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Civil War Series

The Battle of Chancellorsville

   
THE BATTLE OF SALEM CHURCH: MAY 3, 5:30 P.M.
After carrying Marye's Heights in the morning. Sedgwick pushes west toward Chancellorsville. Wilcox's brigade delays Sedgwick's march, then falls back to Salem Church, where it is joined by four additional brigades led by McLaws. Sedgwick attacks the Confederate line late in the afternoon, but is unable to break through.

The battle of Salem Church opened late in the afternoon when Union artillery near the toll gate exchanged fire with southern guns. About 5:30, two brigades of Brooks's division launched a determined assault along both sides of the plank road. Brigadier General Joseph J. Bartlett's mixed command of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maine regiments advanced south of the road. Colonel Emory Upton's 121st New York penetrated to the church grounds before being driven back toward the toll gate. The brigade lost 580 of its 1,500 men: "It was the first time they were ever repulsed ...," affirmed a proud Bartlett, "and their losses attest their regret more feelingly than I can express it." Across the road, Colonel Henry W. Brown's New Jersey brigade, supported by part of Newton's division, failed to breach the Rebel line. Nightfall terminated what Sedgwick called a "sharp and prolonged contest." Wilcox characterized the Federal effort as "a bloody repulse to the enemy, rendering entirely useless to him his little success of the morning at Fredericksburg."

JOHN SEDGWICK BROKE THROUGH JUBAL EARLY'S THIN LINE AT FREDERICKSBURG, ONLY TO BE STOPPED AT SALEM CHURCH. HOOKER LATER CRITICIZED HIM FOR MOVING TOO SLOWLY. (NA)

Hooker's expectation that one-fifth of his army should rescue the other four-fifth's demonstrated the degree to which he quaked before the specter of R. E. Lee.

Both armies remained divided on the night of May 3-4. Although unwilling to act offensively himself against Lee's vastly outnumbered force at Chancellorsville, Hooker criticized Sedgwick for moving lethargically. "My object in ordering General Sedgwick forward . . . was to relieve me from the position in which I found myself at Chancellorsville . . .," asserted Hooker shortly after the battle. "In my judgment General Sedgwick did not obey the spirit of my order, and made no sufficient effort to obey it. . . . When he did move, it was not with sufficient confidence or ability on his part to manoeuvre his troops." A Confederate critic of the operations agreed that Sedgwick had "wasted great opportunities, & come about as near to doing nothing with 30,000 men as it was easily possible to do." In truth, neither Hooker nor Sedgwick displayed leadership on May 3 worthy of the soldiers who fought under their charge. Moreover, Hooker's expectation that one-fifth of his army should rescue the other four-fifths demonstrated the degree to which he quaked before the specter of R. E. Lee.


When sounds of fighting at Salem Church drifted westward to Lee's position, the Confederate commander sent messages urging Early and McLaws to cooperate in a joint attack against Sedgwick.

Lee typically had labored throughout May 3 to find some way to punish the Federals. He divided his army yet a third time by dispatching McLaws to reinforce Wilcox. Hooker's six corps hunkered behind a great U-shaped complex of earth-works with both flanks anchored on the Rappahannock, protecting United States Ford. Because the Federal commander displayed no hint of aggressiveness, Lee believed four divisions to be sufficient strength at Chancellorsville. Jeb Stuart eventually spread Hill's, Colston's, and Rodes's commands across a two-mile front south of Hooker's works: three brigades of Richard Anderson's division blocked the Old Mine Road where it crossed the River Road, thereby denying Hooker a direct route between the wings of his army. When sounds of fighting at Salem Church drifted westward to Lee's position, the Confederate commander sent messages urging Early and McLaws to cooperate in a joint attack against Sedgwick.


JUBAL EARLY DEFENDED THE FREDERICKSBURG LINE UNTIL MAY 3 AND LED THE CONFEDERATE ASSAULTS AGAINST SEDGWICK'S CORPS ON MAY 4. (BL)
FOR A FEW BRIEF MINUTES, FIGHTING SWIRLED AROUND SALEM CHURCH. DOZENS OF BULLET MARKS STILL SCAR ITS BRICK WALLS.

These messages arrived after dark—too late for action on May 3—but Early immediately informed McLaws that he would gather his brigades during the night for an attack on May 4. Sedgwick's corps held a strong position, its flanks on the Rappahannock covering Banks' Ford and its center bulging across the plank road. From south and southeast of Sedgwick, Early's troops would attempt to drive the enemy off Marye's Heights and other high ground west of Fredericksburg, cut Sedgwick off from the town, and pressure the eastern flank of the Sixth Corps. McLaws's five brigades lay west and southwest of Sedgwick. During the advance, Early would extend his left to touch McLaws's right brigade, thus achieving Lee's goal of a combined assault. The army commander sent a message to McLaws dated midnight on May 3 approving Early's plan "if it is practicable" and requesting that McLaws engage the Federals "so as to prevent their concentrating on General Early."

THIS POSTWAR VIEW OF THE ORANGE PLANK ROAD LOOKS EAST FROM SALEM CHURCH ON MAY 3, SEDGWICK'S TROOPS FORMED IN THE LOW GROUND VISIBLE IN THE DISTANCE AND ATTACKED ASTRIDE THE ROAD TOWARD THE VIEWER. (NPS)
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