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SEDGWICK MARCHES TOWARDS HOOKER.
O soon as Sedgwick had reduced the only formidable
works in his front, he made dispositions to push out on the plank road. Gibbon was left in Fredericksburg to prevent the enemy from crossing to the north side of the river, and to shield the bridges.
“Gen. Brooks's division was now given the advance, and he was farthest in the rear, not having got moved from the crossing-place.” Brooks had so extensive a force in his front, that he was constrained to withdraw with extreme caution. “ This necessarily consumed a considerable time, and before it was completed the sound of the cannonading at Chancellorsville had ceased.” (Warren.)
This postponement of an immediate advance might well, under the stringency of the orders, have been avoided, by pushing on with the then leading division. Not that it would have been of any ultimate assistance to Hooker at Chancellorsville. At the time the storming columns assaulted Marye's heights, Hooker had already been driven into his lines at White House. And though none of his strictures upon Sedgwick's tardiness, as affecting his own situation, will bear the test of examination, time will not be considered wholly ill-spent in determining where Sedgwick might have been more expeditious. It no doubt accords with military precedents, to alternate in honoring the successive divisions of a corps with the post of danger; but it may often be highly improper to arrest an urgent progress in order to accommodate this principle. And it was certainly inexpedient in this case, despite the fact that Newton and Howe had fought their divisions, while Brooks had not yet been under fire.
“ The country being open, Gen. Brooks's division was formed in a column of brigade-fronts, with an extended line of skirmishers in the front and flank in advance, and the artillery on the road.” (Warren.) The New Jersey brigade marched on the right, and Bartlett's brigade on the left, of the road. This disposition was adopted that the enemy might be attacked as soon as met, without waiting for deployment, and to avoid the usual maneuvres necessary to open an action from close column, or from an extended order of march.
Gen. Newton followed, marching by the flank along the road. This "greatly extended the column, made it liable to an enfilading fire, and put it out of support, in a measure, of the division in advance.” (Warren.)
Howe brought up the rear.
Meanwhile Wilcox, having arrested Sedgwick at Guest's, as long as his slender force enabled him to do, moved across country to the River road near Taylor's. But Sedgwick’s cautious advance gave him the opportunity of sending back what cavalry he had, some fifty men, to skirmish along the plank road, while he himself moved his infantry and artillery by cross-roads to the toll-house, one-half mile east of Salem Church. Here he took up an admirable position, and made a handsome resistance to Sedgwick, until, ascertaining that McLaws had reached the crest at that place, he withdrew to the position assigned him in the line of battle now formed by that officer.
When Early perceived that Sedgwick was marching his corps up the plank road, instead, as he expected, of attacking him, and endeavoring to reach the depots at Hamilton's, he concentrated at Cox's all his forces, now including Hays, who had rejoined him by a circuit, and sent word to McLaws, whom he ascertained to be advancing to meet Sedgwick, that he would on the morrow attack Marye's heights with his right, and extend his left over to join the main line.
T was about noon before Lee became aware that Sedg
wick had captured his stronghold at Fredericksburg, and was where he could sever his communications, or fall upon his rear at Chancellorsville. Both Lee and Early (the former taking his cue from his lieutenant) state that at first Sedgwick advanced down the Telegraph road, with an assumed purpose to destroy the line in Lee's rear, but that he was checked by Early. The nature, however, of Sedgwick's orders precluded his doing this, and there is no mention of such a purpose among any of the reports. And it was not long before Lee heard that Sedgwick was marching out towards the battle-ground in the Wilderness, with only Wilcox in his front.
McLaws, with his own three brigades, and one of Anderson's, was accordingly pushed forward at a rapid gait to sustain Wilcox; while Anderson, with the balance of his division, and fourteen rifled guns, was sent to the junction of the River road and Mine road to hold that important position. McLaws arrived about two P.M., and found Wilcox skirmishing, a trifle beyond Salem Church. He was drawn back a few hundred yards, while Kershaw and Wofford were thrown out upon Wilcox's right, and Semmes and Mahone on his left. Wofford arrived somewhat late, as he had been temporarily left at the junction of the Mine and plank roads to guard them. McLaws's guns were concentrated on the road, but were soon withdrawn for lack of ammunition.
Some troops were thrown into Salem Church, and into a schoolhouse near by, in front of the woods, forming a salient; but the main Confederate line was withdrawn some three hundred yards within the wood, where a clearing lay at their back.
When Sedgwick's column reached the summit along the road, about a mile from Salem Church, Wilcox's cavalry skirmishers were met, and a section of artillery opened with solid shot from a point near the church, where Wilcox was hurrying his forces into line. The intervening ground was quite open on both sides the road. The heights at Salem Church are not considerable; but a ravine running north and south across its front, and as far as the Rappahannock, furnishes an excellent line of defence, and the woods come up to its edge at this point, and enclose the road.
Brooks was pushed in to attack the enemy, the main part of his division being on the left of the road, while Newton filed in upon his right, so soon as his regiments could be got up. Disposing his batteries (Rigby, Parsons, and Williston) along a crest at right angles to the road, not far from the toll-gate, where good shelter existed for the caissons and limbers, Brooks sharply advanced his