As May 4 began, President Abraham Lincoln still had not received substantial information on the battles raging both at Chancellorsville and outside Fredericksburg in northeastern Virginia. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:
“I this afternoon (of May 4) met the President at the War Department. He said he had a feverish anxiety to get facts; was constantly up and down, for nothing reliable came from the front. There is an impression which is very general that our Army has been successful, but that there has been great slaughter, and that still fiercer and more terrible fights are impending.”
But the Federals thus far had not been successful. The main body of Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac was pulling back into defenses after terrible fighting around Chancellorsville, while a detachment of the army consisting mainly of Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps was now virtually surrounded against the Rappahannock River after finally pushing through the Fredericksburg defenses.
Hooker’s main line at Chancellorsville was compact and strong, with both flanks anchored on the Rappahannock. An officer in the Twelfth Corps asserted that “any force that the nature of the ground would allow the enemy to bring against us would meet with a certain and disastrous repulse.” Hooker sent Sedgwick a message at 6:30 a.m., expressing hope that Lee would attack his impregnable defenses. Lee of course would not.
Many expected that Hooker would counterattack, but he remained focused solely on defense. This was partly due to rumors that Lee was being reinforced by Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s Confederates coming up from foraging duty at Suffolk. These rumors were false. Lee kept up a steady artillery fire designed to keep the Federals guessing where he might hit next. But Lee was not planning to hit Hooker’s main force at all; he was shifting his focus to Sedgwick’s corps near Salem Church to the east.
Hooker directed Sedgwick to protect the Rappahannock crossings at Fredericksburg and Banks’s Ford. Hooker wrote, “You can go to either place if you think it best. To cross at Banks’ Ford would bring you in supporting distance of the main body and would be better than falling back to Fredericksburg.” Hooker planned to leave a token force guarding United States Ford, “and with the balance of my force recross the river, march down to Banks’s ford and turn the enemy’s position in my front in so doing.” This plan relied on Sedgwick holding Banks’s Ford for another day, even though Hooker sent him no reinforcements to do so.
Meanwhile, Major-General Jubal Early, whose Confederates were driven away from the Fredericksburg defenses on the 3rd, planned to counterattack the next day. Lee reinforced Early with two divisions, leaving just 25,000 Confederates to face Hooker’s main force of 75,000. Lee wanted to attack Sedgwick as soon as possible, as he explained to Major-General Lafayette McLaws that “if we let them alone until morning we will find them again intrenched, so I wish to push them over the river tonight.”
Early advanced and by 7 a.m. had recaptured Marye’s Heights overlooking 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.
Losing Marye’s Heights meant that Sedgwick could not recross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg; his only option for recrossing was now at Banks’s Ford. Sedgwick’s Federals repelled several Confederate attacks, as the men fought hard for the commander they called “Uncle John.” But Confederate numbers swelled to 21,000, and they slowly began surrounding Sedgwick’s 20,000 on three sides. Sedgwick’s chief of staff told him, “General, it looks as if the Sixth Corps was going to close its career today.” Sedgwick replied, “It has somewhat that appearance… I will tell you a secret: there will be no surrendering.”
The final Confederate attack came at 6 p.m., “with a violence that I had never before encountered,” according to Brigadier-General Albion Howe of the Sixth Corps. Sedgwick called off trying to get to the main army and instead fell back toward the Rappahannock. Lee was furious that the main assault had taken so long to materialize, but it actually worked to the Confederates’ advantage because it came so late that Hooker could not send reinforcements in time to turn the tide.
Sedgwick wrote Hooker at 9:45 p.m., “The enemy are pressing me. I am taking position to cross the river whenever necessary.” Federal engineers hurried to build pontoon bridges for Sedgwick’s men to cross. Hooker received Sedgwick’s message at 11 p.m. and realized that his plan of crossing the Potomac army at Banks’s Ford to hit the Confederates on their flank was doomed now that Sedgwick was pulling back across the river.
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 news of the fighting from Lee 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 Lincoln, still waiting for details on how the battle was progressing, wrote Hooker asking him to confirm a report, possibly from a Confederate newspaper, that the Confederates took back Marye’s Heights overlooking Fredericksburg. Hooker replied, “I am informed that it is so, but attach no importance to it.” He offered no further details.
Hooker had much to think about. His offensive had begun so brilliantly, but the failure of Major-General George Stoneman’s cavalry to cut Lee’s supply line and now Sedgwick’s failure to hold the ford meant that it was fizzling out.
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