FREDERICKSBURG: THE LEFT
Once the town of Fredericksburg was secured, Burnside inexplicably waited a full day to attack. If he attacked on December 12th instead of the 13th he might have caught Jackson out of position and won the battle. But the troops plundered and vandalized and the union pattern again was one of indecision and inaction. Burnside realized he had to fight or retreat. The enemy was now present here in front of him. His plan to march on Richmond would have to wait. If he defeated Lee here and now then the war, at least in Northern Virginia, would be over. President Lincoln had made it plain that he expected much from his new commander.
From the town to the woods and heights beyond lay fields now fallow after an autumn harvest, with only the stubble of the crops remaining upon them. To the far right was a swampy area up to the heights where Longstreet’s guns sat in murderous anticipation over a town barely seven blocks wide. The heights became progressively smaller until running into woods and more swamp down to the river on the Union left. Halfway across the field on the right was a canal breeched by two partially destroyed bridges. At the foot of Maryes heights ran a road, sunken from years of wagon wheels and cart traffic fronted by a stonewall.
Burnside became determined to try to overwhelm the Confederates with the sheer numbers at his disposal. His orders were for the main attack to occur along the left in the wooded area where the ground was less in the Confederate favor. Here Stonewall Jackson was waiting, having fortified the woods. A Union demonstration would be made on the right in order to hold Longstreet in position while Franklin, his 2 corps of 40,000 men bolstered by a corps of 20,000 of Hookers men, broke through and flanked Lees army on his right.
General Stonewall Jackson had placed his men roughly along an edge of woods which extended behind a railroad line in front of prospect hill and the road that was to end behind the stonewall on Marye’s heights. On His far left was Gen Hood followed by Gen A.P. Hill and Gen. D.H. Hill. On his far right was Jeb Stuart’s cavalry holding the flank to the river.
As the fog lifted the sun revealed a sea of blue with flags flying and guns arrayed like a parade before the men of Gen. Early and Gen. A.P. Hill. As they prepared to attack the federals heard a boom echoed from their left betraying a lone battery sitting on Bowling Green road enfilading Gen Doubleday’s and Gen. Meade’s neatly organized columns. It was the young John Pelham, from Jeb Stuart’s cavalry. Try as they might, the counter battery fire was ineffective. He delayed the attack for a full hour refusing Jeb Stuarts command to withdraw until he ran out of shot and retired to the cheers of the men in the wooded heights and the relief of the shell shocked men in blue. Stonewall Jackson said of him in his report on the battle, “It is really extraordinary to find such nerve and genius in a mere boy. With a Pelham on each flank I believe I could whip the world.”
It is unclear the union commanders orders were ever received or even understood by General Franklin. By his actions alone the answer would be no. He sent Gen. Meade and Gen. Gibbons forward with only 8000 men while General Doubleday protected their left flank from more Pelham like antics. They had to cross a field of what became known as the slaughter pen farm. Halfway across this field was a short berm. When the union troops hit this point the Confederate artillery opened fire. Decimated ranks filled in and continued the attack. A full-blown artillery battle erupted for an hour while men huddled behind the berm. Gen. Meade focused on a triangular patch of woods and ordered a bayonet charge. It was at exactly this point that Jackson’s unguarded middle laid. In his center was swampy woodland. It was deemed impassable. General Meade struck here and his Pennsylvanians didn’t stop until they ran into the boys from South Carolina under General Gregg who was killed when a bullet tore through his spine. This was the north’s high point. On the right close to the railroad the Confederates had time for only two or three aimed shots before it turned to hand to hand fighting. Stonewall calmly threw in all his reserves. Meade’s unsupported lines crumbled and fell back. The northern men under Generals Jackson, Sinclair and Magilton and Gibbon’s men under Generals Root and Taylor retreated across the bloody ground they fought so valiantly to obtain. It is said that here is where General Robert E. Lee upon seeing the torn up union troops leaving the woods said to Gen. Longstreet, ” It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”
Losses were heavy on both sides. Five Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to men here on the left including Col. Charles Collis an Irish born officer of the 114th Pennsylvania who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantly leading his regiment in battle at a critical moment. As Gen. Meade’s forces were falling back across the field protected by the batteries of Randolph and Livingston the Georgian infantry under Gen. Evans we close behind and reached the guns of Randolph. Collis Zouaves of the 114th Pennsylvania was coming forward to help. At the head of the column was Gen. Robinson whose horse was disemboweled by a solid shot and the general was severely wounded. The Zouaves stammered but the quick acting Colonel grabbed the Colors and forming the men in scarlet and blue wearing the red fez and white turban of the French Zouaves d’Afrique led the bayonet charge that forced back the enemy infantry with such a force that an entire regiment was captured. If the Confederates had turned the guns the union forces would have been in dire straights indeed. Stonewall Jackson’s men fortified a line across the front of Meade roughly following the railroad tracks and only nightfall and the valor of men like Col. Charles Collis kept Stonewall from routing the left and pushing half of Burnside’s army into the Rappahannock.
Franklin Had not understood the orders made by Burnside. He had 60,000 men at his ready but only committed 8,000 to the attack. Even still he almost defeated Jackson. No one knows how the outcome would have differed had Franklin been able to route Jackson and come upon Longstreet from the rear. Was it hesitation on the part of Franklin or was Burnside unclear in his orders?
The Union left ended the day with 5000 casualties to the Confederate 4,000 for 9,000 total casualties. On the right the total would be the about same but the union would fare far, far worse as the idiocy of the union command showed its true colors and the men in grey waited behind that stone wall on Marye’s Heights.
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