Chapter 21: battle of FredericksburgIn the early morning of the 13th, about 3 A. M., I wrote a home letter for my children that is preserved:
We are now in a house abandoned by Mr. Knox, and near the front line. One or two shells have passed clear through the house, but my room is in pretty good shape. Charles (Lieutenant Howard) is well and sleeping. So are Lieutenant Stinson, Captain Whittlesey, Lieutenants Steel and Atwood sleeping on the floor near me. I am sitting on this floor near a fireplace . . . writing on my lap, having an inkstand, candlestick, and paper on a large portfolio, with Tom, a little colored boy, holding up the outer edge. Tom drops to sleep now and then, when my candlestick with its light, and inkstand with its ink, slip down; but I wake Tom and it is soon all righted.That very morning a little later a charming old lady saw my staff officers and myself at breakfast, and listened to the brief reading of Scripture and morning prayer. She seemed much moved. To a remark of hers I said that we should conquer in the end. She shook her head and rejoined with a look: “You will have a Stone wall to encounter, Hills to climb, and a Long street to tread before you can succeed.” But, afterwards, seeing us depart with cheerfulness, like a  merchant going to business or a rested workman to his shop, as I said good morning, she replied: “Now I fear you more than ever, for I had understood that all of Lincoln's men were bad. What So cheerful when going straight into battle?” About eleven o'clock of December 11th Franklin reported to Burnside that the lower bridges were in readiness. The latter instructed him to keep his grand division where it then was for the present; but at four that afternoon he was directed to cross his whole command. The movement over the pontoons began. Before many men had reached the south shore Burnside changed his orders, sending over, only one brigade, Devens's, which deployed and held a position there as did Hawkins and I, a mile above. On the 12th Franklin's two corps, Baldy Smith's and Reynolds's, completed their crossing before 1 P. M. Smith put out two divisions in line of battle, keeping one in the rear as a reserve; he then moved forward to the old Richmond road, which here was parallel with the river and a mile from it. Reynolds formed his corps in the same style on Smith's left, but refused his line so that he made an angle, and rested his left on the Rappahannock. Franklin for his entire grand division had far less opposition than we who were in the city. There was some skirmishing and random shots from Lee's artillery during this unfolding operation. Reynolds's front now looked directly toward the Massaponax, less than a mile away. Thus Burnside's army faced that of Lee. During the 12th Burnside “visited the different commands with a view to determining as to future movements.” During his visit to Franklin, Franklin strongly advised  the use of his whole grand division of 30,000 men for assaulting the enemy's right, the assault to begin December 13th at daylight. Franklin asked, with a view to support, that two divisions of Hooker be sent him during the night. Burnside at that time appeared to favor this good advice. He promised as he left Franklin about dark to send his orders, whatever they might be, before midnight. As the orders were not received at midnight, Franklin sent an aid-de-camp for them. The reply to the aid was that they would be ready soon and sent; but they did not reach Franklin until about seven o'clock of the 13th. Of course it was too late for an attack at dawn. The supporting divisions from Hooker never came, so that it is plain that Franklin's plan was not adopted. Strange as it may appear, Burnside was evidently relying on Sumner's grand division to make near the Marye Heights the main assault and so wanted Hooker's command held at the upper bridges to reinforce him. Beck's Island is above the city. On the south shore, opposite this island, Dr. Taylor had his residence on high ground. The river road, running north, leaves the Rappahannock, opposite Beck's Island, and passes over Dr. Taylor's farm. Lee's left rested on this road. He crossed the heights thence southeasterly, one height being called Stanbury Hill; his lines next found a more level plateau named the Cemetery Hill; and then in order the Marye Heights, over which passed the Orange Court House road, perpendicular to the river, dividing Fredericksburg into halves. In the city it is Hanover Street. Another roadway leaves the city three blocks lower, passes straight out parallel with the plank road  till it comes to the higher ground, then, turning to the right, courses along beside the Marye Heights and, finally, goes off into the country southwesterly. This is the telegraph road. There was a connecting street near Marye Heights which went from the plank road to the telegraph road. This street and a part of the telegraph road had a bank wall, the roadbed being a few feet below the crest of the wall. It was a Confederate infantry outwork already prepared. Near the city the canal which started from the river above Beck's Island and ran along the base of the heights, continuing in front of the deep cross street which I have described, served for the most part as the broad ditch of a fortification — an obstacle to our approach in itself. The lower part of the canal was more like the rough outlet of a creek. On Marye Heights, a little back from the street, were dug by the Confederates and their slaves double intrenchments with works in the form of redoubts on the summits behind them. The lower ground down river, as we have seen, was generally undulating, and wooded to a considerable extent. Lee had a new road constructed behind his lines so that his troops could be readily moved from one point to another. The strong point of his right was “Prospect Hill.” Along the foot of this ran the Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad which, from a point called Hamilton's Crossing, continues northward, parallel to the river, and enters the city on its south side. The old Richmond wagon road which Franklin had seized with his leading divisions was also parallel to the river and about halfway between it and the railway. These two roads each made a right angle with the Massaponax. Lee's permanent right flank was established upon the Massaponax so that the general  form of his entire line was that of a sickle; the high ground forming the handle and the low ground occupied in front of the new road and over Prospect Hill and on to the bend of the Massaponax forming the blade, having the concave edge toward the Rappahannock. Our own lines, more than half enveloped and facing Lee's peculiar formation, were straight and parallel with the river excepting Reynolds's corps, which on the extreme left faced almost south and was nearly at right angles with our main line. The Fredericksburg plateau west and southwest of the city is divided into three parts by two streams, the Hazel and the Deep Run, each of which has numerous branches. Hazel Run enters the Rappahannock close to the city. One branch from behind Marye Heights affords an extended, sheltered position in its valley; the other stream, the Deep Run, drains the high ground about Prospect Hill and enters the Rappahannock some distance south of the city. Before the arrival of Jackson, Longstreet had posted the troops, Anderson's division from Taylor's Hill eastward, to include the cemetery; Ransom's holding all the lines and works on Marye Heights; McLaws's division, coming next, covered all the low ground from Hazel Run to Harrison's place. Pickett, with his division's irregular formation, held some knolls from which he could sweep all the terrain between his front and Deep Run. Hood at first rested his left on the heights and extended his division as far as the Fredericksburg Railroad, in front of Prospect Hill, where were the notable “Walker batteries.” Stuart with his cavalry and some artillery watched the remainder of the front to the Massaponax.  As soon as Jackson's forces arrived the morning of December 13th, he put A. P. Hill's division into Hood's place, arranged so as to form substantially two lines, while Early's and Taliaferro's divisions made a third line. The division of D. H. Hill, being wearied with a night march, was placed farther back, as a general reserve. The general facing of Stonewall Jackson's concentrated command was toward the north and the northwest, overlooking every approach from the direction of Fredericksburg. Hood, as soon as relieved by Jackson, changed position to the north side of Deep Run and held his forces for use in any direction. Longstreet, referring to the long front which he commanded, says: “In addition to the natural strength of the position, ditches, stone fences, and road cuts formed along different portions of the line, and parts of General McLaws's lines were farther strengthened by rifle trenches and abatis.” Burnside's orders to Franklin, which he received at so late an hour, were dated 5.50 A. M. General Hardie of his staff came to carry the message and remain with Franklin. Burnside now directed that the whole grand division be held for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road. Franklin was to send out at once a division to pass below Smithfield, to seize, if possible, the heights near Hamilton; crossing the Massaponax, the division to be well supported, and to keep open the line of retreat. Burnside informed Franklin that another column from Sumner's grand division would move up the plank road to its intersection with the telegraph road, where the troops were to divide and seize the heights on both sides of these roads. Burnside thought that holding the two heights with the one near Hamilton's Crossing would compel the Confederates  to evacuate the whole ridge between these points. Burnside further said that Hooker's command would be in support at the bridges. The division of Franklin must move as soon as the fog lifted; the watchword for the battle to be given to every company was Scott. The special instructions to Sumner were dated at 6 A. M. First: Extend to Deep Run and connect with Franklin; push a second column of one division or more along the plank and telegraph roads with a view of seizing the heights in rear of the town. Sumner's movement was not to commence until further orders. Hooker's instructions were dated at 7 A. M. Hooker was to place Butterfield's corps and Whipple's division so as to cross the river at a moment's notice, using the three upper bridges. These forces were to be in support of Sumner's grand division; the two remaining divisions of Stoneman's corps were to be in readiness to cross at the lower bridges in support of Franklin. To obey his instructions Franklin chose the corps of John F. Reynolds, which was made up of three divisions: 1st, Doubleday's; 2d, Gibbon's; 3d, Meade's. Franklin believed, as anybody would, that this fine corps was sufficient to carry out the letter and spirit of Burnside's new order. Meade's division was taken for the assault, and was to be supported on its left by Doubleday and on its right by Gibbon. In order to give an additional confidence, two divisions of Stoneman's corps were brought up from the bridges and made a reserve to Reynolds. Meade started southward as if to cross the Massaponax, moved seven or eight hundred yards, and then changed face squarely to the right, and directed his march upon the “heights” mentioned in his orders.  The point which was coveted near the Massaponax was also not far from Prospect Hill. It was, indeed, on Lee's new road and actually behind A. P. Hill's advance lines. Meade kept on under increased artillery fire from right, left, and front, well across the old Richmond road. Here his men were delayed in destroying hedges and in constructing bridges for his artillery over the deep side ditches. Meade had a column of two deployed brigades, followed by another in fours ready to deploy. His formation, to start with, had skirmishers and flankers in plenty. Having gone somewhat farther, a Confederate battery from Stuart's front opened a troublesome fire upon Meade's left. Soon Union artillery ran to the place and replied shot for shot. Then a heavy line of Confederate skirmishers sprang from the troublesome quarter. The brigade, in fours, faced that way, and by rapid firing cleared the field. As soon as Meade was rid of that left flank annoyance he advanced this third brigade to his left front and brought up three batteries to his advanced position. Again his command moved forward to encounter more hostile cannon now coming from his left front. The three Union batteries were turned upon this new enemy, and in a short time had exploded two of the Confederate caissons and driven their battery men from their guns. Success at that time cheered Meade and the men of his division. Meade was now near what appeared to be a gap in the Confederate lines. His men, under his orders, rushed forward, first over a cleared field, rapidly driving in the enemy's skirmishers; next succeeded in getting possession of a piece of woods which jutted out  between him and the railroad, and soon his men cleared the whole front as far as that railroad. But in the neighborhood, taking advantage of embankments, ditches, and other cover, the Confederate soldiers in solid line were waiting for Meade's approach. Yet, with hardly delay enough to take breath, the leading Union brigade threw itself upon these strong lines, broke them up, and forced them back upon the heights. Having already passed A. P. Hill's front, Meade began to feel artillery and infantry fire from his right, so that while his first brigade sped onward the second brigade was delayed by changing front and meeting the new danger. But this was done. Thus Meade worked his way along with delays and hard fighting with artillery and infantry to the left of him, to the right of him, and finally to the front. At one time Meade sent Lieutenant Dehon with instructions to the commander of the third brigade (our General Jackson) to capture an annoying battery. Dehon was killed just as he came to the commander and a few minutes later Jackson himself fell. It was a great loss, for our brave Jackson had, a few minutes before, seized the desired point for which Meade had been advancing and contending. The brigade, without its commander, subject to an increasing fire, gave back little by little and so lost its important hold. Meade took more than three hundred prisoners and many battle flags. When he most needed it he found small support on his right and none on his left, and there was none very close in his rear. Feeling that the opposition was too strong to be met by but one division, he began his retreat, which was executed under fire and without confusion. When back as far as the edge of the woods near the  railroad, he found a brigade of Birney's division supporting some of his batteries, which gave him some relief. Gibbon had separated from Meade while advancing in the woods. He had a sharp encounter of his own to meet and was now in position to succor, more thoroughly than Birney, Meade's breaking and retiring lines. Sinclair, who commanded Meade's first brigade, was badly wounded, and he lost in the action 22 officers and 496 men. The second brigade aggregated a loss of 22 officers and 718 men, while our Jackson's brigade suffered a loss of 28 officers and 525 men. Meade's artillery lost 5 officers and 25 men. These figures indicate the severity of the engagement. General Gibbon, wounded during the day, had with his division done his utmost to give Meade a flank support. He faced a strip of woods strongly occupied by Pender's deployed lines. Gibbon endeavored to rush Taylor's brigade across an open field into the woods. The men got about halfway, when the Confederate artillery fire from different directions became so severe that the troops took cover by lying down behind a slight rise of ground. Now when Meade made his last advance, Gibbon, perceiving the effort, sent Taylor forward again. The Confederates were behind a railroad embankment to stop him. The other brigades of Gibbon's division came into line to the left of Taylor. The whole Union force in that quarter was at first repulsed; but now fully aroused, Gibbon gathered as many as he could from his reliable regiments and made a bayonet charge. This was done with tremendous energy and spirit, and the railway was taken with 180 prisoners. Gibbon, bleeding, was obliged to leave the front and Taylor succeeded to his command.  Doubleday, to the left of Meade, with his division had been occupied all day by the batteries of Walker and Stuart, who had other Confederates of all arms to support them. This occupation had prevented Meade from having any effective help upon his left flank, or any reinforcement from that division. Meade retired after the hard day to the position from which he had set out in the morning. The part which our grand division played in this battle affords a sorrowful picture. There is nothing to relieve its gloom but the excellent conduct of the troops under appalling circumstances. Ransom, whose Confederate division divided the ground with that of McLaws, and held the deep suburban street and the telegraph road at the base of Marye Heights, uses strong language when he speaks of our successive efforts to get near his position on that deplorable day: “The Yankee line advanced with the utmost determination; moved, almost massed, to the charge heroically; met the withering fire of our Confederate artillery and small arms with wonderful stanchnessl” Those attacks would not permit him to despise our courage or our hardihood. So much for our amour propre. Burnside having heard from Franklin and from his own staff officer, Hardie, that Meade was gaining important advantage on Stonewall Jackson's front, thought that the fullness of time had come for Sumner to cooperate. He gave the old general the order for which he had been all the morning waiting: “Advance and attack!” The Second Corps (Couch's), to which my division belonged, was to lead; to direct the main assault between the plank and the telegraph roads; to ascend the Marye Heights from that base; and break through the  Confederate lines, forcing the enemy back and capturing his batteries. It was a task easy to set but difficult even to begin. General Sumner prescribed to Couch his favorite method: after covering the front with skirmishers, to get into action in a column of brigades. The simple way was for one brigade to form a long line two ranks deep, facing Marye Heights; follow that brigade by a second brigade line, leaving 150 yards' space between them; then send on the third brigade, preserving the same distance. French's division thus formed was to have the advance; Hancock's to follow, and after Hancock's, my division was to complete the fighting column. Close to the Second Corps on our left Willcox's Ninth Corps was instructed to move up abreast, to keep our left flank clear of any too enterprising Confederates, and to keep up connection with Franklin, occupying all the ground between Hazel and Deep Run. As we have seen, the Second and Ninth Corps were already over the Rappahannock. The instructions were clear and well understood. My division, having led in taking the town, must now fall to the rear, and let another have the post of honor. Troops in regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps, after some service, show to some extent the characteristics of their commanders-their courage, steadfastness, self-reliance, or their impulsiveness, energy, and tenacity of purpose, and, of course, when such defects exist, the opposite qualities, nervousness and unreliability. French, who was to lead, very soon gained an as-* cendency over all officers who were under him, and secured from them prompt obedience and hard work.  He was often imperious and impatient, but no one ever saw his troops, without stragglers, go into action without a thrill of admiration for him and his command. A strong skirmish line was first organized. It consisted of three regiments-one by the flank in column of twos went quickly out Hanover Street, crossed the canal, and deployed to the left; the other two in similar order crossed the bridge in Princess Ann Street near the railway depot, and deployed to the right till their open line met the other. As soon as the columns had appeared at the bridge the Confederate batteries, whose guns were trained on the streets, opened a fearful discharge. Many of our men were killed or wounded before getting into line, but the remainder did not falter. They went into place at a run. The enemy's skirmish line now interposed its rapid fire. Our men set in motion those skirmishers and drove them, following them up for at least 400 yards, breaking down fences as they went forward, and traversing muddy ground till they struck an abrupt slope and lay down behind its crest. It was to them like a great rock in a weary land. It afforded such shelter from a terrible fire that the temptation was great to remain there while shells were bursting over their heads, round shot plowing the ground in their front, and musketry peppering every yard of the slopes beyond them. The next brigade, Kimball's, let no time run to waste. It was drawn out in line on Caroline Street parallel with the river. Mason, who commanded the skirmishers, had just left Princess Ann Street when Kimball's brigade came on by the flank, passed the depot, crossed the canal bridge, and formed line of battie  behind the skirmish line near the canal bank. The enemy's fire during these movements was murderous. Shells burst in their ranks, destroying many men at each shot; but there was no panic and no disorder. Gaps made by wounds and death were quickly filled by comrades of battle. The men at command now bounded forward and cleared the open space beneath increasing volleys till French's line of battle stretched from road to road. Kimball's main line was at last not more than 600 yards from the perfectly protected Confederate brigade of General Cobb, which, with other men from Ransom's and McLaws's divisions, filled the deep roadway. The hostile skirmishers had been withdrawn. Every man in the roadway had loaded his rifle. The wall or the banks of fresh earth kept them from Kimball's sight. As our men moved up the gentle acclivity, who can describe what followed? More artillery than before was detected by the puffs of smoke, to the right, to the left, and all along the high ground. How rapid, how awful that series of discharges and those death-dealing missiles Still this long, handsome line with bayonets fixed and flags flying were steadily moving forward without firing a shot. They overtook their own skirmishers and went on. The worst was yet to come. As soon as the Confederates' abandoned skirmish rifle pits were reached by our men, the waiting enemy, as if by a simultaneous impulse, gave them volleys of leaden hail which extended from the plank road to the east of Marye Heights, against which no line of men could move or stand. Kimball's rapid advance had secured a little hamlet whose straggling buildings gave some protection from the Confederate fire. There Kimball rested his right. As the  line could not advance farther, the men covered themselves as well as they could by the buildings and incidents of the ground, with a purpose to hold what they had gained and wait for help. It was here that their commander fell with a severe wound in his thigh. The next brigade (Andrews's) having but three regiments, the fourth being in the skirmish line, followed in the same manner according to the order. At the depot and the canal it took its turn and received the same dreadful baptism of fire. It pushed on with the same experience over the muddy ground and up the slopes, and was stopped at about the same point of advance. All the colonels present were disabled by wounds, so that a lieutenant colonel (Marshall) came to command the brigade. The last of French's brigades having also but three regiments, Palmer commanding, was deployed in the street and then followed the same path as the others without different results. It appeared at the canal; crossing that, the Confederate cannon had attained the exact range of the passage, and Palmer commends the firmness and bravery of his troops in dashing across that barrier. To our field glasses French's brave division had almost disappeared. Hancock's division came next. He sent up two regiments to replace two of French's. It was a way of renewing ammunition, for it was next to impossible to carry it up and distribute it in the ordinary way. Zook's brigade led Hancock's division. He deployed at the canal, then advanced with great speed, so that many of his men gained points beyond former troops along the ridge and at the hamlet. Some of French's men in rear sprang up and joined in the brisk movement. Still they failed to take the  stone wall, although our dead were left within twentyfive paces of it. Meagher's brigade line followed next and suffered like the preceding from the continuous and murderous discharges, but really gained nothing. Caldwell commanded the next brigade. With great zest and spirit his men went forward and rushed to the front, but they accomplished no more than those who had preceded them. These had been my troops at Fair Oaks. Their loss on this Fredericksburg front was 62 commissioned officers and 932 enlisted men. The brigade commander was himself wounded. Colonel Cross, who subsequently commanded the brigade, was also wounded. Colonel Nelson A. Miles, having been promoted, had left my staff and was commanding two regiments in this battle. He received, during the advance, a severe wound in the neck. Seated on a stretcher and holding the lips of the wound together, he pluckily had himself brought to me to show me where he thought I could put my troops into action to advantage so as to make some impression on the enemy's line. I had just before that taken my position on a prominent knoll, and had seen the havoc among the two divisions preceding mine. From the sunken roadway came an increasing storm, bullets flying swift and sure, dealing death and wounds to our brave fellows almost without a return fire. All this the officers of my division fully apprehended, yet, without faltering, that division, in its turn, swept forward. Owen's brigade went first and Hall's next. I kept Sully's for a time in the edge of the town for a reserve, but was soon obliged to send forward one regiment after another as Hall and Owen called for  help. My regiments began to fire when each in its turn reached the general line of battle, so that the rattle of musketry for hours was unceasing. To help us Hazard's Rhode Island battery came up at a trot, crossed the canal, and unlimbered in the open ground in the rear of Owen's troops and for a time fired with wondrous rapidity. The battery lost so many men in a short time that it was ordered back. Frank's New York battery followed Hazard's example and endeavored by rapid fire to open the way to our infantry for a front attack. But our attempts were futile, as had been those of the other divisions. We continued, however, to make sunday experiments, hoping almost against hope to make a lodgment along the enemy's front. At last Hooker's grand division made its appearance in our rear. Hooker, himself on the field where he could take in the situation, stationed with his field glass just north of the canal, sat quietly on his horse. I wondered that he was not shot. He pushed in Humphrey's excellent division in the same manner as the rest. As we ceased firing Humphrey made a charge, leading his men in person amid the leaden rain. They reached my front line and passed it a short distance, where they met a tremendous volley of artillery and musketry and, like all the others who had ventured near the base of Marye Heights, were broken up and forced back. Some more efforts were put forth by Hooker's troops and by ours, but all in vain, until darkness put an end to the hopeless sacrifice. My division being the last of the Second Corps to go under fire on this fatal day, remained up there in close proximity to the foe till far into the night, but at  last fresh men from Hooker's command let us return to town, one brigade coming in as late as 2 A. M. the next day. The loss in my division aggregated 64 officers and 813 men. All the aids-de-camp had an unusually hard time in this conflict. I had a feeling akin to terror when I sent an aid or mounted man to carry an order. Lieutenant H. M. Stinson, one of my aids, showed such fearlessness under musketry fire that several commanders noticed him and mentioned him in their reports; so they did Lieutenant A. J. Atwood of my staff. Once my brother and aid, Lieutenant Howard, leaving me with an order, was obliged to cross the most exposed street. On his return he exclaimed, as he rode up, “Oh, general, they fired a volley at me, but it passed over my head” The other corps (the Ninth) of our grand division was commanded by O. B. Willcox. Through Sumner, Willcox was required to give support to the Second Corps (Couch's) on his right hand and to the First Corps (Reynolds's) on his left. The word “support” is an uncertain one, and often a very unsatisfactory one in a battle. The front of the Ninth Corps extended from our flank to the left across Hazel to Deep Run. Sturgis's division left the city limits, came under a direct fire almost immediately from artillery and infantry, marched across a rough ascending slope, and attained a crest, a close position to the Confederates' sheltered line. The division remained there till after dark. Once the Confederates attempted to move out and turn one of Couch's divisions, when our Ferrero's brigade “drove them back to their cover of stone walls and rifle pits.” Many valuable lives were lost in that sharp work.  At 3 P. M. W. W. Burns's division crossed Deep Run and tried at Franklin's request to give what help it could. By four o'clock Willcox, while the fire was at its height, thought he might create some diversion for my men who were plainly seen from his point of observation, standing near their rough shelter or lying behind a slight rise in a crest of the upper slope. He advanced Getty's division from the shelter of the town. Each regiment set out by the flank, went forward, marched to open ground, and then deployed into brigade lines much as we had done; then rushed over a plowed field, across the railway cut, the old canal ditch and marshy ground. The brigade kept on under the usual artillery explosions till within close musketry range of the Confederate rifles. Then they underwent the same rough handling which our men met farther to the right earlier in the day. Getty's brigade was forced back to a poor sort of shelter near the canal. Willcox's losses aggregated 1,328 officers and men. At first, Burnside, saddened by the repulse of his attacks in every part of his lines, planned another battle for the 14th. His heart naturally went out to the old Ninth Corps that he had but lately commanded. Willcox brought back Burns's division from Franklin and prepared the Ninth Corps to make the next main assault. Positions for six batteries of artillery had been carefully selected to break the way for the first infantry charge and support it by strong cannon firing. But the order for a renewal of the strife was first suspended and later countermanded. On the 14th, while matters were in suspense, I went up into a church tower with Couch, my corps commander, and had a plain view of all the slope where  the severest losses of the preceding day had occurred. We looked clear up to the suburban street or deep roadway and saw the ground literally strewn with the blue uniforms of our dead. Burnside closed this remarkable tragedy by deciding to move the night of December 15, 1862, his brave but beaten army to the north side of the Rappahannock. That work of removal was accomplished without further loss of men or material.