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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



The December sun drooped near the crest of Marye's Heights as Hooker reentered Fredericksburg and directed Andrew A. Humphreys to lead his division against the stone wall. Humphreys—a short, graying brigadier who had attended West Point with Robert E. Lee—commanded two brigades of Pennsylvanians, most of whom were nine-month militiamen. None of his eight regiments had ever seen action before.

In front sprawled Howard's prone survivors, pinned behind their own shallow terrace but this stretch of the Union front offered the least conngestion: a short way to the left, the refuse of broken divisions lay six on eight brigades deep.

Humphreys hurried ahead of his foremost brigade as it trotted out of town into the same maelstrom that had tattered earlier divisions. Over the bridges they marched, filing to the right into columns of assault under the shelter of the millrace bluff. Humphreys tried to work his formation to the right, to flank that part of the Confederate line that had been thrown forward to the stone wall salient, but the millrace and canal barred their passage there. The guidons on the right of Humphreys's line did not pass beyond William Street. In front sprawled Howard's prone survivors, pinned behind their own shallow terrace, but this stretch of the Union front offered the least congestion: a short way to the left, the refuse of broken divisions lay six or eight brigades deep.

Up at the stone wall, Joseph Kershaw had succeeded the dying Cobb, and Kershaw's South Carolina brigade had reinforced Cobb's Georgians. Confederate marksmen filled the Sunken Road, eagerly awaiting new targets though their ranks had jumbled as hopelessly as those of the Yankees who lay before them. Kershaw's brigade once included a lieutenant named A. W. Burnside—one of the Federal commander's South Carolina cousins.


General Humphreys kneed his horse and pointed his sword, leading his first two thousand rifles over the bluff in double lines of two regiments each. They jogged bravely forward with canister ripping their ranks, but the first deafening crash of musketry struck them just as they reached Howard's frayed line and most of them dove to the ground. Humphreys galloped frantically about, exposing himself recklessly as he tried to shout above the din. With a herculean effort he convinced his hapless novitiates to stand up in the deadly storm and dress ranks for a bayonet charge. Thousands of bullets had thinned the brigade fearfully, though, and those who dared to press forward were too few to challenge the wall. A battery to their right belched canister the length of their line, and the musketry only intensified until they turned back to the swale.

His horse had been killed under him, but the undaunted Humphreys borrowed a courier's mount and rode back to the bluff, where he gave his other brigade a hasty lesson in military tactics. If they did not stop to fire, he told them, but merely sprinted past the prone brigades toward the wall, they could leap in among the enemy and drive them off with the bayonet before they lost too many men. The promiscuous masses behind them would rise up and follow, and the day would be won. That sort of thinking had cost the British dearly at Bunker Hill, and the extra range of rifled muskets only worsened the odds, but such brutal tricks still worked now and then: a different brigade led by the same man who commanded this one, Frastus B. Tyler, had successfully charged another stone wall at Kernstown the previous March, giving Stonewall Jackson his only defeat.

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In an effort to weaken the Confederate line, Couch orders Hazard's battery to the front to shell Marye's Heights at close range, where it is soon joined by Frank's battery. Griffin meanwhile attacks the stone wall head-on, supported on his left by Carroll's brigade of Whipple's division. Getty and Humphreys move into position to join the assault. On the Confederate side, two of Kershaw's regiments, the 3rd and 7th South Carolina, take position on the hillcrest near the Marye house, while Kemper's brigade hurries forward from Lee's Hill to reinforce the 24th Georgia. The Washington Artillery runs out of ammunition on Marye's Heights and is replaced by guns of Alexander's battalion.

Once again Humphreys posted himself alongside the brigade commander and spurred his horse over the bluff, followed by 2,200 Pennsylvanians. They, too, leaned resolutely into the firestorm, but as they neared the firing line their comrades shouted that it was no use, waving them down, begging them to take cover, and tugging at their cuffs and coattails. Enough of the column succumbed to these pleas to shatter the collective momentum. Those brave enough to surmount that last deadly little shelf quickly fell or turned back. Humphreys lost his second horse, mounted a third, and motioned the brigade back to the millrace bluff to consolidate its thinned and jumbled formation.

"No campaign in the world ever saw a more gallant advance than Humphreys's men made there," said Joe Hooker.

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