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1863 January 3: More Details on the Battle of Fredericksburg

January 6, 2013

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, here is the “detailed account” of the Battle of Fredericksburg, which took place in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 11-15, 1862.  This is from the January 3, 1863, issue of The Polk County Press.

The Fredericksburg Battle.

Correspondence of the Tribune.

Last evening, a general council of war, attended by all the grand division, corps, and division commanders, was held at a late hour, in Gen. Sumner’s [Edwin V. Sumner] headquarters, at which Gen. Burnside [Ambrose E. Burnside] submitted and explained his plan for the general attack he proposed to make to-day upon the position of the enemy.

The plan comprised a simultaneous advance of our whole line upon the enemy’s strong positions on the hills in front of the left and right grand divisions, which were to be carried by sudden assaults upon the stronghold, by select bodies of troops.

All expressed their readiness to undertake anything ordered by the commander-in-chief, and the necessary instructions were given to commence a general movement upon the enemy at daylight.

The fog that kept the valley of the river and the adjacent heights from view every day this week, again prevented the commencement of operations at the stated time.  Fortunately, however, it cleared away early in the day, and about ten o’clock orders were directed to the generals commanding the right and left grand divisions to prepare to charge immediately the works respectively assigned to them.

General Sumner and staff left their headquarters about eleven o’clock, and repaired to the Levey House from which a full view of the scene of the impending action on the right grand division could be obtained.  General Sumner had selected French’s division [William H. French], of General Couch’s [Darius N. Couch] corps for the advance of the attacking column.

Orders to move from its position in the streets of Fredericksburg next to the river to the outskirts of the town, from a line of battle by brigades and proceeded by a cloud of skirmishers, move at a double-quick upon the first line of the enemy’s works, were given.

General French was necessarily obliged to march his troops in solid columns in parallel streets.  As soon as the head of the columns had emerged from the lower into the higher portions of the streets, the enemy’s batteries opened upon them from several points.  Upon reaching the outskirts of the town, the order was given to deploy, but stone and other fences prevented its ready execution.

During the delay thus caused, the troops were exposed to an enfilading fire which taxed the advance of the troops most severely.

The line being formed at last, about noon the order to advance was given.  The line moved up and over a low range of elevations and down toward the foot of the hills on which the army’s breastworks were situated, from houses, rifle pits, barricades, across the roads and other shelter.

The rebel sharpshooters now opened from all sides with fearful effect.  The vigor of the fire of the rebel artillery also steadily increased, and when the line reached the foot of hills, a perfect hail of lead fell upon it.  The advance, however, was continued until within a few hundred yards of the crest of the  hills, when a rapid succession of terrific volleys from long lines of rebel infantry suddenly rising in front of their works, checked it.

From the position they had gained our troops now exchanged round after round with the enemy until their ammunition became exhausted, and the line fell back some distance, leaving nearly one half of its number on the field, to make room for Gen. Hancock’s [Winfield Scott Hancock] division.

This division advanced, likewise formed in parallel lines of brigades.  It moved forward steadfastly up to the point where French’s had received its check, when it was also stopped by the murderous fire of the rebel infantry and artillery.

For two hours it alternately replied to the enemy’s musketry, and attempted to make its way up the second range of hills.  Although unable to advance, and continually losing numbers, it fought until its ammunition gave out, when it was relieved by Howard’s [Oliver O. Howard] division, and retired nearer to town.

Howard’s command went into action about three o’clock.  One after the other of its brigades was advanced to the front, but like those of French and Hancock’s, did not succeed, in reading the enemy’s works.  The last of it, under Gen. Sully [Alfred Sully], was ordered to charge up the hill with the bayonet, and moved forward in most gallant style, but was checked, as all the other troops had been.

Shorty after French’s Division had moved to the attack, Sturgis’ [Samuel D. Sturgis] Division of Wilcox’s [Orlando B. Willcox] Corps advanced over a parallel road on the left our right upon the works and batteries covering the enemy’s right flank.  It experienced the same difficulties in forming, in consequence of obstructions on the ground, as French’s, but pushed forward with the utmost determination, halting only at times to open the way with musketry.

It reached within eighty yards of the crest of the hill it aimed to take, but having been fearfully weakened in numbers during its advance, had to halt.  It held the point gained for three hours.

Not withstanding it was confronted by vastly superior numbers of infantry, and enfiladed by batteries on each flank—even after its ammunition had all been spent; it did not give way, but firmly held its ground until properly relieved shortly before sunset.

When Howard’s division moved to the front, the last of the available force of Couch’s corps, forming our extreme right, was employed.  Of Wilcox’s [sic] corps, Getty’s [George W. Getty] division, which had been held in reserve during the day, was all that were at command, after Sturgis had become exhausted by the severity of its protracted struggle; Burns1 having been sent early in the morning to establish connection between the left and right, and not being within ready march.

Fortunately, however, Butterfield’s [Daniel A. Butterfield] corps of Hooker’s [Joseph Hooker] grand division, which was acting as a reserve to the right, as Stoneman’s [George Stoneman] was to the left, came to the rescue, where the energies of Couch’s and Wilcox’s [sic] corps had been nearly spent.  It  had commenced moving across the river, over the upper and middle bridges, as soon as the advance of the Couch’s and Wilcox’s [sic] troops furnished room for it in the lower part of the town.

It had all moved across between four and five o’clock.  Shortly before dark Humphrey’s [Andrew A. Humphreys] and Griffin’s [Charles Griffin] divisions were ordered to advance to the front and relieve the troops of Gen. Couch on the right and Gen.  Wilcox [sic] on the left.  They reached the front and formed in line just before sunset, and at once charged upon the enemy’s works.

Humphrey’s division came within a short distance of them, and Griffin’s reached the point held by Sturgis, which respective positions they have since occupied.

During their advance the firing from the rebel artillery reached the highest intensity of the whole day, but reached shortly after nightfall.

Simultaneous with the advance of Griffin and Humphrey [sic], Getty’s Division moved from its position up the valley of a little stream skirting the town and advanced to the base of the hill occupied by the rebel batteries on the extreme right driving the rebel infantry from behind a stone wall from which they had greatly troubled our troops during the day.

Here it lay during the night.  Syke’s [George Sykes] Division of Butterfield’s corps followed between Griffin and Humphrey to the front, but arrived too late for action.  Thus ended the conflict between our right and the rebel left.

The lines of Gen. Franklin [William B. Franklin], as formed for the attack, represented an obtuse angle, one line of which—Gen. Reynolds [John F. Reynolds] corps—extended diagonally form the river bank.

Smith’s [William F. Smith] corps in a line parallel with the river and formed on the right of Wilcox’s corps.  The extreme left was three miles below Fredericksburg, and the right of the left grand division was less than two miles from the town.  The extent of Gen. Franklin’s line then was more than a mile from right to left.

The position of the different divisions was as follows, commencing on the right: First, Brooks division, which lay upon the ground along the road to Fredericksburg, running parallel with the river, and half way between it and the rebel batteries. General Gibbon [John Gibbon] and Gen. Meade’s [George G. Meade] divisions were directed to advance upon the enemy in the woods and upon the hill, holding the position if support should come to them, abandoning it in case they should be too severely pressed.

Now came the most determined and successful effort on the part of our line.  The attack was made from the point of intersection of the angle formed by our lines already referred to.  This point was nearest to the woods, and the enemy’s shells were falling thickly about it.

Gibbons’ division and the Pennsylvania reserves advanced boldly towards the works of the  enemy.  They pushed determinedly through the brushwood and bushes on to a grove of cedars, and through these up the hills towards the breastworks of the enemy.  The works were carried, many prisoners captured, and the crest of the hill gained, not, however, without a heavy loss.

Gen. Gibbons has fallen, wounded in the arm, while leading his command to the attack.  The works of the enemy at this point were gained, but not held.  The enemy unfortunately, possessed the strength to concentrate overwhelming numbers of fresh troops upon the troops upon the threatened point and for all the valor of those who survived, and all the sacrifices of those who tell, the position had to be abandoned, and our troops were compelled to fall back to the plain.

They had penetrated beyond the railroad and the bowling Green turnpike, through the woods and across the outer work of the enemy to the top of the hill, and were then forced back to this side of the railroad, where they maintained their stand is advanced of that they had originally occupied.

In the meantime Gen. Doubleday [Abner Doubleday] had been constantly pushing the enemy upon the left. Almost determined resistance was made by the enemy as skirmishes and with reserves and artillery. The fire which during the forenoon was kept up on the left, told of the most severe fighting. For full a mile the enemy was pressed back, contesting the ground inch by inch, receiving and inflicting heavy loss. The enemy fell back upon his defences, and the advantage gained was undecisive.

During the three successive advances and checks along the centre and left grand division, uninterrupted shelling was kept up by the rebel batteries upon the bodies of troops at different points of the plain. At a large stone mansion near the centre of our line, used as a field hospital during the day, an incessant fire was directed.

Near this  building Gen. Bayard2 found an untimely death.  A shell struck him, while sitting under a tree within a few yards of Gen. Franklin, in the leg without exploding.  His leg was nearly torn off, and he died in the coarse of the evening.

Toward the middle of the afternoon and firing along the lines of the left grand division grew weaker and gradually settled into a comparative lull.

Shortly before sunset, however, the firing on the extreme left was again renewed with increased vigor, and kept up until after dark.  At half past five o’clock it gradually died away, and at six o’clock it had entirely ceased.

On the left as well as on the right the battle came short of our expectation:

We gained some ground, but failed to realize the object of the day’s work—lodgment of the enemy from their intrenched position on the heights overlooking the plain, held by the left and the town, occupied by the right division.  New efforts, new sacrifices of life, will be required to accomplish it.

By far the severest fighting occurred on the right.  All the Generals that have participated in the battle of Antietam say that to-day’s contest on this portion of the line exceeded it in intensity.  The rebels had our troops at a disadvantage.  Their infantry fought principally under cover, while their artillery had it almost all their own way from its elevated position.

On the right it was found impossible to bring any of our artillery into action for want of proper positions in the early part of the day, until late in the afternoon, when a single battery, Phillips’s, was employed in sections from high points of the streets of the town.  At least sixty pieces played upon our right from the enemy’s batteries, during the greater portion of the day.


I found it impossible to obtain anything like a reliable estimate of our losses up to the moment of closing.  I have questioned nearly all the corps and division commanders, but they were unable to give even approximate figures.  The right suffered most heavily—probably two thirds more than the left.  French’s division lost most.  The rebel loss is much smaller than ours.

Orders were issued this evening for a renewal of the attack along the whole line at 10 A.M.  I think when the hard usage nearly the whole of our right has experienced will become fully known to Gen. Burnside [Ambrose E. Burnside] the order will undoubtedly be countermanded.  That portion of the army is certainly not fit to go again into action to-morrow.

From prisoners taken on the left it was ascertained that Longstreet’s [James Longstreet] and Jackson’s [Stonewall Jackson] grand divisions were on the rebel left in the early part of the fight, and Hill [A. P. Hill] on the right, but in the course of the day.  Hill finding himself hardly pressed by Franklin, was supported by a part of Jackson’s forces.

Provision and ammunition trains are now moving across the bridge to apply our troops.  The fatigue and exposure of the last three days has greatly told on their effectiveness.

1.  William Wallace Burns (1825-1892), a graduate of West Point and career military officer, Burns served in the Mexican War, the Third Seminole War, and in Utah putting down Mormon unrest. In September 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and given command of the Philadelphia Brigade, which he commanded during the Peninsula Campaign. He led the brigade in a pivotal role at the battle of Savage Station, which was a rear-guard action fought to protect the Army of the Potomac as it retreated away from Richmond. As we see here, he served as a division commander during the Battle of Fredericksburg. After this, he will be moved to the Western Theater.
2.  George Dasiell Bayard (1835-1862), a graduate of West Point and career military officer, he Bayard fought in the Indian Wars in Kansas and Colorado before the Civil War.

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