Fredericksburg: The Beginning

Fredericksburg: the Beginning

It was November 15th, 1862 and the Army of the Potomac was on the move. General Ambrose Burnside had taken command of the union army.  He replaced General McClellan after the federal forces failed to put away Robert E. Lee’s Confederates following the bloody battle at Antietam. Under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln to take action, he proposed crossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, Virginia. By going through Fredericksburg he would have a clear road to Richmond and a direct supply route to Washington. He had no intention of engaging in a battle at the city but only using it as his first step in the defeat of the south. He would meet and defeat Lee’s army at a field of his choice. The Confederate forces were right where he wanted them. Robert E. Lee made a mistake that could have cost the south the war. He split his forces between Culpepper (Longstreet) and the Shenandoah Valley (Stonewall Jackson). He hoped the north would go into winter camp and let his army recover from the beating it took at Antietam. However he was now caught with his pants down.

Initially, Burnside’s army made great strides reaching the ford in two days. Within a week he had General Sumner’s 40,000 troops and coming up behind was General Franklin with 40,000 more. General Hooker was bringing up the rear. 120,000 men, a sea of blue, marching into Richmond, the end of this war. This was the vision of Ambrose Burnside.

Once at the river his progress ceased and everything fell apart. If at this point, with the river still low, he had crossed, he would have chased off the few hundred confederates in possession of the town and his plan would have worked. However he was terribly fearful of the Rappahannock rising and trapping his men on the other side. So he waited. Where were those pontoons? The 50th New York under Major Spaulding was the engineering unit charged with providing everything he needed.  The pontoons he had planned to use got mired in paperwork and mud and didn’t arrive until two weeks after the army. There is even a rumor of General Halleck derailing the pontoons so that Burnside’s plan, which he had not been in favor of, would fail and he would go into winter camp. I find it extremely ironic that perhaps both commanders of both armies might have wanted Burnside to enter into his winter camp. A good general needs to make adjustments as situations present themselves and this was not Ambrose Burnside. He did not want the command of the army to begin with having turned it down twice before. Now that he had control he would do it his way. While waiting he fortified Stafford heights with cannon and held balls in the mansions across from the frozen rebels while his men shivered and moral fell. It took almost a month from the time Burnside left Washington until they broke the ice on the river. The moral of the union forces fell like the sleet and rain that chilled their bones. Bad food and poor leadership was rampant. On November 19th a very articulate captain in the 20th Massachusetts by the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote ”I’ve pretty much made up my mind the south have achieved their independence and I am almost ready to hope spring will see an end…The army is tired with its hard and its terrible experience and still more with its mismanagement and I think before long the majority will say that we are vainly working to effect what never happens-the subjugation (for that is it) of a great civilized nation. We shan’t do it-at least the army can’t.”

When Lee got news of the Army of the Potomac moving into position across the Rappahannock he acted quickly to recall Longstreet who forced marched to arrive on the 21st and was followed soon after by Jackson. Deploying Longstreet on the heights above town, he hoped that the hesitancy of northern generalship had not run out with this new commander. He did not know his greatest ally was the inability of General Ambrose Burnside to alter his plans and back down. Burnside waited for his pontoons allowing Stonewall to arrive and fortify his right. General Kershaw sent Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade to picket the town. By November 30th 78,000 confederates were together and Burnside’s window of opportunity had slammed shut.

Burnside at this point could have realized his element of surprise was lost and slunk back to winter camps outside Washington. Instead he decided to cross the river in two places and attack the southern positions on the left and the right. He told the engineers to place his crossings across from Lee’s approximate center and about a mile downriver.

It was fiercely cold on the morning of December 11th, 1862. The first sounds that drifted across the fog-shrouded river were the pontoons breaking through a half inch of ice that had formed during the night. General Barksdale’s Mississippians crouched in the river side rifle pits and cellar windows and waited for the sun to show them their targets; the northern engineers building the bridge. The sound of two cannons would be the signal to commence firing. As the noises of hammering and boots on wood moved ever closer to the southern pickets, the men tried to warm their hands and feet and remain patient. Finally in the grey mists movement could be made out halfway across the Rappahannock. The sound of muskets firing mixed with the sound of two cannon shots. The bangs of muskets were answered with cries of pain and a scampering of feet as the lead balls found their measure in the soft flesh and hard bone of the northern engineers. Imagine sitting in the relative safe obscurity of the fog bound bank, your friends have been shot off the end of the pontoon bridge you are trying to build and now they are calling for you to rise again and attempt the construction. I cannot say it is something anyone would willingly go to do. But four times they garnered their courage and ran out to complete the task of bridging the river and four times they were driven back with a greater loss of life in a hint of the massive bloodshed that was soon to come.

Burnside had had enough of the delay and gave the word for his mighty siege guns and the other batteries on Stafford heights to open fire on the defenders of the bridgehead and the town of Fredericksburg. Lee is said to have railed against “those people” at the site of the fine old mansions being laid to ruin. Most of the inhabitants had fled by this time. The men of the Mississippi brigade crawled deeper in their holes and waited out the barrage as shot and shell found their marks and fires raged in the growing morning light. After an hour of a bombardment that was unrivaled to that point in the war,  19th Massachusetts used the pontoons as boats and crossed the river with their muskets firing and bayonets fixed. Minnie ball met round ball when the defenders rose from the rubble and fired upon the advancing union forces. The men in blue fought their way across and soon had a bridgehead. House-to-house fighting finally pried the valiant men in grey out of the burning rubble.

Here a line from “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” page 121 volume 3,By H. G. O. Weymouth, Captain, 19th Massachusetts Regiment:

“We were met with such resistance by Barksdale’s brigade, very aptly styled by General Longstreet “Confederate hornets,” that it was nearly dusk before we gained the north side of Caroline street.”

At seven o’clock the Mississippi brigade marched to the fortifications behind the wall on Marye’s heights to the cheers of their fellows and rested on a job well done. They had played a major role in delaying the blue tide from rising over the Rappahannock’s banks. The Army of the Potomac took possession of the town of Fredericksburg setting the stage for one of the most useless bloodbaths ever recorded.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *