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Battle of Fredericksburg
Part of the American Civil War
Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec 13, 1862.png
Battle of Fredericksburg by Kurz and Allison.
Date December 11 (1862-12-11)–15, 1862 (1862-12-16)[1]
Location Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg, Virginia
Result Confederate victory[1]
Belligerents
United States United States (Union) Confederate States of America CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders
Ambrose E. Burnside Robert E. Lee
Strength
Army of the Potomac
(approx. 114,000 engaged)
Army of Northern Virginia
(approx. 72,500 engaged)
Casualties and losses
12,653
(1,284 killed
 9,600 wounded
 1,769 captured/missing)[2]
5,377
(608 killed
 4,116 wounded
 653 captured/missing)[3]

The Battle of Fredericksburg, the principal battle of the Fredericksburg Campaign, was fought December 11–15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, between General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. It is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War. The Union Army suffered terrible casualties in futile frontal assaults on December 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city, bringing to an early end their campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Contents

Background and Burnside's plan

The battle was the result of an effort by the Union Army to regain the initiative in its struggle against Lee's smaller but more aggressive army. Burnside was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac in November, replacing Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Although McClellan had stopped Lee at the Battle of Antietam in September, President Abraham Lincoln believed he lacked decisiveness, did not pursue and destroy Lee's army in Maryland, and wasted excessive time reorganizing and re-equipping his army following major battles.

Burnside, in response to prodding from Lincoln and General-in-Chief Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, planned a late fall offensive; he communicated his plan to Halleck on November 9. The plan relied on quick movement and deceit. He would concentrate his army in a visible fashion near Warrenton, feigning a movement on Culpeper Court House, Orange Court House, or Gordonsville. Then he would rapidly shift his army southeast and cross the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg, hoping that Robert E. Lee would sit still, unclear as to Burnside's intentions, while the Union Army made a rapid movement against Richmond, south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad from Fredericksburg. Burnside selected this plan because he was concerned that if he were to move directly south from Warrenton, he would be exposed to a flanking attack from Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, whose corps was at that time in the Shenandoah Valley south of Winchester. He also believed that the Orange and Alexandria Railroad would be an inadequate supply line. While Burnside began assembling a supply base at Falmouth, near Fredericksburg, the Lincoln administration entertained a lengthy debate about the wisdom of his plan. Lincoln eventually approved but cautioned him to move with great speed, certainly doubting that Lee would cooperate as Burnside anticipated.

Opposing forces

Key Union commanders
Key Confederate Commanders

Burnside organized his Army of the Potomac into three so-called grand divisions, comprising 120,000 men, of whom 114,000 would be engaged in the coming battle:[4]

Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had nearly 85,000 men, with 72,500 engaged:[5]

Movement to battle

Union army pontoon boats mobilized for deployment
Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Union Army began marching on November 15, and the first elements arrived in Falmouth on November 17. Burnside's plan quickly went awry—he had ordered pontoon bridges to be sent to the front and assembled for his quick crossing of the Rappahannock, but because of administrative bungling, the bridges had not preceded the army. As Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner arrived, he strongly urged an immediate crossing of the river to scatter the token Confederate force of 500 men in the town and occupying the commanding heights to the west. Burnside began to panic, worried that the increasing autumn rains would make the fording points unusable and that Sumner might be cut off and destroyed. He squandered his initiative and ordered Sumner to wait in Falmouth.

By November 21, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's Corps had arrived near Fredericksburg, and Jackson's (which had been downstream along the Rappahannock to prevent crossings there) was following rapidly. Lee at first anticipated that he would fight Burnside northwest of Fredericksburg and that it might be necessary to drop back behind the North Anna River. But when he saw how slowly Burnside was moving, he directed all of his army toward Fredericksburg. The first pontoon bridges arrived at Falmouth on November 25, much too late to enable the Army of the Potomac to cross the river without opposition. Burnside still had an opportunity, however, because he was facing only half of Lee's army, not yet dug in, and if he acted quickly, he might be able to attack Longstreet and defeat him before Jackson arrived. Once again he squandered his opportunity. The bridges arrived at the end of the month, and by this time Jackson was present and Longstreet was preparing strong defenses.

Burnside originally planned to cross his army east of Fredericksburg, 10 miles (16 km) downstream at Skinker's Neck, but Early's division arrived there and blocked him. So he decided to cross directly at Fredericksburg. On December 9, he wrote to Halleck, "I think now the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than any other part of the river. ... I'm convinced that a large force of the enemy is now concentrated at Port Royal, its left resting on Fredericksburg, which we hope to turn." In addition to his numerical advantage in troop strength, Burnside also had the advantage of knowing his army could not be attacked effectively. On the other side of the Rappahannock, 220 artillery pieces had been located on the ridge known as Stafford Heights to prevent Lee's army from mounting any major counterattacks.

The stone wall at Marye's Heights in 2000

Lee had great faith in his army, even though he was fairly uncertain of the plans of the opposing commander as late as two days before the Union Army attempted a crossing. He deployed approximately 20,000 men under Longstreet on his left flank, which was anchored on the ridge known as Marye's Heights, just to the west of the city, behind a stone wall at the crest of the ridge. Fearing a crossing downstream, south of the city, he deployed the rest of his men to the south under Jackson. The area was interspersed with hills, another excellent defensive position.

Union engineers began to assemble six pontoon bridges on the morning of December 11, two just north of the town center, a third on the southern end of town, and three close to the south, near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Deep Run. They came under punishing fire from Confederate sharpshooters, primarily from the Mississippi brigade of Brig. Gen. William Barksdale. Eventually his subordinates convinced Burnside to send landing parties over in the boats that evening to secure a small beachhead and rout the sharpshooters. The Confederate army chose not to resist the landings vigorously because of the covering Union artillery, but some of the first urban combat of the war occurred as buildings were cleared by infantry and by artillery fire from across the river. Union gunners sent more than 5,000 shells against the town and the ridges to the west. After the bridges were in place, Burnside's men looted the city with a fury that enraged Lee, who compared their depredations with those of the ancient Vandals. The destruction also angered Lee's men, many of whom were native Virginians. Over the course of December 11 to December 12, Burnside's men deployed outside the city and prepared to attack Lee's army.

Battle

Overview of the battle, December 13, 1862
Sumner's assault, 1:00 p.m., December 13, 1862
Hooker's assault, 3:30 p.m., December 13, 1862
Western view from Fredericksburg down Telegraph Road with Marye's Heights visible in the distant center. Several Union divisions would march down this road during the Battle of Fredericksburg to assault the Confederate positions on the heights unsuccessfully. Eventually, they would retreat back down this road after being decimated.

The battle opened south of the city at 8:30 a.m. on December 13, when Maj. Gen. William Franklin sent two divisions from the Left Grand Division into a previously unseen gap in Jackson's defenses on the right. By 10 a.m., a thick fog began to lift, and the initially sluggish movements picked up speed. Meade's division formed the main attack, supported by the divisions of Doubleday and Gibbon. The attack was stalled by the Virginia Horse Artillery under Major John Pelham, and an artillery duel between Pelham and the Union artillery batteries lasted for about an hour. Pelham started with only two cannons—a 12-pounder Napoleon smoothbore and a rifled Blakely—but continued with only one after the latter was disabled by counter-battery fire.[6] General Lee observed the action and commented about Pelham, age 24, "It is glorious to see such courage in one so young." As Meade finally made traction, he ran into Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg's brigade, scattering it. Gregg mistook Meade's troops for fleeing Confederate troops and ordered his men not to fire on them. While he rode prominently in front of his lines, the partially deaf Gregg could not hear the approaching Federals or their bullets flying around him. He was shot and mortally wounded, dying two days later.[7]

To Meade's right, Gibbon's attack against the brigades of Brig. Gens. William Dorsey Pender and Edward L. Thomas made good progress, but Meade's and Gibbon's men became separated; by 1:30 p.m., a heavy Confederate counterattack pushed them back. Because of the foggy conditions, Federal artillery could not provide much assistance. The Union men were driven back and chased by the Confederate infantry, raising concerns that they might be trapped at the river. Eventually the divisions of Brig. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles and Brig. Gen. David B. Birney were brought up to strengthen the Federal line, and Stonewall Jackson's counterattack ground to a halt. The focus of action moved north to Marye's Heights.

The initial assaults west of Fredericksburg began at 11 a.m. as French's division moved along the Plank Road, facing a steep-banked drainage ditch and a wide, open plain of 400 yards (370 m), dominated by Confederate infantry and artillery behind a sunken road and stone wall. Earlier, Longstreet had been assured by artillerist Edward Porter Alexander, "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it." The Union men attacking had to file in columns over two small bridges across the drainage ditch, making them a massed target. Attempts to shift the attack farther to the right failed because of swampy ground. As in the south, Union artillery was prevented by fog from effectively silencing the Confederate guns.

Burnside had anticipated this attack on the right would be merely supportive of his main effort on the left, but Franklin had stalled and resisted entreaties to continue, so Burnside shifted his emphasis. After French's division was repulsed with heavy losses, Burnside sent in the divisions of Hancock and Howard, which met a similar fate. By this time, Pickett's division and one of Hood's brigades had marched north to reinforce Marye's Heights. Griffin's division renewed the attack at 3:30 p.m., followed by Humphrey's division at 4 p.m. At dusk, Getty's division assaulted from the east and was also repulsed.

Six Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time, for a total of sixteen individual charges, all of which failed, costing them from 6,000 to 8,000 casualties.[8] Watching the carnage from the center of his line, a position now known as Lee's Hill, General Lee was quoted as saying, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." The action on the heights also included the charge of the Irish Brigade, which lost 545 of its 1,300 men in the attack but advanced further up the heights than any other Union brigade. Confederate losses at Marye's Heights totaled around 1,200.[9] The falling of darkness and the pleas of Burnside's subordinates were enough to put an end to the attacks. Longstreet later wrote, "The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless."[10] Thousands of Union soldiers spent the cold December night on the fields leading to the Heights, unable to move or assist the wounded because of Confederate fire.

The armies remained in position throughout the day on December 14, when Burnside briefly considered leading his old IX Corps in one final attack on Marye's Heights, but he reconsidered. That afternoon, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which Lee graciously granted. The next day the Federal forces retreated across the river, and the campaign came to an end.

Aftermath

Burnside's headquarters at Phillips' House during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It was here that his staff generals dissuaded him from carrying on any more assaults.
Marye's House upon Marye's Heights was the center of the Confederate position during the Battle of Fredericksburg, 1862. Confederate troop encampments are visible to the right.

The casualties sustained by each army showed clearly how disastrous the Union army's tactics were, and Burnside was relieved of command a month later, following the humiliating failure of his "Mud March." The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 captured/missing).[2] Two Union generals were mortally wounded: Brig. Gens. George D. Bayard and Conrad F. Jackson. The Confederate army lost 5,377 (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured/missing),[3] most of them in the early fighting on Jackson's front. Confederate Brig. Gens. Maxcy Gregg and T. R. R. Cobb were both mortally wounded.

Testament to the extent of the carnage and suffering during the battle was the story of Richard Rowland Kirkland, a Confederate Army sergeant with Company G, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Stationed at the stone wall by the sunken road below Marye's Heights, Kirkland had a close up view to the suffering and like so many others was appalled at the cries for help of the Union wounded throughout the cold winter night of December 13, 1862. After obtaining permission from his commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, Kirkland gathered canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire or a flag of truce (refused by Kershaw), provided water to numerous Union wounded lying on the field of battle. Union soldiers held their fire as it was obvious what Kirkland's intent was. Kirkland was nicknamed the "Angel of Marye's Heights" for these actions, and is memorialized with a statue by Felix de Weldon on the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park where he carried out his actions.[11]

The South erupted in jubilation over their great victory. The Richmond Examiner described it as a "stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil." General Lee, normally reserved, was described by the Charleston Mercury as "jubilant, almost off-balance, and seemingly desirous of embracing everyone who calls on him." The newspaper also exclaimed that, "General Lee knows his business and the army has yet known no such word as fail."[12]

Reactions were opposite in the North, and both the Army and President Lincoln came under strong attacks from politicians and the press. The Cincinnati Commercial wrote, "It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day." Senator Zachariah Chandler, a Radical Republican, wrote that, "The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious blood in indecisive battles and delays." 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 bordering on insanity." Lincoln himself wrote, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it."[13]

Preservation efforts

CWPT President Jim Lighthizer at Slaughter Pen Farm

In March 2006, the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) announced the beginning of a $12 million national campaign to preserve the historic Slaughter Pen Farm, a key part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. The 205-acre (0.83 km2) farm, known locally as the Pierson Tract, was the scene of bloody struggle on December 13, 1862. Over this ground Federal troops under Maj. Gen. George Meade and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon launched their assault against Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Confederates holding the southern portion of the Army of Northern Virginia's line at Fredericksburg. Despite suffering enormous casualties the Federal troops under Meade were able to temporarily penetrate the Confederate line and for a time represented the North's best chance of winning the Battle of Fredericksburg. The fighting on this southern portion of the battlefield, later named the Slaughter Pen, produced 5,000 casualties and five Medal of Honor winners.

The Slaughter Pen Farm was considered to be the largest remaining unprotected part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. It is also the only place on the battlefield where a visitor can still follow the Union assault of December 13 from beginning to end. Nearly all the other land associated with Union attacks at Fredericksburg—either on the southern end of the battlefield or in front of Marye's Heights—has been degraded by development. The $12 million acquisition of the Slaughter Pen Farm at the Fredericksburg battlefield has been called the most ambitious nonprofit battlefield acquisition in American history.[14]

In October 2006 the Department of the Interior awarded a $2 million grant based on the significance of the Slaughter Pen Farm. The money was provided through a U.S. Congressional appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund supports non-federal efforts to acquire and preserve meaningful American Civil War battlefield lands. The program is administered by the American Battlefield Protection Program, an arm of the National Park Service. In addition, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) committed $1 million toward the Slaughter Pen Farm fundraising campaign.[14]

In popular media

The Battle of Fredericksburg was depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name. Both the novel and film focused primarily on the disastrous charges on Marye's Heights, with the movie highlighting the charges of Hancock's division, the Irish Brigade, Caldwell's and Zook's brigades, and the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ a b NPS
  2. ^ a b Eicher, p. 405.
  3. ^ a b Eicher, p. 405. Foote, p. 44, claims that this number was later acknowledged to be 4,201, based on over 1,000 men who had been considered wounded or missing returning from Christmas holidays with their families immediately after the battle. Goolrick, p. 779, agrees with this figure.
  4. ^ Eicher, p. 396-97
  5. ^ Eicher, p. 397
  6. ^ O'Reilly, p. 148.
  7. ^ O'Reilly, pp. 175-77.
  8. ^ Historians differ in reporting Union casualties in the Marye's Heights sector. Esposito, in notes for map 73, cites "over 6,000." Goolrick, p. 87, cites 7,000. Gallagher, p. 23, "nearly 8,000." All other references list total battle casualties.
  9. ^ Goolrick, pp. 83, 87. Irish Brigade casualties are also listed in O.R., Series 1, Vol. XXI, Part 1, p. 129.
  10. ^ Goolrick, p. 87.
  11. ^ O'Reilly, p. 439.
  12. ^ Goolrick, p. 92.
  13. ^ Goolrick, pp. 92-93.
  14. ^ a b Civil War Preservation Trust Announces Campaign to Save Slaughter Pen Farm

References

  • Catton, Bruce, Terrible Swift Sword: The Centennial History of the Civil War, Volume 2, Doubleday, 1963, ISBN 0-385-02614-5.
  • Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  • Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
  • Evans, Clement A., ed., Confederate Military History: A Library of Confederate States History, Atlanta: Confederate Publishing Company, 1899, Volume 3, Chapter XX.
  • Gallagher, Gary W., Ed., The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock, University of North Carolina Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8078-2193-4.
  • Goolrick, William K., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, Time-Life Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8094-4748-7.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1958, ISBN 0-394-49517-9.
  • O'Reilly, Francis Augustín, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, Louisiana State University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8071-3154-7.
  • Tucker, Spencer C., "First Battle of Fredericksburg", Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Heidler, David S., and Heidler, Jeanne T., eds., W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN 0-393-04758-X.
  • U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901, Series 1, Vol. XXI, Part 1.
  • National Park Service battle description

External links

Coordinates: 38°17′58″N 77°28′14″W / 38.2995°N 77.4705°W / 38.2995; -77.4705


Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010
(Redirected to The Battle of Fredericksburg article)

From Wikisource

The Battle of Fredericksburg
by James Longstreet
Published in The Century Magazine. Vol. XXXII. August 1886, No. 4.
Confederate soldier with blanket-capote and raw-hide mocassins.

In the early fall of 1862, a distance of not more than thirty miles lay between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of North Virginia. A state of uncertainty had existed for several weeks succeeding the battle of Sharpsburg, but the movements which resulted in the battle of Fredericksburg began to take shape when on the 5th of November the order was issued that removed General McClellan from command of the Federal forces and installed General Burnside in that position.

The order assigning General Burnside to command was received at General Lee's headquarters, then at Culpepper Court House, about twenty-four hours after it reached Warrenton, though not through official courtesy. General Lee, on receiving the news, said he regretted to part with McClellan, "For," he added, "we always understood each other so well, I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don't understand."

The Federal Army was encamped around Warrenton, Virginia, and was soon divided into three grand divisions whose commanders were Generals Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin.

Lee's army was on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River, divided into two corps, the First commanded by myself and the Second commanded by General Stonewall Jackson. At that time the Confederate Army extended from Culpepper Court House (where the First Corps was stationed) on it right across the Blue Ridge down the Valley of Virginia to Winchester. There Jackson was encamped with the Second Corps, except one division which was stationed at Chester Gap on the Blue Ridge Mountains.

About the 18th or 19th of November, we received information through our scouts that Sumner with his grand division of more than thirty thousand men, was moving towards Fredericksburg. Evidently he intended to surprise us and cross the Rappahannock before we could offer resistance. On receipt of the information, two of my divisions were ordered down to meet him. We made a forced march and arrived on the hills around Fredericksburg about three o'clock on the afternoon of the 21st. Sumner had already arrived and his army was encamped on Stafford Heights, overlooking the town from the Federal side. Before I reached Fredericksburg, General Patrick, provost-marshal general, crossed the river under a flag of truce and put the people in a state of great excitement by delivering the following letter:

"HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, November 21st 1862.
"TO THE MAYOR AND COMMON COUNCIL OF FREDERICKSBURG, GENTLEMEN: Under cover of the houses of your city shots have been fired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and by the direction of General Burnside I accordingly demand the surrender of your city into my hands, as the representative of the government of the United States, at or before five o'clock this afternoon. Failing in an affirmative reply to this demand by the hour indicated, sixteen hours will be permitted to elaspse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, etc., which period having expired, I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city every necessary means will be taken to preserve order and secure the protective operation of the laws of the United States government.
"I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
"E. V. Sumner,
"Brevet Major General U. S. Army, Commanding Right Grand Division."
Rappahannock-a.jpg
Fredericksburg from the east bank of the Rappahannock.

While the people were in a state of excitement over the receipt of this demand for the surrender of their town, my troops appeared on the heights opposite those occupied by the Federals. The alarmed non-combatants heard of my arrival and immediately sent to me the demand of the Federal general. I stated to the town authorities that I did not care to occupy the place for military purposes and there was no reason why it should be shelled by the Federal army. We were there to protect ourselves against the advance of the enemy, and could not allow the town to be occupied by the Federals. The mayor sent to General Sumner a satisfactory statement of the situation and was notified that the threatened shelling would not take place, as the Confederates did not propose to make the town a base of military operations.

Before my troops reached the little city, and before the people of Fredericksburg knew that any part of the Confederate army was near; there was great excitement over the demand for surrender. No people were in the place except aged and infirm men, and women and children. That they should become alarmed when the surrender of the town was demanded by the Federals was quite natural, and a number proceeded with great haste to board a train then ready to leave. In a tremor of excitement the people were steaming out, when Sumner's batteries on Stafford Heights opened fire on the train and added to the general terror. Fortunately this firing on the fleeing non-combatants resulted in no serious damage. The spectacle was nothing, however, to what we witnessed a short time after. About the 26th or 27th it became evident that Fredericksburg would be the scene of a battle, and we advised the people who were still in the town to prepare to leave, as they would soon be in danger if they remained. The evacuation of the place by the distressed women and helpless men was a painful sight. Many were almost destitute and had nowhere to go, but yielding to the cruel necessities of war, they collected their effects and turned their backs on the town. Many were forced to seek shelter in the woods and brave the icy November nights to escape the approaching assault from the Federal army.

Very soon after I reached Fredericksburg the remainder of my corps arrived from Culpepper Court House, and Jackson was drawn down from the Blue Ridge as soon as it known that the Army of the Potomac was in motion for the prospective scene of battle. In a very short time, the Army of Northern Virginia was face to face with the Army of the Potomac.

When Jackson arrived he objected to the position, not that he feared the result of the battle, but because he though behind the North Anna was a point from which the most fruitful results would follow. He held that we would win a victory at Fredericksburg, but it would be a fruitless one to us, whereas at North Anna, when we drove the Federals back, we could give pursuit to advantage, which we could not do at Fredericksburg. General Lee did not entertain the proposition, however, and we continued our preparations to meet the enemy at the latter place.[1]

Hays's brigade of Stonewall Jackson's Corps, at Hamilton's Crossing.

At a point just above the town, a range of hills begins, extending from the river edge out a short distance and bearing around the valley somewhat in the form of a crescent. On the opposite side are the noted Stafford Heights, then occupied by the Federals. At the foot of these hills flows the Rappahannock River. On the Confederate side nestled Fredericksburg, and around it stretched the fertile bottoms from which fine crops had been gathered and upon which the Federal troops were to mass and give battle to the Confederates. On the Confederate side nearest the river was Taylor's Hill, and south of it the now famous Marye's Hill; next, Telegraph Hill, the highest of the elevations on the Confederate side and later known as Lee's Hill, because during the battle General Lee was most of the time there where I had my headquarters in the field; next was a declination through which Deep Run creek passed on its way to the Rappahannock River; and next was the gentle elevation at Hamilton's Crossing, which had never been dignified with a name, but upon which Stonewall Jackson massed thirty thousand men. It was upon these hills that the Confederates made their preparations to receive Burnside whenever he might choose to cross the Rappahannock. The Confederates were stationed as follows: On Taylor's Hill next the river and forming my left, R. H. Anderson's division; on Marye's Hill, Ransom's and McLaws's division; on Telegraph Hill, Pickett's division; to the right and about Deep Run creek, Hood's division, the latter stretching across Deep Run bottom.

On the hill occupied by Jackson's corps were the divisions of A. P. Hill, Early, and Taliaferro, that of D. H. Hill being in reserve on the extreme right. To the Washington artillery, on Marye's Hill, was assigned the service of advising the army at the earliest possible moment of the Federal's advance. General Barksdale, with his Mississippi brigade, was on picket duty in front of Fredericksburg on the night of the advance.

The hills occupied by the Confederate forces, although overcrowned by the heights of Stafford, were so distant as to be outside the range of effective fire by the Federal guns, and, with the lower receding grounds between them, formed a defensive series that may be likened to natural bastions. Taylor's Hill was unassailable; Marye's Hill was more advanced towards the town, was of a graded ascent, and of less height than the others, and we considered it the point most assailable, and guarded it accordingly.The events which followed proved the correctness of our opinion on that point. Lee's Hill, with its rugged sides retired from Marye's and rising higher than its companions, was comparatively safe.

This was the situation of the sixty-five thousand Confederates massed around Fredericksburg, and they had twenty odd days in which to prepare for the approaching battle.

The Federals on Stafford Heights carefully matured their plans of advance and attack. General Hunt, chief of artillery, skillfully posted one hundred and forty-seven guns to cover the bottoms upon which the infantry was to form for the attack, and at the same time play upon the Confederate batteries as circumstances would allow. Franklin and Hooker had joined Sumner, and Stafford Heights held the federal army, a hundred and twenty thousand strong, watching with eagle eyes the plain where the bloody conflict was soon to be. In the mean time the Federals had figured along the banks of the river, looking for the most available points for crossing. President Lincoln had been down with General Halleck, and it had been suggested by the latter to cross at Hoop-Pole Ferry, about twenty-eight or thirty miles below Fredericksburg. We discovered the movement, however, and prepared to meet it, and Burnside abandoned the idea and turned his attention to Fredericksburg, under the impression that many of our troops were down at Hoop-Pole, too far away to return in time for his battle.[2]

The soldiers of both armies were in good fighting condition, and there was every indication that we would have a desperate battle. We were confident that Burnside could not dislodge us, and patiently awaited the attack.

Barksdale's Mississippians opposing the laying of the pontoon bridges.

On the morning of the 11th of December, 1862, an hour or so before daylight, the slumbering Confederates were awakened by a solitary cannon thundering on the heights of Marye's Hill. Again it boomed, and instantly the aroused Confederates recognized the signal of the Washington artillery and knew that the Federal troops were preparing to cross the Rappahannock and give us the expected battle. The Federals came down to the river's edge and began the construction of their bridges, when Barksdale opened fire with such effect that they were forced to retire. Again and again they made an effort to cross, but each time they met the well-directed bullets of the Mississippians, until their boats and the river were strewn with corpses. Until one o'clock this contest lasted, when the Federals, with angry desperation, turned their whole force of artillery on the little city, and sent down from the heights a perfect storm of shot and shell, crushing the houses with a cyclone of fiery metal. From our position on the heights, we saw the batteries hurling an avalanche upon the town whose only offense was that near its edge in a snug retreat nestled three thousand Confederate hornets that were stinging the Army of the Potomac into a frenzy. It was terrific, the pandemonium which that little squad of Confederates had provoked. The town caught fire in several places, shells crashed and burst, and solid shot rained like hail. In the midst of the successive crashes could be heard the shouts and yells of those engaged in the struggle, while the smoke rose from the burning city and the flames leaped about, making a scene which can never be effaced from the memory of those who saw it. But in the midst of all this fury, the little brigade of Mississippians clung to their work. At last, when I had everything in readiness, I sent a peremptory order to Barksdale to withdraw, which he did, fighting as he retired before the Federals, who had by that time succeeded in landing a number of their troops. The Federals then constructed their pontoons without molestation, and the grand division of Sumner passed over into Fredericksburg.

About a mile and a half below the town, where the Deep Run empties into the Rappahannock, General Franklin had been allowed without serious opposition to throw up two pontoon bridges, and his grand division passed over and massed on the level bottoms opposite Hamilton's Crossing, thus placing himself in front of Stonewall Jackson's corps. The 11th and 12th were thus spent by the Federals in crossing the river and preparing for battle.

Opposite Fredericksburg, the formation along the river bank was such that the Federals were concealed in their approaches, and, availing themselves of this advantage, they succeeded in crossing and concealing the grand division of Sumner and, later, a part of Hooker's grand division in the city of Fredericksburg, and so disposing of Franklin in the open plain below as to give out the impression that the great force was with the latter and about to oppose Jackson.

Before daylight on the morning of the eventful 13th, I rode to the right of my line held by Hood's division. General Hood was at his post in plain hearing of the Federals south of Deep Run, who were marching their troops into position for the attack. The morning was cold and misty, and everything was obscured from view, but so distinctly did the mist bear to us the sounds of the moving Federals that Hood thought the advance was against him. He was relieved, however, when I assured him that the enemy, to reach him, would have to put himself in a pocket and be subjected to attack from Jackson on one side, Pickett and McLaws on the other, and Hood's own men in front. The position of Franklin's men on the 12th with the configuration of the ground had left no doubt in my mind as to Franklin's intentions. I explained all this to Hood, assuring him that the attack would be on Jackson. At the same time I ordered Hood, in case Jackson's line was broken, to wheel around to his right and strike in on the attacking bodies, telling him that Pickett, with his division, would be ordered to join in the flank movement. These orders were given to both division generals, and at the same time they were advised that I would be attacked near my left center, and that I must be at that point to meet my part of the battle. They were also advised that my position was so well defended I could have no other need of their troops. I then returned to Lee's Hill, reaching there soon after sunrise.

Thus we stood at the eve of the great battle. Along the Stafford Heights a hundred and forty-seven guns were turned on us, and on the level plain below, in the town, and hidden on the opposite bank ready to cross, nearly a hundred thousand men were assembled, eager to begin the combat. Secure in our hills, we grimly awaited the onslaught. The valley, the mountain-tops, everything was enveloped in the thickest fog, and the preparation for the fight was made as if under cover of night. The mist brought to us the sounds of the preparation for battle, but we were blind to the movements of the Federals. Suddenly, at ten o'clock, as if the elements were taking a hand in the drama about to be enacted, the warmth of the sun brushed the mist away and revealed the mighty panorama in the valley below.

Franklin's forty thousand men, reënforced by two divisions of Hooker's grand division, were in front of Jackson's thirty thousand. The flags of the Federals fluttered gayly, the polished arms shone brightly in the sunlight, and the beautiful uniforms of the buoyant troops gave to the scene the air of a holiday occasion rather than the spectacle of a great army about to be thrown into the tumult of battle. From my place on Lee's Hill I could see almost every soldier Franklin had, and a splendid array it was. But off in the distance was Stuart's battered cavalry, with their soiled hats and yellow butternut suits, a striking contrast to the handsomely equipped troops of the Federals.

Brigadier-General Marcy Gregg of Jackson's Corps.
(From a portrait by George S. Cook.)

About the city, here and there, a few soldiers could be seen, but there was no indication of the heavy masses that were concealed by the houses. But there was no indication of the heavy masses that were concealed by the houses. Those of Franklin's men who were in front of Jackson stretched well up towards Lee's Hill, and were almost in reach of our best guns, and at the other end they stretched out in the east until they came well under the fire of Stuart's horse artillery under Major John Pelham, a brave and gallant officer almost a boy in years. As the mist rose, the Confederates saw the movement against their right near Hamilton's crossing. Major Pelham opened fire upon Franklin's command and gave him lively work, which was kept up until Jackson ordered him to retire. Franklin then advanced rapidly to the hill where Jackson's troops had been stationed, filling the woods with shot as he progressed. Silently Jackson awaited the approach of the Federals until they were within good range, and then he opened a terrific fire which threw the Federals into some confusion. The enemy again massed and advanced, pressing through a gap between Archer and Lane. This broke Jackson's line and threatened very serious trouble. The Federals who had wedged themselves in through that gap came upon Gregg's brigade, and then the severe encounter ensued in which the latter general was mortally wounded. Archer and Lane very soon received reinforcements and, rallying, joined in the counter-attack and recovered their lost ground. The concentration of Taliaferro's and Early's divisions against this attack was too much for it, and the counter-attack drove the Federals back to the railroad and beyond the reach of our guns on the left. Some of our troops following up this repulse got too far out, and were in turn much discomfited when left to the enemy's superior numbers, and were obliged to retire in poor condition. A Federal brigade advancing under cover of Deep Run was discovered at this time and attacked by regiments of Pender's and Law's brigades, the former of A. P. Hill's and the latter of Hood's division, and Jackson's second line advancing, the Federals were forced to retire. This series of demonstrations and attacks, the partial success and final discomfiture of the Federals, constitute the hostile movements between the Confederate right and the Federal left.

Welford's Mill on Hazel Run and the Telegraph Road.
(From a war-time photograph.)
The southern slope of Willis's Hill is seen in the background.

I have described in the opening of this article, the situation of the Confederate left. In front of Marye's Hill is a plateau, and immediately at the base of the hill there is a sunken road known as the Telegraph road. On the side of the road next to the town was a stone wall, shoulder high, against which the earth was banked, forming an almost unapproachable defense. It was impossible for the troops occupying it to expose more than a small portion of their bodies. Behind this stone wall I had placed about twenty-five hundred men, being all of General T. R. R. Cobb's brigade, and a portion of the brigade of General Kershaw, both of McLaws's division. It must now be understood that the Federals, to reach what appeared to be my weakest point, would have to pass directly over this wall held by Cobb's infantry.

Confederate works on Willis's Hill, now the site of a national cemetery.
(From a war-time photograph.)

An idea of how well Marye's Hill was protected may be obtained from the following incident. General E. P. Alexander, my engineer and superintendent of artillery, had been placing the guns, and in going over the field with him before the battle, I noticed an idle cannon. I suggested that he place it so as to aid in covering the plain in front of Marye's Hill. He answered, "General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as if with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."

A little before noon, I sent orders to all my batteries to open fire through the streets or at any points where the troops were seen about the city, as a diversion in favor of Jackson. The fire began at once to develop the work in hand for myself. The Federal troops filed out of the city like bees out of a hive, coming in double-quick march, and filling the edge of the field in front of Cobb. This was just where we had expected attack and I was prepared to meet it. As the troops massed before us, they were much annoyed by the fire of our batteries. The field was literally packed with Federals from the vast number of troops that had been massed in the town. From the moment of their appearance began the most fearful carnage. With our artillery from our front, right, and left tearing through their ranks, the Federals pressed forward with almost invincible determination, maintaining their steady step and closing up their broken ranks. Thus resolutely they marched upon the stone fence behind where quietly awaited the Confederate brigade of General Cobb. As the Federals came within reach of this brigade, a storm of lead was poured into their advancing ranks and they were swept from the field like chaff before the wind. A cloud of smoke shut out the scene for a moment, and, rising, revealed the shattered fragments recoiling from their gallant but hopeless charge. The artillery still plowed through the ranks of the retreating Federals and sought the places of concealment into which the troops had plunged. A vast number went pell-mell into an old railroad cut, to escape fire from the right and front. A battery on Lee's Hill saw this and turned its fire into the entire length of the cut, and the shells began to pour down upon the Federals with the most frightful destruction. They found their position of refuge more uncomfortable than the field of the assault.

Thus the right grand division of the Army of the Potomac found itself repulsed and shattered on its first attempt to drive us from Marye's Hill. Hardly was this attack off the field before we saw the determined Federals again filing out of Fredericksburg and preparing for another charge. The Confederates under Cobb reserved their fire and quietly awaited the approach of the enemy. The Federals came nearer than before, but were forced to retire before the well-directed guns of Cobb's brigade and the fire of the artillery on the heights. By that time the field in front of Cobb was thickly strewn with the dead and dying Federals, but again they formed with desperate courage and renewed the attack and were again driven off. At each attack the slaughter was so great that by the time the third attack was repulsed, the ground was so thickly strewn with the dead that the bodies seriously impeded the approach of the Federals. General Lee, who was with me on Lee's Hill, became uneasy when he saw the attacks so promptly renewed and pushed forward with such persistence, and feared the Federals might break through our line. After the third charge he said to me: "General, they are massing very heavily and will break your line, I am afraid." "General," I replied, "if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line. Look to your right; you are in some danger there, but not on my line."

I think the fourth time the Federals came, a gallant fellow reached within one hundred feet of Cobb's position and then fell. Close behind him came some few scattering ones, but they were either killed or fled from certain death.[3] The charge was the only effort that looked like any real danger to Cobb, and after it was repulsed I felt no apprehension, assuring myself that there were enough of the dead Federals on the field to give me half the battle. The anxiety shown by General Lee, however, induced me to bring up two or three brigades, to be on hand, and General Kershaw was ordered, with the remainder of his brigade, down to the stone wall, but rather to carry ammunition than as a reënforcement for Cobb. Kershaw dashed down the declivity in time to succeed Cobb, who fell from a wound in the thigh and died in a few minutes from loss of blood.

A fifth time the Federals formed and charged and were repulsed. A sixth time they charged and were driven back, when night came to end the dreadful carnage, and the Federals withdrew, leaving the battle-field literally heaped with the bodies of their dead. Before the well-directed fire of Cobb's brigade, the Federals had fallen like the steady dripping of rain from the eaves of a house. Our musketry alone had killed and wounded at least five thousand; and these, with the slaughter by the artillery, left over seven thousand dead and wounded by the foot of Marye's Hill. The dead were piled sometimes three deep, and when morning broke, the spectacle that we saw upon the battle-field was one of the most distressing I have ever witnessed. The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless. I thought, as I saw the Federals come again and again to their death, that they deserved success if courage and daring could entitle soldiers to victory.

During the night, a Federal strayed beyond his lines and was taken up by some of my troops. On searching him, we found on his person a memorandum of General Burnside's arrangement, and an order for the renewal of the battle the next day. This information was sent to General Lee, and immediately orders were given for a line of rifle-pits on the top of Marye's Hill for Ransom, who had been held somewhat in reserve, and for other guns to be pitted on Taylor's Hill.

We were on our lines before daylight, anxious to receive General Burnside again. As the gray of the morning came without the battle, we became more anxious;yet, as the Federal forces retained position during the 14th and 15th, we were not without hope. There was some little skirmishing, but it did not amount to anything. But when the full light of the next morning revealed an abandoned field, General Lee turned to me, referring in his mind to the dispatch I had captured and which he had just reread, and said: "General, I am losing confidence in your friend General Burnside." We then put it down for a decoy sent into our lines. Afterwards, however, we learned that the order was made in good faith but changed in consequence of the demoralized condition of the grand divisions in front of Marye's Hill. During the night of the 15th, the Federal troops withdrew, and on the 16th our lines were reestablished along the river.[4]

I have heard that General Hooker said, referring to the attack at Marye's Hill while it was in progress, "There has been enough blood shed to satisfy any reasonable man, and it is time to quit." I think myself it was fortunate for Burnside that he had no greater success, for the meeting with such discomfiture gave him an opportunity to get back safely. If he had made any progress, his loss would probably have been greater.

Such was the battle of Fredericksburg as I saw it. It has been asked why we did not follow up the victory. The answer is plain. It goes without saying that the battle of the First Corps, concluded after nightfall, could not have been changed into offensive operations. Our line was about three miles long, extending over hill and dale through woodland. An attempt at concentration to throw the troops against the walls of the city that hour of the night would have been little better than madness. The Confederate field was arranged for defensive battle. Its abrupt termination could not have been anticipated, nor could any skill have marshaled our troops for offensive operations in time to meet the emergency. My line was long and over very broken country, so much so that the troops could not be promptly handled offensively. Jackson's corps was in mass, and could he have anticipated the result of my battle, he would have been justified in pressing Franklin to the river when the battle of the latter was lost. Otherwise, pursuit would have been as unwise as the attack he had just driven off. The Federal batteries on Stafford Heights were effectively posted to protect their troops against our advance, and Franklin would have been in good defensive position against attack on the next day. It is well known that after driving off attacking forces, if immediate pursuit can be made so that the victors can go along with the retreating forces pell-mell, it is well enough to do so; but the attack should be immediate. To follow success by counter-attack against the enemy in position is problematical. In the case of the armies at Fredericksburg it would have been, to say the least, very hazardous to give counter-attack, the Federal position being about as strong as ours from which we had driven them back. Attempts to break up an army by following on its line of retreat are often hazardous and rarely successful, while movements around, threatening the flanks and rear, increase the demoralization and offer better opportunities for great results.

The condition of a retreating army may be illustrated by a little incident witnessed thirty years ago on the western plains of Texas. A soldier of my regiment essayed to capture a rattlesnake. Being pursued, the reptile took refuge in a prairie-dog's hole, turning his head as he entered it, to defend the sally-port. The soldier coming up in time, seized the tail as it was in the act of passing under cover, and at the same instant the serpent seized the index finger of the soldier's hand. The result was the soldier lost the use of his finger. The wise serpent made successful retreat, and may to this day be the chief ruler and patriarch of the rattlesnake tribe on our western plains. The rear of a retreating army is always its best guarded point.

During the attack upon General Jackson, and immediately after his line was broken, General Pickett rode up to General Hood and suggested that the movement anticipated by my orders was at hand, and requested that it be executed. Hood did not agree, so the opportunity was allowed to pass. Had Hood spring to the occasion we would have enveloped Franklin's command, and might possibly have marched it into the Confederate camp. Hood commanded splendid troops, quite fresh and eager for occasion to give renewed assurances of their mettle.

It has been reported that the troops attacking Marye's Hill were intoxicated, having been plied with whisky to nerve them to the desperate attack. This can hardly be true. I know nothing of the facts, but no sensible commander will allow his troops strong drink upon going into battle. After a battle is over, the soldier's gill is usually allowed if it is at hand. No troops could have displayed greater courage and resolution than was shown by those brought against Marye's Hill. But they miscalculated the wonderful strength of the brigade behind the stone fence. The position held by Cobb surpassed courage and resolution and was occupied by those who knew well how to hold a comfortable defense.

After the retreat, General Lee went to Richmond to suggest other operations, but was assured that the war was virtually over, and that we need not harass our troops by marches and other hardships. Gold had advanced in New York to two hundred, and we were assured by those at the Confederate capital that in thirty or forty days we would be recognized and peace proclaimed. General Lee did not share in this belief.

I have been asked if Burnside could have been victorious at Fredericksburg. Such a thing was hardly possible. Perhaps no general could have accomplished more than Burnside did, and it was possible for him to have suffered greater loss. The battle of Fredericksburg was a great and unprofitable sacrifice of human life made, through the pressure from the rear, against a general who should have known better and who doubtless acted against his judgment. If I had been in General Burnside's place, I would have asked the President to allow me to resign rather than execute his order to force the passage of the river and march the army against Lee in his stronghold.

Viewing the battle after the lapse of more than twenty years, I may say, however, that Burnside's move might have been made stronger by throwing two of his grand divisions across at the mouth of Deep Run, where Franklin crossed with his grand division and six brigades of Hooker's. Had he thus placed Hooker and Sumner, his sturdiest fighters, and made resolute assault with them in his attack on our right, he would in all probability have given us trouble. The partial success he had at that point might have been pushed vigorously by such a force and might have thrown our right entirely from position, in which event the result would have depended on the skillful handling of the forces. Franklin's grand division could have made sufficient sacrifice at Marye's Hill and come as near success as did Sumner's and two-thirds of Hooker's, combined. I think, however, that the success would have been on our side, and it might have been followed by greater disaster on the side of the Federals; still they would have had the chance of a possible success in their favor, while in the battle as fought it can hardly be claimed that there was a chance.

Burnside made a mistake from the first. He should have gone from Warrenton to Chester Gap. He might then have held Jackson and fought me, or have held me and fought Jackson, thus taking us in detail. The doubt about the matter was whether or not he could have caught me in that trap before we could concentrate. At any rate, that was the only move on the board that could have benefited him at the time he was assigned to the command of the Army of the Potomac. By interposing between the corps of Lee's army, he would have secured strong ground and advantage of position. With skill equal to the occasion, he should have had success. This was the move about which we felt serious apprehension, and were occupying our minds with plans to meet it, when the move towards Fredericksburg was reported.

General McClellan, in an account recently published, speaks of this move as that upon which he was studying when the order for Burnside's assignment to command reached him. When Burnside determined to move by Fredericksburg, he should have moved rapidly and occupied the city at once, but this would only have forced us back to the plan preferred by General Jackson.

Notes

  1. ^  That General Lee was not quite satisfied with the place of battle is shown by a dispatch to the Richmond authorities on the second day after the battle, when it was uncertain what Burnside's next move would be. In that dispatch he says, "Should the enemy cross at Port Royal in force, before I can get this army in position to meet him, I think it more advantageous to retire to the Annas and give battle, than on the banks of the Rappahannock. My design was to have done so in first instance. My purpose was changed not from any advantage of this position, but from an unwillingness to open more of our country to depredation than possible, and also with a view of collecting such forage and provisions as could be obtained in the Rappahannock Valley. With the numerous army opposed to me, and the bridges and transportation at its command, the crossing of the Rappahannock, where it is as narrow and winding as in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, can be made at almost any point without molestation. It will, therefore, be more advantageous to us to draw him farther away from his base of operations."—EDITOR.
  2. ^  It is more than probable that Burnside accepted the proposition to move by Hoop-Pole Ferry for the purpose of drawing some of our troops from the points he had really selected for his crossing.—L. J.
  3. ^  In his official report General McLaws says: "The body of one man believed to be an officer was found within about thirty yards of the stone wall, and other single bodies were scattered at increased distances until the main mass of the dead lay thickly strewn over the ground at something over one hundred yards off, and extending to the ravine, commencing at the point where our men would allow the enemy's column to approach before opening fire, and beyond which no organized body of men was able to pass."—EDITOR.
  4. ^ General Lee explained officially, as follows, why he expected the attack would be resumed: "The attack on the 13th had been so easily repulsed, and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to an attempt which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations and the extent of his force, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. Believing, therefore, that he would attack us, it was not deemed expedient to lose the advantages of our position and expose the troops to the fire of his inaccessible batteries beyond the river, by advancing against him; but we were necessarily ignorant of the extent to which he had suffered, and only became aware of it when, on the morning of the 16th, it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of night, and the prevalence of a violent storm of wind and rain, to recross the river. The town was immediately reoccupied and our position on the river bank resumed.—EDITOR.







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