Second Battle of Fredericksburg

The Second Battle of Fredericksburg was fought May 3–4, 1863, and was part of the Chancellorsville Campaign during the American Civil War (1861–1865). While Union general Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac engaged Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia twelve miles to the west near Chancellorsville, the First and Sixth corps under Union general John Sedgwick were ordered to cross the Rappahannock River and attack at Fredericksburg, on Lee's far right flank. Hooker's plan was to force an already undermanned Lee to shift troops to his right, weakening his defenses and forcing him to retreat. By the time the cautious Sedgwick was in position, however, Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson had outflanked the Union right and it was Hooker, not Lee, who was reeling back. Sedgwick did finally charge up Marye's Heights, where the previous December the Union army under Ambrose E. Burnside had so ignominiously been defeated. This time, a small contingent of Confederates under Jubal A. Early held on for a short while before finally giving way. When Sedgwick failed to press his victory, Lee reinforced his line, attacking at Salem Church on May 3 and Bank's Ford on May 4. On May 5, Sedgwick retreated back across the Rappahannock River, followed shortly by Hooker. MORE...

 

Background

The Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia faced one another from November 1862 until late in April 1863 along the banks of the Rappahannock River. To break the impasse, Union general Joseph Hooker maneuvered 70,000 men on a 35-mile march around Robert E. Lee's army. (Lee was outnumbered almost two to one, a situation exacerbated by the fact that two Confederate divisions, under James Longstreet, were located to the southeast, besieging Norfolk.) While Hooker approached from Lee's left, through the area of woods and tangled underbrush known as the Wilderness, 60,000 Union soldiers—a force nearly the size of Lee's entire army—would cross the river at Fredericksburg. There, Sedgwick's men would hold enough of Lee's troops in place to allow Hooker a victory. Union cavalry under George Stoneman, meanwhile, was assigned to cut through Lee's rear, destroying lines of communication and resupply.

On April 29, at about four o'clock in the morning, elements of the Union First and Sixth corps moved to the riverfront, with troops from the 95th and 119th Pennsylvania regiments paddling their way ashore to force a landing. Downstream, troops from the 24th Michigan and 6th Wisconsin also crossed the river, accompanied by division commander James Wadsworth, whose horse swam behind one of the boats.

Following the establishment of the bridgehead, more units crossed the river to solidify the Union hold on the south bank. From the late on the morning of April 29 until the evening of May 2 little happened along Sedgwick's front. Lee, who suspected that Sedgwick was serving merely as a diversion, had divided his army, sending a small force—10,000 infantry and 56 cannon—under Jubal Early to protect his right flank against Sedgwick. On May 2, he divided his army again, holding Hooker in place while Stonewall Jackson marched twelve miles under cover of the Wilderness to the Union army's far right flank. The savage fighting around Chancellorsville prompted Hooker to call repeatedly for reinforcements, with the result that Sedgwick's 60,000 men dwindled to 23,000.

The Battle

Late on May 2, as Jackson's Confederates attempted to exploit the success of their afternoon surprise attack, Hooker ordered Sedgwick to move his men down the Plank Road toward Chancellorsville. Sedgwick, expecting to link up with Hooker about eight o'clock the next morning, sent a division commanded by Norfolk-native John Newton to seize Fredericksburg and, beyond it, the roads west. Confederate skirmishers delayed the Union advance so that Sedgwick did not pass through the city's empty streets until four o'clock. He then ordered Newton's troops, now sitting at the fog-covered base of Marye's Heights, to move forward, assaulting the hill that had been Burnside's nemesis the previous winter. The 62nd New York and 102nd Pennsylvania regiments reached to within twenty paces of a stone wall on the hilltop when they were thrown back by a point-blank blast of musket and artillery fire.

Chastened, Sedgwick, or "Uncle John" as he was known to his men, pulled back to gather up reinforcements and stage a full assault. Union general John Gibbon's division of the Second Corps laid a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock north of Fredericksburg, and by seven o'clock that morning, many of these men were in the city awaiting orders. Sedgwick's instructions from Hooker, meanwhile, were to attack Lee at Chancellorsville as soon as possible, but to be careful not to drive Early's defenders west, where they could rejoin Lee. That meant he was forced to hit Early's right, at Marye's Heights, which loomed 130 feet high and ran a half mile from north to south.

The previous afternoon, Colonel Robert Chilton of Lee's staff had mistakenly ordered Early to abandon his line. When Sedgwick did not attack, Early had time to reposition about 5,000 men along the six miles from a bend in the Rappahannock on the north to Telegraph Hill on the south. At the earlier Battle of Fredericksburg, James Longstreet had had five times those numbers, with plenty of artillery to protect his flanks. Now a regiment of Louisianans and two regiments of William Barksdale's Mississippians—crouched behind a stone wall in a sunken road at the center of the line—were especially vulnerable. Because of the hill's slope, Union forces were able to form lines of attack safely from as close as 450 yards.

Sedgwick's main assault came before nine o'clock. Earlier in the morning he had described his plan to Hooker's staff: "I am about making a combined assault on their works, Gibbon on the right Newton the centre [Albion P.] Howe on the left. If I fail, I shall try again." Gibbon's men marched into Fredericksburg in two columns along William and Hanover streets and then turned right across open ground in an attempt to flank Early. A small canal feeding water from the Rappahannock to local mills stood in their way, however, and by nine Confederate artillery and infantry fire had pinned them to the ground. While engineers struggled to build a bridge, Sedgwick turned his attention to the center and Marye's Heights.

Sedgwick had been reluctant to attack there after what had happened to his New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians earlier in the day. But then he got a lucky break. A Union detachment asked for a truce so that it could collect some of the dead and wounded in front of the stone wall, and Colonel Thomas Griffin of the 18th Mississippi, without Barksdale's permission, granted it. As the Union soldiers crept forward they saw for themselves how weak and undermanned the Confederate position was and relayed word back to Sedgwick.

Sometime after ten o'clock, Newton's division charged along three columns, with Howe's division in support to its left. The 5th Wisconsin was aimed directly at the stone wall. "Boys, you see those Heights?" its colonel asked the regiment. "You have to take them. You think you cannot do it, but you can and you will." The regiment did finally reach the wall—one of its soldiers recounted five men around him being killed in the space of ten square feet—and the resulting hand-to-hand combat sent the Mississippi and Louisiana men retreating up Telegraph Road. (Colonel Thomas Griffin was captured.) The Confederates on Marye's Heights suffered approximately 475 casualties compared to almost 1,100 Union casualties divided between the forces of Newton, Howe, and Gibbon.

Salem Church

Always a cautious general, Sedgwick did not aggressively pursue Early's men. His orders from Hooker—who was busy fighting J. E. B. Stuart and the bulk of Lee's army in the Wilderness—were still to join the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. But to do that he would need to place himself between Lee and Early. He was further spooked by (false) rumors that Longstreet's Confederates were arriving from Norfolk. By the time his lead division, under William "Bully" Brooks, headed west on the Plank Road, Lee had positioned infantry and cavalry under Cadmus Wilcox to block his way.

At three twenty-five, Wilcox's men—Alabamans and Georgians mostly—met Brooks at a tollgate at a clearing in the woods that contained a brick church and a wooden schoolhouse. Fighting north of the road was savage and to neither side's advantage, but to the south, at Salem Church, Wilcox's old command, the 9th Alabama, used the buildings as cover and, in countering a Union charge, turned the tide of battle. Although Union and Confederate numbers at Salem Church were about equal, the casualty counts—1,523 Union, 674 Confederate—were far from it.

Aftermath

That night, Sedgwick fell back to the Rappahannock, and the next morning, May 4, in a series of uncoordinated assaults, Early's men first reclaimed Marye's Heights and then Fredericksburg itself. By the afternoon, mistakenly believing he was outnumbered, Sedgwick ordered his 21,000-strong Sixth Corps into a defensive position at Bank's Ford. At five thirty, Early's 12,000 Confederates attacked Howe's division of Sedgwick's corps but failed to break through by nightfall, suffering 1,200 casualties compared with Howe's 900. Sedgwick retreated across the Rappahannock during the night and early morning, and the following day, May 6, Hooker followed.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered by many to be Lee's greatest victory, but it cost him the life of Stonewall Jackson, and absent Sedgwick's caution and a bit of good fortune here and there, he may not have won at all. The following month, a few days ahead of the Battle of Gettysburg, United States president Abraham Lincoln turned the Army of the Potomac over to George G. Meade. Sedgwick, meanwhile, became the war's highest-ranking Union casualty a year later, on May 9, 1864. Scolding his men for ducking under the fire of Confederate sharpshooters at Spotsylvania Court House, he spoke some of his last words with a chuckle: "They couldn't hit an elephant at that distance."

Time Line

  • April 29, 1863, 4:00 a.m. - Elements of the First and Sixth corps, commanded by Union general John Sedgwick, cross the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. From the later morning until May 2, little happens here as Union general Joseph Hooker battles Confederate general Robert E. Lee twelve miles to the west at Chancellorsville.
  • May 2, 1863, afternoon - Colonel Robert Chilton of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's staff, mistakenly orders Jubal A. Early to abandon his line opposite Fredericksburg. When Union forces do not attack, Early is able to reposition his 5,000 men along the six miles from a bend in the Rappahannock on the north to Telegraph Hill on the south.
  • May 3, 1863, 4:00–9:00 a.m. - Having been ordered by Union general Joseph Hooker to march west to Chancellorsville, John Sedgwick moves his Sixth Corps through Fredericksburg to the base of Marye's Heights. An initial assault, led by John Newton's division, is rebuffed, and Sedgwick's withdraws to gather reinforcements.
  • May 3, 1863, 9:00 a.m. - Sometime before nine, Union general John Sedgwick again attacks Confederate general Jubal A. Early's line opposite Fredericksburg. John Gibbon's division is pinned down on the Union right when it unexpectedly encounters a canal. Union soldiers under truce and gathering wounded from an earlier assault detect a weakness in the Confederate center.
  • May 3, 1863, 10:00 a.m. - Sometime after ten, Newton's division of Union general John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps charges Marye's Heights. After hand-to-hand fighting on either side of a stone wall, Confederate forces under Jubal A. Early are overtaken.
  • May 3, 1863, 3:25 p.m. - William Brooks's division of Union general John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps marches west toward Chancellorsville and encounters Confederates under Cadmus Wilcox at Salem Church. A countercharge by the 9th Alabama turns the tide, and the Union troops are pushed back toward the Rappahannock River.
  • May 4, 1863, morning - In a series of uncoordinated assaults, Confederate troops under Jubal A. Early retake Marye's Heights and Fredericksburg. Union general John Sedgwick withdraws his Sixth Corps to Bank's Ford on the Rappahannock River.
  • May 4, 1863, 5:30 p.m. - Confederate general Jubal A. Early's troops attack Albion P. Howe's division of Union general John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps but fail to break through by nightfall.
  • May 5, 1863, pre-dawn - The result of a miscommunication, the Union Sixth Corps under John Sedgwick retreats north across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. Days of tough fighting, frayed nerves, and the fear that Confederate reinforcements under James Longstreet might soon arrive contribute to Sedgwick's premature action.
  • May 6, 1863 - When he learns that the Sixth Corps had retreated across the Rappahannock River the day before, Union commander Joseph Hooker realizes that the Battle of Chancellorsville is finished. He follows Sedgwick north with the rest of his army.
Further Reading
Furgurson, Ernest B. Chancellorsville 1863, The Souls of the Brave. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 1993.
Parsons, Philip. The Union Sixth Army Corps in the Chancellorsville Campaign: A Study of the Engagement of Second Fredericksburg, Salem Church and Bank's Ford, May 3–4, 1863. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2006.
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
White, K. Second Battle of Fredericksburg. (2012, November 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Fredericksburg_Second_Battle_of.

MLA Citation:
White, K. "Second Battle of Fredericksburg." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Nov. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 10, 2010 | Last modified: November 29, 2012


Contributed by Kristopher White, Ranger and Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. With Chris Mackowski, he is the coauthor of The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson (2009), as well as numerous articles appearing in Blue and Gray Magazine and America's Civil War.