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Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

THE FINAL PLAN OF ATTACK

Vandals were still rifling Fredericksburg closets that afternoon when Burnside rode down to Franklin's bridges. The racing winter sun neared the horizon already, and the general saw that there could be no attack that day, either, so he met with Franklin and his corps commanders to explain the differences in the latest orders for the assault. Two divisions of the Third Corps would move from Hooker's Center Grand Division to guard the bridgehead, allowing Franklin all six of his own big divisions to race around Hamilton's Crossing. When he was satisfied that his wishes were understood, Burnside rode back to speak with his other wing commanders.

LEE POSTED HIS TROOPS ON A SERIES OF HILLS SOUTH AND WEST OF TOWN. THIS VIEW, TAKEN FROM MARYE'S HEIGHTS, SHOWS THE DEADLY PLAIN UNION SOLDIERS WOULD HAVE TO CROSS TO ATTACK THE CONFEDERATE LINE. (NA)

Even as Burnside and Franklin scanned the wooded ridge that shielded the Confederate army, Southern horsemen flew downriver with instructions for Jackson's last two divisions to start for Hamilton's Crossing from Port Royal and Skinker's Neck. In a note to D. H. Hill, the commander of his most distant division (and his own brother-in-law), Stonewall revealed that their right flank seemed to be the target now; thanks partly to the houses that screened Sumner's divisions, the top Southern commanders suspected the movement on the city might have been no more than a feint.

The ridge on which Lee had perched his army was long and low, though it was tall enough by Tidewater standards and high enough even at its lowest point to offer a military advantage. It consisted of a series of connected hills. Those on the Confederate left, especially Marye's Heights, loomed quite steep, and here Longstreet arranged his defensive line in tiers. Infantry filled the Telegraph Road, a lane cut into the base of the hillside. The Telegraph Road turned parallel to the ridge here, its sunken bed protected by stone retaining walls. Riflemen squatted contentedly behind the downhill wall, the muzzles of their weapons gaping at the half mile of open, gently rising ground any Federal attack would have to cross.

THOMAS COBB'S GEORGIA BRIGADE AWAITED THE FEDERALS IN A SUNKEN ROAD BORDERED BY A SHOULDER-HIGH STONE WALL AT THE BASE OF MARYE'S HEIGHTS. "I THINK MY BRIGADE CAN WHIP TEN THOUSAND OF THEM ATTACKING US IN FRONT," COBB WROTE HIS WIFE PRIOR TO THE BATTLE. HE WAS WRONG: IT WHIPPED 40,000. (USAMHI)

Four more knobs rose from the ridge as it twisted its way to the southeast, each of them successively shorter than the one before. The Confederate right rested on Prospect Hill, a shallow plateau just behind Hamilton's Crossing. There stood Captain Hamilton's house and a cluster of Southern artillery that may have posed the greatest impediment to any passage around that flank. By nightfall of December 12 Ambrose Powell Hill covered the crossing with his six brigades. Another of Jackson's divisions backed him up, while those under Jubal Early and D. H. Hill had camped for the night only a few hours away.

Unless they marched completely around Lee's right, the Federals would face broad plains wherever they struck, yet Lee had said the terrain here worked against him. He had failed to convince Jefferson Davis to let him fall back to the North Anna, where he would not have to worry so much about the enemy slipping behind him, so here he would make his stand.

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