May 3, 1863 – Federals attacked the Confederate defenders on Marye’s Heights in a fight reminiscent of the Federal disaster at Fredericksburg last December.
Federal Major General John Sedgwick, commanding VI Corps, received orders from Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, to break through the Confederate lines west of Fredericksburg and join the rest of the army falling back around Chancellorsville. Sedgwick then received a message from Major General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, at 2:35 a.m.: “Everything in the world depends upon the rapidity and promptness of your movement. Push everything.”
Lee learned before dawn on the 3rd that Sedgwick’s Federals had crossed a pontoon bridge and reentered Fredericksburg, just as they had done five months earlier. Major General Jubal Early’s division held the ridges south of the town, while Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade held Marye’s Heights and the high ground west of Fredericksburg. Lee planned to demonstrate against Hooker’s front while sending reinforcements to Early, the overall commander.
Sedgwick sent 20,000 Federals to take on Early’s 10,000 men. This opened a second front in the battle between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker was numerically superior on both fronts, yet he was retreating to the west while Sedgwick attacked to the east.
Barksdale repelled the first attack. A truce was called ostensibly to collect the wounded, but really for the Federals to gauge the enemy’s strength. Sedgwick was informed that the Confederates had suffered heavy losses, so he split his column in two and directed them to charge with bayonets. They were not to stop to reload their rifles.
This unusual bayonet charge worked, as the Federals managed to break through. They forced the Confederates out of their defenses on Marye’s Heights and took about 1,000 prisoners. The Federals began moving west toward Chancellorsville by around 11 a.m.
Confederate General Cadmus M. Wilcox had been guarding Banks’s Ford on the Rappahannock with a brigade when he discovered the Federals coming through from Fredericksburg. As Early withdrew southwest, Wilcox blocked the Federals’ westward path atop a ridge near Salem Church, about five miles from Fredericksburg (or midway between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville) on the Orange Turnpike.
The Federals attacked, but the Confederates held their ground, giving Lee more time to respond. When Lee learned that Marye’s Heights had fallen, he sent two divisions to reinforce the Confederates to the east. General Lafayette McLaws’s division soon arrived to reinforce Wilcox, and the combined force sustained Federal artillery and a charge through heavy underbrush. The Confederates then counterattacked, driving the Federals back.
Nightfall ended the pursuit, as Hooker did nothing to reinforce Sedgwick. The Confederates lost Fredericksburg and the high ground outside that town, but they prevented Sedgwick from reaching Hooker. Near midnight, Early proposed to retake Marye’s Heights and cut Sedgwick’s communications with Fredericksburg before attacking with reinforcements from McLaws. Lee approved.
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