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Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

SECOND THOUGHTS

Burnside recognized that piecemeal attacks would not be strong enough to carry Marye's Heights, and he already suspected Franklin had not supported him enthusiastically enough, but today he planned for a grand assault on either side. Burnside intended to lead his old Ninth Corps against the stone wall personally, for he remained extremely popular with these men and they might be expected to follow him more zealously than someone else: morale could mean the difference between success and failure.

Most of the generals in the Army of the Potomac doubted any assault on the stone wall could succeed. When Burnside called a conference the next morning General Sumner revealed the universal skepticism. Burnside might have questioned the motives of other officers, many of whom remained true to McClellan, but he could not discount the loyal old Sumner; when the morning fog cleared and Burnside turned his binoculars on the strengthened Confederate line, he decided to cancel the attack.

Discussion then turned to how (and whether) to hold the town. Some, Darius Couch among them, argued that morale would plummet after so great a loss if the army could not even embrace Fredericksburg as a prize. More traditional strategists feared that the gray hordes might surge down from the heights and drive the beaten army into the river. For the moment, Burnside determined to hold the ground he had won.

Skirmish fire rattled along both fronts throughout the morning of December 14. In front of Marye's Heights Union sharpshooters sniped away from the shelter of the few buildings on the plain. The rest of the Federal pickets hugged the cold earth, taking futile, dangerous potshots at the stone wall and listening to the pleas of their own wounded. That pitiful chorus carried all the louder into Confederate lines, though, affecting one South Carolina sergeant in particular. Burdening himself with all the canteens he could manage, Richard Kirkland bounded over the stone wall and started toward the windrows of suffering Yankees. Sykes's division of Regulars watched from within easy rifle range, but the lone Southron reached the first wounded man unhurt. Once his mission became clear, picket fire dropped off entirely, and Kirkland ranged along the front in perfect safety, dispensing water and sympathy.

RICHARD R. KIRKLAND (CAROLINIANA COLLECTION, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA)

That night, with tears of frustration in his eyes, Burnside gave orders for a careful withdrawal.

That night Longstreet's men resumed work on their fortifications while Burnside pulled Sykes back nearer the city. The next day the standoff continued, with Hooker commanding the defense of the city. Hooker had already lobbied for the evacuation of all but a couple of divisions: with so many troops crowded into the narrow streets he feared Confederate artillery could wreak some real havoc here, besides which the buildings still offered refuge to hundreds of demoralized stragglers. If Burnside was not going to make another assault, Hooker felt that the bulk of the right wing ought to march back to Falmouth. He also hinted at a complete evacuation on the morning of the 15th, but Burnside had already decided to bring his whole army back. That night, with tears of frustration in his eyes, Burnside gave orders for a careful withdrawal.


ON THE PICKET LINE AT FREDERICKSBURG

On the evening of December 14th, General Doubleday wanted our regiment (the 2d Wisconsin) to go on picket and make an effort to stop the firing upon the picket-line, for the shots of the Confederates covered the whole field, and no one could get any rest. We had not been in the picket-line more than twenty minutes before we made a bargain with the "Rebs," and the firing ceased, and neither they nor ourselves pretended to keep under cover. But at daylight the 24th Michigan came to relieve us. Before they were fairly in line they opened fire upon the Confederates without the warning we had agreed to give. We yelled lustily, but the rattle of musketry drowned the sound, and many a confiding enemy was hit. This irritated the Confederates, who opened a savage fire, and the 24th Michigan were put upon their good behavior; it was with difficulty a general engagement was prevented. All that day, until about 4 o'clock, the picket-firing was intense; it was abruptly ended by a Confederate challenging a 6th Wisconsin man to a fist-fight in the middle of the turnpike. The combatants got the attention of both picket-lines, who declared the fight a "draw." They ended the matter with a coffee and tobacco trade and an agreement to do no more firing at picket-line, unless an advance should be ordered.

George F. Smith,
"In the Ranks at Fredericksburg"

GENERAL FRANKLIN MADE HIS HEADQUARTERS ON THE GROUNDS OF ARTHUR BERNARD'S HOUSE, "MANNSFIELD." UNION SOLDIERS VANDALIZED THE STRUCTURE IN DECEMBER, 1862, AND CARELESS CONFEDERATE PICKETS SET IT ON FIRE THE FOLLOWING APRIL. BY WAR'S END, THE HOUSE, LIKE SO MANY OTHERS IN THE FREDERICKSBURG AREA, WAS A RUIN. (BL)
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