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W, when Sedgwick had concluded upon a general
assault, he can scarcely be blamed for over-caution in his preparations for it. Four months before, a mere handful of the enemy had successfully held these defences against half the Army of the Potomac; and an attack without careful dispositions seemed to be mere waste of life. It would appear to be almost supererogatory to defend Sedgwick against reasonable time consumed in these precautions.
There had been a more or less continuous artillery-fire, during the entire morning, from our batteries stationed on either side of the river. This was now redoubled to prepare for the assault. Newton's batteries concentrated their fire on the stone wall, until our troops had neared it, when they directed it upon the crest beyond; while like action was effected to sustain Howe.
Instructions were issued to the latter, who at once proceeded to form three storming columns under Gen. Neill, Col. Grant, and Col. Seaver, and supported them by the fire of his division artillery. Sedgwick at the same time ordered out from Newton's division two other columns, one under Col. Spear, consisting of two regiments, supported by two more under Gen. Shaler, and one under Col. Johns of equal size, to move on the plank road, and to the right of it, flanked by a line under Col. Burnham, with four regiments, on the left of the plank road. This line advanced manfully at a double-quick against the rifle-pits, neither halting nor firing a shot, despite the heavy fire they encountered, until they had driven the enemy from their lower line of works, while the columns pressed boldly forward to the crest, and carried the works in their rear. All the guns and many prisoners were captured. This was a mettlesome assault, and as successful as it was brief and determined.
Howe's columns, in whose front the Confederate skirmishers occupied the railroad-cutting and embankment, while Hays and two regiments of Barksdale were on Lee's and adjacent hills, as soon as the firing on his right was heard, moved to the assault with the bayonet; Neill and Grant pressing straight for Cemetery hill, which, though warmly received, they carried without any check. They then faced to the right, and, with Seaver sustaining their left, carried the works on Marye's heights, capturing guns and prisoners wholesale.
A stand was subsequently attempted by the Confederates on several successive crests, but without avail.
The loss of the Sixth Corps in the assault on the Fredericksburg heights was not far from a thousand men, including Cols. Spear and Johns, commanding two of the storming columns.
The assault of Howe falls in no wise behind the one
made by Newton. The speedy success of both stands out in curious contrast to the deadly work of Dec. 13. “So rapid had been the final movement on Marye's hill, that Hays and Wilcox, to whom application had been made for succor, had not time to march troops from Taylor's and Stansbury's to Barksdale's aid.” (Hotchkiss and Allan.)
The Confederates were now cut in two: Wilcox and Hays were left north of the plank road, but Hays retreated round the head of Sedgwick's column, and rejoined Early. Wilcox, who, on hearing of Sedgwick's maneuvres Sunday morning, had hurried with a portion of his force to Barksdale's assistance at Taylor's, but had arrived too late to participate in the action, on ascertaining Sedgwick's purpose, retired slowly down the plank road, and skirmished with the latter's head of column. And he made so determined a stand near Guest's, that considerable time was consumed in brushing it away before Sedgwick could hold on his course.
Early appears to deem the carrying of the Fredericksburg heights to require an excuse on his part. He says in his report about our preliminary assaults: " All his efforts to attack the left of my line were thwarted, and one attack on Marye’s hill was repulsed. The enemy, however, sent a flag of truce to Col. Griffin, of the Eighteenth Mississippi Regiment, who occupied the works at the foot of Marye’s hill with his own and the Twentyfirst Mississippi Regiment, which was received by him imperfectly; and it had barely returned before heavy columns were advanced against the position, and the trenches were carried, and the hill taken." “ After this the artillery on Lee's hill, and the rest of Barksdale's infantry, with one of Hays's regiments, fell back on the Telegraph road; Hays with the remainder being compelled to fall back upon the plank road as he was on the left.” Later, “a line was formed across the Telegraph road, at Cox's house, about two miles back of Lee's hill."
Barksdale says, “ With several batteries under the command of Gen. Pendleton, and a single brigade of infantry, I had a front of not less than three miles to defend, extending from Taylor's hill on the left, to the foot of the hills in the rear of the Howison house."
Gen. Wilcox, he goes on to state, from Banks's Ford, had come up with three regiments as far as Taylor's, and Gen. Hays was also in that vicinity; but “ the distance from town to the points assailed was so short, the attack so suddenly made, and the difficulty of removing troops from one part of the line to another was so great, that it was utterly impossible for either Gen. Wilcox or Gen. Hays to reach the scene of action in time to afford any assistance whatever. It will then be seen that Marye's hill was defended by but one small regiment, three companies, and four pieces of artillery.”
Barksdale further states that, “ upon the pretext of taking care of their wounded, the enemy asked a flag of truce, after the second assault at Marye's hill, which was granted by Col. Griffin ; and thus the weakness of our force at that point was discovered."
The bulk of Early's division was holding the heights from Hazel Run to Hamilton's Crossing; and the sudden assault on the Confederate positions at Marye’s, and the hills to the west, gave him no opportunity of sustaining his forces there. But it is not established that any unfair use was made of the flag of truce mentioned by Barksdale.
The loss in this assault seems heavy, when the small force of Confederates is considered. The artillery could not do much damage, inasmuch as the guns could not be sufficiently depressed, but the infantry fire was very telling; and, as already stated, both colonels commanding the assaulting columns on the right were among the casualties.
The enemy's line being thus cut in twain, sundering those at Banks's Ford and on the left of the Confederate line from Early at Hamilton's Crossing, it would now have been easy for Sedgwick to have dispersed Early's forces, and to have destroyed the depots at the latter place. But orders precluded anything but an immediate advance.
The question whether Sedgwick could have complied with his instructions, so as to reach Hooker in season to relieve him from a part of Lee's pressure on Sunday morning, is answered by determining whether it was feasible to carry the Fredericksburg heights before or at daylight. If this could have been done, it is not unreasonable to assume that he could have left a rear-guard, ' to occupy Early's attention and forestall attacks on his marching column, and have feached, with the bulk of his corps, the vicinity of Chancellorsville by the time the Federals were hardest pressed, say ten A.M., and most needed a diversion in their favor.