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[589] Early in the morning Sumner had made his dispositions for battle without being molested by the enemy, owing to the thick fog which enveloped both the armies. To French's division of Couch's corps was assigned the perilous task of leading the attack; that of Hancock was to follow and support it.

Burnside had reserved to himself the direction of the battle more especially along that part of his front; he had not, however, crossed the Rappahannock, and had taken up his quarters in the handsome residence of Mr. Phillips, which, from the heights on the left bank, overlooked the entire plain and the hills opposite. He had all the reserve artillery about him, which was preparing to support the attack of the infantry with its fire. But the heavy mist which hung over the valley of the Rappahannock, and hid from him the enemy's army, did not disappear until toward eleven o'clock; it was the moment when Meade was cannonading the Confederate batteries of Prospect Hill. The battle, therefore, had not yet seriously commenced on the left. In proportion as the sun dispersed the vapors which clung to the hillsides, the successive lines of entrenchments filled with Confederate soldiers, whose bayonets glistened in the distance, could be seen, clearly defined, from the headquarters of the Union army. The Confederates awaited without moving the attack of their adversaries, but as soon as they saw the town of Fredericksburg filled with Federal troops, who had been massed there after crossing the river, their artillery opened its fire upon this doomed city. The heights of Marye's Hill were immediately encircled with a double crown of white smoke, the bluish tinge of which could not be mistaken for the lingering wreaths of the morning fog, and which revealed the strength of the means of defence accumulated by Lee at this point. This prelude should have made Burnside feel the rashness of his undertaking, but his purpose was irrevocably fixed. He gave the signal of attack to his right, and French's columns, emerging into the plain, soon diverted the attention of the enemy's cannoneers from the town.

These columns, emerging by way of the cemetery, were obliged to defile over the two or three bridges that still remained in order to cross the large draining ditch, and to deploy afterward on the other side under the murderous fire of all of McLaws' batteries.

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