But, apart from the innuendo, all this bears the stamp of an after-thought. If an army was ever driven from its position by fair fighting, our troops were driven from Chancellorsville. And it would seem, that, if there was any reasonable doubt on Saturday night that the Army of the Potomac could hold its own next day, it would have been wiser to have at once withdrawn to the new lines, while waiting for the arrival of Sedgwick. For here the position was almost unassailable, and the troops better massed; and, if Lee had made an unsuccessful assault, Hooker would have been in better condition to make a sortie upon the arrival of the Sixth Corps in his vicinity, than after the bloody and disheartening work at Fairview.
Still the inactivity of Hooker, when Sedgwick did eventually arrive within serviceable distance, is so entire a puzzle to the student of this campaign, that speculation upon what he did then actually assume as facts, or how he might have acted under any other given conditions, becomes almost fruitless.
Sedgwick’s change of orders.
Let us return to the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where operations now demanded Lee’s undivided skill. This was properly the left wing of the army, which, under Sedgwick, had made the demonstration below Fredericksburg, to enable the right wing, under Hooker, to cross the river above, and establish itself at Chancellorsville. It had consisted of three corps; but, so soon as the demonstration had effected its purpose, it will be remembered that Hooker withdrew from Sedgwick’s command both the First and Third Corps, leaving him with his own, the Sixth, to guard the crossings of the river; while Gibbon’s division of the Second Corps did provost duty at the camp at Falmouth, and held itself in readiness to move in any direction at a moment’s notice.
From this time on, the Sixth Corps may be more properly considered as a detached command, than as the left wing of the Army of the Potomac.
And, beyond some demonstrations in aid of Hooker’s manoeuvring, Sedgwick had been called on to perform no actual service up to the evening of May 2.
On May 1, a demonstration in support of Hooker’s advance from Chancellorsville had been ordered, and speedily countermanded, on account of the despatch having reached Sedgwick later than the hour set for his advance.
On the forenoon of May 2, Hooker had given Sedgwick discretionary instructions to attack the enemy in his front, “if an opportunity presents itself with a reasonable expectation of success.”
Then came the despatch of 4.10 P.M., May 2, already quoted, and received by Sedgwick just before dark:—
“The general commanding directs that Gen. Sedgwick cross the river as soon as indications will permit; capture Fredericksburg with every thing in it, and vigorously pursue the enemy. We know the enemy is flying, trying to save his trains: two of Sickles’s divisions are among them.”