“I Should Be Sorry to See Fredericksburg Suffer:” The Battle of Fredericksburg’s Impact on the Town’s Civilians

ECW welcomes guest author Abbi Smithmyer

Every year, countless individuals flock to America’s Civil War battlefields for a firsthand look at places impacted by the conflict. Narratives of these engagements are mostly centered on the army commanders and men in the ranks that followed them into battle. Furthermore, the story of the civilians, whose lives were forever changed by war, is often lost. But before they were battlefields, these lands were farms, homes, and churches. Those affected most deeply by battle were in many cases the local citizens, whose land and communities became killing fields. The physical imprint of war lingered for decades in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Located halfway between Washington and Richmond, Fredericksburg was a crucial crossroads for the Union and Confederate armies. Four times armies in blue and gray waged battle around the town. Between engagements, both armies camped on the surrounding landscape and depleted the area of its local harvest and resources. But of all the trials Fredericksburg faced throughout the war, none was more destructive than the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Although the small town gained some fame before the war as the childhood home of George Washington, the December battle briefly made Fredericksburg one of the most famous places in North America, and forever changed the lives of the people who called it home.

Fredericksburg, a colonial city founded in 1727, had a population of 5,020 in 1860, with about one third being enslaved.[1] The town was peacefully occupied by Union troops before, but when Union General Ambrose Burnside arrived with his army in November 1862, Fredericksburg became the forefront of war. By early December, the town found itself sandwiched between 80,000 Confederates on one side and 120,000 Union soldiers on the other. While many civilians chose to flee before the eminent engagement, fewer than 1,000 residents remained in their homes.[2]

Refugees scattered from the city in all directions. Some residents used the railroad to move south to Richmond and Petersburg, while others fled to friends’ farms in neighboring Spotsylvania County. Some even made makeshift camps on the outskirts of town, braving the December weather as best they could. One such camp was located on the opposite side of Marye’s Heights, behind the Confederate line. Civilian diarist Jane Beale described the scene along the road:

Crowds of women and children had sought refuge in this sheltered spot and as night drew on they were in great distress… Some few had stretched blue yarn counterpanes or pieces of old carpet over sticks, stuck in the ground and the little ones were huddled together under these tents, the women were weeping the children crying loudly, I saw one walking along with a baby in her arms and another little one not three years old clinging to her dress and crying “I want to go home” My heart ached for them…[3]

The sight of fleeing civilians outraged Confederate soldiers. An artillery sergeant posted on Lee’s Hill recorded that “Women and children crowded the public roads, fleeing from their desolate homes. The weather was extremely cold—the mud on the highway six inches deep—the road filled with frozen clods of earth. It was heart-rending to hear the weeping of these fugitives from cruelty.”[4] Another soldier that witnessed the exodus claimed he “never saw a more pitiful procession” than the civilians “trudging through the deep snow.”[5]

While many left at the possibility of danger, others remained in Fredericksburg. Some refugees even returned to the city due to the lack of movement by the Union Army. Although Burnside was ready for battle, the pontoon boats he needed to cross the Rappahannock River took weeks to arrive from Washington, which further delayed the Union advance. However, all this changed on December 11, 1862. Early in the morning, soldiers and civilians heard the crack of two Confederate cannons, which signaled the start of the Union’s movement. To contest the crossing, Mississippi infantrymen occupied riverside basements and back yards, and fired upon the Union engineers constructing the bridges. In response, Burnside ordered an artillery bombardment on Fredericksburg in an attempt to push the Confederates out of the town. For hours, nearly 150 guns fired on the town.

The remaining citizens did all they could to escape the cannons. A female citizen who remained in the city, awoke to the sound of the two cannons. She and others rushed to their cellars as the bombardment commenced. She later stated that, “One shot went through the parlor; five in all through the house. As they passed, the crash they made seemed to threaten instant death to all; it sounded as though the house was tumbling in, and would bury us in its ruins.”[6] This horror was mirrored in the words of ten-year-old Fanny White who wrote:

I beheld what seemed to me the most brilliant light that I had ever seen… A shell had exploded at the back of the garden…. As I looked, my aunt reached out her arms and pulled me, quivering with terror, into the cellar…. For long hours the only sounds that greeted our ears were the whizzing and moaning of the shells and the crash of falling bricks and timber.[7]

Fredericksburg in ruin (Library of Congress)

Virtually every house in Fredericksburg suffered damage, while many closest to the river were completely destroyed. A few families who remained in the town were forced from their homes due to the terrible destruction. As the rebel soldiers watched the bombardment, Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander saw that “several buildings were set on fire, & their black smoke rose in remarkably slender, straight, & tall columns for two hundred feet, perhaps, before they began to spread horizontally & unite in a great black canopy.”[8] Eighty-year-old postmaster, Reuben Thom and his family, had no choice but to escape the flames that engulfed their home.[9] The end of the devastating cannonading brought little relief to Fredericksburg. The Union Army soon moved into the town and street fighting ensued, which caused even more anguish for the civilians who remained. One woman wrote, “though the bombardment had ceased, the musketry sounded to my ears yet more awful, for I knew they were fighting in the streets.”[10]

Nearly every building in Fredericksburg bore scars from the conflict, yet much worse was the loss of civilian lives. Throughout the course of December 11, a few civilians fell dead, although exact numbers are unclear. Eighteen-year-old Jacob Grotz and an African-American woman were killed by artillery shells, while another citizen died during the bloody street fighting.[11] By nightfall, the Confederate troops pulled out of the town and the Union Army quickly occupied Fredericksburg. The looting that followed elevated Fredericksburg “to the status of the first martyred town of the South.”[12] One Rhode Island soldier said, “The soldiers began to pillage and destroy. Everything in the way of furniture was brought into the streets…It was a very unpleasant sight to see the destruction of property; vandalism reigned supreme.”[13] “Furniture, bedding, mattresses, carpets, china, domestic utensils, indeed all that went to make up those comfortable old homes, were strewn helter skelter, broken and ruined about the streets,” remembered Confederate Officer Moxley Sorrel.[14] “What a scene met our eyes!” young Fanny White wrote when seeing her home, as “one room was piled more than halfway to the ceiling with feathers from beds ripped open, [and] every mirror had been run through with a bayonet.”[15]

Wartime sketch showing Union soldiers looting Fredericksburg (Library of Congress)

The bloody battle that ensued on December 13, 1862, was fought beyond the town, yet Fredericksburg itself was turned into a hospital. Once again, every structure still standing was occupied by Northern troops. Betty H. Maury recalled the gruesome transformation of her home into a hospital. Maury wrote, “every vessel in the house (even the vegetable dishes and cups) are filled with blood and water, that there are large pools of gore on the floor, [and] that a table in the parlor was used as an amputating table.”[16] “Death, nothing but death” wrote one reporter as he described the “great masses of bodies tossed out of the churches as the sufferers expired” and the “piles of arms and legs, amputated as soon as their owners had been carried off the field.”[17]

With Burnside’s defeat and retreat back across the Rappahannock River, civilians began to emerge from their basements and bear witness to a town destroyed. Amid the physical damage, residents of Fredericksburg saw the fresh graves and burial trenches that scattered the landscape of their once quaint and quiet town. Fredericksburg was one of the first American cities to be consumed by the Civil War. One reporter claimed, “a more pitiable devastation and destruction of property would be difficult to conceive” while another said, “I have seen many towns and villages on the soil of Virginia vying with each other as specimens of the effects of war’s handiwork, but it seems to me that if any spot on earth can fitly represent the abomination of desolation that spot is Fredericksburg.”[18]

This destruction shocked the world and fueled anger against the Union. Contributions came from all over the Confederacy to help the citizens of Fredericksburg rebuild. Rebel commanders James Longstreet and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson donated part of their own salary to assist in the relief effort and many Confederate units tried to outdo one another’s generosity.[19] Women’s organizations went door-to-door, across the Confederacy to garner support. All combined, an impressive $170,000 was donated to assist the citizens of Fredericksburg.[20] Even with such generosity, the people of Fredericksburg faced two more years of war.

While all felt anguish due to the horrible fate that overtook the city, some gained freedom when the Union army came to Fredericksburg. The town’s courthouse became a safe haven for newly freed slaves. One man watched them celebrate their freedom and said “They came in singly, by twos, and in squads… they would sometimes form a large circle of boys and girls, join hands and dance, rocking right to left…and sing…They all seemed as happy as though they owned the town.”[21] Those enslaved saw the arrival of the United States Army as an opportunity to self-emancipate. One enslaved man, John Washington, crossed the Rappahannock River to escape bondage and within the next few months he was followed by thousands of other African Americans.[22]

The Civil War weighed heavily on the Fredericksburg region, and by war’s end the community was transformed both physically and economically. More than eighty buildings were destroyed, which wiped out nearly ten-percent of the city. Personal wealth of Fredericksburg’s citizens plummeted, dropping by more than seventy percent.[23] The devastation and destruction that engulfed Fredericksburg and its people was a prelude to what the war brought to other parts of the South as the conflict dragged on. The town of Fredericksburg and the people who called it home were forever changed by the war. While there are few visible scars of the battle today, it took generations for those in the town to heal from the drastic losses, with some families never returning.

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Abbi Smithmyer received her Bachelors of Arts Degree in History at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. She recently graduated with her MA in History from West Virginia University this May. She is staying at WVU for her PhD, which will begin in August. In the summer of 2017, she interned at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg. She has worked with the National Park Service for two summers–interning at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 2018 and as a seasonal park ranger at Petersburg in 2019. Her studies and research often explore the social and cultural history of the nineteenth century and how it intersected and impacted military decisions of the Civil War.

Notes:

[1] Francis Augustín O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 30.

[2] John Hennessy, “Voices from the Storm: Civilians Endure the Battle of Fredericksburg,” American Battlefield Trust, accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/voices-storm-0.

[3] Jane Howison Beale, Journal of Jane Howison Beale of Fredericksburg, Virginia 1850-1862 (Fredericksburg: Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, 1984), 78.

[4] Herbert Varner, “Battle of Fredericksburg,” Macon Telegraph, January 2, 1863.

[5] Robert Stiles, Four Years Under Marse Robert (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1903), 128.

[6] Anonymous, “Horrors of a Bombardment,” Richmond (VA) Daily Dispatch, January 2, 1863.

[7] John Hennessy, “Voices from the Storm: Civilians Endure the Battle of Fredericksburg,” American Battlefield Trust, accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/voices-storm-0.

[8] Gary Gallagher, ed., Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 171.

[9] Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, “Caught in the Crossfire: Civilians at Fredericksburg,” Civil Discourse: A Blog of the Long Civil War Era, April 23, 2015, http://www.civildiscourse-historyblog.com/blog/2015/2/27/caught-in-the-crossfire-civilians-at-fredericksburg.

[10] Anonymous, “Horrors of a Bombardment,” Richmond (VA) Daily Dispatch, January 2, 1863.

[11] Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, “Caught in the Crossfire: Civilians at Fredericksburg,” Civil Discourse: A Blog of the Long Civil War Era, April 23, 2015, http://www.civildiscourse-historyblog.com/blog/2015/2/27/caught-in-the-crossfire-civilians-at-fredericksburg.

[12] John Hennessy, “Voices from the Storm: Civilians Endure the Battle of Fredericksburg,” American Battlefield Trust, accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/voices-storm-0.

[13] Thomas M. Aldrich, The History of Battery A, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery (Providence: Snow & Farnham, 1904), 160.

[14] Gilbert Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1905) 145-146.

[15] John Hennessy, “Voices from the Storm: Civilians Endure the Battle of Fredericksburg,” American Battlefield Trust, accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/voices-storm-0.

[16] Alice Maury Pamelee, ed. The Confederate Diary of Betty Herndon Maury (Washington: Privately printed, 1938), 98-99.

[17] Anonymous, London Times, January 23, 1863.

[18] Anonymous, London Times, January 23, 1863; Anonymous, London Times, January 1, 1863.

[19] Francis Augustín O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 462.

[20] George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 429.

[21] John Hennessy, “For All Anguish, For Some Freedom,” Blue & Gray Magazine (Winter 2005), 58.

[22] Erik F. Nelson, ed., “Minutes of the Common Council of the Town of Fredericksburg, 1862-1863,” Fredericksburg History & Biography, vol. 13 (Fredericksburg: Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, Inc., 2013), 134.

[23] John Hennessy, “Voices from the Storm: Civilians Endure the Battle of Fredericksburg,” American Battlefield Trust, accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/voices-storm-0.

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2 Responses to “I Should Be Sorry to See Fredericksburg Suffer:” The Battle of Fredericksburg’s Impact on the Town’s Civilians

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    This is well written by a woman who is already very professional at plying her craft. She like the other women who write for ECW cover aspects of war that men seldom do or if they do they lack the feel for the human aspects of war that women possess. i am glad to see the day come when women and African Americans emerge as historians.

  2. I love everything about this article. Excellent work. Thank you for sharing!

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