May 3, 1863: The Turning Point of the Civil War?

We all know that today most eyes will be turning to Chancellorsville. Such is the pride of place of the Eastern theater in our consciousness. Some of you will be wiping virtual (or real) tears as you contemplate the events of the last twenty-four hours some 150 years ago, when the mighty Stonewall was cut down by his own men in a demonstration of just how unfriendly friendly fire can be in the chaos of combat. Others of you will point out that May 3 saw some of the most intense and bloody fighting of the war in Virginia, and you would be right; some of you will point out that the fascination with Jackson’s march, wounding, and death obscures our understanding of what happened at Chancellorsville, and, again, you would be right.

But you would be wrong to focus solely on what was going on in Virginia 150 years ago today. That’s because the most important event of the day happened far to the west, at Grand Gulf, Mississippi. Set aside your fascination with the drama and bloodshed of the ultimately indecisive campaigns of 1863 in the East and look west to see where people (and one in particular) made decisions that changed the course of the war.

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William M. Thomas’s Comrades Take the Sunken Road

Union soldiers Fredericksburg may 1863On the morning of May 3, 1863, the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac did something that its comrades had failed to do the previous December: it took the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg.

Part of Joseph Hooker’s grand plan of attack called for a substantial Union force under the direction of John Sedgwick to stay at the army’s encampments around Falmouth to force Lee to keep an eye on them lest they ford the Rappahannock River, take Fredericksburg, and move west and south. On April 29, as other elements of the Army of the Potomac swung westward, Sedgwick sent two divisions across the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg. Their mission was to pin Robert E. Lee’s army in position so that Hooker could outflank it to the west.  During the next several days neither Hooker or Sedgwick seemed certain as to what Sedgwick should do next, and Sedgwick fumbled an excellent opportunity to move forward on May 2.  By that evening Sedgwick was ready to take the offensive on the morning of May 3 in response to Hooker’s orders, issued on the evening of May 2 in the aftermath of Jackson’s flank attack.

What some call Second Fredericksburg is often forgotten in accounts of Chancellorsville. Continue reading