“The army is held by the throat by a few sharpshooters!” Major General Ambrose Burnside fumed. For more than eight hours, Burnside’s army was held on the far bank of the Rappahannock River by Confederates in the form of Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade.
Hunt’s artillerists did what they could to dislodge the pesky Mississippians. A Union 3rd Corps staff officer wrote, “Over and in the town the white winkings of the bursting shells reminded one of a countless swarm of fire-flies. Several buildings were set on fire, and their black smoke rose in remarkably slender, straight, and tall columns for two hundred feet, perhaps, before they began to spread horizontally and unite in a great black canopy.” Though parts of Fredericksburg were burning, the Confederates remained.
The day had not gone well at the Upper Crossing. Men of the 50th New York Engineers had moved with their wagon trains to the river near 2 a.m. To muffle the sounds of the wagons, Engineers laid straw in the ravines that led down Stafford Heights to the riverfront. Some Engineers even came up with the idea to take the pontoon boats from the crest of the heights and slide them down the hill to the river like sleds in snow. This made far too much noise, not to mention it was dangerous to ride the uncontrollable “sleds.”
Work commenced on two bridges. Their hulks slowly stretched throughout the morning out into the cold waters of the Rappahannock. At 5 a.m., the Federals heard the signal guns of Lee’s Army. At 5:15 a.m., fire poured down on them and the bridges from the homes along the riverfront. At the Upper Crossing, the fire was laid down from the 17th Mississippi and 8th Florida Infantry. (The 8th Florida was only one of three regiments from Florida to serve in Lee’s Army at Fredericksburg.)
Losses mounted on the bridges. Captain Wesley Brainerd, 50th New York Engineers recalled:
I was standing at the extreme outer end of the bridge encouraging my men, when happening to cast my eyes to the shore beyond just as the fog lifted a little, I saw what for the moment almost chilled my blood. A long line of arms moving rapidly up and down was all I saw, for a moment later they were again obscured by the fog. But I knew too well that line of arms was ramming cartridges and that the crisis was near.
Moments later, shots rang out from the buildings of Fredericksburg.
“The bullets of the enemy rained upon my bridge,” Brainerd said. “They went whizzing and zipping by and around me, pattering on the bridge, splashing into the water and thugging through the boats.”
The Engineers scurried off the bridges and ran the gauntlet of fire back to the shoreline. Union infantry, the 57th and 66th New York of Colonel Samuel Zook’s 2nd Corps brigade, covered the withdrawal of the Engineers.
Much of the Confederate fire subsided after the engineers pulled off the bridges. This forced the officers to push their men back out to resume work. As they did, the fire kicked up again and losses mounted further.
Brigadier General Daniel Woodbury, who was in charge of the engineers, later reflected that “I was greatly mortified…to find that the pontoniers under my command would not continue to work until actually shot down…. The officers and men showed a willingness to do so, but the majority seemed to think their task a hopeless one. Perhaps I was unreasonable.”
One Mississippian recalled:
Tons of iron were hurled against this place, the deafening roar of cannon and bursting shells, falling walls and chimneys, bricks and timbers flying through the air, houses set on fire, the smoke adding to the already heavy fog, the bursting flames through the housetops, made a scene which has no parallel in history. It was appalling and indescribable, a condition which would paralyze the stoutest heart, and one from which not a man in Barksdale’s Brigade had the slightest hope of escaping.
Surgeon Clark Baum of the 50th New York Engineers claimed, “When the artillery fairly opened the roar was terrific—dreadful—I know of no words to express it. The screeching of the shells thru the air the whiz of the solid shot, the boom, boom, boom of the cannon, the sharp ring of the rifles and rattle of the musketry all commingled made one’s ears tingle.”
Out onto the bridges went the engineers again, but again they quickly fell under small arms fire. Barksdale’s men were securely in the city. Though Henry Hunt’s cannon could keep Confederate reinforcements from moving in, they could not drive out the Confederates who were already there. One of the major issues was the construction of the houses. Many were wooden structures. When a percussion shell hit the wood, it would not detonate but would instead punch a large hole in the home, which the Confederates could use to fire from.
The weather also had wreaked havoc on the Union artillery munitions. In the mornings, temperatures had been below freezing, but in the afternoons the temperature rose into the 50’s and 60’s. The frequent rain and snow compounded the problem, leaving Union artillerists with an equation for disaster. Many timed fuses simply would not detonate because the powder in the shells had become damp.
As hard as Hunt’s men tried, they could not dislodge the Confederates. Barksdale was holding back nearly two-thirds of the Union army.
Lee had forced Burnside’s hand time and again in the Fredericksburg Campaign. Lee cut off the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg. His army patrolled for more than 40 miles up and down river, making a crossing impossible to go undetected. Confederates were in the city now stopping the Union engineers from completing their bridges. The Union high command struggled to adapt and figure a way past Lee’s men.
Then came Henry Hunt’s idea to use the pontoon boats as landing craft for the infantry. Burnside was reluctant to order the men across, so he asked for volunteers. They were easy to find. Colonel Norman Hall’s brigade, from Major General Darius Couch’s 2nd Corps, offered men for the daring maneuver. Hall called on the battle-hardened 7th Michigan to force the crossing.
The 157 men of the 7th Michigan moved from the east side of Chatham, down the slope of Stafford Heights to the upper crossing area around 3 p.m. Hunt’s guns opened again on the city. The hope was to keep the heads of the Confederates down as the crossing went forward.
The Michiganders jumped into the boats near 3:15 p.m. Between 35 and 40 men piled into each one. The plan was for the engineers to paddle the infantry across. As at the Middle Crossing at the south end of the city, the pontoon boats themselves were slow in ferrying men across the river.
As the Michigan soldiers jumped in the boats, many of the 50th New York Engineers leapt out. These men had been under fire most of the day and had enough. Some of the infantry wrestled the engineers back into the boats while others launched without their engineers. Across the river went the 7th Michigan in six boats.
As they went across the 400 feet of river, Mississippians from the shore poured fire into them. Union artillery was unable to keep them pinned down because faulty shells and the inability to depress the barrels of the cannon low enough to hit the shore.
To speed their crossing, the Michiganders used their rifle butts to paddle. Some of their boats spun in circles in the river as one side paddled faster than the other. Some boats slowed due to the mounting casualties. Near the halfway point, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Baxter, the commander of the 7th, was wounded in the chest. Baxter told the men to turn back. Baxter’s second in command, Major Thomas Hunt, had none of this. Major Hunt ordered the men to keep paddling for the hostile shore, and when they reached it, he gave the black-flag order to take no prisoners. The day was not only wearing on the engineers, it was now wearing on the infantry.
As the boats got closer to shore, Confederate fire slackened. The sharpshooters, situated on the far side of Sophia Street, couldn’t shoot down over the riverbank, which acted as a shield to protect the final stretch of the Union crossing. Soon, the flat noses of the boats hit dry land, and the Union soldiers spilled out onto the riverbank.
As the Union army completed its first-ever successful riverine crossing under fire, the boats came ashore at the foot of the Hawke Street/Sophia Street intersection. Out of the boats leapt the Michiganders who entered the first two houses they came across. One observer from the Stafford side of the river stated that they could follow the fighting room by room, muzzle flash by muzzle flash. William McCarter of 116th Pennsylvania later described the scene:
Hundreds of my comrades and I on the hilltops looked down on the brave fellows on the river, tugging and fighting with death itself. An oarsman would be seen relinquishing his oar and falling down dead or wounded in the bottom of his boat or overboard into the river. Then another would drop while not a few of their partners with rifles in hand were suffering a similar fate by their side. I think this was sad. It may have been the saddest sight during my life in the army. The scene forced tears from many of my comrades and me who were eyewitnesses to it.
The 7th secured the far bank and now distracted the Confederates enough to allow the engineers to go back to bridge building unmolested. The Union infantry, though, had much more work ahead of them.
More Federals were fed into the breach. The 19th Massachusetts went across in boats next, followed shortly thereafter by the 20th Massachusetts (The Harvard Regiment). The fighting in the streets distracted the Southern riflemen, thus the bridges were quickly finished, and across came the 42nd New York, 127th Pennsylvania, and more. The flood of Union reinforcements presented a problem, though: there was not enough room for all of them.
The 7th Michigan had only advanced a half a block and stopped in an alley. The two Massachusetts regiments knew they needed to advance, but no one knew who should lead. They asked Division commander Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard for orders. As the men waited for his reply, casualties quickly mounted. Confederates held the “high ground”—that is, they were in the second and third floors of buildings, firing down on the Federals. “Nearly every house and cellar had someone in it, firing from the windows,” claimed one Union officer.
Finally word came back from the aloof Howard. He simply he told his subordinates “to push ahead.” Regimental commanders fought with one another over who had to take the lead. Hunt’s men had seen enough; they were happily tucked in their ally. So, it fell on the 20th Mass to secure the next block. In column, the Bay State men bravely advanced.
As they entered the Caroline Street/Hawke Street intersection, all of hell and damnation rained on them.
The Federals deployed in the open streets as best they could. One company swung north into battle line on Caroline Street; another to the south; the third drove straight across the intersection and kept going alone into the heart of the city. All the while, the 20th took it on the chin from elements of the 13th and 17th Mississippi.
Though in buildings, the Confederates still took considerable casualties. The thin wood homes disintegrated as the bullets hit. “The most dangerous and trying part of the action, was that the enemy could fire a volley at such close range without being seen.” one Union soldier remembered. Splinters hit the Rebels in the eyes and wounded many.
Still, the 20th was in the open, and in less than 20 minutes, one-third of the regiment were casualties.
House by house, street by street, the fighting raged. By 4:30, there was little Barksdale could do. The Federals outnumbered him nearly 3 to 1, and more were poised to cross. Finally, Barksdale’s commander, Lafayette McLaws, reined in his pit-bull. Barksdale ordered his men out of the city, assigning the 21st Mississippi to cover the retreat near dark.
Barksdale had held back the entire Union army for one full day. This allowed Lee the time he needed to assemble the entire Confederate Army, 78,000 strong, and improve fields of fire and fortifications. This delay allowed Colonel E. P. Alexander to prepare the Maryes Heights field so that, “we can cover that ground…so well that we comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
The delay had come at a high price to the Union army,. “The first street running parallel with the river was covered with Union and Confederate dead. One of the latter was lying in the middle of the street pierced with a shell, taking off both arms,” one soldier wrote. A number of the dead and wounded soldiers suffered from multiple wounds inflicted by the bayonet. It was a gruesome and chilling scene. “Here we cleared the houses near us, but shot came from far and near—we could see no one and were simply murdered,” Captain George Macy of the 20th Mass remembered. “[E]very shot of the enemy took effect. How I escaped I cannot say, as…more than a dozen [men] actually fell on me.”
For further reading on the Battle of Fredericksburg, see Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White.