale's left. A thin line of men from the Twenty-first and Eighteenth Mississippi, supported by the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, watched alertly from behind the famous stone wall that bordered the sunken road below the crest of Marye's Heights.


(click on image for a PDF version)
SEDGWICK STORMS MARYE'S HEIGHTS: MAY 3, MORNING
Early holds a seven-mile-long line on the hills behind Fredericksburg with a force of roughly 9,000 men. At dawn, Sedgwick marches into town from the south, clearing the way for Gibbon's division to cross, and at 10 A.M. carries the heights with a head-on assault. Early retreats south along the Telegraph Road, while Sedgwick regroups his corps and heads west toward Chancellorsville.

Union attackers probed the Confederate lines at mid-morning. Twice they recoiled from the stone wall, leaving many casualties—among them nearly a third of the Fifth Wisconsin and the Sixth Maine and almost 40 percent of the Seventh Massachusetts—scattered on the infamous killing ground of December 1862. Searing memories of that earlier slaughter doubtless troubled many a Union observer. After the second repulse, Colonel Thomas M. Griffin of the Eighteenth Mississippi unwisely allowed a few Federals to approach the stone wall under a flag of truce. Ostensibly collecting wounded comrades, these men discovered how few defenders manned this part of Early's line. Soon a third wave of attackers ascended the heights. "When the signal forward is given," Colonel Thomas S. Allen shouted to his Fifth Wisconsin, "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!" Within minutes Federals surged over the Confederate line, capturing scores of prisoners and eight cannon.

EARLY BEAT BACK SEDGWICK'S INITIAL ATTACK, BUT A SECOND UNION ASSAULT CARRIED THE HEIGHTS. THE SIXTH MAINE CLAIMED TO BE THE FIRST UNION REGIMENT TO PLANT A FLAG ON MARYE'S HEIGHTS. (HW)

Jubal Early kept his head and conducted a skillful retreat along the Telegraph Road, putting together a defensive line near the Cox house some two and a half miles south of Marye's Heights. A gunner who had escaped capture on the heights spoke for other Confederates involved in the morning's debacle: "I reckon now the people of the Southern Confederacy," he said sarcastically, "are satisfied that Barksdale's brigade and the Washington Artillery can't whip the whole damned Yankee army!"

An open plank road beckoned John Sedgwick westward toward Chancellorsville. But the Sixth Corps chief, whose reputation then and now has been much inflated, frittered away precious time forming a column of march. When the Federals finally got moving, with Brooks's division in the lead followed by Newton's and Howe's, they ran into a pesky brigade of five Alabama regiments commanded by Brigadier General Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox. Deployed early that morning at Banks Ford on the Rappahannock, Wilcox had marched his troops toward Fredericksburg in time to witness the loss of Marye's Heights. "I felt confident, if forced to retire along the Plank Road," he wrote in his report of the day's action, "that I could do so without precipitancy, and that ample time could be given for reenforcements to reach us from Chancellorsville." Wilcox spent the next several hours executing a textbook delaying action. He disputed Sedgwick's progress first on a ridge about 800 yards west of Marye's Heights, again north of the Downman house, a third time at the toll gate on the plank road not quite three and a half miles west of Fredericksburg, and finally along a ridge at Salem Church, a modest brick Baptist meetinghouse standing 1,000 yards beyond the toll gate on the south side of the road.

UNION TROOPS OVERWHELMED BARKSDALE'S MISSISSIPPIANS IN THE SUNKEN ROAD, THEN SWARMED UP MARYE'S HEIGHTS CAPTURING EIGHT GUNS, INCLUDING SIX FROM THE FAMOUS WASHINGTON ARTILLERY. (BL)

A PHOTOGRAPHER TOOK THIS PICTURE OF CONFEDERATE DEAD IN THE SUNKEN ROAD J ST HOURS AFTER THE FIGHTING THERE HAD ENDED. THE OUTCOME HAD BEEN CLOSE. A UNION GENERAL LATER EXPRESSED THE OPINION THAT "IF THERE HAD BEEN A HUNDRED MORE MEN ON MARYE'S HILL WE COULD NOT HAVE TAKEN IT." (LC)

Just as Wilcox predicted, reinforcements from Chancellorsville joined him at Salem Church. Lafayette McLaws brought three of his brigades and one of Anderson's, boosting Confederate strength to nearly 10,000 men. The Rebel line extended a mile and a quarter, drawn south to north across the plank road and facing east. Wilcox's brigade occupied the center, with two regiments north and three south of the road. The brigades of Brigadier General Paul J. Semmes and William Mahone extended Wilcox's right, those of Brigadier General Joseph 13. Kershaw and Brigadier General William T. Wofford his left.

CADMUS WILCOX (BL)
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