previous next


Why Burnside did not renew the attack at Fredericksburg.

by rush C. Hawkins, Brevet Brigadier-General, U. S. V.
November 22d, 1862, the whole Union army had reached Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, and General Lee, who had proved upon more than one occasion his watchfulness and enterprise, took means to insure the arrival, about the same time, of the Army of Northern Virginia on the heights in the immediate rear of Fredericksburg.

Without the slightest delay the enemy's line of defense was marked out, nor did their labors cease until their defensive lines were made formidable and complete by the mounting of a large number of guns. In the meantime the Army of the Potomac had drawn its abundant supply of daily rations, subjected itself to some drilling and several reviews, while, its commander had been carrying on an animated correspondence with the powers at Washington, chiefly in relation to pontoons which had been promised but had failed to reach Falmouth until long after the arrival of both armies at the points they then occupied. [See p. 121.] Some time during the first week in December the much-looked — for pontoon train appeared, and then came the oft-repeated camp rumor of a “movement over the river,” which in a few days assumed a more definite form, the actual plan of attack becoming the topic of many a camp-fire. It was freely stated that the whole army was to cross the river about such a time, and that the chief attack was to be made by General Sumner's Right Grand Division upon the enemy's center immediately back of Fredericksburg, where the hills were steepest and the fortifications strongest.

There were a few officers in the Army of the Potomac who had watched the gradual growth of the enemy's lines, and knew something of the natural formations in that direction,--a succession of steep hills which, in themselves, were almost as potent for defensive purposes as the average artificial fortifications. I, for one, had been over that ground several times the August before while engaged in ascertaining the best line for a grand guard for the protection of the roads leading from the back country into Frederieksburg. The three or four officers who were possessed of this knowledge expressed themselves very strongly in opposition to the plan of attack as foreshadowed by the gossips of the camp, and the news of these adverse opinions having come to General Burnside, he sent a circular to the general officers of the Right Grand Division and colonels commanding brigades to meet him at the Phillips house on the evening of December 9th. At the time appointed the large room of that mansion was filled with general officers, with here and there a colonel and a few grand division staff-officers. General Burnside made a speech in which he partly disclosed and explained his plan for the coming battle. It was received without any particular criticism or comment, but General French, who was very enthusiastic, said the battle would be won in forty-eight hours, and called for three cheers for the commander, which were given.

The meeting ended, Colonel J. H. Taylor, assistant adjutant-general of the Right Grand Division,. and myself were standing together in the hall of the house, when General Burnside came along and said to me, “What do you think of it?” I answered, “If you make the attack as contemplated it will be the greatest slaughter of the war; there isn't infantry enough in our whole army to carry those heights if they are well defended.” He then turned to Colonel Taylor and said, “;Colonel, what do you say about it?” The response came quickly and was sufficiently definite, “I quite agree with Colonel Hawkins. The carrying out of your plan will be murder, not warfare.” The commanding general was very much surprised and irritated, at these answers, and made a remark about my readiness to throw cold water upon his “plans” ; he repeated the assertion of French about victory within forty-eight hours, and passed on.

The meeting dispersed, the officers who had composed it going to their respective commands and giving their final orders for the movement of the following day. Besides attending to the details of moving my command on the morrow, I found time to write three letters--one to my mother, another to my wife, and a third to Charles P. Kirkland, of the city of New York. In each of these defeat was distinctly and without qualification predicted. The first letter in the order mentioned has been preserved, and from it the following quotations are given:

camp, near Falmouth, Va., December 10th, 1862.
Dear mother--. . . . To-morrow, if our present plans are carried out, the great battle of the war will commence. . . . I have little hope of the plans succeeding. I do not think them good,--there will be a great loss of life and nothing accomplished. I am sure we are to fight against all chances of success. There is a rumor and a hope that Banks may have landed on the James River; if so, a large part of the enemy's force will be diverted from this point, but if they have a force anywhere near our own in number we are pretty certain to get whipped.

The letter to Judge Kirkland was much stronger and more explicit, and evoked an answer from which one paragraph is quoted:

New York, December 18th, 1862.
How wonderfully prophetic is your letter, written on the 10th of December. It foretells exactly the awful disaster and reverse that our cause has met with. How is it possible, if you thus knew all this, that those having control were ignorant of it? This whole transaction seems now almost incredible. To think of the thousands of splendid, brave, patriotic fellows absolutely butchered without the least beneficial result: on the contrary, with a result disgraceful and disheartening to us, but I fervently trust a result from which we can recover.

This matter of the letters is here referred to, not in a spirit of pride, but simply to show a want of knowledge, judgment, and foresight on the part of those high in-command.

We now pass over the bombardment of December 11th, the many disastrous attempts to lay the pontoons in front of Fredericksburg, and come to 3 o'clock of that day, when volunteers were called for to cross the river in open boats for the purpose of [127] dislodging the enemy from the opposite bank. For this service the 7th Michigan, 19th and 20th Massachusetts of General Howard's division, and the 89th New York of my brigade answered the call. The first three regiments crossed under fire where the first bridge was afterward laid, and the fourth under sharper fire where the second was completed. By 9 o'clock that night the division of General Howard and my brigade had obtained possession of the town, the former taking the right of the line and the latter the left. The whole of the 12th of December into the night was occupied in crossing the army, and on the morning of the 13th the battle began and continued at intervals until darkness set in. During a considerable portion of that day, while the attacks upon the enemy's center, known as “Marye's Heights,” were being made, General George W. Getty, my division commander, and myself were on the roof of the Slaughter house, a high residence at the lower end of the city, named after its owner. From this prominent position our repeated repulses and the terrible destruction of the Union troops had been witnessed. At about half-past 3 o'clock the order came for General Getty's Third Division of the Ninth Corps to make an attack upon that part of the enemy's line to the left of where the principal attacks had been made. The order was obeyed, but not until I had tried to induce General Getty to protest against its obedience and the further useless waste of life. The attack of our division closed a battle which was one of the most disastrous defeats to the Union forces during the war. The sadness which prevailed throughout the whole army on that night can neither be described nor imagined. The surgeons were the happiest of all, for they were so busy that they had. no time to think of our terrible defeat.

About 9 o'clock that evening I found myself near a building situated upon the main street of the town, where several of the generals of the Right Grand Division had assembled for the purpose of discussing the attack to be made the next morning. When I entered the room these officers were looking at a map upon a table, showing the position of the enemy. There were present Generals Willcox, Humphreys, Getty, Butterfield, Meade, and three or four others. They were seriously discussing the proposed renewal of the attack the next day as though it had been decided upon. I listened until I was thoroughly irritated because of the ignorance displayed in regard to our situation, and then uttered a solemn, earnest, and emphatic protest against even the consideration of another attack. With a pencil I made a rough drawing of the first line then occupied by the enemy, and also showed a second position a little to the rear, to which they could fall back and make a strong stand in the event of their being driven out of their first line. It did not take long to convince these officers that a second attack would probably end more disastrously than the first, and they united in a request that I should go at once to try to persuade Burnside that the attack ought not to be renewed.

It was a cheerless ride in the wet and cold, and through the deep mud of an army-traveled road that dark night, for I was already weary from much care, watching, and loss of sleep, and besides I was fully aware of the unpleasant fact that an officer of very inferior rank was bent upon an ungrateful errand to a general commanding one of the largest armies of modern times. But a solemn sense of duty, and a humane desire to save further useless slaughter, convinced me that any sacrifice of self ought to be made in the interest of the men who were fighting our battles.

I arrived at the Phillips house about :11 o'clock to learn that I had probably passed General Burnside on the road, who had gone to perfect the details for a second attack. Those present at the Phillips house were Generals Sumner, Hooker, Franklin, Hardie, and Colonel Taylor. I made a brief statement and explanation of the object of my mission, which deeply interested all present. They united in a desire that I should wait until the arrival of General Burnside, which occurred about 1 o'clock. As he came through the door he said: “Well, it's all arranged; we attack at early dawn, the Ninth Corps in the center, which I shall lead in person” ; and then seeing me he said: “Hawkins, your brigade shall lead with the 9th New York on the right of the line, and we'll make up for the bad work of to-day.”

When he had ceased there was perfect silence, and he was evidently astonished that no one approved. With hesitation and great delicacy General Sumner then stated the object of my visit, and suggested that General Burnside should examine the rough drawing then upon the table, and listen to some reasons why the attack contemplated ought not to be made. After I had explained the enemy's positions, called attention to several pertinent circumstances, and made something of an argument, General Burnside asked General Sumner what he thought, and he replied that the troops had undergone such great fatigue and privation, and met with such a disaster, that it would not be prudent to make another attack so soon. General Hooker, who was lying full length upon a bed in one corner of the room, upon being appealed to by General Burnside, sat up and said in the most frank and decided manner that the attack ought not to be renewed that morning. Then a general consultation took place, in which all who were present joined, the result of which was a verbal order, transmitted through me, countermanding the arrangements for a second attack.

Of those present at the first interview, on the Fredericksburg side, Generals Getty, Willcox, Butterfield, and probably several others whom I do not now remember, are living. The only survivors of the Phillips house interview are General Franklin and myself. In one of his letters to me, dated Hartford, Conn., December 17th, 1866, he says:

. . . I distinctly recollect your talk to Burnside, to which you refer, and had he been so talked to before he crossed the river, many lives would have been saved, as well as much credit to himself and reputation to the gallant Army of the Potomac.


Franklin's men charging across the railroad.

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)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: