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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



At his headquarters in the Phillips house, on high ground about a mile from the river, Burnside rose early on the morning of December 13 to dictate orders for his grand division commanders. He chose James A. Hardie, a staff brigadier and a West Point classmate of Franklin's, to carry the instructions for the left wing commander. Burnside asked Hardie to remain with Franklin during the day and telegraph news of his progress frequently. Hardie took the orders at 6:00 A.M., guiding his horse over a glaze of ice and mud.

Franklin's orders directed him to position his entire command "for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road" adding that he should "send out at once a division at least to pass below Smithfield and seize, if possible, the height near Captain Hamilton's, on this side of the Massaponax, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. At the tail of the order Burnside alluded to holding Franklin's main body "in readiness to move at once, as soon as the fog lifts."


The written orders therefore suggested that Franklin's assault on Prospect Hill should commence immediately, in the fog, while the balance of the Left Grand Division should wait until visibility improved. Apparently Burnside intended to capture that dangerous concentration of cannon under cover of the fog, surprising the gunners before they could do much damage; by then the mists would probably have begun to dissipate, and Franklin could see where he was going with the rest of his wing. So, too, would Lee be able to witness Franklin's flank movement, which might convince him to shift troops from Marye's Heights.

Burnside and Franklin had discussed the battle plan the previous evening, and perhaps Burnside depended too heavily on Franklin's apparent comprehension of his wishes. But Franklin later claimed that, when Hardie arrived with the formal orders, sometime after seven o'clock, they contradicted his understanding of the plan: Franklin insisted he had been slated to launch an all-out assault on Lee's right, while the orders seemed to reduce his role to a diversion. For all his future complaints about the clarity of his orders, however, he asked no questions about them that morning, and within half an hour of Hardie's arrival Franklin had chosen George G. Meade's division of Pennsylvanians to lead the assault.

On the right, Burnside sent Sumner orders to attack Marye's Heights by way of the Telegraph and Orange Plank roads. With his penchant for understatement Burnside also told Sumner to begin his assault with "a division or more," though the artillery arrayed on the heights obviously called for more, but Burnside asked Sumner to hold off on the movement until he joined him at his headquarters.

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Burnside is ready to attack. Franklin's grand division is massed around the Bernard mansion, "Mannsfield," two miles below Fredericksburg, while the troops of Sumner's grand division form ranks in the streets of the town. Hooker's troops remain on the east side of the river, ready to go where needed. Lee, meanwhile, has contracted his tine, drawing Longstreet's corps to the left of Deep Run to make room for Jackson's corps, which arrives on December 12-13, and takes position on the right. Two brigades of Stuart's cavalry guard the Confederate right, near Massaponax Creek.

Franklin proved woefully unfamiliar with the lay of the land in front of him. The Richmond Stage Road followed the river for a couple of miles beyond Franklin's headquarters and a mile past the plantation known as Smithfield, whereupon it veered south, around Hamilton's Crossing. Two other roads branched off in that direction before that point, however, and these appear to have confused both Franklin and Burnside. In an earlier order Burnside had described Franklin's route as "down the Richmond road, in the direction of the railroad," but the stage road ran parallel to the railroad all along the front here, even after the turn at Hamilton's Crossing. Evidently Burnside mistook the Mine Road—the second of those right turns—for the stage road, for that road did cross the railroad at Hamilton's. (On his map of the battle a division commander on Franklin's front labeled that the Bowling Green Road, which was another name for the Richmond Stage Road.) An assault by Franklin's command on both sides of this road might have been quite effective, but Franklin erred even further, choosing the first road to the right. This was little more than a local farm lane that turned from the stage road abreast of Smithfield—rather than below Smithfield, as Burnside had instructed. Nor did this lane flank the position at Hamilton's Crossing; instead, it ran head-on into Stonewall Jackson's infantry.

It was nine o'clock before Meade deployed his division. He commanded fifteen regiments, most of them veteran Pennsylvania Reserves who had fought from the outset of the war, and that morning the three brigades brought about 6,500 rifles to bear. After reaching the erroneous turn Franklin had indicated, Meade called for pioneers to chop passageways through the thick hedges that bordered the highway, and he asked for engineers to fill the deep ditches, so artillery might follow him. All of that done, he arranged two of his brigades in columns of attack three hundred yards apart and turned the third perpendicular to these two, facing his vulnerable left flank. Even as he moved out, the last stragglers of D. H. Hill's division dropped, breathless, alongside their comrades behind Hamilton's Crossing. Had Franklin followed the route Burnside intended, he would have run right into these exhausted troops. Jackson's corps was now completely reunited, and his 39,000 men lay four and five brigades deep along the final mile and a half of that forested ridge. J. E. B. Stuart extended the Confederate right toward the Massaponax with two brigades of cavalry.



Meade had no more than begun his advance when shells started dropping into the ranks from his left and rear. Under John Pelham, the 24-year-old major commanding Stuart's horse artillery, two Confederate guns had ranged ahead from Stuart's line to pester the Federal assault. Pelham's shells raked Meade's first two brigades, leaving the Pennsylvanian no choice but to deal with the irksome brace before continuing. Skinnishers trotted out from Meade's perpendicular brigade and Union artillery turned against Pelham's pair of cannon, but the young major kept his guns moving between rounds, preventing the Yankees from finding his range. His sporadic fire nonetheless kept Meade motionless for more than an hour and Pelham still blazed away with one gun after the other was disabled, but finally Stuart ordered him to bring the surviving piece back to safety. With Jackson's defensive line complete, there seemed no point in delaying the enemy further.



Meade's corps commander, John E. Reynolds, offered him what support he could by throwing Abner Doubleday's division just below Smithfield to bar any assault along the stage road and by posting John Gibbon's division to Meade's right and rear. Meade would bear the brunt of the effort, though, and once the adjoining units had reached their positions he started forward.

When they stepped off again, Meade's men encountered a soggy lowland just before the railroad. The marshy ground broadened out beyond the tracks, where accumulated runoff from the ridge offered uncomfortable passage in the December cold. Not wishing to subject his own men to a position in the bog, and doubting the enemy could traverse it, A. P. Hill had allowed a six-hundred-yard gap between the front-line brigades of James H. Lane and James J. Archer. As luck would have it, that is precisely where Meade's attack struck, and the Pennsylvanians waded deep into Confederate lines before they met much resistance. The third brigade swung behind Archer's, gobbling up scores of Georgians and Tennesseeans and driving three of Archer's regiments out of their rude breastworks. Meade's leading brigade wheeled to the right, causing even greater trouble among Lane's North Carolinians, while the other Keystone brigade rolled straight ahead into the void. It was beginning to look to Meade as though his assault might succeed despite mistakes and delays, but the general could not see the three lines of Confederates that lay in the woods beyond.


Among the Union soldiers attacking Stonewall Jackson's line was a young Pennsylvanian named Jacob Heffelfinger. In the following diary passage, written while the battle still raged, Heffelfinger describes the Union army's initial success at Prospect Hill and its ultimate repulse.

4 1/2 P.M.—The battle has raged fiercely today. The rebels occupy an advantageous position. Our troops are on an open plain, while they occupy a ridge in our front, and are sheltered by dense wood but about 1 1/2 P.M. one part of the line made a forward movement, our division, as usual, taking the advance. This was a fearful movement. We left the field over which we advanced, thickly strewn with our dead and wounded. We drove the rebels from their position in the rail-road cut at the edge of the wood. On entering the woods our line was thrown into confusion by a misunderstanding of orders, but our men pushed on boldly and reached the summit of the hill. During the confusion I received a shot through both legs, completely disabling me. Our men were soon after attacked by the enemy in heavy force, and being weakened by the great slaughter in our ranks while advancing, and wholly without support they were driven back over me in disorder. All that we gained at so fearful a cost is lost. I am still lying where I fell. The rebels have advanced a line over me, so that I am a prisoner. I am now exposed to the fire of our artillery which is fearfully destructive. Death has been doing fearful work today.

Jacob Heffelfinger,
7th Pennsylvania Reserve



A soldier in the Pee Dee Artillery of South Carolina wrote his father the night of the battle, describing his experiences in repelling the Union attack at Prospect Hill.

DECEMBER 13, 1862 -


I promised to write you immediately after the fight. All day yesterday we lay in position. Today I have been in the hottest fight I have ever heard of. From ten o'clock this morning till an hour or two since shot and shell, and Minie balls, having been perfectly hailing around me. All the other fights crowded into one would hardly make anything to be compared to today's fight. Our battery has lost three men killed and sixteen wounded, eighteen or twenty horse, one limber and one caisson blown up, and one gun disabled . . . . A piece of shell went through my coat sleeve; it stung a little. A Minie ball went through the ramrod, and it or a splinter struck me on the head. I was by the gun looking at the Yankees when a great piece of shell, big as my two fists, came along and knocked a spoke out of the wheel, and it or a piece of the spoke, or something else, hit me square in the breast. I did not know whether I was mortally wounded or not, but after a while I opened my shirt, and found that the skin was not bruised. I saw a piece of shell go a "kiting" by my leg, missing it an inch or two. That is only a few of the narrow escapes that I made today. The trees around our guns were literally torn to pieces and the ground plowed up. I have been several times covered with dirt, and had it knocked in my eyes and mouth . . . .


We were posted on a chain of hills. Just in the edge of the woods before us was a wide level plain extending to the river, some three or five miles wide. I could see fully half the whole Yankee army, reserves and all. It was a grand sight seeing them come in position this morning; but it seemed that that host would eat us up any how. I felt uneasy until I saw Gen. Lee, and right behind him the "Old Stonewall," riding up and down our lines, looking at the foe as cooly and calmly as if they were only going to have a general muster. The Yankee batteries came into position beautifully, and commenced shelling the woods we were in. It was hard to take it, but we had strict orders not to fire. Their infantry advanced in beautiful order. When one thousand yards distant we poured a perfect storm of shell into them from fifty or one hundred guns, but on they came. Our infantry was too much for them they had to leave. Oh! it did me good to see the rascals run; but here comes a fresh line. Far as the eye can reach the line extends. They have the fate of their predecessors, but another new line advances. I had been uneasy, perhaps scared before, but now had death or defeat been offered me I would have taken the former. Some of our bravest were down . . . . Pegram's men (a Virginia battery stationed by our side on the right) had left their guns. Capt. Pegram wrapped his battle flag around him, walking up and down among his deserted guns. It was a time to test a man's courage. Our cannon flamed and roared, and the roar of musketry was terrific. The foe halts, wavers and flies. We double charging our gun, pour the canister among them. As they get out of range of that we send them an occasional shell to help them on. "Cease firing!" What means that yell to the right. No one answers, nor do we need an answer, for our gallant boys are seen pouring from the woods, double quicking on the charge. On they go, (Gregg's brigade leading) nearly up to the Yankee batteries. How my heart did beat then. My hat couldn't stay on my head. I would have hollered if I had been killed for it the next minute, simply because I couldn't help it.

Affectionately yours,

Published in the Charleston Daily Courier, December 30, 1862


Before long, however, Meade's onrushing riflemen discovered the first of those Confederates in the forest. Maxcy Gregg's five South Carolina regiments lay resting in the new military road Burnside sought, their arms stacked at Gregg's insistence to avoid an accidental volley into the backs of the front-line brigades. The collision surprised the Pennsylvanians almost as much as the recumbent South Carolinians, but the Yankees leveled a furious fire and scattered the first regiment while the rest of Gregg's men ran for their weapons. Gregg, who was forty-eight and rather deaf, thought they had fallen into the tragic error he had most feared: he anticipated that no enemy would burst out of the woods unless retreating Confederates preceded them, so he rode into his troops to stop the firing. Galloping about in full regalia, he drew a flurry of Union fire and fell from the saddle with a bullet in the spine while his fleeing men streamed past him.


That was Meade's high-water mark. The survivors of Gregg's brigade rallied, and two brigades from nearby divisions came to their assistance—including the one that had won Stonewall Jackson his nickname seventeen months before. That blunted the Pennsylvanians' momentum and a Georgia brigade filed down to confront Meade's right-hand regiments. Artillery on Prospect Hill began to harry Meade's third brigade, on his left, while six regiments of Georgians and Virginians groped through the brush to contend with that side of the breach. Meade directed his brigadier on the left, Conrad E. Jackson, to work his way uphill until he could swing behind the troublesome guns and capture them, but General Jackson was killed just as he began the movement. His men advanced a little farther without him, coming to a halt when the Confederate reinforcements stalled the leading brigadier.

The Pennsylvanians shot it out with nearly twice their number while thousands more Southerners stood ready to take them on if they came any farther. Yet Franklin never dispatched a man from Doubleday's division to Meade's assistance, and Gibbon's division made no progress at all on Meade's right, where it faced the three regiments of Lane's brigade that Meade had not scattered and other Southern units on Lane's left. Gibbon wasted his strength in three piecemeal attacks on the railroad embankment, and one after the other his first two brigades fell apart. The third barely reached the tracks, but Gibbon could go no farther because no one had advanced to protect his right flank: the nearest friendly troops lounged half a mile behind him. All or part of five other Union divisions—upwards of 40,000 officers and men—lay within a mile of Meade's fight, but despite an appeal for help the only practical assistance Meade received came from fewer than two thousand men in Gibbon's surviving brigade.


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After an hour-long artillery duel, Meade's division goes forward, penetrating a 600 yard gap in A.P. Hill's line. Lane's right flank is turned, while Gregg's and Archer's brigades are driven back. Gibbon advances to support Meade on the right, engaging a portion of Lane's brigade at the railroad, while Doubleday's division move downriver to secure the intersection recently vacated by Pelham. Smith's Sixth Corps remains quietly in position near the bridgehead, while Birney's division of Hooker's grand division crosses the river and moves up in rear of Meade.

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Meade's men began to run out of ammunition. More than a quarter of his division lay dead or wounded now, while the Confederate ranks kept swelling, and finally the Pennsylvanians began backing out of their hard-fought forest. The retreat quickly degenerated into a rout, though, with men running pell-mell for the rear. Gibbon's last brigade helped discourage Confederate pursuit for a time, but then it fled, too. One of David Birney's Third Corps brigades came up to cover the retreat, and a couple of Birney's regiments fanned out in an unsuccessful attempt to stay Meade's fugitives. Birney's men could only fill the void left by their frantic comrades, who did not stop until they had crossed the stage road. A Confederate counterattack dogged the shattered Federal line, taking up whole companies of Meade's lagging troops, but a point-blank blast from First Corps artillery and a steady fire from Birney's infantry stopped it.

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Jackson counters Meade's attack by advancing Early's and Taliaferro's divisions. Disorganized, tired, and outnumbered, Meade's men fall back to the railroad and then to the Bernard house, where they reform. Atkinson's brigade pursues Meade onto the plain but quickly retires to the railroad when confronted by Birney's division and by Union artillery fire. After briefly securing a lodgement along the railroad, Gibbon too must fall back and reform near the Bernard house.

It was now two o'clock. Like many of his senior officers, Meade felt he could have broken the Southern line with support from available troops, and he burst into General Reynolds's headquarters, raging over the failure to send him timely assistance. For three hours, though, William Franklin had been feeding James Hardie encouraging information to send to Burnside, including the news that the enemy was gathering for an attack on the Federals' extreme left. Supposing, perhaps, that Lee had begun swinging his strength to the southern end of his line, Burnside took that good news as his cue for launching Sumner's attack.

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