Meanwhile Neill’s brigade, on Howe’s left, was overpowered by Early’s fierce and repeated onslaughts; but no wise disordered, though we had lost nearly a thousand men, it fell slowly and steadily back to the previously selected rallying-point, where, on being followed up by Hoke and Hays, the Vermont brigade, two regiments of Newton’s division and Butler’s regular battery, sent to Howe’s support by Sedgwick, opened upon them so sharp a fire, that they retired in headlong confusion, largely increased by the approaching darkness. This terminated the fight on the left, and Howe’s line was no further molested during the night.
Howe is clearly mistaken in alleging that his division was attacked by McLaws, Anderson, and Early. The position of these divisions has been laid down. It is one of those frequent assertions, made in the best of faith, but emanating solely from the recollection of the fierceness of a recent combat and from unreliable evidence.
Foreseeing from the vigor of Lee’s attack the necessity of contracting his lines, as soon as it was dark, Newton’s and Brooks’s divisions and the Light Brigade (Col. Burnham’s), were ordered to fall rapidly back upon Banks’s Ford, where they took position on the heights in the vicinity, and in Wilcox’s rifle-pits. Howe was then quietly withdrawn, and disposed on Newton’s right.
In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Gen. Howe appears to think that he was unfairly dealt with by Sedgwick; in fact, that his division was intentionally left behind to be sacrificed. But this opinion is scarcely justified by the condition of affairs and subsequent events.
Following are the important despatches which passed, during the latter part of these operations, between Hooker and Sedgwick:—
May 4, 1863, 9 A.M.
I am occupying the same position as last night. I have secured my communication with Banks’s Ford. The enemy are in possession of the heights of Fredericksburg in force. They appear strongly in our front, and are making efforts to drive us back. My strength yesterday morning was twenty-two thousand men. I do not know my losses, but they were large, probably five thousand men. I cannot use the cavalry. It depends upon the condition and position of your force whether I can sustain myself here. Howe reports the enemy advancing upon Fredericksburg.