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.
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.