The 26th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry: A Baptism of Fire and Brimstone at Fredericksburg Part 2

ECW welcomes back guest author David Steinert

(See Part I here)

A sketch done by Edward Forbes showing the city of Fredericksburg from the opposite bank of the Rappahannock River. (LOC)

Sunday afternoon December 7, was cold and the soldiers of the 26th NJV gathered around a campfire to get warm and to hear their Chaplain, David T. Morrill preach. “So severe was the cold that the night after the arrival of the regiment, the water froze in the canteens”, noted one officer.[1]

On Tuesday, December 8, now camped near the east bank of the Rappahannock River, opposite the city of Fredericksburg, the regiment was issued as additional 20 rounds more of ammunition per man for a total of 60 (40 in cartridge boxes and 20 carried in the pockets of their jackets). They were to have 3 days’ cooked rations in their haversacks and be ready to march at a moment’s notice[2]—That anxiously awaited moment did not arrive until two days later—This would be the first battle for the soldiers of the 26th NJV.

As the sun arose on Thursday, 11 December 1862, the soldiers of the 26th NJV were already on the march and prepared to cross the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg on the recently constructed pontoon bridges at a location named forever in history as Franklin’s Crossing. After traveling only a short distance, the regiment stopped and loaded their firearms. They were scarcely on their way again, when artillery firing began; As they approached the river the explosions became more audible.

Finally reaching the banks of the river, an unidentified officer of the 26th described the scene, “On we went, until reaching a brow of a hill, the valley of the Rappahannock burst upon our sight. At our feet lay an extensive plain, through the midst of which we could trace the course of the river. In the back-ground, the Hights (sic) of Fredericksburg stood out against the horizon.”[3]

The soldiers of the 26th regiment joined in with the rest of the Union army that stretched for miles along the east bank of the river. On the opposite bank could be seen glimpses of the rebel legion that now occupied the city of Fredericksburg with their artillery batteries dominating the hills slightly west of the city.  Suddenly enemy artillery shells began exploding over the heads of those Union soldiers attempting to cross the river. The regiment hunkered down in the mud awaiting their turn to cross until 8pm when, “…with the exception of one brigade and some artillery the rest of the grand division went back some two miles to dry ground, where there was wood, to bivouac for the night. It was 11 o’clock before we could make ourselves comfortable enough to sleep”, as reported by Chaplain Morrill in the 18 December 1862 Newark Daily Adviser.

The next morning, December 12, another sunny and unusually mild day, the 26th left at daybreak, marched back to the river and crossed the pontoon bridge without opposition. The regiment immediately formed into a second line of battle on the southeast edge of the city. Notes from an unidentified officer described what happened next, “Soon the rebel batteries opened, and then, for the first time we felt that we were under fire, for their shells, flying over our heads, frequently burst just above us, though too high to do any carnage.[4]

At 2:30 PM, the soldiers of the 26th NJV were still awaiting orders to advance forward into the field of battle. While being detained in reserve, Chaplain Morrill reported on the regiment’s tumultuous situation:“…shells went screaming over our heads. One came within 20 feet of where Col. Morrison, Adj. White and Dr. Bowlby were standing, it plowed the ground and buried itself there and fortunately, it did not burst. The next one burst in a New York Regiment, slightly wounding one man. For a little while we had a chance to stand fire, and to their praise be it said, the men stood it quite as well as the old regiments. Our artillery replied, and soon their fire was turned away from us.”[5]

On the morning of December 13, the soldiers of the 26th NJV, still bivouacked in the same spot from the night before, awoke to an eerie calm that settled over the plains that laid at the base of Marye’s Heights. Above, the Confederates maintained a strong position behind a stonewall. In the afternoon, the firing that had began sporadically increased in intensity.

The 26th remained in their current position as Confederate artillery shells flew thickly over and around the regiment. Thankfully, the barrage wounded only two men from the 26th. “Column after column filed past us on the way to the front, and one regiment after another of our own brigade fell quietly into their ranks and moved off to battle, until we were left alone. We knew we were not in fighting trim. At last the orders came, and the regiment never moved off in finer style or kept a better line; but we had not gone two hundred yards before the order was countermanded, and we marched quietly back to our former position. Night came on and the firing ceased.” explains an unidentified soldier in the 26th.[6]

The regiment camped for another evening in the same location they held from the previous day. Later that night, Chaplain Merrill continued writing his correspondence on the battle for the Newark Daily Advertiser: “Our Division hospital (Howe’s 2nd Division, VI Corps) is in one of the most extensive and magnificent old stone mansions (Bernard Mannsfield House) that I have ever seen. It is well for the inmates that it is a substantial structure, for stray (I hope) shells go screaming past and bursting around”.[7]

Mannsfield, as seen in the January 10, 1863 issue of Harpers Weekly.

Constructed in 1765-1766, the Bernard Mannsfield House was located on the banks of the Rappahannock River about two miles south of downtown Fredericksburg. At the time of the Civil War, the main house had almost 7,000 square feet of living space with an extensive basement, and with 1,800 acres, it was one of the largest plantations in the area. During the battle, it quickly became a Union hospital.[8] Dr. William W. Bowlby most likely attended to the wounded and dying during the battle in the confines of the Bernard Mannsfield House.

On December 14, the 26th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry was ordered to the front where they were briefly exposed to some enemy artillery fire and a brisk attack by Confederate skirmishers, which was quickly repulsed; The field quieted that afternoon and the regiment spent the night at that position before pulling back towards the river the following morning. The next day all was quiet and at night, the regiment quietly crossed the pontoon bridge to the north side of the Rappahannock. Here they set up camp and soon went into winter-quarters at nearby Belle Plain.


 

[1] Compiled by William H. Shaw, History of Essex and Hudson Counties, New Jersey, 1884, Page 147.

[2] Morrill, D.T. (1862, November 18), From the 26th Regiment, Newark Daily Advertiser. URL:www.genealogybank.com.

[3] Compiled by William H. Shaw, History of Essex and Hudson Counties, New Jersey, 1884, Page 148.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Compiled by William H. Shaw, History of Essex and Hudson Counties, New Jersey, 1884, Page 148.

[7] Morrill, D.T. (1862, November 18), From the 26th Regiment, Newark Daily Advertiser. URL:www.genealogybank.com.

[8] Digging Mannsfield, https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/digging-mannsfield/

 

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