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The pontoniers at Fredericksburg.

by Wesley Brainerd, Major 50TH, and Colonel 15TH New York Engineers.
From certain remarks made by various writers [see pp. 107 and 126] on the battle of Fredericksburg, it might be inferred that there was some foundation for the general impression that had the pontoons arrived in time, the crossing could have been made before the enemy concentrated, and the disastrous defeat which followed might thus have been avoided.

The fact is that the engineers (15th and 50th New York), with two full trains and material for two pontoon-bridges, each 420 feet in length, arrived opposite Fredericksburg and bivouacked in rear of the Lacy house on the afternoon of November 27th, and could have thrown two bridges across the stream without opposition that night had they been allowed to do so. There was no force of the enemy in the city, and General Longstreet, with the advance of the Confederate army, had by a forced march occupied a portion of the heights in rear of the city on the 21st.

I distinctly remember that General Sumner rode up to our position soon after our arrival on the 27th and asked Major Ira Spaulding, of the 50th New York, and myself if we could throw a bridge across the river that night, to which we replied that we could throw two bridges across in three hours if he would give us the order to do so. After a little hesitation, he replied that he would like to give us the order, as there was certainly nothing to oppose its execution, but that he did not care to assume the responsibility, fearing that it might conflict with General Burnside's plans. He also remarked that he could have forded the stream with a part of his command at Falmouth several days before had he been allowed to do so; he then rode away. We were ordered back into camp, and the “golden [122] opportunity” passed — a blunder for which we were in no way responsible, but for which we were destined to suffer.

We did not receive the order to leave Berlin, six miles below Harper's Ferry, until late on the seventh day after it was issued.1 We took up two bridges, each 1100 feet long, loaded and moved them by canal and land transportation to Washington, where we received 500 unbroken mules. We then fitted up two trains, moved through the mud to Occoquan, where we divided the trains, part going by water and part by land to Aquia Creek, where we again reloaded the entire equipment, and arrived at the Lacy house but six days behind Longstreet's advance, which had made a forced march from the vicinity of Culpeper to reach the heights in rear of Fredericksburg. These being the facts, it can hardly be said, with justice, that the engineers were slow in their movements.

The idea of crossing immediately in front of the town seemed to have passed, temporarily at least, from General Burnside's mind, and “demonstrations” on an extensive scale were made to the right and left.

Twice I crossed the river below the town and examined the country for some distance inland, it being rather difficult to find ground suitable for the passage of artillery on both sides of the stream at all stages of the tide. The second time I crossed at “Skinker's neck,” and made a thorough examination of the country for several miles around, pacing off the distances, and furnished General Burnside, in person, with my sketches. These expeditions were, of course, made in the night.

Skinker's Neck” seemed to me to be the proper place for a crossing. At the time of my visit it was not occupied by the enemy, except by a cavalry patrol, which I easily avoided.

Six or eight miles above, where I made my first crossing, it was somewhat difficult to make my way through the picket lines. General Burnside appeared to be greatly pleased and relieved when I reported favorably on the “Skinker's neck” crossing. He gave me to understand that we should throw our bridges there, and we made our arrangements accordingly.

What was my surprise when, a few days after, the orders came that mine was to be one of two bridges that were to be thrown across directly in front of the city, near the Lacy house.

1 The “Official Records” show that this order, issued by Captain J. C. Duane, Chief-Engineer of the Army of the Potomac at Rectortown, on the 6th of November, did not reach Major Spaulding, at Berlin, until the afternoon of November 12th. General Halleck's report exonerates the engineers from all blame.--editors.

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Ambrose E. Burnside (4)
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