The midnight attack.
When his troops had been summarily brought to a standstill by Berry’s firm ranks and the heavy artillery fire, Jackson determined to withdraw his first and second lines to Dowdall’s clearing to reform, and ordered A. P. Hill forward to relieve them.
While this manoeuvre, rendered extremely difficult by the nature of the woods in which the fighting had been done, but which Hooker was in no condition to interfere with, was in progress, Sickles and Pleasonton, whose position was considerably compromised, sought measures to re-establish communication with the headquarters of the army.
Sickles despatched Col. Hart, with a cavalry escort, to Hooker, bearing a detailed statement of his situation. This officer experienced no little difficulty in reaching Chancellorsville. The roads being in possession of the enemy, he was forced to make his way through the woods and ravines. But after the lapse of a number of hours he succeeded in his mission, and brought back word to hold on to the position gained. Sickles had so advised, and had, moreover, requested permission to make a night attack, to recover some guns, caissons, and Whipple’s ammunition-train, which had been left in the woods in Sickles’s front, and to enable him to join his right to Slocum’s new line, thrown out in prolongation of Berry.
It will be observed that Sickles was now facing northerly, and that his rear had no obstacle on which to rest, so as to save him from the attack of Lee, had the latter been aware of the weakness of his position.
In view of this fact, a move was made somewhat to his right, where a crest was occupied near Hazel Grove. Here, says Pleasonton, “with the support of Gen. Sickles’s corps we could have defeated the whole rebel army.” It was clearly a strong position; for it is thus referred to by Stuart, after our troops had been next day withdrawn: “As the sun lifted the mist that shrouded the field, it was discovered that the ridge on the extreme right was a fine position for concentrating artillery. I immediately ordered thirty pieces to that point. The effect of this fire upon the enemy’s batteries was superb.” Its possession by the Confederates did, in fact, notably contribute to the loss of the new lines at Chancellorsville in Sunday morning’s action.
From this position, at precisely midnight, Sickles made a determined onslaught upon the Confederate right. It was clear, full moonlight, and operations could be almost as well conducted as during the daytime, in these woods.
Birney stationed Ward in the first line, and Hays in the second, one hundred yards in the rear. The regiments moved by the right of companies, with pieces uncapped, and strict orders to rely solely upon the bayonet. On the road from the Furnace north, parallel to which the columns moved, the Fortieth New York, Seventeenth Maine, and Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers pushed in, in columns of companies at full distance.