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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



At the southern end of town Orlando Willcox hoped to draw some of the pressure off Humphreys by throwing George Getty's division at the bend in the Telegraph Road. Most of Getty's first brigade was also new to combat—one regiment had reached the army only four days previously. Even the officers advanced reluctantly, at least one of them willing the sun to sink and end the battle.

The horizon did blaze briefly orange through the sulphurous haze as they approached Marye's Heights, but in the twilight Southern gunners could still see well enough to rake the oncoming ranks after they passed the railroad cut. When the bright new flags veered diagonally toward the Sunken Road, the Georgians and Carolinians turned to greet them. Canister scattered the left flank of this column, rifles flamed at it from the front, and when nervous Federals near the millrace angled an errant volley into their backs the brigade melted and drained to the rear.

The second brigade of Getty's division did not attack, nor did Humphrey's renew his assault. As these last valiant endeavors had moved forward, Burnside received Franklin's 4:30 announcement that he had not found time to arrange an assault. In the two hours since Franklin had claimed he would "do his best" to cooperate with them, however, his counterparts on the right wing had thrown in three fresh divisions and launched three separate attacks. Between the darkness and Franklin's lethargy, Burnside knew he could do nothing more. The last uncommitted division on the right wing, U.S. Regulars under Brigadier General George Sykes, covered the withdrawal of Humphreys's battered division, and when the fighting ended Sykes counted more casualties from his defensive maneuver than Abner Doubleday suffered in his nominal support of Meade's attack. In further testimony to the poverty of Franklin's efforts, his entire Sixth Corps lost fewer men than ten of the seventeen brigades that charged the stone wall.

Samuel Sturgis, whose division lay directly beneath the muzzles of Cobbs and Kershaw's muskets, sent back a note at dark saying "our men only 80 paces from the crest & holding on like hell."

Despite the day's failures and a gloomy message from officers across the river, who predicted that infantry alone could never carry Marye's Heights, Burnside remained hopeful. Samuel Sturgis, whose division lay directly beneath the muzzles of the Confederate muskets, sent back a note at dark saying "our men only 80 paces from the crest & holding on like hell." Headquarters burned with determination—and in some cases with confidence—that evening, and Burnside stayed awake to plan another double assault to polish off the Confederates the next day.

That same night Lee made further preparations for the assault he thought likely. All along the Confederate line infantrymen pieced together little breastworks. Now that Lee knew Burnside meant business in front of Marye's Heights he directed his artillerymen to spend the night strengthening the lunettes for their guns: if the heights had been strong on December 13, they would be impregnable on December 14.

While the Confederates worked atop Marye's Heights, Union wounded below them wailed piteously. Bitterly cold air plagued them as well as thirst and pain, but few of them could be evacuated because the enemy lay so close. Their cries carried across the river, even to Burnside's headquarters.

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With sunlight fast disappearing, Humphreys's division advances past the Stratton House to attack the stone wall. Although approaching within 50 yards of the wall, it is repulsed by the Confederates who now stand six ranks deep in the Sunken Road. Getty attacks the southern end of the wall at dark with Hawkins's brigade, leaving Harland in reserve back at the railroad. Sykes's division takes position along the millrace from which it will advance at 11 P.M. to relieve Humphreys's division at the front.

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