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HOOKER'S ADVANCE FRIDAY.
O far the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac
had been at Falmouth, where still remained Gen. Butterfield, Hooker's chief of staff. The last order from this point had been on Thursday to Gen. Sedgwick, who was therein notified that headquarters would be that night at Chancellorsville; that an advance would be made Friday morning along the plank road (meaning probably the pike) towards Fredericksburg, to uncover Banks's Ford, thus making a shorter communication through Butterfield, who would still remain at Falmouth. This order substantially recapitulates former instructions, and is full of the flash and vim of an active mind, till then intent on its work and abreast of the situation. It urges on Sedgwick co-operation with the right wing, and the most vigorous pushing of the enemy. It impresses on him that both wings will be within easy communication, and ready to spring to one another's assistance.
Slower than his adversary, and failing to follow up with vigor his advantage already gained, Hooker assumes command in person, and reconnoitres the ground between himself and Fredericksburg. He then orders Meade, with Griffin, followed by Humphreys, and with three batteries, to march along the river road to some commanding point between Mott and Colin Runs; his advance to be masked by throwing out small parties, and his command to be in position by two P.M.; while Sykes's division, supported by Hancock's division of the Second Corps, march out the turnpike to a corresponding distance, each force then deploying towards the other, and engaging the enemy supposed to be in that vicinity.
A third column, consisting of the Twelfth Corps, he orders to march by the plank road, and to be massed near Tabernacle Church, masked in like manner; to be in position by midday, so that the Eleventh Corps can move up to take position a mile in its rear as reserve, by two P.M.
French's division of the Second Corps, and one battery, are ordered to Todd's Tavern, from which detachments are to be thrown out on the various roads.
The unemployed troops are massed at Chancellorsville, out of the roads. Pleasonton holds his cavalry brigade there in readiness to move. Hooker announces his headquarters at Tabernacle Church as soon as the movement opens.
Immediately after (11.30 A.M., Friday,) Sedgwick is directed to threaten an attack at one P.M., in the direction of Hamilton's Crossing, to ascertain whether the enemy is hugging his defences in full force. A corps is to be used with proper supports, but nothing more than a demonstration to be made. If certain that the enemy is there in force, Sedgwick is to make no attack.
Sedgwick did not receive this order until about five P.M., but nevertheless made a display in force of Reynolds's corps, with Newton and Brooks in support. But a countermand was soon received, and the troops withdrawn.
As Hooker supposed his enemy to be in line somewhere midway between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, the purpose of these orders to Sedgwick is not plain. Meade, Sykes, and Slocum were ordered to attack the enemy when met. Sedgwick could aid such an attack by pushing the force in his front at Hamilton's. But a mere demonstration to find out whether the heights were strongly held could have no effect upon the real advance, nor procure Hooker any timely information.
The movement of the three columns out of the Wilderness begins at eleven A.M. It is in accordance with the declared plans of Hooker, and with sound policy. For Chancellorsville is of all places the worst in which to deliver or accept a general engagement, and every mile's advance towards Fredericksburg brings the army into more open ground.
Meade, with Griffin and Humphreys, advances on the river road to within a short distance of Banks's Ford, near Decker's farm. He can easily seize the ford, the possession of which lessens the distance between the wings by six miles. It is the objective Hooker has had in view ever since the movement began. He is preparing to deploy towards Sykes.
Sykes, — to quote Warren, — "on gaining the ridge about a mile and a quarter from Chancellorsville, found the enemy advancing, and driving back our cavalry. This small force resisted handsomely, riding up and firing almost in the faces of the Eleventh Virginia Infantry, which formed the enemy's advance. Gen. Sykes moved forward in double-quick time, attacked the enemy vigorously, and drove him back with loss, till he had gained the position assigned him.”
This is a crest in front of the heavy forest, and in range of Anderson's rifle-pits. The Federal skirmishers are the Seventeenth United States Infantry, supported by Burbank's brigade.
McLaws is in his front, and deploys across the pike, Semmes on the left of the road, Mahone, Perry, and Wofford on the right. Jordan's battery is posted on the Mine road.
Sykes brings up Weed's battery, and opens on Semmes, and drives in his skirmishers, but can make no serious impression on his line. McLaws sends word to Jackson that Sykes is attacking in force, and that the country is favorable for a flank attack.
Jackson orders Kershaw through the woods to join Semmes's left, and sends Wilcox up the Mine road to extend the Confederate right, and head off a Federal advance from this direction.
Sykes thus finds himself overlapped on both flanks. He throws Ayres's regular brigade out on his left, and the One Hundred and Forty-sixth New York on his right. His position is difficult, but he determines to hold it as long as possible.
It is noon. No sounds are heard from the parallel columns. Sykes has to make his line very thin, but holds his ground. If supported, he can maintain himself.
But at this juncture he receives orders to fall back on Chancellorsville, and slowly retires to McGee's; later to his old position, Hancock taking his place in the front line ; and he next morning at daylight is also withdrawn, and takes up the line he retains until Sunday morning.
Slocum, in like manner on the plank road, meets Posey and Wright, and a small affair occurs. But Wright is sent along the unfinished railroad, and outflanks him. He is also at this moment ordered to retire.
Meade has had similar orders, and has likewise withdrawn; and Wilcox is sent to Banks's Ford to hold it.
Wright continues his movement along the railroad, as far as Welford's or Catherine's Furnace, when, finding himself beyond communication with his superior, he, in connection with Stuart, who has been holding this point, determines to feel the Union line. Two regiments and a battery are thrown in along the road to Dowdall's Tavern, preceded by skirmishers. Our pickets fall back, and through the dense wood the Confederates reach our line. But they are warmly received, and retire. This is six P.M. Wright now joins his division.
Lee has arrived, and assumes command.
Jackson's divisions, thus following up our retiring columns, by nightfall occupy a line from Mine road to Welford's Furnace. A regiment of cavalry is on the Mine road, and another on the river road as outposts. Stuart remains at the Furnace. McLaws occupies the crest east of Big-Meadow Swamp, and Anderson prolongs his lines westwardly.
Let us now examine into these operations of Friday,