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, 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 , 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 BattleLate 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 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.
Always a cautious general, Sedgwick did not aggressively pursue Early’s men. His orders from Hooker—who was busy fightingand 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.
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, United States president Abraham Lincoln turned the Army of the Potomac over to . 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 , he spoke some of his last words with a chuckle: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.”