Fessenden & Hyde
In 1862, the second year of the Civil War, Congress met
in December to deal with the critical military situation. At that point,
William Pitt Fessenden, a proud Bowdoin graduate, was Chairman of the
Senate Finance Committee. Like his colleagues, he had not been happy with
how things were being run. In January 1863, Fessenden wrote of his President's
cabinet, "The simple truth is, there never was such a shambling,
half and half set of incapables collected in one government before since
the world began."
Despite his distrust of the administration, the senator
got a lot done in his own realm. Under Fessenden's eye the 1863 Loan Act
gave the Secretary of the Treasury the ability to continue to finance
the War with almost five hundred million dollars in loans. The National
Currency Bill, which pushed for a national currency under federalized
banking associations, was also passed.
Other matters that concerned the United States Senate at
the time included the removal of Native Americans from the new state of
Kansas. Senator Fessenden stood opposed to the idea for it was, in his
opinion, a ridiculous plan to continue pushing the Native Americans deeper
and deeper into the continent. Why not extend a hand of friendship instead
of the bayonet, Fessenden wondered. "Suppose you remove them to the
Indian Territory, how long will it be before the whites encroach on them
there?" It would be the same show over and over again, Fessenden
argued, but of course none of his colleagues really cared.
Meanwhile, as the year drew on, Thomas Hyde of the Bowdoin
Class of 1861 returned to duty. Near the end of April, Union General Joseph
Hooker began a new campaign in the East.
Hooker's plan called for General John Sedgwick to remain
watching the rebel position across the river from Fredericksburg, Virginia,
as the bulk of the army marched around the Confederate flank and rear
to take the enemy from behind. Between two superior Union forces, no matter
where he turned, Robert E. Lee would finally be caught and destroyed.
"May God have mercy on General Lee," Hooker declared, "for
I will have none."
We have already explored what happened to Hooker (in the
Oliver Howard Series from last year's Orient) as he marched into the Wilderness
that fateful spring. Now, however, we take another perspective to the
Battle, for Thomas Hyde was serving on General Sedgwick's staff at the
As Hooker moved into the wilderness, he sent orders for
Sedgwick to advance against the heights behind Fredericksburg. Deep fog
obscured Union intelligence officers but Sedgwick sent out two regiments
to probe the enemy line on the morning of May 3, 1863. Behind schedule
and fighting on ground that was haunted by the memory of the thousands
who fell there, the two regiments received a heavy handling by the rebels,
which Lee had left behind under General Jubal A. Early. In truth, Early
had a mere 9,000 men to cover a line more than six miles long.
The position, however, was a strong one and Sedgwick's men
recoiled. Hyde helped reform and organize the fallback of the troops and
here the fog was a friend rather than a foe. The Bowdoin graduate remembered,
"The experience was not pleasant, however, of being fired at personally
by as many Southerner marksmen as took a notion."
Sedgwick hit the line again and this time Hyde remembered
seeing the Union flag rising above the enemy works.
Serving as the provost marshal at the time, Hyde was responsible
for taking care of the enemy prisoners, which numbered 1,500. Having attended
to this business Hyde rejoined Sedgwick's staff and marched forward to
help attack Lee.
Sedgwick's advance towards Chancellorsville (11 miles distant
by the Orange Plank Road), however, was delayed by stubborn rebel troops
under General Cadmus Wilcox. The Confederates rallied in a new defensive
line behind Salem Church, five miles out of Fredericksburg. Wilcox had
just received some reinforcements from another rebel division (more troops
would soon follow along with Lee himself), which was being sent over from
Chancellorsville. Sedgwick's attacks at Salem Church failed to dislodge
the rebel defenders and were thrown back.
That night, behind Sedgwick's own defensive position, hearing
no sounds of fighting from Hooker's direction (a mere six miles off in
the wilderness) and wondering what the Sixth Corps was marching into,
Hyde wrote, "an ominous rumbling of wheels was the only sound that
broke the stillness. This showed that the enemy was diligently reinforcing
from Lee's army, which was between us and Hooker, and the entire absence
of all sounds of battle or any communication from Chancellorsville was
most strange and ill boding."
Lee had turned his columns back towards Fredericksburg to
fight Sedgwick. At Salem Church, having almost surrounded Sedgwick's column
with three exhausted divisions, Lee prepared to do what he had failed
to do with Hooker, destroy a part of the Union army.
Sedgwick had maneuvered himself into a trap and was desperately
trying to get out of it. He sent three staff members to find Hooker and
ask for directions. Two of those did not return, but Thomas Hyde did with
orders for Sedgwick to save himself. Hyde remembered that stressful afternoon
(May 4, 1863) as Confederate troops closed in from multiple directions
to attack the Sixth Corps. Lines broke and reformed as gun smoke filled
the battlefield and the thunder of guns roared for miles around.
Perhaps owning to the exhausted state of the Army of Northern
Virginia and uncoordinated assaults, the rebel attacks failed to accomplish
what Lee had intended. As Sedgwick retreated across the Rappahannock River
at Scott's Ford that night, some rebel troops harassed his units, but
no major engagement was fought and the Federals got away.
The Battle of Chancellorsville was over, and yet again it
was a Union disaster. Thomas Hyde had seen battle and escaped with barely
a scratch. The nation, however, had not. There needed to be some good
news soon, or else no amount of emancipation proclamations or national
currency bills would save the Union.
Next Time: Hyde at Gettysburg and Pierce Speaks Out One
Some editing (by the Orient staff) may have occurred before
this piece was published. To view a full version of the entire series
(including source citations) please visit my website. (This site includes
the Chamberlain and Howard Series and is updated weekly during the school
year) at: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~kwongsri