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Chapter 7:

  • The campaign of the 13th of December, 1862
  • -- “Franklin's crossing” -- movements of the left grand division -- topography of the region which was occupied by the Federal left and Confederate right -- the engagement of the First and Sixth Corps on the 13th of December -- the “quiet Sunday” -- night retreat -- roster of the Sixth Corps

On the 10th of December, there was a general movement of the left grand division toward the Rappahannock. On the 11th, Thursday, the rear of the Sixth Corps moved across the road that runs from Falmouth to the Potomac, via White Oak church, passing the church, which is perhaps three miles from the town, and as far from the brow of the height which overlooks the valley of the Rappahannock a couple of miles below Fredericksburg, on the opposite side of the river. From White Oak church southerly to the brow of the highland of this section, the country was more or less wooded, the surface broken by knolls, ridges and ravines among them,—all of which contributed to conceal the movements of troops from the enemy upon the opposite shore of the river.

Over this ground, gradually coiling itself up, so as to occupy a comparatively small area, the left grand division had been moving for a day and a half. Engineers with the pontoon trains and with supporting infantry, had been pushed forward over the height to the plain which extends along the high banks of the river, and by noon a bridge had been thrown across, and a roadway had been cut through the steep bank from the plain on the left side, and another through the steep bank to the great plain on the right shore.

Thursday night and the following forenoon were consumed in the passage of the river. The Sixth Corps, which was the right and centre of Franklin's force, crossing on the 12th, moved nearly south from ‘Franklin's Crossing,’ over the plain which extends for miles east of Fredericksburg. There was little firing on Friday. The battle of the 13th of December was, in effect, two distinct, terrible combats: the conflict of the Federal left wing [94] with Jackson, and Stuart's cavalry and horse artillery, on the east; the sublimely bold, but humanly hopeless and cruelly fruitless assault of the Federal right and centre upon the heights behind Fredericksburg, held by Longstreet's corps.

Of the latter, where a division went into the fight 6,000 strong, and at night its general could count but 1,500; where desperate valor, never surpassed on any field, made its six frantic dashes against an almost impregnable position; where 6,000 men fell before a fatal stone-wall,—history has already spoken with a sense of the hopeless inadequacy of descriptive language. Concerning the former, in which the contestants fought upon more nearly equal terms, we venture with no little trepidation to pen a line.

The heights behind Fredericksburg, which at that place are perhaps one third of a mile from the river, take below the town a gradually southeastern course farther and farther from the river, having to the east of the town, between them and the river, an extended plain, perhaps six miles long, and in width, from the river bank to their base, varying from half a mile to two miles. The heights themselves diminish in elevation toward the southeast, finally losing themselves in a low region called Massaponax Valley. These heights were thickly wooded, and upon them were the Confederate batteries. On the Confederate right was Early, with Walker's artillery in front and Stuart's cavalry and horse artillery on his right. On the left and nearer to Fredericksburg was A. P. Hill, and behind him D. H. Hill in reserve. The turnpike to Fredericksburg crosses the plain half a mile from the river, and between it and the heights extends the railroad.

Confronting Early and Stuart was Reynold's corps, with the Pennsylvania Reserves on the extreme left. Opposed to A. P. Hill was the Sixth Corps, with Brooks's division on the right, with the batteries of Williston, Hexamer, Walcott, and McCartney, the last named being supported by the Fifth Maine Infantry.

The plan of the attack as determined on the previous night, 12th, was for Franklin with his force and a part of Hooker's to make the attack in force on the left, while Gen. Sumner's attack upon the heights behind the town was to depend upon Franklin's success. A misinterpretation of instructions received by Gen. Franklin on the morning of the 13th, however, it is said, led that general to conclude that the commander in chief had altered [95] his determination of the previous night, and now only contemplated an armed reconnoissance with a single division. It is also alleged that Generals Reynolds and Smith, in concurrence with their superior, placed the same construction upon the orders of the morning of the 13th. This morning the plain and the heights were enveloped in a thick fog. The battle commenced at ten o'clock, when the fog was lifted so as to disclose to each other the position of the opposing forces.

The engagement was opened by the batteries of the Sixth Corps, their fire being directed against Hood's division, which was immediately to the left of A. P. Hill's division. At the same moment, the Pennsylvania Reserves, with Gibbon's division in reserve upon its right and Doubleday in reserve, advanced upon the left, encountering a fire from the Confederate horse artillery in the copse, which was silenced by Meade's batteries, and the division continued forward, shelling the woods in the front.

Now a vigorous fire was opened by the batteries of Early's and Hill's divisions, met by the simultaneous discharge of all the Federal batteries of the left grand division; not one was unemployed. Amidst a fire of shell and canister Meade continued his advance, the artillery of the Sixth Corps still actively engaging the attention of the force in their front, drawing their fire and preventing the detaching of any troops from that section to the aid of Early. Now Meade's division drives three Confederate batteries across the railroad track, and, attacking the division next in front, turns back both wings of that force and captures two hundred prisoners.

Gen. Meade was in truth making a reconnoissance in force, but the movement was a phase of the battle that was now being participated in by the entire left of the army. Now the batteries of Brooks's division fire incessantly, their shots directed by the jets of smoke issuing from the guns of their antagonists. As volley succeeded volley, and shot and shell plunged and thundered from the ridge over the plain and from the plain to the ridge, it seemed as though each battery was exposed to an enfilading fire.

Comrade Richardson is wounded; we are short of ammunition; two of our caissons are sent to the rear, for a further supply. ‘Sergeant,’ said Gen. Brooks, ‘put those caissons over the ground, if you ever did!’ Twice the infantry of the Sixth, ably handled, dashed against the lines of A. P. Hill, but the position of the [96] latter is impregnable. He must have been reinforced from the enemy's left. Still a terrific canonnade from our artillery. Our brave comrade, Sergt. Stephen H. Reynolds, commanding the second detachment, is wounded in the leg, and borne from the field; amputation having been found necessary, he leaves the limb on the shore of the Rappahannock.

It would seem that the enemy in our front have been augmented by troops drawn from the rear of the town. The condition of the First and Sixth Corps is critical. But reinforcements are at hand; Gen. Hooker has sent us Birney's division. Once more the tide is turned from the plain to the ridge; the Confederates seek their old position.

From almost the earliest moment of the engagement till near noon, there was one gun upon the Confederate right, probably a smooth-bore twelve-pounder, that was aimed with great precision, making sad havoc with the Federal flank. Three Federal field batteries were at one time brought to bear upon it, and it received the fire of a heavy battery across the river, yet for a long time was not silenced.

Sunday, the 14th, was quiet. No doubt Stonewall Jackson attended service in the morning and afternoon. But Federals and Confederates were mainly engaged in burying their dead, and caring for the wounded. Nor was the position of our army on Monday materially changed; but the heavens gave token of a slowly gathering storm. These symptoms became yet more imminent as this tedious and uneventful day drew to a close. The rank and file had made such preparations as were possible in the situation of things, for passing the night upon the field. Some comrades who had been to the river, reported that hay and earth were being strewn upon the pontoons. ‘What is it for? Are we going to back out of this?’ asked Sergeant——. It seemed so. A boisterous south wind, full in the direction of the Confederate lines, had arisen, and on its heels came a storm, a fierce one. In the midst of the gale and blizzard we withdrew to the river. The night was decidedly favorable for a ‘masterly retreat,’ as all sounds were borne north on the blast, and away from the Confederate encampments. The dark, dismal night was consumed in the crossing,—--troops of all arms crawling across, troops of all arms huddled upon the bank awaiting their turn to follow. [97]

While a portion of our column was upon the bridge, we were brought to a halt in the pitchy, inky darkness, which rendered it impossible to see the sides of the bridge, or to peer ahead to note the movements of the leading teams. Some pontoons near the north bank had become separated. There is a swaying of the floating mass of boats, a period of anxious suspense for those upon the driveway. There is an adjustment of the difficulty by the engineers, and we move on, climb the bank, cross the plain, and ascend the heights on the north side. There in the woods and open patches, among them and beyond the brow of the hills, the army coiled itself as it crawled from the river, similarly as it wound its folds together on the same ground preparatory to springing across the river five days ago.

In the forenoon, when our retreat and safe return to Stafford Heights was apparent to the enemy, he began to fire over, perhaps hoping to do some damage to the rear of our force, portions of which he could doubtless discern upon the brow of the heights, and in the edge of the woods. Our heavy artillery along the ridge, which had been more or less active on the 13th, responded in such a way that the tail of the retreat was pretty effectually covered, little if any loss resulting, beyond the expenditure of ammunition by our heavy guns.

Gradually, during the two following days, the grand division was brought into the position it was destined to occupy in winter cantonment, the heart of the force being drawn back, perhaps two miles from the brow of Stafford Heights, facing the river. The First Corps was upon the left, the Sixth on its right, and nearer Falmouth, the First Division of the Sixth lying around White Oak church.

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