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Between December 11- 15 1862, Union troops tried to capture the Confederate town of Fredericksburg. Despite overwhelming force the Union troops who had crossed the Rappahannock were repulsed by the Confederates and forced to withdraw
In late November, General Ambrose Burnside led the Union army south towards Richmond. Burnside's plan called for crossing the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg, Virginia. His plan called for an immediate crossing of the river, followed by seizing the town and the surrounding heights. Unfortunately, the pontoon bridges that Burnside had counted on did not arrive for seventeen days. The seventeen days gave Lee's army plenty of time to prepare for an assault. In the meantime, the two armies faced each other waiting, with just the river separating them. Finally, the bridges arrived. On December 11th, Union forces began shelling the town, whose residents had already fled. After setting the town on fire, Union forces began crossing the river on six pontoon bridges. The Union troops crossed under the cover of a massive artillery barrage. The Confederates used snipers to harass the Union advance, and had withdrawn their army to the heights above the town.
On the morning of December 13th, Union troops began an assault on Confederate line. South of the town, four divisions under General William Franklin attacked the troops under General Jackson. Well placed Confederate artillery managed to blunt the Union's assault.
The main Union assault was commanded by General Hooker. His goal was to capture Marye's Heights. Many of Burnside's officers opposed the assault. They claimed Marye's Heights would be impossible to capture in a frontal assault. They were right. Seven separate Union divisions, attempted to scale the Marye's Heights. Each assault was halted in its tracks.
A Confederate officer, William Miller Owens, describes the scene: "The enemy, having deployed, now showed himself above the crest of the ridge and advanced in columns of brigades, and at once our guns began their deadly work with shell and solid shot. How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistering in the sunlight made the line look a huge serpent of blue and steel. The very force of their onset leveled the broad fences bounding the small fields and gardens that interspersed the plain. We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps; but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us. Now we gave them canister, and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their rifle barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advance brigade. This was too much; the column hesitated, and then turning, took refuge behind the bank."
Thousands of Union men were trapped on the fields leading to the heights. All night the dying lay untended on the battlefield. With staggering Union casualties, General Burnside ordered a general withdrawal back across the river. Union casualties totaled 12,653, while Confederate casualties stood at 5,377 losses.
Rebel caisson destroyed by Federal shells, at Fredericksburg, May 3, 1863
Currier & Ives--Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. Dec 13th 1862.
Fredericksburg, Virginia. House near Marye's house on heights in the rear of Fredericksburg showing the effects of shot and shell Photographed by James Gardner
Panoramic View of Fredericksburg.Fredericksburg, Virginia negative by T.H. O'Sullivan; positive by A. Gardnerr
Rebel pickets dead, in Fredericksburg. Pontoon bridge, Union batteries firing on the rebel works back of the city. From the hill in the background of picture. Creator: Waud, Alfred R.
Pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock negative by T.H. O'Sullivan
Battery of thirty-two pounders, Fredericksburg, May 3, 1863 Frederick Russell Photographer.
Battle of Fredericksburg--the Army o.t. Potomac crossing the Rappahannock in the morning of Dec. 13' 1862, under t. comd. of Gen's Burnside, Sumner, Hooker & Franklin Creator: Kurz & Allison.
This illustration from Harpers Weekly from January 3, 1865. It is captioned Our Soldiers In The Streets Of Fredericksburg.—drawn By Mr.
Fredericksburg, Vimarginia (vicinity). The Barnard house below Fredericksburg, destroyed during the first battle
This illustration from Harpers Weekly from December 27, 1862.
Battle of Fredericksburg History: Marye's Heights
In several ways, Marye's Heights offered the Federals their most promising target. Not only did this sector of Lee's defenses lie closest to the shelter of Fredericksburg, but the ground rose less steeply here than on the surrounding hills.
Nevertheless, Union soldiers had to leave the city, descend into a valley bisected by a water-filled canal ditch, and ascend an open slope of 400 yards to reach the base of the heights. Artillery atop Marye's Heights and nearby elevations would thoroughly blanket the Federal approach. "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it," boasted on Confederate cannoneer.
Sumner's first assault began at noon and set the pattern for a ghastly series of attacks that continued, one after another, until dark. As soon as the Northerners marched out of Fredericksburg, Longstreet's artillery wreaked havoc on the crisp blue formations. The Unionists then encountered a deadly bottleneck at the canal ditch which was spanned by partially-destroyed bridges at only three places. Once across this obstacle, the attackers established shallow battle lines under cover of a slight bluff that shielded them from Rebel eyes.
Orders then rang out for the final advance. The landscape beyond the canal ditch contained a few buildings and fences, but from the military perspective it provided virtually no protection. Dozens of Southern cannon immediately reopened on the easy targets, and when the Federals traversed about half the remaining distance, sheets of flame spewed forth from the Sunken Road. This rifle fire decimated the Northerners. Survivors found refuge behind a small swale in the ground or retreated back to the canal ditch valley.
Quickly a new Federal brigade burst toward Marye's Heights and the "terrible stone wall," then another, and another, until three entire divisions had hurled themselves at the Confederate bastion. In one hour, the Army of the Potomac lost nearly 3,000 men but the madness continued.
Although General Cobb suffered a mortal wound early in the action, the Southern line remained firm. Kershaw's Brigade joined North Carolinians in reinforcing Cobb's men in the Sunken Road. The Confederates stood four ranks deep, maintaining a ceaseless line of fire while the gray-clad artillerists fired over their heads.
More Union units tested the impossible. "We came forward as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet, our faces and bodies being only half- turned to the storm, our shoulders shrugged," remembered one Federal. "Everybody from the smallest drummer boy on up seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity," recalled another. But each blue wave crested short of the goal. Not a single Union soldier laid his hand on the stone wall.
Battle of Fredericksburg - From Hanover Street to Marye's Heights (NPS)
What do Henry Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, Ambrose E. Burnside, Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass, William Gladstone, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx, Napoleon III, Horatio Seymour, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman all have in common? The simple answer is that all of them were somehow connected to the Battle of Fredericksburg. More broadly speaking, the list of names itself – by no means complete – suggests how the battle and its effects reverberated, not only in the United States but across the western world.
Among students of the Civil War, however, Fredericksburg has long been neglected. Think of how much more attention has been paid to Antietam fought a couple months earlier or Chancellorsville fought a few months later. There are some explanations. For one thing Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory but a Union story. On the Confederate side, Fredericksburg seemed too easy a victory, or as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson certainly believed, an empty victory. Therefore few historians interested in the Army of Northern Virginia have considered Fredericksburg worthy of extensive study. Nor have there been any significant controversies about Confederate strategy or tactics at Fredericksburg. On the Union side of the ledger, Fredericksburg has generally been seen as just one more blunder in a series of Federal blunders in the Eastern Theater beginning on the Virginia Peninsula and concluding at Chancellorsville. All the strategic and tactical debates have dealt with the Union conduct of the campaign and battle. It is all too easy, and simple-minded, to pillory Ambrose E. Burnside and stop there, concluding that Fredericksburg carries little interest for military historians or any larger significance for the course of the war. To anyone interested in the Army of the Potomac, it has often seemed that the Battle of Fredericksburg produced horrific bloodletting and little else.
In some ways Fredericksburg was a deceptive signpost in the war – a misleading high point for the Confederates and a misleading low point for the Federals – yet this very quality makes the campaign worthy of more extended examination. Fredericksburg took place during a nadir in Union fortunes. In October and November, Democrats had made significant gains in state and federal elections, most notably electing Horatio Seymour governor of New York. Shortly after these defeats – which many blamed on the lack of progress in the war – Lincoln finally replaced the cautious and slow-moving George B. McClellan with Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside repeatedly said he was not up to the job but reluctantly accepted it. He inherited an army filled with McClellan loyalists and the scheming Joseph Hooker who thought he should have received the appointment. Burnside had no real political enemies but significantly he had no staunch political allies, and there would be no one in Washington standing by him if things went sour.
His first mistake was to reorganize the army into three grand divisions of two corps each (commanded by William B. Franklin, Joseph Hooker, and Edwin V. Sumner). This organizational scheme made a certain amount of sense but not at the start of a campaign with a new man commanding the army, and it proved cumbersome and inefficient during the battle. Burnside’s second major decision was to advance on Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. The first Federals arrived at Falmouth on November 17, but the expected bridging materials for the pontoons needed to cross the Rappahannock River would not arrive for ten more days. At this point Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia could not be sure of Burnside’s intended crossing point, but they were coming to the close of a most successful season of campaigning and exuded confidence.
From the outset, Burnside’s decisions would generate enormous controversy. Should he have taken Sumner’s advice and crossed before the pontoons arrived? Perhaps, but had he done so, Lee planned to withdraw his forces to what he considered a much more defensible position along the North Anna River. Should Burnside have followed the recommendations of Hooker and others to have crossed upstream or downstream? Maybe, but he ultimately decided to move his army directly into Fredericksburg where Lee would least expect an attack. Timing proved equally troublesome as Burnside came under increasing political pressure. Northern newspapers were carrying their usual “On to Richmond” headlines. More ominously, Burnside would begin the battle without the support of his subordinates and without fully explaining his plans to anyone.
All these problems bore immediate and poisonous fruit in the conduct of the battle itself. On December 11, pontoons were successfully built below Fredericksburg, but Union engineers trying to lay bridges going into town faced stiff resistance from William Barksdale’s Mississippians. In utter exasperation, Burnside ordered the town shelled. Union infantry finally forced themselves across the Rappahannock in boats, and the pontoons were finally completed. The war’s conduct seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Sharp and deadly street fighting – highly unusual during this war – was followed by a thorough Union sack of the town that continued during and after the battle. Soldiers entered the homes of rich and poor alike stealing all kinds of items and generally vandalizing the place. Some men even donned women’s dresses to mock the aristocratic pretensions of “secesh females” in a kind of street theater.
While the Federals frolicked in the streets, Lee took advantage of the delay to bring Jackson’s corps into position. Should Burnside have crossed more of his troops on December 11 and have attacked on December 12 before Lee could reunite his divided army? Some contemporary observers and later historians have concluded that this in fact proved to be Burnside’s greatest blunder.
On December 13, ambiguous orders and general confusion caused still more delays. Although Burnside hoped to attack the Confederate right and divide Lee’s army in two, there was little understanding among the high command about the details or the timing. On the Union left, muddy ground, poor roads, woods and gently rising Prospect Hill favored the defenders, but an unprotected gap in Jackson’s lines allowed George G. Meade’s division to cross the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad. Yet Meade’s attack was only weakly supported and his men along with John Gibbon’s division were repulsed by a furious Confederate counterattack. The fighting raged furiously over what soon became known as the “Slaughter Pen,” vitally important ground that now offers an almost matchless preservation opportunity. The cautious Franklin commanding the Left Grand Division proved slow in funneling more men into the fight.
Battle of Fredericksburg - From Hanover Street to Marye's Heights (NPS)
Early reports of success on the Union left, however, led Burnside to assume that Lee might have weakened the Confederate left and so he ordered brigades from Sumner’s Right Grand Division to move out of Fredericksburg and assault the Confederate lines. These troops would emerge from town and cross a millrace – still 500 yards from the Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights. From there only a slight swale offered advancing soldiers any cover. Georgians and North Carolinians were stationed behind a four-foot high stone wall along a sunken road at the base of Marye’s Heights. Lee and Longstreet had carefully prepared their defensive positions, and even before the Federals had left the comparative safety of the town, they would come under heavy artillery fire, and as they approached the stone wall, they would run into what many described as a sheet of flame as the Rebel infantry rose and fired. Successive attacks – some head on, others trying to flank the stone wall – left regiments and entire brigades shattered.
As much as any other Civil War battle, Fredericksburg raised difficult question about how the officers and their men could keep assaulting such a seemingly impregnable position. What explains their valor? Many but by no means all were combat veterans trained to obey orders and stick by their comrades.
Others felt caught between duty and fear and so moved forward with their company. In any case the losses were staggering and kept mounting through the day. Hooker opposed pouring his troops into the attack, but there were inaccurate reports that Confederate artillery was being withdrawn and that some Federals had reached Marye’s Heights, and so Burnside decided to press the attacks. By nightfall, seventeen Union brigades had attempted to attack the Confederate left – hundreds of men lay trapped on the field “80 paces from the crest and holding on like hell” reported one Union general – amidst the screams of the dying and wounded.
Even then Burnside had to be talked out of launching additional attacks on the morning of December 14. By December 16, the Union forces had skillfully slipped back across the Rappahannock. As for the Confederates, Lee had fully expected Burnside to renew the assaults and was greatly frustrated by what he considered an incomplete victory.
Yet the story of Fredericksburg carries a much broader significance than this bare sketch of the strategy and tactics can convey. From the soldiers’ perspective, and especially for the Federals, a winter campaign had seemed foolish from the outset. Many men in both armies worried that exposure and disease would take a heavier toll than enemy bullets. Hard marching and a sharp cold snap in early December had all affected the bluecoats’ expectations and their morale. Rumors about possible command changes had swirled through the camps along the Rappahannock of course such speculation only intensified in the aftermath of Fredericksburg.
The Federals had sacked the town and the Confederates had stripped the dead, and so it seemed the war itself threatened to spin out of human control. Burial truces – along with the sights, sounds, and smells of the dead – had all driven home the rising costs of civil war. Surgery by candlelight on the evening of December 13 epitomized these horrors for some soldiers. Visiting his slightly wounded brother George, Walt Whitman noticed a “heap of amputated, feet, legs, arms and hands” near one hospital tent. Clara Barton vividly described the treatment of the wounded at Chatham Manor just on the other side of the Rappahannock River. Eventually these sufferers would be taken to division hospitals or transported to Washington where Louisa May Alcott and others worked.
The Stone Wall at Marye's Heights (Robert Shenk)
The sheer numbers were staggering: 12,653 Union casualties (1,284 dead) and 5,309 Confederate casualties (595 dead). The perceived casualties as reported in both Union and Confederate accounts ran to 20,000 on the Union side, making the defeat and its costs seem even worse. Long lists of the dead and wounded soon appeared in newspapers. Confederates in particular offered memorable descriptions of the dead piled high, and Americans in general struggled to find meaning in the carnage. The pious might simply look to divine providence, and by this point in the war, heartfelt eulogies for Christian soldiers had become commonplace. As for the families, they often had to settle for unreliable newspaper reports or long-delayed word from a commanding officer, chaplain, or a hospital steward reporting on their loved one’s fate.
In fact news from the battlefield carried enormous importance to everyone from a poor private’s wife to the President of the United States. The telegraph slips in the Abraham Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress tell us precisely what the President knew and when he knew it. The initial dispatches had contained encouraging reports, soon followed by more ambivalent ones. Finally a reporter from the New York Tribune called on Lincoln to describe the full dimensions of the disaster. In modern parlance, newspapers immediately went into “spin” mode. Republicans editors tried to be more optimistic while Democratic papers quickly reported another crushing Union defeat. Bad news reverberated abroad. Working for his father the American minister to Great Britain, Henry Adams wrote of “screwing his courage up to face the list of killed and wounded.” The Times of London talked of the impending fall of the American republic. Well might William Gladstone or Napoleon III for that matter wonder if the United States could survive and if the Confederates had in fact established themselves as an independent nation. Even Karl Marx wrote in detail about Burnside’s failure.
The Battle of Fredericksburg carried consequences large and small, expected and unexpected. The defeat helped spark a political crisis in which Republican senators nearly succeeded in driving Secretary of State William H. Seward from the cabinet. The rising price of gold in New York – which one banking magazine explicitly linked to Fredericksburg – further deepened the gloom in Washington and across the North. Abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, worried that this latest Union defeat might cause Lincoln to delay issuing the final Emancipation Proclamation.
Recrimination became the order of the day. Who was to blame? Burnside? Halleck? Lincoln? The soldiers themselves bandied about words such as “slaughter” and “butchery” to describe the battle there were loud calls for McClellan’s return to command. Burnside took full responsibility though Lincoln issued a bizarre letter suggesting that the failure was mostly “an accident” and congratulating the army that the casualties had been “comparatively so small.”
Yet the Army of the Potomac survived to fight another day – in fact survived the disastrous Mud March and another crushing defeat at Chancellorsville. We often think of soldiers in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries as men more likely to fight for their buddies than for any idealized cause, but the fighting men of the 1860s unblushingly spoke of patriotic duty. In doing so, they embraced no vague abstraction for them patriotism always had some tangible meaning. Shortly after McClellan’s removal from command, a member of the 6th Wisconsin had clearly explained the proper response to such a controversial decision: “The American soldier is true to his country, true to his oath, and resolved to fight the rebellion to the bitter end no difference who commands. [I] am not a McClellan man, a Burnside man, a Hooker man, i am for the man that leads us to fight the Rebs on any terms he can get.”
Civilians might not understand this way of thinking though many soldiers admitted that the combat at Fredericksburg defied their powers of description. In any case, the men often had little respect for civilian opinion. One Federal described stay-at-home critics of the Army of the Potomac as “men who have not spunk enough to leave their mammy long enough, let alone to the face the enemy.” These were “men who are setting on their asses by warm fires and enjoying all the comforts of home, running down men who are enduring hardships all the time and risking their lives to restore their country.”
If it was easy to blame the generals or the politicians for the defeat, most Federals were convinced that the soldiers themselves had fought with remarkable courage. As one private explained, “We were defeated because bravery and human endurance were unequal to the undertaking.” Brave charges against strong positions increasingly seemed like nothing so much as madness if not murder, but soldiers still talked of courage and honor – virtues to which everyone could aspire. A captain in the Irish Brigade expressed this ethos best: “even the humblest private may be styled a hero.”
At the same time the demoralization and defeatism in the army in the wake of Fredericksburg was undeniable. After witnessing horrific bloodshed during the battle on December 13 and after having been pinned down by Confederate sharpshooter fire on December 14, a Minnesota volunteer ruefully commented, “I lost a chunk of my Patriotism as large as my foot.” “Nothing gained” became one of the most common and most depressing phrases in post-battle letters home. The camps around Falmouth reminded men of Valley Forge and soldiers became obsessed with simply staying warm and worrying about their next meal. “The boys are most crasey for fear we shall have to giv thoes rebs another hack,” a New Hampshire soldier wrote home, “but that is the least that troubles me as long as I can get enough to eat.” Advising his brother to “steer clear” of the army, a member of the famous Iron Brigade added that “a good soldier cares more for a good meal than he does for all the glory he can put in a bushel basket.”
But despite all the grousing and a rising tide of desertions, another quality was apparent in the soldiers – perseverance. This might involve a minimalist standard of courage as described by a Pennsylvania chaplain: “Our battle-worn veterans go into danger when ordered, remain as a stern duty so long as directed, and leave as honor and duty allow.” Drawings of officers leading charges that appeared in the illustrated newspapers elicited derisive howls of laughter in camp. Some soldiers swore they would never enter a battle again. Although many of these men would still do their duty, for several weeks after Fredericksburg such statements also reflected a deep despondency about the Union cause.
Yet in addition to perseverance, Union soldiers also demonstrated a remarkable resilience. One lieutenant admitted that some of the men might have been “cursing the stars and stripes” right after the battle, but “these same soldiers will fight like bull dogs when it comes to scratch.” Indeed the grumbling veterans could be “relied upon more.” The quickest way to end the war, this soldier believed, was to give the Rebs a good whipping and silence the “croakers” at home.
Indeed, memories of sacrifices already made and comrades lost sparked a kind of patriotic revival among Burnside’s men, not the flag-waving and hurrahing variety but rather the quiet kind of resolve that carried armies to victory. Disillusionment and despair would not necessarily tear most men away from a still firm commitment to finishing their work. A Pennsylvania captain admitted being tempted to let others do the fighting but could never quite bring himself to act on this impulse. “I am a soldier and a good one,” he noted with unaffected pride. He would “growl” after a fight but when “an order came to storm a battery, nary a squeal would I make.” This last statement made up for the bad food, the damp ground, and the harsh talk about Burnside or Lincoln. It overshadowed the swearing, the grumbling, and wild talk of mutiny. It perhaps counted for more than demoralization and even desertions.
War demanded a great deal of soldiers and pushed them to the breaking point and beyond, but armies somehow managed to survive the worst. Even among fellows who cursed incompetent officers and railed against cowardly civilians, there remained a spark, hopeful if not exactly optimistic. These soldiers often despaired of their own government but not of their comrades – men who had stood the fire before and who would not shrink from it next time. Corporal Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade in a long letter explaining to his wife why he stayed in the ranks recaptured this spirit of hard-headed yet still idealistic patriotism. “This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil and so it is with every man who comes to this country and becomes a citizen.” Even a war filled with “errors and mismanagement” carried a “vital interest” for “people of all nations.” Anticipating Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Welsh defined the stakes: “This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemys and matured rebellion all men who love free government and equal laws are watching this crisis to see if a republic can sustain itself in such a case if it fails then the hopes of millions fall and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will suceed the old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of europe that such is the common end of all republics the blatant croakers of the devine right of kings will shout forth their joy . . . . it becomes the duty of every one no matter what his position to do all in his power to sustain for the present and to perpetuate for the benefit [of] future generations a government and a national asylum which is superior to any the world has yet known.” Perhaps better than any other statement from a common soldier, Welsh’s tribute to American democracy explained how the Army of the Potomac would survive to fight another day. It is also such statements that explain why the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought over 140 years ago, holds such fascination and importance for anyone who would attempt to understand the causes, conduct, and consequences of the American Civil War.
George C. Rable is the Charles G. Summersell Chair in Southern History, University of Alabama and currently President of the Society of Civil War Historians. He is the author of Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, which was award the Lincoln Prize, the Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award in American Military History, the Jefferson Davis Award, and the Douglas Southall Freeman History Award. He is currently writing A Religious History of the American Civil War.
10 Facts: Fredericksburg
The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the most embarrassing Union defeats of the war, but the details of the battle are less well-known. Here are some facts to help shed a little light on the battle for newcomers and test the knowledge of veterans.
Fact #1: Union General Ambrose Burnside did not want command of the Army of the Potomac.
After Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's failure to follow up on his victory at the battle of Antietam, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was ordered to replace him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside was reluctant to accept this post, believing that he was not qualified for such a large command. In fact, he had previously turned down two other offers of promotion from Lincoln.
This time Burnside felt that his duty required him to accept the President's promotion. As he wrote a colleague: “Had I been asked to take it I should have declined but, being ordered, I cheerfully obey.” Another factor in Burnside’s decision to accept the post was the fact that Burnside wanted to prevent his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (Lincoln’s second choice for the post), from taking command, as Burnside held a low opinion of Hooker.
Burnside finally took command of the army on November 10, 1862, and began devising a bold plan to capture Richmond.
Fact #2: The Union crossing at Fredericksburg was delayed by a lack of portable pontoon bridges.
Burnside’s plan had real promise. He reached Fredericksburg — a small city on the Rappahannock River — long before Robert E. Lee's army. With few Confederates holding the city, Burnside could easily have captured it and marched on Richmond. Lee commanded the only sizeable force that could oppose him, but his army was divided: Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps was a week's march away from Fredericksburg in the Shenandoah Valley.
Burnside's speed and superior numbers were meaningless without the pontoon boats that he needed to cross the Rappahannock River. Due to administrative problems, the first pontoons arrived a week after Burnside reached the North bank of the Rappahannock, and the Union general waited another two weeks before attempting to cross. The delay afforded Lee time to re-unite his army in strong positions west of Fredericksburg, but Burnside decided to cross the river at Fredericksburg anyway.
Fact #3: Fredericksburg hosted the largest group of soldiers to participate in a Civil War battle.
In the fall of 1862, Burnside’s army was 120,000 men strong and Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia held over 70,000 soldiers. Lee's army was initially divided into two groups, but by the time of the battle, he once again had his full force at his command. All told, 172,000 were actually available to the two commanders during the battle. By contrast, only 158,000 soldiers fought at Gettysburg in July 1863.
Fact #4: Union forces bombarded Fredericksburg with 150 cannons.
As Union engineers attempted to assemble the pontoon bridges on the Rappahannock, they were fired upon incessantly by Confederate sharpshooters positioned in buildings in town – preventing them from making progress on the bridges. In an attempt to suppress the sniper-fire, Burnside ordered Union artillery to bombard the town. The ensuing barrage damaged nearly every house. The shelling of Fredericksburg was arguably the first time a commander deliberately ordered a large-scale bombardment of a city during the Civil War.
One Union bystander described the violence: “Report followed report in quick succession – a number at a time seeming to be simultaneous – a heavy crashing thunder rolling over the valley, and up the hills by which it was flung back in deep reverberations columns of smoke were seen to rise and bright flames were seen, a number of buildings being on fire.”
Fact #5: The Battle of Fredericksburg was the first opposed river crossing in American military history.
As Burnside grew desperate, he sent troops across the river in pontoon boats to establish a bridgehead and drive away Confederate sharpshooters. These soldiers came under heavy fire, but ultimately cleared away the snipers and enabled engineers to finish construction of the bridge.
Although the main Confederate force waited for Burnside’s army outside the city, Gen. Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade remained to resist the Union advance through town. The fighting which ensued in the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg was the first true urban warfare of the Civil War.
Fact #6: The famous attack on the Sunken Road was supposed to be a diversion.
Burnside planned to use the nearly 60,000 men in his “Left Grand Division” to crush Lee’s right flank while the rest of his army held the Confederate left flank in position at Marye’s Heights.
The Confederate infantry held positions at the base of the heights in an impromptu trench formed by a stone wall bordering a sunken road. Wave after wave of Federal soldiers advanced across the open fields in front of the wall, but each was met with devastating rifle and artillery fire from the nearly impregnable Confederate positions. All told, Burnside’s “diversion” produced around 8,000 Union casualties compared to 1,000 fallen Confederates.
Maj. John Pelham
Fact #7: Confederate horse artillery on the Union left flank caused the Federals to divert their largest division from the main attack.
As Union troops assembled for battle on the morning of December 13, Maj. John Pelham sensed an opportunity to preempt the Yankee attack. He advanced two cannons to a shallow basin about one half mile beyond the Union army’s left flank, and opened fire around 10:00 a.m. The Federals had no idea what hit them. Many initially assumed the fire came from a confused Union gunner until Pelham unleashed his second round. Union batteries on this field and across the river returned fire, but Pelham’s small crew, masked by hedges and fog, proved elusive.
After one cannon was disabled and his ammunition began running low, Pelham finally disengaged and fell back to the Confederate line, having fought his guns for an hour. His feat impressed Lee, who referred to the artillerist in his report as “the gallant Pelham.” Pelham’s attack both delayed the Union advance and diminished its size: an entire Union division was repositioned to protect the army's flank, effectively removing it from the battle.
Maj. Gen. George G. Meade Library of Congress
Fact #8: The Union army broke through Confederate lines near Prospect Hill.
South of Marye’s Heights, Stonewall Jackson's 37,000 men occupied wooded high-ground with open farmlands stretching below them for nearly a mile and a railroad embankment providing them with natural breastworks. A 600-yard swampy marshland that the Confederate commanders considered impassible divided Jackson's lines.
Following the path of least resistance, members of Maj. Gen. George Meade's division of Pennsylvania Reserves through this swampy bog during the battle. Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg's Brigade, which was waiting in reserve behind the lines, were the only Southerners in the area. Two of Meade's regiments caught Gregg by surprise, and routed the whole brigade. Simultaneously, Maj. Gen. John Gibbon's division attacked across a field next to the swampland, driving back a brigade of North Carolinians defending a railroad grade. The two attacks broke the Rebel line and would have rendered the entire Confederate position untenable if enough Union reinforcements were committed to the attack.
Fact #9: A timely counterattack saved the broken Confederate lines, and gave the area its nickname.
As the fighting continued, the Northerners began to run out of ammunition, and several of their most important officers were incapacitated. Without reinforcements, the attacks ground to a halt. Jackson, on the other hand, received reinforcements quickly, and his troops surrounded the Gibbon's men on three sides – leaving many of them exposed in the open field. The Federals were forced to fall back, and the Confederates recaptured the railroad embankments.
The carnage was devastating. 9,000 men—5,000 Northerners and 4,000 Southerners—fell dead or wounded in the fighting a Confederate lieutenant wrote that the dead lay “in heaps.” In the field, nicknamed “the Slaughter Pen” by soldiers who witnessed the carnage, the Union lost its best chance for victory at Fredericksburg.
The Slaughter Pen today.
Fact #10: The purchase of the Slaughter Pen Farm was the most expensive private battlefield preservation effort in American history.
When development threatened the 208-acre Slaughter Pen Farm, the Civil War Trust, partnering with Tricord, Inc., SunTrust Bank, and the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, launched a campaign to preserve this hallowed ground. The Civil War Trust also worked with the Department of the Interior and Commonwealth of Virginia, which provided matching grants to acquire the property. In 2006, the Trust and its partners purchased the Slaughter Pen Farm for $12 million.
What We Learned: from Fredericksburg
Most are familiar with the brutal December 13, 1862, Battle of Fredericksburg. Less well known is the series of “firsts” that occurred on December 11, when the Union Army conducted its first ever river assault and first major street fight through Fredericksburg itself.
In the fall of 1862, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, marched 114,000 Union troops south toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. In his path, on the far shore of the Rappahannock River, waited General Robert E. Lee and 72,500 Rebel soldiers. Knowing he would have to cross, Burnside ordered pontoons delivered to the north shore, opposite the small town of Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, his Army arrived well before the pontoons, thus tipping off the Confederates.
Starting at 3 a.m. on the 11th, Union engineers began to assemble the bridges, aided by a thick fog that concealed them from Confederate snipers. By 5 a.m., however, the fog had lifted, and for long hours a single brigade of Mississippians under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale held the Union troops at bay. In frustration, Burnside ordered his artillery to open fire. While an estimated 5,000 shells rocked the city, the Mississippians remained. The Union troops would have to cross.
Around 4 p.m., 70 men from the 7th Michigan picked up pontoons and set out across the 200-yard-wide river. They paid a heavy price, as Confederate sharpshooters killed and wounded scores of Yankees. Reaching the far shore, Union troops established a foothold and regrouped. They marched in formation along one street into town. At the first intersection, the Confederates unleashed a withering fire. The beleagured Michiganders retreated to the river.
With the upper bridge nearly complete, the Union sallied forth again, deliberately clearing each block, house by house, room by room. Steadily they pressed the remaining Confederates back toward the center of town. In the end, however, casualties represented almost 30 percent of the 300-plus men who had crossed.
- SOSR. Pronounced “SO-sir” by modern U.S. Army engineers, this acronym could be said to have its origins on December 11, 1862. The general principle applies to any obstacle:
Suppress. You must suppress enemy fire at the point where you mean to cross. You do this by shooting accurately, effectively and ceaselessly, forcing them to keep their heads down.
Obscure. No matter how well you suppress, the enemy will always manage to throw something your way. So make it difficult for them to actually see you. Inaccurate fire is useless fire.
Secure. You can only suppress for so long. Eventually, you need to get your forces across the river to kill or capture enemy holdouts.
Reduce. Bring in your engineers. If it’s a river, bridge it. If it’s a man-made obstacle, blow a hole in it. Whatever the impediment, leave little more than a speed bump for those coming behind you.
- Be ready for some down-and-dirty street fighting. Marching in formation, the first Union regiments to enter Fredericksburg were mowed down. Dispensing with those tactics, the next assault wave cleared the city house by house, with 20 men assigned to each structure.
- Artillery and cities do not mix. The massive Union bombardment that followed their initial repulse was of little help. At best, artillery creates rubble, and rubble shields defenders. It’s just not worth the cost—a lesson oft forgotten. Witness the American bombing of Monte Cassino and the German siege of Stalingrad in World War II, or the Russian carpet-bombing and shelling of Grozny in the 1990s.
- Crossing a river? Bring a boat. The men of the 7th Michigan rode across the Rappahannock on bridge pontoons and paddled with the butts of their rifles. Progress was excruciatingly slow, leaving them exposed to murderous fire. They paid in blood for a contingency that headquarters hadn’t thought out.
- Victory demands grace. In Fredericksburg, as in countless cities taken by storm over the centuries, the officers and NCOs lost control of their units during the house-to-house fighting. What followed was an orgy of looting and destruction. Enraged by the vandalism, Lee rallied his men to repulse the Union siege. City fighting demands more, not less, control of one’s troops.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.
Ambrose Burnside: Later Civil War Service
Burnside was subsequently assigned to command of the Department of the Ohio in March 1863. The area was known for harboring antiwar sentiment, and Burnside caused a minor controversy when he arrested a politician named Clement Vallandigham on charges of sedition. Burnside next participated in the Knoxville Campaign in the fall of 1863. He outmaneuvered Confederate General James Longstreet and was able to successfully hold the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, until he was reinforced by General William T. Sherman.
In the spring of 1864 Burnside regained control of his old corps and participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. At the Siege of Petersburg in July of 1864, Burnside played a crucial role in an audacious plan to dig a mine under the Confederate position and then detonate explosives to create a gap in the defensive lines. The plan was poorly managed, and Burnside’s force sustained 3,800 casualties.
In the wake of what became known as the Battle of the Crater, Burnside was placed on leave. He remained absent from the army until April 1865, when he tendered his resignation shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Stonewall Jackson Dies in the Battle of Chancellorsville
Lee and Jackson’s most celebrated victory also led to Jackson’s death. On May 2, Jackson marched his 28,000 troops nearly 15 miles to attack Hooker’s exposed flank, inflicting massive Union casualties. Half of Hooker’s forces were destroyed.
But Jackson’s victory would be his last. As the sun set, Jackson led his men to scout ahead in the forest. A North Carolina regiment opened fire, mistaking them for enemy cavalry. A bullet struck Jackson, shattering the bone above his left shoulder. General J. E. B. Stuart took over his command as doctors amputated Jackson’s left arm. While he was in a field hospital, Lee wrote to Jackson, 𠇌ould I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead.”
Jackson died from pneumonia on May 10, 1863. He was 39 years old. The South mourned their war hero, who was buried in Lexington, Virginia.
Did you know? Author Stephen Crane&aposs 1895 novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is based on the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Civil War (1861-1865)
Fredericksburg played a major role in the Civil War, serving as the grounds for what was then the largest battle in America and the first urban battle since the Revolutionary War. On December 11, 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac, after bombarding the town with artillery fire, crossed the Rappahannock River and landed at the foot of Hawke Street. The Union Army charged into town and ransacked homes and businesses searching for Confederate soldiers. Caroline Street became a stronghold for the Confederates and thus received the brunt of the battle which extended south to William Street. Several churches and dwellings, including Federal Hill at 501 Hanover Street, were used as makeshift military hospitals, and the basement of the town hall served as a refuge for slaves during the battle. By nightfall, the Confederate Army retreated to Marye's Heights to the south of the town. Two days later, on December 13, a second assault was mounted at Marye's Heights. Confederate soldiers were strategically placed behind a stone wall along the Sunken Road. The battle resulted in significant casualties for the Union Army. The entire Battle of Fredericksburg resulted in 12,653 Union casualties and 4,201 Confederate casualties.
The Battle of Fredericksburg
Sumner's troops lay, cold and a little nervous, in the crowded lee of the city's houses, which hid all but their pickets from the Confederates. A hard frost the previous night had robbed them of much of their sleep, but they could neither warm themselves nor even boil coffee, lest the smoke from their fires reveal their numbers and draw fire. Many who had wandered away from their commands the night before had not returned. After sleeping with muddy feet in the beds of absent citizens, they resumed rummaging through the homes, pilfering whatever they fancied and vandalizing what they pleased. At the bridgeheads stood growing mountains of property confiscated from those brazen skulkers who tried to carry their plunder to the rear.
According to the morning's orders the commander of the Second Corps, General Couch, had formed William French's division along Fredericksburg's outermost streets. French's three brigades consisted of thirteen regiments from every state between Connecticut and the Wabash, including Delaware and West Virginia. Most of them had seen the Peninsula and Maryland campaigns, but the four biggest regiments consisted of nine-month militia men from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
|IN ORDER TO REACH MARYE'S HEIGHTS, UNION SOLDIERS HAD TO CROSS AN OPEN PLAIN NEARLY ONE-HALF MILE IN LENGTH. NOT ONE REACHED THE STONE WALL. (NA)|
Just beyond French's waiting lines the houses petered out and a broad plain opened, cut by a millrace that skirted the city's perimeter. Normally this waterway would have been full, but Federal engineers had partially closed the floodgate and drained the sluice somewhat. On the far side of the ditch the ground rose sharply, offering protection from enemy fire, and a quarter mile beyond that sat Marye's Heights and the sunken Telegraph Road. In that road crouched Thomas R. R. Cobb's Georgia brigade and the 24th North Carolina, their ranks hidden by the retaining wall. Another rank of Confederate infantry supported artillery that topped the crest, as well. William Street ran from the heart of the city toward the Sunken Road, passing beyond it to become the Orange Plank Road Hanover Street paralleled it a couple of blocks to the south. The bridges on those streets and one other provided the only means of crossing the icy millrace, so when French received his final orders for the assault he filed his brigades across them. James Longstreet had spent nearly three weeks perfecting his defenses on Marye's Heights. Just before the battle he had spoken to his artillery chief about using an overlooked cannon, suggesting that he place it to bear on the broad plain behind the city. Years later Longstreet remembered that his artilleryman assured him that the plain was already closely covered, promising that "a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."
|JAMES LONGSTREET (USAMHI)|
Shortly before noon Longstreet directed his gunners to begin dropping shells into the streets where he could see Union soldiers, hoping to create a diversion for Jackson's benefit. The moment he chose to open fire happened to be the same instant that French's skirmishers began jogging out of the city, with the dense, dark brigades following. Longstreet felt the sensation of having upset a beehive.
The skirmishers trotted across the ditch on one good bridge, but the boards of the other had been taken up and hundreds of men had to tiptoe across on the stringers. Meanwhile, shells from batteries on the heights began bursting in the ranks. Once across the ditch, French formed his first brigade under the protection of the long bluff, and when he gave the word nearly two thousand men surged grimly forward with rifles on their shoulders and bayonets fixed. A hail of shell burst immediately from the heights, blowing great gaps in the ranks, but the Federals pounded onward without pausing to fire a shot, hoping to close with the enemy quickly. Muddy ground sucked at wet brogans with every step the Yankees took. Their entire route lay uphill, with the grade worsening steadily. Heavy overcoats, equipment, and ammunition bore down on those winded Northerners, and occasionally they had to stop to tear down fences. All the while iron burst and flew about them, changing from shell to canister that swept their lines like gigantic shotgun blasts. The gasping, sweating survivors reached a second shelf of land a hundred yards from the Sunken Road, and here they lingered another moment.
Burnside supposed that the greatest impediments to his advance were those he could detect with his binoculars: the artillery on the heights and the unprotected second line of infantry. Although Burnside and many of his subordinates had sojourned in Falmouth and Fredericksburg the previous summer, no one seems to have counted on the millrace or the hundreds of riflemen hidden in the Sunken Road. As soon as French's leading brigadier waved his men over that last swale they were met by a blinding flash and a deafening din, as though they had been struck by a lightning bolt. Pale blue overcoats reeled, fell, and tumbled, and the whole line staggered, wavering like a ribbon in the wind. More crashing volleys drove them back to the swale, and that was as far as they would go. The brigadier, Nathan Kimball, quickly calculated that a quarter of his troops had already fallen the survivors threw themselves down and started firing futilely into the cloud of smoke before them.
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| FRENCH ATTACKS MARYE'S HEIGHTS, DECEMBER 13, NOONק P.M. |
At noon French leaves the town, forms his division in the shelter of the millrace, and advances to attack Marye's Heights. Kimball's brigade leads the attack, followed by Andrews and Palmer. They are stopped short of their objective by Cobb's infantry brigade in the Sunken Road and by the Washington Artillery on the heights. As the attacks develop, Cooke's brigade moves up to the crest of the ridge to support Cobb's men in the road below.
General Kimball glanced behind him in time to see the next brigade rise over the bluff and trot forward, heads bowed before the gale of canister. The script called for this next brigade, under Colonel James Andrews, to hang 150 yards behind Kimball, and when Andrews reached that distance he called a halt. He had but three regiments left (his own, the 1st Delaware, had gone in with the skirmishers), and as these Yankees stood to fire over their comrades' heads the Confederates rained iron and lead on their exposed position. Before long Colonel Andrews moved his men up to mingle with Kimball's in the meager cover of that last shallow swale. About then a bullet snatched General Kimball's right leg from under him.
At dawn the next morning, 13th, in the fresh and nipping air, I stepped upon the gallery overlooking the heights back of the little old-fashioned town of Fredericksburg. Heavy fog and mist hid the whole plain between the heights and the Rappahannock, but under cover of that fog and within easy cannon-shot lay Burnside's army. Along the heights, to the right and left of where I was standing, extending a length of nearly five miles, lay Lee's army.
The bugles and the drum corps of the respective armies were now sounding reveille, and the troops were preparing for their early meal. All knew we should have a battle today and a great one, for the enemy had crossed the river in immense force, upon his pontoons during the night. On the Confederate side all was ready, and the shock was awaited with stubborn resolution. Last night we had spread our blankets upon the bare floor in the parlor of Marye's house, and now our breakfast was being prepared in its fireplace, and we were impatient to have it over. After hastily dispatching this light meal of bacon and corn-bread, the colonel, chief bugler, and I (the adjutant of the battalion) mounted our horses and rode out to inspect our lines . . . .
At 12 o'clock the fog had cleared, and while we were sitting in Marye's yard smoking our pipes, after a lunch of hard crackers, a courier came to Colonel Walton, bearing a dispatch from General Longstreet for General Cobb, but, for our information as well, to be read and then given to him. It was as follows: "Should General Anderson, on your left, be compelled to fall back to the second line of heights, you must conform to his movements." Descending the hill into the sunken road, I made my way through the troops, to a little house where General Cobb had his headquarters, and handed him the dispatch. He read it carefully, and said, "Well! if they wait for me to fall back, they will wait a long time."
|CONFEDERATE ARTILLERY IN ACTION ON MARYE'S HEIGHTS. (BL)|
Hardly had he spoken, when a brisk skirmish fire was heard in front, toward the town, and looking over the stone wall we saw our skirmishers falling back, firing as they came: at the same time the head of a Federal column was seen emerging from one of the streets of the town. They came on at the double-quick, with loud cries of "Hi! Hi! Hi!" which we could distinctly hear. Their arms were carried at "right shoulder shift," and their colors were aslant the shoulders of the color-sergeants. They crossed the canal at the bridge, and getting behind the bank to the low ground to deploy, were almost concealed from our sight. It was 12:30 p.m., and it was evident that we were now going to have it hot and heavy.
|How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel.|
The enemy, having deployed, now showed himself above the crest of the ridge and advanced in columns of brigades, and at once our guns began their deadly work with shell and solid shot. How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel. The very force of their onset leveled the broad fences bounding the small fields and gardens that interspersed the plain. We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us. Now we gave them canister and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their rifle barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advance brigade. This was too much the column hesitated, and then, turning, took refuge behind the bank.
But another line appeared from behind the crest and advanced gallantly, and again we opened our guns upon them, and through the smoke we could discern the red breeches of the "Zouaves," and hammered away at them especially. But this advance, like the preceding one, although passing the point reached by the first column, and doing and daring all that brave men could do, recoiled under our canister and the bullets of the infantry in the road, and fell back in great confusion. Spotting the fields in our front, we could detect little patches of bluethe dead and wounded of the Federal infantry who had fallen facing the very muzzles of our guns.
Cooke's brigade of Ransom's division was now placed in the sunken road with Cobb's men. At 2 p.m. other columns of the enemy left the crest and advanced to the attack it appeared to us that there was no end of them. On they came in beautiful array and seemingly more determined to hold the plain than before but our fire was murderous, and no troops on earth could stand the feu d'enfer we were giving them. In the forermost line we distinguished the green flag with the golden harp of old Ireland, and we knew it to be Meagher's Irish brigade. The gunners of the two rifle pieces . . . were directed to turn their guns against this column but the gallant enemy pushed on beyond all former charges, and fought and left their dead within five and twenty paces of the sunken road . . . .
The sharp-shooters having got range of our embrasures, we began to suffer. Corporal Ruggles fell mortally wounded, and Perry, who seized the rammer as it fell from Ruggles's hand, received a bullet in the arm. Rodd was holding "vent," and away went his "crazy bone." In quick succession Everett, Rossiter, and Kursheedt were wounded. Falconer in passing in rear of the guns was struck behind the ear and fell dead. We were now so short-handed that every one was in the work, officers and men putting their shoulders to the wheels and running up the guns after each recoil. The frozen ground had given way and was all slush and mud. We were compelled to call upon the infantry to help us at the guns. Eshleman crossed over from the right to report his guns nearly out of ammunition the other officers reported the same. They were reduced to a few solid shot only. It was now 5 o'clock, p.m., and there was a lull in the storm. The enemy did not seem inclined to renew his efforts, so our guns were withdrawn one by one, and the batteries of Woolfolk and Moody were substituted . . . .
After withdrawing from the hill the command was placed in bivouac, and the men threw themselves upon the ground to take a much-needed rest. We had been under the hottest fire men ever experienced for four hours and a half, and our loss had been three killed and twenty-four wounded . . . . One gun was slightly disabled, and we had exhausted all of our canister, shell and case shot, and nearly every solid shot in our chests. At 5:30 another attack was made by the enemy, but it was easily repulsed, and the battle of Fredericksburg was over, and Burnside was baffled and defeated.
William Miller Owen,
"A Hot Day on Marye's Heights."
Next morning, December 13th, the city was enveloped in a heavy fog, which did not lift, if my recollection is clear, until ten o'clock or later. As far as we could see in either direction stood a continuous line of soldiers in readiness to start to the field of action. Mounted officers and orderlies were continually passing back and forth along the lines, while some of the regimental officers and privates, tired of standing in the ranks, dropped out and sought a seat upon the curb or a near-by door step. Among those who had taken a resting place was a surgeon, upon whose face I noticed was depicted an intense feeling of sadness. Perhaps he could not help it, for we all knew that some of us would soon be badly wounded if not instantly killed. Yet this solemn fact did not make all men gloomy. The most lively fellows mimicked the whizzing noise of an occasional round shot or shell in its arched flight high over the housetops, or cracked jokes with their comrades. . . .
Presently is heard the command, "Attention!". Every lounger springs to his place. We are ordered to prime. Every musket is raised and every man caps his piece. Our Colonel made some remarks, telling us to shoot low and try to wound a man in preference to killing him. Noticing a red colored scarf about my neck, he ordered me to take it off, saying it would make a good target for the enemy. The scarf disappeared. Suspense is intense. Finally, the long-expected, much-dreaded command, "Forward!" is passed from officer to officer standing at the head of their Companies. With an ominous silence akin to a funeral procession, General Kimball began the perilous march down Caroline street. Reaching what I will call Railroad avenue, the column filed to the right and out that thoroughfare to begin the attack. I think I am telling the plain truth when I say that during that short march many of those men silently offered up to the Almighty their last prayer on earth. Our regiment was about to receive its first baptism of fire, and every one knew it.
. . . Shells and solid shot from the enemy's heavy guns now came crashing through brick walls and pounded in the street around about us. The first wounded man I saw was hurrying down the sidewalk with one hand pressed against a wound in his breast, inquiring for a hospital.
At the edge of the town we passed General Kimball facing us, in his saddle, who addressed his men in these words, which I never forgot:
|"Cheer up, my hearties! cheer up! This is something we must all get used to. Remember, this brigade has never been whipped, and don't let it be whipped today."|
"Cheer up, my hearties! cheer up! This is something we must all get used to. Remember, this brigade has never been whipped, and don't let it be whipped today."
No wild hurrah went up in response. Every face wore an expression of seriousness and dread . . . .
. . . A few steps further and we are out of the town, in the open fields, in full view of the enemy. While the brigade is coming into position, at double-quick, to assault the Confederate fortifications around Marye's Heights, the artillerymen on the summit are turning their guns upon us, and with effect. To facilitate our progress in the charge, haversacks and blankets are now thrown away. The company commanders shout sharply to their men to keep the regiments in line as they advance to the attack. Screeching like demons in the air, solid shot, shrapnel and shells from the batteries on the hills strike the ground in front of us, behind us, and cut gaps in the ranks. See there! A field officer has been struck by one of the missiles and a couple of men who have raised him to his feet are calling loudly for more help to get him off the field. As the line advances up the slope, men wounded and dead drop from the ranks.
It is not every man that can face danger like this. I saw a few so overcome by fear that they fell prostrate upon the ground as if dead. I have seen men drop upon their knees and pray loudly for deliverance, when courage and bravery, not supplication, was the duty of the moment.
Hark! There's one of my comrades, Johnny Brayerton, praying, too, perhaps for the first time in his life. It was a short one:
"Oh, Lord, dear, good Lord!" he cried.
But Johnny at that trying moment was as brave as he was devout, and kept his place in the front rank. Not a gun was fired . . . until the brigade reached the crest of the hill, when, like a burst of thunder, the roar of musketry became almost deafening. It seemed to me every soldier, after firing his piece, had thrown himself flat upon the ground to avoid the enemy's bullets, and I did not see how I could possibly load and fire by lying down in that crouching column of men. To stand up boldly along that firing linethe dead linewas almost certain death, so I ran to a blacksmith shop some distance to my right, where, with a number of other soldiers who had taken refuge there, we banged away at the rebels but they were so securely and safely entrenched behind a great stone wall, that I believe every man in the firing line felt that there was not hope of a victory . . . .
|THE GROUND BETWEEN FREDERICKSBURG AND MARYE'S HEIGHTS. (BL)|
The little frame building from which we were firing was by no means bullet-proof, yet we felt much safer there than standing out in full view of the enemy. Down goes one of our party, shot through the head.
I know not for what reason, but I stopped firing a few moments, and stood over the lifeless form of the unknown soldier with a sort of fascination, wondering who he could be wondering what mother's boy had been added to the roll of the dead . . . .
"There they come!" some one shouted, and looking back toward the city, we saw another long line of reinforcements charging up the slope. Lustily they were cheered as they advanced, and I noticed a wounded man sitting upon the ground waving his cap and cheering with the rest. Until nightfall, brigade after brigade charged across that field of death, to the dead-line, only to suffer disaster and defeat.
I see a regiment charging up the slope towards the stone wall opposite the Stephens' house. A large white dog is capering and leaping ahead of the column. My eyes follow another brigade advancing across the plain. They are veterans. The line keeps well dressed, but the men are bending as low as they can travel, and the color-bearers trailing their flags on the ground. Those heroic men are trying to avoid the Confederate bullets, but many in the ranks never took part in another fight. Here comes a regiment charging right towards us, advancing as orderly as if on dress parade. The cool conduct of their Colonel attracted the attention of a few, and some cried out:
"That's the way for a Colonel to bring in his men."
Some of the boys were jolly and laughing when they passed us, in close column, by the blacksmith shop, out of sight. See! some of them are already returningI mean those that are woundedto secure shelter along with us in front of the building. Two stalwart fellows came around the corner, dragging their dying Colonel riddled with bullets. That regiment must have been literally cut to pieces . . . .
A bullet crashed through the shop, throwing a splinter into the face of a man standing near. He cursed in hot anger and left the spot. From the blacksmith shop I hurriedly returned along the firing line to the red brick house, near which we opened fire in the assault . . . . General Kimball's brigade held its position at the firing-line until relieved, but even then the men could not safely retire. The only alternative was to lie at full length upon the ground, skulk into or behind neighboring buildings, or, at much greater risk of being shot down, withdraw to the rear. While at the brick house, looking around about me upon the awful scene of carnage, a bullet grazed my head. I watched a brigade charge up the slope, close to our left, but the brave men, unable to withstand the withering fire, soon fell back in disorder, followed by soldiers who had been at the dead-line since the first attack by Kimball's men. With a number of others, in the mixed throng collected in front of the brick building, the writer withdrew from the field. All the way down the slope to the edge of the town I saw my fellow-soldiers dropping on every side, in their effort to get out of the reach of the murderous fire from the Confederate infantry securely entrenched behind the long stone wall and the batteries on the heights. I saw a shell explode, close to the heels of a large man fleeing for his life. He was blown clear from the ground, falling in a heap, frightfully mangled. A little further on, another unfortunate fellow was lying on the ground, in a violent death struggle. At the edge of the town, two men were helping off the field a badly-wounded comrade, who was cursing in a frenzy of anger and vowing vengeance upon the rebels. A couple of stretcher carriers were carrying to the hospital a man with both legs shot away. It was a sickening sight. Scenes such as I have described made a lasting impression upon my memory.
"On the Parallels"
French's third brigade stormed over the rise a few minutes later, but the halt to maintain parade-ground intervals broke the momentum of those three regiments as well, and they finally plodded forward and shouldered into line with their predecessors. They knelt or lay in the muddy swale or bid behind the cluster of buildings in the fork of Hanover Street and the Telegraph Road, shooting ineffectually at the heights above them. Most of their rounds scattered into the embankment behind the Southern riflemen, whose eyes and muzzles alone peered over the stone wall, presenting a long, bright blade of fire that flayed the fat Federal line. French's assault was over.
Civil War Fredericksburg
Image: Fredericksburg during the Civil War
Prior to the Civil War, Fredericksburg, Virginia was a town of approximately 5000 residents. After the War began, it became important primarily because it was located midway between the Union and Confederate capitals: Washington and Richmond.
In early December 1862, during the initial stages of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the town’s civilians were in a quandary. Should they stay or should they go? Many were reluctant to leave their town at the mercy of Union soldiers, horses and war materiel.
But as Union troops crossed the river into the town and serious firing began, many townspeople became refugees, fleeing into the countryside of Spotsylvania County. They took shelter in churches and other public buildings. Or wherever relatives, friends, or perfect strangers, would take them in. A refugee camp was set up on the outskirts of town, but it was soon filled to overflowing.
December 1862: Battle of Fredericksburg
The Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862) was fought by CSA General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, commanded by USA General Ambrose Burnside. As the generals sparred and parried, the remaining civilians fled by the thousands. And it was bitterly cold. Less than two weeks before Christmas.
On December 13, USA General William Franklin’s division pierced the first defensive line of CSA General Stonewall Jackson to the south, but was finally repulsed. Union troops then assaulted Confederate defenses on the high ground above the town, known as Marye’s Heights. General Burnside ordered repeated frontal attacks against Confederates behind a stone wall, all of which were repulsed with heavy losses. On December 15, Burnside withdrew his army, ending the campaign.
Image: Courage in Blue by Mort Kunstler
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Northern troops repeatedly assaulted heavily-fortified Southern positions on Marye’s Heights – and were slaughtered.
The South celebrated their great victory with joy while in the North, the Army and President Lincoln came under strong attacks from politicians and the press. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited the White House after a trip to the battlefield. He told the president, “It was not a battle, it was a butchery.” Curtin reported that the president was “heart-broken at the recital, and soon reached a state of nervous excitement…” Lincoln wrote:
“If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
During the battle, buildings and homes in the town were damaged by the Union bombardment and looting by Northern troops. Despite the overwhelming Confederate victory, Fredericksburg would ultimately fall to the Union Army only five months later.
May 1864: Grant’s Overland Campaign
Between May 4 and May 20, 1864, the CS Army of Northern Virginia and the US Army of the Potomac, with its new commander General Ulysses S. Grant, were involved in one continuous battle. The fighting began at the Wilderness, the same area where the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought a year earlier, and progressed along a country lane to the sparsely populated crossroads a few miles west at the Spotsylvania Court House.
The Union suffered casualties more than twice as heavy as those of the Confederacy: an astounding loss of 18,000 men during the few days of fighting at the Wilderness and another 18,000 during the two-week battle at Spotsylvania Court House. This compares to a total loss by the Confederates of only 18,000 for both battles.
A City of Hospitals
A massive number of injured soldiers – estimated at 26,000 wounded and dying men – descended upon the town after the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. The Wilderness was fought in the same area as the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863), and Spotsylvania Court House was about 11 miles southwest of Fredericksburg.
The first wagon train of wounded arrived in the city on May 9, and they kept coming as the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House waged for almost two weeks. From then until May 26, 1864, more than 26,000 wounded Union soldiers flooded the town after the Union army designated Fredericksburg as its evacuation hospital. One reporter wrote:
Hourly, as the days and nights slipped on, trains of ambulances from the distant field wound along the streets, pausing here and there to leave additional wounded, or to permit the guards to lift out the dead and dying, and carry them away on stretchers to the dead-house, or the rooms where the more serious cases were attended to by the surgeons. Scarcely an hour passed, in the five days immediately following our arrival, that trains of this kind did not reach the town.
As many as 500 civilian relief workers came to Fredericksburg to help care for the wounded, about 30 of whom were women. This group included names now familiar to historians and the public: Julia Wheelock, Arabella Griffith Barlow (wife of General Francis Barlow), Cornelia Hancock, Helen Gilson, and Jane Grey Swisshelm, an independent woman who published her own newspaper in Minnesota.
Eyewitnesses described the scene as wounded soldiers and their caretakers took over virtually every home and building in the small town. Caring for that many wounded was a monumental human accomplishment of enormous proportions, especially considering the lack of medical knowledge and equipment. But the patients did not linger as soon as they were well enough, they were transported to military hospitals in the North. Only the most serious cases remained longer.
Abigail Hopper Gibbons
Gibbons was an active abolitionist, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and an ardent supporter of the Union war effort. After the war began, she and her daughter Sarah Hopper Gibbons Emerson, recently widowed, volunteered as nurses. They spent fifteen months working at the military prison at Point Lookout, Maryland in 1862 and 1863.
Image: Nurses and Officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission
Seated: Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her daughter Sarah in the hat
Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864
In May 1864 the two Gibbons women answered the call for volunteers at Fredericksburg. At age 62, Abigail Hopper Gibbons was probably the oldest female volunteer. Mother and daughter arrived on May 19, 1864, and would remain for a week. Abigail wrote:
… Started for this place 7:30 a.m., wading through mud to get to the ambulances. Such a road! [the road from Belle Plain to Fredericksburg] and how wounded men ever bear the transportation is a mystery. Twelve miles of jolting which took seven hours and tired us nearly out! …
Reached Fredericksburg at 2 P.M. Had dinner and I was put into a Hospital at once. The whole town is filled with wounded. House after house, store after store, filled with men lying on the floor. I have about 160. We see nothing but frightfully wounded men.
This is an excerpt of a letter written by Sarah Hopper Gibbons Emerson a few days later:
You can form no idea of the work we had to do in Fredericksburg. I had a hundred and sixty men, all on the floor and not a bed to be seen four storehouses and one third story, packed so close that the men nearly touched each other in one room with twenty-three men, fourteen amputations not a breath of air until Mr. Thaxter knocked out the windowpanes and afterwards the sashes. We stole straw to fill ticks, stole boards to make bunks, stole bedsteads, took nails from packing boxes, and yesterday every man was comparatively comfortable. The filth exceeded anything you ever dreamed of – stench terrific. The Sanitary Commission has been the only decent feature of the place. Some of the Christian Commission have worked splendidly too. The Sanitary agents washed men, dressed wounds, and did everything. They have saved hundreds of lives, for provisions were terribly scarce and nothing was to be had in the city. I think it was Sunday morning, the report was that 23,000 wounded had been sent on, 7,166 remained, besides 1000 sick.
Georgeanna Georgy Woolsey was one of the Woolsey sisters, members of a socially conscious family from New York. All of the sisters became involved in nursing or relief work during the war. Abby Howland Woolsey, Jane Stuart Woolsey, Mary Woolsey Howland and Eliza Woolsey Howland all spent time caring for Union soldiers. Georgy recorded her experiences at Fredericksburg in letters to family members.
Fredericksburg, May 19.
…Men are brought in and stowed away in filthy places called distributing stations. I have good men as assistants, and can have more. We go about and feed them I have a room of special cases, besides the station three of these died last night. They had been several days on the field after being shot, in and out of the rebels’ hands, taken and retaken. The townspeople refuse to sell or give, and we steal everything we can lay our hands on, for the patients more straw-stealing, plank-stealing, corn-shuck-stealing more grateful, suffering, patient men.
No confusion was ever greater. Tent hospitals have been put up, and the surgeons ordered not to fill them. Orders came from Washington that the railroad should be repaired, then orders came withdrawing the guard from the road. Medical officers refuse to send wounded over an unguarded road. Telegram from Washington that wounded should go by boat. Telegram back that wounded were already over the pontoons, ready to go by rail if protected. Telegram again that they should go by boat. Trains came back to boat, river falling.
One boat got painfully off second boat off ambulance trains at many hospital doors got on train and fed some poor fellows with egg nog moved on with the slow moving procession at every moment a jolt and a “God have mercy on men,” through the darkness over the pontoons to the railroad, again! I cooked and served to-day 936 rations of farina, tea, coffee, and good rich soup, chicken, turkey, and beef, out of those blessed cans…
We are lodged with a fine old lady, mild and good, in a garden full of roses. We board ourselves. We have crackers, sometimes soft bread, sometimes beef. Last night we had a slice of ham all round. The town will be deserted in a few days. We are sweeping and cleaning Mrs. –‘s rooms to leave the old lady as well off as we can, for all her slaves have packed their feather-beds and frying-pans, and declare they will go with us.
Georgeanna joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission Hospital Transport Service, hospital ships that transported sick and wounded soldiers from the front to Northern military hospitals. She served throughout the war, working in the field following several battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and battles of Grant’s Overland Campaign.
Washington Woolen Mill
The Washington Woolen Mill stood about a quarter-mile above the town. When the Civil War began, the mill was completely new and it employed 35 female workers, the largest employer of women in Fredericksburg. During the first Union occupation in the summer of 1862, the Union army turned the mill into a hospital. The mill served as the hospital for men of the Fifth Corps during the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.
A Confederate Hospital at Fredericksburg
June 1861: Alexander and Gibbs Tobacco Factory
By late June 1861, a hospital for approximately 150 Confederate soldiers who were sick from disease was established at the Alexander and Gibbs Tobacco Factory in Fredericksburg. A tobacco factory would seem an unlikely place for a military hospital, but at the time there were few other options. The Union army had already taken over public buildings, shops, homes and the courthouse.
Betty Herndon Maury wrote in her diary June 26, 1861:
The sick suffer a great deal for want of proper medical attendance and good nursing. Many of the soldiers are laid on the floor when brought in, and are not touched, or their cases looked into, for twenty-four hours. One or two died when no one was near them they were found cold and stiff several hours afterwards. The other night at ten o’clock, when one of the ladies left, there was not a soul in the house besides the sick men. Every one in town has been interested in them.
Two days later, the Fredericksburg News reported:
The Ladies of Fredericksburg have organized a regular system for attending to the sick soldiers of our Hospital. Six ladies are in attendance constantly, whose office it is to superintend in various departments, and it is earnestly recommended to all who are desirous of aiding in this good work to act in connection with the committee of six ladies who will always be found in attendance.
Apparently that system did not work for long. Soon after, the female Confederate humanitarians in town decided that a much more expedient solution was to simply take the sick soldiers into their homes.
Image: Return to Fredericksburg After the Battle
By David English Henderson
Union soldiers were moved from field hospitals to permanent hospitals in Washington DC as soon as possible. The general rule was to transport them as soon as they were healthy enough to make the trip and transportation became available. On May 27, 1864, orders were given to evacuate Fredericksburg. Within two days, all wounded soldiers and Union officials had left town.