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The Battle of Salem Church

May 3-4, 1863 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia
Chancellorsville Campaign

Union Forces Commanded by:
Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick
Forces Killed Wounded Captured
- 4,700 k&w - -

Confederate Forces Commanded by:
Gen. Robert E. Lee
Forces Killed Wounded Captured
- - - -

**Missing and Captured
Conclusion: Confederate Victory


In April of 1863, Union General Joseph Hooker planned to cross the Rappahannock upriver from Fredericksburg and get behind Lee, while another Union force under General John Sedgwick remained in front of the town. Lee would either be crushed between the two forces, Hooker hoped, or he would be forced to retreat southward. On May 3rd, while a big battle was raging around the Chancellorsville Inn ten miles west of town, Sedgwick drove across the Rappahannock, captured the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights, and advanced westward to join Hooker.

The Union army came to a low ridgeline, 6 miles east of Chancellorsville, on which stood Salem Church, a Baptist sanctuary dating from 1844. Confederates under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws were posted along the ridge, which was an excellent position that commanded the approaches from the east; directly in front of them was a tangle of bushes and undergrowth. Sharpshooters were posted in the upper gallery of the church on the north side. Federal soldiers aimed at the upper windows where the sharpshooters were; the pockmarks from their bullets are still visible. Other bullets ripped through the galleries. Inside, Confederate soldiers climbed over the tumble of furniture, which by this time must have been no better than fancy kindling.

Two heavy Union divisions under Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks and Maj. Gen. John newton surged forward, only to run into volleys of concentrated musketry from the high ground. Union artillery pounded the Confederate position. The underbrush made the going difficult, but suddenly the Federals were on the crest of the ridge, only a few yards from the church, and advancing determinedly. At this moment Confederates posted in the road cut sprang up and counterattacked fiercely, driving the enemy back down the slope and onto the plain below. Darkness prevented Gen. Robert E. Lee's men from driving Sedgwick completely from the field, but Hooker made no attempt to come to sedgwick's aid. The next day, when Confederates sought to renew the struggle, they discovered that the federals had fallen back across the river.

One Federal soldier remembered the opening of the battle this way:

A tremendous roar of musketry met us from the unseen enemy, one hundred feet away, posted behind a fence and a ditch. Men tumbled from our ranks dead, and others fell helpless with wounds.

Salem Church cost the Union army 4,700 casaulties and did little more than divert lee's attention from hooker for 36 hours. The church building became a field hospital for the human debris of the battle.

In April 1865, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's victorious army passed through the area en route to washington, D.C. When Sherman saw many dead soldiers still improperly buried at Salem Church, he filed a strong protest to Union authorities. The result was the establishment of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

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