Fredericksburg: The War In Town

Earlier this week, I combed through Library of Congress images related to the Battle of Fredericksburg and found a sketch of Union soldiers plundering the town or December 11 or 12, 1862. Fredericksburg had the unlucky claim of being one of the first cities intentionally and deliberated targeted and then plundered during the Civil War. Both sides fired artillery projectiles into the city, and when Union soldiers arrived on the streets, they had a field day causing destruction which prompted rage from the southerners.

It should be noted that one of the few positive instances to happened in this period of Fredericksburg’s local history was freedom for enslaved. The Union army’s arrival in the vicinity and then appearance on the streets offered a chance for freedom. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet gone into effect, Union armies had already set precedent of sheltering “contraband” and giving them a chance for freedom.

As I took a closer look at the plundering sketch, I noted the building in the background that says “Bank of Virginia.” In Thomas Galway’s account of the 8th Ohio Infantry at Fredericksburg, he mentions this building and I can’t help wondering if some of the soldiers in the sketch could have been from his regiment.

To set the scene and share some history of the final hours before the hellish fight on December 13, here is an excerpt from Galway’s writings – and the sketch, of course.

The pontonniers are the 15th and the 50th New York Engineer Regiments. After a few moments they retreat from the river bank, up the ravines near the Lacy House. General Sumner then sends down the 17th Michigan and the 19th Massachusetts of our corps to make the attempt. The 7th Michigan is a very small regiment, about 60 men. They man one of the pontoons, and against a sharp musketry from the sharpshooters of Barksdale’s command, pole across and gain a footing upon the opposite bank. In the meantime the 19th Massachusetts have launched the pontoons and, with the assistance of the engineers, one stretch of pontoon bridge is laid across. Soon the infantry are swarming over it.

Dusk is coming on. The city has taken fire at several points. From our position on the bluffs north of the plateau we can see, by the light of the conflagration, the skirmishers fighting in the streets, dodging about from house to house. As night comes on the sight is indeed awe-inspiring. The whole heavens are lit up by the burning city. On the heights beyond the city, for a mile or more, flashes of white light show through the smoke, as the enemy artillery seeks to demolish our bridges, which by this time are all laid. Opposite the city are three double pontoon bridges, besides those which Franklin has placed farther down the river. Our division (French’s Third) lies on this (north) side of the river all night. The fighting continues all night with scarcely any lull, as light from the burning quarters of the city makes it almost as bright as day.

At daylight we march down to the bank and cross the river. Just after passing the bridge we halt near tobacco warehouses. The men pillage them at once. We are marched up to the principal street of the city, which runs parallel with the river, and here we stack arms. Later in the day we are assigned quarters, each company taking one house. Excepting the colored people, the inhabitants have fled. And they seem to have fled in great haste, because we find ladies’ wearing apparel tumbled on bedroom floors, as if it had been changed very suddenly.

It is a strange sight, a city given up to pillage. For although I heard no formal permission to plunder, yet I have heard no one forbidding the men to do it. Not for more than an hour after we had stacked arms and broken ranks, did i notice any attempt to get the men, who had been wandering about, back to their commands. That certainly did not prevent pillage for each company could very well sack the house where it was quartered. And they did it very effectually.

(Library of Congress)

We occupied a corner house. The headquarters of the regiment were with us. Next door was a confectionery store. Our men found a great deal of liquor in the cellar of this place. In the afternoon one man, who had been out plundering, came back and reported that he had unearthed a lot of Scotch ale. He took another man with him, and they soon returned with a gum blanket full of Scotch ale in stone bottles. A bank nearby, I think it was the Bank of Virginia, was plundered in the afternoon, and its safe blown open. I heard one of the men who had put the powder into the safe, complain that he had found nothing but worthless paper. No telling how valuable these papers were to their owners. One man in the house packed up a sewing machine which he found in the house and in some way or other got it over the river to send to his home. I heard of pianos being taken across the river to send north, and have not doubt but that it is so.

The furniture in the house we occupy is old fashion but rich. Everything bespoke the former comfort of its owners. At night we brought all the bed ticks down stairs and laid them on the floors. We did this because the enemy was shelling the city and the slates, shingles, windowpanes, and chimney bricks were flying in all directions. After a while, as night came on, the cannonade slackened. At night, however, there was a rattle of musketry on the outskirts of the city and the rumble of artillery moving in various directions to take position for tomorrow’s work. Someone in our house complained of the poor light, when a young scalawag, a notorious thief and errant coward, brought in a box of candles which he had found somewhere. He broke open the ox, and we soon had an illumination. Lighted candles were placed at every available place; on mantles, bureaus, and window sills. Why the house did not take fire, I do not know. Nearly all the men were drunk. At last nearly every one fell asleep. I known that I slept soundly until about daylight, when a fragment of shell came crashing through the window above me and struck the mantel on the opposite side of the room, knocking down some of the candles, which it seems someone before going to sleep had had enough sense to extinguish.

At daylight on Saturday the 13th everything was stirring. the plunder had continued all night. Many of the men are already drunk again. A heavy fog covers the city and entirely envelops the valley between it and Marye’s Heights where the enemy’s works are. Yesterday we could very plainly see the rebels moving about on the heights; this morning they are entirely obscured by the fog. Towards noon the fog begins to lift, and Franklin’s men, away to the left, begin the attack. All is in motion now. The 1st Delaware, the 4th Ohio, and our own 8th Ohio, are detached to open the attack of our division (French’s) in skirmishing order. Our regiment moves out Hanover Street towards the western outskirts of the city. The other regiments take the adjacent streets, it being the intention to deploy and to connect our lines when we shall have cleared the houses and have reached the open grounds beyond. Just as we reach the edge of the city and before we have time to deploy, we are met a fire from the enemy’s skirmishers (Barksdale’s brigade, we learn from a wounded Confederate) who are at the foot of the hill which descends from the city into the open valley

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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11 Responses to Fredericksburg: The War In Town

  1. Donald Smith says:

    Many Virginians remembered the sack of Fredericksburg.. A fair number still do. And yet, Lee issued strict orders for his troops to behave as they marched through Maryland and Pennsylvania, just six months later.

    • Joe Lafleur says:

      True, with the tiny caveat that his orders didn’t stop Confederate soldiers from hunting African Americans and returning them to slavery. Nor did it stop them from raiding parties that demanded every AA human turned over to them within 20 minutes or they’d burn every home, like near Mercersberg.

  2. Robert Rainey says:

    Donald, you beat me to hit. What a difference between the huns of the north and our own armies.

    • cptshandy says:

      Tell that to the African-Americans that were abducted and sold into slavery by Lee’s army in Pennsylvania!

      • Robert Rainey says:

        So Capt, tell us how many were brought back by Lee’s army? There focus was on achieving a democratically elected, independent CSA.

      • Lyle Smith says:

        Robert… their focus was on maintaining white supremacist slavery, which was the point of fighting for an independent CSA. Whichever way you want to state it, both slavery and Confederate independence were one and the same.

        Just ask Mosby what the war was about? Ask yourself why Cleburne’s petition to arm black slaves was rejected, or why free blacks that enlisted or tried to enlist in Confederate units were rejected?

        You need to dig further man.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      Come on Robert, you know this isn’t true. Our Confederate ancestors could be savage in their warring too.

      • Robert Rainey says:

        80% of the Confederate army had no slaves, had no interest in slavery but did want an independent country. When an invading army invades your homeland, people are going to resist. The confederacy did not wage war on the civilian population.

  3. Douglas Pauly says:

    And the ‘Lost Cause’ continues…Yawn…

    • Robert Rainey says:

      Yes Doug, you are a bore, we’ve seen and heard it before.

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Wow Robert. How ‘deep’. How ‘profound’. But all that aside, trust me on this: anyone referring to the Confederate army, which was intact for all of four years, and a couple of CENTURIES ago at that, as “ours” in this day and age, has some unresolved issues. I hope you are eventually able to work them out. Merry Christmas to you..

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