The Battle Of Fredericksburg
General E.P. Alexander
Paper No. 1.
CROSSING THE RIVER AND OCCUPYING THE TOWN.
On the 15th of November General Burnside put his columns in motion towards Fredericksburg, and on the same day General Lee ordered Lewis's Battery and a Mississippi regiment of infantry, which had been guarding railroad bridges near Richmond, to reinforce the Fifteenth Virginia Cavalry, under Colonel Ball, which was in observation at that point. This force reached Fredericksburg on the 17th, a short while before the arrival at Falmouth of the head of the Federal column under Major General Sumner, and a small artillery duel occurred between Lewis's Battery and a Federal rifle battery, under a Captain Petitt, the latter having decidedly the best of it, as Lewis carried but four very inferior guns. Much credit was claimed at the time for this small Confederate force for preventing the crossing of the Rappahannock by the Federals, but, however impudent its intentions may have been, this claim cannot be admitted, for Sumner had positive orders from Burnside not to cross; and these orders were reiterated that night, on Sumner's asking permission to go over and take Lewis's guns. Meanwhile, information being received from the calvary of the appearance of Federal gunboats and transports at Acquia Creek, and of large wagon trains moving from Catlett's Station towards Falmouth, on the 17th General Lee ordered General Longstreet to march rapidly to Fredericksburg with McLaws's and Ransom's Divisions of Infantry, accompanied by their battalion of artillery, W.H.F. Lee's Brigade of Calvary, and Lane's rifle battery from the Reserve Artillery. At the same time General Stuart was ordered to force a crossing of the Rappahannock at Warrenton Springs, and discover the enemy's movements. This being gallantly done, the calvary advanced as far as Warrenton, and found that Burnside's base had been changed to Acquia Creek, and his whole army was on the march towards Falmouth. On receipt of this information, on the 19th the remainder of Longstreet's corps and the Reserve Artillery was put in motion for Fredericksburg, via Raccoon and Morton's Fords, and Jackson's corps was ordered from the Valley to concentrate at Orange C.H.
On the 20th Burnside's entire army was concentrated opposite Fredericksburg, and on the same day McLaws's and Ransom's Divisions under Longstreet, having just arrived, made hurried dispositions for battle on the hills overlooking the town from the west. On the 21st the Mayor of Fredericksburg was summoned by General Sumner to surrender the town by 5 P.M., or prepare to receive a bombardment at 9 A.M. on the next day. By direction of General Lee, who had now also arrived, a reply was returned that the occupation of the city by Federal forces would be resisted, but that the Confederates would refrain from using it for military purposes, although this promise was no concession, for the town had not been and could not be of any military use, further than to shelter a picket force, which, of course, it was not pretended would be removed, the Federal commander withdrew his threat and the town was never fired upon until the 11th of December, when the desperate resistance of Barksdale's Mississippians from the cover of the houses induced and justified a bombardment.
In view, however, of the imminence of a battle, General Lee advised the inhabitants of Fredericksburg to vacate the city, that their presence might not trammel his defence, and although the weather was most inclement, the thermometer being near zero, almost the whole population removed and found the best shelters they could, cheerfully giving their homes to be a battlefield. The neighboring country, houses and churches were filled, sometimes with dozens of families, to whom rations were issued by the commissaries, and many women and children encamped in the forest in brush and blanket shelters, where the sight of their cheerfully borne sufferings nerved many a heart for the coming struggle.
On the 22nd of November, the whole of the First corps was concentrated and in position as follows:
Anderson held the crest of hills from Banks's Ford to Hazel Bun, with his brigades in the following order, from left to right, viz: Wilcox, Wright, Mahone, Perry and Featherston. McLaws stood upon his right with Cobb, Kershaw, Barksdale and Semmes. Pickett formed on McLaws's right with Jenkins, Corse, Kemper, Armistead and Garnett. Hood held the extreme right, and extended his line to Hamilton's crossing, over five miles distant from the left flank; his brigades being Laws's, F.T. Anderson's, Benning's, and the Texas brigade under Robertson. Ransom, with his own and Cooke's brigades, formed the reserve. The Engineer and Artillery officers were ordered to assign positions to the artillery, and to build pits for them, but their positions were ordered to be located, more with a view to reply to the enemy's batteries which were being built on the north bank of the river, than to be used in repelling assaults upon their own positions. The work of fortification went on very slowly, on account of the great scarcity of tools, and the inclement weather, the ground being frozen for many days, and when the enemy crossed the river, on the 11th of December, there were ready for him on the whole line, only about forty detached pits, holding a gun each, but without shelter for ammunition or for infantry supports.
Each army closely picketed the river bank in its front, but there was no picket firing, and for the first time in the war, the individuals on each side were content to walk post quietly, but a hundred yards apart, and await orders to kill from their commanders. So for three weeks, daily, the opposing forces drilled and paraded in sight, and in range of each others, numerous guns, or gathered on the hill tops and watched the Federal balloons floating above the smoke of their numberless fires, and the slow growth of the red batteries, so soon to become volcanoes of carnage.
Meanwhile the Federal advance was delayed in several ways. On the arrival of the head of his column, under Sumner, General Burnside forbade the crossing, then easy to accomplish, by fording, until his communications should be established. By the time that this was done, the opposing force had been so augmented, that it was deemed advisable to wait for pontoon bridges, and when these arrived the balloonists reported such an increase of the Confederate force behind the opposite hills, that a flank movement was preferred to a direct advance, and arrangements were made to cross at Skenker's Neck, twelve miles below Falmouth. Before these arrangements were complete, General Lee's attention had been drawn in that direction by the appearance of some gunboats below Port Royal, and Jackson's corps had been brought from Orange courthouse, and D.H. Hill's and Early's division of that corps thrown in that neighborhood, and the balloonists seeing this, reported that the plan was discovered, and it was thereupon abandoned. General Burnside had hoped to postpone active operations until Spring,(*) but the temper of the Federal administration, and the northern people, would allow no such delay, so he decided to give up his flank movement, make a direct attack, and endeavor to surprise Lee before he could concentrate.
It will be seen from the topography of the situation, as shown in any map of the battlefield, that the crossing of the river could scarcely be seriously contested by the Confederates; the Stafford Heights on the north side approaching close to the river, and completely commanding the opposite plain, which afforded no shelter for troops, and was, moreover, enfiladed from above Falmouth, while the narrow and deep bed of the river effectually concealed the positions of the pontoon bridges from the Confederate artillery on the southern hills. The Confederates, therefore, were compelled simply to await the advance of the enemy after he had crossed, and to resist this, their position was generally good. It was, however, only in the approaching battle that both armies seemed to learn the full value of infantry epaulements, however slight, and none had been provided at the two weakest points of the line, viz: at Marye's Hill -- a low and unflanked salient bluff, extending from the telegraph road to Stansbury's house -- or at Hamilton's crossing, where the right flank rested in the air. Other parts of the line of battle were, more or less, defended with breast heights, according to the ideas of the different officers, and the more or less definite appreciation of where the stand would be made. The line held by General McLaws, was particularly well laid off and fortified; and though it was not attacked, its strength allowed two brigades to be drawn from it to meet the assault on Marye's Hill.
General Burnside's preparations being at last complete, on the night of the 10th of December he devoted himself to his task,
"With a hundred thousand men
For the Rebel slaughter pen,
And the blessed Union Flag a flying o'er him."
During the night one hundred and forty seven guns, many of them twenty and thirty pounder rifles, crowned the hills and filled the earthworks, while the banks were lined with troops, and the pontoon boats were deposited on the brink of the river. Five bridges were to be constructed. Three opposite to the town, for the passage of Sumner's and Hooker's grand divisions, and two for Franklin's grand division, at points about two miles below. Meanwhile General Lee was by no means taken by surprise. It was reported in the army that a good Virginia lady, whose house was in the Federal lines, came to the river on the 10th and called across to a cavalry picket that a very large issue of rations had just been made, and that the men had been ordered to cook them immediately, which was at once reported to General Lee. However this may be, about noon, on the 10th, orders were received to push to completion immediately all unfinished batteries, and at dark came further orders to be under arms at dawn. The town was occupied at the time, by the brigade of General Barksdale, of McLaws's division, who picketed the river from a point opposite Lacy's house as far down as one fourth of a mile below the mouth of Deep Run. From Lacy's house to Falmouth, the river was picketed by the 3d Georgia Regiment, under Colonel Walker, and the 8th Florida, under Captain Lang, the latter being on the right, and under the command of General Barksdale.
At 2 A.M. on the morning of the 11th, General Barksdale reported that the enemy was preparing to lay pontoon bridges opposite the town, and that he would open fire at dawn. His command was posted as follows:
In the upper part of the city, along the river street, and hidden behind walls and houses, were about a hundred men of the Eighth Florida Regiment under Captain Lang. Next came the Seventeenth Mississippi under Lieutenant Colonel Fizer, with his right wing commanded by Captain Govan, and reinforced by three companies of the Eighteenth Mississippi (A,I. and K.), commanded by Lieutenant Radcliff, and three of the Eighth Florida (A,D. and F.) under Captain Boyd, the latter being posted below the town. The Thirteenth Mississippi also furnished ten selected marksmen to this skirmish line, which numbered about three hundred and seventy five rifles, and was under the general control of Lieutenant Colonel Fizer. This force was supported on the left by the Thirteenth Mississippi, under Colonel Carter, and on the right by the right wing of the Twenty First Mississippi under Major Moody, each posted a short distance in rear. The left wing of the Twenty First, under Colonel Humphries was held in reserve at the market house.
The Eighteenth Mississippi under Lieutenant Colonel Luse was posted along the river from a half mile above to a quarter of a mile below the mouth of Deep Run.
The inhabitants remaining in the city were warned of what was coming, and most of them fled precipitately, although a few, even of the women, preferred to take the chances and remained throughout the conflict.
The morning dawned at last through a dense smoky mist which filled the valleys so that the limit of vision was less than a hundred yards. This peculiar fog, which strongly resembled the haze of an Indian summer, but was very dense, returned nightly during the struggle, and generally prevailed until nearly noon, and it was of material advantage to the Federals in veiling their movements and masses of troops from the Confederate artillery. As soon as the increasing light enabled the marksmen to see, and a little time had been afforded the fugitive inhabitants to get out of range, the Federal pontoniers, having advanced one bridge about thirty feet in the stream and commenced another, a murderous volley of musketry was poured into them by Colonel Fizer's command, and at the same instant the boom of two Confederate signal guns, announced to the two armies that they were again to test each other's mettle.
At the report of the signal guns the Confederate forces already under arms, moved into their positions in the order already detailed. Lane's Battery from the General Reserve, with six guns, one of them a twelve pound Whitworth rifle, occupied Taylor's Hill on the extreme left. Between that point and the plank road were placed the batteries of Huger, Grandy, Lewis and Maurin, the latter being on Marye's Hill, just to the left of the plank road, Parker's Battery of Alexander's Reserve Battalion was advanced to Stansbury's house. The rest of this battalion was held in reserve in rear of this house, except Rhett's Rifle Battery, which enfiladed the plank road from a high hill overlooking Marye's from the rear, and Eubanks, which was temporarily with Pickett's Division.
Nine guns of the Washington Artillery under Colonel Walton, occupied the pits on Marye's Hill to the right of the plank road, and a short distance in their rear Mosely's Battery of six guns was kept in reserve. On Lee's Hill, and to the right were posted twenty one guns, for the most part rifles, under Colonel Cabell and Major Hamilton, while seventeen smoothbores, under Major Nelson, of the General Reserve, were held in hand close in the rear.
Among the guns in position on Lee's Hill, were two thirty pound Parrotts, under Lieutenant Anderson, which had just been sent from Richmond, and one Whitworth rifle, the rest being all light field guns. Along the front of Pickett's Division, were posted the guns of Garnett's Battalion, Reilly's Battery and a part of Ross's Battery of the General Reserve, extending to Deep Run. Backman's and Garden's Batteries were posted in General Hood's front, with Patterson's Battery and part of Ross's from the Reserve.
It must be stated in this connection that in no battle during the war was the Confederate artillery ammunition more defective than in that of Fredericksburg. There were three or four Whitworth Rifles which fired wonderfully far, and with great accuracy, but they were only supplied with solid shot, and but scantily with these. The two thirty pound Parrotts did beautiful practice until they were burst, one at the thirty ninth round and the other at the fifty fourth. The smoothbores were all supplied with the badly made Bormann fuzes which cursed the Confederate artillery, from the beginning of the war until the end of 1863, for although their manufacture was discontinued shortly after this battle, the supplies on hand in the ordinance depots all had to be used up, and they were scarcely exhausted until after the battle of Gettysburg. They were, therefore, forbidden to fire over the heads of the infantry except with solid shot, and wherever they were tempted to disregard this order, the result was generally nearly as fatal to friend as foe. The position at Marye's Hill was fortunately an exception to this rule, as the features of the ground gave the infantry in front great protection; but, even here, an officer lost his arm, and several other casualties occurred from premature explosions of our own shell.
The rifle guns were even worse than the smoothbores, for they carried no solid shot, and had no percussion shells or case shot, their only ammunition being time- fuze shell and canister. Their shell were not only liable to burst prematurely, often in the gun, but when they did not do this they rarely burst at all, and very many of them would "tumble" and fall, and very far short of their targets. Had the Confederate artillerists possessed the guns and ammunition of their opponents, it would be difficult to overestimate the damage they could have inflicted, for not only would the losses have been far greater in their assaulting and retreating columns, but the dense masses of infantry, and moving columns of all arms, and enormous parks of wagons constantly visible on the north bank, and moving to and from their bridges, must have suffered, it is no exaggeration to say, thousands of casualties. As it was, they were seldom fired at, and so rarely hit that it is doubtful if fifty men were hurt upon the north bank by artillery projectiles. Only within canister range could the Confederate artillerists take full advantage of their opportunities, and what these opportunities were, may be judged from the fact that in spite of these disadvantages, it was stated in Northern papers at the time, that one fifth of all the losses were caused by artillery projectiles.
The volley poured by Colonel Fizer's command into the bridge builders, was the signal for a sharp fusilade, which immediately greeted them along the whole line. The first blow was struck, and so well aimed was it that the engineer troops were soon driven from their work with decimated ranks, and the loss of the directing officer, Captain Cross, and all work upon the bridges suspended until the Confederate marksmen could be driven away. To accomplish this a number of guns were turned on their positions, and a strong force of infantry deployed to assist; but the Confederate marksmen, sheltering themselves from the storm of artillery missiles as best they could, replied so well to the infantry, that two regiments alone, opposite the city, suffered one hundred and fifty casualties in a very short while. Under cover of this fire several fresh efforts were made to complete the bridges, but the pontoniers were unable to bear the strain for more than a few minutes at a time, and the work hardly progressed. About 10 o'clock General Burnside, probably at a loss what else to do, ordered every available gun to be trained upon the city, and fifty rounds fired from each. Few more magnificent spectacles were presented in the war than the one which followed, as viewed from the Confederate heights. The city, except its steeples, was veiled in the mist which yet settled in the valley. Above it, and in it, but partly obscured, could be seen the bright flashes, and round white clouds, which showed the positions of hundreds of bursting shells, and out of its midst swelled and rose dense black columns of smoke from several houses fired by their explosions. The amphitheatre of hills on the Federal side was crowned with forty blazing batteries, canopied in smoke, and shaking the earth with the incessant peals, at the rate of over a hundred per minute, while the slopes were darkened with near a hundred thousand infantry, who, in straight lines, compact column, and regular masses, powerfully impressed the mind with a sense of the tremendous and disciplined energies of war.
The more distant hills shone with numerous parks of white covered wagons and ambulances, and a thousand feet above the scene hovered two huge balloons, bearing watchful observers of the Confederate lines. From these lines not a gun replied, but their silence was ominous to those who appreciated the useful as distinguished from the moral effort of artillery, and the Confederate cannoneers and guns looked silently on, reserving themselves until the masses of infantry should come within their range. Groups of officers, and the refugee inhabitants, gathered on the hills to gaze, and many a word of praise was spoken of the indomitable Barksdale, who still held his position in the very focus of this feu d'enfer, and whose rifles were still heard piping up a tiney treble in defiance of the mighty roar, and again driving back the bridge builders, who, under cover of this fire, had attempted to renew their work. After more than an hour's continuance, and an expenditure of many thousand rounds of artillery ammunition, the bombardment was slackened in despair, and matters came to a standstill, so far as the town was concerned. The Confederates had suffered severe loss, but they still held their positions, and had driven the bridge builders from their work in nine separate efforts made to complete it. Most important among the losses, was that of Captain Lang, commanding the 8th Florida, who fell about 11 A.M., severely wounded in the head, after having done gallant and efficient service with his regiment. No one seems to have assumed command after his fall, and its subsequent services were consequently almost lost.
Meanwhile, Colonel Lure, at the mouth of Deep Run, had delayed the pontoniers until nearly noon, when the lifting of the fog, exposing their positions accurately to the enemy's guns, and the ground affording no shelter whatever, they were driven into the ravine of Deep Run, and some adjacent hollow. Here they were reinforced by the 15th South Carolina, under Colonel DeSaussure, and the 16th Georgia, under Colonel Bryan, and remained until the enemy had completed his bridges, and commenced to cross his infantry, when by order of General Kershaw, Colonel DeSaussure withdrew the whole force to the Bowling Green road, except Captain Cassell's company, of the 18th Mississippi, which was hidden in the ravine of Deep Run, until the advance of the enemy's skirmishers, about sundown, when it was also withdrawn, after a slight skirmish, to the road. These troops remained in this position, without fires, during the night, which was of such intense cold that one member of the 15th South Carolina was frozen to death, and several others were frostbitten.
Opposite the city matters remained at a deadlock until late in the afternoon, when, on the suggestion of General Hunt, Burnside's Chief of Artillery, it was decided to cross a force in the pontoon boats, to drive off the sharpshooters, who still kept the bridge builders from their work. The 7th Michigan regiment, and the 19th and 20th Massachusetts regiments volunteered for the duty. These regiments, sheltered behind the piles of bridge material, first opened a vigorous fire upon Colonel Fizer's position, aided by a fresh opening of the batteries. Under cover of this fire, a number of boats were prepared, into which the men were then rushed, and the boats pulled rapidly for the southern bank. The Mississippi marksmen kept up their fire, and with effect, until the boats were under shelter of the banks, when, having already delayed the enemy even longer than the occasion required, Colonel Fizer ordered his small force to fall back to the market house, where it was again disposed to resist the enemy's advance. The troops who first crossed in the boats, remained under shelter of the bank, until reinforced by other boat loads, when they advanced a short distance in the city, and captured about a hundred sharpshooters, who did not know of the retreat of their comrades, or who were unwilling to run the gauntlet to escape. Among the prisoners were the three companies of the 8th Florida, under Captain Boyd, which were captured entire. Captain Boyd had protested in the morning that his position was too exposed, and although he occupied it during the day, he kept up but little fire from it. The bridges were now rapidly completed, and troops crossed over, and about sundown, Howard's division advanced into the city, and encountered Colonels Carter and Humphries with parts of the 13th and 21st Mississippi regiments. A sharp skirmish ensued, and was continued for two hours after dark, when the enemy retired to the vicinity of his bridges. About 7 P.M., there being no longer any object in holding the town, General McLaws ordered the force in the town to be withdrawn to the telegraph road, under Marye's Hill, a position which he had selected for another obstinate stand. General Barksdale expressed his belief that he could hold the town, and begged permission to do so, but the order was reiterated, and on the morning of the 12th the Confederate force was formed at the foot of the line of hills overlooking the plain, upon which the Federal army was now debouching. The losses of only three of the five regiments in the town were reported separately for this day, and they were as follows: 8th Florida -- seven killed, thirty seven wounded, forty four missing, total, eighty eight; 21st Mississippi -- seventeen killed, thirty eight wounded, sixteen missing, total, seventy one; 13th Mississippi -- total, one hundred and sixteen.
On the 12th, the crossing of the Federal army was continued, and occupied nearly the whole day. Sumner's Grand Division crossed opposite the town and was sheltered on the two lower streets parallel to the river, which were on a slope toward the stream. The Ninth Corps on its left flank, extended to Deep Run, where it connected with Franklin's Grand Division, which crossed at the lower bridges, and formed behind the bluffs between the Bowling Green road and the river. The Third Corps, belonging to Hooker's Grand Division also crossed at the latter place, his other Corps, the Fifth, being held in reserve on the left bank until the 13th. The fog completely hid the Federal movements until nearly noon, and no fighting occurred, except a liberal shelling of the Confederate batteries, from the opposite shore, and a little practice by the latter at infantry columns when exposed in easy range. A few beautiful shot were made into these, and some of Colonel Cabell's guns also drove off a Federal battery which had advanced on the north side of Deep Run, but the quality as well as the quantity of ammunition on hand restricted the practice. About 10 A.M., A.P. Hill's Division, of Jackson's Corps, relieved Hood's Division which was withdrawn across Deep Run, and relieved Pickett's Division, to be placed in reserve. Daring the afternoon a small body of the enemy's cavalry deployed along the railroad, probably covering a reconnoissance, and were attacked and driven back by three companies from Toomb's and Law's brigades.
About dark Pickett's Division was again placed in the line, relieving Hood, and the latter took position on the hills east of Deep Run, in support of A.P. Hill's left flank. The lines of battle of the two armies bivouaced during the night, with but a mile of open ground between them, and quietly awaited the conflict inevitable on the morrow.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. X. Richmond, Va., August and September, 1882. Nos. 8-9.
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