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1862 December 24: Thrilling Account of the Crossing of the Rappahannock

December 24, 2012

The following account from The New York Times about the battle at Fredericksburg comes from the December 24, 1862, issue of The Prescott Journal.

Crossing of the Rappshamock [sic]

A Thrilling Account.

From the Fredericksburg correspondence of the New York Times of the 13th we have the following vivid account of the crossing of the Rappahannock :

At 9 o’clock official notification was received that the two bridges on the extreme left were completed, and General Franklin [William B. Franklin] sent to General Burnside [Ambrose E. Burnside] to know if he should cross his force at once.  The reply was that he should wait until the upper bridges were also completed.

Meanwhile, with the latter but little progress was made to complete the bridges, but each time the party was repulsed with severe loss.  On the occasion of one essay, Capt. Brainard, of the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers, went out on the bridge with eleven men.  Capt. Perkins led another party, and was shot through the neck and the 66th and 57th New York regiment, which were supporting the 50th and 15th New York Volunteer Engineers—Gen. Woodbury’s¹ brigade—suffered severely.  It was a hopeless task, and we made no little or no progress.  The rebel sharpshooters, posted in the collars of the houses of the front not fifty yards from the river, behind stone walls and rifle pits, were able to pick off with damnable accuracy any party of engineers venturing on the half-completed bridges.

The case is perfectly clear.  Nothing can be done till they are dislodged from their lurking places.  There is but one way of doing this effectually—shell the town.  At ten o’clock Gen. Burnside gives the order, “Concentrate the fire of all your guns on the city, and batter it down!”  You may believe that they were not loth to obey order.  The artillery of the right—eight batteries—was commanded by Col. Hays;² Col. Tompkins,³ right center—seven batteries, forming a total of 179 guns, ranging from ten pounder Parrots to four and a half inch siege guns, posted along the convex side of the arc of the circle, formed by the bend of the river and land opposite Fredericksburg, opened on the doomed city.  The effect was, of course, terrific, and reganized [sic] merely as a phenomenon, was among the most awfully grand conceivable.  Perhaps what would give you the liveliest idea on its effect, is a succession, absolutely without intermission, of the very loudest thunder peals.  It lasted thus for upwards of an hour, fifty rounds being fired from each gun, and I know not how many tons of iron were thrown into the town.

Fredericksburg

The congregated Generals were transfixed.  Mingled satisfaction and awe was upon every face.  But what was tantalizing, was that though a great deal could be heard, nothing could be seen, the city still being enveloped in fog and mist.  Only a denser pillar of smoke defining itself on the back ground of the fog, indicated where the town had been fired by our shells.  Another and another column showed itself, and we presently saw that at least a dozen houses must be on fire.

Toward noon the curtain rolled up, and we saw that it was so.  Fredericksburg was in conflagration.  Tremendous though the firing had been and terrific though its effect was obviously on the town, it had not accomplished the object intended.  It was found by our gunners almost impossible to obtain a sufficient depression of their pieces to shell the front of the city, and the rebel sharpshooters were comparatively safe behind the stone walls of the houses.

During the thick of the bombardment, a fresh attempt had been made to complete the bridge.  It failed, and evidently nothing could be done till a party could be thrown over to clean out the rebels and cover the bridge load.  For this mission Gen. Burnside called for volunteers, and Col. Hall4 of Fort Sumpter [sic] fame, immediately responded that he had a brigade that would do the business. Accordingly, the Seventh Michigan and Nineteenth Massachusetts, two small regiments, numbering in all about four hundred men, were selected for the purpose.

The plan was that they should take the pontoon boats of the first bridge, of which were ten lying on the bank of the river, waiting to be added to the half finished bridge, cross over in them, and landing, drive out the rebels.

Nothing could be more admirable or more gallant than the execution of this daring feat.  Rushing down the steep banks of the river, the party found temporary shelter behind the pontoon boats lying scattered on the bank, and behind the piles of planking destined for the covering of the bridge, behind rocks, &c.  In this situation they acted some fifteen or twenty minutes as sharpshooters, they and the rebels observing each other.  In the meantime new and vigorous artillery firing was commenced on our part, and just as soon as this was fully developed, the 7th Michigan rose from their crouching places, rushed for the pontoons boats, and pushing them into the water, rapidly filled them with twenty-five or thirty each.

The first boat pushes off.  Now, if ever, is the rebels opportunity.  Crack! Crack! Crack! from fifty lurking places go rebel rifles at the gallant fellows, who, stooping low in the boat, seek to avoid the fire.  The murderous work was well done.  Lustily, however, pull the oarsmen, and presently, having passed the middle of the stream, the boat and its gallant freight came under cover of the opposite bluffs.

Another and another boat follows.  Now is their opportunity, nothing could be more amusing, in its way, than the result.  Instantly they saw a new turn of affairs.  The rebels pop up by the hundred, like so many rats from every cellar, rifle pits and stone wall, and scamper off up the streets of the town.  With all their fleetness, however, many of them were much too slow.  With incredible rapidity the Massachusetts and Michigan boys sweep up the hill, making a rush for the lurking places occupied by the rebels, and gaining them, each man capturing two or three prisoners.  The pontoon boats on their return trip took over more than a hundred of these fellows.

You can imagine with that intense interest the crossing of the first boat load of our men was watched by the numerous spectators on the shore, and with what enthusiastic shouts their landing on the opposite side was greeted.  It was an authentic piece of human heroism, which moves men as nothing else can.  The problem was solved.  This dash of bravery had done what scores of batteries and tons of metal had failed to accomplish.

The party once across, and the rebels cleaned out, took the engineers but a brief period to complete the bridge.  They laid hold with a will, plunging waist deep into the water, and working as men work who are under inspiration.  In less that half an hour the bridge was completed, and the head of the column of the right grand division, consisting of Gen. Howard’s5 command, was moving upon it over the Rappahannock.  A feeble attempt from the rebel batteries was made to shell the troops in crossing, but it failed completely.

1.  Daniel Phineas Woodbury (1812-1864) was a career military officer, being a graduate of West Point. He entered the artillery and then served as an engineer in building the Cumberland Road and constructing Forts Kearney and Laramie. In the Civil War, he fought at the first Battle of Bull Run, and then commanded the Engineer Brigade during the Peninsula Campaign and the Northern Virginia Campaign, and at the Battle of Antietam. At Fredericksburg, he earned the brevet of brigadier general in the regular army for his efforts described here in supervising the construction of several pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River.
2.  William Hays (1819-1875), a graduate of West Point who served in the Mexican War, was a lieutenant colonel at this point in the Civil War. He commanded a brigade of horse artillery under Henry Hunt in the Army of the Potomac and fought at the battles of Seven Pines, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. He was wounded and taken prisoner at Chancellorsville, and after being exchanged fought at Gettysburg.
3.  Charles Henry Tompkins (1830-1915) was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in action in the Battle of Fairfax Court House in 1861. He was the colonel of the 4th Maine Artillery during the Peninsula Campaign.
4.  Norman Jonathan Hall (1837-1867), a career military officer, had been appointed to West Point by Jefferson Davis. Hall was serving at Fort Sumter when the Civil War began and acted as an emissary for the fort early in the standoff. At one point in the artillery bombardment, the United States flag was knocked to the ground by a Confederate shell, Hall raced through across the parade ground to save the flag, and, with the help of two fellow soldiers, replaced the pole and hoisted “Old Glory” over the battered fort. In July 1862 Hall became colonel of the 7th Michigan Infantry, leading it during the Second Battle of Bull Run, at Antietam and Fredericksburg, where he volunteered to lead his men across the pontoon bridges. Despite these exploits, Hall is most noted for his defense of his sector of the Union line against Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg.
5.  Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909) was a career military officer, being a graduate of West Point. He was known as the “Christian general” because he tried to base his policy decisions on his deep religious piety. At the beginning of the Civil War, Howard became the colonel of the 3rd Maine Infantry and temporarily commanded a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run. He was then promoted to brigadier general and given permanent command of his brigade. His brigade joined Army of the Potomac and participated in the Peninsula Campaign. He was wounded twice at the Battle of Fair Oaks and his right arm was subsequently amputated and he received the Medal of Honor in 1893. Howard participated in the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, and the Atlanta Campaign. After the War he was put in charge of the Freedmen’s Bureau to help the freed slaves. In 1877, Nez Perce Chief Joseph surrendered to Howard after the Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana.

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