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Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

THE BRIDGES

Well before dawn on December 11, engineers in sky-blue overcoats began wrestling the pontoons down the steep bluffs of Stafford Heights to the toe of the riverbank, launching them into the ice-encrusted water and fastening them together. The thumping and banging of the hollow boats echoed across the Rappahannock to the brick facades along Water Street, where Confederate marksmen lay, waiting and listening, with their rifles primed.

These Southern pickets lurking in cellars, parlors, and back bedrooms belonged to William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade. Barksdale allowed the construction to proceed for more than an hour, meanwhile posting about half of his brigade along the waterfront, but when the tandem bridges neared the midpoint of the stream he sent a courier back to Longstreet's main line to say that the enemy had committed himself. At about five o'clock a pair of Confederate cannon barked a warning of the Union advance, and in the gray predawn the Mississippians started popping away at the cottony shadows flitting back and forth on the fog-shrouded bridges. A hundred or so Floridians trotted up to join Barksdale's men, seeking out lairs from which they might help delay the crossing as long as possible.

The first rippling fire dropped a few carpenters of the 50th New York Engineers, including Captain Augustus Perkins, who may have been the first man killed in the battle; the rest of the crews darted back into the fog. Federal infantry answering the volley from the riverbank could not see through the thick mist, but under this ineffective cover the engineers eased back out to add a few more pontoons. Their mallets roused the sharpshooters again, and another ragged rattle of musketry felled some of the foremost workmen. Back went their comrades, and Burnside sent half a dozen field batteries down to the riverbank to blast the marksmen out of their shelter. The big guns suffered from the same poor visibility that foiled the infantry, however, and within a few minutes of resuming their task the engineers had to run for safety again.

WILLIAM BARKSDALE'S MEN HELD BURNSIDE'S ARMY AT BAY THROUGHOUT DECEMBER 11 BY PREVENTING CONSTRUCTION OF BRIDGES AT THE MIDDLE AND UPPER CROSSING SITES. (BL)

Several times the crews dashed our to complete the bridges—Confederates counted nine separate attempts—but nothing seemed to dislodge the snipers, and by ten o'clock fifty of the New Yorkers lay dead or wounded. The rest would not go out again, so the commander of the engineer brigade, Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, gathered eighty infantrymen from Connecticut who were willing to give it a try. He double-quicked them toward the bridges with lumber on their shoulders, but the fog was thinning now and Mississippians picked off a few of them before they stepped on the first planks. The others threw down their tools and bolted back to their regiments.

Well downstream, at Franklin's crossing, the 15th New York Engineers had already completed a bridge, although some of Gen. Hood's men sallied out at the last moment and leveled a sharp fire for a few minutes. Six of the Yankees fell wounded, but their infantry escort drove the Mississippi skirmishers away and the final planks dropped into place at nine o'clock. Alongside this bridge, a battalion of Regular Army engineers lagged a couple of hours behind the 15th New York. Confederate skirmishers likewise attacked these Regulars at about the same time, but the Southerners managed only to wound one carpenter and capture a couple of men who were grading the approaches on the far side before they, too, were discouraged by Union infantry supports. Once finished with the first span, the 15th New York helped the 50th New York to build a middle bridge at the lower end of town.

UNION ENGINEERS ATTEMPTED TO THROW BRIDGES ACROSS THE RIVER WHILE UNDER FIRE. "I WAS GREATLY MORTIFIED IN THE MORNING TO FIND THAT THE PONTONIERS UNDER MY COMMAND WOULD NOT CONTINUE AT WORK UNTIL ACTUALLY SHOT DOWN," WROTE GENERAL DANIEL P. WOODBURY. "THE OFFICERS AND SOME OF THE MEN SHOWED A WILLINGNESS TO DO SO, BUT THE MAJORITY SEEMED TO THINK THEIR TASK A HOPELESS ONE, PERHAPS I WAS UNREASONABLE." (LC)

WHILE THE 50TH NEW YORK ENGINEERS STRUGGLED TO CONSTRUCT BRIDGES AT THE TOWN, MEMBERS OF THE 15TH NEW YORK ENGINEERS COMPLETED TWO BRIDGES A MILE BELOW TOWN. THEY ADDED A THIRD BRIDGE THE NEXT DAY. (BL)

Burnside had hoped to see his infantry and artillery pouring across the river by now, and he knew that he might already be losing the element of surprise. He could have crossed an infantry force at the lower end of town at nine o'clock, and by eleven o'clock he could have supported it with artillery, but it would have been extremely vulnerable on that single lifeline and it might have taken several hours to clear the city of sharpshooters. Instead, just as pontoniers tied off the last of Franklin's bridges, Burnside decided to pound the offending houses to rubble, and he brought every gun that could bear on the water's edge into battery. For two hours nearly 150 cannon belched solid shot and shell into the buildings, the gunners taking careful aim now that the mists had cleared. Barksdale's men huddled wherever they could find solid cover while Union iron ate away walls, perforated rooftops, and shattered windows and doors. Some of the shells sparked fires, and the city choked beneath a pall of smoke and dust.

At about two o'clock the guns began falling silent. Confident engineers supposed those thousands of rounds had driven every Confederate from his nest or buried him in debris. The bridges boomed with sprinting feet once more, but as soon as the dull thud of hammers echoed across the flood a spattering of shots answered. Most of the sharpshooters remained in their dens, and all save a few Floridians—who refrained from firing lest they draw the artillery upon their heads again—started plugging away. The bridge builders would have no more of that and broke for cover.

UNABLE TO COMPLETE HIS BRIDGES AS LONG AS CONFEDERATES HELD THE TOWN. BURNSIDE SHELLED FREDERICKSBURG WITH NEARLY 150 CANNON, WHEN THE SMOKE CLEARED, BARKSDALE'S MEN WERE STILL THERE. (USAMHI)

Frustrated beyond belief, Burnside took a suggestion from his chief of artillery and ordered a brigade across the river in loose pontoon boats to storm the town. Under cover of yet another barrage, the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts gathered on the bank to be ferried across by New York engineers. The frazzled artisans fled, but the Michigan colonel put a few dozen of his men in three or four pontoons anyway, and they poled themselves to the opposite bank. The colonel took the lead pontoon himself, but he was wounded in midstream, as were several others. The rest rushed gamely up the bank, though, and began kicking in doors. The remainder of the 7th Michigan and the 19th Massachusetts quickly followed, but they met stiff resistance and could not clear the town until they were reinforced by the 20th Massachusetts. At the middle bridge a hundred New Yorkers also poled their way over and began to roust the snipers from their nests on that end of town. Most of the Floridians and about sixty of the Mississippians eventually surrendered, while the rest of Barksdale's brigade pulled back to contest the Federals street by street.


A WOMAN'S STORY

Jane Beale, a resident of Fredericksburg, was at her home when the Union army first crossed the Rappahannock River on December 11th. She recounted that day's harrowing experiences in her diary.

We were aroused before day by Geo Lee's 'Signal guns,' but not knowing their special significance, we did not hurry ourselves-, until 'Martha' our chamber maid came in and said in a rather mournful tone, "Miss Jane the Yankees are coming, they have got two pontoons nearly across the river." before we were half dressed the heavy guns of the enemy began to pour their shot and shell upon our ill-fated town, and we hastily gathered our remaining garments, and rushed into our Basement for safety, on the first landing I remembered 'Julian' my sick boy and turned back to seek him. I met him with his youngest brother, half dressed with his clothes upon his arm, and tried to help him, but I was trembling so violently that I believe I was more indebted to him for assistance than he was to me. we sought the room often used for a kitchen, and as Susan made us a good fire (the fuel all being at hand), we drew around it, with our hearts earnestly seeking the protection of Heaven, our Pastor Mr. Lacy was still with us, and commenced in solemn but tender accents, repeating 'the 27th Psalm' as we all knew it we heartily responded to each verse, as the words "Tho an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear" were upon our lips, we startled from our seats by the crashing of glass and splintering of timber close beside us . . . . poor 'Lucy' lay on some straw put down on the damp floor, almost paralyzed with terror, while Helen G sought refuge close under the wall on the side from whence the shots seemed to come. Mr. Brent and Mr. Lacy came back and forth between us and the other room, trying occasionally to speak a word of comfort to us but too evidently depressed themselves, to inspire us with the smallest amount of home [sic: hope].


I scarcely knew where I was . . . the yard was filled with armed men, the trees were cut off at their tops and their branches lay around impeding our progress.

. . . brother John told us that the town was on fire in many places, a whole row of buildings on Main St were already burnt, and as my house had a shingled roof I thought we would soon be driven from it by fire also. Mr. Lacy left us with brother John and they could scarcely have got out of the town before the heavy Bombardment commenced again and the sound of 173 guns echoed in our ears, the shrieking of those shells, like a host of angry fiends rushing through the air, the crashing of the balls through the roof and upper stories of the house, I shall never forget to the day of my death, the agony and terror of the next four hours, is burnt in on my memory as with hot iron, I could not Pray, but only cry for mercy. About 6 o'clock the sound of my dear brother's voice was again heard at the door, and now there was no time for parley, "come he said instantly, I have got an Ambulance for you, the enemy is across the river and there is not a moment to lose," we struggled to our feet wrapped the blankets we had over our heads and crept out of the cellar door into our yard blinded by the light, after being so long confined to darkness, I scarcely knew where I was, indeed the strange sight that met my first bewildered gaze, might well have astonished me, the palings were all down the yard was filled with armed men, the trees were cut off at their tops and their branches lay around impeding our progress. the Ambulance was drawn up behind the School House and we had to go through the whole length of the yard to get to it, some of the soldiers spoke to us and recommended haste as the enemy was coming up the hill not two squares off, our own men were evidently falling back, the town was to be given up to the enemy. We were shoved into the vehicle without much ceremony, and the horses dashed off at a speed that at another time would have alarmed me, but now seemed all too slow for our feverish impatience to be beyond the reach of those terrible shots which were still tearing through the streets of the town, one struck a building just as we passed it, another tore up the ground a short distance from us. I was greatly distressed to leave the servants but they said they were not afraid of the enemy and would go over the river if they were in greater danger here. As we passed beyond the line of the town and the turn of the road put the 'Willis Hill' Promontory of land, between us and the firing, a sense of security came into my mind and deep and heartfelt thankfulness for our deliverance from this great evil, carried my spirit to the throne of Heaven in humble grateful prayer. but new objects attracted my attention and claimed my sympathy here, crowds of women and children had sought refuge in this sheltered spot and as night drew on they were in great distress, they could not return to the town which was already in possession of the enemy, and they had fled too hastily to bring with them the comforts even the necessaries of life. Some few had stretched blue yarn counterpanes or pieces of old carpet over sticks, stuck in the ground—and the little ones were huddled together under these tents, the women were weeping the children crying loudly, I saw one walking along with a baby in her arms and another little one not three years old clinging to her dress and crying "I want to go home" My heart ached for them and if I could I would have stopped the Ambulance and taken them in, but I did not know then that I might not have to spend the night out in the open air myself . . . . we thought we would at least seek refuge in Mr. Temple's hospitable premises, and if the house was full he would let us stay in his barn, but when we drove up to the door the family rushed out and my dear friend Mrs. Temple carried me into the house almost in her arms, weeping as she went, at the idea of the dreadful peril to which we had been exposed all day. She gave up her most comfortable room for our accommodation and in a nice old-fashioned easy chair, before a blazing wood fire with my children around me, I ended the day so full of threatened danger and real horror in its beginning and its progress. I truly felt that praise for our deliverance was and ought to be the burthen of our song that night.

The Diary of Jane Beale

THE BATTLE FORCED FREDERICKSBURG RESIDENTS TO FLEE THEIR HOMES AND SEEK SHELTER IN OUTLYING AREAS. (USAMHI)
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