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Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

THE CITY TAKEN

General Woodbury had momentarily disappeared, but with the retreat of Barksdale's sharpshooters the New York engineers sprinted out again to complete the bridges. In the growing darkness the Union spearhead pushed the last Confederate defenders beyond the edge of the city. By nightfall four full Union brigades occupied Fredericksburg. Franklin crossed a brigade as well, but Burnside ordered the rest of the army to remain on the left bank of the river. He may have feared that darkness would render the deployment chaotic and invite an attack, or perhaps he wished to keep Lee wondering whether this might not be a mere diversion for a stronger attack somewhere else—somewhere like Skinker's Neck, where a Maine regiment had been corduroying roads all day to keep the Confederates off guard.

Had most of the army marched to the right bank that night, Burnside might have been able to launch an attack early the next morning that would have caught Lee with as few as eighteen regiments protecting his right flank at Hamilton's Crossing, instead of the eighteen brigades poised there when he finally did attack. Stonewall Jackson's corps lay scattered from Guiney Station to Port Royal just then, while only one division of Longstreet's corps stood at Hamilton's Crossing, but before dawn on December 12 Lee sent for Jackson's two nearest divisions to strengthen that position.

The greater part of the Army of the Potomac finally thundered over the bridges the morning of the 12th, with Sumner's troops bivouacking in the city streets while Franklin's divisions spread out on the plain. Burnside seems to have recognized that the previous day's delay (including his failure to cross the army during the night) had probably destroyed any chance of catching Lee's army divided, so he started the morning by formulating some subtle revisions in his battlefield choreography, conferring with officers who had seen the ground before. Now, instead of moving Sumner and Franklin directly against their respective goals, he proposed giving Franklin the principal role, allowing him to lead off with the largest part of the army. Franklin would sweep around Hamilton's Crossing and secure a new military road the Confederates had cut to connect the two wings of their army, threatening Lee's rear more by maneuver than by actual assault. As soon as Franklin had made a good start, Sumner would hit the heights on Lee's left, near the Marye mansion. It was the pugilistic equivalent of a left hook followed by a right cross—a favorite tactic of Burnside's.

AT THE SUGGESTION OF HIS CHIEF OF ARTILLERY, HENRY HUNT, BURNSIDE DETERMINED TO SEND INFANTRY ACROSS THE RIVER IN BOATS TO DISLODGE BARKSDALE'S MEN. COLONEL NORMAN HALL'S BRIGADE DREW THE DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT. (NPS)

BARKSDALE BATTLED THE UNION TROOPS IN TOWN UNTIL DARK. THEN WITHDREW TO MARYE'S HEIGHTS. HIS STUBBORN DEFENSE OF THE RIVER DELAYED BURNSIDE'S CROSSING BY A FULL DAY. GIVING LEE TIME TO COMPLETE HIS DEFENSIVE ARRANGEMENTS. (HARPERS WEEKLY)

While Burnside planned, his troops roamed the city, inspecting the damage. The riddled buildings sat almost entirely abandoned, and curious soldiers wandered through them, picking up a candlestick or a few pieces of silverware here and there, but the quest for souvenirs quickly escalated to plundering and wanton destruction. Virtually every home or business saw blue-clad looters who stuffed their haversacks with anything edible and their knapsacks with whatever might be worth a dollar. Furniture went flying into the streets, and whole libraries were overturned alongside it. Soldiers cavorted in civilian clothing, including dresses pulled over their uniforms, and one scavenger piled blankets and carpeting on the back of a stray horse, hoping apparently to sleep snugly for at least one night. A New Hampshire boy who would strangle from fever beneath a Mississippi live oak seven months hence cut a painting from its frame and tucked it into his knapsack, admitting to his very respectable parents that he would have stolen a lot more if he thought he could have smuggled it across the river. Burnside's provost marshal finally arrived and began lashing at looters with his riding crop; his guard details collected platoons of prisoners, and the marshal himself caught some mounted officers with plunder hanging from their saddles.

WITH FREDERICKSBURG BURNING IN THE BACKGROUND. RUSH HAWKINS'S UNION BRIGADE CROSSED THE MIDDLE BRIDGE INTO TOWN ON THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 11. MOST OF THE ARMY WOULD NOT CROSS UNTIL THE NEXT DAY. (LC)

AFTER CROSSING THE RIVER, THE UNION ARMY PROCEEDED TO SACK THE TOWN. THEY SMASHED MIRRORS, BROKE FURNITURE, AND HAULED PIANOS INTO THE STREET. "THE SOLDIERS SEEMED TO DELIGHT IN DESTROYING EVERYTHING," WROTE ONE WITNESS. (LC)
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