McLaws, with his own three brigades, and one of Anderson’s, was accordingly pushed forward at a rapid gait to sustain Wilcox; while Anderson, with the balance of his division, and fourteen rifled guns, was sent to the junction of the River road and Mine road to hold that important position. McLaws arrived about two P.M., and found Wilcox skirmishing, a trifle beyond Salem Church. He was drawn back a few hundred yards, while Kershaw and Wofford were thrown out upon Wilcox’s right, and Semmes and Mahone on his left. Wofford arrived somewhat late, as he had been temporarily left at the junction of the Mine and plank roads to guard them. McLaws’s guns were concentrated on the road, but were soon withdrawn for lack of ammunition.
Some troops were thrown into Salem Church, and into a schoolhouse near by, in front of the woods, forming a salient; but the main Confederate line was withdrawn some three hundred yards within the wood, where a clearing lay at their back.
When Sedgwick’s column reached the summit along the road, about a mile from Salem Church, Wilcox’s cavalry skirmishers were met, and a section of artillery opened with solid shot from a point near the church, where Wilcox was hurrying his forces into line. The intervening ground was quite open on both sides the road. The heights at Salem Church are not considerable; but a ravine running north and south across its front, and as far as the Rappahannock, furnishes an excellent line of defence, and the woods come up to its edge at this point, and enclose the road.
Brooks was pushed in to attack the enemy, the main part of his division being on the left of the road, while Newton filed in upon his right, so soon as his regiments could be got up. Disposing his batteries (Rigby, Parsons, and Williston) along a crest at right angles to the road, not far from the toll-gate, where good shelter existed for the caissons and limbers, Brooks sharply advanced his lines under a telling fire, and, passing the undergrowth, penetrated the edge of the woods where lay Wilcox and Semmes and Mahone. Wilcox’s skirmishers and part of his line gave way before Brooks’s sturdy onset, which created no little confusion; but Wilcox and Semmes in person headed some reserve regiments, and led them to the charge. An obstinate combat ensues. Bartlett has captured the schoolhouse east of the church, advances, and again breaks for a moment the Confederate line. Wilcox throws in an Alabama regiment, which delivers a fire at close quarters, and makes a counter-charge, while the rest of his brigade rallies on its colors, and again presses forward. The church and the schoolhouse are fought for with desperation, but only after a heroic defence can the Confederates recapture them. Bartlett withdraws with a loss of two-fifths of his brigade, after the most stubborn contest. The line on the north of the road is likewise forced back. A series of wavering combats, over this entire ground, continues for the better part of an hour; but the enemy has the upper hand, and forces our line back towards the toll-house.