previous next


The confederate left at Fredericksburg.

by Lafayette McLAWS, Major-General, C. S. A.
On the 25th of November, 1862, my division marched into Fredericksburg, and shortly after, by direction of General Longstreet, I occupied the city with one of my brigades and picketed the river with strong detachments from the dam at Falmouth to a quarter of a mile below Deep Run creek, the enemy's pickets being just across the river, within a stone's-throw of mine. Detachments were immediately set at work digging rifle-pits close to the edge of the bank, so close that our men, when in them, could command the river and the shores on each side. The cellars of the houses near the river were made available for the use of riflemen, and zigzags were constructed to enable the men to get in and out of the rifle-pits under cover. All this was done at night, and so secretly and quietly that I do not believe the enemy had any conception of the minute and careful preparations that had been made to defeat any attempt to cross the river in my front. No provision was made for the use of artillery, as the enemy had an enormous array of their batteries on the heights above the town, and could have demolished ours in five minutes.

Two or three evenings previous to the Federal attempt to cross, I was with General Barksdale, and we were attracted by one or more of the enemy's bands playing at their end of the railroad bridge. A number of their officers and a crowd of their men were about the band cheering their national airs, the “Star Spangled banner,” “Hail Columbia,” and others, once so dear to us all. It seemed as if they expected some response from us, but none was given until, finally, they struck up “Dixie,” and then both sides cheered, with much laughter. Surmising that this serenade meant mischief, I closely inspected our bank of the river, and at night caused additional rifle-pits to be constructed to guard more securely the approaches to the bridge.

Early in the night of the 10th General Barksdale reported that his pickets had heard noises, as if the enemy were hauling pontoon-boats to the brink of the river; a dense fog had prevented a clear view. About 2 A. M., of the 11th, General Barksdale notified me that the movements on the other side indicated that the enemy were preparing to lay down the pontoon-bridges. I told him to let the bridge building go on until the enemy were committed to it and the construction parties were within easy range. At 4:30 he reported that the bridge was being rapidly constructed and was nearly half done, and he was about to open fire. I then ordered the signal to be given by firing two guns of J. P. W. Read's battery, posted on the highest point along my front, on the edge of the hills alongside the main road running to the city.

Previous notice had been sent to General Lee and to corps headquarters that the bridge was being constructed. With the sound of the cannon was mingled the rattle of the rifles of the Mississippi men, who opened a concentrated fire from the rifle-pits and swept the bridge, now crowded with the construction [87] parties. Nine distinct and desperate attempts were made to complete the bridge, but every one was attended with such heavy loss from our fire that the efforts were abandoned until about 10 A. M., when suddenly the tremendous array of the Federal artillery opened fire from the heights above the city.

It is impossible fitly to describe the effects of this iron hail hurled against the small band of defenders and into the devoted city. The roar of the cannon, the bursting shells, the falling of walls and chimneys, and the flying bricks and other material dislodged from the houses by the iron balls and shells, added to the fire of the infantry from both sides and

Barksdale's Mississippians opposing the laying of the pontoon-bridges.

the smoke from the guns and from the burning houses, made a scene of indescribable confusion, enough to appall the stoutest hearts! Under cover of this bombardment the Federals renewed their efforts to construct the bridge, but the little band of Mississippians in the rifle-pits under Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fiser, 17th Mississippi, composed of his own regiment, 10 sharpshooters from the 13th Mississippi, and 3 companies from the 18th Mississippi (Lieutenant-Colonel Luse), held their posts, and successfully repelled every attempt. The enemy had been committed to that point, by having used half their pontoons.

About 4:30 P. M. the enemy began crossing in boats, and the concentrated fire from all arms, directed against Barksdale's men in the rifle-pits, became so severe that it was impossible for them to use their rifles with effect.1

As the main purpose of a determined defense, which was to gain time for the other troops to take position, had been accomplished, Colonel Fiser was [88] directed to draw his command back from the river and join the brigade in the city; and just in time, for the enemy, no longer impeded by our fire, crossed the river rapidly in boats, and, forming on the flanks, rushed down to capture the men in the rifle-pits, taking them in the rear. Some of the men in the cellars, who did not get the order to retire, were thus captured,2 but the main body of them rejoined the brigade on Princess-Anne street, where it had been assembled, and all attempts made by the enemy, now crossing in large numbers, to gain possession of the city were defeated. The firing ceased by 7 o'clock, and as the grand division of Franklin had effected a crossing below the mouth of Deep Run, and thus controlled ground which was higher than the city, and other troops had crossed above the city, where, also, the ground was higher, so that our position would become untenable in the morning, I directed General Barksdale to retire to a strong position I had noticed along a sunken road cut through the foot of Marye's Hill and running perpendicular to the line of the enemy's advance.

We read in the accounts given by Federal officers of rank that although General Franklin's command had constructed a bridge or two across the Rappahannock, below the mouth of Deep Run, and had crossed the greater portion of his division on the 11th, yet, because of the failure of General Sumner's grand division to force a crossing in front of Fredericksburg, all but one brigade of Franklin's grand division had been recrossed to the left bank to await the result of Sumner's efforts, and that Franklin's grand division was not again crossed to our side until the 12th. The Federal accounts show that this determined defense offered by a small fraction of Barksdale's brigade not only prevented Sumner's crossing, but by this delay caused the whole of Franklin's Left Grand Division, except one brigade, to recross the Rappahannock, and thus gave General Lee twenty-four hours time to prepare for the assault, with full notice of the points of attack.

Early on the night of the 11th General Thomas R. R. Cobb was directed to relieve the brigade of General Barksdale, and accordingly three Georgia regiments and the Phillips Legion of Cobb's brigade took position in the sunken road at foot of Marye's Hill, on the lower side of which there was a stone-wall something over four feet high, most of which was protected by the earth thrown from the road, and was invisible from the front. Barksdale's brigade retired to their originally assigned position as my rear line of defense, in Bernard's woods, where they constructed abatis and rifle-pits during the 12th.

Meanwhile the 18th Mississippi Regiment, of Barksdale's brigade, under Colonel Luse, which had been detached to defend the river-bank below the town on the night of the 10th, had offered such vigorous resistance from behind some old huts and thickets that the enemy had delayed the construction of their pontoon-bridges there until after daylight on the 11th, and there-fore, instead of crossing the grand division by daylight of the 11th, did not cross until late on that day. The enemy on the 11th brought grape and canister against Colonel Luse, who was not fortified, not having rifle-pits [89]

Fredericksburg from the foot of Willis's Hill. From a War-time photograph. In the middle-ground is seen the south end of the stone-wall, and it may be seen that the front line of defense formed by the wall was continued still farther to the right by the sunken Telegraph road. At the base of the hill, this side of the stone-wall, is seen an earth-work which was a part of the second line. A third line [see p. 83] was on the brow of this hill, now the National Cemetery. Between the steeples on the outskirts of Fredericksburg is seen the end of Hanover street, by which, and by the street in the right of the picture, the Union forces filed out to form for the assault.--editors.

even, and his regiment was withdrawn to the river road. The 16th Georgia, Colonel Bryan, and the 15th South Carolina, Colonel De Saussure, which had been ordered to the assistance of Colonel Luse, retired with his column. Early on the 11th a battalion of the 8th Florida, under Captain Lang, numbering 150 men, had been posted to the left of Colonel Fiser's command, above Fredericksburg, and while under Captain Lang did good service. But unfortunately the captain was badly wounded about 11 A. M., and the battalion was withdrawn. I think the defense of the river-crossing in front of Fredericksburg was a notable and wonderful feat of arms, challenging comparison with anything that happened during the war.

On the 12th close and heavy skirmishing was kept up between my advanced parties and the enemy, and whole divisions were employed in fortifying their positions and preparing for the coming assaults. The grounds in my front had been well studied by myself, in company with my brigade commanders and colonels of regiments, and all the details for the supply of ammunition, provisions, water, care for the wounded, and other necessary arrangements had been attended to, so that we waited for the enemy with perfect calmness and with confidence in our ability to repel them.

A heavy fog hung over the valley, concealing the town from our view, and until late in the day the banks below were not visible. As I was anxiously inquiring for some news from the pickets, since the point of attack had not yet been developed, my aide-de-camp, Captain H. L. P. King, volunteered to go to [90] the river and collect information by personal observation, and I consented to his going, but did not send him. He rode off, and in about two hours returned, reporting that he had ridden down Deep Run as far as he could go in safety on horseback, and, dismounting and concealing his horse, had gone on foot down the run to its mouth, and from there he had watched the enemy crossing the river on two bridges. One or two hundred yards below the mouth of the run large bodies of infantry, artillery, and some cavalry had crossed, while heavy forces on the opposite side were waiting their turn to cross. On his return he had gone into a two-story wooden dwelling on the banks of the river, and had taken a leisurely view of the whole surroundings, confirming his observations taken from the mouth of Deep Run. This was a daring reconnoissance, as, at the time, none of our troops were within a mile of him. Up to this time the enemy had not shown us any very large body of troops, either in Fredericksburg, on the opposite side, or below.

On the 13th, during the early morning, a thick fog enveloped the town in my front and the valley of the river, but between 9 and 10 o'clock it lifted, and we could see on our right, below Deep Run, long lines of the enemy stretching down the river, and near it, but not in motion. Reconnoitering parties on horseback were examining the grounds in front of our army, coming within range without being fired on. After they retired a strong body of infantry advanced from a point on the river somewhat below my extreme right, as if to gain possession of the Bernard woods, but I had seven rifleguns on the hill above those woods to meet this very contingency, and these opening on this advancing body, it fell back to the river before coming within reach of Barksdale.

As the fog lifted higher an immense column of infantry could be seen halted on the other side of the river, along the road leading from the hills beyond to the pontoon-bridges in front of the town, and extending back for miles, as it looked to us, and still we could not see the end. In Jackson's front the enemy had advanced, and their forming lines were plainly visible, while in Longstreet's front we could see no body of troops on the Fredericksburg side of the river. The indications were that Jackson was to receive the first blow, and General Longstreet came to me and said he was going over to that flank. I called his attention to the immense column of troops opposite us, on the other side of the river, with its head at the pontoon-bridges, crossing to Fredericksburg in our immediate front, and told him that in my judgment the most desperate assault was to be made on his front, and it would be developed close to us, without our knowing that it was forming, nor would we know when it commenced to move against us; that the assault would be sudden and we should be ready to meet it, and that there were certainly as many of the enemy in that column threatening us as appeared in the lines opposite General Jackson. General Longstreet agreed with me, and remained.

Not long after, the grand division of General Franklin, in plain view from where we stood, was seen advancing in two lines against Jackson's front, marching in most magnificent order. No perceptible check could I observe in the advance, and the first line in good order entered the woods and was [91] lost to our view. But the immediate crash of musketry and the thunder of artillery told of a desperate conflict, and we waited anxiously for some sign of the result. Soon masses of the enemy were seen emerging from the woods in retreat, and the whole body of the enemy marched back in the direction they came from, in excellent order, and very deliberately. Now began the trial against Longstreet's lines; but our confidence in our ability to resist all assaults against us had been wonderfully increased by seeing the repulse of Franklin.

My line of defense was a broken one, running from the left along the sunken road, near the foot of Marye's Hill, where General Cobb's brigade (less the 16th Georgia) was stationed. During the 12th the defenses of this line had been extended beyond the hill by an embankment thrown up to protect the right from sharp-shooters, as also to resist assaults that might be made from that direction, and then the line was retired a hundred or more yards to the foot of the hills in the rear, along which was extended Kershaw's brigade of South Carolina troops, and General Barksdale's Mississippians, from left to right, the brigade of General Semmes being held in reserve. The Washington Artillery, under Colonel Walton, were in position on the crest of Marye's Hill over the heads of Cobb's men [see p. 97], and two brigades under General Ransom were held here in reserve. The heights above Kershaw and Barksdale were crowned with 18 rifle-guns and 8 smooth-bores belonging to batteries, and a number of smooth-bores from the reserve artillery. The troops could not be well seen by the enemy, and the artillery on my rear line was mostly concealed, some covered with brush. The enemy, from their position, could not see the sunken road, near the foot of Marye's Hill, nor do I think they were aware, until it was made known to them by our fire, that there was an infantry force anywhere except on top of the hill, as Ransom's troops could be seen there, in reserve, and the men in the sunken road were visible at a short distance only.

Soon after 11 A. M. the enemy approached the left of my line by the Telegraph road, and, deploying to my right, came forward and planted guidons or standards (whether to mark their advance or to aid in the alignment I do not know), and commenced firing; but the fire from our artillery, and especially the infantry fire from Cobb's brigade, so thinned their ranks that the line retreated without advancing, leaving their guidons planted. Soon another force, heavier than the first, advanced, and were driven back with great slaughter. They were met on retiring by reenforcements, and advanced again, but were again repulsed, with great loss. This continued until about 1 P. M., when General Cobb reported to me that he was short of ammunition. I sent his own very intelligent and brave courier, little Johnny Clark, from Augusta, Georgia, to bring up his ordnance supplies, and directed General Kershaw to reinforce General Cobb with two of his South Carolina regiments, and I also sent the 16th Georgia, which had been detached, to report to General Cobb. A few minutes after these orders had been given I received a note from General Cobb, informing me that General R. H. Anderson, whose division was posted on the left and rear of Cobb's, had just told him [92] that if the attack was turned on him he would retire his troops to the hills in their rear. As this would leave my troops in the sunken road with their left flank unprotected, and at the mercy of the enemy, should they come up on my left, I went over to General Longstreet and represented to him that if this were done I would have to provide in some other way for the protection of the troops in the sunken road, or move them out, so soon as there was a lull in the attack, which would be virtually giving up the defense of Marye's Hill. General Longstreet at once ordered General Pickett to reinforce Anderson, and directed Anderson to hold his position until forced back. I then went over and examined the ground where Anderson's force was on my left, and finding that the preparations for defense made to resist an assault were incomplete and inconsiderable, I thought it best to take measures to protect my own flank with my own troops, and therefore directed General Kershaw to take his brigade, and, sending two of his regiments to strengthen General Cobb's line

Brigadier-General Robert Ransom, C. S. A. From a photograph.

beneath the hill, to hold the rest of his command on top of the hill, to the left of Cobb's line, to meet emergencies, and especially to hold in check, or aid in repelling, any force coming on Cobb's flank, until the force in the sunken road could be withdrawn by the right flank — the only chance it would have of retiring without very heavy loss. I then tore a leaf from my memorandum-book and wrote to General Cobb, General: “Hold your position, with no fear of your flank, it will be protected,” and handing it to Captain King, my aide-de-camp, told him to carry it to General Cobb, and to inform him that both ammunition and reenforcements were on the way.3 General Kershaw at once moved his brigade as ordered, but while it was in motion a courier came from General Cobb and informed me that the general was desperately wounded. General Kershaw was directed to go at once and take command of the force at the foot of Marye's Hill.

Kershaw doubled his 2d and 8th regiments on Phillips's Legion and 24th Georgia, commanded by Colonel McMillan, who succeeded General Cobb in command of the brigade, leaving the 3d and 7th South Carolina on the hill, and holding the 15th, Colonel De Saussure, in reserve. His 3d Battalion was posted on the right at Howison's mill to repulse any attack up Hazel Run, and the 16th Georgia was doubled on the right of Cobb's brigade in the road. The 3d and 7th South Carolina suffered severely while getting into position, Colonel Nance, Lieutenant-Colonel Rutherford, Major Maffett, Captains P. Todd and [93] John C. Summer being shot down. Summer was killed. The 2d and 8th arrived just in time to resist a heavy assault made on the left about 2:45 P. M., and all of these reenforcements were opportune. The enemy, then deploying in a ravine about three hundred yards from the stone-wall, advanced with fresh lines of attack at short intervals, but were always driven back with great loss. This was kept up until about 4:30 P. M., when the assaults ceased for a time; but the enemy, posting artillery on the left of the Telegraph road, opened on our position; however, they did no damage worth particularizing.

The batteries on Marye's Hill were at this time silent, having exhausted their ammunition, and were being relieved by guns from Colonel E. P. Alexander's battalion. Taking advantage of this lull in the conflict, the 15th South Carolina was brought forward from the cemetery, where it had been in reserve, and was posted behind the stone-wall, supporting the 2d South Carolina regiment.

The enemy in the meanwhile formed a strong column of lines of attack,, and advancing under cover of their own artillery, and no longer impeded by ours, came forward along our whole front in the most determined manner; but by this time, as just explained, I had lines four deep throughout the whole sunken road, and beyond the right flank. The front rank, firing, stepped back, and the next in rear took its place and, after firing, was replaced by the next, and so on in rotation. In this way the volley firing was made nearly continuous, and the file firing very destructive. The enemy were repulsed at all points.

The last charge was made after sundown — in fact, it was already dark in the valley. A Federal officer who was in that assault told me that the first discharge at them was a volley, and the bullets went over their heads “in sheets,” and that his command was ordered to lie down, and did lie down for a full half-hour and then retired, leaving a large number of killed and wounded. The firing ceased as darkness increased, and about 7 P. M. the pickets of the opposing forces were posted within a short distance of each other, my pickets reporting noises as of movements of large bodies of troops in the city.

Thus ended the battle. The enemy remained in possession of the city until the night of the 15th, and then retired across — the Rappahannock, resuming their former positions, and Kershaw's brigade of my division re-occupied the city. My loss in killed, wounded, and missing was 853; of which number 67 were missing, 62 being from Barksdale's brigade, 100 of the 853 being killed. Over 200 of the number were killed or disabled in Kershaw's command while taking positions to defend nmy left flank.

There was a ravine in my front, distant between 200 or 300 yards, where large masses of the enemy were constantly deployed, and they controlled the slope of Marye's Hill, so that it would have been a hazardous feat, even for a dog, to have attempted to run down it; and yet a Georgia boy named Crumley, an orderly of General Kershaw's, finding that the general had no use for his horse in the sunken road, or thinking that it was no place for a fine animal, deliberately rode him up that slope without injury either to the horse or to himself,--and going back to his camp, returned with an inferior [94] horse, rode down the slope unscathed, and joined his chief, who, until his return, was ignorant of Crumley's daring feat.

General Cobb, who was wounded by a musket-ball in the calf of the leg,4 died shortly after he was removed to the field-hospital in rear of the division. He and I were on intimate terms, and I had learned to esteem him warmly, as I believe every one did who came to know his great intellect and his good heart. Like Stonewall Jackson, he was a religious enthusiast, and, being firmly convinced that the South was right, believed that God would give us visible sign that Providence was with us, and daily prayed for His interposition in our behalf.

1 Colonel Fiser himself had been knocked down and stunned by a portion of a falling wall, but, recovering consciousness, held to his post, and cheered on his men.--L. McL.

2 Perhaps thirty or forty, not more.--L. McL.

3 This was the last I saw of Captain King until we found this gallant officer's body, after the battle.--L. McL.

4 The statement in the text is made on the authority of Surgeon Todd, of Cobb's brigade, who says he saw the wound, and I am assured that General Cobb received all possible attention, and that everything that skill could do was done to save his life.--L. McL.

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.
11th (3)
November 25th, 1862 AD (1)
15th (1)
13th (1)
12th (1)
10th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: