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.

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