Report of Col. Norman J. Hall, Seventh Michigan Infantry, Commanding Third Brigade.
DECEMBER 11-15, 1862.--Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXI [S# 31]
HEADQUARTERS THIRD BRIGADE,
Camp near Falmouth, Va., December 17, 1862.
Capt. E. WHITTLESEY,
CAPTAIN: In compliance with orders, I have the honor to make the following report of the operations of the brigade under my command during the late battle in and before Fredericksburg, Va.:
On the evening of the 10th instant, my command was designated to take the advance of the army, as soon as the bridges should be built, on the following morning. On arriving at the point where the head of the column was to rest, I received orders to report with the brigade to Brigadier-General Woodbury, commanding Engineer Brigade, at the Lacy house. The bridges were not being advanced on account of the deadly fire of the enemy's sharpshooters, posted behind buildings and in cellars and rifle-pits along the opposite bank. Two regiments were deployed (the Seventh Michigan and Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers) along the bank of the river to cover the bridge-builders by their fire as skirmishers, but afterward withdrew them, to enable the batteries to fire shell. After some hours of delay, Generals Hunt and Woodbury consulted with me upon the practicability of crossing troops in boats, and storming the strong points occupied by the enemy, so as to protect the heads of the pontoon bridges, of which but one had progressed to any extent. It was arranged that, under cover of a heavy artillery fire, the engineers should place boats at intervals along the bank, and provide men to row and steer them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Baxter, commanding Seventh Michigan Volunteers, was informed of the plan, and his regiment Volunteered to be crossed and storm the town as proposed. Captain Weymouth, of the Nineteenth Massachusetts, also volunteered to support the Seventh Michigan, if required, crossing in the same way.
The first-named regiment was deployed, and took post along the bank, while the latter lined the river as sharpshooters, together with Captain Plumer's company of sharpshooters (independent), which was ordered to report to me for this object. At a signal, the batteries opened their fire, and continued with great rapidity for over half an hour, the engineer troops failing to perform their part, running away from the boats at the first fire from the enemy and seeking shelter.
No prospect appearing of better conduct, I stated to Colonel Baxter that I saw no hopes of effecting the crossing, unless he could man the oars, place the boats, and push across unassisted. I confess I felt apprehensions of disaster in this attempt, as, without experience in the management of boats, the shore might not be reached promptly, if at all, and the party lost. Colonel Baxter promptly accepted the new conditions, and proceeded immediately to arrange the boats, some of which had to be carried to the water. Lieut. C. B. Comstock, chief engineer, Army of the Potomac, directed the embarkation personally, I believe. Before the number of boats fixed upon had been loaded, the signal to cease the artillery firing was made, and I thought best to push those now ready across, rather than to wait till all were filled, and to allow the enemy to come out of his concealment from the cannonade.
The boats pushed gallantly across under a sharp fire. While in the boats, 1 man was killed and Lieutenant.Colonel Baxter and several men were wounded. The party, which numbered from 60 to 70 men, formed under the bank and rushed upon the first street, attacked the enemy, and, in the space of a few minutes, 31 prisoners were captured and a secure lodgment effected. Several men were here also wounded, and Lieutenant Emery and 1 man killed. The remainder of the regiment meanwhile crossed, and I directed the Nineteenth Massachusetts to follow and gain ground to the right, while the Seventh was ordered to push to the left. Seeing no preparations for advancing the bridge, which, according to the plan, was to have been under construction when the crossing was commenced, I went to the engineer battalion and asked the commanding officer to send down parties at once. He replied that General Woodbury was in command, and was away. I en-treated that men should be instantly sent, nevertheless, but could obtain no satisfaction.
The firing in the street had now become general and quite rapid, and, as I had been informed that a brigade of the enemy had been seen moving toward the bridge head, I requested General Hunt to reopen fire upon the flanks and in advance of the party which had crossed. 1 afterward learned from prisoners taken that this brigade of the enemy was General Barksdale's, composed of the Thirteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Twenty-first Mississippi Regiments. Several prisoners were taken belonging to the Eighth Florida Regiment, which was in the city.
All firing upon the bridge had been now silenced, and the bridge was rapidly completed. I reported to General Burnside directly the conduct of the engineer troops. An order for the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers to move across the bridge the instant it was down was incorrectly transmitted, so as to cause Acting Major Macy, its commanding officer, to throw it across in boats. This regiment was held in line along the bank to resist any attempts of the enemy to recover this point by an exposed movement, and the Seventh Michigan Volunteers and the Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers could hold against any advance through buildings.
The moment the bridge was ready, the Forty-second and Fifty-ninth New York Volunteers and the One hundred and twenty-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers moved across, and the Twentieth Massachusetts was formed in column in the street. The guide, a citizen, was killed at the head of the column. Upon attempting to cross the second street, it became evident that the enemy was in considerable force, and could only be dislodged by desperate fighting. It was fast growing dark, the troops were being crowded near the bridge head in a compact and unmanageable mass, and I was informed that the whole division was to cross to hold the city. It was impracticable, in my opinion, to attempt to relieve the press by throwing troops into the streets, where they could only be shot down, unable to return the fire. To give time to fight the enemy in his own way, I sent urgent requests to the rear to have the column halted on the other side of the river, but was ordered to push ahead. The Seventh and Nineteenth had been brought to a stand, and l ordered Acting Major Macy, commanding the Twentieth Massachusetts, to clear the street leading from the bridge at all hazards.
I cannot presume to express all that is due the officers and men of this regiment for the unflinching bravery and splendid discipline shown in the execution of the order. Platoon after platoon was swept away, but the head of the column did not falter. Ninety-seven officers and men were killed or wounded in the space of about 50 yards. When the edge of the town was reached, the Fifty-ninth New York was sent to relieve the portion of the Twentieth engaged in the street leading to the left, and lost a number of officers and men. The Forty-second New York was ordered to advance by a street to the left, but, for fear of firing upon our own men, the order was countermanded. The One hundred and twenty-seventh Pennsylvania met some loss in crossing the bridge, but behaved in a very creditable manner.
The positions occupied when the firing was ordered to cease were held till late in the night, when it was found that the enemy had retired from the buildings throughout the town. The brigade was relieved at light in the morning by the troops of General Sully.
Nothing transpired necessary to state in this report till about midday on Saturday, the 13th, when I was directed to form a second line of battle behind Colonel Owen's brigade, to support General French's attack upon the enemy in his works before the town. The One hundred and twenty-seventh Pennsylvania was temporarily assigned to Colonel Owen's command.
On arriving at the outskirts of the city (on Hanover street, I believe), I halted to gain the distance ordered, and to clear room before me, so as to pass the hot fire on the road rapidly.
While here I met Generals Couch and Hancock. The latter ordered me to charge the rifle-pits of the enemy, in column, up the road. I formed as broad a column as the street would admit of, and advanced the command, then less than 800 men, to execute the order. But, happily, General Couch changed the order after I had gone a short distance, and a line of battle was formed on the right of the road, with directions to charge upon the rifle-pits and wall in front of the enemy from that position. One of the regiments had countermarched, on starting, without my knowledge, and, in forming line, created some confusion at that point. The remainder of the line advanced rapidly and with good order for some distance over the hill, in the face of a heavy and well-aimed fire of infantry in front, and a terrible one of artillery against the right flank.
A portion of the Seventh Michigan, Forty-second and Fifty-ninth New York fell back, as did the Nineteenth Massachusetts a moment later. The Twentieth Massachusetts stood firm and returned the fire of the enemy, till I had, with the assistance of my staff and other officers, reformed the line and commenced a second advance.
The firing having commenced in my line, it was impossible to restrain it, so that an effective charge was not expected. The advance was renewed in fine style by the whole line, but gave way from the left. The Nineteenth Massachusetts gained several houses near the enemy on the road and held them, losing 2 commanding officers--9 officers in all, and many men. The Twentieth Massachusetts showed the matchless courage and discipline evinced on the previous day. Further attempts to advance were hopeless. I reported that I could hold my position, and was ordered to do so.
The remainder of the day, till late at night, was spent under a fire of shell from our own guns as well as those of the enemy. Twenty or 30 men were wounded by shots from the former.
After midnight the brigade was relieved by General Sykes' division, and withdrew to the city. The Forty-second New York was detailed for picket duty next day. I know nothing of its operations while thus detached.
On the 15th, Col. William R. Lee, Twentieth Massachusetts, arrived and assumed command of the brigade. Nothing is required to be said in praise of the conduct of the officers and men of this brigade, while under my command, in the late battles. Lieutenant Stinson, aide-de-camp to General Howard, was sent to me for staff duty, and fearlessly carried my orders during the thickest of the fight. To him and to the officers of this brigade staff, Capt. William B. Leach, assistant adjutant-general; Lieut. William F. Milton, aide-de-camp; Lieut. C. P. Abbott, aide-de-camp, and Captain Crombargar, commissary of subsistence, I owe both my thanks and the most honorable mention for the zealous performance of all their duties.
I have the honor to inclose lists of killed, wounded, and missing, and a tabular statement.
N. J. HALL,
Colonel Seventh Michigan, Commanding Brigade.
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