Willis Hill During the Civil War

The historic ground of Willis Hill is among the contested soil on any of the Fredericksburg area battlefields. Many soldiers bled and died on this hill which together with Marye's Hill to the north formed what the soldiers called Marye's Heights. Ironically, Willis Hill is the larger and more important of these two hills that could have been appropriately named Willis Heights.

Willis Hill was first settled by Colonel Henry Willis. Willis, a member of the House of Burgesses, helped establish the city of Fredericksburg when the Colonial Act of 1728 appointed him a trustee of the city. Henry Willis is sometimes referred to as the Father of Fredericksburg. His son, Lewis Willis (and also the son of George Washington's aunt) grew up on Willis Hill and often entertained Washington there. Lewis Willis shared Washington's politics and served as a lieutenant colonel of the 10th Virginia Regiment in the Revolutionary War. The Willis house burned in 1825 under the ownership of Byrd C. Willis, who promptly sold the property and moved to Florida. John S. Wellford purchased the property, passing it to John W. Mitchell by 1856, who in turn, sold it to Douglas H. Gordon in 1860. By this time, the new house had expanded several times to suit growing families until "it seemed a group of continuous house" sprawled across the crest of Willis Hill. In addition to the growing living quarters, a private family cemetery also burgeoned on the heights. Today, the cemetery contains thirty-five stones with the earliest dating from 1756. Sometimes, Civil War chroniclers referred to Willis Hill as Cemetery Hill.

During the Civil War, Fredericksburg hosted two major battles on the same killing ground, sweeping from the city's river front up to the crest of Willis and Marye's hills. The first battle, fought in December 1862 gave the Confederates time to select their positions well and fortify them. Soldiers fashioned a crude road up the rear of the heights to give the Confederates a covered access to the hilltop. Southern artillery bristled along the crest of Willis Hill and neighboring Marye's Hill. Captain Charles W. Squires, of an elite Louisiana unit known as the Washington Artillery, posted two 3-inch rifled cannon in gunpits in front of the Willis Cemetery and besides one of the several brick structures on the crest. The Confederate hid their ammunition and horses behind the cover of the brick wall enclosing the cemetery, and used one of the houses as their hospital. Their position dominated the entire city so well that Southern artilleryman, E. Porter Alexander wrote that he "felt the elation of a certain and easy victory."

The Union army of Ambrose E. Burnside attacked Marye's Heights on December 13, 1862 and bludgeoned itself in a series of forlorn, headlong assaults. Confederate artillery on Willis Hill and elsewhere on the crest mowed down the Northerners in wholesale slaughter. Federal artillery tried desperately to blast the Confederate gunners from their fortifications. Many of the Union shells furrowed and exploded on the heights. One Confederate confessed that "amidst shrieking shells and singing rifle-balls" that the area around the Willis Cemetery was a "frightful scene to traverse, --every inch of ground continually struck, apparently by bullets or fragments of shells. . . .It looked like certain death, or ghastly wounds" to expose oneself outside of the gunpits. The whitewashed brick dwelling immediately beside Captain Squires' pits had been hit so many times by shells and bullets, that the facade had changed from white to brick-dust red by afternoon.

The artilleryman maintained a steady fire as they lashed back at the oncoming attackers. One participant related, "We who were able were speedily working our guns with all our souls and bodies." Wave after wave of Union troops melted away before the storm "blown back as if by the breath of Hell's Door suddenly opened." The ceaseless roar of the cannon left a picture of deafening pandemonium. One solider admitted that he was overwhelmed by "the noise, confusion, and excitement" being "too great" for him to bear. As ammunition became scarce, more and more soldiers may have shared a similar discomfort.

Late in the battle, fresh guns under Lieutenant Colonel E. Porter Alexander, advanced up the new road through the ravine behind Willis Hill. Suffering some difficulty righting an overturned cannon at the mouth of the ravine, Alexander's Confederates soon replaced the depleted Washington Artillery. The fresh artillerists had to run a gauntlet of "tremendous fir" as they darted into Squires' protective gunpits.

During the battle other Confederates ventured across "that storm-swept plain" on the crest of Willis Hill. Initially, North Carolina infantry under General Robert Ransom supported the Louisiana artillery. When they advanced a portion of their force to join troops already occupying the sunken road and stone wall at the foot of the hill, fresh infantry moved in to take their place. General Joseph B. Kershaw led his South Carolina brigade up the backside of Willis Hill, using the new road through the ravine. When his troops reached the crest by the cemetery, they immediately took shelter behind its brick walls. Later, Kershaw deployed his troops closer to the guns and below them in the sunken road. The South Carolinians suffered their worst losses along the summit of Willis and Marye's hills, standing exposed "under one of the highest shellings the troops ever experienced." Many found it literally a relief to advance down the open face of Willis Hill and take cover behind the stone wall at it base.

As night fell the battle lapsed into a fitful quiet. for the next few days, Confederate sharpshooters took advantage of the buildings on Willis Hill to snipe at Federals concentrating on the western edge of Fredericksburg. A Georgia infantryman availed himself of the Willis Cemetery to bury a comrade who had died fighting at the stone wall. A rough stone still stands bearing the simple legend: "______ Coffee, Co. E, 24th Georgia." When Burnside withdrew his beaten Union army across the Rappahannock River, Fredericksburg mistakenly assumed its fighting days had ended. Within five months the drama would be renewed on the same ground.

In the Spring of 1863, the Union army's new leader, general Joseph Hooker advanced a portion of his army across the Rappahannock in the footprints of Ambrose Burnside. Meanwhile, the bulk of his army crossed upriver and concentrated at Chancellorsville. Threatened by the Northern vice closing around Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee left a thin veil of Southern troops to hold his fortified defenses behind the city, and raced westward to meet Hooker. After Lee had successfully thwarted Hooker's offensive at Chancellorsville, the Northern commander called on troops in front of Willis and Marye's hills to break through and join him. The Union general at Fredericksburg, John Sedgwick, proposed to attack the heights in the same manner that had failed Burnside's army in December.

The Confederates stretched sparsely across the long lines of defenses. The Washington Artillery again held their own gun pits with Captain Charles W. Squires stationed once more in front of the Willis Cemetery. As Sedgwick's Federals prepared for battle of May 3, 1863, the Confederates could see the myriad of Federals massing before them. Lieutenant William Owen of the Washington Artillery remembered that "it was a beautiful sight, but a terrible one for us."

The first Northern attacks met with the same devastating fire from the Confederates that ensured Southern victory in December, and the Union soldiers immediately fell back to cover. Union artillery pummeled the Southern positions and scoured the heights. Their concentrated fire destroyed the brick dwellings on Willis Hill, collapsed portions of the cemetery wall, and knocked over many of the tombstones. A Southern soldier wrote after the battle that the headstones "and everything of the kind, were torn to pieces." Still the Confederate guns continued to belch a murderous fire at the aggressive Federals.

Another Union attack caught the Confederates overextended and unable to stop the Northerners from penetrating the line at several points. One Federal thrust broke across the stone wall and lunged up the ravine between Marye's and Willis hills. As the Union troops swarmed around Captain Squires' guns on Willis Hill, the Washington artillerists kept "firing at the enemy until he came to the very muzzle of its guns." A bloody hand-to-hand fight broke out over the guns until the Louisiana gunners found themselves completely surrounded by soldiers of the 6th Maine Volunteers. The Federals captured many of the Confederates along with six of the Washington Artillery's cannon. Among those lost, Captain Squires was a prisoner along with both of his 3-inch Rifles. The sterling Washington Artillery had lost their very first guns captured in battle The road to Chancellorsville and Lee's rear stood open to Sedgwick's Federals and Lee would have to break off his battle against Hooker to deal with this latest threat.

The battles for Willis Hill had ended and the scars were deep. Grim reminders of the war revisited the hill in 1864. Northern soldiers wounded in the fierce battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania flocked over the grounds looking for aid. Temporary hospitals took over all the remaining buildings and grounds on the hill. Many of the soldiers who succumbed to their wounds ended up buried around the Willis home. A member of the 15th New Jersey noted that the toll on the buildings and grounds had been depressing, writing, "The brick wall of the graveyard and the servants' quarters were broken and battered." Another visitor to the site confessed he saw only "the ruins of two or three small brick houses" left on Willis Hill. The cemetery was "badly smashed" and full "of overthrown monuments and broken tombstones lying on the ground." The war had exacted a heavy toll on Willis Hill.

Marks of the battle can still be seen on Willis Hill today. Douglas H. Gordon sold twelve acres of Willis Hill to the United States in 1868 for the creation of the National Cemetery. A home later built on the property belonged to a Civil War soldier who fought here during 2nd Fredericksburg. The old Willis Cemetery still bears many marks on its walls from the fighting in 1862 and 1863, and nearby stands the site of Captain Squires' gun pits now filled in.

The events that transpired on the grounds on Willis Hill are critical in the understanding the life and death struggle enacted here at Fredericksburg from 1862 to 1864, The invaluable terrain features preserved here and archaeological resources hidden here are the only tangible evidence left for students and scholars to understand what these soldiers sacrificed here during the Civil War.

For more information on visiting Fredericksburg Battlefield, click here.

For more information on the Battle of Fredericksburg, click here.

Willis Cemetery on Willis Heights
Willis Cemetery on Willis Hill

Last updated: July 11, 2015

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