Part 5- Chapter 10


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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



X.   The Battle of Fredericksburg

 To a correct understanding of the interesting battle of Fredericksburg, a brief description of the ground is essential.

The city lies on the south bank of the Rappahannock, which here makes a considerable bend nearly southward; and along the northern bank, opposite, extends a range of hills which command the city and the level ground around it. South of the river the land is low, but from the depth of the channel forms a line of bluffs, affording good shelter to troops after crossing to assail a force beyond. The only good position for such a force, standing on the defensive, is a range of hills hemming in the level ground. This range begins near the western suburbs of the city, where it is called "Marye's Hill," and sweeps round to the southward, gradually receding from the stream, until, at Hamilton's Crossing, on the Richmond and Potomac Railroad, a mile or more from the river, it suddenly subsides into the plain. This plain extends to the right, and is bounded by the deep and difficult channel of Massaponnax Creek. As Marye's Hill is the natural position for the left of an army posted to defend Fredericksburg, the crest above Hamilton's Crossing is the natural position for the right of such a line, care being taken to cover the extreme right with artillery, to obstruct the passage of the ground between the crest and the Massaponnax.

[Illustration: Map--Battle of Fredericksburg.]

Behind the hills on the north side General Burnside's army was posted, having the railroad to Aquia Creek for the transportation of their supplies. On the range of hills which we have described south of the city, General Lee was stationed, the same railroad connecting him with Richmond. Longstreet's corps composed his left wing, and extended from Marye's Hill to about the middle of the range of hills. There Jackson's line began, forming the right wing, and extending to the termination of the range at Hamilton's Crossing. On Jackson's right, to guard the plain reaching to the Massaponnax, Stuart was posted with cavalry and artillery.

The numbers of the adversaries at Fredericksburg can be stated with accuracy upon one side, but not upon the other. General Lee's force may be said to have been, in round numbers, about fifty thousand of all arms. It could scarcely have exceeded that, unless he received heavy reenforcements after Sharpsburg; and the present writer has never heard or read that he received reenforcements of any description. The number, fifty thousand, thus seems to have been the full amount of the army. That of General Burnside's forces seems to have been considerably larger. The Federal army consisted of the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Corps; the latter a corps of reserve and large. If these had been recruited to the full number reported by General McClellan at Sharpsburg, and the additional troops (Fifth and Eleventh Corps) be estimated, the Federal army must have exceeded one hundred thousand men. This estimate is borne out by Federal authorities. "General Franklin," says a Northern writer, "had now with him about one-half the whole army;" and General Meade says that Franklin's force "amounted to from fifty-five thousand to sixty thousand men," which would seem to indicate that the whole army numbered from one hundred and ten thousand to one hundred and twenty thousand men.

A strong position was obviously essential to render it possible for the Southern army, of about fifty thousand men, to successfully oppose the advance of this force of above one hundred thousand. Lee had found this position, and constructed earthworks for artillery, with the view of receiving the attack of the enemy after their crossing. He was unable to obstruct this crossing in any material degree; and he states clearly the grounds of this inability. "The plain of Fredericksburg," he says, "is so completely commanded by the Stafford heights, that no effectual opposition could be made to the construction of bridges, or the passage of the river, without exposing our troops to the destructive fire of the numerous batteries of the enemy.... Our position was, therefore, selected with a view to resist the enemy's advance after crossing, and the river was guarded only by a force sufficient to impede his movements until the army could be concentrated."

The brief description we have presented of the character of the ground around Fredericksburg, and the position of the adversaries, will sufficiently indicate the conditions under which the battle was fought. Both armies seem to have been in excellent spirits. That of General Burnside had made a successful march, during which they had scarcely seen an enemy, and now looked forward, probably, to certain if not easy victory. General Lee's army, in like manner, had undergone recently no peculiar hardships in marching or fighting; and, to whatever cause the fact may be attributed, was in a condition of the highest efficiency. The men seemed to be confident of the result of the coming conflict, and, in their bivouacs on the line of battle, in the woods fringing the ridge which they occupied, laughed, jested, cheered, on the slightest provocation, and, instead of shrinking from, looked forward with eagerness to, the moment when General Burnside would advance to attack them. This buoyant and elastic spirit in the Southern troops was observable on the eve of nearly every battle of the war. Whether it was due to the peculiar characteristics of the race, or to other causes, we shall not pause here to inquire; but the fact was plain to the most casual observation, and was never more striking than just before Fredericksburg, unless just preceding the battle of Gettysburg.

Nothing of any importance occurred, from the 20th of November, when General Burnside's army was concentrated on the heights north of Fredericksburg, until the 11th of December, when the Federal army began crossing the Rappahannock to deliver battle. Lee's reasons for not attempting to resist the passage of the river have been given above. The plain on which it would have been necessary to draw up his army, in order to do so, was too much exposed to the numerous artillery of the enemy on the northern bank. Lee resolved, therefore, not to oppose the crossing of the Federal troops, but to await their assault on the commanding ground west and south of the city.

On the morning of December 11th, before dawn, the dull boom of Lee's signal-guns indicated that the enemy were moving, and the Southern troops formed line of battle to meet the coming attack. General Burnside had made arrangements to cross the river on pontoon bridges, one opposite the city, and another a mile or two lower down the stream. General Franklin, commanding the two corps of the left Grand Division, succeeded, without trouble, in laying the lower bridge, as the ground did not permit Lee to offer material obstruction; and this large portion of the army was now ready to cross. The passage of the stream at Fredericksburg was more difficult. Although determined not to make a serious effort to prevent the enemy from crossing, General Lee had placed two regiments of Barksdale's Mississippians along the bank of the river, in the city, to act as sharp-shooters, and impede the construction of the pontoon bridges, with the view, doubtless, of thus giving time to marshal his troops. The success of this device was considerable. The workmen, busily engaged in laying the Federal pontoons, were so much interrupted by the fire of the Confederate marksmen--who directed their aim through the heavy fog by the noise made in putting together the boats--that, after losing a number of men, the Federal commander discontinued his attempt. It was renewed again and again, without success, as before, when, provoked apparently by the presence of this hornet's nest, which reversed all his plans, General Burnside, about ten o'clock, opened a furious fire of artillery upon the city. The extent of this bombardment will be understood from the statement that one hundred and forty-seven pieces of artillery were employed, which fired seven thousand three hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition, in one instance piercing a single small house with fifty round-shot. An eye-witness of this scene says: "The enemy had planted more than a hundred pieces of artillery on the hills to the northern and eastern sides of the town, and, from an early hour in the forenoon, swept the streets with round-shot, shell, and case-shot, firing frequently a hundred guns a minute. The quick puffs of smoke, touched in the centre with tongues of flame, ran incessantly along the lines of their batteries on the slopes, and, as the smoke slowly drifted away, the bellowing roar came up in one continuous roll. The town was soon fired, and a dense cloud of smoke enveloped its roofs and steeples. The white church-spires still rose serenely aloft, defying shot or shell, though a portion of one of them was torn off. The smoke was succeeded by lurid flame, and the crimson mass brought to mind the pictures of Moscow burning." The same writer says: "Men, women, and children, were driven from the town, and hundreds of ladies and children were seen wandering, homeless, and without shelter, over the frozen highway, in thin clothing, knowing not where to find a place of refuge."

[Illustration: FREDERICKSBURG]

General Lee watched this painful spectacle from a redoubt to the right of the telegraph road, not far from his centre, where a shoulder jutting out from the ridge, and now called "Lee's Hill," afforded him a clear view of the city. The destruction of the place, and the suffering of the inhabitants, aroused in him a deep melancholy, mingled with exasperation, and his comment on the scene was probably as bitter as any speech which he uttered during the whole war. Standing, wrapped in his cape, with only a few officers near, he looked fixedly at the flames rising from the city, and, after remaining for a long time silent, said, in his grave, deep voice: "These people delight to destroy the weak, and those who can make no defence; it just suits them."

General Burnside continued the bombardment for some hours, the Mississippians still holding the river-bank and preventing the laying of the pontoons, which was again begun and again discontinued. At about four in the afternoon, however, a force was sent across in barges, and by nightfall the city was evacuated by Lee, and General Burnside proceeded rapidly to lay his pontoon bridge, upon which his army then began to pass over. The crossing continued throughout the next day, not materially obstructed by the fire of Lee's artillery, as a dense fog rendered the aim of the cannoneers unreliable. By nightfall (of the 12th) the Federal army was over, with the exception of General Hooker's Centre Grand Division, which was held in reserve on the north bank. General Burnside then proceeded to form his line of battle. It stretched from the western suburbs of Fredericksburg down the river, along what is called the River road, for a distance of about four miles, and consisted of the Right Grand Division, under General Sumner, at the city, and the Left Grand Division, under General Franklin, lower down, and opposite Lee's right. General Franklin's Grand Division numbered, according to General Meade, from fifty-five to sixty thousand men; the numbers of Generals Sumner and Hooker are not known to the present writer, but are said by Federal authorities, as we have stated, to have amounted together to about the same.

At daybreak, on the morning of December 13th, a muffled sound, issuing from the dense fog covering the low ground, indicated that the Federal lines were preparing to advance.

To enable the reader to understand General Burnside's plan of attack, it is necessary that brief extracts should be presented from his orders on the occasion, and from his subsequent testimony before the committee on the conduct of the war. Despite the length of time since his arrival at Fredericksburg--a period of more than three weeks--the Federal commander had, it appears, been unable to obtain full and accurate information of the character of the ground occupied by Lee, and thus moved very much in the dark. He seems to have formed his plan of attack in consequence of information from "a colored man." His words are: "The enemy had cut a road along in the rear of the line of heights where we made our attack.... I obtained, from a colored man at the other side of the town, information in regard to this new road which proved to be correct. I wanted to obtain possession of that new road, and that was my reason for making an attack on the extreme left." It is difficult for those familiar with the ground referred to, to understand how this "new road," a mere country bridle-path, as it were, extending along in the rear of Lee's right wing, could have been regarded as a topographical feature of any importance. The road, which remains unchanged, and may be seen by any one to-day, was insignificant in a military point of view, and, in attaching such importance to seizing it, the Federal commander committed a grave error.

What seems to have been really judicious in his plan, was the turning movement determined on against Lee's right, along the old Richmond road, running from the direction of the river past the end of the ridge occupied by the Confederates, and so southward. To break through at this point was the only hope of success, and General Burnside had accordingly resolved, he declared, upon "a rapid movement down the old Richmond road" with Franklin's large command. Unfortunately, however, this wise design was complicated with another, most unwise, to send forward _a division_, first, to seize the crest of the ridge near the point where it sinks into the plain. On this crest were posted the veterans of Jackson, commanded in person by that skilful soldier. Three lines of infantry, supported by artillery, were ready to receive the Federal attack, and, to force back this stubborn obstacle, General Burnside sent a division. The proof is found in his order to General Franklin at about six o'clock on the morning of the battle: "Send out a division at least ... to seize, if possible, the heights near Captain Hamilton's," which was the ground whereon Jackson's right rested.

An attack on the formidable position known as Marye's Hill, on Lee's left, west of Fredericksburg, was also directed to be made by the same small force. The order to General Sumner was to "form a column of _a division_, for the purpose of pushing in the direction of the Telegraph and Plank roads, for the purpose of seizing the heights in the rear of the town;" or, according to another version, "up the Plank road to its intersection with the Telegraph road, where they will divide, with the object of seizing the heights on both sides of those roads."

The point of "intersection" here referred to was the locality of what has been called "that sombre, fatal, terrible stone wall," just under Marye's Hill, where the most fearful slaughter of the Federal forces took place. Marye's Hill is a strong position, and its importance was well understood by Lee. Longstreet's infantry was in heavy line of battle behind it, and the crest bristled with artillery. There was still less hope here of effecting any thing with "a division" than on the Confederate right held by Jackson.

General Burnside seems, however, to have regarded success as probable. He added in his order: "Holding these heights, with the heights near Captain Hamilton's, will, I hope, compel the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge between these points." In his testimony afterward, he said that, in the event of failure in these assaults on Lee's flanks, he "proposed to make a direct attack on their front, and drive them out of their works."

These extracts from General Burnside's orders and testimony clearly indicate his plan, which was to assail both Lee's right and left, and, in the event of failure, direct a heavy blow at his centre. That the whole plan completely failed was mainly due, it would seem, to the inconsiderable numbers of the assaulting columns.

We return now to the narrative of the battle which these comments have interrupted.

General Lee was ready to receive the Federal attack, and, at an early hour of the morning, rode from his headquarters, in rear of his centre, along his line of battle toward the right, where he probably expected the main assault of the enemy to take place. He was clad in his plain, well-worn gray uniform, with felt hat, cavalry-boots, and short cape, without sword, and almost without any indications of his rank. In these outward details, he differed much from Generals Jackson and Stuart, who rode with him. The latter, as was usual with him, wore a fully-decorated uniform, sash, black plume, sabre, and handsome gauntlets. General Jackson, also, on this day, chanced to have exchanged his dingy old coat and sun-scorched cadet-cap for a new coat[1] covered with dazzling buttons, and a cap brilliant with a broad band of gold lace, in which (for him) extraordinary disguise his men scarcely knew him.

[Footnote 1: This coat was a present from Stuart.]

As Lee and his companions passed along in front of the line of battle, the troops cheered them. It was evident that the army was in excellent spirits, and ready for the hard work which the day would bring. Lee proceeded down the old Richmond, or stage road--that mentioned in General Burnside's order as the one over which his large flanking column was to move--and rode on with Stuart until he was near the River road, running toward Fredericksburg, parallel to the Federal line of battle. Here he stopped, and endeavored to make out, through the dense fog covering the plain, whether the Federal forces were moving. A stifled hum issued from the mist, but nothing could be seen. It seemed, however, that the enemy's skirmishers--probably concealed in the ditches along the River road--had sharper eyes, as bullets began to whistle around the two generals, and soon a number of black specks were seen moving forward. General Lee remained for some time longer, in spite of the exposure, conversing with great calmness and gravity with Stuart, who was all ardor. He then rode back slowly, passed along his line of battle, greeted wherever he was seen with cheers, and took his position on the eminence in his centre, near the Telegraph road, the same commanding point from which he had witnessed the bombardment of Fredericksburg.

The battle did not commence until ten o'clock, owing to the dense fog, through which the light of the sun could scarcely pierce. At that hour the mist lifted and rolled away, and the Confederates posted on the ridge saw a heavy column of infantry advancing to attack their right, near the Hamilton House. This force was Meade's division, supported by Gibbon's, with a third in reserve, General Franklin having put in action as many troops as his orders ("a division at least") permitted. General Meade was arrested for some time by a minute but most annoying obstacle. Stuart had placed a single piece of artillery, under Major John Pelham, near the point where the old Richmond and River roads meet--that is, directly on the flank of the advancing column--and this gun now opened a rapid and determined fire upon General Meade. Major Pelham--almost a boy in years--continued to hold his exposed position with great gallantry, although the enemy opened fire upon him with several batteries, killing a number of his gunners. General Lee witnessed this duel from the hill on which he had taken his stand, and is said to have exclaimed, "It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!" [Footnote: General Lee's opinion of Major Pelham appears from his report, in which he styles the young officer "the gallant Pelham," and says: "Four batteries immediately turned upon him, but he sustained their heavy fire with the unflinching courage that ever distinguished him." Pelham fell at Kelly's Ford in March, 1863.]

Pelham continued the cannonade for about two hours, only retiring when he received a peremptory order from Jackson to do so; and it would seem that this one gun caused a considerable delay in the attack. "Meade advanced across the plain, but had not proceeded far," says Mr. Swinton, "before he was compelled to stop and silence a battery that Stuart had posted on the Port Royal road." Having brushed away this annoying obstacle, General Meade, with a force which he states to have amounted to ten thousand men, advanced rapidly to attack the hill upon which the Confederates awaited him. He was suffered to approach within a few hundred yards, when Jackson's artillery, under Colonel Walker, posted near the end of the ridge, opened a sudden and furious fire, which threw the Federal line into temporary confusion. The troops soon rallied, however, and advanced again to the attack, which fell on Jackson's front line under A.P. Hill. The struggle which now ensued was fierce and bloody, but, a gap having been left between the brigades of Archer and Lane, the enemy pierced the opening, turning the left of one brigade and the right of the other, pressed on, attacked Gregg's brigade of Hill's reserve, threw it into confusion, and seemed about to carry the crest. Gregg's brigade was quickly rallied, however, by its brave commander, who soon afterward fell, mortally wounded; the further progress of the enemy was checked, and, Jackson's second line rapidly advancing, the enemy were met and forced back, step by step, until they were driven down the slope again. Here they were attacked by the brigades of Hoke and Atkinson, and driven beyond the railroad, the Confederates cheering and following them into the plain. The repulse had been complete, and the slope and ground in front of it were strewed with Federal dead. They had returned as rapidly as they had charged, pursued by shot and shell, and General Lee, witnessing the spectacle from his hill, murmured, in his grave and measured voice: "It is well this is so terrible! we should grow too fond of it!"

The assault on the Confederate right had thus ended in disaster, but almost immediately another attack took place, whose results were more bloody and terrible still. As General Meade fell back, pursued by the men of Jackson, the sudden roar of artillery from the Confederate left indicated that a heavy conflict had begun in that quarter. The Federal troops were charging Marye's Hill, which was to prove the Cemetery Hill of Fredericksburg. This frightful charge--for no other adjective can describe it--was made by General French's division, supported by General Hancock. The Federal troops rushed forward over the broken ground in the suburbs of the city, and, "as soon as the masses became dense enough,"[1] were received with a concentrated artillery fire from the hill in front of them. This fire was so destructive that it "made gaps that could be seen at the distance of a mile." The charging division had advanced in column of brigades, and the front was nearly destroyed. The troops continued to move forward, however, and had nearly reached the base of the hill, when the brigades of Cobb and Cooke, posted behind a stone wall running parallel with the Telegraph road, met them with a sudden fire of musketry, which drove them back in terrible disorder. Nearly half the force was killed or lay disabled on the field, and upon the survivors, now in full retreat, was directed a concentrated artillery-fire from, the hill.

[Footnote 1: Longstreet.]

In face of this discharge of cannon, General Hancock's force, supporting French, now gallantly advanced in its turn. The charge lasted about fifteen minutes, and in that time General Hancock lost more than two thousand of the five thousand men of his command. The repulse was still more bloody and decisive than the first. The second column fell back in disorder, leaving the ground covered with their dead.

General Burnside had hitherto remained at the "Phillips House," a mile or more from the Rappahannock. He now mounted his horse, and, riding down to the river, dismounted, walked up and down in great agitation, and exclaimed, looking at Marye's Hill: "That crest must be carried to-night."[1]

[Footnote 1: The authority for this incident is Mr. William Swinton, who was present.]

In spite of the murderous results of the first charges, the Federal commander determined on a third. General Hooker's reserve was ordered to make it, and, although that officer protested against it, General Burnside was immovable, and repeated his order. General Hooker sullenly obeyed, and opened with artillery upon the stone wall at the foot of the hill, in order to make a breach in it. This fire continued until nearly sunset, when Humphrey's division was formed for the charge. The men were ordered to throw aside their knapsacks, and not to load their guns, "for there was no time there to load and fire," says General Hooker. The word was given about sunset, and the division charged headlong over the ground already covered with dead. A few words will convey the result. Of four thousand men who charged, seventeen hundred and sixty were left dead or wounded on the field. The rest retreated, pursued by the fire of the batteries and infantry; and night fell on the battle-field.

This charge was the real termination of the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, but, on the Confederate right, Jackson had planned and begun to execute a decisive advance on the force in his front. This he designed to undertake "precisely at sunset," and his intention was to depend on the bayonet, his military judgment or instinct having satisfied him that the _morale_ of the Federal army was destroyed. The advance was discontinued, however, in consequence of the lateness of the hour and the sudden artillery-fire which saluted him as he began to move. A striking feature of this intended advance is the fact that Jackson had placed his artillery _in front_ of his line of battle, intending to attack in that manner.

As darkness settled down, the last guns of Stuart, who had defended the Confederate right flank with about thirty pieces of artillery, were heard far in advance, and apparently advancing still. The Federal lines had fallen back, wellnigh to the banks of the river, and there seems little room to doubt that the _morale_ of the men was seriously impaired. "From what I knew of our want of success upon the right," says General Franklin, when interrogated on this point, "and the demoralized condition of the troops upon the right and centre, as represented to me by their commanders, I confess I believe the order to recross was a very proper one."

General Burnside refused to give the order; and, nearly overwhelmed, apparently, by the fatal result of the attack, determined to form the ninth corps in column of regiments, and lead it in person against Marye's Hill, on the next morning. Such a design, in a soldier of ability, indicates desperation. To charge Marye's Hill with a corps in column of regiments, was to devote the force to destruction. It was nearly certain that the whole command would be torn to pieces by the Southern artillery, but General Burnside seems to have regarded the possession of the hill as worth any amount of blood; and, in face of the urgent appeals of his officers, gave orders for the movement. At the last moment, however, he yielded to the entreaties of General Sumner, and abandoned his bloody design.

Still it seemed that the Federal commander was unable to come to the mortifying resolution of recrossing the Rappahannock. The battle was fought on the 13th of December, and until the night of the 15th General Burnside continued to face Lee on the south bank of the river--his bands playing, his flags flying, and nothing indicating an intention of retiring. To that resolve he had however come, and on the night of the 15th, in the midst of storm and darkness, the Federal army recrossed to the north bank of the Rappahannock.



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