The correspondent of the New York Tribune gives a detailed account of the battle of Wednesday, the 17th, which he terms "the greatest fight since Waterloo, and contested all over the field, with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo."
It appears, from his statement, that Tuesday was spent chiefly in deploying forces and gaining positions. After the day was over, Gen. Hooker remarked: "We are through for tonight, but tomorrow we will fight the battle that will decide the fate of the Republic."
The battle on Wednesday began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other's eyes. The left of Meade's reserves and the right of Ricketts' line became engaged at nearly the same moment, one with artillery, the other with infantry. A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the cornfield began.
On the open field, in the corn beyond and in the woods which stepped forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, was the hardest and deadliest struggle of the day.
For half an hour after the battle had grown to its full strength, the line of fire swayed neither way.
Hooker's men were fully up to their work. they saw their General everywhere in front, never away from the fire, and all the troops believed in their commander and fought with a will. Two-thirds of them were the same men who under McDowell had broken at Manassas.
The half hour passed, the rebels began to give way a little, only a little, but at the first indication of a receding fire, forward was the word, and on went our line with a cheer and a rush. Back across the cornfield, leaving dead and wounded behind them, over the fence, and across the road, and then back again into the dark woods which closed around them, went the retreating rebels.
Meade said his Pennsylvanians followed hard and fast - followed till they came within easy range of the woods, among which they saw their beaten enemy disappearing - followed still with another cheer, and flung themselves against the cover.
But out of those gloomy woods came, suddenly and heavily, terrible volleys - volleys which smote, and bent, and broke, in a moment, that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. Not swiftly, nor in panic, any further.
Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away - a regiment where a brigade had been; hardly a brigade where a whole division had been victorious. They had met from the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops - had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted.
In ten minutes the fortune of the day seemed to have changed - it was the rebels now who were advancing, pouring out of the woods in endless lines, sweeping through the cornfields from which their comrades just fled.
Hooker sent in his nearest brigade, and ordered Doubleday to forward his "best brigade."
The best brigade came down the hill to the right on the run, went through the timber in front through a storm of shot and bursting shell and crashing limbs, over the open field beyond, and straight into the cornfield, passing as they went the fragments of three brigades shattered by the rebel fire, and streaming to the rear.
They passed by Hooker, whose eyes lighted as he saw these veteran troops led by a soldier whom he knew he could trust. "I think they will hold it," he said.
Gen. Hartsuff took his troops very steadily, but now that they were under fire, not hurriedly, up the hill from which the cornfield begins to descend, and formed them on the crest. Not a man who was not in full view - not one who bent before the storm.
Firing at first in volleys, they fired them at will with wonderful rapidity and effect. The whole line crowned the hill and stood out darkly against the sky, but lighted and shrouded ever in flame and smoke.
There for half an hour they held the ridge unyielding in purpose, exhaustless in courage. There were gaps in the line, but it no where quailed.
Their general was wounded badly early in the fight, but they fought on. Their supports did not come - they determined to win without them. They began to go down the hill and into the corn; they did not stop to think that their ammunition was nearly gone - they were there to win that field and they won it. The rebel line for the second time fled through the corn and into the woods. I cannot tell how few of Hartsuff's brigade were left when the work was done, but it was done. There was no more gallant, determined, heroic fighting in all this desperate day. Gen. Hartsuff is very severely wounded but I do not believe he counts his success too dearly purchased.
The crisis of the fight at this point had arrived; Ricketts's division vainly endeavoring to advance, and exhausted by the effort, had fallen back. Part of Mansfield's corps was ordered in to their relief, but Mansfield's troops came back again, and their General was mortally wounded.
The left nevertheless was too extended to be turned, and too strong to be broken. Ricketts sent word he could not advance, but could hold his ground. Doubleday had kept his guns at work on the right, and had finally silenced a rebel battery that for half an hour had poured in a galling enfilading fire along Hooker's central line.
Orders were sent to Crawford and Gordon - two Mansfield brigades - to move directly forward at once, the batteries in the centre were ordered on, the whole line was called on, and the General himself went forward.
To the right of the cornfield and beyond it was a point of woods. Once carried and firmly held it was the key of the position. Hooker determined to take it. He rode out in front of his furthest troops on the hill to examine the ground for a battery. At the top he dismounted and went forward on foot, completed his reconnaissance, returned and remounted. The musketry fire from the point of woods was all the while extremely hot. As he put his foot into the stirrup a fresh volley of rifle bullets came whizzing by.
The tall, soldierly figure of the General, the white horse which he rode, the elevated place where he was - all made him a most dangerously conspicuous mark.
Three men were shot down by his side at the same moment that Hooker was struck in the foot by a ball. The air was alive with bullets. He kept on his horse for a few moments, though the wound was severe and excessively painful, and would not dismount till he had given his last order to advance. He was himself in the very front. Swaying unsteadily on his horse, he turned in his seat to look about him. "There is a regiment to the right. Order it forward! Crawford and Gordon are coming up. Tell them to carry these works and hold them - and it is our fight!"
It was found that the bullet had passed completely through his foot. The surgeon who examined it on the spot could give no opinion whether the bones were broken, but it was afterwards ascertained that though grazed they were not fractured. Of course, the severity of the wound made it impossible for him to keep the field, which he believed already won, so far as it belonged to him to win it. It was nine o'clock.
The fight had been furious since five. A large part of his command was broken, but with his right still untouched and with Crawford's and Gordon's just up, above all, with the advance of the whole central line, which the men had heard ordered with cheers.
As it was impossible to hold the position, General Sumner withdrew the division to the rear, and once more the cornfield was abandoned to the enemy.
French sent word he could hold his ground. Richardson, while gallantly leading a regiment under heavy fire, was severely wounded in the shoulder. General Meagher was wounded at the head of his brigade. The loss in general officers was becoming frightful.
At one o'clock affairs on the right had a gloomy look. Hooker's troops were greatly exhausted, and their general away from the field. Mansfield's were no better. Sumner's command had lost heavily, but two of his divisions were still comparatively fresh. artillery was yet playing vigorously in front, though the ammunition of many of the batteries was entirely exhausted, and they had been compelled to retire.
At this crisis Franklin came up with fresh troops, and commanding one division of the corps, formed on the left. Slocum was sent forward along the slopes lying under the first ranges of the division of rebel hills, while Smith was ordered to retake the cornfield and woods which all day had been so hotly contested. It was done in the handsomest style. His Maine and Vermont regiments and the rest went forward on the run, and, cheering as they went, swept like an avalanche through the cornfields, fell upon the woods, cleared them in ten minutes, and held them. They were not again retaken.
The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead were strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horse's steps too carefully.
Gen. Smith's attack was so sudden that his success was accomplished with no great loss.
Up to three o'clock Burnside had made little progress. His attack on the bridge had been successful, but the delay had been so great that, to the observer, it appeared that McClellan's plans must have been seriously disarranged.