One cannot but wonder just where Sickles expected to find Jackson. There can be little doubt that he did think he was about to strike Jackson’s flank. His testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War constantly refers to this belief; and he says that he “was about to open his attack in full force,” was holding Pleasonton’s cavalry in hand, desiring to lead the attack with his infantry, when the news of the disaster to the Eleventh Corps was brought to him; and that every thing seemed to indicate the most brilliant success from thus throwing himself upon Jackson’s flank and rear. He refers to McLaws being in his front, but this is an error. McLaws was on Lee’s right flank, three miles away. It was with Archer of Jackson’s corps, and with Posey and Wright of Anderson’s division, that he had to do.
The reports are by no means clear as to the details of these movements. Birney states in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, that he found that he and Barlow “had got into the midst of the rebel army, the supports on the left not having come up.” He therefore formed his command into a huge square, with the artillery in the centre, holding the road over which Jackson had passed. “The fire upon his left flank from musketry was galling.” This came from Anderson’s brigades.
Hayman, Graham and Ward were pushed out along the road, and “found the enemy in some force on three sides.” This apparently shows that Birney,—who had the immediate command of the troops in front,—was quite uncertain of what was before him, or just what he was expected to do.
This much is, however, clear: Jackson’s small rearguard had succeeded in holding the road which he had traversed, at some point near Welford’s; and here this force remained until Jackson was well along towards the plank road. Then Anderson in his turn made a diversion on the other side of Birney, which kept the latter busy for at least a couple of hours.
Sickles’s orders were to advance cautiously. This was Hooker’s doing. Hence exception cannot fairly be taken to either Birney’s or Sickles’s conduct for lack of energy. But the latter must have singularly underrated Jackson’s methods, if he thought he could strike him at a given point, so many hours after his passage. For Jackson was first observed near the Furnace about eight A.M., and Sickles was just getting ready to attack him in this same place at six P.M.
The errors of judgment on this entire day can scarcely be attributed to any one but the general commanding. He was the one to whom all reports were sent. He had knowledge of every thing transpiring. He it was who was responsible for some sensible interpretation of the information brought him, and for corresponding action in the premises.
So much for Sickles’s advance. It could not well have been more ill-timed and useless. But his gallant work of the coming night and morrow, when Hooker left him almost alone to resist the fierce assaults of our victorious and elated foe, was ample compensation for his subordinate share in the triviality and fatal issue of Saturday’s manoeuvring. Nor can blame fall upon him in as full measure as upon Hooker; although he seems illy to have construed what was transpiring in his front, and what he reported may have seriously misled his chief.