November 1862 in Fredericksburg: “Continued reports of the enemy approaching”

A couple mornings ago I headed into historic downtown Fredericksburg to shoot some photos before the streets got busy. My walk took me toward the city dock which in 1862 became one of the crossing points for Burnside’s Union troops. For the first half of the walk, I kept trying to image the scene in an 1862 historical appearance around the time of the battle – fewer leaves on the trees, colder weather, overcast sky. For the second half of the stroll, I realized it was better to take in the early November scene and know that I can come back to see the area again in December.

Then, I started wondering what the civilians in Fredericksburg thought as the armies gathered near their town in November 1862. I’m familiar with their writings related to the battle, but what about the weeks leading to it. Fortunately, I have my copy of Jane Beale’s journal and I referred to her writings for a reference.

Here’s what she recorded about November 1862, and it’s another fine example of a civilian reporting on military details:

November 9th

A company of Yankee cavalry crossed the river at Falmouth this morning and dashed into town surprising our cavalry force here and capturing about 20 of them in the skirmish which occurred in the streets two men were killed one on each side, as soon as Capt. Simpson collected his forces on the outskirts of the town, he made an attack upon them put them to flight and many of the citizens joining in pelted them [with] stones, one Yankee was knocked off his horse with a stone and taken prisoner. We spent the week after in anxiety and fear with continued reports of the enemy approaching our halcyon days were drawing to a close.

November 17th

Our little army here was augmented by the arrival of a small force from Richmond. A considerable number of the enemy appeared above the town of Falmouth and towards evening commenced firing upon our battery stationed in the field beyond White Plains. Col. Ball who was in command here returned the fire and there was an artillery duel kept up for about an hour. We watched the firing with intense interest until warned by the near approach of a shot we left our station at the window and came down stairs when we came into our front porch we found the whole neighborhood in a great state of excitement. The poor people from the upper part of town had fled from their homes and were running wildly along with their children in their arms, a shot had gone thro the paper factory and frightened the poor girls who were at work there terribly and they had joined the stampede, we yielded to the advice of the gentlemen of the neighborhood and went to another part of the town until night came on when we returned home to await the events of another day, we learned then that the Yankees had got the range of our batteries and had disabled our guns killing one man and wounding several, one boy who had gone from curiosity to witness the fight had his foot shot and terribly shattered. Several horses were killed and the battery was withdrawn from the open field and hid behind the house at White Plains.

Tuesday, November 18th

Rose early and the first object that met my eyes upon looking out was a line of cavalry drawn up behind my schoolroom and stable, I soon leaned they had been there for hours and by a little concert of action among the neighbors we determined to give them their breakfasts and my boys and servants fed and watered fifteen by 9 o’clock. They were so grateful did my very heart good to give it to them. There was but little done in school today the children are so frightened and excited that it is almost impossible to do anything with them.

November 19th

Watched with trembling hearts the long line of Yankees pouring over the Chatham hills to take the same station they occupied last summer, they come in countless numbers and our hearts sank within us as we thought of our little Spartan band who hold the fords, why do they remain to be sacrificed? And to bring destruction upon our town were queries that forced themselves upon us, nor did our wonder cease much when we heard Gen. Lee had telegraphed to Col. Ball “to hold the passage of the River at Fred’g at all hazards.”

November 20th

The rain poured in torrents all day and there was no cessation at night, anxiety kept me awake, and I was startled to hear knocks at both front and back doors simultaneously about midnight, upon enquiring who it was before opening the door the answer was “southern soldiers of McLaws’ division who are fatigued from a long march are wet cold and hungry.” I dressed myself hastily summoned Mr. Brent to my aid and got together every thing I could for the comfort of these poor fellows, I knew there was wood in my schoolroom for burning, I gave them the key, and filled a basket with bread, meat, molasses, milk, candles, matches, and gave them some pieces of carpet, pointed them the way and told them that was all I could do tonight but if they would stay in the morning I would give them some breakfast, and when I went out in the morning I found eleven had collected there, and there was a perfect lake of water had dropped from their clothes in the room where they had hung them. We now began to understand things, the army of Gen’l Lee was collecting around us and here a battle must take place ere long.

November 21st

This day was spent in excitement and apprehension a demand was made for the surrender of the town by the Yankee Gen’l Burnside, which was answered by the military authorities now in possession, the subject was discussed thro’ ambassadors all day, towards evening Gen’l Lee arrived and replied in person to Gen’l Burnside “If you want the town of Fred’g come and take it.”

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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1 Response to November 1862 in Fredericksburg: “Continued reports of the enemy approaching”

  1. I acquired a copy of Beale’s diary a couple of months ago and devoured it in just a couple of nights. Not just her experience in November and December of 1862, but also during the Union occupation earlier that spring, and the years leading up to the war. She expresses all the hopes and fears of the typical Confederate civilian of the time. It’s a shame we don’t have more from her.

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