Fire in the Streets

The following text was originally published as Part 1 of a two-part brochure funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The italicized "Walking Guide" sections will take you on a tour through Fredericksburg, beginning at the Fredericksburg City Visitor Center located at 706 Caroline St, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401.
Engraving of soldiers fighting in a bombed out street
US soldiers fight in the streets of Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862.

Harpers Weekly

A Battle Looms over Fredericksburg

During the American Civil War, Fredericksburg's geographic location drew contending armies to its environs with a deadly inevitability. The city is located on the banks of the Rappahannock River, which served as a natural defensive buffer, as well as astride a north-south rail corridor that helped keep the large armies supplied. On four separate occasions, the US Army of the Potomac fought the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in and around the city. These clashes left over 100,000 casualties and a scarred landscape in their wake.

On November 17, 1862, advance units of the US Army reached the heights overlooking the Rappahannock River and the City of Fredericksburg. The remainder of the US forces, commanded by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, arrived within days. Burnside would not order an advance across the river until supplies to build pontoon bridges arrived, and these supplies were delayed. While Burnside awaited the arrival of pontoon bridging equipment, Confederate General Robert E. Lee to concentrated his scattered forces on the heights behind the town.

Walking Guide: As you depart the Fredericksburg City Visitor Center, turn left and walk down Caroline Street. Many of the buildings you see were here during the Civil War. Turn right at Amelia Street, proceed one block, and turn left on Sophia Street. Stop when you reach the historical markers on the right, just before Hawke Street. Across the river you will see Chatham, which served as a Union headquarters and hospital during the battle.

The Struggle to Cross the River

In the early morning of December 11, US engineers on the opposite bank began to ready their equipment to construct a bridge. Alert Confederate pickets reported this muffled activity and around 4am a Confederate battery subsequently broke the early morning calm by firing twice; the signal that US forces were coming.

Brigadier General William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade took up their assigned positions along this riverbank, in cellars and other barricaded shelters. They heard the engineers working on extending a pontoon bridge from the opposite bank, but a heavy fog initially screened the bridge builders from these waiting riflemen. Once the Mississippians could discern the approaching bridge through the thinning mist they opened fire. Some of the US engineers collapsed onto the deck while the remainder quickly retreated to safety.

US commanders responded by ordering their artillery to suppress the musketry coming from the town, first by directing the fire of 36 field pieces against the sheltered sharpshooters, then by a general bombardment from 150 cannons that sent a storm of metal tearing through the town's riverfront properties. A Confederate colonel described the scene from a vantage point beyond Fredericksburg. On the opposite bank he saw a "line of angry blazing guns firing through white clouds of smoke & almost shaking the earth with their roar. Over & in the town the white winkings of the bursting shells reminded one of a countless swarm of fire-flies. Several buildings were set on fire, & their black smoke rose in remarkably slender, straight, & tall columns for two hundred feet, perhaps, before they began to spread horizontally & unite in a great black canopy."

Despite the bombardment, the well-protected sharpshooters persistently resumed their fire whenever the US engineers ventured back onto the partially completed bridge to continue work. By late afternoon, with daylight rapidly slipping away, two US infantry regiments received orders to seize the area (where you are now standing) to allow the engineers to complete their task.

The soldiers piled into several pontoons and rowed them quickly across the river. Barksdale's marksmen opened fire but could not hold back the approaching boats. Protected by the embankment, the Federal infantry disembarked, deployed as skirmishers, and advanced to clear the edge of town.

A soldier in the 17th Mississippi recalled the bombardment and the river crossing. "There were six men in the basement of [a] two-story house, and any one of them now living will testify to the fact that the house was tom to pieces, the chimney falling down in the basement among us...A few moments after the batteries opened, several regiments of Union infantry came yelling down the hill toward the river, laying hold of the boats and coming over toward where we were stationed. As they came up the bank we tried to get out at the end of the house."

The two US regiments, 7th Michigan and the 19th Massachusetts, rushed the houses on Sophia Street and began working their way into town. Barksdale's men launched a counterattack against the advancing Federal soldiers and forced them back nearly to the river. Consequently, the 20th Massachusetts also crossed in pontoon boats to reinforce the shaky US lodgment. One soldier in the 20th later wrote that the "Michigan men made a rush at the nearest houses and took quite a number of prisoners. The orders to the whole Brigade were to bayonet every armed man found firing from a house...but it was of course obeyed...In fact no prisoners were taken but the few the Michigans took and the wounded who lay about struck by our shells. The 7th Michigan were deployed on the left and a short distance up the street at the foot of which we landed, and the 19th on the right, both holding houses, fences, etc., and exchanging shots with the Rebels who were a little farther back...When a good many troops had got over, we were advanced up the street ...."

Walking Guide: Travel up Hawke Street to Caroline Street, following the route of the 20th Massachusetts.

The 20th Massachusetts Advance into Town

As the New Englanders of the 20th Massachusetts charged in column up this narrow street, they passed the hard-pressed 7th Michigan sheltered in an alley (probably the one still visible to your left) halfway up the block. The 19th Massachusetts had retreated through the yards and gardens to your right. The 20th forced their way to Caroline Street, losing 97 officers and men in 50 yards of grueling street fighting.

Back at the river, the US bridge builders quickly completed one bridge and began work on another. Additional fighting men crossed over but Burnside pushed forward only enough troops to hold what had been gained. As darkness fell, the regiments that had fought their way to Caroline Street skirmished with the Confederate defenders. The 19th Massachusetts recaptured a row of buildings on the east side of Caroline Street and engaged in a final, point-blank firefight with the Confederates positioned in buildings on the west side of the street.

As the last detachment of the Mississippi brigade fell back, its commander learned the advancing Federals were being led by a former classmate from Harvard Law School. Mortified at the prospect of retreating from a onetime comrade, the Mississippi officer subsequently halted his men to make a stand, jeopardizing the Confederate plan to relinquish the town. He was eventually placed under arrest and another officer was detailed to bring out the command.

Walking Guide: Turn left on Caroline Street and proceed two blocks to the interpretive sign in front of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. After reading it, continue down Caroline Street to Lewis Street and turn right. Proceed up Lewis Street to Princess Anne Street and turn left. Proceed down Princess Anne Street to the old Market House which now houses the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.

The Confederate Reserve

Barksdale stationed his reserves here at the Market House and in the adjoining Market Square. From this location, he dispatched reinforcements to the town wharf area where his troops were opposing a second Federal river crossing. As Federal troops fought their way into town from both bridges, most of Barksdale's brigade reassembled in the vicinity of the Market House before abandoning the town.

Walking Guide: Proceed down Princess Anne Street to George Street.

The City of Fredericksburg Becomes a Casualty of War

On December 12, US troops poured across the pontoon bridges into a town where many buildings were still smoldering from the previous day's bombardment. A newspaper correspondent described the wreckage: "In some cases the whole side of a house has been shot away, roofs and chimneys have tumbled in, window frames smashed to atoms, and doors jarred from the hinges." Some Federal units deployed beyond the edge of town where they skirmished with the Confederate pickets. The rest of the US striking force massed in the town to await a renewal of serious fighting.

In addition to the damage wreaked by combat action, the town suffered from a more deliberate destruction. Looting had begun the night before as infuriated soldiers who fought through these streets released their anger. They were joined the next day by increasing numbers of troops who regarded the town as a prize of war. One soldier recalled: "Furniture of all sorts is strewn along the streets...Every namable household utensil or article of furniture, stoves, crockery and glass-ware, pots, kettles and tins, are scattered, and smashed and thrown everywhere, indoors and out, as if there had fallen a shower of them in the midst of a mighty whirlwind."

The war had settled harshly on the once quiet town. Endless columns of infantry and cavalry, accompanied by artillery and supply wagons, churned the streets into mud. Stacked muskets sprang up everywhere as the troops settled in to wait for the next day's assaults. Looting continued, the chaos punctuated by an occasional shell whistling overhead, fired from the Confederate batteries on the heights on the outskirts of town.

Walking Guide: To return to the Visitor Center, proceed down George Street to Caroline Street. Turn right and walk two blocks to the Visitor Center. To continue with the events of December 13, 1862, follow Part 2: Assault on Marye's Heights.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Last updated: December 12, 2021