“…nothing in war can exceed the horror of that hour.” The Bombardment and Looting of Fredericksburg, Part 2

Union Artillery on Stafford Heights on the banks of the Rappahannock River.

Part two in a series 

Fredericksburg was the jeweled city on the Rappahannock. Founded in 1727 , the town was named for Frederick, Prince of Wales and the hated son of King George II. During the Civil War, Fredericksburg was a quiet and unassuming city. It was by no means an influential city, but it does sit midway between Washington D.C. (50 miles north) and Richmond Va. (55 miles south); it was its location which gave it military importance during the Civil War.

Pre-war Fredericksburg boasted an active port; a canal; the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad; and a series of major roads coming in and out of the city. There was a small, yet thriving business district, including thirteen confectioners, two book dealers, and any number of grocers and dry goods dealers. One advertisement described the business of “Hugh Scott, Produce Dealer, Grocer, and Commission Merchant,” which “will keep on hand a large stock of Groceries, Guano, Family Flour, Agricultural Implements, &c….”

The streets reflected the city’s rich colonial history and bore the names of the English-German House of Hanover. William Street and Hanover Street ran west from the city towards Marye’s Heights. Princess Anne Street, Caroline Street (the city’s main street) and others ran parallel to the river. At its widest point, the city was barely seven blocks across.

Panorama view of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The edges of the city featured large plantation homes, including Brompton, the Marye Family home, which was located to the west. To the east was Chatham, the home of J. Horace Lacy. To the south stood both Mansfield (accidentally burned by Confederates in April 1863) and Smithfield (today the Fredericksburg Country Club), and their sprawling fields ran contiguously towards Prospect Hill and the Landsdowne Valley.

Even still, Fredericksburg was considered by many as a backwater burg. “The greatest barrier to prosperity in Fredericksburg is, and has for a long time been, unlimited credits growing out of the fear of our merchants that demands upon customers for settlement will offend them and drive them off, to seek supplies elsewhere,” said one person. With a wartime population of 5,020 it was certainly not the largest city in Virginia, but the bustling port kept commerce moving from the piedmont of Virginia to Fredericksburg’s sister city of Baltimore, Maryland.

David Chamberlain of the 4th Michigan stated, “The city of Fredericksburg was an aristocratic and wealthy town. There was more taste and comfort exhibited in their dwelling than any place I have ever seen south of our Northern cities. The town was lighted with gas and well supplied with good water. The streets and sidewalks in good order, the general location is superb, a valley [of] about two miles wide gradually rising up…until you reach the first range of hills, then running off into a country beautifully rolling.”

To Northern soldiers the attitude of the citizenry was not as beautiful as the landscape. During the first Federal occupation of Fredericksburg in the spring of 1862, a soldier of the 2nd Wisconsin wrote “The women of this place look as if they could swallow the entire army of live Yankees…Their ‘pouting’ and effeminate scowls are amusing to our troops who nearly kill the poor ‘secesh creatures’ with their Yankee smiles…” The soldier went on to say “Had Barnum’s Big Show been in town it would not have attracted half the attention that our distinguished country men did.”

The first army that approached the banks of the Rappahannock in the spring of 1862 was not looking to do battle as Burnside’s men were later in 1862. In reality, the first occupation was quiet enough. With the exception of thousands of slaves freeing themselves by crossing into Union lines, there was little daily activity to note. After a while the people took to their Union occupiers, namely to their commander John Reynolds. Following his stint as the military governor, Reynolds left Fredericksburg and was captured during the Peninsula Campaign while he lay asleep. Sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, his captors were surprised when the citizens of Fredericksburg petitioned them to free the Union general.

Still, Union soldiers in general were not impressed with the area. Charley Goddard of the 1st Minnesota described the small village of Falmouth, just across the river from Fredericksburg as “…one of the most Godforsaken places I ever saw in my life…. The inhabitants that are around the street standing or leaning up against the corners look as if they had not a friend in the world and if you asked them how they like these visitors, ‘Right smart,’ will be the answer and you can’t get another word out of them.”

In contrast to the occupying force, the Army of the Potomac that stood on the banks of the Rappahannock in later November 1862 was poised to fight. The area soon would be worn by war, and what pre-war prosperity existed would be wasted away by two armies, damaging the infrastructure for the next century.

Still, to do battle Burnside had to get across the river to take any offensive action.

Daniel Woodbury

While they awaited the arrival of their pontoons, Burnside and his officers grew more frustrated with their situation and with their inability to take the city across the way. The city and the objectives were there for the taking, but with no bridges Burnside was unable to take any offensive action. To make matters worse, Daniel Woodbury, the engineer in charge of the bridges, was ill prepared for this entire undertaking, and shortly after arriving at the front Burnside placed him under arrest.

In the meantime Fredericksburg was housing bushwhackers and sharpshooters, who fired on the east bank of the Rappahannock, harassing troops of Darius Couch’s 2nd Corps. It became such an issue that Right Grand Division commander Major General Edwin Sumner (the oldest general at Fredericksburg) sent the provost of the army, Brigadier General Marsena Patrick, across the river with a message to the citizens. Patrick, described as “…the finest existing fossil of the Cenozoic age,” was not a man to be trifled with. The order from Sumner read as follows:

Dated November 21st, 1862.
To the Mayor and Common Council of Fredericksburg. Gentlemen: Under cover of the houses of your city, shots have been fired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and material for the clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and by direction of General Burnside I accordingly demand the surrender of your city into my hands, as the representative of the Government of the United States, at or before 5 o’clock this afternoon. Failing in an affirmative reply to this demand by the hour indicated, sixteen hours will be permitted to elapse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, etc., which period having expired I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city every necessary means will be taken to preserve the order and secure the protective operation of the laws and policy of the United States Government.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,  E.V. Sumner

The city council and Mayor Montgomery Slaughter would have quickly given into their demands under normal circumstances. But on November 20th the lead elements of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps had arrived near Fredericksburg. Longstreet concealed his men behind the heights, west of the city. So when Sumner’s message arrived it was “sent through proper military channels,” and Major Gilbert Moxley Sorrel of Longstreet’s staff arrived for one of the meetings and to deliver the message to Longstreet.

Montgomery Slaughter, Fredericksburg's war time mayor.

After a number of meetings between Union and Confederate officers, they agreed to allow the women and children to evacuate the city. Though the Union dander was up they still were level-headed enough to leave the citizenry alone. Patrick went as far to say that the city would not be shelled unless “she fires.” What Patrick did was place the ball squarely in Robert E. Lee’s court. If Lee intended to defend the city or use the city as a shield, the Union army would only respect the private property of its citizens until the first shot was fired.

During this time, with two armies amassing on either side of the city, many citizens did choose to leave. Confederate soldiers Charles Minor Blackford rode into Fredericksburg and described the scene:

I rode into Fredericksburg and a sad sight it is. The people, as far as possible, are all leaving and are carrying away everything they can possibly get off. A large detail of wagons and ambulances is sent into town every day to help them move, and it is amusing to see the soldiers help them. As far as I have heard any expression of opinion the citizens generally prefer the place be burnt to the ground rather than it should be surrendered to the Yankees.

As it stood, Lee had a number of options available to him. Lee could defend the city and oppose any possible crossing. He could picket the city and withdraw at the first sign of a movement. Or he could leave the city as a ghost town between the two armies. No matter how it is weighed, the fate of Fredericksburg lay squarely in Lee’s lap.

Obviously, Lee was not sitting idly by while Burnside waited for his pontoon bridges. When Lee had realized that Burnside was stuck on the banks of the Rappahannock, he’d shifted his second-in-command, with 40,000 troops, to Fredericksburg. They made their way from the Culpepper, Virginia area. It was about the same distance that Burnside’s men had to travel but the roads were in such a condition, and Mother Nature sent rain in such torrents, that it took 5 days for some of Longstreet’s units to reach the city. To make matters worse many of the men were without shoes; of two battalions of Longstreet’s artillery consisting of 585 men, 159 were barefoot.

Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson was forced-marching his 38,000 men from the Winchester area towards the rest of Lee’s army. They too were dealing with the weather, while others in Jackson’s column were, to their chagrin, also battling the after-effects of alcohol.

As stated in part-one of the story, Lee was in a perfect blocking position up and down the river. Burnside, meanwhile, looked to assault Fredericksburg once his pontoons arrived and the weather cleared.

Pontoon Boat on Special Wagon.

By November 25th many of the pontoon boats had finally reached the supply base at Aquia Harbor, yet they could not reach the front due to the lack of proper wagon transportation. When they did have the chance to move them forward, Burnside was still weighing his options for crossing. He initially considered crossing downriver near Skinker’s Neck, 15 miles below Fredericksburg, but as we found out in the first post the Confederates already had men up and down the river.  An additional obstacle then arrived in the form of snow, which arrived across the Rappahannock Valley, dumping between 4 and 5 inches on the armies on December 4th and 5th. Seemingly all that could go wrong for Burnside did.

Adding to his worries was Washington itself. With the capital less than 50 miles away, the Army of the Potomac was on a short leash. Lincoln wanted Burnside to fight and win. He wanted this done before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like Lee, Burnside had options. He could disengage from the Rappahannock line, attempt to maneuver the army again and steal a second march on Lee. This meant establishing a new supply base, keeping everything secret, and hoping nature would not turn on him. None of this would be easy, nor would it get Lincoln off his back. He also had the option to fight at Fredericksburg. The option he should have been allowed to choose was to take up winter camp, wait till spring and start from square one. This, however, was not to be.

Burnside decided that his best option was to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. If all went according to plan, the army would lay the bridges, quickly deploy across the bridges, and then march west. The hope was to split Lee’s Army in two. Jackson’s Second Corps were not all concentrated in the area, leaving a gap in the Confederate lines. If Burnside could force his way into the gap, he could split Lee’s army and destroy it piecemeal.

He thought attacking at Fredericksburg would surprise the enemy as much as attacking anywhere else would. He told the President of his intentions, and Lincoln and Halleck reluctantly agreed. In his writings detailing how the plan was conceived, it is almost as if Burnside was trying to convince himself of the worthiness of the plan.

All preparations were made. Burnside intended to begin laying bridges in the early-morning hours of December 11th. He would have the bulk of his army across by mid-afternoon, and he could cut the corps of Longstreet and Jackson in two rapidly if all went well. A quick strike would interpose his army between the two wings and allow him to destroy them in detail.

Burnside chose three crossing points. The first was located at the north end of the city, the second at the southern end of the city, and the third about a mile south of the city on a portion of the river known as “the bend.”

Two New York engineering regiments, the 50th and 15th, went to the Upper and Middle Crossing points (North and South end of the city). The Lower crossing was to be laid by the United States Regulars. The bridges from north to south would be 400, 420, and 440 feet respectively.

Middle Pontoon Crossing Site

The engineers were covered by close infantry support at the Upper Crossing. The 57th and 66th New York regiments covered the 50th New York Engineers. At the Middle Crossing two more New York regiments, the 89th and 46th New York, covered the 15th New York Engineers. At the Lower Crossing men of the 2nd United States Sharpshooters and the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves covered the United States Regulars.

All of these units were supported by 147 cannon under the direct command of Brigadier General Henry Hunt. The former West Point artillery instructor had one of the best opportunities to put his classroom teaching to practice. He could truly show off his artillery’s skill and power.

Much of the army was now positioned close to the river, ready to spring forward when the bridges were in place.

Burnside attempted to be as hopeful as possible. His army was now poised overlooking the “greatest panorama of the war,” according to historian Gary Gallagher. Into the valley peered thousands of sets of eyes. They all knew too well that Lee was on the other side of the river and that he had already smashed the best laid plans of many a Union general.

As he prepared for battle, Colonel Samuel Zook, ever the optimist, wrote a letter home. “Tomorrow we commence the crossing of the Rappahannock & will be sure to have a fearful fight,” Zook lamented. “I expect we will be licked.”

© 2011 Emerging Civil War

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Emerging Civil War and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “…nothing in war can exceed the horror of that hour.” The Bombardment and Looting of Fredericksburg, Part 2

  1. Just lately I read a quote from AL saying that if he had just had a commander that did not count the losses and kept throwing men into the fray, that Lee would have run out of soldiers at some point & the war could have been over at Fredericksburg. He said this later, looking at casualty figures of other battles. I think the point was that, even if a larger number of men had been killed in one battle, there would not have been as many killed in total. Anyone know about this? What do you think? If someone has the quote, I wpuld appreciate that. I am reading so much just now that I forget where I read what.

    • The first part sounds familiar. The quote might be in Edward Bonekemper’s book, Grant and Lee: Victorious American and Vanquished Virginian.

      There have been a number of works and essays over the last 5 years covering the butcher’s bill of the war. Many are taking a second look at Grant as a butcher. When you add up the numbers of Grant’s losses vs. Lee’s, Lee actually takes the cake. Lee and Jackson fought the campaigns of maneuver, but it cost them in the long run. Their aggressive battles really took a toll on the officer core and the enlisted men themselves. Unit cohesion was very low by mid-1864. This is actually something I will be tackling in a post down the road.

      If I take what you’re saying correctly on the second quote, Lincoln was saying that one big battle was mass casualties would have been better? That is a quote I am not familiar with off the top of my head. That thinking is going along the lines of what some consider “The Western Way of War.” In essence one decisive battle to end a conflict. By Fredericksburg that notion was long gone for the north. That harkens back to the days of First Manassas. Lincoln may have said something along those lines, just can’t tell you off the top of my head when or where.

  2. I appreciate the way you’re unfolding the story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s