The Fight for Prospect Hill…Part 1

Robert E. Lee had weeks to plan his defenses in and around the city of Fredericksburg. Lee was a former engineer with an eye for terrain, so when the opportunity presented itself to set his army to task in preparing their most intricate field fortifications of the war, the men wasted little time.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Lee’s main battle line ran for nearly seven full miles. The left end of his line was anchored near a turn on the Rappahannock River. The line then ran over a series of five hills collectively known today as Maryes Heights. The sector from the river to just below Lee’s Headquarters at Telegraph Hill was the strongest natural and artificial portion of his line. This three-and-a-half-mile portion consisted of Marye’s Heights, Telegraph and Howison Hill, the soon to be famous Sunken Road, and a number of open fields broken by canals, ditches and fences.

The Confederate line south of Howison Hill sat on fairly level ground, ground that was not very conducive to the deployment of Lee’s cannon. This portion of the line ran southward, yet angled slightly to the west into the Landsdowne Valley. Past the Landsdowne Valley the line began to slightly angle eastward, still running south over some small hills were the line eventually found high ground at Prospect Hill. The line finally terminated near Hamilton’s Crossing a quarter mile to the south of Prospect Hill.  (Click here for a map.) 

In the Prospect Hill sector, there were many open fields of fire, as was the case in the Maryes Heights sector, but the Prospect Hill sector was heavily wooded in places. Confederates also had to contend with a swamp, broken terrain features, and they lacked the dominating high ground of their counterparts.

Even with some inherent weaknesses the Prospect Hill sector could be made to be a stout defensive position, but there was more than meets the eye. Lee and his engineers designed the line to obviously utilize the beneficial features of the terrain, but they also laid a trap for Ambrose Burnside.

Confederate reunion at Prospect Hill.

Confederate reunion at Prospect Hill.

Lee angled his line into and out of the Landsdowne Valley on purpose. He hoped to lure Burnside into the open fields on that front, and then slam the trap door shut by using converging artillery fire from Prospect Hill, Bernard’s Cabin, Howison Hill, Lee Hill, and any place in between to saturate the Union army with shell and shrapnel. He would then launch massive counter attacks on the Union flanks, the assaults would hopefully bottle the Yankees up in the open and cut off their line of retreat from the river. If successful this could be the death nail in the Union Army of the Potomac. This was not to be. For all that has been said over the years about Ambrose Burnside, he was not a complete idiot while leading men into battle. The Union commander surmised that assaulting the Confederate center would doom the Army of the Potomac.

Prospect Hill was an unassuming rise in the Spotsylvania county countryside in 1862. No house or man made structure stood atop it, nor were the hillsides or top cultivated.  It was simply a hill.

Arrayed in full battle formation on and around Prospect Hill was the Confederate Second Army Corps, commanded by the third in command of the Army of Northern Virginia Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson was a no non-sense, God fearing soldier. “Old Blue Light”, as some of the men called him was a Virginian by birth, though today his hometown of Clarksburg lies in West Virginia.

Jackson lost both of his parents at a young age and was cared for by his uncle at nearby Jackson’s Mill.  As a young man Thomas received a modest education, but through his uncle was able to secure an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. While at the point, Jackson studied hard and strove to keep up with the other, better educated, cadets. His hard work and perseverance paid off, Jackson graduated from the academy, near the top of the vaunted West Point Class of 1846.

Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

War clouds loomed and soon the United States was at war with Mexico and the young lieutenant of artillery was off to the front. In Mexico, Jackson was brevetted for bravery, and by the end of the war he held the brevet rank of major. In the interwar years Jackson became listless in the army. With Jackson there was no gray area when it came to orders, honor, or duty. He managed to butt heads with his commanding officers and resigned his commission in 1852. Jackson accepted a position at the Virginia Military Institute as a professor teaching Natural Philosophy (Physics), and artillery tactics.

Jackson made his home in Lexington Virginia and in 1853 married the daughter of the president of Washington College Elinor Junkin, 1853. The next year Elinor died during child birth. Broken hearted Jackson took a sabbatical and traveled to Europe. Following his sabbatical, Jackson met Mary Anna Morrison. The two wed in 1857.

When Civil war broke out, Jackson threw his hat into the ring with the Confederacy. At the First Battle of Manassas Jackson led an all Virginia Brigade. On Henry House Hill he received the moniker “Stonewall”. Although he said the name belonged to the brigade of men he was leading, the name stuck to the man.

In the spring of 1862 Jackson engaged and defeated three mediocre Federal armies in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, his fame grew and he was called to Richmond to fight in the Seven Days Battles, where he turned in a mixed performance. By the time of the Second Battle of Manassas in August, 1862 Jackson commanded one half of the Confederate Army. Now here at Fredericksburg Jackson had 38,000 men under his direct command.

Jackson was a master on the offensive, but when it came to the defensive he could be shaky at times. His assigned position along the Confederate battle line spanned for three miles, but as stated lacked the natural protection and cover that was afforded to James Longstreet’s men.  Jackson centered his defense around Prospect Hill. Atop the high ground he deployed 14 guns under the capable commander of Lieutenant Colonel Reuben L. Walker. Walker was supposedly the most handsome man in the Confederacy.

View from Prospect Hill.

View from Prospect Hill.

The bulk of Walker’s guns were placed toward the southern end of the hill. Earth works, called lunettes were constructed to protect the gun and gunners. It was hoped that Walker’s guns, coupled with southern guns near Hamilton’s Crossing and at Bernard’s Cabin would create a large crossfire, for there was a large portion of the line where guns could not be placed into battery. If the Union army found this blind spot it could be disastrous, therefore Jackson deployed 56 guns in the multiple positions to cover the weak point.

The weak point of the line was actually a large swamp that lay just northeast of Prospect Hill. It was nearly impossible for men to man a defensive line in the swamp. So to cover the swamp Jackson placed his best division on Prospect Hill and around the swampy gap. The division was that of Major General Ambrose Powell Hill. Hill was a tough fighter and led what was known as the “Light Division”. But Hill loathed his commanding officer, the two had run-ins throughout 1862. Hill lamented to Confederate cavalry chief Stuart that, “I suppose I am to vegetate here all the winter under that crazy old Presbyterian fool-I am like the porcupine all bristles, and all sticking out, too, so I know we shall have a smash up before long…The almighty will get tired of helping Jackson after a while, and then he’ll get the damndest thrashing-…{though}  I shall get my share and probably all the blame, for the people never blame Stonewall for any disaster.”

The frustrated Hill set his formidable division, into the best defensive line the terrain would allow. The mixed Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee Brigade of Brigadier General James J. Archer supported Walker’s guns on Prospect Hill.  Archer was a hard fighter that was a soft hand with discipline in a roughhewn brigade.

Brigadier General James J. Archer

Brigadier General James J. Archer

Archer was a slight and frail man in ill health. He arrived on the field from a hospital the day of the battle to be with his men. Archer’s men dug a line of rifle pits, some went to the railroad and tore up the tracks to utilize the railroad ties in their defensive works. To Archer’s left rear was the South Carolina Brigade of Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg, to Gregg’s left front was the brigade of James Lane. Jackson had troops behind and on both sides of the swamp. The gap between the brigades of Archer and Lane was 600 yards. A thin line of skirmishers held the front along the rail road tracks. If anyone came through the swamp Gregg should be ready to stop them.

Jackson did not just stop with Hill’s men manning the line, Stonewall setup a defense in-depth. Behind Hill’s division were the division’s of Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, Brigadier General Jubal Early, and Brigadier General William Taliaferro. If Jackson’s line broke as it did at Kernstown in March 1862, there would be plenty of men at hand to fill the gap and counter attack, if the opportunity presented itself.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Books & Authors, Campaigns, Leadership--Confederate and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Fight for Prospect Hill…Part 1

  1. Mark Curran says:

    Interesting, but It is amazing to me there is almost never any mention of the slave built massive earth works, designed and executed by Robert E Lee, that played such a large role in the protection of Richmond and the huge iron works there. When you realize how brutal Lee was to his own slave women, during peace time, according to his slave ledgers, you can not help but wonder how he treated slave men during war time, when his life depended on their work.

    One reason the war lasted so long was Richmond was protected by slave built earth works. Those were massive earth works, and played a crucial role, apparently, in the war. Yet they are almost never mentioned. Why is that? Those were the earth works that Lee and Davis both thought were breached, so they fled from Richmond. The war lasted about as long as the earthworks held.

    The only reason I can think of that Lee’s role in these slave built defenses is glossed over, is that it’s still not politically correct to be candid about Lee’s role and actions.

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