December 12: Fredericksburg Is On My Mind

(Sunken Road, from the ECW Media Archives)

Thinking about the river crossings that happened on December 12, 1862, at Fredericksburg, Virginia? It’s been on my mind today even though I’m literally thousands of miles away.

I’m signing my Christmas cards today…I think about the generals writing their orders. I walk the treadmill at the gym, but I’m wondering how many steps it took for the Union boys to cross the river on the pontoon bridges. A strange thought comes to mind as I pull weights (still at the gym): how much energy and strength did it take to put an ax through a piano and some of the wild destruction scenes that occurred during the looting of the town before the officers and provost restored order. Later, sitting by the decorated tree, drinking cocoa and visiting with a friend, I think about the civilians, huddled in their house or refugeeing away from their town as the armies prepare make their streets and fields a battleground. Everything so different than my day, but the history still follows me.

I don’t know if you had a day like that? Maybe this blog post is the first time you’ve thought of Fredericksburg today. After-all, the 12th in 1862 was still the prelude to the charges, breakthroughs, and slaughter that happened the following day. More Union troops crossed the Rappahannock and waited in the town while the generals made their attack plans. From Prospect Hill to Maryes Heights, the Confederates also waited, planning to fight a defensive battle with their artillery placed in a well-planned crossfire.

Today, some of my history reading included a civilian diary, and I thought I’d share one of the excerpts. Jane Howison Beale, a citizen of Fredericksburg, made journal entries between 1850 and 1862; she penned some of her most historically significant observations during the First Battle of Fredericksburg. The following is her entry for December 12, after she had escaped the artillery bombardment in town the previous day.

December 12

The distant boom of a cannon roused us early in the morning, and we thought of course the battle would be fought that day. Mr. Brent and the boys started for the “Telegraph Road” to see and hear all that was going on and we wandered out over the hills and fields in the direction of the town for the same purpose, but feeling weak and weary I soon returned and helped Mrs. Temple about the housework as much as I could. 

The firing did not continue long except at distant intervals, and about noon they all came back and reported, the town was filled with the enemy and the long line extending down the river as far as the eye could reach, Julian and Sam had seen some persons from town who told them that the Yankees had sacked the town the night before and destroyed or born away every article from the houses, that our house was burnt to the ground, and they had seen the servants at “Beverley Brookes’s”

This news filled us with the deepest sorrow here was my whole family thrown out in the world, homeless and utterly bereft of every comfort of life, and the future did look dark indeed, God’s mercy kept us from despair in that trying hour, and caused us to cling to His promises. We tried to sustain each other with hope of what we might be able to do if we could get to North Carolina where we had near relatives. I had with me money enough to take us to Richmond and we thought my dear brother R might aid us there, we had no clothes but those we wore, no bonnets, no wrappings but the blankets we had around us when we fled from home.

Jane H. Beale, December 12, 1862

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to December 12: Fredericksburg Is On My Mind

  1. What a wonderfully evocative post, Sarah. I never go through my day thinking about what was happening in the War.

  2. John Pryor says:

    Would the Army of the Potomac ever again be as poorly served at the top as by Burnside and Franklin until the failure to take Petersburg? What valor on those Dark Heights!

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