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The Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1182, p. 18.

January 3, 1863


The New York Times appears to contain the best account of the great battle which took place at Fredericksburg on the 13th of December. The account is dated Fredericksburg, 13th of December. We give copious extracts:--

The Theatre Of Operations.

The theatre of operations to-day extended from Fredericksburg on the right and down the south side of the Rappahannock for two miles. Immediately behind the town of Fredericksburg the land forms a plateau or smooth field, running back for about a third of a mile. It then rises for forty or fifty yards, forming a ridge of ground which runs along to the left for about a quarter of a mile, where it abuts at Hazel Dell, a ravine formed by the Hazel River, which empties into the Rappahannock west of the town. At the foot of the ridge runs the telegraph road, flanked by a stone wall. This eminence was studded with rebel batteries. To the right, along and up the river, the ridge prolongs itself to opposite Falmouth, and beyond; and here, too, batteries were placed on every advantageous position. Back of the first ridge is another plateau, and then a second terrace of wooded hills, where a second line of fortifications was placed. Between the rear of the town and the first ridge of hills was the theatre of operations of the right grand division of the Army under General Summer.

A word now on the scene of operations of the left grand division. From the lower part of the town the ridge on which it is built slopes abruptly down to a comparatively level or undulating country, which stretches for some miles down the Rappahannock. About a couple of miles back of the river it rises into a wooded slope. At a point a mile and a half below Fredericksburg two pontoons had been thrown across on Thursday morning, and on Friday the whole of the left grand division, under the command of Major-General Franklin, had marched over the river. Daylight of Saturday found the force drawn up in battle array on this broad plain skirting the Rappahannock.

The battle-ground, though very marshy in some places, presented a fine field for military evolutions. The turnpike leading to Fredericksburg runs about half a mile from, and nearly parallel to, the river. Beyond is the railroad, and, still further beyond, the wooded range of hills in which the enemy were strongly intrenched. About a mile and a half from Fredericksburg, nearly on the river edge, is situated A. N. Barnord's stone mansion, after the English style.

Disposition Of The Troops.

The line of battle, as it appeared in the morning, was as follows:--The 6th Army Corps, under General Smith (Franklin's old force), on the right, composed of three divisions. The 1st Army Corps (General Reynolds's) extending still further to the left, drawn up in the following order:--General Gibbons's division on the right, connecting with General Howe's, General Meade's centre, and General Doubleday left, fronting to the southward and resting nearly on the river. This constituted the order in which our forces were drawn up, there being three distinct lines of battle.

Opposed to our right, under General Sumner, was the rebel left, under command of General Longstreet. Opposed to our left, under General Franklin, was the rebel right, under General Jackson. General Lee, Generalissimo of the Southern army, was in person in command of the Confederate forces during the whole day.

The plan of General Burnside, agreed upon in council of war, was to endeavour to pierce the rebel centre. Early on the morning of Saturday the order was given that Sumner's left, composed of the 9th Army Corps, under command of General Willcox, should be extended until it reached Franklin's right--thus forming a continuous line of battle along the river for two miles, the left resting on the river at the point where the lower pontoons cross, and the right on Fredericksburg.

The left wing, comprising the whole of Franklin's command (50,000 men), should then be swung round as on a pivot, formed by Sumner's extreme right, resting on Fredericksburg. If successful in this manœuvre, Franklin would divide the rebel line, taking possession of the railroad (the line of retreat), and come in on the flank of the rebel works back of Fredericksburg. While this movement was being developed, a division was to be sent up from General Sumner's command by the plank read to storm the ridge. If there should be any failure in this, it was hoped that the co-operation of Franklin would presently make success certain. Hooker's corps was designed to act as a reserve.

The Beginning Of The Battle.

The dawn of Saturday found the forces distributed as thus indicated. It was a fine Virginia morning, mild and balmy as a September day, though the mist and fog of a late Indian summer hung over the field of battle.

It was with alarm and pain I found a general want of confidence and gloomy foreboding among some men whose sound judgment I had learned to trust. The plan of attacking the rebel stronghold directly in front would, it was feared, prove a most hazardous enterprise, and one of which there is no successful example in military history. It was doubted that the co-operation of the right and left, according to the programme, would admit of practical execution, and things were generally at loose ends.

About half-past eleven o'clock I crossed the Rappahannock on the upper pontoon-bridge, and passed through the town of Fredericksburg along the main street. At this time brisk skirmishing was going on in the outskirts of the town, the rebel sharpshooters stubbornly contesting every inch of the ground as our skirmishers advanced. Caroline or Maine street was occupied by General Kimball's, General Ferrero's, and Acting-General Zook's brigade, with portions of Hancock's division. The latter, with his artillery, lined the bank of the river in the neighborhood of the middle crossing, which is just below the railroad bridge. Other troops from the corps of Generals Willcox and Couch occupied the other streets of the town nearer the line of advance. Our batteries replied across the river, covering the advance of our forces. In the meantime, Franklin had been for a couple of hours briskly engaged with the enemy on the left. The force in Fredericksburg had driven the rebels out of the suburbs of the town and rested their column on the canal. The time had now come to attempt an advance on the rebel position. The orders were to move rapidly, charge up the hill, and take the batteries at the point of the bayonet. Orders easy to give, but, ah! how hard of execution! Look at the position to be stormed! There is a bare plateau of a third of a mile which the storming party will have to cross. In doing so they will be exposed to the fire, first, of the enemy's sharpshooters, posted behind a stone wall running along the base of the ridge; of a double row of rifle-pits on the rise of the crest, of the heavy batteries behind strong fieldworks that stud the top of the hill, of a powerful infantry force now lying concealed behind these, of a plunging fire from the batteries of the lower range, of a double enfilading fire from "cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them." Sebastopol was not half as strong.

The Central Advance.

The line of battle was formed by Conch's corps (the 2nd), composed of the divisions of French, Hancock, and Howard, the left of the line abutting on Sturgis' division of Willcox's corps (the 9th). The first advanced was French's, composed of the brigades of Kimball, Morris, and Weber, supported by Hancock's division, consisting of the brigades of Caldwell, Zook, and Meagher. Forming his men under cover of a small knoll in the rear of the town, skirmishers were deployed to the left towards Hazel Dell; Sturgis, supporting at the same time, moved up and rested on a point on the railroad.

The moment they exposed themselves on the railroad forth bursts the deadly hail. From the rifle-pits came the murderously-aimed missiles; from the batteries, tier above tier, on the terraces, shot planes of fire; from the enfilading cannon, distributed on the arcs of a circle two miles in extent, came cross showers of shot and shell. Across the plain for a while they swept under this fatal fire. They were literally mowed down. The bursting shells made great gaps in their ranks; but these are presently filled by the closing up of the line. For fifteen immortal minutes at least they remain under this fiery surge. Onward they press, though their ranks grow fearfully thin. They have passed over a greater part of the interval, and have almost reached the base of the hill, when brigade after brigade of rebels rise up on the crest and pour in fresh volleys of musketry at short range. They fell back, shattered and broken, amid shouts and yells from the enemy.

General French's division went into the fight 6000 strong; but at night he told me he could count but 1500.

The Federal Batteries Fire On Their Own Men.

The fire of the rebel batteries was not the only thing from which our men had to suffer. Thinking to silence the enemy's guns, our batteries planted on the bluff on the north side of the river, embracing some 4½ siege guns, some batteries of 20-pounder Parrotts, and the artillery of the left and left centre, opened fire. The intervening space is between 2700 and 3000 yards--too great a distance to calculate on the projectiles carrying with accuracy, particularly contractor's ammunition. If shell should fall short or take an oblique direction and explode among our troops, it would be difficult to see how a panic could be prevented. Promptly seeing this danger, General Hunt, Chief of Artillery, instantly dispatched orders to cease firing. It was well he did so, for immediately afterwards an Aide-de-Camp came galloping from General Couch, from the other side of the river, begging that our batteries should cease, as they were actually firing into his command.

The Battle Continues.

While the broken column retires to its original position in the outskirts of the town to reform for a new encounter, let us see what goes on to the left. At daylight the forces comprising the left grand division of the army appeared, drawn up in battle array on the broad plain below Fredericksburg, and skirting the Rappahannock. No sooner had the heavy mist cleared away than Captain Hall's battery (2nd Maine), planted at the right of Gibbons's division, opened fire upon the rebels. Artillery fire now became general along the whole line, which was returned by the rebels. Heavy siege guns in our rear; the 1st Maryland, 1st Massachusetts Batteries, and Battery D, 5th Artillery, on the right; Captain Ransom's and Captain Walker's in front: and Cowan's New York, and Lieutenant Hahn's 3rd New York Independent on the left, and other batteries, kept up a terrific fire on the rebels. Orders now came to advance, and about nine o'clock Gibbons's and Meade's divisions commenced moving slowly forward.

The advance resulted in almost straightening our lines, which were before somewhat of a crescent. Considerable resistance was met with, yet the forces continued to move forward until, at midday, the line of battle was three quarters of a mile in advance of where it had been at the outset. But now came the reserve fire of the enemy with terrific force. Shot, shell, and canister were poured into our men from various points, while the rebel infantry appearing, fired with rapidity. Still they continued to press on. Severa[l] batteries moved forward at the same time. As our troops saw the enemy giving way, cheer after cheer rent the air.

About one o'clock General Meade ordered a charge, which was well executed, the men pressing on the edge of the very crest, and skillfully penetrating, by a movement on the flank, an opening which happened to occur between the division of A. P. Hill and Early's brigade, captured several hundred prisoners belonging to the 61st Georgia and 31st North Carolina.

While the fight was progressing at this point the enemy sent four heavy columns down on our left, near the river. They were handsomely repulsed and driven back, however, by General Doubleday's division. Owing to the lack of reinforcements, General Meade's command was obliged to fall back a quarter of a mile--three-quarters of a mile beyond the ground first occupied. Very heavy musketry-firing continued along the line, neither side gaining any material advantage. About half-past one o'clock the first line of battle in General Gibbons's division was relieved by the second, when Tower's brigade, now commanded by Colonel Root, charged over an open field beyond the railroad and down into the edge of the woods, occupying the breastworks which the enemy had constructed there, and capturing 200 prisoners belonging to the 36th North Carolina and a South Carolina regiment. General Gibbons was severely wounded in the right hand. They held their own for some time, but were eventually compelled to fall back. It was while the fight was progressing at this point that General Bayard was fatally wounded. About two o'clock General Birney's division of General Hooker's grand division, which had been delayed for some time in crossing by the enemy's shells, moved forward to the left to the support of Meade's division. Gibbons's had become much cut up. The musketry fight was then very heavy, and this division suffered severely.

Adjoining the first corps under Reynolds were the sixth corps under General Smith, presenting the following formation, in three lines of battle:--General Newton at the right, General Burke at the centre, and General Howe on the left, connecting with Reynolds's corps.

At sunrise the skirmishers commenced moving forward, General Vinton commanding. About eight o'clock the rebels opened a heavy cannonade upon the men. Some of their batteries were but a short distance away. A burning dwelling, which attracted considerable attention the night previous, was destroyed by them in order to make better their range. Martin's New York Battery, Frank's 1st New York, and Snow's 1st Maryland replied to the rebel guns with much spirit. At three o'clock General Newton's was withdrawn from the extreme of this corps, and took a position on the extreme right of Reynolds's command, where it was actively employed during the remainder of the day. About four o'clock the 4th New Jersey were ordered to charge upon a force of the enemy near the railroad, which they did, driving them back for one hundred yards or more. A superior force then appearing against them, they were forced to retire. Colonel H. B. Hatch fell, wounded in the leg. The rebels ceased their artillery fire on this position of the army about ten o'clock in the morning. Toward evening, however, they sent a full brigade in the direction of Martin's battery, who came on with a yell, expecting to capture it. The warm reception which they received from the battery and the 2nd and 4th Vermont Regiments, which were acting as skirmishers, compelled them to fall back. At the same time the three lines of infantry, composed of Pratt's and Vinton's brigades, stood to arms, and advanced with fixed bayonets. Night put an end to further operations on each side, with the exception of occasional discharges from our heavy guns.

The result of the day's fighting on the left, so diversified in its character, was to give the left possession of about five hundred yards in extent. So far as stubbornly holding its own, and even gaining ground, the left grand division deserves credit. It had, however, wholly failed to perform the tactical manœuvre assigned to it.

The Condition of the Right.

Returning to the right I found General Sumner seated on the front seat of an unyoked ambulance at the Lacey House, directly opposite Fredericksburg, at the point where the first pontoon bridge spans the stream. The old man looked anxious and fearful. Things were not going well with his command. For three hours his men had been fighting at fearful odds. They were much exhausted, their loss was excessive, and nothing had been accomplished.

Indeed, to the test of the ear at the point where we were located, it seemed as though they were being badly pressed. The batteries had been brought down and planted at the heads of the streets. The troops were hugging the city closely to escape the fearful fire. "Where is Franklin?" was the eager inquiry. "Everything depends on Franklin's coming up on the flank."

Franklin's position was plainly observable by the line of smoke and fire a couple of miles to our left below. He was coming no nearer.

At three o'clock an Aide arrives from General Couch to say that his (Couch's) troops are advancing finely, but that Willcox was not keeping up. "Tell General Willcox," replies General Sumner, "tell him he must make the 9th Army Corps keep pace with the 2nd, if he can."

At half-past three o'clock, Sturgis, who had been clinging to the valley amid showers of fire, is so hotly pressed that he hardly thinks he can hold his own till Griffin comes up. At four o'clock French reports that his right is held by a brigade (Mason's) which is without ammunition.

Summer sends a message begging Burnside that Franklin be directed to advance. But Franklin cannot advance. He has enough to do at this moment to hold his own, for Jackson has just thrown in reinforcements, and is pushing hard to turn his left. Meantime the reserves have not been touched. Hooker's central grand division, 50,000 fresh men, have not yet been engaged; indeed, are yet mainly on this side of the river. "Tell General Burnside that he had better, by all means, throw some of Hooker's in." Burnside replies that he has directly ordered Hooker to go in, and that every man on this side of the river shall cross.

At four o'clock General Hooker, who had not yet been across the river, proceeded over, and, in half an hour, prodigious volleys of musketry announced that Hooker with the reserves is engaged.

The Day is Lost.

This last assaulting column consisted of the divisions of Humphrey, Monk, Howard, Getty, and Sykes. They had, however, hardly got fairly engaged before the sun went down, and night closed around the clamorous wrath of the combatants. At this time General Burnside, who had remained all day at the Phillips House, came down to the Lacey House, and in the garden facing the city followed the progress of the fight. Externally calm, the leading player in this tremendous game was agitated by such intensity of feeling as no one can conceive, and he paced the garden gloomy as night. "That crest," he exclaimed passionately, "must be carried to-night." The brevity of time into which the stupendous issue of the day had to be crowded seemed to add redoubled energy to the fury of the combatants.

Not "Night, or Blucher !" as Wellington exclaimed at Waterloo, but rather Ajax's prayer for "more light," was the prompting of every heart.

Creeping up on the flank by the left, Getty's troops succeeded in gaining the stone wall which we had been unable all day to wrench from the rebels. The other forces rushed for the crest. Our field-batteries, which, owing to the restricted space, had been of little use all day, were brought vigorously into play. It was the fierce, passionate climax of the battle. From both sides, two miles of batteries belched forth their fiery missiles athwart the dark background of the night. Volleys of musketry were poured forth such as we have no parallel of in our experience of the war, and which seemed as though all the demons of earth and air were contending together. Rushing up the crest, our troops had got within a stone's throw of the batteries, when the hilltop swarmed forth in new reinforcements of rebel infantry, who, rushing upon our men, drove them back. The turn of a die decides such situations. The day was lost. Our men retired. Immediately cannon and musketry ceased their roar, and in a moment the silence of death succeeded the stormy fury of ten hours' battle.

Recrossing of the Rappahannock by the Federals.

At daylight on Sunday, the 14th inst., heavy artillery firing took place in front of the divisions of Generals Hooker, Sumner, and Franklin, and continued until late in the forenoon, but no general action occurred. The object of both parties was evidently to fool the other.

During Saturday night and Sunday morning the Confederates considerably extended their works and strengthened their position. Large bodies of troops were to be seen on Sunday where few were to be found on the previous day. The Federal dead which were killed in front of the enemy's works still remained on Sunday morning where they fell. When an attempt was made on Saturday night to remove them, the enemy would open fire with infantry; the wounded were, however, all removed from the field.

The weather on Sunday was bright and cheerful, and the fog had entirely disappeared. It was ascertained by inspection through a powerful glass that there were six distinct lines of works behind the city. Whether some of these were rifled redoubts simply, or have the double capacity of affording protection to light infantry, and having embrasures for light field-guns, could not be discovered. The appearance of the works, however, would lead to the latter belief.

The New York Herald of the 15th ult. gives the following account of the recrossing of the Rappahannock by the Federals:--

There were 40,000 of our troops engaged in the battle of Saturday. What force the rebels brought against them it is impossible just now to determine, but from the desperate nature of the resistance offered it is not improbable that they fully equalled if they did not outnumber our forces.

With the exception of some heavy firing between the outposts of both armies there was no fighting on the Rappahannock on Monday (15th inst.) Everything was quiet, and the terrible battle of Saturday was not renewed. The Federal troops were busy removing the wounded to the river side, lest the enemy should shell the city. The Confederates meanwhile were actively engaged strengthening their defences. At one time they made a feint to attack General Franklin's forces, but did not accomplish it. General Burnside inspected the Federal troops in the afternoon in the town, and was greeted with loud cheers. Activity throughout every department indicated that a battle was imminent. The Irish brigade assembled in and around the theatre, where the ceremony of presenting to it a set of beautiful colours, just sent from New York, was gone through, General Meagher making an address. The enemy kept up a regular fire from their batteries upon the upper crossing, in order to retard the passage of the troops. The surgeons were ordered to be in readiness to receive and care for a large number of additional wounded, and red flags were displayed on the tops of many of the large houses in the town which were to be used for temporary hospitals.

The withdrawal of the Federal forces from Fredericksburg had, however, been determined on at a council of all the corps commanders during the day. It was regarded as a perilous undertaking, but one that, if successful, would rescue the army from the necessity of risking another battle with the prospect of accomplishing little except the destruction of valuable lives.

The troops had received no intimation of their having to retreat, and had laid down to rest upon their arms for the night. The order for them to fall in was therefore supposed by many to be for a night assault upon the enemy's works, and they were not undeceived until they found themselves upon the pontoon bridges actually returning across the stream. A heavy gale of wind which blew all sound away from the rebel lines greatly facilitated the movement. Bridges were covered with earth to deaden the sound of the moving artillery, and a dark night hid every object from view. General Franklin's grand division, occupying the extreme left, began to move as soon as it was dark; and the right and centre of Generals Sumner and Hooker took up the line of march almost simultaneously, moving in good order but silently away from under the very guns of the enemy. All three of the crossings were used, making six bridges. No accident of consequence occurred. The troops obeyed with alacrity every order, and waited with patience their turn to cross. The artillery and infantry alternated in moving column, very much in the order in which they went into battle. Two brigades belong [sic] to General Butterfield's corps were left to occupy Fredericksburg as advanced pickets. The Federal Artillery placed on the hither bank of the river co-operated in keeping possession of the town.

The same paper, of the 17th ult., says, in its summary of war news:--

The retreat and evacuation of Fredericksburg, which were rendered necessary by the disaster of Saturday, and the ascertained strength and extent of the enemy's fortifications, was a perilous adventure, but was conducted in safety. It may be consoling, however, to know that, although the Union forces suffered a loss of some ten or twelve thousand men in this fruitless attack upon the enemy's position, General Burnside did not fall too deeply into the trap laid for him by General Lee, but retired in time to save his army from the chances of annihilation. It is but just, perhaps, to General Burnside to say that the adverse movement upon Fredericksburg was not undertaken in accordance with his own judgment, but was peremptorily ordered by the military authorities at Washington, who, of course, are alone responsible for the result. It is stated upon reliable authority that the rebels sent a notification to our army on Sunday that they intended shelling the town, and requested that our wounded should be removed.

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