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The Battle of Fredericksburg

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1184, p. 80.

January 17, 1863


To the account of this great battle, from a Federal point of view, already given in this Journal, we add a description of it taken from a Confederate standpoint. The Southern correspondent of the Times sends from General Lee's head-quarters the following particulars of the Battle of Fredericksburg:--

The morning of the 13th of December--a memorable day to the historian of the Decline and Fall of the American Republic--broke still and warm, while, as on the preceding day, a thick haze enveloped the town of Fredericksburg and the circumjacent valley, and delayed the opening of the fire by the antagonistic batteries until the sun had been up some three hours. It was strange to contrast Saturday, the 13th of September, with Saturday, the 6th, and to compare the intense cold of the earlier Saturday with the spring-like warmth and calmness of the later. The day which I am describing was one of those outbursts of that Indian summer which lingers long and fondly in beautiful Virginia; the morning haze which shrouded heath, and plain, and forest, was the ordinary prelude to the warmth and glow of the sun at noonday. As the fog lifted about ten in the morning, and the sun burst through the clouds, the long lines of the Federal Army, which had passed the whole preceding day in deploying and preparing for the attack, were distinctly visible in the plain, and gave awful indications of the amount of the Federal host which had crossed the river. The Confederate army, wholly undaunted by the extravagant stories about the strength of their foe, waited calmly, drawn up for the most part within the fringe of the woods, confident in their position and in the valour which has never failed them. And here it may be as well finally to dispel those illusions under which it is the custom of the Northern press to veil the disgrace of defeat, when the fact itself admits of no denial. The whole number of Confederates in the field this day did not exceed from 80,000 to 90,000 men. Of these, some 25,000 men, taking the very highest estimate, took part in the fight.

It is impossible for me to describe the positions of each of the numerous Confederate batteries which stretched along the length of their six-mile line of battle. It will suffice if I indicate the batteries which were most hotly engaged, and bore the brunt of the action. By far the most important position was occupied by the Washington Artillery, commanded by Colonel Walton, of New Orleans, and posted on the heights in the immediate neighbourhood of Fredericksburg, not more than 400 yards from the town. These heights, which are precisely of that altitude which is most favourable for the play of artillery, are surmounted by a brick house, now riddled by round shot, belonging to Mr. Marye, and are commonly called Marye's Heights. At their base a road winds, protected on one side by the hills and on the other by a solid stone wall, about four feet in height, over which a brigade of Confederates, themselves perfectly sheltered, poured the deadliest and most effective of fires. A little further back, to the south-east of Marye's Heights, stands another and higher hill, from which the most commanding view of the entire field is obtainable, and which, as it is the usual station of the Commander-in-Chief, is now known as General Lee's hill. From this hill during a large portion of Saturday a 30-pounder Parrott gun, cast at the Tredegar Works, in Richmond, poured a destructive fire into the Federals. Suddenly, about three in the afternoon, on its thirty-seventh discharge, this gun burst with a dreadful explosion, but happily did no injury to any of the bystanders. At the moment of its explosion Captain Phillips, of the Grenadier Guards (favourably remarked this day for his behaviour under fire), Major Venables, of General Lee's Staff, and Major Haskell were conversing within a few feet of the gun. Their escape without injury was little less than miraculous. As the Confederate line trends away to the right, the batteries of General Hood's division were actively engaged against the advancing columns of Pennsylvanians; but, next to the batteries on Marye's Heights and General Lee's hill[,] I should say that the artillery commanded by Colonel Walker took the most effective part in the action, as it poured a flanking fire into the enemy's left. One other battery deserves a favourable mention, which it obtained in the short and modest report of the battle which emanates from the pen of General Lee. On the extreme right of the Confederates, in front of the position occupied by General Stuart's cavalry, a few batteries of Stuart's Horse Artillery were thrown forward, to flank the Federals, between Walker's Artillery and the river. General Stuart ordered Major John Pelham, his Chief of Artillery, to advance one gun considerably towards the enemy, and to open upon him. Major Pelham obeyed, and opened the fire of a 12-pounder Napoleon gun with great precision and deadly effect into the Federal flank. The galling discharges of this gun quickly drew upon it the fire of three Federal field batteries, while, from across the river, two other heavy batteries joined in the strife and made Major Pelham and his gun their target. For hours not less than thirty Federal cannon strove to silence Major Pelham's popgun, and strove in vain. The unyielding and undemonstrative courage of Major Pelham, his composure under the deadliest fire, have long made him conspicuous, but never were his noble qualities subject of more glowing eulogy than upon this occasion. General Lee exclaimed, "It is inspiriting to see such glorious courage in one so young." (Major Pelham is not more than twenty-two); General Jackson remarked, "With a Pelham upon either flank I could vanquish the world."

At half-past eight a.m. General Lee, accompanied by his full Staff, rode slowly along the front of the Confederate lines from the left to right, and took up his station for a time beyond Hamilton's Crossing, and in rear of the batteries on the extreme Confederate right. It would be presumptuous in me to say one word in commendation of the serenity, or, if I may so express it, the unconscious dignity of General Lee's courage when he is under fire. No one who sees and knows his demeanour in ordinary life would expect anything else from one so calm, so undemonstrative, and unassuming. But the description applied after the battle of Alma to Lord Raglan by Marshal St. Arnaud, and in which, noticing Lord Raglan's unconsciousness under fire, he speaks of his "antique heroism," seems to me so applicable to General Lee that I cannot forbear recalling it here. At a subsequent period of the day General Lee assumed his station on the hill which takes its name from him, and thence, in company with General Longstreet, calmly watched the repulse of the repeated Federal efforts against the heights on which he stood. Occasionally General Jackson rode up to the spot and mingled in conversation with the other two leading Generals. Once General Longstreet exclaimed to him, "Are you not scared by that file of Yankees you have before you down there?" to which General Jackson replied, "Wait till they come a little nearer, and they shall either scare me or I'll scare them."

The battle opened when the sun had let in enough light through the mist to disclose the near proximity of the Federal lines and field batteries. The first shot was fired shortly before ten a.m. from the batteries in the Federal centre, and was directed against General Hood's division. The Pennsylvanian Reserves advanced boldly under a heavy fire against the Confederates, who occupied one of the copsewood spurs, and were for a time permitted to hold it, but presently the Confederate batteries opened on them, and a determined charge of the Texans drove the Yankees out of the wood in a confusion from which nothing could subsequently rally them. Simultaneously a heavy fire issued from the batteries of General A. P. Hill's and General Early's divisions, which was vigorously replied to by the Federal field batteries. The only advantage momentarily gained by the Federals in this quarter, and which is noticed in General Lee's report, was on the occasion of the collapse of a regiment of North Carolina conscripts, who broke and ran, but whose place was rapidly taken by more intrepid successors. The cannonading now became general along the entire line. Such a scene, at once terrific and sublime, mortal eye never rested on before, unless the bombardment of Sebastopol by the combined batteries of France and England revealed a more fearful manifestation of the hate and fury of man. The thundering, bellowing roar of hundreds of pieces of artillery, the bright jets of issuing flame--the screaming, hissing, whistling, shrieking projectiles--

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the wreaths of smoke, as shell after shell burst into the still air, the savage ca sh [sic] cash of roundshot among the trees of the shattered forest, formed a scene likely to sink for ever into the memory of all who witnessed it, but utterly defying verbal delineation. A direct and enfilading fire swept each battery upon either side as it was unmasked, volley replied to volley, crash succeeded crash, until the eye lost all power of distinguishing the lines of combatants, and the whole plain seemed a lake of fire, a seething mass of molten lava, coursed over by incarnate fiends drunk with fury and revenge.

Twice the Federals, gallantly led and encouraged by their officers, dashed against the forces of General A. P. Hill and General Early, and twice they recoiled, broken and discomfited, and incapable of being again rallied to the fray. The eager Confederates drove them with horrid carnage a mile across the plain, and only desisted from the pursuit when they came under the fire of the Federal batteries across the river. Upon the extreme Confederate right General Stuart's Horse Artillery pressed hotly upon the fugitives, and kept up a fire, subsequently understood to have been very effective, until after dark. Upon the Confederate right, where the antagonists fought upon more level terms, the equality of loss upon both sides was greater than on the Confederate left; but even here the Federal loss in officers and men far outnumbered that of their opponents. General Bayard, the best cavalry officer in the Federal service, fell dead almost on the eve of the day which was to have witnessed his nuptials. General Jackson, of Pennsylvania, shared his fate. Many other general officers were carried to the Federal rear grievously wounded; whereas of the Confederates only one officer of rank--General Gregg--fell upon the right, and only one--General Cobb--upon the left.

Meanwhile, the battle which had dashed furiously against the lines of Generals Hood, A. P. Hill, and Early, was little more than child's play as compared with the onslaught directed by the Federals in the immediate neighbourhood of Fredericksburg. The impression that the Confederate batteries would not fire heavily upon the Federals advancing in this quarter, for fear of injuring the town of Fredericksburg, is believed to have prevailed among the Northern Generals. How bitterly they deceived themselves subsequent events served to show. To the Irish division, commanded by General Meagher, was principally committed the desperate task of bursting out of the town of Fredericksburg and forming, under the withering fire of the Confederate batteries, to attack Marye's Heights, lowering immediately in their front. Never at Fontenoy, at Albuera, or at Waterloo was more undoubted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable position of their foe.

That any mortal men could have carried the position before which they were wantonly sacrificed, defended as it was, it seems to me idle for a moment to believe; but the bodies which lie in dense masses within forty yards of the muzzles of Colonel Walton's guns are the best evidence what manner of men they were who pressed on to death with the dauntlessness of a race which has gained glory on a thousand battlefields, and never more richly deserved it than at the foot of Marye's Heights on the 13th day of December, 1862.

An opportunity of sending this letter, with an encouraging prospect of its reaching England, compels me to defer a further account of the gallant defence on the Confederate left of the town of Fredericksburg and of the battlefield until a subsequent letter.

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