May 4, 1863 – Confederates regained Marye’s Heights outside Fredericksburg, as Federals retreated across the Rappahannock River.
Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates, who had been driven out of their defenses outside Fredericksburg yesterday, now had reinforcements from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to the west. Federal Major General John Sedgwick, commanding VI Corps in the Army of the Potomac, broke through the Confederates to join Major General Joseph Hooker’s main Federal army, but today Early planned to counterattack.
As Lee guessed, Hooker made no effort to take the offensive, instead holding defensive positions with his back to the Rappahannock River. Hooker sent Sedgwick a message at 6:30 a.m. expressing hope that Lee would attack his impregnable defenses. Lee of course would not. Hooker then advised Sedgwick to fall back to Banks’s Ford on the Rappahannock if the Confederates put up too much resistance. He sent Sedgwick no reinforcements to fend off the pending enemy counterattack.
That morning, Sedgwick renewed his attacks in an effort to break through the Confederate defenses and join forces with Hooker. The Federals fought well under Sedgwick; they generally respected their commander, whom they nicknamed “Uncle John.” Lee dispatched General Richard Anderson’s division to reinforce the Confederate defenders. This gave Lee just 25,000 men to face Hooker’s 75,000 Federals.
Confederate counterattacks pushed Sedgwick’s left flank inward, thus cutting him off from Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Early’s Confederates advanced and regained Marye’s Heights west of Fredericksburg. Early stationed a detachment on the high ground and led his remaining force to reinforce the Confederates on the ridge near Salem Church, five miles west.
As the 21,000 Confederates began surrounding Sedgwick’s 20,000 men on three sides, Sedgwick called off trying to reach Hooker and instead fell back toward the Rappahannock. Federal engineers hurried to build pontoon bridges for Sedgwick’s men to cross. Hooker rejected pleas from his subordinates to send troops to Sedgwick’s aid. Hooker’s lack of activity enabled Lee to focus mainly on Sedgwick, but the size of Hooker’s remaining army prevented Lee from doing him any further damage.
The Confederates failed to cut Sedgwick off from Banks’s Ford, which his men used (along with Scott’s Ford farther upriver) to cross the Rappahannock that night. The fighting at Salem Church was another Confederate victory, as Hooker remained seemingly unable to do anything against Lee’s smaller, divided army. But Lee had failed to destroy either Hooker or Sedgwick, and now they were both in nearly impregnable positions still holding superior numbers.
Salem Church became a field hospital; an observer wrote that “the floors, the benches, even the chancel and pulpit were all packed almost to suffocation” with wounded troops. President Jefferson Davis received Lee’s victory message and thanked him on behalf of the Confederate people “reverently united with you in giving praise to God for the success with which He has crowned your arms.” He then acknowledged reports of heavy losses and expressed grief for “the good and the brave who are numbered among the killed and the wounded.”
President Abraham Lincoln, who had heard nothing from army headquarters since Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, vaguely reported on yesterday’s fighting, wrote Hooker asking him to confirm a report, possibly from a Confederate newspaper, that the Confederates took back the Fredericksburg heights. Hooker replied, “I am informed that it is so, but attach no importance to it.” He offered no further details.
Hooker held a council of war with five of his corps commanders (John F. Reynolds, Darius N. Couch, Daniel Sickles, George G. Meade, and Oliver O. Howard) near midnight on the 4th. He described the army’s condition as best he knew it and reminded the men of the general orders from his superiors to not risk destroying the army or its ability to “cover Washington.” He and Butterfield then left the room to allow the corps commanders to decide what they wanted to do.
Reynolds, Meade, and Howard voted to continue fighting. Sickles, whose command had sustained heavy losses, wanted to withdraw. Couch wanted to stay and fight, but because he had no confidence in Hooker’s leadership, he ultimately sided with Sickles. Thus, three commanders wanted to fight and two wanted to retire. Hooker returned, asked for the generals’ opinions, and then announced that he had already decided to retreat. It would begin at 5 a.m.
Hooker then received a message from Sedgwick asking what he should do. Hooker told him to withdraw across the Rappahannock, but before Sedgwick received this directive, he had consulted with his engineer and informed Hooker that he would hold firm where he was. Hooker read this message and tried countermanding his order to fall back, but Sedgwick had already received Hooker’s first order. When the second order arrived, Sedgwick replied, “Yours just received, countermanding order to withdraw. Almost my entire command has crossed over.”
This communication symbolized the confusion that plagued the Federal army throughout this battle.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 287-88; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17829; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 281; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 313, 316-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 292; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5525; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-59; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 348-49; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 644; Robertson, James I., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 652; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 171; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 126-27