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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



Sumner's troops lay, cold and a little nervous, in the crowded lee of the city's houses, which hid all but their pickets from the Confederates. A hard frost the previous night had robbed them of much of their sleep, but they could neither warm themselves nor even boil coffee, lest the smoke from their fires reveal their numbers and draw fire. Many who had wandered away from their commands the night before had not returned. After sleeping with muddy feet in the beds of absent citizens, they resumed rummaging through the homes, pilfering whatever they fancied and vandalizing what they pleased. At the bridgeheads stood growing mountains of property confiscated from those brazen skulkers who tried to carry their plunder to the rear.

According to the morning's orders the commander of the Second Corps, General Couch, had formed William French's division along Fredericksburg's outermost streets. French's three brigades consisted of thirteen regiments from every state between Connecticut and the Wabash, including Delaware and West Virginia. Most of them had seen the Peninsula and Maryland campaigns, but the four biggest regiments consisted of nine-month militia men from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.


Just beyond French's waiting lines the houses petered out and a broad plain opened, cut by a millrace that skirted the city's perimeter. Normally this waterway would have been full, but Federal engineers had partially closed the floodgate and drained the sluice somewhat. On the far side of the ditch the ground rose sharply, offering protection from enemy fire, and a quarter mile beyond that sat Marye's Heights and the sunken Telegraph Road. In that road crouched Thomas R. R. Cobb's Georgia brigade and the 24th North Carolina, their ranks hidden by the retaining wall. Another rank of Confederate infantry supported artillery that topped the crest, as well. William Street ran from the heart of the city toward the Sunken Road, passing beyond it to become the Orange Plank Road; Hanover Street paralleled it a couple of blocks to the south. The bridges on those streets and one other provided the only means of crossing the icy millrace, so when French received his final orders for the assault he filed his brigades across them. James Longstreet had spent nearly three weeks perfecting his defenses on Marye's Heights. Just before the battle he had spoken to his artillery chief about using an overlooked cannon, suggesting that he place it to bear on the broad plain behind the city. Years later Longstreet remembered that his artilleryman assured him that the plain was already closely covered, promising that "a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."


Shortly before noon Longstreet directed his gunners to begin dropping shells into the streets where he could see Union soldiers, hoping to create a diversion for Jackson's benefit. The moment he chose to open fire happened to be the same instant that French's skirmishers began jogging out of the city, with the dense, dark brigades following. Longstreet felt the sensation of having upset a beehive.

The skirmishers trotted across the ditch on one good bridge, but the boards of the other had been taken up and hundreds of men had to tiptoe across on the stringers. Meanwhile, shells from batteries on the heights began bursting in the ranks. Once across the ditch, French formed his first brigade under the protection of the long bluff, and when he gave the word nearly two thousand men surged grimly forward with rifles on their shoulders and bayonets fixed. A hail of shell burst immediately from the heights, blowing great gaps in the ranks, but the Federals pounded onward without pausing to fire a shot, hoping to close with the enemy quickly. Muddy ground sucked at wet brogans with every step the Yankees took. Their entire route lay uphill, with the grade worsening steadily. Heavy overcoats, equipment, and ammunition bore down on those winded Northerners, and occasionally they had to stop to tear down fences. All the while iron burst and flew about them, changing from shell to canister that swept their lines like gigantic shotgun blasts. The gasping, sweating survivors reached a second shelf of land a hundred yards from the Sunken Road, and here they lingered another moment.

Burnside supposed that the greatest impediments to his advance were those he could detect with his binoculars: the artillery on the heights and the unprotected second line of infantry. Although Burnside and many of his subordinates had sojourned in Falmouth and Fredericksburg the previous summer, no one seems to have counted on the millrace or the hundreds of riflemen hidden in the Sunken Road. As soon as French's leading brigadier waved his men over that last swale they were met by a blinding flash and a deafening din, as though they had been struck by a lightning bolt. Pale blue overcoats reeled, fell, and tumbled, and the whole line staggered, wavering like a ribbon in the wind. More crashing volleys drove them back to the swale, and that was as far as they would go. The brigadier, Nathan Kimball, quickly calculated that a quarter of his troops had already fallen; the survivors threw themselves down and started firing futilely into the cloud of smoke before them.

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At noon French leaves the town, forms his division in the shelter of the millrace, and advances to attack Marye's Heights. Kimball's brigade leads the attack, followed by Andrews and Palmer. They are stopped short of their objective by Cobb's infantry brigade in the Sunken Road and by the Washington Artillery on the heights. As the attacks develop, Cooke's brigade moves up to the crest of the ridge to support Cobb's men in the road below.

General Kimball glanced behind him in time to see the next brigade rise over the bluff and trot forward, heads bowed before the gale of canister. The script called for this next brigade, under Colonel James Andrews, to hang 150 yards behind Kimball, and when Andrews reached that distance he called a halt. He had but three regiments left (his own, the 1st Delaware, had gone in with the skirmishers), and as these Yankees stood to fire over their comrades' heads the Confederates rained iron and lead on their exposed position. Before long Colonel Andrews moved his men up to mingle with Kimball's in the meager cover of that last shallow swale. About then a bullet snatched General Kimball's right leg from under him.


At dawn the next morning, 13th, in the fresh and nipping air, I stepped upon the gallery overlooking the heights back of the little old-fashioned town of Fredericksburg. Heavy fog and mist hid the whole plain between the heights and the Rappahannock, but under cover of that fog and within easy cannon-shot lay Burnside's army. Along the heights, to the right and left of where I was standing, extending a length of nearly five miles, lay Lee's army.

The bugles and the drum corps of the respective armies were now sounding reveille, and the troops were preparing for their early meal. All knew we should have a battle today and a great one, for the enemy had crossed the river in immense force, upon his pontoons during the night. On the Confederate side all was ready, and the shock was awaited with stubborn resolution. Last night we had spread our blankets upon the bare floor in the parlor of Marye's house, and now our breakfast was being prepared in its fireplace, and we were impatient to have it over. After hastily dispatching this light meal of bacon and corn-bread, the colonel, chief bugler, and I (the adjutant of the battalion) mounted our horses and rode out to inspect our lines . . . .

At 12 o'clock the fog had cleared, and while we were sitting in Marye's yard smoking our pipes, after a lunch of hard crackers, a courier came to Colonel Walton, bearing a dispatch from General Longstreet for General Cobb, but, for our information as well, to be read and then given to him. It was as follows: "Should General Anderson, on your left, be compelled to fall back to the second line of heights, you must conform to his movements." Descending the hill into the sunken road, I made my way through the troops, to a little house where General Cobb had his headquarters, and handed him the dispatch. He read it carefully, and said, "Well! if they wait for me to fall back, they will wait a long time."


Hardly had he spoken, when a brisk skirmish fire was heard in front, toward the town, and looking over the stone wall we saw our skirmishers falling back, firing as they came: at the same time the head of a Federal column was seen emerging from one of the streets of the town. They came on at the double-quick, with loud cries of "Hi! Hi! Hi!" which we could distinctly hear. Their arms were carried at "right shoulder shift," and their colors were aslant the shoulders of the color-sergeants. They crossed the canal at the bridge, and getting behind the bank to the low ground to deploy, were almost concealed from our sight. It was 12:30 p.m., and it was evident that we were now going to have it hot and heavy.

How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel.

The enemy, having deployed, now showed himself above the crest of the ridge and advanced in columns of brigades, and at once our guns began their deadly work with shell and solid shot. How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel. The very force of their onset leveled the broad fences bounding the small fields and gardens that interspersed the plain. We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps; but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us. Now we gave them canister and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their rifle barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advance brigade. This was too much; the column hesitated, and then, turning, took refuge behind the bank.

But another line appeared from behind the crest and advanced gallantly, and again we opened our guns upon them, and through the smoke we could discern the red breeches of the "Zouaves," and hammered away at them especially. But this advance, like the preceding one, although passing the point reached by the first column, and doing and daring all that brave men could do, recoiled under our canister and the bullets of the infantry in the road, and fell back in great confusion. Spotting the fields in our front, we could detect little patches of blue—the dead and wounded of the Federal infantry who had fallen facing the very muzzles of our guns.

Cooke's brigade of Ransom's division was now placed in the sunken road with Cobb's men. At 2 p.m. other columns of the enemy left the crest and advanced to the attack; it appeared to us that there was no end of them. On they came in beautiful array and seemingly more determined to hold the plain than before; but our fire was murderous, and no troops on earth could stand the feu d'enfer we were giving them. In the forermost line we distinguished the green flag with the golden harp of old Ireland, and we knew it to be Meagher's Irish brigade. The gunners of the two rifle pieces . . . were directed to turn their guns against this column; but the gallant enemy pushed on beyond all former charges, and fought and left their dead within five and twenty paces of the sunken road . . . .

The sharp-shooters having got range of our embrasures, we began to suffer. Corporal Ruggles fell mortally wounded, and Perry, who seized the rammer as it fell from Ruggles's hand, received a bullet in the arm. Rodd was holding "vent," and away went his "crazy bone." In quick succession Everett, Rossiter, and Kursheedt were wounded. Falconer in passing in rear of the guns was struck behind the ear and fell dead. We were now so short-handed that every one was in the work, officers and men putting their shoulders to the wheels and running up the guns after each recoil. The frozen ground had given way and was all slush and mud. We were compelled to call upon the infantry to help us at the guns. Eshleman crossed over from the right to report his guns nearly out of ammunition; the other officers reported the same. They were reduced to a few solid shot only. It was now 5 o'clock, p.m., and there was a lull in the storm. The enemy did not seem inclined to renew his efforts, so our guns were withdrawn one by one, and the batteries of Woolfolk and Moody were substituted . . . .

After withdrawing from the hill the command was placed in bivouac, and the men threw themselves upon the ground to take a much-needed rest. We had been under the hottest fire men ever experienced for four hours and a half, and our loss had been three killed and twenty-four wounded . . . . One gun was slightly disabled, and we had exhausted all of our canister, shell and case shot, and nearly every solid shot in our chests. At 5:30 another attack was made by the enemy, but it was easily repulsed, and the battle of Fredericksburg was over, and Burnside was baffled and defeated.

William Miller Owen,
"A Hot Day on Marye's Heights."



Next morning, December 13th, the city was enveloped in a heavy fog, which did not lift, if my recollection is clear, until ten o'clock or later. As far as we could see in either direction stood a continuous line of soldiers in readiness to start to the field of action. Mounted officers and orderlies were continually passing back and forth along the lines, while some of the regimental officers and privates, tired of standing in the ranks, dropped out and sought a seat upon the curb or a near-by door step. Among those who had taken a resting place was a surgeon, upon whose face I noticed was depicted an intense feeling of sadness. Perhaps he could not help it, for we all knew that some of us would soon be badly wounded if not instantly killed. Yet this solemn fact did not make all men gloomy. The most lively fellows mimicked the whizzing noise of an occasional round shot or shell in its arched flight high over the housetops, or cracked jokes with their comrades. . . .

Presently is heard the command, "Attention!". Every lounger springs to his place. We are ordered to prime. Every musket is raised and every man caps his piece. Our Colonel made some remarks, telling us to shoot low and try to wound a man in preference to killing him. Noticing a red colored scarf about my neck, he ordered me to take it off, saying it would make a good target for the enemy. The scarf disappeared. Suspense is intense. Finally, the long-expected, much-dreaded command, "Forward!" is passed from officer to officer standing at the head of their Companies. With an ominous silence akin to a funeral procession, General Kimball began the perilous march down Caroline street. Reaching what I will call Railroad avenue, the column filed to the right and out that thoroughfare to begin the attack. I think I am telling the plain truth when I say that during that short march many of those men silently offered up to the Almighty their last prayer on earth. Our regiment was about to receive its first baptism of fire, and every one knew it.

. . . Shells and solid shot from the enemy's heavy guns now came crashing through brick walls and pounded in the street around about us. The first wounded man I saw was hurrying down the sidewalk with one hand pressed against a wound in his breast, inquiring for a hospital.

At the edge of the town we passed General Kimball facing us, in his saddle, who addressed his men in these words, which I never forgot:

"Cheer up, my hearties! cheer up! This is something we must all get used to. Remember, this brigade has never been whipped, and don't let it be whipped today."

"Cheer up, my hearties! cheer up! This is something we must all get used to. Remember, this brigade has never been whipped, and don't let it be whipped today."

No wild hurrah went up in response. Every face wore an expression of seriousness and dread . . . .

. . . A few steps further and we are out of the town, in the open fields, in full view of the enemy. While the brigade is coming into position, at double-quick, to assault the Confederate fortifications around Marye's Heights, the artillerymen on the summit are turning their guns upon us, and with effect. To facilitate our progress in the charge, haversacks and blankets are now thrown away. The company commanders shout sharply to their men to keep the regiments in line as they advance to the attack. Screeching like demons in the air, solid shot, shrapnel and shells from the batteries on the hills strike the ground in front of us, behind us, and cut gaps in the ranks. See there! A field officer has been struck by one of the missiles and a couple of men who have raised him to his feet are calling loudly for more help to get him off the field. As the line advances up the slope, men wounded and dead drop from the ranks.

It is not every man that can face danger like this. I saw a few so overcome by fear that they fell prostrate upon the ground as if dead. I have seen men drop upon their knees and pray loudly for deliverance, when courage and bravery, not supplication, was the duty of the moment.

Hark! There's one of my comrades, Johnny Brayerton, praying, too, perhaps for the first time in his life. It was a short one:

"Oh, Lord, dear, good Lord!" he cried.

But Johnny at that trying moment was as brave as he was devout, and kept his place in the front rank. Not a gun was fired . . . until the brigade reached the crest of the hill, when, like a burst of thunder, the roar of musketry became almost deafening. It seemed to me every soldier, after firing his piece, had thrown himself flat upon the ground to avoid the enemy's bullets, and I did not see how I could possibly load and fire by lying down in that crouching column of men. To stand up boldly along that firing line—the dead line—was almost certain death, so I ran to a blacksmith shop some distance to my right, where, with a number of other soldiers who had taken refuge there, we banged away at the rebels; but they were so securely and safely entrenched behind a great stone wall, that I believe every man in the firing line felt that there was not hope of a victory . . . .


The little frame building from which we were firing was by no means bullet-proof, yet we felt much safer there than standing out in full view of the enemy. Down goes one of our party, shot through the head.

I know not for what reason, but I stopped firing a few moments, and stood over the lifeless form of the unknown soldier with a sort of fascination, wondering who he could be; wondering what mother's boy had been added to the roll of the dead . . . .

"There they come!" some one shouted, and looking back toward the city, we saw another long line of reinforcements charging up the slope. Lustily they were cheered as they advanced, and I noticed a wounded man sitting upon the ground waving his cap and cheering with the rest. Until nightfall, brigade after brigade charged across that field of death, to the dead-line, only to suffer disaster and defeat.

I see a regiment charging up the slope towards the stone wall opposite the Stephens' house. A large white dog is capering and leaping ahead of the column. My eyes follow another brigade advancing across the plain. They are veterans. The line keeps well dressed, but the men are bending as low as they can travel, and the color-bearers trailing their flags on the ground. Those heroic men are trying to avoid the Confederate bullets, but many in the ranks never took part in another fight. Here comes a regiment charging right towards us, advancing as orderly as if on dress parade. The cool conduct of their Colonel attracted the attention of a few, and some cried out:

"That's the way for a Colonel to bring in his men."

Some of the boys were jolly and laughing when they passed us, in close column, by the blacksmith shop, out of sight. See! some of them are already returning—I mean those that are wounded—to secure shelter along with us in front of the building. Two stalwart fellows came around the corner, dragging their dying Colonel riddled with bullets. That regiment must have been literally cut to pieces . . . .

A bullet crashed through the shop, throwing a splinter into the face of a man standing near. He cursed in hot anger and left the spot. From the blacksmith shop I hurriedly returned along the firing line to the red brick house, near which we opened fire in the assault . . . . General Kimball's brigade held its position at the firing-line until relieved, but even then the men could not safely retire. The only alternative was to lie at full length upon the ground, skulk into or behind neighboring buildings, or, at much greater risk of being shot down, withdraw to the rear. While at the brick house, looking around about me upon the awful scene of carnage, a bullet grazed my head. I watched a brigade charge up the slope, close to our left, but the brave men, unable to withstand the withering fire, soon fell back in disorder, followed by soldiers who had been at the dead-line since the first attack by Kimball's men. With a number of others, in the mixed throng collected in front of the brick building, the writer withdrew from the field. All the way down the slope to the edge of the town I saw my fellow-soldiers dropping on every side, in their effort to get out of the reach of the murderous fire from the Confederate infantry securely entrenched behind the long stone wall and the batteries on the heights. I saw a shell explode, close to the heels of a large man fleeing for his life. He was blown clear from the ground, falling in a heap, frightfully mangled. A little further on, another unfortunate fellow was lying on the ground, in a violent death struggle. At the edge of the town, two men were helping off the field a badly-wounded comrade, who was cursing in a frenzy of anger and vowing vengeance upon the rebels. A couple of stretcher carriers were carrying to the hospital a man with both legs shot away. It was a sickening sight. Scenes such as I have described made a lasting impression upon my memory.

Benjamin Borton,
"On the Parallels"

French's third brigade stormed over the rise a few minutes later, but the halt to maintain parade-ground intervals broke the momentum of those three regiments as well, and they finally plodded forward and shouldered into line with their predecessors. They knelt or lay in the muddy swale or bid behind the cluster of buildings in the fork of Hanover Street and the Telegraph Road, shooting ineffectually at the heights above them. Most of their rounds scattered into the embankment behind the Southern riflemen, whose eyes and muzzles alone peered over the stone wall, presenting a long, bright blade of fire that flayed the fat Federal line. French's assault was over.

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