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Chapter 15:

  • Bombardment of Fredericksburg.
  • -- events preceding the battle of Fredericksburg.

11th December.

I had enjoyed but a few minutes or repose, enveloped in my warm blankets, when I was waked from sleep by a dull heavy noise, which, in the earliest moments of consciousness, I believed to have been produced by the thawing and sliding down of the snow that had accumulated on the top of my tent. I was quickly undeceived, however, by my negro servant Henry, who, appearing at my tent door, informed me in a single abrupt sentence of the true condition of affairs. “Major,” said Henry, “de Yankees is shelling Fredericksburg. I done saddled your horse, and de General is ready for to start.” This intelligence brought me in an instant to my feet. Inserting my legs into my huge cavalry-boots, I soon emerged from the tent, and in a few minutes I galloped off with the General and the other members of the Staff in full haste for the front.

For the reader's better comprehension of the events I am about to narrate, it will be necessary to describe the position of the two hostile armies, and the ground on which one of the most sanguinary battles of the present century was to be [293] fought. The little valley in which Fredericksburg is situated in enclosed on the south side of the Rappahannock by a range of hills, which, directly opposite the town, are known as “Marye's Heights,” and approach within half a mile of the river, and which, receding from it afterwards in a semicircular or crescent-like sweep of five miles to a distance of three miles from the stream, again trend towards it near Hamilton's Crossing, at which point the interval between them may be one mile and a half. Most of these hills are covered with a thick copse of oak, and only in front of the town are they quite bare of trees. The ground towards the Rappannock is open and flat, and is intersected only by some small streams-such as the Hazel and Deep Run-and broken immediately upon the river by several large and deep ravines, which afforded serviceable shelter to the Federal troops in their retreat under the fire of our artillery. This valley is cut nearly in half by the railway from Hamilton's Crossing to Fredericksburg, the high embankment of which was used by a portion of Jackson's troops as a breast-work. Nearly parallel with the railway runs the county turnpike road, which, at a distance of four miles from Fredericksburg, branches off, leading on the right to Hamilton's Crossing, where it crosses the railway, giving the name to the station, and on the left to Port Royal, where it strikes the Rappahannock. The turnpike road from Fredericksburg to the fork just mentioned, being carried for a considerable distance through deep cuts, formed a formidable defensive work for the Federals.

On this semicircle of hills, the relative position of which to the river, the railway, the turnpike, and the town I have endeavoured to render intelligible, our army, numbering in all about 80,000 men, was posted in order of battle behind a continuous line of intrenchments, concealed from the enemy's view by the thick underwood, which, except in a few small [294] spaces, covers the ridge abundantly. Longstreet's corps formed the left, Jackson's the right, of our lines. Our extreme left, constituting Anderson's division, rested on a broad swampy ditch, which about two miles above Fredericksburg makes up from the Rappahannock; then came Ransom's and McLaws's divisions, the right wing of the latter extending across the Telegraph Road, there joining Pickett's troops; and farther on Hood's division, which occupied as nearly as possible the centre of our whole line of battle, at a point where the hills open into a small valley for the passage of the creek, Deep Run; yet further on came Early's division of Jackson's corps. The extreme right was composed of A. P. Hill's division, holding in reserve the troops of Taliaferro. The splendid division of D. H. Hill, having been kept back by some demonstrations of the enemy in the direction of Port Royal, did not join us until the evening of the battle, the 13th, when it took its place on the extreme right. The cavalry, with the exception of Hampton's brigade, which was operating on the upper Rappahannock, and our horse-artillery, under Pelham, occupied the road leading from Hamilton's Crossing to Port Royal, our right extending to Massaponax Creek, and our line of battle thus stood nearly perpendicular to the lines of the main army. The bulk of the artillery, numbering about 250 pieces, was well posted all along the lines, but was principally concentrated into large batteries, on the extreme right, under Colonel Lindsay Walker, in the centre under Colonel Alexander, and on the left opposite Fredericksburg, on Marye's Heights, under Colonel Walton. The Rappahannock is closely lined on its northern bank by a range of commanding hills, on which the hostile artillery, consisting of more than 300 pieces, some of them of heavier calibre than had ever before been employed in the field, were advantageously posted. The greater part of them, especially those on the Stafford Heights, bore immediately on the town, but [295] nearly all were in a position to sweep the plains on our side of the river. The entire strength of the Federal army in the battle amounted to not less that 150,000 men.

Reaching our lines, we found General Lee on an eminence which, rising considerably above the other heights, a few hundred yards to the right of the Telegraph Road, afforded a view over nearly the whole plain before him, and gave our great commander the opportunity of watching closely the operations of the enemy, and controlling the movements of his own army in accordance therewith. This hill having been occupied by General Lee during the entire progress of the battle, received his name, and to all future generations of Southerners it will be known as the spot from which their gallant forefathers were led on to victory. Longstreet and several other generals were also assembled here, looking anxiously towards Fredericksburg, as yet concealed from their sight by a dense fog which hung heavily over the little valley. Information had been received here that under cover of the fog the enemy had endeavoured to lay his pontoon bridges across the river, but that, by the accurate and effective fire of Barksdale's Mississippi brigade, the Federal engineers and working parties had been driven off with heavy loss, and all their efforts had been so far unsuccessful. The cannonade which had so rudely roused us from our slumbers had been nothing more than an artillery duel between some of the Federal batteries and a like number of our own, and had now ceased altogether; and the quiet of the morning was disturbed only by the repeated cracks of Barksdale's rifles sounding over from the river, from which we knew that the enemy's bridge-building was still resisted with spirit. The frequent reports which reached us from that quarter were as favourable as could be desired-“All right! the enemy have been driven back, with severe loss, from their pontoons.”

So several hours passed wearily away, oppressing every one [296] of us with an anticipation of the sad spectacle we should soon be compelled to witness in the bombardment of the town. Already the Telegraph Road leading up to the heights from Fredericksburg was thronged with a confused mass of fugitives, men, women, and children, who had not been willing or able to leave their homesteads before, bearing with them such of their effects as they could bring away, and as they most wished to save, many of which, having been dropped in the haste and terror of their exodus, marked the line of their flight as far as the eye could reach. Ten o'clock came, and the hammers of the church-clocks were just sounding the last peaceful stroke of the hour, when suddenly, at the signal of a single cannon-shot, more than 150 pieces of artillery, including some of the enemy's most ponderous guns, opened their iron mouths with a terrific roar, and hurled a tempest of destruction upon the devoted town. The air shook, and the very earth beneath our feet trembled at this deafening cannonade, the heaviest that had ever yet assailed my ears. The thick fog still prevented us from obtaining a satisfactory view of the bombardment; but the howling of the solid shot, the bursting of the shells, the crashing of the missiles through the thick walls, and the dull sound of falling houses, united in a dismal concert of doom. Very soon the exact site of the unhappy town was indicated, even through the fog, by a rising column of smoke and dust, and the flames of burning buildings broke out of the dark overhanging canopy with reddening glare, while the bursting bombs flashed athwart the gloom like the arrowy lightning in a thunder-cloud. Our batteries did not respond to the guns of the enemy with a single shot. It was evident enough that nothing could be done to save the place from the desolation to which it had been fore-doomed by the wanton barbarity of the Federal commander. The horrible din lasted for two hours, and was succeeded by perfect silence — the silence of a solitude. About [297] noon, a gentle breeze, springing up just as the roar of the latest guns died away, lifted the veil which had mysteriously shrouded the valley, and the sun, breaking through the clouds, seemed to mock with its garish splendour the smoking ruins it revealed. Sad indeed was the scene that presented itself to our gaze, and to the eyes, filled with tears, of the mournful fugitives whose once happy homes lay before them, shattered or smouldering; and every heart of the thousands of brave Confederate soldiers who witnessed it burned for revenge.

It may be supposed that we thought with great anxiety of our Mississippi brigade, which had all the time been exposed to this feu d'enfer; but the sharp crack of their rifles soon gave us the gratifying assurance that these gallant fellows, unmindful of the death and anguish which shot and shell had been spreading amid their ranks, had firmly maintained their ground, and were ready to meet the enemy's attack; and a little later we received the satisfactory report that a renewed attempt of the Federals to force the building of their bridges had been defeated. But General Lee knew very well that he would not be able to prevent the passage of the river by the Federal army; and having entertained from the beginning no idea of seriously contesting this, he now gave orders for Barksdale's brigade to withdraw gradually from the town, and to keep up only a feigned resistance. Accordingly, about 2 P. M., Fredericksburg was altogether abandoned by our men, after a sanguinary fight had been maintained for a considerable time in the streets. During the rest of the afternoon and evening, the pontoon bridges having been completed, the dense masses of the Federal army commenced to move over to our side of the river.

In the quietude that followed the hurly-burly of the day we exchanged felicitations upon the great blunder of the Federal commander in thus running right into the lion's mouth, and [298] preparing to attack us in a position of our own choice, where his defeat was wellnigh certain — a lack of generalship on his part which we had scarcely dared to hope for. Even the face of our great commander Lee, which rarely underwent any change of expression at the news of victory or disaster, seemed to be lit up with pleasure at every fresh report that a greater number of the enemy had crossed the river. With the gathering darkness Stuart returned to our cavalry headquarters, attended by the members of his Staff, for a short interim of rest, each one of us looking forward with good confidence and certain hope, in common with our whole army, to the great battle which, in all human probability, would be joined at an early hour of the following day.

12th December.

At an early hour of the morning we were again assembled on “Lee's Hill,” viewing the plain beneath us, from which the fogs of the night were just rising, and where the rays of the newly-risen sun revealed many thousands of Yankees who had crossed from the Stafford side of the river since the previous afternoon. The enemy seemed as busy as bees. Long trains of artillery and ammunition and provision waggons were to be seen descending the heights on the opposite side, and interminable columns of infantry, blue in colour, and blurred by distance, flowed towards us like the waves of a steadily-advancing sea. On and on they came, with flash of bayonets and flutter of flags, to the measure of military music, each note of which was borne to us by the morning breeze, and we could distinctly observe them deploy into line of battle. From the many heavy batteries over the river rose, from time to time, little white puffs of smoke, and the deep, dull boom of the big guns was almost immediately followed [299] by the angry whirr of a 50 or 100-pound shell, which falling, in the majority of instances, too short, did little or no damage. Our artillery, from different points along our line, occasionally answered the enemy's guns with just as little effect; and our confident belief that the great battle would be fought on the morning of the 12th was more and more weakened as the day wore on.

About eleven o'clock I was asked by General Stuart to accompany him on a ride along our line of battle to the extreme right, that we might look after our horsemen, reconnoitre the position and movements of the enemy in that direction, and ascertain whether the nature of the ground was such that a charge of our whole cavalry division during the impending fight might be profitably attempted. It was a pleasure and an encouragement to pass the extended lines of our soldiers, who were lying carelessly behind their earthworks, or actively engaged in throwing up new ones-some cooking, others gaily discussing the designs of the enemy, and greeting with loud cheers of derision the enormous shells, which they called “Yankee flour-barrels,” as these came tumbling into the woods around them, and to read in every bronzed face of them all eagerness for the conflict, and confidence as to the result. The atmosphere had now again become obscure, and the fog was rolling up from the low swampy grounds along the margin of Deep Run Creek, in the immediate front of Hood's and Early's divisions. Here we turned off into a narrow bridle-path, which bore away some distance from our lines, but would shorten our ride by nearly a mile. We had proceeded but a few steps in a careless trot, when suddenly a long line of horsemen in skirmishing order appeared directly before us in the mist. I felt very certain they were Federal horsemen, but Stuart was unwilling to believe that the Yankees would have the audacity to approach our position so closely; and as the greater part of them wore a [300] brownish dust-coloured jacket over their uniforms, he set them down as a small command of our own cavalry returning from a reconnaissance. So we continued upon our route yet a little farther, until, at a distance of about forty yards, several carbine-shots, whose bullets whistled around our heads, taught us very plainly with whom we had to deal. At the same moment ten or fifteen of the dragoons spurred furiously towards us, demanding, with loud outcries, our surrender; hearing which, we galloped in some haste back to our lines, where our bold pursuers were received and put to flight by Early's sharpshooters. A considerable number of our infantry skirmishers now moved forward to drive the dashing cavalrymen off; but the latter held their ground gallantly, and kept up so annoying a fire with their long-range carbines, that our men did not obtain any advantage over them, while Stuart and myself could not look without admiration upon the address and intrepidity our enemies displayed. General Hood, who had been attracted by the noise of the brisk fusillade, soon came riding up to us, and seeing at a moment what was going on, said, “This will never do; I must send up some of my Texans, who will make short work of these impudent Yankees.” One of Hood's adjutants galloped off at once with an order from his general, and soon a select number of these dreaded marksmen, crawling along the ground, after their wild Indian fashion, advanced upon the Federal dragoons, who had no idea of their approach until they opened fire at a distance of about eighty yards. In a few seconds several men and horses had been killed, and the whole Federal line, stampeded by a galling fire from an unseen foe in a quarter wholly unexpected, broke into confused and rapid flight.

This opened the way for us, and we continued our ride without farther interruption. On the left wing of A. P. Hill's division, we had to pass a small piece of wood, extending in [301] a triangular shape about six or eight hundred yards outside of our lines, with a base of about half a mile, offering, in my opinion, a great advantage to the enemy, and I remarked to Stuart that I thought it ought to be cut down. He did not regard this as necessary, as he did not believe that, under the sweeping cross-fire of our artillery, the Federals could ever advance so far. The events of the following day proved, however, that I had been right, as, under cover of this identical piece of wood, a hostile division approached so rapidly and unexpectedly that here alone our line was broken, and we suffered severe loss before the enemy could be driven back. We found our horsemen in good spirits, and occupying their position on the Port Royal road, where the right wing was engaged in a lively skirmish with a body of Federal cavalry, which ended in the withdrawal of the latter. Our comrades of the other arms of the service had indulged in some captious criticism of the cavalry for not having given the decisive finishing stroke to great battles by grand and overwhelming charges, as had been done in the times of Frederick the Great and Napoleon-criticism that was unwarranted and unjust, since the nature of the ground in Virginia did not favour the operations of cavalry, and since the great improvement in firearms in our day had necessitated a very material change in cavalry tactics. Still more unkind and uncalled — for did such animadversions appear when it was considered what important services had been rendered by the cavalry — the hard fighting they had done, the wearisome marches they had made, the fatigue and cold and hunger they had cheerfully endured. Nevertheless General Stuart was anxious, with every officer and private under his command, to show that we were able to do what other cavalry had accomplished before us; and all burned with the noble ambition of winning an enduring fame on so grand a theatre, with the eyes of the whole army resting upon us. The [302] forty centuries that looked down from the Pyramids on the legions of the mighty Corsican did not inspire them with a more generous ardour. The open plain before us, cut by only a few ditches and with only here and there a fence running across it, seemed to offer us the arena for the realisation of our dreams of glory; but upon a closer survey of the ground we found it much too soft for a charge with any chance of success, as the horses, moving even at a moderate speed, would sink several feet into the mire. A sluggish artillery fire which had lasted all day, grew, about one o'clock, into a spirited cannonade all along the lines, in which the Federal light batteries on our side of the river took no part, it being altogether maintained by their heavier guns on the Stafford Hills. This continued until two o'clock, when the firing slackened again to the occasional boom of the largest pieces of ordnance.

On the road between Hamilton's Crossing and Fredericksburg, thousands of Yankees were working like beavers in digging rifle-pits, and erecting works for their artillery. Stuart being anxious to discover exactly what they were about, I rode with him in that direction to a small barn, where we dismounted and tied our horses, and thence carefully approached the hostile lines by creeping along a ditch which led into the main turnpike road, constituting the boundary of an inconsiderable plantation. Thus we proceeded until we reached a slight eminence only a few hundred yards from the Yankees, where two big posts, the remains of a dismantled gate, concealed us from their observation. Our own view was so satisfactory, that with our field-glasses we could distinctly mark the features of the men. It was evident enough to us that they were engaged in converting the simple road into a most formidable work of defence, and that in Jackson's front they were massing large forces of infantry and artillery, of the latter of which I counted thirty-two guns in one battery. [303] Quite content with what we had seen, we returned to our horses, and I received orders to ride at once to General Lee to make report of our reconnaissance, General Stuart himself galloping over to A. P. Hill. After a ride of a few minutes, I met Generals Lee and Jackson, who were taking a turn to inspect our own lines, and to reconnoitre those of the enemy. Upon hearing what I had to tell them, both generals determined at once to repair themselves to the point of look-out from which we had just withdrawn, and, leaving their numerous escort behind, accompanied only by an orderly, they rode forward under my guidance to the barn already mentioned. Here the horses were placed in charge of the orderly, and we made our way on foot to the gate-posts. Fearing to augment the danger of their situation by my presence, I retired to the roadside some twenty yards distant, and left the two great leaders to their conference and survey. I must confess I felt extremely nervous as regards their safety, so close to the enemy, who surely little suspected that the two greatest heroes of the war were so nearly in their clutches. One well-directed shot, or a rapid dash of resolute horsemen, might have destroyed the hopes and confidence of our whole army. The sensation of relief on my part was therefore great, when, after many minutes of painful anxiety and impatience, the generals slowly returned, and we reached our horses without accident.

We were now soon joined by Stuart, and all, except Jackson, who parted with us to regain the troops under his command, rode back to Lee's Hill, from which a desultory cannonade was still kept up. Here we found that one of our 32-pounder Parrott guns had burst only a few moments before — a disaster which was fortunately not attended with loss of life, but which came very near proving fatal to our English friend Captain Phillips, who was standing at the instant of the explosion quite close to the gun, huge fragments [304] of which had been scattered with fearful violence all around him. The witnesses of the scene were full of admiration at the coolness displayed by our visitor on this occasion, and none of us could fail to remark the soldierly indifference to danger he manifested under heavy fire throughout the day. These Parrott guns had been manufactured in Richmond, and the iron of which they were cast was so defective that a second gun burst the same evening, wounding several of the gunners severely. At dusk the firing ceased altogether, and we returned to our headquarters, where our little military family, officers and guests, gathered around the glowing fires of Stuart's double-chimneyed tent to recite the adventures of the past, and discuss the chances of the coming day.

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