I walked down to the banks for the Rappahannock River last night. I’d had a lovely dinner with family at one of William Street’s excellent restaurants, and walking back to the car, I had an open view down the hill toward the river. “Let’s take a little road trip,” I said to my fianceé. Jenny smiled and nodded.
We drove two blocks down the hill and turned left onto Sophia Street. Downtown was bright with holiday decorations. Even at 9:30, folks on the street hustled here and there on unknown business, clenched against the cold yet still looking almost impossibly cheery. Christmas was in the air.
Sophia Street, darker, runs parallel to the Rappahannock. With drove a few blocks and then pulled over near the T-intersection with Hawke Street. The houses faces the river were all lit up. Wreaths hung on front doors, and one house had a cozy-lit lamp sitting on its porch.
From these houses and other like them, 151 years earlier, Confederate sharpshooters had hunkered down to take shots at the Federal engineers who were trying to build a pontoon bridge across the river.
Jenny and I walked to the river-side edge of the street and stood near the boulder monument for the 7th Michigan. The Michiganders had to pile into pontoon boats and row across the river under fire, then try and ferret out the sharpshooters. Before they did, though, the Confederates had a field day on the unfortunate engineers trying to construct the bridge.
“Imagine being out there, just a sitting duck, unable to fire back because you’re too busy trying to build your bridge,” I said to Jenny.
“Did anyone on their side of the river return fire and try to cover them?” she asked.
“They did,” I said. “But they were mostly out in the open too. And the Confederates had the advantage of not only cover but of elevation.”
When the fire got too hot, the engineers would throw down their work and run for cover. “I was greatly mortified…to find that the pontoniers under my command would not continue to work until actually shot down,” said their commander, Daniel Woodbury. “[T]he majority seemed to think their task a hopeless one. Perhaps I was unreasonable.”
Federal artillery did nothing to ease the fire, so the Michiganders had to paddle across. The pontoons, build for stability, not speed, did not cut gracefully or quickly across the water, leaving the men inside open to withering fire. They were, said one witness, “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 showed Jenny the topography of the riverbank, which eventually provided cover for the men in the boats. They made landfall, stormed up the bank and across the river, and then had to go through the houses, room by room, then house by house, then block by block.
Jenny and I turned our backs to the river and looked at the quaint Christmas-bedecked homes along the riverfront. The night was dark and still and glowing with holiday warmth even though the car thermometer had put the temperature in the upper 30s.
“One hundred and fifty-one years ago right now,” I said, “the Federal army was in the city. The engineers had finished their bridges, the rest of the army had come across, and then they took out their frustrations by looting and sacking and burning the city.”
There was no good part of the story. The city suffered. The soldiers suffered. “A lot of men died trying to get across that river,” I said. “What they did to the city in revenge was terrible.”
I spend a lot of time telling stories about the Civil War, but they aren’t just stories, and I come down to the river—or walk the fields or visit the cemeteries—to remind myself of that. These were men just like me—men who were fathers and husbands and sons and brothers and fiances—who died on that river, who died on these streets, who died storming the Stone Wall that runs along the Sunken Road at the base of Marye’s Heights. They were men who didn’t see Christmas that year. And it was a city that did not look so charming.
That is why I keep telling these stories.
For more on theUpper Crossing at Fredericksburg, read Kristopher D. White’s excellent post from last year. In 2011, he also published an in-depth seven-part series on the bombardment and looting of the city.