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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Stan and I had the privilege of going to Gettysburg for the last day of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg during the War of Northern Aggression. I have documented the re-enactment of a cavalry battle and of Pickett's Charge in a separate post. But while we were up there we had always wanted to visit other Virginia Civil War battlefields. We did Gettysburg on Sunday. We had stayed in York, PA for that. We left York on Monday and went to Fredericksburg, VA to do that battlefield.

When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Robert Edward Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the country to remain intact and despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of a Union Army. During the Civil War, Lee originally served as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. He soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against far superior Union armies. Robert E. Lee's evacuation of Maryland after the battle on Antietam Creek occurred on Sept. 19-20, 1862. Lee rested a few days on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and then marched leisurely up the Shenandoah Valley. When October had nearly passed by and Lee's army was thoroughly rested, reorganized, and communications with Richmond were re-established, he began to cross the river (Oct. 26) with 100,000 men. The Union army was led on the east side of the Blue Ridge, but failed to strike the retreating Confederates over the mountain in flank or to get ahead of them. Lee pushed Longstreet's troops over the Blue Ridge to Culpeper Courthouse, between the Union army and Richmond.

C.S.A. General Robert Edward Lee

U.S.A. General Ambrose E. Burnside

Before the fall of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had twice offered Ambrose E. Burnside overall command of the Union's Army of the Potomac due to frustration with its present commander, George B. McClellan. Burnside turned it down both times insisting that McClellan was the man for the job. In September 1862, Burnside led the left wing of the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam, during which his forces struggled to capture what became known as "Burnside's Bridge." But McClellan declined to press his advantage and pursue Lee's defeated Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam. Lincoln reached the limits of his patience so on November 7 he removed McClellan from command and appointed the reluctant Burnside to his post.

The Battle of Fredericksburg
The two armies at Fredericksburg represented the largest number of armed men that ever confronted each other for combat during the Civil War.

Union General Ambrose Everett Burnside, newly appointed commander of the Northern forces, planned to cross the Rappahannock River with an army of more than 120,000 troops and advance on the Southern capital at Richmond, VA. When Lee saw how slowly Burnside was moving, he directed all of his army toward Fredericksburg. By November 23, all of Longstreet's corps had arrived and Lee placed them on the ridge known as Marye's Heights (aka Willis Hill) to the west of town.

C.S.A. Lt. General James Longstreet

He placed Anderson's division on the far left.

C.S.A. General Joseph Reid Anderson

He placed McLaws's directly behind the town.

C.S.A. General Lafayette McLaws

He placed Pickett and Hood to the right.

C.S.A. General George Edward Pickett

C.S.A. General John Bell Hood

He sent for General Stonewall Jackson on November 26. Jackson, his Second Corps commander had anticipated the need and had begun forced-marching his troops from Winchester on November 22 covering as many as 20 miles a day. Jackson arrived at Lee's headquarters on November 29 and his divisions were deployed to prevent Burnside crossing downstream from Fredericksburg.

C.S.A. General Thomas Jonathon "Stonewall" Jackson

Lee had the time to move his army to block the crossings and build earthworks, extensive battlements.

The section of the Rappahannock near Falmouth was too deep to ford so Burnside relied on pontoon bridges. Burnside's plan was to cross the Rappahannock River and race to the Confederate capital of Richmond before Lee's army could stop him. This plan was somewhat thwarted because bureaucratic delays prevented Gen. A.E. Burnside from receiving the necessary pontoon bridges in time.

Pontoon bridges at Franklin's Crossing

Union soldiers waiting.

Sumner led the movement down the left bank of the Rappahannock. By the 20th a greater portion of Burnside's forces were opposite Fredericksburg, and their cannon commanded the town. Sumner demanded the surrender of the city (Nov. 21). It was refused. The bridges across the river were destroyed.

Photo of the Rappahanock River and Fredericksburg on the other side. Notice the railroad bridge has been destroyed.

A greater portion of the inhabitants now fled, and the town was occupied by Confederate troops. The army lay in a semicircle around Fredericksburg, each wing resting upon the Rappahannock, its right at Port Royal and its left 6 miles above the city. When the Union army was finally able to build its bridges and cross it was under fire. Urban combat resulted in the city on December 11–12, 1862.

Map showing the position of the pontoon bridges and the movement through the town.

General Robert E. Lee countered by taking a strong position on high ground behind Fredericksburg with a force of about 78,000-80,000. The "grand division" of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin was able to pierce the first defensive line of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson to the south, but was finally repulsed. Confederate sharpshooters assailed the Union engineers. The shots came from a brigade of Mississippians under William Barksdale. Burnside turned to his artillery chief, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, and ordered him to blast Fredericksburg into submission. The heavy ordnance of the Yankees on Stafford Heights opened upon the town, set the town on fire, and drove out many troops. The sharpshooters remained. Burnside now authorized volunteers to ferry themselves across the river in the clumsy pontoon boats. Men from Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York scrambled aboard the boats and navigated the hazardous 400 feet to the Confederates' side. Once on shore, the Federals charged Barksdale's marksmen who, despite orders to fall back, fiercely fiercely fought in a rare example of street fighting during the Civil War. After dusk the brave Mississippians finally withdrew to their main line and the bridge builders completed their work.

December 12 dawned cold and foggy. Burnside began pouring reinforcements into the city but made no effort to organize an attack. Instead, the Northerners squandered the day looting and vandalizing homes and shops.

On the morning of the 13th the Yankees made a simultaneous assault all along the line. The Confederates had 300 cannons posted on the heights. On December 13, 1862 a dense fog blanketed the ground and made it impossible for the armies to see each other. General A.E. Burnside made a two-pronged attack on the right and left flanks of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Some maps

Burnside’s plan at Fredericksburg was to use Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division of nearly 60,000 men to crush Lee’s southern flank on Prospect Hill while the rest of his army held Longstreet and the Confederate First Corps in position at Marye’s Heights. The Union army’s main assault against Stonewall Jackson produced some success at first, but lack of reinforcements and Stonewall Jackson’s powerful counterattack stymied the effort. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

Years of wagon traffic had worn down the surface of the roadway lending it a sunken appearance. Stone retaining walls paralleling the shoulders transformed this peaceful stretch of country highway into a ready-made trench.

Innis House on the Sunken Road with the Stephens House on beyond.

Stephens House on the Sunken Road.

Meade's men, Pennsylvanians all, moved out in the misty half-light about 8:30 a.m. and headed straight for Stonewall Jackson's line, not quite one mile distant. Artillery fire exploded to the left and rear of Meade's lines. Major John Pelham had valiantly moved two small guns into position along the Richmond Stage Road perpendicular to Meade's axis of march. The 24 year-old Alabamian ignored orders from Major General J.E.B. Stuart to disengage and continued to disrupt the Federal formations for almost an hour.

Major John Pelham, an artillery officer who served with the Confederate cavalry under C.S.A. General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart. (At Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1863, Pelham participated in a cavalry charge, his artillery not being engaged. Standing up in his stirrups, he urged his men to "Press forward, press forward to glory and victory!" Not long afterward, he was struck in the head by a fragment of an exploding Federal artillery shell. He was carried six miles from the battlefield to Culpeper Courthouse, and died the following morning without having regained consciousness.)

C.S.A. General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart

General Lee, watching the action from Prospect Hill, remarked, "it is glorious to see such courage in one so young." When Pelham exhausted his ammunition and retired, Meade resumed his approach, Jackson patiently allowed the Federals to close to within 500 yards of the wooded elevation where a 14-gun battalion lay hidden in the trees. As the Pennsylvanians drew near to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad north of Hamilton's Crossing, "Stonewall" unleashed his masked artillery. Confederate shells ripped gaping holes in Meade's ranks and the beleaguered Unionists sought protection behind wrinkles of ground in the open fields.

Wave after wave of Federal soldiers marched forth to take the heights, but each was met with devastating rifle and artillery fire from the nearly impregnable Confederate positions. Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander’s earlier claim that “a chicken could not live on that field” proved to be entirely prophetic this bloody day. That night soldiers from both sides were forced to listen to the painful cries of the wounded for hours, with neither side daring to venture out for fear of being shot by the enemy. During the next day the battlefield lay covered with the dead and dying Union soldiers. The wounded cried for help. Finally, Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland of C.S.A. 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, Co. G took pity on them and took his canteen to them. At first the Yanks fired on him but when they realized he was trying to bring comfort, they cheered him on. He was called the Angel of Marye's Heights. He was from Flat Rock, Kershaw County, South Carolina. (Kirkland went on to fight in both the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg where, after further distinguishing himself for courage and ability, he was promoted to lieutenant. On September 20, 1863, he and two other men took command of a charge near "Snodgrass Hill" during the Battle of Chickamauga. Realizing they had advanced too far forward of their own unit, they attempted to return and Kirkland was shot. His last words were, "I'm done for... save yourselves and please tell my pa I died right.")

C.S.A. Sgt Richard Rowland Kirkland

The Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly 13,300 casualties, nearly two-thirds of them in front of Mayre’s Heights. By comparison, Lee’s army had suffered some 4,500 losses. It was a great Confederate victory! Robert E. Lee, watching the great Confederate victory unfolding from his hilltop command post exclaimed, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Roughly six weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Lincoln removed Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac.

A photograph of the town of Fredericksburg after the battle.

Burial of Union soldiers after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Here are the photos we took of the battlefield.

One of the cannons on Marye's Heights

Stephens and Innis Houses in Fredericksburg, VA

The Brompton House on top of Marye's Heights. It was badly damaged during the battle.

Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg, VA

See my posts on Cemetery Art.

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