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Doc. 68.-bombardment of Fredericksburgh, Va.1

Fredericksburgh, Va., Thursday Night, Dec. 11.
I Localize this letter Fredericksburgh, but it is assuredly “living” Fredericksburgh “no more.” A city soulless, rent by wrack of war, and shooting up in flames athwart night's sky, is the pretty little antique spot by the Rappahannock, ere-while the peculiar scene of dignified ease and retirement.

The advance of the right grand division of the [247] army of the Potomac rests here to-night, after a series of operations which are certainly among the most extraordinary of the war. To those who retired to rest, uninformed of what night was destined to bring forth, the spectacle this morning must have seemed strange enough to be the improvisation of the magician's art. One hundred and fifty pieces of cannon covered the circular sweep of the heights of Fredericksburgh; one hundred and fifty thousand men in battle array had sprang from the earth, and lay, ready for the advance, behind those heights. But to the initiated, who spent the night in vigils and knew what work crowded its busy hours, it was all intelligible enough. All night artillery came, and came with its ceaseless, heavy rumble, and as each battery arrived from the rear it was posted in the place selected for it by the Chief of Artillery. All night the perpetual tramp of men moving to the front filled the air. Pontoon trains unwound their long, snake-like forms, and were drawn, each boat by its team, down to the river's brink.

It had been determined, in council of war, held on Wednesday, that, instead of extending our lines of operations along the river from Falmouth to Port Conway, the entire army should be crossed at or near Fredericksburgh.

Five pontoon-bridges were to be thrown across the river — the first at the Lacey House, which lies directly opposite the end of the main street of Fredericksburgh, half a mile below Falmouth; the second and third within a few hundred yards from the first. The remaining two were to be thrown over a mile and a half or two miles further down the stream, and on these the grand division of Gen. Franklin--the left — would cross, while Sumner's and Hooker's grand divisions — right and centre — would use the three upper ones.

It was about three o'clock this morning when the boats were unshipped from the teams at the river's brink. Swiftly and silently the Engineer Corps proceeded to their work. A dense fog filled the valleys and water margin, through which the bridge-builders appeared as spectral forms. The recital of the Times special correspondent with the left will inform you of the details of the construction of the two lower — Franklin's — bridges. Work there was performed with perfect success — the engineers being allowed to complete the first without any interruption whatever, while the construction of the other was but slightly interrupted by the fire of the rebel sharp-shooters.

We were not so fortunate with the upper bridges. The artificers had but got fairly to work, when at five o'clock the firing of two guns from one of the enemy's batteries announced that we were discovered. They were signal-guns. Rapid volleys of musketry, discharged at our bridge-builders, immediately followed. This was promptly responded to on our side, by the opening of several batteries. The fog, however, still hung densely over the river. It was still quite dark, and the practice of the artillerists was necessarily very much at random. The Engineer Corps suffered severely from the fire of the sharp-shooters concealed in the town. The little band was being murderously thinned, and presently the work on the bridges slackened, and then ceased.

Meanwhile the firing from our batteries, posted about a mile from the river, was kept up vigorously. The effect was singular enough, and it was difficult to believe that the whole affair was not a phantasmagoria. It was still quite dark, the horizon around being lit up only by the flash of projectiles, which reappeared in explosive flame on the other side of the river.

Daylight came, but with it came not clearness of vision for on-lookers. The mist and smoke not only did not lighten, but grew more opaque and heavy, hugging the ground closely. Our gunners, however, still continued to launch their missiles at a venture. The rebel batteries hardly returned our fire, and this chariness of their ammunition they preserved all day — not a dozen rounds being fired during the whole forenoon.

Toward eight o'clock a large party of general officers, among them General Burnside, the corps commanders, and many others of high rank, had congregated in front of and on the balcony of Gen. Sumner's headquarters, Phillips's House, situated about a mile directly back of the Lacey House. The performance could be heard but not seen — the stage was obstinately hidden from view, and all were impatient that the curtain should rise. Aids and couriers came and went with messages to and from the batteries and bridges.

At half-past 9 o'clock official notification was received that the two bridges on the extreme left were completed, and Gen. Franklin sent to General Burnside to know if he should cross his force at once. The reply was, that he should wait until the upper bridges also were completed.

Meantime, with the latter but little progress was made. During the next couple of hours half a dozen attempts were made to complete the bridges, but each time the party was repulsed with severe loss. On the occasion of one essay, Capt. Brainard, of the Fiftieth New-York volunteer engineers, went out on the bridge with eleven men. Five immediately fell by the balls of the rebel sharp-shooters. Capt. Perkins led another party, and was shot through the neck, and the Sixty-sixth and Fifty-seventh New-York regiments, which were supporting the Fiftieth and Fifteenth New-York volunteer engineers--Gen. Woodbury's brigade — suffered severely. It was a hopeless task, and we made little or no progress. The rebel sharp-shooters, posted in the cellars of the houses of the front street, not fifty yards from the river, behind stone walls and in rifle-pits, were able to pick off with damnable accuracy any party of engineers venturing on the half-completed bridges.

The case was perfectly clear. Nothing can be done till they are dislodged from their lurking-places. There is but one way of doing this effectually — shell the town. At ten o'clock Gen. Burnside gives the order: “Concentrate the fire of all your guns on the city, and batter it down 1” You may believe, they were not loth to obey The artillery of the right, eight batteries, was commanded by Col. Hays; Col. Tompkins, right [248] centre, eleven batteries; Colonel Tyler, left centre, seven batteries; Capt. De Russy, left, nine batteries. In a few moments these thirty-five batteries, forming a total of one hundred and seventy-nine guns, ranging from ten-pounder Parrotts to four and a half inch siege-guns, posted along the convex side of the are of the circle, formed by the bend of the river and land opposite Fredericksburgh, opened on the doomed city. The effect was, of course, terrific, and, regarded merely as a phenomenon, was among the most awfully grand conceivable. Perhaps what will give you the liveliest idea of its effect is a succession, absolutely without intermission, of the very loudest thunder-peals. It lasted thus for upward of an hour, fifty rounds being fired from each gun, and I know not how many hundred tons of iron were thrown into the town.

The congregated generals were transfixed. Mingled satisfaction and awe was upon every face. But what was tantalizing, was, that though a great deal could be heard, nothing could be seen, the city being still enveloped in fog and mist. Only a denser pillar of smoke defining itself on the background of the fog, indicated where the town had been fired by our shells. Another and another column showed itself, and we presently saw that at least a dozen houses must be op fire.

Toward noon the curtain rolled up, and we saw that it was indeed so. Fredericksburgh was in conflagration. Tremendous though this firing had been, and terrific though its effect obviously was on the town, it had not accomplished the object intended. It was found by our gunners almost impossible to obtain a sufficient depression of their pieces to shell the front part of the city, and the rebel sharp-shooters were still comparatively safe behind the thick stone walls of the houses.

During, the thick of the bombardment a fresh attempt had been made to complete the bridge. It failed, and evidently nothing could be done till a party could be thrown over to clean out the rebels and cover the bridge-head. For this mission General Burnside called for volunteers, and Col. Hall, of Fort Sumter fame, immediately responded that he had a brigade that would do the business. Accordingly, the Seventh Michigan and Nineteenth Massachusetts, two small regiments, numbering in all about four hundred men, were selected for the purpose.

The plan was, that they should take the pontoon-boats of the first bridge, of which there were ten lying on the bank of the river, waiting to be added to the half-finished bridge, cross over in them, and landing, drive out the rebels.

Nothing could be more admirable or more gal lant than the execution of this daring feat. Rushing down the steep banks of the river, the party found temporary shelter behind the pontoon-boats lying scattered on the bank, and behind the piles of planking destined for the covering of the bridge, behind rocks, etc. In this situation they acted some fifteen or twenty minutes as sharp-shooters, they and the rebels observing each other. In the mean time new and vigorous artillery firing was commenced on our part, and just as soon as this was fairly developed, the Seventh Michigan rose from their crouching places, rushed for the pontoon-boats, and pushing them into the water, rapidly filled them with twenty-five or thirty each.

The first boat pushes off. Now, if ever, is the rebels' opportunity. Crack! crack! crack! from fifty lurking-places go rebel rifles at the gallant fellows, who, stooping low in the boat, seek to avoid the fire. The murderous work was well done. Lustily, however, pull the oarsmen, and presently, having passed the middle of the stream, the boat and its gallant freight come under cover of the opposite bluffs.

Another and another boat follows. Now is their opportunity. Nothing could be more amusing in its way than the result. Instantly they see a new turn of affairs. The rebels pop up by the hundred, like so many rats, from every cellar, rifle-pit, and stone wall, and scamper off up the streets of the town. With all their fleetness, however, many of them were much too slow. With incredible rapidity the Michigan and Massachusetts boys sweep up the hill, making a rush for the lurking-places occupied by the rebels, and gaining them, each man capturing his two or three prisoners. The pontoon-boats, on their return trip, took over more than a hundred of these fellows.

You can imagine with what intense interest the crossing of the first boat-load of our men was watched by the numerous spectators on the shore, an(d with what enthusiastic shouts their landing on the opposite side was greeted. It was an authentic piece of human heroism, which moves men, as nothing else can. The problem was solved. This flash of bravery had done what scores of batteries and tons of metal had failed to accomplish. The country will not forget that little band. Their loss in the perilous enterprise was, so far as I could ascertain, as follows:

Killed — A. Wickson, company A; Corporal Jos. L. Rice, company C.

Wounded — J. N. Basna, company G, mortally; Riley Faulkner, severely; Lieutenant Secore, company C; C. H. Hewson, company C, hand; Sergeant Thomas Galdwell, company F, severely wounded in shoulder; Jos. Crene, company F, arm.

The party once across, and the rebels cleaned out, it took the engineers but a brief period to complete the bridge. They laid hold with a will, plunging waist-deep into the water, and working as men work who are under inspiration. In less than half an hour the bridge was completed, and the head of the column of the right grand division, consisting of General Howard's command, was moving upon it over the Rappahannock. A feeble attempt from the rebel batteries was made to shell the troops in crossing, but it failed completely.

Your correspondent found an opportunity to cross the river along with the party who first went over, in a boat, having been curious to take [249] a closer view of the city which we have for near a month been observing over the river, not three hundred yards wide, without the power of visitation. As the rebels were in very considerable force on the heights back of the city, one could not extend his perambulations beyond the street fronting on the river. Every one of the houses which I here entered, a dozen or more, is torn to pieces by shot and shell, and the fire still hotly rages in a dozen parts of the city. A few citizens — a score or two, perhaps — male and female, presently made their appearance, emerging out of the cellars, whither they had taken refuge during the bombardment. Three women — white — whom we found in a cellar, told us that they, with a majority of the inhabitants, had moved out of Fredericksburgh a fortnight or so previously, but that, growing reassured by our long delay, they, with a good many others, had come back the evening before. The former inhabitants, they report as now living in various parts of the environs, some in negro huts, and others in tents made with bed-clothes, etc.

During the afternoon of the bombardment we observed a couple of white handkerchiefs waved out of the windows in a house in the city. This was taken by some for a flag of truce, and the Chief of Artillery was on the point of causing the shelling to cease. General Burnside, however, decided that it was probably merely only the wonted rebel ruse, and ordered operations to be continued. We found out that the demonstrations were made by two of the women referred to, with the desire that we should send over a boat and convey them away from Fredericksburgh.

Among other prominent objects during the bombardment was a large British flag, flying over the house of the English Consul. This personage, however, was not found in his house when we entered the city, and the flag was taken possession of and brought away.

A number of rebel dead were found in various parts of the city, some exhibiting frightful mutilations from shells, and I took as a trophy, a rifle, still loaded, out of the grasp of a hand belonging to a headless trunk.

The infantry in the city appear to have been Mississippians, South-Carolinans, and Floridians. Those of them that we took prisoners were wretchedly clad, and mostly without blankets or overcoats, but they generally looked stout and healthy, and certainly in far better condition than they could have been were there any truth in the report of some deserters the other day, to the effect that for three weeks they had nothing to eat but the persimmons they were able to pick up.

Although we are not yet fully informed of the present positions of the enemy, there seems to be good ground to claim that General Burnside has succeeded in outgeneralling and outwitting them. His decoys to make them believe that we were about to cross our main force at Port Conway, seem to have succeeded admirably. I suppose there is no harm now in my mentioning that among the ruses he employed was sending down, day before yesterday, to Port Conway, three hundred wagons, and bringing them back by a different road, for the sole purpose of making the rebels believe that we were about to cross the river at that point. To the same end, workmen were busily employed in laying causeways for supposed pontoon-bridges there, while the gunboats were held as bugaboos at the same place. Completely deceived by these feints, the main rebel force, including Jackson's command, seems to have been, two or three days ago, transferred twenty or twenty-five miles down the river. It must be remembered, however, that without the utmost celerity on our part, they can readily retrieve this blunder by a forced march or two. Signal-guns, at five o'clock this morning, gave them the cue to what was going on, and doubtless they have not been idle during the intervening hours. To-morrow will disclose what unseen moves have been made on the chess-board.

W. S.

1 see page 79 Docs., ante.

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