Blood-letting at Salem Church

Intense fighting and multiple casualties engulf the Union and Confederate troops fighting the Chancellorsville, Va. in early May 1863. The Union infantrymen are deployed in a typical two-line regimental formation.

The regimental ranks thinned by 18 men in mid-morning on Sunday, May 3, 1863, the 5th Maine Infantry boys may have figured the fighting was over for the day.

For them, the blood-letting had scarcely begun.

After Union regiments captured Marye’s Heights that day, orders summoned Col. Clark S. Edwards and the 5th Maine to rejoin their brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett. Lined up on the Bowling Green Turnpike, the brigade marched through Fredericksburg to the Heights in rear of the City,” Edwards informed Maine Attorney General John Hodsdon in a May 9 letter.

Assigned to the Sixth Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick and the First Division commanded by Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks, the 5th Maine boys rested a while. “Then we moved forward on the [Orange] plank road towards Salem Heights,” Edwards wrote.

With Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac locked in combat with Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia around the Chancellors House, Sedgwick planned to march west to help crush Lee. Leading the advance was the First Division, with Bartlett’s brigade — the 5th Maine, the 16th New York Infantry, the 27th New York Infantry, the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 121st New York Infantry — as the spear point.

Lee maneuvered to prevent Sedgwick’s juncture with Hooker. As Bartlett’s brigade probed west on the Orange Plank Road, Confederate troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox deployed north-to-south across it. Scrub woods concealed the Confederates, whose positions encompassed the two-story, red-brick Salem Church immediately to their front, a schoolhouse, and, to the east, a tollgate.

As additional regiments reached him, Wilcox deployed them right and left to protect his flanks.

Suddenly Yankees appeared along the ridge defended by Wilcox. “At a distance of three miles from Fredericksburg, “the enemy made a stand and opened fire from a Battery upon our advancing column,” Edwards wrote.

Col. Clark S. Edwards commanded the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment during the battles at Fredericksburg and Salem Church in early May 1863. He survived the carnage and wrote a detailed report of it to Maine Gov. Abner Coburn. (Maine State Archives)

“At 3:25 p.m., the two Confederate guns posted at the tollgate opened fire at a distance of 800 yards,” according to Historynet.com.

“A line of battle was immediately formed extending to the right and left of the road,” Edwards wrote. Bartlett deployed his brigade south of the Orange Plank Road; his men faced west toward Salem Church and the woods filled with hidden Confederates.

While advancing west from Fredericksburg on Sunday, May 3, 1863, the brigade to which the 5th Maine Infantry was attached encountered Confederate troops near Salem Church on the Orange Plank Road. Engaging the Confederates, the 5th Maine boys pushed them back while passing the church on the side with the windows. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Two Union artillery batteries opened fire on the Confederate guns; men from the 16th New York spread right and left to skirmish with their Confederate counterparts.

The 5th Maine Infantry’s “right flank rested upon the road and supported” the 121st New York Infantry Regiment, Edwards recalled. “The line advanced in this position” past the tollgate, “until near the woods, where the enemy were posted, when I moved obliquely to the left and formed on the left of the 96th Penn. Regt. in the edge of the woods.

“My Regiment was now on the extreme left of the line and without support,” Edwards noted.

Musketry erupted to the north, where “the right of the line had already become engaged,” he set the stage for Hodsdon. “The heavy and continuous volleys told us but too plainly that the enemy were in large force and that warm work was before us.”

Wilcox had filled Salem Church and the schoolhouse with Alabamian infantrymen, who fired from every available window. Union troops charged both buildings, from which the Alabamians erupted in flight.

Union infantrymen swept them up.

During the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam, Confederate troops march out at Antietam, Md. to engage Union troops on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. Similarly clad and equipped Confederate troops engaged Union forces — including the 5th Maine Infantry — at Salem Church near Fredericksburg on Sunday, May 3, 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Engulfed in the battle din, the 5th Maine advanced past the church. “Soon, the shouts of the enemy immediately in our front, warned us that they were advancing, and every man stood ready to receive them, feeling that on him alone depended the issue of the battle,” Edwards remembered.

Pushing some 500 feet through scrub woods described by one soldier as a “thicket,” Bartlett’s men emerged about 20 yards from a Confederate-occupied road beyond Salem Church. Both sides exchanged volleys; Bartlett lost men here, and so did Wilcox.

These bullet holes that pockmark the east wall of Salem Church were probably caused by Union rifle fire, perhaps even by men from the 5th Maine Infantry. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Sheltered in rifle pits dug west of this country road, other Confederates opened fire on the Union troops. Led by Col. Emory Upton, an up-and-coming officer, the 121st New York Infantry charged the 10th Alabama Infantry. In a swirling fight that quickly drew in the 9th Alabama Infantry and two Georgia regiments, the 121st New York took heavy casualties —
— and as Upton withdrew his men, enemy soldiers charged.

“The shock came at last, and in almost an instant the regt. on my right was overpowered by numbers, and obliged to give way,” Edwards described the disaster now threatening the 5th Maine. Within minutes — perhaps only 20-30 seconds, even “before the situation could be comprehended,” he recalled — “the enemy was swarming on both flanks” of the 5th Maine “and pouring a murderous fire into our ranks from right to left.”

Formed into line, the 5th Maine boys “returned” the Confederate volleys “with good effect.” Here the Maine boys pitched forward, spun like tops and collapsed, or sprawled backgrounds as lead bullets punched into flesh and bone.

Here Edwards and his rapidly shrinking regiment “fought with desperate bravery,” he praised “all my officers and men.” Here the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment might have been swept away as would be the 16th Maine Infantry only two months hence, but “at this critical moment I received orders to fall back, and giving a rather heavy volley, retired slowly and in good order,” Edwards wrote.

The same regiment that had skedaddled at First Manassas withdrew slowly at Salem Church. The Maine boys were “obliged to retreat a long distance across an open field without cover,” Edwards remembered that horrible retreat.

“Here, many of my men fell,” he succinctly informed Hodsdon.

“On reaching the first cover [of scrub trees] I rallied my command, and retired in good order, the enemy having been repulsed by the [artillery] batteries,” Edwards recalled. Those batteries blasted approaching Confederates with shot, shell, and canister.

The granite soldier atop the 23rd New Jersey Infantry monument overlooks the heavy traffic on Route 3 (Orange Plank Road) at Salem Church west of Fredericksburg. On Sunday, May 3, 1863, the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment advanced toward the church from the far horizon, then withdrew in the same direction as today’s east-bound traffic after suffering heavy casualties during the Battle of Salem Church. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Edwards recounted the butcher’s bill to Hodsdon; besides the 18 men lost on Sunday morning, the 5th Maine “lost in killed[,] wounded and sniping, six officers and sixty-nine men” at the Battle of Salem Church. About 300 men had marched into battle with the 5th Maine that morning; now a third of them were simply gone.

Company G had lost 2nd Lt. Cyrus Brann and Privates James Miller and Lemuel Shaw killed and Privates Frank Dealing and Henry Soule wounded. Privates Thomas Adams and M.C. Walker were missing.

The Confederates had particularly hammered Company K, which counted Sgt. Horatio Bumpus and Privates Edwin Hackett and Donald McDonald wounded, plus four corporals and four privates missing.

The casualty list ran almost three pages in length. Wounded at Salem Church, 1st Lt. William Stevens of Co. B and 2nd Lt. Frank Patterson of Co. D were now missing. Company F had lost Privates John Norris and Peter Reaver killed, three corporals and nine privates wounded, and one private missing.

Besides the two officers listed as missing in action, Edwards wrote the names of 28 noncoms and privates who had also vanished at Salem Church. At least a few undoubtedly lay dead or wounded on the battlefield Sunday night.

Behind Sedgwick, other Confederates reoccupied their positions along the Fredericksburg heights. By nightfall, Sedgwick realized that not only was he trapped between strengthening enemy forces; he knew that Joe Hooker could spare him no relief.

The 5th Maine would participate in Hooker’s ignominious withdrawal from Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. Shoved into a narrow perimeter around Scott’s Ford on the Rappahannock River, the Sixth Corps repulsed Confederate attacks on Monday, May 4.

That night, the 5th Maine “was thrown out as skirmishers to cover the crossing of the Corps” on hastily erected pontoon bridges, Edwards remembered. The regiment “was one of the last two to cross the river.”

The blood-letting had finally ended.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.