- Historic Sites
Lee’s Greatest Victory
During three days in May 1863, the Confederate leader took astonishing risks to win one of the most skillfully conducted battles in history. But the cost turned out to be too steep.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
The impromptu celebration fizzled out when dreadful news arrived from Fredericksburg. Lee’s eleven-thousandman rear guard there, under Gen. Jubal A. Early, had been facing twice as many Federals under Gen. John Sedgwick. When a Mississippi colonel named Thomas M. Griffin incautiously (and against regulations) accepted a flag of truce during the morning of May 3, Northern officers saw just how thin was the line opposing them. Adjusting their formations and tactics accordingly, the Federals pounded across the plain below Marye’s Heights and burst over the stone wall and Sunken Road that had caused their army so much grief the previous December. This penetration of the rear guard opened a path to Lee’s rear for Sedgwick’s force. A government photographer accompanying the advancing Federals took some shots of the captured ground, among them one of freshly dead Mississippians in the Sunken Road that gave stark testimony of the price of their colonel’s impolitic behavior. The film captured one of the most graphic views of battle dead taken during the entire war.
Sedgwick’s apparently wide-open opportunity to slice westward and do Lee some harm came to an abrupt obstacle about four miles west of Marye’s Heights, at Salem Church. Gen. Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox and his brigade of five tough, veteran Alabama regiments began May 3 guarding Banks Ford on the Rappahannock River, two miles due north of Salem Church. Wilcox moved alertly toward Fredericksburg and the action developing there during the morning. When Early’s line at Marye’s Heights fell apart, Wilcox hurried across country and threw skirmishers in Sedgwick’s path. The Alabama men retarded their enemy’s advance from positions on each gentle crest and at fence rows perpendicular to the road. Finally at Salem Church they made a stout stand.
Lee received the bad news from eastward with the same calm poise he always displayed, but his heart must have sunk within him. He turned Gen. Lafayette McLaws onto the Turnpike back toward Salem Church and later followed in person. Wilcox and his men stood at bay near the little brick building when McLaws arrived with reinforcements. The simple Southern Baptist sanctuary, built in 1844 by the farming brethren who worshiped in it, now served as a make-do fortification. Bluecoated infantry charged up to and around the building while Alabamians fired out the windows. Hundreds of men fell in the yard, in the church itself, and in the small log church school sixty yards to the east.
But McLaws and his men made the Salem Church ridge too strong to breach, and fighting flickered out late on May 3. The next day Confederates from the church and from Early’s bypassed rear guard bottled Sedgwick up with his back to the Rappahannock. Soon after midnight of May 4th, this Union detachment retreated back over the river under desultory shell fire and light infantry pressure.
Salem Church survives today, covered both inside and out with battle scars. All but a tiny fragment of the Salem Church ridge, however, disappeared during the past few years as gas stations and shopping centers destroyed the battlefield. Huge earth-moving machines chewed up and carried away the ground of the ridge itself, leaving the building a forlorn remnant of the historic past isolated on its little vestigial crest.
Jackson’s wife told him he was dying. “My wish is fulfilled,” he said. “I have always desired to die on Sunday.”
After Sedgwick headed for cover at the end of May 4, Lee could return his attention to Hooker’s main army. The Federals had built a strong and deep line of earthworks shaped like an enormous capital V. The flanks were anchored on the river, and the apex stretched south to a point only one mile north of Chancellorsville. Within that sturdy fastness Joe Hooker continued to cooperate with Lee’s objectives by holding his force quietly under the eyes of Southern detachments that he outnumbered by about four to one. When Lee was able to return to the Chancellorsville front on May 5, the men he brought back with him from around Salem Church improved the odds to some degree but not nearly enough to approach parity. Federal losses totaled about eighteen thousand during the campaign, but Lee had incurred some twelve thousand casualties as well and was still greatly overmatched. Even so, the Confederate commander was looking for some means to launch a renewed offensive against Hooker when, on the morning of May 6, his scouts reported that all the Federals had retreated north of the river during the night.
That same day, Joe Hooker announced in an order to the entire army: “The events of the last week may swell with pride the heart of every officer and soldier of this army. We have added new luster to its former renown … and filled [the enemy’s] country with fear and consternation.” By contrast, Lee’s congratulatory order to his troops, dated May 7, gave thanks to God “for the signal deliverance He has wrought” and encouraged divine services in the army to acknowledge that debt.