December 13th, 1862

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Dec 132012
 

At 8:30 AM, 150 years ago today, George Meade’s division of the Union I corps advanced towards the RF&P railroad. This was to be the only successful Union attack on a day cursed, once again, by incompetence at the highest levels of command.

The Union Army marched towards disaster. The delay in bringing up the pontoons, and the failure of Burnside’s attempts to find alternative crossing points, had given the Army of Northern Virginia time to develop a very strong position. On the left, Longstreet’s First Corps had entrenched on Marye’s Heights outside the city, with the river guarding their flank. Several batteries of artillery had fortified themselves in gun pits on the heights, while infantrymen under Thomas R.R. Cobb had formed up behind a stone wall that would give the Federals much grief. Longstreet was protecting a long line, but the defensive position was formidable enough to make up for the lack of numbers at any given point.

The Second Corps under Jackson occupied Prospect Hill to the south. His position was still strong, but not dominant. Jackson therefore concentrated his forces, both to be better able to repel an attack and so that he could protect his flank, which was not anchored to anything. However, the disposition of his forces had a flaw. There was a gap in A.P. Hill’s line about 600 yards wide between the brigades of James Lane and James Archer, a wetland that Hill judged would be difficult for an organized force to penetrate. To protect the spot, he placed Maxcy Gregg’s brigade behind it, while the artillery established a crossfire in front.

Ambros Burnside: Completely incompetent, but had some awesome facial hair (via Wikimedia Commons)

Ambrose Burnside had organized the Army of the Potomac into three grand divisions under Edwin Sumner, William Franklin, and Joseph Hooker. Franklin, one of George McClellan’s adherents, had crossed the Rappahannock on the 12th and positioned the I and VI Corps south of town. Sumner had also crossed, placing the II and IX Corps in the city. Hooker remained across the river with the III and V Corps.

Burnside’s initial plan, as far as anyone can tell, called for Franklin, with Hooker supporting, to attack south of the city while Sumner demonstrated against Longstreet’s position. However, Burnside’s orders on the 12th were confusing, and Burnside’s reticence and other delays prevented Franklin from receiving his orders until 7:30 AM on the 13th. Burnside sent the orders late, the telegraphed orders did not arrive promptly, and the courier took longer still. When the orders did arrive, they were poorly written and so confusing (thanks in part to mis-labeled maps) that Franklin became convinced he was the diversion. Accordingly, he ordered John Reynolds to attack with one division from the I Corps. He chose George Meade, supported by John Gibbon.

Meade’s attack ran into trouble quickly, as a single cannon commanded by John Pelham, of Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery, opened fire on his lines as he marched forward. Pelham had advanced the cannon to a low spot less than 500 yards from the advancing Federals. The position was sheltered by mist and blocked by hedges, making both direct attack and counter-battery fire difficult. He enfiladed the Union line for almost an hour before retreating at 11 AM.

At last Meade’s “demonstration” got underway, and he marched almost immediately into the crossfire that Jackson’s artillerists had devised. Only a protracted bombardment from the Union forces pushed the Confederate cannon away. Meade’s attack then bogged down at the RF&P Railroad, as his men used the embankment for cover while trading fire with the Confederates. Unfortunately, these events uncovered the gap in front of Gregg, without giving him any warning that it had happened.

Shortly, Meade’s forces began entering the woods, although Hill ultimately was correct that no organized force could attack there. Regiments from multiple brigades charged into the forest and began hacking their way through it, but no brigade commanders went with them. Regiments, many without the commanders they’d had at the start of the day, began to operate independently. Almost by accident, they blundered into Gregg’s flank. Confused and unaware of the approaching Federals, Gregg feared his men were firing at other Confederate troops. As he tried to restrain them, a Union bullet pierced his spine. He would die within days. Meanwhile, his brigade was slaughtered and routed as the Federal regiments rolled up his flank.

Confederate forces in the area began to find themselves assaulted by federals on all sides as the leaderless attack flanked its enemies almost by accident. Soon Gibbon forced Lane back, and a rout there was only staved off by a valiant and costly counterattack by Clark Avery’s 33rd North Carolina regiment. This left both Gibbon’s and Meade’s forces in excellent position, but disorganized and very low on ammunition. Support would need to come soon.

This became a problem. The nearest force available was the division of David Birney, from the III Corps. He declined Meade’s request for aid unless and said he would not move without orders from Reynolds. But Reynolds could not be found. Meade, who technically outranked many of the Army of the Potomac’s Corps commanders, was incensed. Meade was famous for his temper, and it would cost him later in the war. On this occasion he rode to chew out Birney himself, before ordering the unfortunate junior general forward under his own responsibility. By then, however, it was too late.

With Gibbon bogged down trying to get his forces organized and supported again, Lane had found time to regroup. Meanwhile, Jubal Early had realized the danger Meade’s troops posed and organized a counterattack. Disorganized, exhausted and almost out of bullets, the Union troops were easily pushed out of the woods by Early’s men. The attack swept Meade’s force back to the railroad, then surged over it. Everything the I Corps had gained had now been lost. However, the Confederates also stretched out too far, and Edmund Atkinson’s brigade suffered heavy losses as it tried to push the Federals back. Fighting Gibbon, Edward Thomas was more prudent, and stopped his pursuit as soon as his ammunition started to run low.

By 2:30 PM, most of the fighting had ceased on this side of the battlefield, with the positions of the armies little changed. Men would continue to die on this side of the field, though, as gunpowder sparks touched off a grass fire that burned many of the wounded alive.

On the other side of the battlefield, however, the slaughter would continue for a long time. James Longstreet and his artillery chief E. Porter Alexander had combined sheltered, carefully-sighted artillery and infantry protected by a chest-high stone wall and sunken road to create a kill-zone in the open area outside of the town. Union troops emerging from Fredericksburg into the open would have to cross 400 yards of ground extensively covered by artillery, plunging through a partially-drained stream and crossing several fences. Those who made it through the cannonade would then face muskets protected behind the stone wall.

During the course of the day, Longstreet’s forces would optimize the arrangement further — the best shooters would stand closest to the wall, supported by teams of two or three who would load muskets for them. This kept the pace of fire very high and deadly.

Cobb's troops at the stone wall. (A.C. Redwood, via Library of Congress)

The many Federal brigades that were unlucky enough to be sent out into this killing field almost invariably followed the same pattern. They would advance to the mill stream, where the attack would bog down and become disorganized. Many would stop there and advance no further. Those that did manage to move forward would take cover in a small depression on the slope. Some units would move forward from here to a cluster of houses on Hanover Street. In following this pattern, brigade after brigade from the II, IX, and V Corps were decimated, their troops literally blown to pieces by Longstreet’s deathtrap.

Why did the attacks continue? The failure of the initial demonstration should have at least led to a change in tactics, yet Sumner and Hooker continued to send single brigades, and sometimes single regiments, forward in hopeless assaults against the Marye’s Heights fortifications, only halted by darkness. Even then, Burnside determined that he would personally lead yet another attack by the IX Corps in the morning, and was only dissuaded at the last moment.

Franklin bears some blame, perhaps. Following the repulse of Reynolds’ attack, he was content to sit still for most of the afternoon, with only a skirmish on his right to break up the monotony. Burnside sent an order for him to resume the offensive, which he declined to do. By the time this news reached headquarters, another “demonstration” against Marye’s Heights was already under way. Enraged, Burnside ordered an attack, and Franklin responded with a refusal backed up by a mendacious explanation of his difficulties, again after another diversion had already been launched. But this does not explain Burnside’s conviction that a morning attack by the IX Corps could push Longstreet off the hill.

Perhaps the generals simply didn’t know what they were dealing with. Of the commanding generals, only Hooker actually reconnoitered the field. Even generals who knew the arrangements at times seemed not to realize what Marye’s Heights was. Blinded by the prevailing doctrine that the offense held the advantage on the battlefield, they may have believed that piecemeal attacks would eventually wear the defenders down. Even Lee warned Longstreet that his position might be in danger. One can only imagine the feeling of incredulity that inspired Longstreet’s response:

General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.
– James Longstreet

Ammunition, in fact, provided one of the two openings of the day. The Washington Artillery on Marye’s Heights had not set themselves up properly for resupply, and were compelled to abandon their position. Union troops from the II Corps spotted the move, and the V Corps division of Andrew Humphreys went in to attack. The chance was short-lived, however, as Alexander had already arranged reinforcements, who hastily raced into the empty gun pits and rained destruction down on the attack. The Federals would only come close again in their final attack, just after dark. That attempt nearly succeeded, but the Confederates were alerted by the yelling of the Union troops during the charge and managed to repulse them.

The casualties at Marye’s Heights were incredibly lopsided. The Confederates lost about 1200 men, including General Cobb. The Army of the Potomac’s losses exceeded 6000 men, and may have been as high as 8000. Overall, more than a tenth of the 173,000 men present for the battle were killed or wounded, with Union losses almost three times as high as Confederate.

The lopsided defeat sent shockwaves through the North, and some wondered if the war might not end. But the war went on, and so, for a brief time, did Burnside’s command of the Army of the Potomac. He would further besmirch his name with the ill-fated January offensive known as the “mud march” before being replaced by Joe Hooker on January 26. Unfortunately, Hooker would prove little better as a leader.


Those interested in an exceptionally detailed description of the battle should read The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. LTC Harold M. Knudsen’s General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Modern General discusses Longstreet’s arrangements on Marye’s Heights in the context of subsequent warfare. For more on Longstreet generally and this battle in particular, read General James Longstreet: The Conferedacy’s Most Controversial Soldier by Jeffry D. Wert, and Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable.

December 11, 1862

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Dec 112012
 

At 1:00 AM, 150 years ago this morning, Union Army engineers began dragging pontoons towards the Rappahannock River at three points to construct bridges into the town of Fredericksburg.

The Fredericksburg campaign was a disaster born out of a string of poor decisions stretching back at least to the battle of Sharpsburg. McClellan’s embarrassingly slow pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia allowed Longstreet to get in front of him, exhausting Lincoln’s patience. With McClellan dismissed, Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac reluctantly, because McClellan was an old ally and because Burnside correctly judged himself unequal to the task.

Lincoln needed victories, not tactical marches, as a political matter. The mood in the Union states was very poor, and few had been deceived into thinking that Antietam was a glorious victory. To whatever extent the draft Emancipation Proclamation had galvanized Republicans, it had also consolidated Democratic opposition. The Republicans fared poorly in the elections of 1862 as conservatives rode the wave of grim war tidings. Lincoln therefore pressed all his commanders to attack.

Burnside’s options were limited. Longstreet sat in front of him in Culpeper, blocking the O&A railroad. Even if Burnside could break through there, the O&A went away from Richmond and anyway could not supply the whole army. Burnside turned to a plan McClellan had already drawn up to attack Richmond by way of Fredericksburg, supported along the more useful RF&P railroad. In anticipation of making this move, McClellan had already wired on November 6 for the engineers to bring up pontoons. Unfortunately, the pontoons were in Harpers Ferry, and the war department decided to send the orders upriver by hand rather than use a telegraph. Harpers Ferry would not receive the orders for almost a week.

McClellan, and Burnside after him, intended to make a feint at Culpeper and then rapidly march to Fredericksburg, crossing the river quickly to claim the town and environs before the bulk of the Confederate army could catch up with them. This was a sound approach, all the more so because the newly-minted Second Corps under Stonewall Jackson was still in the Shenandoah Valley. Attacking through eastern Virginia would also have the advantage of allowing resupply and communications via river from Chesapeake Bay, which was controlled by the Federal navy.

Lincoln had hoped for an attack on Robert E. Lee near Culpeper, but reluctantly approved Burnside’s plan. Unfortunately, almost nothing transpired as Burnside hoped. Longstreet’s First Corps recoiled when the Union troops launched their demonstration along the upper Rappahannock River, and Lee grew suspicious when the Federals failed to press an apparently successful attack. The pontoons, which should have been leaving Washington on November 12th, only arrived there on November 15th, just as Burnside’s troops started moving for Fredericksburg. The pontoons would not be on the road for a few more days, by which time Burnside’s troops had already arrived at Fredericksburg.

Without pontoons, however, Burnside was stuck on the wrong side of the Rappahannock, and Lee used the delay to bring up his forces. While Burnside waited, Longstreet’s corps arrived and constructed very effective fortifications on Marye’s Heights. E. Porter Alexander placed his cannon in gun pits and carefully sighted every inch of the ground laying before the stone wall at the base of the hill. Although the Federals agreed not to shell the town if the Rebels stayed out of it, Lee’s men quietly occupied Fredericksburg and began to fortify it, while civilians streamed out of the city. The incompetence of Henry Halleck’s War Department delayed the arrival of the pontoons until November 25th, by which time it was seemingly too late to cross at Fredericksburg. Burnside’s fruitless attempts to find a crossing elsewhere gave Jackson time to come  up — he arrived on December 1.

By December 11th, Burnside had reconciled himself to the necessity of an opposed crossing at Fredericksburg. He launched demonstrations to draw Lee’s attention to other likely spots, and ordered construction of the pontoons to begin as soon as the moon went down. The engineers had about four hours to work unmolested in the winter cold, building one bridge south of town near Deep Run, with two more at the north and south ends of the town proper.

William Barksdale (via Wikimedia commons)

In the town itself Confederate General William Barksdale had spotted the construction by 2:00 AM. Lafayette McLaws, however, had advised him to hold his fire until the Federals were committed to the bridge-building and the workers were in easy range. McLaws probably understood that the engineers were more difficult to replace than the pontoons. At 5:00 AM, the Confederates started firing, instantly slaughtering many of the engineers.

This touched off an artillery barrage from the Federal side. The Union had superior weapons and, for the most part, superior artillerists, and they made short work of any Rebel troops that exposed themselves in town. They had more difficulty, however, in dealing with troops that concealed themselves inside the buildings and behind fences and stone walls. The Federal side of the river had poor vantage points and little cover, and Union army’s attempts to cover the engineers with infantry fire were stymied by sharpshooting Rebels.

The situation was not as dire at the southern crossing. Here Federal artillery had the desired effect and the bridge was quickly finished, although the Confederates did manage to briefly seize the bridge at their side. However, Burnside refused to let any real force cross the river here until the other bridges were complete, even though William Franklin proposed a flanking maneuver that would have potentially flushed Barksdale out of town to permit their construction. Burnside trusted the artillery to control the city, but the solid shot the cannon were firing was ineffective against wooden structures. It became evident that something else would have to be done.

The engineers proposed a plan at this point. The 7th Michigan and 89th New York would use the pontoon boats to cross the Rappahannock under enemy fire and assault the far shore. Burnside, at a loss as to what to do otherwise, approved the plan. The Union artillery raked the town with full fury for half an hour, and then the crossing commenced. The officers and most of the men expected to die, but geographic features of the riverbank blocked both landing zones from Confederate fire. Although there were many casualties, both landings succeeded.

The 7th Michigan landed and quickly swarmed the Mississippi regiment holding the area near the upper crossing. With less than 30 minutes of brutal, house-to-house fighting, the bluecoats pushed the Rebels away from the river, allowing the engineers to finish the bridge there. The 89th New York met with similar success at the middle crossing, capturing a small Confederate force and pushing the rest out of range. This marked the first time a bridgehead landing had been secured under fire by the U.S. armed forces, an outfit that would later become somewhat famous for amphibious operations.

What followed were several hours of desperate urban warfare, another first for an American army. The streets of Fredericksburg were host to a see-saw battle as Confederates and Federals maneuvered around each other and set up ambushes. Barksdale’s forces, shooting from houses, shops and churches, remained in the city until well after darkness fell, but with the Federal forces only growing stronger, he would not be able to hold until the morning. McLaws ordered him to withdraw.

The Federal assault left Fredericksburg in splinters and, in many places, burning. Some of the Union troops in the city endeavored to put out the fires, but many more took out the frustrations of the day’s hard fighting on the town that had been host to it. While both armies would spend December 12th consolidating their positions, the Federal troops would also use the time to strip Fredericksburg of food, liquor, finery, silver, and gold. Rapacious Union troops took away whatever they could carry, as far as they could carry it. Doubtless many civilian residents who suffered as a result of the pillaging on the 12th saw divine justice in the Army of the Potomac’s disastrous experiences on the 13th.