While the main body of Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac was in battle around Chancellorsville, a detachment remained to the east, in front of Fredericksburg. This numbered about 40,000 men and consisted mainly of Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps. Sedgwick’s objective was to divert the attention of the Confederates defending Marye’s Heights overlooking Fredericksburg.
As the bulk of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked Hooker’s Federals at Chancellorsville on May 2, Sedgwick received orders from Hooker to break through Marye’s Heights west of Fredericksburg and join the rest of the Potomac army around Chancellorsville. But Hooker left it up to Sedgwick to decide “whether it is expedient for him to attack or not.” Sedgwick decided not to attack.
Meanwhile, Lee sent a discretionary order to Major-General Jubal Early, commanding the 12,400 Confederates defending Marye’s Heights. If possible, Early was to leave about 3,000 men on the heights and bring the remaining 9,000 to Lee’s main body at Chancellorsville. Colonel Robert Chilton, Lee’s chief of staff, delivered the order to Early but erroneously told him that it was peremptory, so Early began moving out. But then Lee clarified that Early was to decide for himself whether to move, and around the same time Early received word that Sedgwick’s Federals were about to attack Marye’s Heights. With Early now allowed to choose where to go, “I determined to return at once to my former position.”
Back at Chancellorsville, Major-General Daniel Sickles mistakenly reported to Hooker that the Confederates were retreating. This prompted Hooker to send a second message to Sedgwick ordering him to push through Fredericksburg and “vigorously pursue the enemy. We know that the enemy is fleeing, trying to save his trains. Two of Sickles’ divisions are among them.” Hooker sent this message at 4:10 p.m., but Sedgwick did not receive it until two hours later.
At 9 p.m., Hooker sent another direct order for Sedgwick to attack, push through the defenders, and move up the Plank Road to join the main Federal army. Hooker added, “You will probably fall upon the rear of the forces commanded by General Lee, and, between you and the major general commanding, he expects to use them up.” This message did not reach Sedgwick until 11 p.m.
A half-hour later, Major-General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff stationed at Falmouth, informed Sedgwick of the Confederate flank attack at Chancellorsville and told him, “Everything in the world depends upon the rapidity and promptness of your movement. Push everything.” Butterfield hoped that this would get Sedgwick to move aggressively, but instead, as Butterfield stated, it “made the movement of Gen. Sedgwick’s column a little over cautious.” Sedgwick’s advance was stalled by Confederate skirmishers, and he wrote Butterfield at 1:30 a.m., “There is still a force in Fredericksburg. We are marching as rapidly as possible but cannot reach Gen. Hooker by daylight.”
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. 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.
If Sedgwick had attacked Marye’s Heights on the night of the 2nd when he first received orders to do so, he would have only encountered a skeleton defense line that could have easily been broken. But by the time Sedgwick prepared to advance, Early had brought all his troops back to the defenses. Professor Thaddeus Lowe, chief Federal aeronautics officer, reported from his reconnaissance balloon, “The enemy have apparently increased their force during the night.”
Sedgwick’s instructions were simple enough, but memories of the disaster at Marye’s Heights in December caused him to be overly careful, even though he sent about 25,000 Federals to take on Early’s 12,000. 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.
A Federal division advanced against the center of the Confederate defense line but was repulsed. A ceasefire was requested, ostensibly to collect the wounded. But the true reason was for the Federals to get a closer look at the Confederate lines. When Sedgwick was informed that the enemy right flank was weak, he decided to attack Marye’s Heights in front and flank with his entire Sixth Corps. Sedgwick reported, “I have good prospects of success.”
Sedgwick split his columns in two and ordered his men to charge with bayonets. They were not to stop to reload their rifles. Colonel Thomas Allen spread his 5th Wisconsin regiment out in a skirmish line and issued orders to his men: “Boys, you see those Heights. You have got to take them… When the signal forward is given you will advance at double-quick. You will not fire a gun, and you will not stop until you get the order to halt. You will never get that order.”
The Federals wavered, but then a force was able to move up on the right and enfilade the Confederate line. This finally dislodged the defenders and forced Early to order a withdrawal. Sedgwick notified Hooker at 10:50 a.m. that the Federals had taken Marye’s Heights, along with about 1,000 prisoners. The Federals started moving west toward Chancellorsville by around 11 a.m.
Confederate Brigadier-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 to the southwest, Wilcox blocked the Federals’ westward path atop a ridge near Salem Church, about midway between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville on the Orange Turnpike.
Sedgwick received one last order before Hooker was injured by a Confederate shell: “You will hurry up your column. The enemy’s right flank now rests near the Plank road at Chancellorsville all exposed. You will attack at once.” Sedgwick tried to comply, but he only had one division on hand to attack Wilcox’s new line at Salem Church. Without support, the division was repulsed.
When Lee learned that Marye’s Heights had fallen, he sent troops to reinforce the Confederates to the east. Major-General Lafayette McLaws’s division soon arrived to join Wilcox, and the combined force sustained Federal artillery and a charge through heavy underbrush. The Confederates then counterattacked, driving the Federals back. By nightfall, the Confederates had surrounded Sedgwick’s men on three sides, with the Rappahannock River on the fourth. Hooker sent no support to 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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