Saturday, December 15, 2012

December 13, 1862

December 13, 1862:

The Battle of Fredericksburg

(First Fredericksburg)


Day 3:  The day opens with a cold, freezing fog, and the two main movements of the battle conducted by Gen. Burnside’s Federals get underway.  By 12 Noon, the Union forces are deployed.  Franklin has been ordered to attack Jackson’s position on the left where Jackson has placed his divisions at the base of a low ridge called Prospect Hill.  Burnside has directed Gen. Sumner to attack Marye’s Heights above the town with his Grand Division of two corps.  The Rebels have placed their lines carefully, and as Col. E.P. Alexander shows Lee his artillery placements on the crests, and how his guns are placed to cover the field with overlapping fire, Gen. Lee remarks, “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.”
Dec. 13, just before the fighting begins

    Prospect Hill – General Franklin, in command of the Union left, orders I Corps commander Gen. John Reynolds to select one division for the attack, and Reynolds chooses George Meade’s division, with John Gibbon’s division to support Meade’s right flank.  By 12 Noon, both division go forward across the foggy plain, with no clear idea of the enemy positions. 
As they advance, on the left appears two cannon with crews, commanded by Captain John Pelham of Stuart’s Horse Artillery.  Pelham hampers the advance by firing down the Federal lines with ghastly effectiveness.  One of his guns is disabled, and he continues with one gun.  The 24th Michigan is deployed to chase off Pelham, who does not leave until he is out of ammunition.  As Meade’s 4,500 men near Jackson’s lines, Jackson’s artillery opens up and stuns the Union advance into halting 600 yards short of their objective. 
By 1:00 PM, Union artillery had answered enough to encourage Meade to continue the advance.  As his men entered the thick woods at the base of the ridge, they encountered no Rebels—and so they kept on going. 
Meade's division finds the seam in the Rebel line.
Sinclair’s brigade enters the area, which is a heavily wooded and swampy ravine, and find themselves in a large gap in the Southern lines—between Archer on the left and Lane on the right, and Maxcey Gregg’s South Carolinians behind Lane.  Meade details Sinclair to pile into Lane’s and Gregg’s flank, while sending Conrad Feger Jackson’s brigade left to hit Archer in the flank.  Magilton’s brigade sends regiments in both directions, and soon Meade is rolling up the Confederate line in two directions. 
Meade exploits the gap.
On Meade’s right, as Lane’s brigade gives way, the blue tide strikes Gregg, whose troops are at rest.  Gregg is shot and will die 2 days later.  By this point, Meade’s attack has opened up a considerable hole in the Rebel line.  It apparently takes awhile for Jackson to learn the situation, but he swiftly orders up the divisions of Early and Taliaferro (pronounced – I kid you not – Tolliver) to counterattack.  Lane and Archer begin to rally their men, and soon fire is pouring in on Meade’s division from three directions.  Meade had sent back word for support, and finally at 1:30 PM Gibbon moves forward on Meade’s right, but his three brigades are driven back.  Meade calls upon Birney’s division to attack, but Birney will not come up.  Meade sends to Franklin, pointing out that he has found a seam in the Rebel lines, and another division could exploit the gap.  Franklin disagrees, and refuses to advance (even when ordered to by Burnside) arguing that all of his troops have been engaged, when in fact neither Doubleday’s division nor the entire VI Corps had been engaged.  Basically, Franklin had 20,000 fresh men unengaged.  And yet the offensive on the Federal left stops.
Meade breaks under the Sothern counterattacks, and finally pulls back his battered division over hazardous artillery-swept open ground.  The best chance for the North to have won the battle is lost.

    Marye’s Heights – On Marye’s Heights, Gen. Longstreet orders Gen. McLaws to place troops behind a stone wall with a sunken road behind it---an already-made trench.  McLaws places Cobb's and Cooke's brigades there: troops from Georgia and North Carolina.  Burnside orders Sumner to attack Marye’s Heights.  Sumner orders Gen. French to move up with his division.  At about 12 Noon, Nathan Kimball’s brigade begins to move through town toward the heights behind the town.  He is followed by the brigades of Andrews and Palmer, and they all suffer nearly 50% casualties as Alexander's artillery opens on them with a clear field of fire, and then McLaw's riflemen fire volleys into the exposed advancing ranks of men in blue. 
1st Lt. William Owen of the Washington Artillery (of New Orleans) describes how this first series of assaults fares:

The enemy, having deployed, now showed himself above the crest of the ridge and advanced in columns of brigades, and at once our guns began their deadly work with shell and solid shot. How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel. The very force of their onset leveled the broad fences bounding the small fields and gardens that interspersed the plain. We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps; but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us. Now we gave them canister, and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their field barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advance brigade. This was too much; the column hesitated, and then, turning, took refuge behind the banks.
Rebel riflemen at the stone wall on Marye's Heights

French’s division is followed by Hancock’s division, and the famous Irish Brigade under Meagher gets to within 20 yards of the stone wall, the closest of any attack that day, before their line melts away under withering rifle fire and canister from the Southern guns.  They are followed by Caldwell, whose brigade suffers similar punishment. By this evening, fewer than 300 of the 1450 men of the Irish brigade will find their way back to camp that night.  Gen. Couch, commander of the II Corps, orders up his last division, under Gen. Oliver O. Howard, and they are decimated and pinned down.  By this time, Gen. Hooker is crossing his Grand Division (two corps) over the river, and deploying in lines in reserve.  Gen. Sturgis, from Hooker’s command, moves up against Marye’s Heights on the left, and his brigades are shredded in the attempt. 
The Rebel commander Gen. Cobb is killed, and Gen. Kershaw is sent to take his place.  Then, Hooker orders Griffin’s division forward on the left, and all three brigades meet a similar fate. 
Waves of Union attacks up Marye's Heights

Sumner orders forward Gen. Humphreys’ division of new recruits, and Humphreys leads the first brigade under Allabash himself, on horseback, with drawn sword---but moving through the ground crowded with grounded and wounded Yankees slows them down, and a savage set of volleys from the Confederates behind the wall decimates Allabash, too.  
Getty's attack at dusk
 Humphreys’ other brigades also get bogged down.  George Sykes and his division of Regular Army troops is ordered forward to get Humphreys out of trouble, but his troops are pinned down under a crossfire.  From the IX Corps, Getty is sent up with his two brigades, but to no avail, as dark has fallen.  As his lead brigade, under Hawkins, moves through the dark on the left, grounded Union troops on their right open fire on them, thinking they are Rebels.  The assault on Marye’s Heights is over.  In 14 successive waves, most of 8 Federal divisions are thrown against the sunken road position where fewer than 3,000 Rebels fought, and more than 9,000 Yankees out of 40,000 are shot down there.  Behind the stone wall, there are perhaps 50 Confederate casualties, among overall 500 lost Rebels at the Marye's Heights sector of the Southern line. 

That night, Sergeant Richard Kirkland, of the 2nd South Carolina, cannot stand the sound of suffering Federal wounded; he gathers as many full canteens as he can, and hops over the wall, giving succor to the thirst-crazed Yankees lying there, making several trips.  Confederate Victory.

Losses:                     Killed             Wounded        Missing                   Total

Union                       1,284                9,600                1,769                      12,653

Confederate              608                 4,116                   653                         5,377

It is a lopsided result, and the North is stunned with the ghastly news.  Pres. Lincoln is severely unnerved by the casualties, moaning to an associate, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”  He sinks into one of his chronic spells of clinical depression.  Some discussion in the newspapers and the halls of power speculate that the Republican party will self-destruct. 
The Sunken Road and stone wall that the Rebels defended against 14 assaults

---In Richmond, Judith White McGuire writes in her journal of the fearful news:

13th.—Our hearts are full of apprehension! A battle is going on at or near Fredericksburg. The Federal army passed over the river on their pontoons night before last. They attempted to throw the bridges over it at three places; from two of these they were driven back with much slaughter; at the third they crossed. Our army was too small to guard all points. The firing is very heavy and incessant. We hear it with terrible distinctness from our portico. God of mercy, be with our people, and drive back the invaders! I ask not for their destruction; but that they may be driven to their own homes, never more to put foot on our soil; that we may enjoy the sweets of peace and security once more. Our dear boys—now as ever—I commit them into Thy hands.

---Lt. Josiah Marshall Favill, of the 57th New York, tells of his regiment’s charge up Marye’s Heights as part of Zook's brigade:

About two o’clock French succeeded in deploying his lines, and our column immediately debouched on the plain in his rear, by way of the railroad depot. As the head of the column appeared in the open, the rebel batteries opened fire and pandemonium at once broke loose. The whizzing, bursting shells made one’s hair stand on end; our guns added to the confusion as they fired over our heads, and the two flights of shot and shell in opposite directions, made a noise above the roar of Niagara. We marched rapidly forward, passing a huge pile of bricks, which the round shot was scattering in every direction, then came a mill race, and on the other side of it a high board fence; clearing these obstacles in the face of a terrible fire, with considerable loss and obliquing somewhat to the right at first, then in full line of battle, we marched directly forward, in front of Marye’s house the strongest point of the enemys’ works. It seemed a terrible long distance, as with bated breath and heads bowed down, we hurried forward, the rebel guns plowing great furrows in our ranks at every step; all we could do was to close up the gaps and press forward. When within some three hundred yards of the rebel works, the men burst into a cheer and charged for the heights. Immediately the hill in front was hid from view by a continuous sheet of flame from base to summit. The rebel infantry poured in a murderous fire while their guns from every available point fired shot and shell and cannister. The losses were so tremendous that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure. Within one hundred yards of the base of the hill we dropped down, and then flat on our bellies, opened fire while line after line of fresh troops, like ocean waves, followed each other in rapid succession, but none of them succeeded in reaching the enemy’s works. . . . I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other. Just then there was no romance, no glorious pomp, nothing but disgust for the genius who planned so frightful a slaughter. Towards evening the attempt came to a halt, the firing ceased, and many of the troops withdrew. By this time the plain was covered with thousands of dead and wounded men, besides scores of lines of troops, lying on their bellies, utterly useless, but exposed to more or less continuous fire. We fully expected the enemy to leave his works and charge us where we lay, but very strangely they not only did not do this, but stopped their artillery fire, and by dusk it became almost quiet.

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