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Franklin's “left Grand division.”

by William Farrar Smith, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.
When General Burnside assumed the command of the Army of the Potomac on the 9th of November, 1862, he gave up the immense strategic advantage which McClellan had gained, and led the army to Falmouth on the Rappahannock River, opposite the city of Fredericksburg. A few days after his arrival on the Rappahannock he called a council of war. It was a conference rather than a council, for he stated that he called the generals together to make known something of his plans, and not to put any question before them for decision. The grand division commanders, Sumner, Franklin, and Hooker, were present, and also, I think, the corps commanders. I was present as commander of the Sixth Army Corps. The entire army was massed within a few miles of Falmouth, and the first object was to cross the river in our front, and gain a fair field for a battle. From the same ground Hooker afterward marched north-west, and by a series of fine movements placed himself in a position to offer battle at Chancellorsville on at least equal terms. The outcome of Hooker's campaign belied its beginning, but it led to the battle of Gettysburg, which more than compensated in results for the previous failure.1

General Burnside opened the conference by stating that within a few days he proposed to cross the river to offer battle to General Lee, and that after a close study of the reports of his engineers he had chosen Skinker's Neck as [129] the point of crossing. Skinker's Neck is a shoe-shaped bend in the Rappahannock River, about twelve miles below Fredericksburg. It offered all the necessary military features for forcing a crossing, but, like Butler's famous “bottle” at Bermuda Hundred, also presented great facilities for preventing the egress of an army which had effected an entrance on its peninsula. After developing to a limited extent his plans, the general said that any one present was at liberty to express his views on the subject. General Sumner, if I recollect aright, remarked only that he would do his utmost to carry out the plans of the commanding general. General Franklin said that we could doubtless effect a crossing at the designated place; he assumed that the movements, after crossing, had been carefully studied, and he stood ready to execute any orders he might receive. General Hooker then said, in substance, that it was preposterous to talk about our crossing the river in the face of Lee's army; that he would like to be in command of fifty thousand men on the other side of the river, and have an enemy make the attempt. I then stated that I would guarantee the crossing of the river if my command had the advance. General Burnside closed the conference by stating that his mind was made up; that we must prepare our commands for the work before them; and that we should receive the proper orders in due time.

Three or four days after that I was at Burnside's headquarters, and he invited me to take a ride with him. Riding along on the hills near the river,

The pontoon-bridges at Franklin's crossing. From a War-time photograph. The hills occupied by Stonewall Jackson's command are seen in the distance.


Franklin's battle-field as seen from Hamilton's crossing — Fredericksburg steeples in the distance. From a sketch made in 1884.

he pointed out some fine positions for artillery, and said: “my reserve artillery has as yet had no chance to show its value, and I am going to make the crossing here and below, under cover of the guns of the reserve artillery.”

to this I replied, “you can cross here without great difficulty, for this bank dominates the other, but when your army is across your troubles will begin,” calling his attention at the same time to the range of hills on the other side, a mile or more back from the river.

“ oh!” said Burnside, “I know where Lee's forces are, and I expect to surprise him. I expect to cross and occupy the hills before Lee can bring anything serious to meet me.”

I then said, “if you are sure of that, there is no more to be said on the subject.”

on parting General Burnside said, “I wish you to say nothing to any one about my change of plan. I will make it known at the proper time.”

though General Franklin and myself were on the most intimate terms, and occupied the same tent, I gave him no hint of the change. Two or three days before the movement General Franklin was notified of the point selected for his crossing, and I then told him the story of the change of plan.

he merely said, “your command is the strongest, and you must take the advance.” [131]

as I remember, it was on the afternoon of the 10th of December that General Franklin received an order to have the head of his command at a designated point on the river, about one and a half miles below Fredericksburg, and since known as Franklin's crossing, at daylight on the morning of the 11th, where he would at once begin crossing by bridges which would be found ready.

on the morning of the 11th of December, at 5 o'clock, the First Corps, under Major-General John F. Reynolds, marched to take position at the bridges, and cover the crossing of the Sixth Corps over the Rappahannock. A brigade of the Corps had moved at 2 o'clock A. M., to protect the engineer troops while throwing the bridges, which were expected to be finished by daylight. The work was for a while suspended on account of the fire of sharpshooters, covered by some fishing-huts and a thicket on the opposite shore. Two batteries placed on the bank opened with canister and shell, and caused the enemy to disappear, and work was resumed. When the head of the Sixth Corps reached the bank at 7:30 A. M., only three or four pontoons of each bridge had been placed in position, and the bridges were not completed till about 1 P. M. It was not until about 4 P. M. That I received orders to begin the crossing.

General Devens's brigade held the post of honor and began the movement, using both bridges. One of the commanders of the leading regiments, more patriotic than wise, had placed his band at the head of the column, and it was ordered to begin playing as it reached the bridge. This threw the men on the bridges into “step,” and for some minutes it looked as though both bridges must go down. Fortunately, through the reckless riding of a “wild Irishman” on the staff, an order reached the colonel, and the music was stopped before any harm was done.

the troops were rapidly thrown across, when an order came to recross all but one brigade. This was done and General Devens's brigade was left to keep the bridge-head. The cause of this was that the upper bridges opposite the town, intended for the use of the right wing, had not yet been finished. Sharp-shooters in the brick houses near the river had interfered with the work, and the heavy guns of the reserve artillery could not make the same impression on masonry walls that our field-batteries had produced on thicket and hut. Some volunteers finally crossed the river to Fredericksburg in boats and cleared the other bank, and the bridge was rapidly laid.

of course all chance of effecting a surprise was now over, and if we persisted in crossing we must fight for the hills south of the river. There was, however, a very fine opportunity for turning what had been done into a feint, and crossing the main army elsewhere. But this was not done, and early on the morning of the 12th the Sixth Corps recommenced the passage of the river, marched to the front about a mile, and formed line of battle. Its right was thrown across Deep Run, which, between the Sixth Corps and the river, was an impassable stream, separating us, until bridged, from the right wing of the army. In the right front was an open field, traversed by Deep Run from left to right, bounded by the hills and narrowing as it [132]

From a photograph taken about 1884.

approached a gorge a mile or more away. In front of the left and right at a distance of perhaps half a mile was the ridge of hills occupied by the enemy.

the First Corps, under Major-General John F. Reynolds, followed the Sixth, and, forming on its left, curved back across the Richmond road and rested its left on the Rappahannock River. In its right front was the range of hills at a short distance, which broke away, leaving an open space on the left between it and the River. Here were two Corps with an impassable stream on their right, a formidable range of hills occupied by the enemy covering almost their entire front, and at their back a River with two frail bridges connecting its shores. It takes soldiers who do not believe that War is an art to be perfectly at their ease under such circumstances.

General Franklin, General Reynolds, and myself were on the most intimate social and official terms. We always discussed questions of General interest to the command, and after General Reynolds had placed his Corps in position [133] we met and looked over the situation as it then appeared to us. We unanimously agreed that there was but one thing to do, and that was to put the forty thousand men of the left Grand division into columns of assault on the right and left of the Richmond road, carry the ridge, and turn Lee's right flank at any cost. To do this the Sixth Corps must be relieved from its position in line, where it was covering the bridge. This could only be done after dark, but as it would take some time to get the columns formed, and as it was necessary that the men should get some rest before morning, the work of preparation must begin directly after dusk. In coming to this conclusion we had considered the fact that Lee being on the exterior had longer lines than those of our army, and that therefore he could not have force enough on his right to resist an assault by forty thousand men, and that the demonstration made on his left would prevent the withdrawal of any of his force from that flank. Besides this we had in front of Reynolds open country of sufficient width to turn the hills which terminated to the right of the Richmond road.

about 5 P. M. General Burnside came to the left wing, and after he had taken a hurried gallop along the lines General Franklin asked him to go to his tent, and there gave him the above-described plan as the only one that in our judgment offered a fair hope of success. When General Burnside left us we were all of the opinion that he agreed with us, and the last request, urgently pressed upon him, was that he should at once give the order for Birney's and Sickles's divisions of the Third Corps (Hooker's center Grand division) to cross the bridge and be ready to begin to relieve the Sixth Corps in the lines at dusk. Under the supposition that the orders asked for would soon be received, General Franklin gave General Reynolds and myself orders to do all the preliminary work possible; which being done, we returned to General Franklin's headquarters to await the arrival of the messenger from General Burnside. As the precious time passed by we fell to discussing the condition of affairs. Burnside had proposed to effect a surprise, and now before Lee could be attacked he would have had forty-eight hours for concentration against us and for fortifying his positions on the hills. Burnside had persisted in crossing the River after all hope of a surprise had faded away, and now we must fight our way out under great disadvantages. Had Burnside been forced into a move by the Administration? under the circumstances would he make a desperate fight or only go far enough to keep up appearances? whatever was in store for us the left Grand division was a unit in sentiment; the men were brave and well disciplined, and we felt sure that with our forty thousand men we could force back Lee's right flank and get a better position for a General battle, if one were then necessary. Would Burnside adopt our plan, and if so, why this delay which was costing us so much valuable time? we had all known Burnside socially, long and intimately, but in his new position of grave re sponsibility he was to us entirely unknown.

the weary hours of that long winter night wore away in this profitless manner until about 3 o'clock, when General Reynolds said: “I know I have hard work ahead of me and I must get some sleep. Send for me if I am [134]

Ruins of Mansfield, also known as the Bernard House. from a War-time photograph.

wanted.” General Franklin then sent an aide to headquarters, who returned with the answer that the orders would “come presently.”

the order came, I think, at 7:45 A. M.: “keep your whole command in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road.” two-thirds of the command (the Sixth Corps) was so placed that it could not move, without danger of losing the bridges, until relieved by other troops or until Lee's right wing should be in full retreat. “and you will send out at once a division, at least, to pass below Smithfield,”--a hamlet occupied by Reynolds on the previous evening,--“to seize if possible the heights near Captain Hamilton's, on this side of the Massaponax, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open.

the peculiar wording of the order is positive evidence that when it was penned Burnside's mind was still filled with the fallacy of effecting a surprise. The order recites that the division to be sent out by Franklin — and also one to be pushed forward by Sumner on the right — was to seize, or attempt to seize, certain heights. The military man is habituated to use the word seize when an unguarded position is to be occupied, or a point in the lines of the enemy left weak through ignorance or neglect is to be taken by a sudden rush. Both of these operations are in the nature of a military surprise. When an advantage is to be gained by hard fighting or the weight of a mass of troops, the word carry is instinctively used. In corroboration of this proposition, I will state that in the Third interview I had with Burnside, after the battle, he said, “I should have ordered Franklin to carry the heights at Captain Hamilton's at all hazards.” 2 [135]

the Sixth Corps had two divisions in line and one in reserve. It remained in an exposed position during the day, and suffered severely from artillery fire, while the enemy in its front were well covered by woods and rifle-pits.

in obedience to his orders Reynolds moved to the attack at 8:30 A. M., with his center division under Meade, which was to be supported by the division of Gibbon on the right and next to the Sixth Corps. The Third division, under Doubleday, was in reserve and guarding Meade's left.3 Meade crossed the ravine in his front, and directed his course toward a point of woods coming down from the heights. The artillery on the crest was silenced by three batteries, and Meade pushed on, supported on his right by Gibbon, and, after severe fighting, carried the crest, capturing flags and prisoners. In the dense woods on the height, the connection with Gibbon

A Jack-knife record on the Stone wall of the Bernard House.

was lost, and Meade, after a stubborn contest, was finally driven back, Gibbon yet holding his ground. Two regiments from the Third Corps arriving were sent to Gibbon's left, but were soon overpowered, and they were forced back with Gibbon. The enemy made a strong show of following up their success, but the arrival of two fresh brigades from the Third Corps checked them and drove them back to their sheltered positions. Gibbon's division, after its retreat, was relieved by Sickles's division of the Third Corps. Newton's division, the reserves of the Sixth Corps, arrived late in the afternoon and took position on the left, but was not engaged. The enemy's batteries on their extreme right, having a reverse fire upon Meade, when he advanced up the crest, maintained their position throughout the battle. Owing to the foggy character of the day our artillery on the left bank of the Rappahannock was obliged to fire somewhat at random, and for the same reason the fire from the enemy's batteries was not very well directed. The contest ended at nightfall, our troops having made no material permanent advance.

the military reader will see that had Meade and Gibbon had behind them, when they carried the enemy's lines, the 25,000 men of the Sixth Corps instead of 2 regiments, simply, of the Third Corps, the probabilities would all [136] have been in favor of a success. When night fell there were no longer forty thousand men in the left Grand division, and we had gained no important advance.

after Meade's division had been withdrawn from the front he came to General Franklin's headquarters, and on being asked some question about the fight said, “I found it quite hot enough for me,” taking off his slouched hat and showing two bullet-holes between which and the top of his head there must have been little space. During one of the feeble, skirmishing attacks made on the lines of the Sixth Corps later in the day,

Brigadier-General George D. Bayard, killed at Fredericksburg. From a photograph.

Meade, who was still at headquarters, was expressing great uneasiness lest the enemy should break through and capture the bridges. General Franklin quieted him by saying that the Sixth Corps could not be driven from its position.

Mansfield,” as the Bernard house was called, was a large, stone mansion, that looked down on the Rappahannock River close beneath it, and was approached by an imposing drive, while behind was an open grove of magnificent trees; in this grove was the headquarters of General Franklin. The house was evidently one of Virginia's ancestral homes, and had been in former days the center of generous hospitality. Though under artillery fire, it was used as a temporary hospital, and in it the brave Bayard died. The grove was filled with saddled horses, not for the use of fair ladies and gay cavaliers, as in the olden time, but for staff-officers and orderlies to carry orders into the fight and bring back reports from the field. The testy owner, who remained about the house during the early part of the day, and whose word had been law for so many years to all the country side, did not realize, when he demanded the immediate evacuation of his premises, that he spoke to a man who commanded 40,000 men, and one who on that day had little regard for proprietary rights, and did not stand much in awe of a Virginia magnate or constable.4 [137]

during this day, as in all days of battle, many sad and many humorous incidents occurred. Some of the shots that were fired too high for the line of battle went hurtling through the headquarters of General Franklin into the open grove of large trees. General George D. Bayard, much endeared to us by his social qualities and his rare merits as a cavalry leader, was mortally wounded by a round shot through the thigh. Bayard and his friend, Captain H. G. Gibson, commanding a battery of flying artillery, were within ten feet of Franklin, and were just rising from the ground to go to luncheon when the shot came. It severed Gibson's sword-belt without injury to him, and struck Bayard. Many generals could have better been spared from the service.

a few days before the battle there had come to the Sixth Corps the first importation of bounty men. They had been placed in the front to save the veterans for heavy work, and as their wounded men were carried back through the ranks of the. Old soldiers, the latter would cry out, “take good care of those men; they have cost the Government a great deal of money.” the bounty men were at first a by-word and a cause of irritation to the real volunteers. During the afternoon, hearing some heavy musketry firing in my front, I went to ascertain the cause, and while riding along behind a regiment lying with their faces to the ground, a round shot struck the knapsack of a soldier, and, cutting it open, sent a cloud of underclothes into the air, and high above them floated a scattered pack of cards. The soldier, hearing the shouts of laughter, turned over to see what was the matter, and when he saw the mishap which had befallen him made a feeble effort to join in the laugh.

between 1 and 2 A. M. Of December 14th a council of war of the

From a photograph. killed at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. see p. 141.

Grand division commanders was ordered, and General Burnside announced his intention of leading the Ninth Corps (his old command) in an assault against the works which the Second Corps, led by such men as Couch and Hancock, had failed to carry. For some reason the project was abandoned. [see p. 127.] during the next two days the left Grand division remained in position, with no disturbance except that produced by an angry skirmish line with an occasional artillery engagement. [138]

on Monday afternoon (the 15th) I received an order from General Franklin, then detained at headquarters, to withdraw the left Grand division after dark to the left bank of the river, and what remained of the forty thousand men of that command recrossed during the night without loss and without molestation from the enemy.

after the battle I had four interviews with Burnside. The first was on Sunday, the 14th of December. I found him alone in his tent walking up and down, apparently in great distress of mind, and turning to me he said, “oh! those men! oh! those men!” I asked what he meant, and he said, “those men over there!” pointing across the river where so many thousands lay dead and wounded, “I am thinking of them all the time.”

I made some remark about the fate of soldiers and changed the subject. Burnside also said that he did not lead the Ninth Corps to the charge as he had said he would, because the generals on the right made such statements with reference to the demoralization of their commands that he feared to make the attempt. After we had recrossed the river I saw him again, when he told me that he had it in his mind to relieve Sumner from command, place Hooker in arrest, and Franklin in command of the army.

in the third interview General Reynolds was with me. Burnside said that the men on the left did not fight well enough. To this we replied that the list of killed and wounded proved the contrary. He then said, “I did not mean that; I meant there were not muskets enough fired,” adding, “I made a mistake in my order to Franklin; I should have directed him to carry the hill at Hamilton's at all hazards.” 5

at the fourth interview he stated that the mistake was that Franklin did not get the order early enough; that he had started it at 4 o'clock in the morning, but that General Hardie, to whom the order was committed, had stopped an hour and a half in camp to get breakfast. I then told him that we should have had the order before midnight in order to form such a column of attack as we had proposed.

for a few days General Burnside was dazed by the defeat and grief-stricken at the loss of life; but he soon recovered, and planned and attempted to carry out his harmless “mud campaign,” his last at the head of the army of the Potomac. [139]

Traffic between the lines during a truce.

1 When General Burnside determined to occupy Fredericksburg it was not held by a large force of the enemy. A body of cavalry, sent from Warrenton, could have seized the place without serious opposition, and could have held it until the advance of the infantry came up. In the preliminary discussion of the move from Warrenton to Fredericksburg, the notion that a serious battle was necessary to enable the army to get into Fredericksburg was not entertained by anyone. Sumner, who had the advance, reported that when he arrived at Falmouth he could even then have occupied Fredericksburg without opposition, had his orders justified him in crossing the river.--W. B. Franklin.

2 just as General Burnside was leaving, shortly after nightfall, I asked to be permitted to order General Stoneman's Corps (the Third) to cross at once. He declined to give the permission, but assured me I would have the orders before midnight. Had the permission been granted, the First and Sixth Corps would have been in position for the attack by daylight, the Third Corps taking the place of the Sixth, which would have attacked with the First Corps. Had the necessary orders been received, even by midnight, the movements would have been made under cover of the darkness, and the whole night after midnight would have been required to make them. It seems that General Burnside went to bed as soon as he arrived at his headquarters, and did not write the orders until the next morning. None of my urgent messages sent to him during the night were delivered to him, although their receipt at headquarters was acknowledged.

it will be seen that the order sent by General Burnside under which the attack was made is entirely different from that for an attack by forty thousand men, which I had a right to expect from what took place at our interview of the previous evening. And its receipt at 7:45 in the morning [it was dated 5:55 A. M.], instead of midnight, was unaccountable, except under the supposition that Burnside, for some reason that was unknown to us on the left, disapproved of the plan to which we thought he had assented, or that no serious attack was to be made from the left.--W. B. Franklin.

3 it came into action shortly after Meade's advance, to repel a threatened attack from a large force of cavalry which developed between our left and the Massaponax Creek.--W. B. Franklin.

4 when I first arrived at the Bernard house I found Mr. Bernard holding a lively interview with Reynolds. It seemed that Mr. Bernard protested against the use of his house and grounds by the troops because they would spoil them, and insisted upon staying at the house to protect it. Reynolds on such occasions was a man of few words, and I presently saw Mr. Bernard hurrying toward the pontoon-bridges between two soldiers, and he was not seen again in that vicinity.--W. B. Franklin.

5 the Committee on the Conduct of the War received from General Burnside responses to questions as follows:

Q. “do I understand you to say that you expected General Franklin to carry the point at the extreme left of the ridge in the rear of the town, and thereby enable our troops to storm and carry their fortifications?”

A. “I did expect him to carry that point; which being done would have placed our forces in rear of their extreme right, and which I thought at the time would shake their forces to such an extent that the position in front could be easily stormed and carried.”

Q. “to what do you attribute his failure to accomplish that?”

A. “to the great strength of the position, and the accumulation of the enemy's forces there.”

General Burnside then explained that the delay in building the bridges gave the enemy time to accumulate his forces before he was able to order the attack.--W. B. Franklin.

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