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1862 December 17: Battle of Fredericksburg

December 17, 2012

This first account of the Battle of Fredericksburg—which took place on December 11-15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia—comes from the December 17, 1862, issue of The Prescott Journal.  The battle was a Confederate victory.

Although not mentioned in this article, Wisconsin’s Iron Brigade participated in the battle.  Designated the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps, it consisted of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin regiments, and the 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan regiments.  The 6th Wisconsin included the Prescott Guards (Company B).

WAR NEWS

FREDERICKSBURG IN OUR POSSESSION!

176 Guns Open Fire Upon the City!
A STORM OF IRON HAIL!
THE CARNAGE FEARFUL!
CITY ENVELOPED IN FLAMES!
100 Volunteers Cross the River.
A BAYONET CHARGE! ! !
Rebel Sharpshooters Driven From the Rifle-pits.
OUR TROOPS OCCUPY FREDERICKSBURG!

HEADQUARTERS ARMY POTOMAC, }
December 11—Evening. }

But little firing took place between one and three o’clock, during which time all the available batteries were placed in position.  They numbered 176 guns.

At a signal they all opened fired on the city.  The fire was terrible, but the rebel sharpshooters could not be driven from their hiding places.

Shot and shell went through the house, in any cases setting them on fire, causing dense smoke, which together with the explosion of a large quantity of powder, almost hid the city from view.

It soon become evident that the bridges could not be built except by a bold dash.

Volunteers were called for to cross in boats.  The order was so suddenly given that thousands stepped forward, but all could not go.  About one hundred were selected.  They were soon on their way, while the artillery threw a perfect storm of iron hail on the opposite bank and they rushed upon the enemy, killing several and taking 101 prisoners, who were safely landon [sic] on this side.  At half-past four two bridges were finished opposite the city, when the troops immediately began to cross over.  The enemy were soon driven back to their line of works.

The two bridges in front of General Franklin [William B. Franklin] were successfully laid early in the day, but his troops did not cross until the two upper ones were ready.

A sufficient force is now on the opposite side of the river to resist any attack that is likely to be made.

The rebels burned their bridge outside of the city.  Between thirty and forty houses were burned, mostly in the business part of the city during the day.

Between 8,000 and 9,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by our artillery.

Everything is quiet to night. The indications are that a battle will be fought to-morrow.

Battle of Fredericksburg, by Kurz & Allison (see footnote 1)

Battle of Fredericksburg, by Kurz & Allison (see footnote 1)

HEADQUARTERS OPPOSIT [sic] FREDERIKS- }
BURG, December 11th, 1862. }

[Herald’s Special]—Between four and five o’clock this morning the pontoon train, in charge of the 17th and 50th New York engineers under command of Gen. Woodbury,2 preceded to the river bank, where with infantry support, an attempt was made to throw their bridge across the river.  A dull haze obscured the movement that for a time it was not discovered by the rebel pickets.

The Pontooners had succeeded in partially constructing the bridge.  When the rebels suddenly opened a brisk and deadly fire of musketry from along the banks of the river, and windows of the houses, compelling a cessation of the work.

Returning to the cover of the surrounding hills, the men again formed and about six o’clock the attempt was renewed, but the rebels had now been thoroughly aroused, and with reinforcements of sharpshooters, swarmed to the opposite banks and houses, nothing daunted by the hot fire which we joined in.  At the re-appearance of our troops the pontooners went gallantly to their work, but in vain.  A storm of bullets enveloped them. Planks and boats were riddled by every volley.  Once more they were compelled to withdraw, and fall back to the cover of a ridge of hills running parallel with the river.  It was evident that the rebels had determined to use the houses of the city for a defense, contrary to an implied agreement in a correspondence which recently passed between the armies, by a flag of truce.  Orders were given to our artillery men to open fire upon the city.  Accordingly, Benjamin’s,3 Edward’s, Muthenburg’s, and other batteries of the Ninth corps, together with batteries of the corps to the right and left of the city, commenced almost simultaneously the bombardment.  The fog was so dense that it was impossible to see any distance beyond the edge of the river.

Houses, however, in which the rebel sharpshooters had ensconced themselves were visible, and to them the fire was for a time directed.  The effect was, their partial demolition in a short time.

After the first fire they become untenable by rebel riflemen, who retreated to the rear and took shelter behind unburned buildins [sic].

By 7 o’clock the bombardment became general, and from that time until 1 o’clock the roar of of [sic] artillery was incessant.  The batteries of the 9th raked the streets with shell and grape.  Thus the fog still continued to obscure in a measure the results of these discharges.

The rebels, with the greatest stubbornness, still kept within the city, and, at times parties of them could be seen going from one point to another in double quick.

The carnage cannot but be fearful.  It was somewhat singular that the rebel batteries did not return fire—for guns up to the present time have not opened.

About 10 o’clock, engineers formed for the third attempt to construct bridges.  After previous ineffectual attempts on the part of the engineers to cross; a party of 80 men of the 8th Connecticut regiment, under Captain Marsh, volunteered to assist in the endeavor to finish the bridges, and one more column with this reinforcement started under the direction of Gen. Woodbury.  They seized planks and carried out some dozen to the end of the string of boats, placed a part of them and were compelled to retire under a very galling fire from rebel sharpshooters, who were ensconsed [sic] securely in rifle pits below the range of artillery, and within fifteen or twenty feet of the river’s edge.

The engineers suffered severely.  The movement having been thus interrupted, the whole party were ordered back to their original position.

At eleven o’clock it was discovered that one of the houses was on fire.  The flames—which commenced in a westerly part of the city—soon spread and Fredericksburg is now enveloped in fire and smoke.  An enfilading fire has been opened on the rebel rifle pits up the river, and has been successful so far in driving the sharpshooters from the vicinity of the railroad depot.  The engineers are now constructing bridges across the river.  The rebels maintain their ground opposite the upper bridges.  The cavalry are now passing Sumner’s [Edwin V. Sumner] headquarters en route to make a charge across the river at one of the fords.

Later accounts report continued heavy fighting, but no decisive result reached.

1.  This digital image is from an original 1888 Kurz & Allison print, available at the Library of Congress. The UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center has in its Special Collections a copy of Battles of the Civil War: The Complete Kurz & Allison Prints, 1861-1865, Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1976 (Oversized E 468.7 .B3 1976).
2.  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.
3.  Lieutenant Samuel N. Benjamin, Battery E, 2nd United States Artillery, which was in the 3rd Division of the IX Corps. We could not identify the other two names.

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