Battle History



                                                            

                                       FREDERICKSBURG, VA.
                                        DEC. 13TH, 1862

                    Fredericksburg, Va., Dec. 13, 1862.  Army of the Potomac
                After the battle of Antietam, on Sept. 17, both the Union and
                Confederate armies remained inactive for nearly two months.
                Lee retired to Bunker Hill and Winchester, Va., where he
                undertook the work of recruiting and reorganizing his
                shattered army.  McClellan was engaged during this time in
                guarding the line of the Potomac, to prevent another attempt
                on the part of the Confederates to move northward, and in
                reorganizing and equipping his forces.  On Nov. 7, he was
                relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac and Maj.-
                Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside appointed to succeed him.  One of,
                the first acts of the new commander was to organize the army
                into three grand divisions.  The Right grand division,
                commanded by Maj.-Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, consisted of the 2nd
                and 9th corps, the former commanded by Maj.-Gen. Darius N.
                Couch and the latter by Brig.-Gen. Orlando B. Willcox, and the
                cavalry division of two brigades, under the command of Brig.-
                Gen. Alfred Pleasonton.  The Center grand division was
                commanded by Maj.-Gen. Joseph Hooker and was made up of the
                3rd and 5th corps and the cavalry division of Brig.-Gen. W. W.
                Averell.  The 3rd corps was commanded by Brig.-Gen. George
                Stoneman and the 5th by Brig.-Gen. Daniel Butterfield.  The
                Left grand division, commanded by Maj.-Gen. William B.
                Franklin, consisted of the 1st corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen.
                John F. Reynolds, the 6th corps, Maj.-Gen. William F. Smith,
                and the cavalry division commanded by Brig.-Gen. George D.
                Bayard.  With the army were about 70 field batteries, the
                entire army numbering, according to Burnside's report for Dec.
                 10, 116,683 men.  Lee's army now numbered about 78,500 men and
                was divided into two corps.  The 1st, commanded by Lieut.-Gen.
                James Longstreet was composed of the divisions of McLaws,
                Anderson, Pickett, Hood and Ransom, and the 2nd corps, under
                the command of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, consisted of the
                divisions of D. H. and A. P. Hill, Ewell, and Jackson's old
                division, now commanded by Gen. W. B. Taliaferro.

Burnside's plan was to establish a base of supplies on the Potomac, at or near Acquia creek, and then move against Richmond by the way of Fredericksburg. In telegraphing the president's acceptance of this plan Gen. Halleck added: "He thinks it will succeed if you move rapidly; otherwise not." This telegram was received by Burnside at his headquarters at Warrenton, Va., a little while before noon on Nov. 14. The war department promised to send a sufficient number of pontoons to Fredericksburg to enable the army to cross the Rappahannock, and early on the 15th, the army was put in motion for Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, Sumner's command forming the advance. Sumner reached Falmouth on the I7th, and the rest of the army two days later. At that time there was only a small Confederate force at Fredericksburg, and the intention was that Sumner should cross the river and take possession of the heights back of the town before Lee could reinforce the garrison. But the promised pontoons had not arrived, the river could not be forded by a large army, and the railroad and turnpike bridges had been destroyed by the enemy. There was nothing to do but wait. Hooker and Sumner both wanted to cross the river at some point above or below the town, but Burnside deemed it inexpedient to hazard such a movement, until the entire army was ready. The pontoons did not arrive until the 25th, and several days more elapsed before they could be placed in position. Any one familiar with the military character of Lee can readily imagine that he was not idle during this period. The day that Sumner reached Falmouth the Federal plan was made apparent to the Confederate commander, who immediately ordered McLaws' and Ransom's divisions to Fredericksburg. On the 19th the rest of Longstreet's corps was ordered up and on the 26th, Jackson, whose command was then in the vicinity of Orange Court House, was directed to join Longstreet. The river for some distance above and below the town was guarded by cavalry, D. H. Hill was sent to Port Royal, a few miles further down, to prevent the Federal gunboats from landing supplies there, and by the time that Burnside was ready to cross Lee's whole force was entrenched on the heights in the rear of Fredericksburg, his lines extending from about a mile and a half above the town to the Richmond railroad below. In his report Burnside says: "By this time (Nov. 25) the enemy had concentrated a large force on the opposite side of the river, so that it became necessary to make arrangements to cross in the face of a vigilant and formidable foe. These arrangements were not completed until about Dec. 10.

Fredericksburg lies on the right bank of the Rappahannock in a bend, the general course of the river at this point being southeast. The heights on the Fredericksburg side approach near the river at Beck's island, a short distance above Falmouth, and extend in a semicircular form to the Massaponax river, about 6 miles below the town. On the opposite bank are the Stafford heights, running almost parallel with the stream, and at no great distance from it. About a mile below Fredericksburg a little creek called Deep run flows into the Rappahannock from the southwest, the widest part of the valley being along this stream. Burnside had laid his plans to cross the Rappahannock at a place called Skinker's neck, some 12 miles below the town, but Lee became aware of his intentions and concentrated a strong force in that neighborhood, thus forcing the Union general to change his designs, almost at the beginning of the campaign. His reasons for this change are besttold in the language of his official report: "I discovered that the enemy had thrown a large portion of his force down the river and elsewhere, thus weakening his defenses in front, and I thought I also discovered that did not anticipate the crossing of our whole force at Fredericksburg; and I hoped, by rapidly throwing the whole command over at that place to separate, by a vigorous attack, the forces of the enemy on the river below from the forces behind and on the crests in the rear of the town, in which case we should fight him with great advantages in our favor." To carry out this plan it was determined to throw two pontoon bridges across the river near the Lacy house, at the upper end of the town, one a short distance below the railroad bridge, and one or two about a mile further down. On the night of Dec. 10, the pontoons were taken to the designated places, and 147 pieces of artillery ranged along Stafford heights to cover the crossing. About 4 a.m. on the 11th, work was commenced on the bridges near the town and everything proceeded well until dawn, when the pontoniers were driven from their work by a brisk fire from a body of Confederate sharpshooters sheltered by a line of rifle-pits and concealed in the houses along the river bank. About 6 o'clock work was resumed, but again the men were forced to retire before the fire of the sharpshooters.

As early as Nov. 21, Gen. Sumner had notified the mayor of Fredericksburg that the town would be shelled if the Confederates were permitted to occupy it for military purposes, and after the second repulse of the pontoniers the artillery was directed to open fire on the town. Several batteries accordingly began shelling the houses that sheltered the riflemen, and at the same time the 7th Mich. and 19th Mass. were sent over in pontoons. Under cover of the artillery they charged up the bank and chased the sharpshooters from their hiding places. The bridges were then finished without further interruption and before dark Sumner's grand division and part of Hooker's had crossed. Franklin met with no opposition at the lower bridges and that evening the greater part of his grand division was on the south side of the Rappahannock. On the 12th, all the army was crossed over, with the exception of Stoneman's and Butterfield's corps, which were held in a position to reinforce any part of the line that might require assistance and to keep open the line of retreat in case it became necessary to retire. From official reports and published accounts it would seem that no definite plan of battle had been decided on until after the troops were over the river. Burnside says: "By the night of the 12th, the troops were all in position, and I visited the different commands with a view to determining as to future movements."

Near the south end of the ridge, on which the enemy was entrenched, a road led from the old Richmond stage road and crossed the railroad at a place known as Hamilton's crossing. From Fredericksburg the plank road ran in a southwesterly direction to Orange Court House. Near the foot of the heights the Telegraph road left the plank road and crossed the ridge farther south. The Confederates had opened a road in the rear of the crest, running from the Telegraph road to Hamilton's crossing, and further north the canal ran along the foot of the ridge. The plan finally adopted was for Franklin on the left to march down the Richmond road and seize the heights near Hamilton's crossing; Sumner was to move out on the plank road to the intersection of the Telegraph road, there divide his forces "with a view to seizing the heights in the rear of the town;" Hooker was ordered to place Butterfield's corps and Whipple's division of Stoneman's in position to cross at the three upper bridges to support Sumner, and the remaining divisions of Stoneman's corps at the lower bridge to cross over and support Franklin.

At daylight on Saturday morning, Dec. 13, a dense fog hung in the valley, completely concealing the movements of the two armies from each other. Toward 10 o'clock this fog lifted and Franklin began his advance Smith's corps formed the right, with Brooks' division on the right, Howe's on the left and Newton's in reserve. Gibbon's division of Reynolds' corps touched Howe's left, Meade's was formed at almost right angles to the main line of battle and facing to the left. Confronting this part of the Union line were the divisions of Ewell, (now commanded by Brig.-Gen. Jubal A. Early) D. H. and A. P. Hill and Taliaferro, occupying the wooded slopes of the hill, and Hood's division stretched across the Deep run valley west of the railroad. D. H. Hill's division overlapped the Union left, and as soon as Meade began to move against the Confederate lines he was met by an artillery fire in front and on the left flank, compelling him to fall back. Doubleday's division was thrown against the batteries on the flank and gained some ground, but the artillery was well supported and could not be dislodged. Three batteries were then ordered to Doubleday's support and after a terrific fire of nearly an hour the Confederate guns were silenced. Meade then opened a fierce artillery fire on the woods in his front, and as this met with no response he pushed his line forward. It happened that his advance struck a piece of boggy ground, which the enemy had deemed impassable, and had caused a gap to be left in the line. Into this opening the Union column now forced its way, sweeping back the enemy on the right and left, and gaining the military road in the rear of the crest. Here part of the second Confederate line was thrown into confusion, but part of Gregg's brigade of A. P. Hill's division withstood the shock and held the Federals in check until Early could come up with reinforcements. When Meade made his rush he expected to be supported by Gibbon, but the latter was delayed and Meade found himself almost surrounded by a force outnumbering his own two to one. Hood hurried part of his command to that part of the field, checking Gibbon as he came up. Pursuant to Burnside's order Franklin had held the greater part of his grand division "in position for a rapid advance down the Richmond road," so that the main body of his forces was too far away to render assistance to those engaged. Finding themselves unsupported Meade's men broke and fled in disorder, leaving a large number of dead and wounded on the field and several hundred prisoners in the hands of the enemy. Stoneman's corps had crossed the river, however, and Birney's division was drawn up in the rear of Meade. The Confederates, so intent upon the death or capture of the retreating Unionists, failed to perceive this line and dashed up to within 50 yards of Birney's guns. Four batteries opened with heavy charges of canister, fairly sweeping the pursuers from their feet and causing their decimated ranks to beat a rapid and disorderly retreat to the woods. This ended the operations on the left.

In the meantime a fiercer conflict was being waged on the Union right, between Sumner and Longstreet. Shortly after 8 a.m. Willcox's corps was ordered to the left to connect with Franklin's line, and to Couch was committed the work of carrying the Confederate position at Marye's hill, located between the plank and Telegraph roads and so called from the name of the owner, who lived on the summit. Some idea of the strength of the enemy's position here may be gained from the following extract from Confederate Gen. Kershaw's report: "Marye's hill, covered with our batteries, falls off abruptly toward Fredericksburg to a stone wall, which forms a terrace on the side of the hill and the outer margin of the Telegraph road, which winds along the foot of the hill. The road is about 25 feet wide, and is faced by a stone wall about 4 feet high on the city side. The road having been cut out of the side of the hill, this last wall in many places is not visible above the surface of the ground. * * * I found, on my arrival, that Cobb's brigade, Col. McMillan commanding, occupied our entire front, and my troops could only get into position by doubling on them. This was accordingly done, and the formation along most of the line during the engagement was consequently four deep."

Against this strongly fortified line, "four deep" the Union troops were compelled to march nearly a mile across open ground, every foot of which, except a narrow strip along the canal or mill race, could be swept by the Confederate batteries on Marye's hill and the ridges to the right and left. To make matters worse the canal could be crossed only at two bridges, on one of which the floor had been torn up, so that the men were compelled to cross in single file on the stringers. In the face of these obstacles the attack on the hill was commenced about noon, French's division forming the advance in columns by brigades, covered by a strong line of skirmishers, and closely supported by Hancock. After crossing the canal the lines were formed under shelter of the bank, on the strip of ground referred to, and steadily moved forward until Kimball's brigade came within short musket range of the wall, the enemy having been driven to cover by the skirmishers. Hancock pushed forward Zook's brigade, which joined Kimball's in the assault on the wall, but both were driven back with severe losses, Kimball being wounded while leading the charge. Hancock then sent in Meagher's and Caldwell's brigades, but with no better success.

In the forks of the road, about 15O yards from the wall, was a cluster of houses, which formed a rallying point for the Union troops. About 1 p.m. Couch ordered French and Hancock to carry the works by storm. Then, in company with Gen. Howard, he climbed the tower of the court-house, from which he could obtain a clear view of the field. Seeing that the works could not be carried by direct assault, he ordered Howard to move his division to the right of the Telegraph road in an effort to turn the enemy's flank. Before the order could be carried out French and Hancock called for reinforcements. Howard was recalled and sent to their assistance. Willcox also sent Sturgis' division to the left of Hancock and about 2 p.m. Butterfield's whole corps came on the field. Shortly after this Hooker was ordered to "put in everything," Couch at the same time being directed to "hold on until he comes in." By this time the ammunition of several regiments of the 2nd corps was exhausted, the men relying wholly upon the bayonet. About 4 o'clock word came that the Confederates were retreating from the Marye house on the top of the hill, and Humphrey's division was ordered in. Twice in quick succession he charged against that impregnable stone wall, but each time was repulsed. Getty's division of the 9th corps was next ordered to endeavor to break the enemy's line on the left, near the unfinished railroad, but was met by a heavy fire. Hazard's and Frank's batteries were ordered to his support, and while they succeeded in checking the fire they were unable, even by a vigorous shelling, to break the line. In fact, of all the assaults made during the day none approached as near to the Confederate lines as did Kimball and Zook in the first charge.

Thus the battle was waged, first at one point and then another until dark, when the men were withdrawn and that night the main part of the army bivouacked in the streets of Fredericksburg. On Sunday morning, the 14th, the men began digging trenches along the edge of the town in anticipation of an assault, but with the exception of some desultory firing at various points along the line there were no hostile demonstrations. On Monday Jackson and Franklin agreed upon a formal truce for the removal of the wounded and the burial of the dead. Late that afternoon Burnside issued orders for the whole army to recross the Rappahannock. Under cover of darkness, in the midst of a cold rain storm, the defeated and dispirited army crossed the river and the pontoons were withdrawn. The first battle of Burnside's campaign had been fought and lost. The Union losses at Fredericksburg were 1,284 killed, 9'600 wounded, and 1,769 missing. The Confederate losses were reported as being 608 killed, 4,116 wounded and 653 missing. Many of the Federal dead were stripped of their clothing by the enemy, the naked bodies being left exposed to the cold wintry winds and rain. A woman who lived in one of the houses near the stone wall said afterward: "The morning after the battle the field was blue; but the morning after the Federals withdrew the field was white."

Source: The Union Army, vol. 5 ------------------------------------------------------------------

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