previous next

Chapter 22: battle of Fredericksburg.

  • Description of the field
  • -- Marye's Heights -- position of the troops of Longstreet's command -- General Jackson called down from Orange Court -- House, and preparations made for a determined stand -- signal guns at three o'clock in the morning announce the long-expected battle -- Burnside's bridge-builders thrice driven back from their work -- the crossing finally made by boats -- Federals under hot fire enter Fredericksburg -- how they obtained their foothold on the west bank of the Rappahannock -- gallant officers and men -- Ninety-seven killed or wounded in the space of fifty yards -- General Burnside's plan of battle -- strength of the contending forces.

McLaws's division of my corps was posted on the heights in rear of the city, one brigade in the sunken road in front of the Marye mansion, the others extending across the Telegraph road through the wood of Lee's Hill. As the other divisions of the corps came up they were posted, R. H. Anderson on Taylor's Hill; Ransom in reserve, near corps Headquarters; Pickett in the wood, in rear of McLaws's right; Hood at Hamilton's Crossing.

The Federal Grand Divisions under Franklin and Hooker marched on the 18th of November, and on the 19th pitched their camps, the former at Stafford Court-House, and the latter at Hartwood, each about ten miles from Falmouth. A mile and a half above Fredericksburg the Rappahannock cuts through a range of hills, which courses on the north side in a southeasterly direction, nearly parallel, and close to its margin. This range (Stafford Heights) was occupied by the enemy for his batteries of position, one hundred and forty-seven siege guns and long-range field batteries. These heights not only command those of the west, but the entire field and flats opened by the spreading out of the range on the west side. At points, however, they stand so close beside the [298] river that the guns on their crest could not be so depressed as to plunge their fire to the water. The heights are cut at points by streamlets and ravines leading into the river, and level up gradually as they approach nearer to the Potomac on its west slope, and towards the sea on the south. The city of Fredericksburg nestles under those heights on the opposite bank. McLaws had a brigade on picket service, extending its guard up and down the banks of the river, in connection with details from R. H. Anderson's division above and Hood's below, the latter meeting Stuart's cavalry vedettes lower down.

At the west end of the ridge where the river cuts through is Taylor's Hill (the Confederate left), which stands at its highest on a level with Stafford Heights. From that point the heights on the south side spread, unfolding a valley about a mile in width, affording a fine view of the city, of the arable fields, and the heights as they recede to the vanishing limits of sight. Next below Taylor's is Marye's Hill, rising to half the elevation of the neighboring heights and dropping back, leaving a plateau of half a mile, and then swelling to the usual altitude of the range. On the plateau is the Marye mansion. Along its base is a sunken road, with retaining walls on either side. That on the east is just breast-high for a man, and just the height convenient for infantry defence and fire. From the top of the breast-work the ground recedes gradually till near the canal, when it drops off three or four feet, leaving space near the canal of a rod or two of level ground. The north end of the sunken road cuts into the plank or Gordonsville road, which is an extension of Hanover Street from near the heart of the town. At the south end it enters the Telegraph road, extending out from the town limits and up over the third, or Telegraph Hill, called, in its bloody baptismal, “Lee's Hill.” An unfinished railroad lies along the Telegraph road as far as the highlands. The Fredericksburg and [299] Potomac Railroad lies nearly parallel with the river four miles, and then turns south through the highlands. The old stage road from the city runs about half-way between the river and the railroad four miles, when it turns southwest and crosses the railroad at Hamilton's Crossing. The hamlet of Falmouth, on the north side of the river, was in front of the right centre of the Federal position, half a mile from Fredericksburg.

General Jackson, advised of General Burnside's move to Fredericksburg, drew his corps east of the Blue Ridge as far as Orange Court-House.

Before the end of November it became evident that Fredericksburg was to be our winter station and the scene of a severe battle before it could be relieved. General Lee advised the citizens who still remained in the place (and some who had returned) to remove their effects. Those who had friends found comfortable places of rest, but many took the little that they could get away with, and made their homes in the deep forest till the storm could pass. Still, none complained of the severe ordeal which they were called upon to endure.

Towards the latter part of the month General Jackson was called down and assigned position on the right near Hamilton's Crossing and the Massaponax. He objected to the position, preferring the North Anna, but General Lee had already weighed the matter, and had decided in favor of Fredericksburg. Hood's division, relieved at Hamilton's Crossing, was drawn to my right and stretched across the valley of Deep Run, a little to the rear of Jackson's left and McLaws's right.

Batteries of position were assigned from the reserve artillery along the heights, with orders to cover the guns, by epaulements or pitting them. The work was progressing while the guns were held under cover remote from the enemy's better appointed artillery until the positions were covered by solid banks or good pits. The small field [300] pieces were removed for safety to convenient points for field service in case opportunity called for them. The Confederates had three hundred and six guns, including two thirty-pound Parrotts of Richmond make. These were covered by epaulements on Lee's Hill.

On the 1st of December the batteries of reserve artillery were relieved from the First Corps by those of the Washington and Alexander's artillery. Orders were given to examine all lines of approach, and to measure particularly the distance of the crossings of the canal on the Plank and Telegraph roads; to inspect and improve the parapets and pits along the front, and to traverse all batteries not securely covered against the batteries opposite Taylor's Hill, and others within range of our lines, and McLaws was directed to open signal line with his brigade and guards along the river bank.

The day after Jackson joined us several gun-boats were reported in the lower river at Port Royal. D. H. Hill's division was detached with several select batteries to watch and guard at that point against a crossing, should it be attempted, and to engage and try the metal of the gunboats. After some little practice the boats drew off and dropped down-stream; but Hill's division was left near the point in observation with W. H. F. Lee's cavalry. The brigade of cavalry under General Hampton kept careful watch of the fords of the upper Rappahannock. To guard against further encroachments of the gun-boats, a battery was intrenched on the river bank under direction of Major T. M. R. Talcot, of the general staff. At the river, sharp-shooters, by concealing themselves in the ravines and pits, could escape artillery fire and lie in secure readiness to attack parties engaged in laying bridges. After driving off working parties they were to seek cover till again needed. By such practice they were to delay the bridge-builders till the commands had time to assemble at their points of rendezvous. The [301] narrow, deep bed of the stream, a mile away from any point of the Confederate lines where batteries could be planted, and covered as it was by the guns of Stafford Heights, prevented the thought of successful resistance to laying bridges at any point from Falmouth to the extreme left of the Federal line; but the strong ground upon which the Confederates were to accept battle offset the uncomfortable feeling in regard to the crossing of the river.

General Burnside made some show of disposition to cross fourteen miles below, at Skinker's Neck, but that was under guard of D. H. Hill's division, and he saw that his purpose could not be effected. The plan which he finally adopted was to span the river by bridges near the centre and lower limits of the city, and two others a mile below the latter, and just below the mouth of Deep Run, the Right Grand Division to cross by the upper and second bridges, the Left Grand Division by the lower bridges, and the Centre Grand Division to be in position near the others to reinforce their battle.

The stir and excitement about the enemy's camps on the 10th of December, as well as the reports of scouts, gave notice that important movements were pending. Notice was given the commands, and the batteries were ordered to have their animals in harness an hour before daylight of the next morning, and to continue to hitch up daily at that hour until further orders.

At three o'clock on the morning of the 11th the deep boom of a cannon aroused both armies, and a second gun was recognized as the signal for battle. In a few minutes the commands were on the march for their positions. Orders were sent to call D. H. Hill's division and all of the Second Corps to their ground along the woodland over Hamilton's Crossing.

Barksdale's brigade of Mississippians was on picket duty in Fredericksburg at the time; the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Regiments, with the Eighth Florida, of R. H. [302] Anderson's division, were on the river line; the other regiments of the brigade and the Third Georgia, of R. H. Anderson's, in reserve.

The first noise made by the enemy's bridge-builders was understood by the picket guards, as was all of their early work of construction, but a heavy mist along the water concealed them from view until their work upon the bridge was well advanced. As soon as the forms of the workmen could be discerned the skirmishers opened fire, which was speedily answered from the other side in efforts to draw the fire from the bridge-builders, but the Confederates limited their attention to the builders till they were driven off, when they ceased firing. Another effort to lay the bridge met a like result. Then a third received the same stormy repulse, when it seemed that all the cannon within a mile of the town turned their concentrating fire of shot and shell upon the buildings of the devoted city, tearing, crushing, bursting, burning their walls with angry desperation that must have been gratifying to spirits deep down below.

Under the failures to lay the bridge, General Hunt suggested that the pontoon-boats be filled with infantrymen, rushed across and landed on the other bank until a sufficient force was in position to protect the bridge-builders. Barksdale had been notified before noon that the army was in position, and that he could withdraw his troops at any moment, but he preferred his little fight in Fredericksburg. At four o'clock, when the landing was made by the boats, he thought the city safe against artillery practice, and was pleased to hold till night could cover his withdrawal.

Colonel Norman J. Hall, of the Seventh Michigan Regiment, commanded the troops working for a foothold on the west bank. After the several attempts to have the bridge built, he accepted General Hunt's proposition to load the boats and have the men push across. Lieutenant- [303] Colonel Baxter, commanding the regiment, volunteered to lead the party. Captain Weymouth, of the Nineteenth Massachusetts, proposed to support the move. Under signal for artillery fire to cease, the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Baxter pushed across. Under the best fire the pickets could bring to bear only one man was killed and Lieutenant-Colonel Baxter and several men were wounded. The party of seventy were rushed up the bank, gained position, captured some prisoners, and were soon reinforced. The enemy's fire over the west bank was so sweeping that Barksdale could not reinforce at the point of landing. The Nineteenth Massachusetts was deployed to the right, and the Seventh Michigan to the left. The Twenty-eighth Massachusetts reinforced them. The Twelfth and Fifty-ninth New York and One Hundred and Twenty-seventh Pennsylvania Regiments joined the command in the city. Colonel Hall found that he must prepare for some fighting, and speedily, as night was coming on. He sent to the rear to ask for time to prepare and make his fight to suit him, but was hurried on by the division pushing forward to get across the bridge, with orders to secure the streets at all hazards. The Seventh Michigan and Nineteenth Massachusetts had been brought to a stand, when the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts was rushed forward in gallant style. Colonel Hall reported, “Platoon after platoon were swept away, but the head of the column did not falter. Ninety-seven officers and men were killed or wounded in the space of about fifty yards.” The eastern part of the town was occupied, and at a late hour of the night the Confederates retired.

As Barksdale's brigade withdrew, he was relieved at the sunken road by the Eighteenth and Twenty-fourth Georgia Regiments and Cobb's Georgia Legion, General T. R. R. Cobb in command.

The Third Grand Division had no severe work in [304] laying the bridges below Deep Run, and were ready for cooperation some hours in advance of the right.

The Federals occupied the 12th in moving the Right Grand Division into the city by the upper bridges, and the Left Grand Division by the bridges below Deep Creek. One hundred and four guns crossed with the right, one hundred and twenty with the left. The Centre Grand Division was held in reserve. Two divisions of the Third Corps were sent to the lower bridges during the night to support the battle of the left, and were ordered over on the 13th.

The plan of battle by the Federal commander, in brief, was to drive the Confederate right back into the highlands and follow that success by attacking the Confederate left by his Right Grand Division.

The beginning only of this plan was carried out. The Left Grand Division having duly crossed the river at the lower bridges on the 12th,--the Sixth Corps and Bayard's brigade of cavalry, then the First Corps,--the Sixth deployed two divisions, supported by the third, parallel to the old Richmond road; the First formed at right angles to the Sixth, its right on the left of the Sixth, its left on the river, two divisions on the front line, one in support. The cavalry was sent out to reconnoitre. The entire field of the command was an open plain between the highlands and the river, traversed by the old Richmond road, which had well-formed embankments and ditches on both sides.

The Federal troops of their left divisions were in full view of the heights (Lee's Hill) occupied by the Confederates; those of the right were concealed by the buildings of Fredericksburg and under the river banks, and their bridges were under the steep also. The two brigades on the right of the Sixth Corps were to the right of Deep Run; the others, of the First and Sixth Corps, on the left. The batteries of the corps were under authority [305] of corps commanders. There were but few shots exchanged during the 12th, and these not of great damage.

On the Confederate side the First Corps (Longstreet's) was in position from Taylor's Hill across Deep Run Bottom. The Second Corps was in mass about the wooded heights at Hamilton's Crossing. His cavalry and horse artillery were on his right in the Massaponax Valley. General R. Ransom's division was posted in rear of the left of Marye's Hill; his Twenty-fourth North Carolina Regiment was advanced to the left of Cobb's line in the sunken road. His brigade under Colonel Cooke was deployed as sharp-shooters on the crest of the hill. He was especially charged with looking after the left of Cobb's line. In front of this line and about six hundred yards from it was a canal, or large wet ditch, about four hundred yards out from the city limits. The crossings at the Plank and Telegraph roads had been bridged, and the bridges were ordered wrecked, but were only partially destroyed, the string-pieces being left in place. The corps in position, the Confederate commander prepared to stand and receive battle.

In concluding this account of the confronting armies on the eve of battle, let us glance at their relative strength as expressed in numbers.

The Army of the Potomac, as reported by General Burnside, had on December 10 an “aggregate present for duty” of 132,017 1 officers and men (not including cavalry). The Army of Northern Virginia was reported by General Lee on the same date to have had an aggregate of 69,391 2 (not including cavalry).

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XXI. part i. p. 1121.

2 Ibid., p. 1057.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
December 10th (2)
December 1st (1)
November 18th (1)
November (1)
13th (1)
12th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: