Description of the Battle of Fredericksburg


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Civil War Harper's Weekly, December 27, 1862

Welcome to our collection of online Civil War newspapers. We have posted all the Harper's Weekly newspapers that were printed during the Civil War. This site allows access to this incredible historical resource to allow you to develop a deeper understanding of this period in American History.

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Battle of Fredericksburg

Battle of Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg Battle Description

Description of  Battle of Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg Retreat

Burnside's Retreat After Fredericksburg

Map Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg Map

War in the Rear

War from the Rear

The Fredericksburg Bombardment

The Fredericksburg Bombardment

The Forlorn Hope

The Forlorn Hope



Fredericksburg Bombardment

Bombardment of Fredericksburg

Behind the Lines

Behind the Lines








[DECEMBER 27, 1862.




THE present Number of HARPER'S WEEKLY completes Volume VI. A Title-Page and Table of Contents can be had gratuitously from the principal News-Dealers.


WE have again to report a disastrous reverse to our arms. Defeated with great slaughter in the battle of 13th, General Burnside has now withdrawn the army of the Potomac to the north side of the Rappahannock, where the people congratulate themselves that it is at least in safety. And now, who is responsible for this terrible repulse?

General Burnside was appointed to the command of the army of the Potomac on 9th November, and began at once to prepare to shift the base and line of march of his army toward Fredericksburg. In view of such a movement General McClellan had, before his removal, suggested the propriety of rebuilding and occupying the railroad from Aquia Creek to Falmouth; but, for some reason not apparent, the War Department had not acted upon the suggestion. About 12th November General Burnside notified the Department that he would arrive at Fredericksburg in about a week, and that pontoons must be there by that time, in order to enable him to cross and occupy the hills on the south side of the river. On the 21st General Sumner arrived at Fredericksburg, and found that there was not a pontoon there, and the railroad between Aquia Creek and Falmouth being out of order, there was no means of getting any, and no means of procuring supplies. It was absolutely impossible to cross the river, and the enemy were already arriving on the south side and throwing up earth-works.

General Burnside, on discovering this state of things, repaired instantly to Washington to ascertain why he was being sacrificed. What satisfaction he obtained no one knows. But a general officer, one of the most distinguished in the service, not in the army of the Potomac, as early as 23d November, made no secret of his opinion that the movement via Fredericksburg "was a failure," because Burnside had been unable to occupy the south bank of the Rappahannock in time.

In the course of two weeks pontoons were furnished to the army, the railroad was repaired, and supplies were forthcoming. But, on the other hand, Lee, with 150,000 men, was strongly intrenched on the opposite side of the river, on two ranges of hills which command the slope at the foot of which the Rappahannock runs and Fredericksburg lies. The question was, what was to be done? A council of war was held on the night of 11th. At that council it is understood that Generals Sumner, Franklin, Hooker, and all the corps commanders who had been invited were decidedly opposed to a movement across the river and up the slope. IT IS RUMORED THAT BURNSIDE THEN SAID THAT HE WAS ORDERED TO CROSS THE RIVER AND ATTACK THE BATTERIES IN FRONT, AND THAT HE WOULD DO IT, NO MATTER WHAT THE COST. This of course closed the discussion, and the Generals made their preparations accordingly. On 12th the river was crossed without serious resistance. On 13th the rebel batteries were attacked in front by the bulk of Burnside's army, and our troops were repulsed with a loss which is now variously estimated at from twelve to seventeen thousand men. The rebel loss is not known, but they can not have lost many score of men. On the night of 15-16th, General Burnside withdrew his army to the north side of the river.

We are indulging in no hyperbole when we say that these events are rapidly filling the heart of the loyal North with sickness, disgust, and despair. Party lines are becoming effaced by such unequivocal evidences of administrative imbecility; it is the men who have given and trusted the most, who now feel most keenly that the Government is unfit for its office, and that the most gallant efforts ever made by a cruelly tried people are being neutralized by the obstinacy and incapacity of their leaders. Where this will all end no one can see. But it must end soon. The people have shown a patience, during the past year, quite unexampled in history. They have borne, silently and grimly, imbecility, treachery, failure, privation, loss of friends and means, almost every suffering which can afflict a brave people. But they can not be expected to suffer that such massacres as this at Fredericksburg shall be repeated. Matters are rapidly ripening for a military dictatorship.


THE publication of the official correspondence between the State Department and our foreign ministers at length places us in possession of the facts regarding the construction and outfit of the famous pirates Oreto and Alabama. Public report long ago classed these pirates as British. But many persons, unwilling to believe that a

friendly nation would wantonly take advantage of a civil war in this country to engage in the business of piracy, have regarded the designation as unjustified and injurious. The facts now leave no further room for doubt.

On February 18, 1862, Mr. Adams, United States Minister to England, laid the case of the Oreto before the British Government. She was then building at Liverpool, for the parties who had already dispatched the Bermuda to the Southern States, and the evidence of her destination and her character was submitted to Earl Russell. The latter referred the case to the British Commissioners of Customs, who reported, under date of February 22, that their collector had "every reason to believe she was for the Italian Government," and that though she was pierced for guns, she had none on board, and the opinion appeared to be that "she was not going to receive any in England." This answer was perfectly satisfactory to Earl Russell, who sent it to Mr. Adams; though every body in Liverpool knew perfectly well that she was a Confederate privateer. On 22d March the Oreto moved out into the Mersey, and was handed over by her builders to Captain Bullock, "Confederate States Navy," Lieutenants Maffitt, Young, etc., who had come from the South to command her in the steamer Annie Childs, which had run the blockade. On running up the river the Annie Childs dipped her colors (the "Stars and Bars") to the Oreto, and the officers of the former vessel were entertained at dinner the same evening on board the Oreto. A flat-boat was simultaneously sent alongside the Oreto with her armament. These facts, which were quite notorious in Liverpool, were communicated by the United States Consul to Mr. Adams, and by him to Earl Russell. The latter, as before, referred to the Commissioners of Customs, who reported, on April G, that the Oreto sailed on 22d March —the day the United States Consul's report was forwarded to London; that there was no reason for supposing she was not going to Palermo, for which port she cleared; and that she had 178 tons of arms on board. As a vessel clearing for Palermo would not require 178 tons of arms, and as every body knew she was going not to Sicily but to Nassau, one is surprised to find that the British Commissioners of Customs, who lied so glibly on other points, did not lie about the arms likewise. The Oreto fairly at sea, Earl Russell gave "a polite expression of his regret" to Mr. Adams on April 15. Late in May she turned up in the British colony of Nassau, where the famous pirate, Captain Semmes, of the Sumter, and now of the Alabama, was waiting to take command of her. A farce was performed there by the British officials, highly to the diversion of the citizens of that dirty little place—Nassau: the Oreto was seized by the authorities, and formally released on 8th June. She forthwith completed her armament and coaled up; whereupon, our gun-boats being excluded from Nassau by the order of the Governor forbidding them to take a pound of coal on board in that harbor, she sailed at the right time, and, through the negligence of Commander Preble, succeeded, under the British flag, in getting fairly into the harbor of Mobile.

Here is one pirate, built in a British port, manned by British seamen, sent to sea under the auspices of British officials in defiance of the clearest evidence of her character, received and protected in a British colonial port, armed with British guns, and at last reaching a rebel port under cover of the British flag. If it be unfair to call the Oreto a British pirate it would be difficult to conceive a vessel which should deserve that designation.

Let us turn to the Alabama, or "290." She was built in the early months of 1861, at the ship-yard of Messrs. Laird & Co., at Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool, England. On 23d June last Mr. Adams acquainted the British Government with the facts. Earl Russell referred the matter to the Commissioners of Customs; and they, under date of July 1, reported that, though she was evidently built for a man-of-war in the service of "some foreign government," and was being prepared for the reception of guns and warlike stores, there was "no good ground for detaining or interfering with" her. Every one in Liverpool, including the Commissioners and Earl Russell himself, knew perfectly well for what "government" she was being built. Yet the British Secretary entirely concurred in the view that there was no ground for interference," and asked for fresh evidence. This was furnished within a week, but Earl Russell objected to its "legal form," and it was sent back to the Consul to be properly authenticated. Meanwhile the "290" was being made ready as rapidly as possible. On 16th July Mr. Adams, fearing fresh quibbles, took legal advice. Mr. Collyer, Queen's Counsel, one of the highest legal authorities in England, gave a written opinion that the vessel was being fitted out as a rebel privateer, and ought to be seized under the British Neutrality Act. On 22d July this opinion, together with depositions, showing the destination of the vessel, were laid before Earl Russell. On 23d Mr. Collyer, who was again consulted, replied: "It appears difficult to make out a stronger case of infringement of the foreign enlistment act, which, if not enforced on this occasion, is little better than a dead letter." This opinion was likewise forthwith transmitted

to Earl Russell. Nothing, however, was done; the excuse which was afterward given by Earl Russell being, that the Queen's Advocate, Sir John D. Harding, was ill. Under the pressure of Mr. Adams's efforts, other counsel was taken, and their opinion was obtained on the morning of 29th July. It was forthwith sent into the Circumlocution Office to be copied, and orders, through the same channel, were dispatched to Liverpool to detain the vessel. We need hardly add that the tenor of these opinions and orders were known at Liverpool long before the official documents arrived, and that the "290," or Alabama, sailed to sea on the same day—29th July—receiving her armament off Point Lynas. She made for the Azores, where she met a Liverpool vessel laden with coal and stores, and at once commenced the career of devastation which has made her infamous.

Here is a vessel built in a British dock-yard, by a member of the British Parliament—Mr. Laird; armed with British guns, manned with British sailors; fitted out under the auspices of British officials, in defiance alike of the remonstrances of our Minister and of the Foreign Enlistment Act; going to sea under British protection, and commencing at once her career by the destruction of ten helpless and defenseless whalers. If this craft be not a British pirate, what would constitute one?

There are many things in Mr. Seward's dispatches which must be regretted. The Secretary is altogether too sanguine and too wordy. He is always indulging in predictions which remain unfulfilled, and writing a page where a sentence would answer the purpose better. But the criticism which he provokes soon gives way, on a perusal of these State-Papers, to a much stronger emotion, which is aroused by the uniform tenor of the dispatches of the British Government. There is not a single dispatch from Earl Russell which does not breathe covert hostility to the United States, and an obvious though unexpressed desire for their permanent disruption. The ruin of this country has evidently been the one object nearest the heart of the British Government. It was to secure this object that pirates were fitted out with impunity, in defiance of the laws of England, in British ports; that the legitimate exercise of authority by our blockading squadron was jealously denounced; that the highly proper restrictions laid upon contraband trade between New York and Nassau were made the subject of a formal remonstrance; that every possible opportunity of harassing and menacing us was eagerly grasped. Mr. Dayton's correspondence from Paris shows that the Emperor has all along been friendly to us, and would probably have rescinded his proclamation granting belligerent rights to the rebels but for his pledges to the British Government. Dispatches from almost every court in Europe tell the same story: at first, the cause of the Union was generally popular, but the aspersions of the British press, supported as they were by the official and unofficial expressions of members of the British Government, gradually created a sentiment hostile to its and our aims. But for England there would have been no rebel privateers, no peaceful merchant vessels would have been burned, and public sentiment throughout Europe would have remained—as it was at first—on the side of law, order, established government, and freedom.

England has been sowing, during this past year, a harvest which will some day be reaped at a frightful cost.


KILLED, before Fredericksburg, on December 13, LIEUTENANT-COLONEL JOSEPH B. CURTIS, of the Fourth Rhode Island Volunteers. The Providence Journal thus recounts his death:

"He fell at the head of his regiment, while bravely leading it on. The fatal shot could have struck down no nobler or more promising young officer. Though he had attained to so conspicuous a position, and by regular promotions fairly earned by hard and faithful service, he was only twenty-six years of age. He was the son of the late George Curtis, Esq., President of the Continental Bank of New York, and formerly of this city, and was the grandson of Hon. Samuel W. Bridgham, the first Mayor of this city. He was educated at the Lawrence Scientific School, Cambridge, for the profession of civil engineer. When the war broke out he held a place in the Engineer Corps of the Central Park, New York. He promptly tendered his services to his country."


IN the constant criticism upon the delays and blunders of the war we ought, in justice to ourselves, to reflect that the management of every war is furiously censured, and that the comparison between ourselves and the methods of despotic governments is necessarily unfair. In every great war hitherto, since the organization of standing armies, the army has been the controlling element; and it was always the body-guard of the existing government—instituted, indeed, for that purpose. But here there was no great army, and the majority of the officers of what small force we had were either traitorous or doubtful. And from this came one of the chief difficulties of our situation.

Any other great government in the world which should be threatened by a rebellion would find itself intrenched in the regular tradition of the country, in all the complexity of governmental offices and interests, and most strongly in a large, perfectly-armed, and well-disciplined army. This force would at once show a front infinitely more

formidable than that of the enemy. At the first intimation it would strike heavily and every where. It would believe the worst, and lose no moment in parleying or hesitating. We have but to see how Austria, the dullest and most brutal of civilized governments, repressed Italy, a distant and utterly foreign country, for more than thirty-live years, and we can calculate the value of this permanent organized military force constantly animated by suspicion.

Now, to go no further, our Government had no military force and no suspicion, even while the enemy was fully resolved and rapidly organizing. When the explosion came there was but one solitary emotion to appeal to, and that was patriotism. But when this emotion cordially responded, and sent as many men as were asked, and would have doubled the number in a week, that was but the beginning. There were men, but they were not soldiers. There were no sufficient arms, or transportation, or equipment. Every thing must be made from the beginning. Contracts were inevitable, and the consequences equally so. A tremendous gale had struck the ship with every inch of canvas spread. There were no sailors, and the passengers were summoned to shorten sail. They might sing out most lustily, "Ay, ay, Sir." They might spring into the rigging, and wish to do every thing in a moment. But the chance was that ship and company would be swamped before they could learn how to do what they were most anxious to effect.

Take the first necessity—the military preparation. Here were thousands of willing men—some, drilled militia, but the mass utterly raw. They must be put into some shape. Who should do it? To whom did common sense instinctively turn? Of course to the existing military leaders. Grant that the chief of them was too old. Grant that his superior military genius had never been proved. Yet he was the man to whom the nation confided its fate. There might be a greater soldier among the people. The village Hampden, the unknown Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, might be only awaiting the summons. Shall we advertise for him? Shall we issue proposals for a Don John, for a Marshal Turenne? Clearly we could only try what was at hand. As when there is a sudden necessity for a doctor or a lawyer or a shoemaker, we do the best we can.

We take this aspect only in illustration of all. It is easy enough now to say that the regular leader was too old; that he did not understand the war nor the exigency; that he did not wish to hurt, but only to frighten; that he was not in earnest; that he was slow, dim, incapable. Yes; but that was the very thing we were to learn, and we could learn it only by experience. We had to try and try and try, and each trial that failed of course cost us most heavily. If, indeed, after proved incapacity, the incapable were retained, the offense was most heinous, and this was too often the fact. But a thousand complications of otherwise perfectly simple courses will readily suggest themselves to any student of our politics, and circumstances, and character.

To say, then, that the rebellion might have been defeated in three months is to say that if the scope of the war had been appreciated; if the army had been large, and drilled, and ready, and the navy likewise; if the leaders had been eminent and skilled; and if, consequently, the policy of the war had been an immediate, severe, and overwhelming invasion of the rebel section, and a war regime throughout the country, then the three months would have sufficed. Yes; but why not begin by supposing that there had been no rebellion?

The picture upon the first page of our last paper but one was itself a sign of the progress of education by experience which the nation is undergoing. It was a portrait of Burnside surrounded by those of his Generals, Sumner, Hooker, Sigel, and Franklin. Twenty months have shown that these are earnest, hearty, able, fighting generals. The Message and the Proclamation are similar signs of another kind. The essential contest is recognized. Emancipation is recommended in detail, and the immediate and unconditional freedom of slaves in States still in rebellion is proclaimed for the 1st January.

There is no doubt that we have disbelieved, and delayed, and blundered. But much of all was inevitable, and the delay has shown us that the contest is in its nature radical. The war began with three parties in the country. It will end with two: that which holds to a government whose corner-stone is Slavery, and that which builds on Liberty.



MY DEAR JOHN BULL,—You have one name, but there are really two persons under your hat. One is generous, faithful, liberty-loving, and the other is a mean, exclusive, narrow, and jealous fellow, who thinks that the world was made for England and England for him. It is this last whom you always allow to talk and act for you with other nations. You give him place, money, titles, homage, and servility of every kind, and he permits you to have starvation wages. The man whom he hates most heartily is the one who takes the part of all Englishmen against a few, and who insists that governments should exist by the consent of the mass of the governed.

It is this fellow, your alter ego, who hastened to declare that the rebels in this country were equal belligerents with the Government; who inspires most of your papers to tell the most ludicrous lies about us; who secretly sells arms and ammunition to the rebels; who fits out ships to run the blockade; who builds pirates to prey upon our commerce; who, with a hopeless ignorance of the facts and amusing confusion of mind, justifies the rebellion by our revolution, gravely asserting the right of secession, and loftily sneering at what he does not understand.

That the rebellion not only strikes at the very roots of all civil order and the possibility of permanent




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