Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade at Fredericksburg.Read at Seventeenth annual reunion Louisiana Division U. C. V., Monroe, October 15, 1908, by Captain James Dinkins, member of the history committee.
[The gallant Captain Dinkins has contributed frequently from his experience in the field to the newspaper press. Many graphic articles from his pen have appeared in the New Orleans Picayune.—Ed.] After the first Maryland campaign the Army of Northern Virginia rested for a short time in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. About the 13th of November we received orders to march, and hurried with all speed towards Rapidan station. Burnside bad moved from Warrenton, destined for Richmond. Then began a race between the two great armies which ended at Fredericksburg. McLaws' Division, composed of Kershaw's South Carolina, Semmes' Georgia, Cobb's Georgia and Barksdale's Mississippi Brigades, was under Jackson at that time. It was not a question if we could reach Fredericksburg ahead of Burnside; we were obliged to do so. The weather was very severe. Before reaching Rapidan we crossed two rivers, the North Anna and South Anna, which formed a junction about a mile below where we crossed. Arriving at the North Anna, the men removed their shoes and stripped off their trousers. We were told that the south fork was but a short distance ahead; therefore, all decided to carry shoes and pants under their arms until they had forded the South Anna. The Eighteenth Regiment was leading. Soon after crossing the first river, the road wound around a hill; through a skirt of woods, we entered a cut in the hill and the road changed direction to the right. Suddenly the head of the column came running back, the men in fits of laughter, and seeking places to hide.  The Colonel and his staff were left without followers; they rode back also, their faces wreathed in smiles. Those of us who had not emerged from the cut had no idea what the cause was, but soon the word was passed along: ‘Put on your breeches, quick.’ Between the two rivers there is an elevated plateau, about fifteen acres in extent, which rises some ten feet above the surrounding surface. It was almost square. On the plateau stood a little village, the most picturesque place the writer remembers ever to have seen. Around the bluff of the little village there was a plank fence, along which the entire population stood, waiting to see Jackson's foot cavalry pass. Therefore, when the head of the column came in view of the people, the boys fled in disorder. We finally arrived at Rapidan and crossed the river. I think it was the 15th of November. After reaching the south bank the brigade halted in a scrubby woods, and stood on the roadside while a brigade of cavalry passed. The Mississippians indulged in every species of exasperating criticisms, and declared there were no Yankees ahead, otherwise the cavalry would not be marching to the front. The men were in a laughing mood, notwithstanding sleet was falling and the ground was covered with snow. After the troopers had gone, we resumed the march. While watching the cavalry pass our clothing was freezing. It may seem strange how men endured the cold, but they did. The march was kept up almost constantly until we reached Fredericksburg, where Barksdale's Brigade went into camp along the edge of a woods, but were not allowed to build fires. It was a desperate night. The ground was covered with snow to a depth of several inches and the trees with sleet. Very few men had blankets, and the boys huddled together in piles to prevent freezing. A few days after reaching Fredericksburg, Barksdale's Brigade moved into the city and picketed the river from a little place called Falmouth to a point below, where Deep Run creek empties into the Rappahannock. The Federal army was camped on the opposite shore. It has been said that ‘Military history is the repository of inspirations and of genius, and also of excessive follies.’ It may  also be said, therefore, that it would be difficult for a commander to commit a blunder which cannot be matched by precedent. What General Burnside expected to accomplish by taking up position opposite Fredericksburg we do not know, but certainly he did not anticipate such a result as followed. It may be that he expected to cross the river before the arrival of the Confederates, and doubtless could have done so under cover of his 200 cannon when he first reached the scene, because the river was low and fordable, but from prudential reasons, or otherwise, he did not attempt it. About December 8th the river rose, and he decided to bridge it. During the delay, our forces were actively engaged building earthworks and rifle pits which crowned the heights and surrounding country by the 10th of the month. Burnside, however, made strong demonstrations above and below the city, which necessarily called to each point a part of General Lee's force. Burnside evidently expected to surprise General Lee at Fredericksburg and defeat us before A. P. Hill and Jackson could reach Fredericksburg from their positions above and below the town, but the obstructions in his pathway were sufficient to delay his passage until they were there. Fredericksburg is not a strategic point. On both sides of the Rappahannock there are hills which run parallel with the river. On the south side there is a valley from 600 to 1,500 yards wide before the hills are reached, while on the north shore the ridges are near the river. Stafford heights on the north side command the city, and also the river, for two miles in each direction. It will, therefore, be understood that the Confederates could not prevent the crossing of Burnside's army, but what they could do and did do, after he had crossed, constitutes a bright page in the world's history. As before stated, Barksdale's Brigade occupied the city and built rifle pits along the outskirts. Lieutenant Colonel John C. Fiser, of the Seventeenth Mississippi, with his own regiment, four companies of the Eighteenth and three or four from the Twenty-first Regiment, occupied the immediate river front as a picket line, where he also dug rifle pits. It was the evident purpose of General Burnside to make his main attack on the city. Major General Lafayette McLaws, with  his division, was assigned to that important position, and Barksdale was given the post of honor for the division. During the night of Dec. 10, the enemy began to lay his pontons. We could distinctly hear the noise of launching the boats and laying down the planks. The work was prosecuted with wonderful skill and energy, and by 3 o'clock a. m. of the 11th, we could hear them talking in undertones. General Barksdale directed us to remain quiet, and offer no resistance until the bridge approached our shore. About 4 o'clock a battery posted on the ridge back of the town fired a few shots at the bridge, then the Mississippians poured a concentrated fire on it. The bridge was doubtless crowded with engineers and workmen who suffered severely. The pickets immediately along the river, under the gallant Fiser, from their rifle pits maintained such a destructive fire that the enemy was compelled to abandon the work. Very soon, however, they returned and made repeater efforts to complete one bridge, but the fire of the Mississippi boys was too deadly, and the enemy was forced to withdraw. When daylight dawned a heavy fog hung over the scene, and the vision was obscured as much as it had been during the night. About 10 o'clock of the 11th, Burnside, annoyed because a few skirmishers were able to prevent the completion of his bridges, and, therefore, delay his passage of the river, ordered his chief of artillery to batter down the city. His purpose was to drive the Mississippians from their rifle pits and hiding places. Assuredly General Burnside knew the wide destruction which would follow his order. Several thousand women and children sat in their homes, exposed to that storm of iron. Looking back upon the event of nearly forty-six years ago, it seems that the necessities did not warrant the destruction of that city, and we now regard it as a savage act, unworthy of civilized war. But Burnside concentrated 200 cannon on the city. Suddenly, as it was unexpected, the flash of these guns, followed by the explosions, hurled at the same instant 10,000 pounds of iron into the city. The shells exploded in and over the town, creating the greatest consternation among the people. The bombardment was kept up for over an hour, and no tongue or pen can describe ,the dreadful scene. Thousands of tons of iron were hurled against the place, and nothing in war can exceed the horror of  that hour. The deafening roar of cannon and bursting shells, falling walls and chimneys, brick and timbers flying through the air, houses set on fire, the smoke adding to the already heavy fog, the bursting of flames through the housetops, made a scene which has no parallel in history. It was appalling and indescribable, a condition which would paralyze the stoutest heart, and one from which not a man in Barksdale Brigade had the slightest hope of escaping. During that hail of iron and brick, I believe I can say that there was not a square yard in the city which was not struck by a missile of some kind. Under cover of the bombardment, Burnside undertook to renew his efforts to complete the bridges, but the matchless men of Barksdale's Brigade, acting under the immortal Lieutenant Colonel Fiser, concealed in their pits along the river bank, poured a volley first and then a concentrated fire on the workmen and drove back all who survived their deadly aim. During this time the flames were blazing from every quarter, and ladies and children were forced to flee from their cellars to escape death by fire, even at the risk of being stricken down by shells and bricks. The horror of the occasion was heightened by the veil of fog, which obscured all objects 50 yards distant. About half an hour after the bombardment had ceased, the fog cleared away, leaving a picture which riveted every eye and sickened every heart. Mansions that for years had been the scene of a boundless hospitality and domestic comfort, lay in ruins and smoldering ashes. Blackened walls and wrecked gardens were all that were left of numerous happy homes. The memory of those scenes will be hard to efface. Defeated at every turn, the Federal commander abandoned his bridges for the time and began to cross in boats. He directed a destructive rifle fire against the Mississippians along the river bank, and also against those in the city. Colonel Fiser continued to dispute this passage, and many of the boats were forced to return to remove their dead and get others to take their places. After a large force had been landed above and below, Colonel Fiser was ordered to rejoin the brigade in the city. The enemy soon formed line and dashed at the Mississippians, determined  to drive them from their rifle pits and other places of shelter. They moved forward in splendid style, and perfect military order. Soon the advance was followed by a second and third line. It was a magnificent sight, which won the admiration of the Mississippians. There was no nervousness nor hesitation. They may have thought that all the troops in the city were killed, but, matters not, they were a fine body of men. Barksdale's Brigade watched them from their hiding places and awaited their near approach. Suddenly, when within about 75 yards of our line, as if by common impulse, a volley rang out from the rifle pits on the cold air, which sounded almost like one gun, and hundreds fell dead in their tracks. The front line of the enemy, paralyzed and dismayed by the shock, fell back in confusion. In the meantime the Mississippians were firing on them as they ran. It was a dreadful slaughter, which might have been considered a retaliation for the dreadful bombardment of two hours before. Quickly the second line advanced, firing as they came, and was met by a deadly aim from the Confederates. The column halted in front of Barksdale's men, when the third line rushed to their support and charged headlong into the city. Whole companies of Barksdale's men were concealed in cellars, where they remained even after the enemy had passed, and emerging, fired into the rear of the Federal line from behind corners of houses and stone walls. The Mississippians began to retire slowly, fighting as they retreated. It was a grand sight which was witnessed by both armies. Hundreds of brave officers and men fell ere they could reach the city. General McLaws ordered Barksdale to fall back to our main line on the crest of the hills, which he did soon after dark. The fighting lasted until about that time. The brigade occupied a cut in the side of the hill until 10 o'clock the following day, December 12th. During the night of the 11th the enemy crossed over two divisions, and other troops crossed during the 12th. Barksdale had been engaged continuously for forty-eight hours, and was ordered back for rest and food. We went into camp in a woods behind Marye's Heights, where we remained until the morning of the 13th. General Thos. R. R. Cobb, with his  brigade of Georgians, took position in the sunken road, or cut, at the foot of Marye's Hill, in front of the city. When the Mississippians who had thus far stood the brunt of the attack, marched over the ridge to rest, carrying their guns at a right shoulder, cheer after cheer rang out from along the line. Little hope was entertained that any of them would escape that dreadful bombardment, and when they held their ground after the bombardment had ceased, driving back line after line of the enemy, the other troops were struck with amazement and wonder, and felt a pride in their comrades which they could not conceal. When daylight dawned on the 12th, the city and valley were again veiled in fog. It was so dense no object could be distinguished 50 yards distant, and this condition lasted until nearly midday. During the afternoon a heavy skirmishing was kept up, but nothing of a serious nature occurred. Saturday the 13th, the earth was again enveloped by a fog, which did not clear away before 10 o'clock. The whole country was covered with sleet and snow, and the men stood to their places without fires, and with very scant clothing. McLaw's division was posted from the foot of Marye's Hill, where Cobb occupied the cut, extending towards the south, with Kershaw on his right, and Barksdale on the right of Kershaw, while Paul J. Semmes was held in reserve. The Washington Artillery was posted on Marye's Hill, just in the rear of Cobb, and behind Kershaw and Barksdale were two batteries of the Richmond Howitzers and the Rockbridge Battery of rifled guns. Soon after the fog had cleared away Federal officers rode boldly out and examined the ground between the two armies. They rode within a hundred yards of our line, but were not fired on. No one seemed disposed to kill such bold, brave fellows. Not long after they had retired, a strong line moved towards the right of Barksdale's Brigade, but were surprised and driven back by the fire of the batteries just behind us. Line after line of infantry stood along the valley, and we could distinctly see immense columns of troops on the opposite side of the river waiting to cross on the bridges. We were in  a woods, our rifle pits concealed by underbrush, which also obscured our artillery above us. About 11 o'clock the enemy moved forward, and halted about one hundred yards from the cut where Cobb was concealed. The line was dressed, and every man stood in his place. It was a formidable column, out for a desperate encounter. Everything in readiness, they advanced about thirty yards when the artillery back of us opened, throwing grape and shell into their ranks. The Georgians, resting their guns on the bluff, fired a volley which almost destroyed the alignment. The enemy fell back, leaving their dead and wounded. The color bearers threw down their flags, and numbers of the men dropped their guns and fell, outstretched on the ground. Quickly another line advanced and met the same disaster. A third and fourth line rushed forward, and were driven back with equal slaughter. Charge followed charge until night relieved the scene. The enemy acted with great gallantry, and rushed into our works to meet defeat and death, but others took their places and suffered likewise. There was no occasion during the war when the Federal troops displayed such determination and behaved with greater credit. During that dreadful engagement, General Cobb was seriously wounded, and died soon afterwards. General Cobb was a distinguished man in peace, and could have won even greater fame in war had he lived. Soon after he was wounded, General McLaws observed the enemy massing for a final effort, ordered General Kershaw to move his brigade into the cut also. Hardly had he done so, when the enemy rushed at our line; then it was that hundreds of them fell almost in front of the cut, and numbers fought their way to our line, to be driven back in defeat. When the last charge was made the dead and wounded were lying so thick in our front that the enemy stumbled over them in their desperation. The enemy retired to the river and remained along the bank until the 15th then recrossed, leaving 15,000 dead and wounded behind. The Confederate loss did not exceed 5,000. Looking back on the scenes of Fredericksburg, and remembering  the conduct of General Barksdale and his men, we are forced to believe that the defense of the city was one of the greatest achievements of the war, and the behaviour of the men unsurpassed by any troops of any field. Their courage and endurance challenges comparison with any soldiers in history. No one who did not participate in the defense of Fredericksburg can form an idea of the terrible scenes of destruction and terror, and if hell be more dreadful than that bombardment, men had better halt and consider.  From the Times-Dispatch, July 10, 1901.\