Report of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, U.S. Army,
Commanding Third Division.
Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.
December 11-15, 1862
HEADQUARTERS THIRD DIVISION,
FIRST ARMY CORPS,
December 20, 1862.
Capt. C. KINGSBURY; Jr.,
Hdqrs. First Army Corps.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit the subjoined report of the part taken by this division in the recent operations in the vicinity of Fredericksburg:
The division is composed of three brigades, organized and commanded as follows: First Brigade, Col. William Sinclair, Sixth Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, commanding, consists of the First Rifles (Bucktails), First, Second, and Sixth Regiments Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, and the One hundred and twenty-first Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers; the Second Brigade, commanded by Col. A. L. Magilton, Fourth Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, contains the Third, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Regiments Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, together with the One hundred and forty-second Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers; the Third Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. C. Feger Jackson, was composed of the Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Regiments Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. Attached to this division were four batteries, each of four guns, two of light 12-pounders, one commanded by Capt. D. R. Ransom, Fifth U.S. Artillery, the other by Lieut. J. G. Simpson, First Pennsylvania Artillery, and two of 3-inch rifled guns, commanded by Capts. J. H. Cooper and F. P. Amsden, First Pennsylvania Artillery.
On the 11th instant, the division moved from the camp near White Oak Church to the vicinity of the point on the Rappahannock River selected for the crossing of the left grand division. The previous evening Captain Amsden's battery of rifled guns had been detached and ordered to report to Captain De Russy, U.S. Army, for service on the river bank. Brigadier-General Jackson's brigade, together with Ransom's and Simpson's batteries, were also detached and sent down during the night of the 10th, and posted on the river bank to protect the working party, which duty was successfully accomplished without any loss, although there was considerable firing between our sharpshooters and those of the enemy posted on the opposite bank.
The bridges being completed, the division crossed the river on the morning of the 12th, and was posted on the plateau on the left of the line of battle formed by the left grand division. The following was the formation of the division: The First Brigade in line of battle, its left resting on the river bank, and the line extending in a northwesterly direction, along and in rear of the ravine at Smithfield, the right connecting with the left of Gibbon's division. Two regiments of this brigade, the First Rifles and Second Infantry, were detached, the former for picket duty, the latter to occupy the buildings and outhouses at Smithfield, and to hold the bridge across the ravine at its debouch into the river. The batteries were posted in front of the First Brigade, on the edge of the ravine, where they had complete command of the front and of the approach by the Bowling Green road. The Second Brigade was formed in line of battle 300 paces in rear of the first and parallel to it, and the Third Brigade along the river bank in column of regiments, the head of the column being 100 paces in rear of the left of the Second Brigade. This position was occupied by 3 p.m. without any serious opposition from the enemy, but with occasional skirmishes with the pickets in front.
Early on the morning of the 13th, I accompanied the general commanding the First Corps to the headquarters of the left grand division, where the commanding general indicated the point he was instructed to attack, and I was informed my division had been selected to make the attack.
The point indicated was on the ridge, or rather range of heights, extending from the Rappahannock, in the rear of Fredericksburg, to the Massaponax, and was situated near the left of this ridge, where it terminated in the Massaponax Valley. Between the heights to be attacked and the plateau on which the left grand division was posted, there was a depression or hollow of several hundred yards in width, through which, and close to the foot of the heights, the Richmond railroad ran. The heights along the crest were wooded. The slope to the railroad from the extreme left for the space of 300 or 400 yards was clear; beyond this it was wooded, the woods extending across the hollow and in front of the railroad. The plateau on our side was level and cultivated ground up to the crest of the hollow, where there was quite a fall to the railroad. The enemy occupied the wooded heights, the line of railroad, and the wood in front. Owing to the wood, nothing could be seen of them, while all our movements on the cleared ground were exposed to their view. Immediately on receiving orders, the division was moved forward across the Smithfield ravine, advancing down the river some 700 or 800 yards, when it turned sharp to the right and crossed the Bowling Green road, which here runs in a parallel direction with the railroad. Some time was consumed in removing the hedge fences on this road, and bridging the drains on each side for the passage of the artillery.
Between 9 and 10 o'clock the column of attack was formed as follows: The First Brigade in line of battle on the crest of the hollow, and facing the railroad, with the Sixth Regiment deployed as skirmishers; the Second Brigade in rear of the First 300 paces; the Third Brigade by the flank, its right flank being a few rods to the rear of the First Brigade, having the Ninth Regiment deployed on its flank as skirmishers and flankers, and the batteries between the First and Second Brigades. This disposition had scarcely been made when the enemy opened a brisk fire from a battery posted on the Bowling Green road, the shot from which took the command from the left and rear.
Apprehending an attack from this quarter, the Third Brigade was faced to the left, thus forming, with the First, two sides of a square. Simpson's battery was advanced to the front and left of the Third Brigade, and Cooper's and Ransom's batteries moved to a knoll on the left of the First Brigade. These batteries immediately opened on the enemy's battery, and, in conjunction with some of General Doubleday's batteries in our rear, on the other side of the Bowling Green road, after twenty minutes' firing, silenced and compelled the withdrawal of the guns. During this artillery duel the enemy advanced a body of sharpshooters along the Bowling Green road, and under cover of the hedges and trees on the roadside.
General Jackson promptly sent out two companies of marksmen from his brigade, who drove the enemy back. No further demonstration on our left and rear being made, the advance was again determined on. Previous to pushing forward infantry, the batteries were directed to shell the heights and the wood in front. For this purpose, and to protect our line in case of falling back, Ransom's battery was moved to the right and front of the First Brigade, and Amsden's battery, which had just rejoined from detached duty, was posted on the right of Cooper's. During this operation, by the orders of the general commanding the First Corps, the Third Brigade changed front and formed in line of bat-the on the left of the First Brigade, its left extending very nearly opposite to the end of the ridge to be attacked. The formation was barely executed before the enemy opened a sharp fire from a battery posted on the heights to our extreme left. Cooper's, Amsden's, and Ransom's batteries were immediately turned on it, and after about thirty minutes' rapid firing the enemy abandoned the guns, having had two of his limbers or caissons blown up, the explosions from which were plainly visible.
As soon as the enemy's guns were silenced, the line of infantry was ordered to the attack. The First Brigade, on the right, advanced several hundred yards over cleared ground, driving the enemy's skirmishers before them, till they reached the woods previously described as being in front of the railroad, which they entered, driving the enemy out of them to the railroad, where they were found strongly posted in ditches and behind temporary defenses. The brigade (First) drove them from there and up the heights in their front, though, owing to a heavy fire being received on their right flank, they obliqued over to that side, but continued forcing the enemy back till they had crossed the crest of the hill; crossed a main road which runs along the crest, and reached open ground on the other side, where they were assailed by a severe fire from a large force in their front, and, at the same time, the enemy opened a battery which completely enfiladed them from the right flank. After holding their ground for some time, no support arriving, they were compelled to fall back to the railroad. The Second Brigade, which advanced in rear of the First, after reaching the railroad, was assailed with so severe a fire on their right flank that the Fourth Regiment halted and formed, faced to the right, to repel this attack. The ether regiments, in passing through the woods, being assailed from the left, inclined in that direction and ascended the heights, the Third going up as the One hundred and twenty-first of the brigade was retiring. The Third continued to advance, and reached nearly the same point as the First Brigade, but was compelled to withdraw for the same reason. The Seventh engaged the enemy to the left, capturing many prisoners and a stand of colors, driving them from their rifle-pits and temporary defenses, and continuing the pursuit till, encountering the enemy's re-enforcements, they were in turn driven back. The Third Brigade had not advanced over 100 yards, when the battery on the height on its left was remanned, and poured a destructive fire into its ranks. Perceiving this, I dispatched my aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Dehon, with orders for General Jackson to move by the right flank till he could clear the open ground in front of the battery, and then, ascending the height through the woods, swing around to the left and take the battery. Unfortunately Lieutenant Dehon fell just as he reached General Jackson, and a short time afterward the latter officer was killed. The regiments, however, did partially execute the movement by obliquing to the right, and advancing across the railroad, a portion ascending the heights in their front. The loss of their commander, and the severity of the fire from both artillery and infantry to which they were subjected, compelled them to withdraw, when those on their right withdrew.
It will be seen from the foregoing that the attack was for a time perfectly successful.' The enemy was driven from the railroad, his rifle-pits, and breastworks, for over half a mile. Over 300 prisoners were taken and several standards, when the advancing line encountered the heavy re-enforcements of the enemy, who, recovering from the effects of our assault, and perceiving both our flanks unprotected, poured in such a destructive fire from all three directions as to compel the line to fall back, which was executed without confusion. Perceiving the danger of the too great penetration of my line, without support, I dispatched several staff officers both to General Gibbon's command and General Birney's (whose division had replaced mine at the batteries from whence we advanced), urging an advance to my support, the one on my right, the other on my left. A brigade of Birney's advanced to our relief just as my men were withdrawn from the wood, and Gibbon's division advanced into the wood on our right in time to assist materially in the safe withdrawal of my broken line.
An unsuccessful effort was made to reform the division in the hollow in front of the batteries. Failing in this, the command was reformed beyond the Bowling Green road and marched to the ground occupied the night before, where it was held in reserve till the night of the 15th, when we recrossed the river.
Accompanying this report is a list giving the names of the killed, wounded, and missing, amounting in the aggregate to 179 killed, 1,082 wounded, and 509 missing. When I report that 4,500 men is a liberal estimate of the strength of the division taken into action, this large loss, being 40 per cent., will fully bear me out in the expression of my satisfaction at the good conduct of both officers and men. While I deeply regret the inability of the division, after having successfully penetrated the enemy's lines, to remain and hold what had been secured, at the same time I deem their withdrawal a matter of necessity. With one brigade commander killed, another wounded, nearly half their number hors du combat, with regiments separated from brigades, and companies from regiments, and all the confusion and disorder incidental to the advance of an extended line through wood and other obstructions, assailed by a heavy fire, not only of infantry but of artillery--not only in front but on both flanks--the best troops would be justified in withdrawing without loss of honor.
The reports of the brigade commanders, herewith submitted, are referred to for details not contained in this report.
My thanks are due Col. William Sinclair, Sixth Regiment, and Col. A. L. Magilton, Fourth Regiment, for the manner in which they handled their commands. To Colonel Sinclair particularly, who had command of the advance during the whole day, and who was severely wounded, I desire to express my obligations for the assistance rendered me.
The members of my personal staff, Capt. E. C. Baird, assistant adjutant-general; Capt. Alexander B. Coxe, Pennsylvania Volunteers, and Lieut. A. G. Mason, Fifth Regiment, aides-de-camp, deserve my thanks for the prompt and fearless manner in which they conveyed my orders to all parts of the field.
The loss of Lieut. Arthur Dehon, Twelfth Massachusetts, my aide, is greatly to be deplored, as he was a young officer of high promise, endeared to all who knew him for his manly virtues and amiable character. The public service has also to mourn the loss of Brig. Gen. C. Feger Jackson, an officer of merit and reputation, who owed his position to his gallantry and good conduct in previous actions.
Others have fallen of distinguished merit, and there are many of the living whom it will be my pleasure hereafter to bring to the notice of the Government for their distinguished acts of gallantry. At present I must refer to the reports of brigade and regimental commanders.
I remain, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
GEO. G. MEADE,
Major-General, Commanding Division.
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