Major General John Sedgwick, corps commander in the Army of the Potomac, killed at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and for whom Sedgwick County, Kansas is named
Jeffrey D. Wert’s The Sword of Lincoln is a comprehensive new look at the history of the Army of the Potomac throughout the course of the Civil War, thoroughly researched, well-documented and unquestionably the best complete one-volume look at that sorely-tried host since Bruce Catton’s classic three-volume The Army of the Potomac more than half a century ago.
In the following passage, Wert discusses the conduct of Major General John Sedgwick during the course of the battle of Chancellorsville, arguably Robert E. Lee’s most audacious defeat of the Army of the Potomac:
“Union Major General John Sedgwick was an officer ill-suited for the role assigned to him in the Chancellorsville Campaign. Appointed a wing commander, Sedgwick directed operations of his Sixth Corps and John Reynolds’s First Corps below Fredericksburg. His orders specified that if the Confederates retreated toward Richmond, he should pursue them, and if they marched to oppose the Federals at Chancellorsville, he should ‘attack and carry their works at all hazards.’ The duty required of Sedgwick alertness, initiative, and flexibility amid fluid circumstances. Unfortunately, caution and deliberateness characterized his generalship.
“From April 29, when his forces crossed to the enemy side of the Rappahannock, through May 2, Sedgwick held his troops in place. Observers in balloons kept him informed of enemy movements from their lines behind Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. The Southerners who remained in front of Sedgwick manned the hills and ridges along a six-mile front. They numbered less than half of Sedgwick’s 24,000-man Sixth Corps. Artillery fire and skirmishing marked the action. Sedgwick ordered weak demonstrations, but undertook no attacks, despite seeing most of the remaining defenders pull out and march west on May 2.
“To be sure, Sedgwick wrestled with telegraphic breakdowns – the wire between Chancellorsville and Falmouth had been strung on lances – lost couriers, and conflicting orders. Joseph Hooker shifted the First Corps to Chancellorsville on May 2, under the mistaken belief that Sedgwick had recrossed the river. Nevertheless, Sedgwick squandered an opportunity to strike the weakly held works on May 2. He finally stirred into action when Hooker sent him a peremptory order to seize the town and to attack the Rebel lines. Hooker sent Gouverneur Warren to Sedgwick to make certain the general acted. Warren confided subsequently to Hooker that he believed Sedgwick would not have moved against the enemy had Warren not been present.
“It was minutes after ten o’clock on the morning of May 3 when ten Sixth Corps regiments in three attack columns advanced at the double-quick toward Marye’s Heights. Jubal Early’s ranks had been stretched so thin that only eight cannon crews and 1,200 Mississippians manned the hill when the Yankees appeared. The Southerners opened fire, lashing the heads of the columns. Casualties mounted among the blue-coated soldiers, but in the words of a staff officer, ‘Sedgwick’s men could not be stopped, they were for blood.’
“The attackers, as ‘if moved by a sudden impulse,’ poured over the infamous stone wall at the base of the hill and wrenched it from the Mississippians. Up the slope they went, seizing the eight cannon and hundreds of prisoners. The assault had taken less than thirty minutes, but at a cost of more than six hundred in killed and wounded. Early managed to gather up his scattered units and retreat south away from Fredericksburg.
“With the road open to Chancellorsville, Sedgwick hesitated to advance westward until he had consolidated his divisions. His orders required a rapid march, but caution owned the soul of Uncle John. By the time the Sixth Corps resumed its march, Lee had dispatched a division from Chancellorsville to oppose the Federals. Five Confederate brigades held the wooded terrain around Salem Church, three miles east of Chancellorsville.
“Two brigades of Brigadier General William Brooks’s Union division advanced on the enemy position about four o’clock. Some of Brooks’s troops had received bounties to enlist, and as they went in, he allegedly called them ‘two hundred dollar sons of bitches.’ Bounty men or not, they charged with spirit, breaking through a section of the Rebel line. ‘We fired as fast as we could,’ claimed a Yankee, ‘and Johnny Reb done the same.’ But the Confederates rallied, counterattacked, and repulsed the Federals. Brooks’s men streamed to the rear.
“In all Sedgwick had committed only 4,000 troops to the attack. Evidently, he and his other generals underestimated enemy strength. The assault cost Brooks more than 1,500 casualties, or roughly 40 percent of those engaged. Southern losses amounted to less than half their opponents’. The Sixth Corps ‘rested on their arms,’ along and north of Orange Plank road.
“Sedgwick endured a long and difficult night of May 3-4. His chief of staff recounted that the general ‘scarcely slept.’ He paced, listened to the sounds through the darkness, and tried to sleep. In his report, Sedgwick said that he heard enemy reinforcements move into position. His corps was miles from the main body of the army, with the Rebels between them. If the Confederates retook the heights at Fredericksburg, his troops would be boxed in on three sides. ‘The might was,’ said his aide, ‘inexpressibly gloomy.’
“At daylight on May 4, Sedgwick shifted his divisions, forming a broad U-shaped position, with both flanks on the Rappahannock. The only instructions he received from Hooker came in a dispatch from Warren, who directed him to remain on the defensive unless the Federals attacked at Chancellorsville, ‘look well to the safety of your corps,’ and to cover his retreat route at Banks’s Ford. They were not reassuring words to a general of Sedgwick’s temperament.
“Contrary to what Sedgwick believed, Lee had not sent additional units out the Plank Road during the night. But the Rebels were coming on the morning of May 4. Jubal Early’s veterans reoccupied a vacant Marye’s Heights – John Gibbon’s Union Second Corps division had been ordered to occupy Fredericksburg, not the high ground to the west – and then turned toward Sedgwick’s corps. From Chancellorsville, Lee sent three brigades. In all, the Southerners massed three divisions, or more than 20,000 troops, against the Sixth Corps.
“It took the Confederates most of the day to deploy for an assault. It was not until six o’clock before they charged Sedgwick’s line. The fighting was centered on the Union left, held by Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, a native of Maine and a West Pointer known for his ‘unsociable disposition.’ The combat was fierce at points. One Federal soldier remarked afterward, ‘I no more expected to get out of that place alive than I expected to fly.’ Blue-jacketed artillerymen and Howe’s veterans repulsed the attacks, carried out by only four Rebel brigades. Under the cover of darkness, Sedgwick compacted his line toward Banks’s Ford.
“Throughout the day, Sedgwick sent a stream of telegrams to Hooker and the army’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, who had stayed at Falmouth during the campaign to coordinate communications and movements between the two wings. The tone of his dispatches revealed a general overwrought with the dangers in front of him. Hours before the Rebels attacked he insisted, ‘The enemy are pressing me hard.’ Fifteen minutes later, he asked Hooker, ‘Can you help me strongly if I am attacked?’ He reported that deserters placed the number of troops opposed to him at 40,000. Despite the repulse of the Confederates, he was committed to a withdrawal of his corps across the river.
“At 1:00 A.M., on May 5, Butterfield directed Sedgwick to cross the Rappahannock. Sedgwick received the order an hour later and replied, ‘Will withdraw my forces immediately.’ At 1:20 A.M., Hooker countermanded the order, but the dispatch did not reach Sedgwick until 3:20 A.M. By then it was too late to stop the crossing at Banks’s Ford. By daylight, the Sixth Corps had filed to the north of the river, and the pontoon bridges had been cut loose from the south bank.
“The next day, May 6, Sedgwick wrote to his sister, ‘I am perfectly satisfied with the part my corps took in it, and their conduct was admirable.’ Indeed, the Sixth Corps troops had fought well, but their commander had restricted their role in the campaign. Hooker had expected much more from them, but he had misjudged Sedgwick’s capability for an independent command that required aggressiveness. In his letter to his sister, Sedgwick warned her to ‘believe little that you see in the papers. There will be an effort to throw the blame for the failure on me, but it will not succeed. My friends here will do me justice.’
“Unfortunately for the army, Sedgwick’s performance typified one of the curses that plagued its senior leadership. He was ‘perfectly satisfied’ with minimal performance. There was no urgency to his movements, no pressing desire to go to the sounds of battle at Chancellorsville. While Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and their subordinates sought a reckoning, despite the odds, Sedgwick searched only for obstacles that prevented him from fulfilling his primary mission. The contrast between the differing mind-sets characterized the great divide between the two armies. A firm admirer of George McClellan, Sedgwick shared his former commander’s approach to battle. It had crippled McClellan, and it crippled Sedgwick.”