Gen. Warren states that Gen. Gibbon “made a very considerable demonstration, and acted very handsomely with the small force he had,—not more than two thousand men. But so much time was taken, that the enemy got more troops in front of him than he could master.”
Gen. Howe had been simultaneously directed to move on the left of Hazel Run, and turn the enemy’s right; but he found the works in his front beset, and the character of the stream between him and Newton precluded any movement of his division to the right.
By the time, then, that Sedgwick had full possession of the town, and Gibbon and Howe had returned from their abortive attempt to turn the enemy’s flanks, the sun was some two hours high. As the works could not be captured by surprise, Sedgwick was reduced to the alternative of assaulting them in regular form.
It is not improbable that an earlier attack by Gibbon on Marye’s heights, might have carried them with little loss, and with so much less expense of time that Sedgwick could have pushed beyond Salem Church, without being seriously impeded by troops sent against him by Gen. Lee.
And, as the allegation of all-but criminal delay on the part of Gen. Sedgwick is one of the cardinal points of Hooker’s self-defence on the score of this campaign, we must examine this charge carefully.
Sedgwick asserts with truth, that all despatches to him assumed that he had but a handful of men in his front, and that the conclusions as to what he could accomplish, were founded upon utterly mistaken premises. Himself was well aware that the enemy extended beyond both his right and left, and the corps knew by experience the nature of the intrenchments on the heights.
Moreover, what had misled Butterfield into supposing, and informing Sedgwick, as he did, that the Fredericksburg heights had been abandoned, was a balloon observation of Early’s march to join Lee under the mistaken orders above alluded to. The enemy was found to be alert wherever Sedgwick tapped him, and his familiarity with every inch of the ground enabled him to magnify his own forces, and make every man tell; while Sedgwick was groping his way through the darkness, knowing his enemy’s ability to lure him into an ambuscade, and taking his precautions accordingly.
Now, when Sedgwick had concluded upon a general assault, he can scarcely be blamed for over-caution in his preparations for it. Four months before, a mere handful of the enemy had successfully held these defences against half the Army of the Potomac; and an attack without careful dispositions seemed to be mere waste of life. It would appear to be almost supererogatory to defend Sedgwick against reasonable time consumed in these precautions.
There had been a more or less continuous artillery-fire, during the entire morning, from our batteries stationed on either side of the river. This was now redoubled to prepare for the assault. Newton’s batteries concentrated their fire on the stone wall, until our troops had neared it, when they directed it upon the crest beyond; while like action was effected to sustain Howe.