Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Battle Timeline: Fredericksburg, VA

Date: December 13, 1862


Union: Major General Ambrose Burnside commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: On November 7, 1862, Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac. He was a very reluctant officer who thought he was not suited for the job. It seems the only motivation to take the job was in order to keep Major General Joseph Hooker from getting the command. He immediately proposed to make a straight line advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA. In order to do so, he needed access to an area with both river and rail access. The best candidate was the town of Fredericksburg. All he needed was pontoon bridges in order to cross the Rappahannock River. After that, the town could be used as a supply point, keeping his soldiers fed and equipped for the advance on Richmond.

General Lee, just fresh from defeating two Union armies, at Manassas, VA and Sharpsburg, MD, has been resting and refitting his troops. Of course his cavalry was having fun; Major General J.E.B. Stuart had ridden a circle around the Army of the Potomac on October 10-12, causing great embarrassment for the Union and led to the second and final removal of Major General George McClellan from command. His army is back in a position to block and Federal thrust toward Richmond.

November 15, 1862: Burnside orders his army to begin moving towards Fredericksburg. Burnside received assurances from Major General Henry Halleck, General-in Chief that the bridging material would be waiting for him.

Meanwhile, word of the rapid advance would have reached General Lee and he would have ordered his troops to move to the area immediately.

November 17, 1862: General Burnside and the Army of the Potomac arrived at Stafford Heights, opposite Fredericksburg. The plan was to force the river on November 19, but with one problem, the bridging material was not there! Bureaucratic tangles resulted in the bridges being stopped at Washington and stored! After a delay, the bridging material was sent on.

In the 1860s, it was a massive endeavor to get large cargoes from anywhere to anywhere. Each pontoon boat (which supported the bridge) needed a wagon pulled by at least six horses. A short bridge needed about 30. You also needed wagons to haul the planks, supports, tools, and supplies necessary to get this bridge to where it is needed. If there is a delay, it took time to get everything going again. You are talking several hundred wagons and about a thousand horses.

November 27, 1862: The bridging material finally arrives. However, the Confederates were not idle. Lee’s first corps, under Lieutenant General James Longstreet had arrived on November 21 and had fortified a position on a stretch of heights west of the town. Soon after the corps commanded by Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson arrived and began taking up positions to the right of the heights into a heavily wooded area to the southwest of the town.

Over the next two weeks, Burnside ordered a search of any river crossing that could bypass the Confederates. Problem was, while he was dithering, Lee was improving his position and moving artillery into the area.

December 10, 1862: Burnside met with his Grand Division and Corps commanders and announced his intention to cross the Rappahannock and attack Lee.

As part of putting his mark on the army, Burnside had reorganized the corps into Grand Divisions. This created another level of command and control.

That night, the construction of the bridges started.

December 11, 1862: Dawn came to reveal Confederate sharpshooters under the command of Brigadier General (and former US Senator from Mississippi) William Barksdale. As the troops became able to see the bridge builders, they opened fire. Union troops formed up to exchange fire with the Confederates and the Federal artillery began to shell the town. The town’s inhabitants saw what was coming and began to evacuate the town.

Soon the sniping from Fredericksburg stopped and the artillery bombardment was halted. The bridge building resumed. Soon, Barksdale had a Florida regiment come up and the sniping resumed. Finally, one Michigan and two Massachusetts regiments volunteered to grab some pontoon boats and cross the river to attack the Confederates. Once they were able to do so, fierce street-to-street fighting resulted. Barksdale was then ordered to pull his forces out of the town.

That evening, Union troops secured Fredericksburg.

December 12, 1863: Burnside had failed to launch an immediate attack, which could have broken the Confederate line. While he was deciding what to do, many of his troops had proceeded to loot the town. Lee took advantage of this to complete his fortifications. He actually wanted to draw the Federals toward him so that his artillery could break them up. One of his artillery commanders, E.P. Alexander, declared that “a chicken could not live on that field” when his guns opened up.

Burnside decided to launch his attack the next morning.

December 13, 1862: 10:00 a.m. Major General William Franklin’s Left Grand Division was ordered to attack the Confederate right flank, held by Jackson. The orders were a little vague and gave Franklin the impression that he only needed to send only a division (not his “Grand” division, but part of a corps). He ordered the division commanded by Major General George Meade to go forward.

As Meade’s division was approaching the Old Richmond Road (going south of Fredericksburg) the commander of General Stuart’s horse artillery, Major John Pelham, received permission to send his two guns forward and engage the Federals. His fire checked Meade’s advance but attracted Federal artillery fire. Refusing to order his guns back, Pelham shifted his guns from one spot to another. He told a messenger with an order to pull back, “tell General Stuart I can hold my ground.” Pelham held off Meade (and by extension, Franklin) for two hours until his ammunition ran out. Then he pulled back.

Meade resumed his advance but was getting hit by other Confederate artillery. All of a sudden, a gap was found in the Confederate line and Meade exploited it, splitting Jackson’s line. Meade then ran into two problems. First, the support he was expecting was not there (namely the division of Major General John Gibbon) and then he ran into the veteran troops of Confederate General A.P Hill. Thing was, the lead element, South Carolina troops under Brigadier General Maxey Gregg, had not expected a fight so soon and had stacked their muskets. Gregg actually thought that is was Confederate troops and told his reformed troops to hold their fire. He paid for that mistake when a musket ball hit him. Two days later Gregg, a signer of the South Carolina Articles of Secession, died. A redoubled defensive effort finally forced Meade to pull back around 2:00 p.m.

11:00 a.m. Burnside orders an assault on the Confederate left using the Right Grand Division, under Major General Edwin Sumner. He would have to send his troops up a ling slope towards a summit known as Marye’s Heights. This would have to be done under artillery fire from the start. Any attacking force would have to cross a canal before moving up the slope, and everywhere from the canal onwards would be under Confederate artillery fire. Once any troops got to the summit, they would face troops under the command of Georgian Brigadier General Thomas Cobb, supported by the Washington Artillery of New Orleans.

12:00 noon. First into the attack was II Corps under Major General Darius Couch, with the division of Brigadier General William French. The first thing they found out was the Confederate line was out of range of Federal artillery. The next thing they found out was they were well within range of the Confederate artillery. This fire punched holes in their formation as they went up the hill. As they approached the Confederate line, a sheet of fire greeted them. They found the Confederates behind a fence that ran alongside a sunken road. They had protection. The Federals did not. The defenders had their best shooters up front while the rest were loading muskets and passing them up. By the time French was forced to pull back, 1/3 of his troops were down.

Next came the division of Brigadier General Winfield Hancock. Among his brigades was the famed Irish Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. As they closed on the wall, they found among the defenders a Georgia regiment made up of Irishmen. Perhaps that a Union Irishman saw among the Confederates their bunkmate from the voyage across the Atlantic. However they saw their duty and pushed ahead. The Confederate Irishmen may have saw a brother or friend among those in blue, but their duty was clear. With tears streaming down their faces, the Confederate Irish leveled their muskets, and opened fire. When the Irish Brigade pulled back, they left 535 on the field.

Is was around this time that troops of Confederate General Joseph Kershaw were moved on to the heights to reinforce Cobb. This was just in time; Cobb suffered a wound in a thigh and bled to death. Kershaw took over the line.

2:30 p.m. French and Hancock’s troops are shattered and trapped on the slope below Marye’s Heights. Meanwhile more divisions were being sent into the fray. This following a pause so Burnside could assess the situation. He decided to continue the attack, throwing the divisions of Major General Oliver Howard and Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys up the slope. They met the same result.

The slope was carpeted with the dead, the wounded, and the surprisingly untouched trapped by constant Confederate fire. Soon, those who were still alive were using the dead to protect themselves.

A last attempt, of the fourteen made, was launched about 5:00 p.m. with the division of Brigadier General George Getty making a flanking attack on the Confederate line. Same result. No Union soldier got closer than 50 yards from the line. As night fell, those who could, retreated into the town. The others spent a freezing night on the slope.

General Lee looked on the scene and remarked, “It is good that war is so terrible. Else we should grow too fond of it.”

December 14, 1863: As dawn broke, a South Carolina sergeant, Richard Kirkland, took pity on the wounded Union soldiers crying for water. He gathered some canteens and went out to give water to those who were trying to kill him the day before. For this he was named “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”

Burnside conducted a meeting where he made his attention to renew the attack, this time with him leading the charge. He was persuaded not to do that and to instead pull everyone back across the Rappahannock.

December 15, 1862: The Army of the Potomac, after managing to withdraw those trapped below Marye’s Heights, crossed the Rappahannock.



Killed: 1284

Wounded: 9600


Killed: 608

Wounded: 4116

Total causalities from both sides: 15,608

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