OVER THE RIVER-AT LAST!
WASHINGTON, December 11, 1862.
Permit me to suggest the importance of pushing re-enforcements across during the night, so as to be able to resist any attack during the morning. This seems to me of vital importance.
H. W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief.
The most surprising thing about that message is that it should have been necessary for Halleck to even think of sending it. It failed of its purpose nevertheless. Earlier in the evening of December 11 Burnside had sent two dispatches to Halleck which informed him that four bridges had been laid and the fifth was expected to be completed during the night; that one division was across and occupying Fredericksburg, and he "hoped to have the main body over early tomorrow." Though not reported at this time, Burnside had six bridges laid by the morning of December 12. Something was seriously wrong with Burnside. Either his
mental apparatus wasn't functioning or he was grossly incompetent. Probably both. One would expect an untrained junior officer to exercise sounder judgment than to talk, as Burnside had, about springing a surprise on Lee by an expeditious crossing at Deep Run that would catch him with his saddlebags down, and then, after taking all of one day to lay his bridges and cross a token force, to allow the succeeding night to pass without pouring over as many additional divisions as the logistical factors would permit.
Burnside appears to have had inhibitions about river obstacles and may still have been obsessed by the fear that had caused him in mid-November to withhold approval when Sumner first arrived and wanted to cross the river by fording. Such a move was entirely feasible at the time, because the rains had not started, but Burnside was fearful of a situation which might split his army and leave Sumner's 30,000 troops unsupported and at the mercy of the Confederates.
In any case, willingness such as characterized Lee to take a calculated risk wasn't one of the fixations which troubled Burnside. Neither, apparently, was experience in or even a desire to attempt a night operation. Yet a movement across the river under cover of darkness, with a short march to a jump-off position, would have permitted an attack on Jackson before Early and D. H. Hill arrived at the defensive position. It would have been a potential asset that could have chalked up a credit line on the Burnside balance sheet, which up to this time had already recorded quite a number of liabilities, with only the initial and praiseworthy march from Warrenton to Falmouth on the asset side.
We are not told what impression, if any, Halleck's message urging that reinforcements be pushed across the river during the night may have made on Burnside's mind. Presumably he had already decided not to do so, and, since Halleck hadn't shown much interest in his tactical plans, Burnside ignored the suggestion, and went back to sleep. Whatever he may have thought, no change was made in the orders and the night passed uneventfully for the shivering soldiers on both sides of the river.
The weather early on the morning of December 12 was a duplicate of that of the day before-a heavy, damp mist which
served the Union army well in concealing its movements. The infantry and artillery columns moved up unmolested to the crossings in accordance with the prearranged time and space table.
Burnside was keeping a tight rein on his three grand division commanders, allowing them little discretion. After the battle was over, and he had had time to think back over it, he made it appear in his report that his plan had been to fight a holding action against the heights west of Fredericksburg, with Sumner's right wing, while Franklin with the left wing would envelop the Confederate flank. Even in that report it is not clear whether Burnside meant the right flank of the Confederate ridge position or the left flank of Jackson's corps which he thought was waiting for him down around Port Royal.
Everything might have worked out nicely had Lee been more accommodating and played the game the way Burnside planned it. No doubt the latter consoled himself with the thought that he was controlling his corps and divisions in a masterly, flexible manner to prevent them from getting themselves involved in uncoordinated piecemeal attacks until the master mind should be fully ready to turn them loose. The fact was that it was an indecisive mind and an unsure hand that was directing the destinies of the Army of the Potomac. One could feel sorry for Burnside at Fredericksburg if he could dismiss from his mind the holocaust of death that Burnside's fumbling strategy was to visit on so many thousands of Union soldiers on December 13.
The morning of December 12 was a busy one for Federal commanders and staffs. A thrilling sight would have been presented to the Confederates had the fog permitted their observers to watch the Union army as it marched by the tens of thousands over the six swaying pontoon bridges. At the corps and division levels were experienced generals who knew their way
around, and under whose watchful eyes the brigades and regiments were directed, via the upper bridges, across the river and forward into the streets of Fredericksburg, and by way of the lower bridges on to the plain below the town.
The Confederates were satisfied to mark time on December 12 as they waited for Jackson's last two divisions to rejoin them, so Burnside's forces were not attacked as the columns poured in unending procession across the six bridges and into the limited area between the hostile defense line and the river.
The Federal march table provided that Couch's Second Corps would be the first to cross at Fredericksburg, followed by Willcox's Ninth Corps, the former to fan out for occupation of the center and northern portion of the town, the latter to extend the line to the south, without any indication as to the position on which his left flank should rest. Next day however Willcox did receive orders to extend to the left and connect with Franklin's right at Deep Run. Hazel Run was designated as the dividing line between the two corps.
At the lower bridges where Franklin's grand division crossed, Smith's corps led the way, followed by Reynolds' corps. By late afternoon the entire force had completed the passage of the river and formed in a continuous arc composed of four divisions in two successive lines, Smith's right resting astride Deep Run, Reynolds' left on the Rappahannock; one division of each corps,
Doubleday's and Newton's, being held in reserve near the river. There they bivouacked for the night, halted in place, without orders from higher up for further movement or action and with nothing to do but wait for Burnside to release another fragment of his fuzzy tactical plan.
Six divisions were thus crowded into and immediately south of Fredericksburg and six more bivouacked below Deep Run, while across the river Hooker had been directed to send two divisions (Birney's and Sickles') of Stoneman's Third Corps, and Willcox to move one of his divisions down to the vicinity of the lower bridges, as potential support for Franklin's grand division.
Including Bayard's cavalry of 3,500 troopers, his own grand division, and the three support divisions from Hooker and Sumner, Franklin now had available on both sides of the river upwards of 54,000 men for the major effort that he was to be called upon to make on the following morning. Sumner's strength was now down to 27,000 and Hooker had 31,000 more, but all three of the major commanders were still in a state of uncertainty as to just what Burnside expected them to do now that most of them were parked within less than a mile of the dug-in Confederates on their comfortable tree covered ridge.
General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, was indisputably the ablest artillerist of the Civil War, on either side. In preparations for Burbsides crossing of the Rappahannock, he withdrew temporarily all division artillery except one battery which was retained by each division, and at-
just as many horses and as many drivers to move them as the heavy 41/a -inch siege guns.
Nineteen batteries, a total of 104 guns, crossed the river with Sumner's grand division, although during the battle the greater number of the guns could not be used because they were shielded by the buildings. Only seven batteries with Sumner's divisions were either wholly or partly engaged on December 13.
Seventeen batteries for a total of 86 guns crossed with Franklin, and when Sickles' and Birney's divisions of Hooker's grand division were assigned to reinforce Franklin's wing, five additional batteries of 30 guns crossed the river. The battle on the south flank was more open and in that area practically all the guns were effectively employed.
Campfires at night in close proximity to the enemy were not permitted on this occasion, so about all the soldiers in the town had to occupy their attention was the pleasure of looting the houses, which they proceeded to do on the grand scale until their officers put a stop to it. Huge piles of furniture and other household goods were stacked on the Fredericksburg side of the river when details from the Provost Marshal's Detachment picketed the crossings and halted the spreading vandalism.
During the late afternoon of December 12 Gen. Franklin, commanding the Left Grand Division, and his corps commanders Reynolds and Smith, all of whom were on the closest official and personal terms, assembled for a conference at the "Bernard house," Franklin's field headquarters.
This place, which Franklin had selected as the command post from which to direct the operations of his reinforced grand division, was a large plantation originally known as "Old Mansfield." At the time of the battle the proprietor was named Bernard, a large slave owner. Bernard objected violently to the Union occupation of his residence, whereupon he was unceremoniously hustled across the river, at Reynold's order, by
a brace of pleased soldiers. The Bernard cabins, incidentally, which housed the plantation's slaves, were some distance further away, at the northern extremity of A. P. Hill's position, and so were not similarly disturbed. The ruins of the plantation can still be seen near the river a half mile north of Smithfield. The latter sounds as though it should have been a village; actually it was merely another plantation which was converted into a Federal hospital after the battle, and is today the Fredericksburg Country Club.
Franklin, Reynolds, and Smith discussed the situation and compared notes. They were in agreement that the only sensible attack plan for their wing would be to form their divisions into two assault columns on either side of the Richmond Road and to turn Lee's flank at whatever cost.
About 5 P. M. Burnside showed up, was taken on a quick gallop along the lines, and then sat down with Franklin for a talk, at which time he was urged to authorize the latter to carry out the aforementioned plan. When Burnside left, the other three generals were under the distinct impression that he had given tacit approval and was returning to his headquarters to compose the orders. They proceeded to work out the details for the attack which they thought they were authorized to launch, and then sat around for hours waiting for the order so that they might issue last-minute instructions to their subordinate commanders and get a few hours of sleep.
But nothing happened, so at 3 A. M. December 13 Reynolds turned in for the night and after a further period of frustrating delay the other generals did likewise. It was not until 7:45 A. M. that the long awaited order was delivered to Franklin by General Hardie of Burnside's staff, who had been dispatched with instructions to stay with Franklin during the battle in order to keep the army commander informed of its progress. The delay in drafting and issuing this order was one of the most serious mistakes made by Burnside.
These are the "attack" orders issued by Burnside over the signature of his Chief-of-Staff, General Parke:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
December 13, 1862-5.55 a.m.
Commanding Left Grand Division, Army of the Potomac:
General Hardie will carry this dispatch to you, and remain with you during the day. The general commanding directs that you keep your whole command in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road, and you will send out at once a division at least to pass below Smithfield to seize, if possible, the height near Captain Hamilton's, on this side of the Massaponax, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. He has ordered another column of a division or more to be moved from General Sumner's command up the Plank road to its intersection with the Telegraph road, where they will divide, with a view to seizing the heights on both of these roads. Holding these two heights, with the heights near Captain Hamilton's, will, he hopes, compel the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge between these points. He makes these moves by columns distant from each other, with a view of avoiding the possibility of a collision of our own forces, which might occur in a general movement during a fog. Two of General Hooker's divisions are in your rear, at the bridges, and will remain there as supports.
Copies of instructions given to Generals Sumner and Hooker will be forwarded to you by an orderly very soon You will keep your whole command in readiness to move at once, as soon as the fog lifts. The watchword, which if possible, should be given to every company, will be "Scott."
I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant
JNO. G. PARKE,
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
December 13, 1862-6 a.m.
Maj. Gen. E. V. SUMNER,
Commanding Right Grand Division, Army of the Potomac
The general commanding directs that you extend the left of your command to Deep Run, connecting with General Franklin, extending your right as far as your judgment may dictate. He also directs that you push a column of a division or more along the Plank and Telegraph roads, with a view to seizing the heights in the rear of the town. The latter movement should be well covered by skirmishers, and supported so as to keep its line of retreat open. Copy of instructions given to General Franklin will be sent to you very soon. You will please
awaiot them at your present headquarters, where he (the general commanding) will meet you. Great care should be taken to prevent a collision of our own forces during the fog. The watchword for the day will be "Scott." The column for a movememt up the Telegraph and Plank roads will be got in readiness to move, but will not move til the general commanding communicates with you.
I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JON. G. PARKE,
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
December 13, 1862-7 a.m.
Maj. Gen. JOSEPH HOOKER,
Commanding Center (Grand) Division, Army of the Potomac:
The general commanding directs that you place General Butterfield's corps and Whipple's division in position to cross, at a moment's notice, at the three upper bridges, in support of the other troops over the river, and the two remaining divisions of General Stoneman's corps in readiness to cross at the lower ford, in support of General Franklin. The general commanding will meet you at headquarters (Phillips house) very soon. Copies of instructions to General Sumner and General Franklin will be sent to you.
I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant.
JON. G. PARKE,
In Burnside's official report on the battle he states that it was after midnight when he returned to his headquarters following visits to the different commands and "before daylight of the 13th" prepared the orders quoted in the preceding paragraphs. Burnside then goes on to say:
It should be mentioned that on the evening of the 12th I ordered General Stoneman, with two divisions of his corps, to a point near the lower bridges, as support for General Franklin.
The forces now under command of General Franklin consisted of about 60,000 men,* as shown by the morning reports, and was composed as follows:
Sixth Corps . .. . .. .. . .. . . .. . . .. ... . .. .. . ..24,000
First Corps ...18,500
Third Corps (two divisions) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000
Ninth Corps (Burns' division) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.000
Bayard's cavalry 3,500
General Sumner had about 27,000 men, comprising his own grand division, except Burns' division of the Ninth Corps. General Hooker's command was about 26,000.
*There is a disparity of about 6,000 men between the strength figures used respectively by Burnside and Franklin.
Burnside includes the 14,000 men of the Third and Ninth Corps, in support Position but not assigned to Franklin's command.
strong, two of General Stoneman's divisions having reported to General Franklin.
Positive information had reached me that the enemy had built a new road** in rear of the ridge or crest, from near Hamilton's to the Telegraph road, along which road they communicated from one part of their line to the other. I decided to seize, if possible, a point on this road near Hamilton's which would not divide the enemy's forces by
** Shown on Map 7 as the Military Road. This portion of the road was cut through by Gen. Hood while his division was occupying that part of the line---Ed.
breaking their line, but would place our forces in position to enable us to move in rear of the crest, and either force its evacuation or the capitulation of the forces occupying it.
It was my intention, in case this point had been gained, to push Generals Sumner and Hooker against the left of the crest, and prevent at least the removal of the artillery of the enemy, in case they attempted a retreat. The above orders were prepared in accordance with these views.
It will be seen that General Franklin was directed to seize, if possible, the heights near Captain Hamilton's, and to send at once a column of attack for that purpose, composed of a division at least, in the lead, well supported, and to keep his whole command in readiness to move down the old Richmond road. The object of this order is clear. It was necessary to seize this height in order to enable the remainder of his forces to move down the old Richmond road, with a view of getting in rear of the enemy's line on the crest. He was ordered to seize these heights, if possible, and to do it at once. I sent him a copy of the order to General Sumner, in which it will be seen that I directed General Sumner's column not to move until he received orders from me, while he (General Franklin) was ordered to move at once. The movements were not intended to be simultaneous; in fact, I did not intend to move General Sumner until I learned that Franklin was about to gain the heights near Hamilton's, which I then supposed he was entirely able to do. I sent the order to General Franklin by General James A. Hardie, a member of my staff; it reached him at 7.30 a.m.
Significantly Burnside makes no reference to his discussion earlier in the evening with General Franklin, nor does he explain why he allowed the night of December 12-13 to pass without giving his army any indication whatsoever as to his specific attack plans. It will never be known whether Burnside was tired, took a nap and overslept, or simply couldn't make up his mind. Certainly the written orders and his own report, studied together, indicate a man on the horns of a dilemma, finally dredging up a general idea since he had to issue some kind of attack orders.
The traditional "fog of war" which normally hinders the
tactical vision of the commander of a large body of troops in contact with the enemy was on this occasion thickened by a Burnside-induced fog that blew in on an unhappy Franklin in the form of the belated order which Hardie delivered in person after taking time out for a hearty breakfast. It will be noted that Franklin's message, postmarked 5.55 A.M., the hour it was presumably signed by Burnside's Chief-of-Staff, was handed to Franklin at his headquarters, the Bernard house, one hour and fifty minutes later, although the distance between the respective headquarters was a mere two and a half miles by road, a matter of fifteen minutes at an easy hand gallop.
The orders to General Sumner in Fredericksburg involved for the time being merely an extension of the current deployment of his divisions in preparation for an assault by a single division, and that only when Burnside should give the signal. Hooker's order told him only that he was to place his divisions near the bridges on the east side of the river, prepared to support the forthcoming attack by the two grand divisions already across. The wording of this order was so phrased as to keep the troops under Hooker's immediate direction, which meant control by Burnside.
It was the order to Franklin, who was to make the major attack with more than half of the army at his disposal, that caused the greatest consternation in the minds of Franklin, Reynolds, and Smith, because it was entirely different from their own conception, which they had been confident Burnside had accepted the evening before. Obviously Burnside was sending a boy to do a man's job when he ordered one division from each wing to initiate a pseudo-coordinated attack under conditions of poor visibility, at a time when everybody else was convinced that their only hope lay in a powerful flanking assault against Lee's right, the sole weak spot along his entire position.
The phrase "if possible," the use of the verb "seize" rather
than "carry" or "capture and hold at all costs," the timid caution to "keep the line of retreat open," and the reference to possible collision with friendly troops in the fog-these were Milquetoast terms that could hardly be expected to put confidence and the offensive spirit into the minds and hearts of able corps and division commanders, and an aggregation of stout fighting men who had already, and for quite some time, been convinced that they were being led down a blind alley by a blindfolded leader.
Franklin's own plan was indeed the one that made sense, and by all the rules of warfare it should have succeeded handsomely. If Burnside had been less enamored of his own brainchild, which unfortunately was an anemic cripple even in the embryo, he would have approved Franklin's plan, issued by 9 P.M. a simple army attack order effective at daylight December 13, and gone to bed, with justifiable confidence that the next day Lee and not he, Burnside, would have to do the worrying.
With their hands thus untied, Sumner, Franklin, and Hooker could have coordinated their attack orders at an hour's conference, crossed two of Hooker's divisions at the lower bridges to replace Smith's corps as bridgehead security, (as Franklin had vainly urged Burnside to do), moved their assault divisions to the jump-off positions before daylight, and thus have faced at daylight a hopeful set of circumstances that would in all likelihood have resulted in a battle with the odds heavily weighted in favor of the Union army.
Instead of which, Burnside shackled his subordinate commanders to a role of virtual rubber stamps, delayed interminably the use of the stamp, and when he did finally apply it to the ink pad, the resulting impression was so difficult to read that the Union cause would have been better served had Burnside in his youth never learned to read or write.
To ACHIEVE more than a superficial understanding of the Battle of Fredericksburg requires time and patience on the part of the reader, whether he be a serious student of military tactics or merely one who is casually interested in Civil War campaigns and battles. The characteristics of the Fredericksburg battlefield, both natural and man-made, were such as to offer a surprisingly large number of tactical opportunities for the alert commander, from corps down to squad and even to the individual soldier. Maps 8 and 9 should prove helpful to an understanding of the battle itself.
The advantage of terrain lay with the defending Confederates, not only because nature had provided a range of wooded hills and complementary stream obstacles that cut across the plain over which the Union army was ordered to attack, but also because General Lee had a keen sense of terrain appreciation and -an incomparable team of corps commanders in Longstreet and Jackson. These two distinguished generals had fought many a successful battle under every conceivable combination of circumstances, were completely en rapport with their army com-
mander, and were old hands at the game of making the most of what they had in materiel and manpower, in the character of the terrain, and the errors of their opponents.
Lee's ability to appraise the favorable and unfavorable aspects of the ground features and to dispose his forces to take full advantage thereof was never better exemplified than in his defensive strategy at Fredericksburg. By far the greater extent of his seven-mile-long position was occupied on the left by Longstreet's five-division corps of about 41,000 men, a line thinly held because Lee and Longstreet were both confident that the Federals could not successfully storm the heights or achieve a penetration on that front. For that reason, coupled with the fact that the ground was frozen hard and digging was difficult, little effort was made on Longstreet's section of the line to throw up infantry entrenchments or to emplace the guns in depressed pits except in very exposed locations.
In Jackson's sector the situation required a different type of defensive treatment. There, in the two mile stretch between Deep Run and Hamilton's Crossing, Lee massed Jackson's entire Second Corps of 39,000 men, exclusive of Stuart's cavalry and artillery, disposed in depth to make the best possible use of cover, elevation, ravines, and streams. The heights were covered with a dense growth of timber, which was heavier than on Marye's Heights and the other hills to the north. While some attention was paid to building breastworks, in the time Burnside thoughtfully allowed him, Lee gave first priority to the important task of cutting roads through the woods in rear of the position, for lateral communication and to facilitate rapid movement of regiments or brigades in order to be prepared to meet the enemy with superior numbers at threatened points.
Jackson's theoretically vulnerable right flank may not actually have been so easy to turn as the map might indicate, because the valley of the Massaponax Creek, which cut the line of hills at Hamilton's Crossing, had some marshy characteristics. Also, the creek itself, running east and west about a half mile below Prospect Hill, the nose of the ridge where Jackson established
his battle command post on the extreme right, was a positive obstacle not easily surmounted by enemy troops under battle conditions. In those days troops attacked in parade-ground formation, and, when a line was broken, confusion and loss of control resulted.
The canny Lee shrewdly anticipated and prepared for every possible tactical maneuver that Burnside might conceive, personally directing the posting of many of the 306 artillery guns which were skillfully sited along the seven-mile position, while on the right flank, where a turning movement seemed to be the most logical move for the Union army, Jackson's corps and Stuart's cavalry were ready and willing.
The Union army, on the other hand, found itself in a most unenviable position, awkwardly straddling an unfordable river with only a handful of tenuous lifelines against a possible disaster that might necessitate a hazardous withdrawal. Six narrow, shaky threads that were the bridges were capable of being
destroyed by Confederate artillery fire if Lee should change his mind and decide that the loss of property along the eastern fringe of Fredericksburg was not too high a price to pay for a Federal debacle.
An army of over 100,000 men even moving in close order requires plenty of space in which to maneuver for effective work. It takes a lot of marching and deployment and the intelligent transmission and understanding of a succession of orders down through the chain of command to prepare such a large body of troops for a coordinated assault, if the attack is to attain any measure of success.
It may be unkind to say it, but in retrospect it appears that Lee had not two, but three corps commanders to help him, and the name of the third was Burnside. Burnside's bungling had finally put the Army of the Potomac in a position where nothing but sheer guts and the stout hearts of a mighty host of fighting men would serve to extricate them. He had managed to maneuver them into a serious pocket, a relatively shallow oval-shaped area, with a narrow open end at the south between
Hamilton's Crossing and the Rappahannock; except that it wasn't a real opening for the reason that Stuart's cavalry and Pelham's artillery were blocking a possible end run on that flank. At the backs of the Union army was the Rappahannock River and directly to their front rose a formidable row of hills bristling for seven miles with gray-clad soldiers who were figuratively licking their chops as they waited, poised, for the "blue bellies" to "come and get it."
The preliminaries were now out of the way and the gladiators were on the battlefield, over 200,000 of them, facing one another and ready to spring. Some 90,000 confident Confederates, knowing exactly what they intended to do and determined to add one more to their string of victories, were pitted at close quarters against 120,000 Federals, with 26,000 more in reserve a few miles away and about 50,000 others protecting the upper Potomac and the defenses of Washington.
Historians have always experienced great difficulty in reconciling Confederate strength figures as given by the various generals in their own written accounts, frequently long after the event, with the strength reports in the Official Records of the Rebellion. This may be partly explained by the fact that straggling was even more a matter of concern to the Confederate high command than to the Federal. Among the Southern sol-
MAP 9. THE SITUATION JUST BEFORE DAWN ON DECEMBER 13, 1862
Federal divisions selected to make the attack have crossed the river and are bivouacked in the positions shown. The Confederates, having watched or heard them cross, are aware that an attack is pending, but are uncertain as to where the main effort, if any, will be made. But by now Lee is satisfied that there will be no wide turning movement to the south, in the Port Royal area, and he is moving Jackson's two flank divisions up to the vicinity of Hamiltons Crossing, where they will arrive about daybreak. The positions of Hunt's reserve artillery east of the river are indicated though the names of the batteries are not shown. Similarly the Confederate battery positions are shown by symbols which do not necessarily indicate the number of guns in each emplacement. It will be noted that a sixth pontoon bridge is now in place, making three at Franklin's crossing site. This bridge was built late on the 11th. There were few displacements of artillery during the battle, except for the release of some of the organic batteries accompanying the attacking Federal divisions. Therefore, for simplicity, artillery positions will not be generally repeated on succeeding maps.
diers it was not so much a matter of malingering as it was a privilege which many enjoyed, with considerable impunity in the early part of the war, of taking French leave between campaigns to fall out and visit with friends and acquaintances in home territory. There they could find food and shelter which was an improvement over the army ration and the open fields and woods. Consequently the custom became widespread, although most of the AWOL's were in the habit of rejoining their outfits whenever a battle appeared imminent.
Straggling has of course always been a serious headache in every army composed of a preponderance of untrained recruits who have not been physically hardened in campaign and have yet to learn how to take proper care of themselves. Even under a strict disciplinarian it always presents a problem that can be eradicated only by time and intensive training and marching. It must be concluded, therefore, that the official returns for the Confederates as a rule exceeded, by varying amounts and depending on other circumstances, the number of combat effectives under arms and present in person for any particular engagement. In this book the Official Records are used for strength figures wherever possible, without making allowance for stragglers, men on sick call, or engaged in administrative duties.
Once again the valley was covered with an early morning fog on Saturday, December 13, a day that was soon to terminate the career of many a good man. A high wind and bitterly cold night had caused such discomfort to the thousands of men resting on their arms on that congested battlefield-to-be that the chance to get into blood-warming action, even if it should hasten death or dismemberment, was preferable to freezing to death from numbing inaction.
Burnside was at least correct in expecting that there would be a fog, as on previous mornings, but that it would be dissipated in a couple of hours, as indeed it was. Meanwhile, as of 7:45 A.M., Franklin had his orders. A few minutes later corps
commanders Reynolds and Smith were given the bad news, and the Left Grand Division began to stir.
ince Burnside had refused to release any of Hooker's divisions on the eastern shore, which would have freed Smith's Sixth Corps for use as Franklin might see fit, without worrying about bridgehead security, Franklin assigned the attack mission to Reynolds and his First Corps. Reynolds in turn selected Meade's division, with Gibbon's in support, to spearhead the advance "to seize if possible the heights near Captain Hamilton's, on this side of the Massaponax, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open."
Scarcely an inspiring attack order, to say the least! Meade was an excellent division commander, who had one of the best outfits in the army, although the smallest at Franklin's disposal, with a strength of only about 4,500 men. It is assumed that he and Reynolds kept the wording of Burnside's order to themselves;,they must have if they expected the men of Meade's
regiments to put their hearts into the effort. Imagine telling a bunch of two-fisted soldiers to try and grab those hills up there by the crossroads if possible, with a promise to hold a path open for retreat!
Gibbon's division, slightly larger than Meade's, was directed to support Meade on the right, while Doubleday, commander of Reynold's remaining division, was held in reserve. By 8:30
A.M. Meade was ready to move out, a creditable piece of work considering the fact that only forty-five minutes had elapsed since Hardie reached Franklin with the unexpected order.
The deployment of Reynold's corps began while the plain between the river and the Confederate heights as well as the town of Fredericksburg was covered by the dense fog of early morning. Aided by the low visibility, the forward movement of Meade's and Gibbon's divisions made excellent progress against only sporadic enemy gunfire which had no targets upon which to sight. The Confederates were aware that something interesting was afoot, for they could hear the sharp bark of commands all along the front even though they could see nothing through the heavy curtain of fog.
About 10 o'clock the brilliant rays of the sun struggled through the mists, which were quickly dissipated to reveal to the startled but admiring eyes of thousands of watchers on the hill a panorama that must have been breath-taking in its scope and grandeur. Like a suddenly rising curtain at the opening of a play, there was displayed Franklin's huge force of over 50,000 men, rank on rank, foot, horse, and artillery pieces, with the bright sun reflecting from thousands upon thousands of flashing bayonets, and with officers dashing up and down on galloping horses. The Left Grand Division covered the plain and presented a martial pageant that would never be forgotten by those who had the fortune to occupy front-row seats.
While it may sound like an anachronism to twentieth century veterans, adjutants were observed moving to the front of their regiments and reading battle orders, after which the successive lines of Federal troops, standards flying, moved out to battle as though on parade. The show was on!
Paced by bursting shells from scores of heavy field pieces which swept the plain before the advancing regiments, Meade's all-Pennsylvania division moved to the attack in line of brigade
columns, two brigades in line abreast, with the third in column echeloned to the left rear and the artillery advancing between the two leading brigades. They crossed the Smithfield ravine and turned sharply to the right across the Richmond Road. From Deep Run to the far end of Meade's line this road was sunken, in places six feet deep. The road offered protection, but also was an obstacle to forward movement, consequently there was a delay at this point while the men tore down the hedge fences flanking the road and bridged the drainage ditches on either side to provide a passage for the artillery. While this work was in progress the division was badly hurt by converging artillery fire from Jackson's batteries on the crest above Hamilton's Crossing and from Pelham's guns on the left. Reynold's field guns promptly rushed forward to the rise of ground between the Richmond Road and the railroad and replied briskly to the Confederate artillery fire, dividing their attention between Jackson's guns on the heights and Stuart's on the flank.
After crossing the Richmond Road at a point approximately
a mile south of the Deep Run or Lansdowne Valley Road, Meade's advancing columns paralleled that road which cut through the line of hills occupied by the line of Confederates. Following Reynolds' instructions, their immediate objective was a point of woods which jutted out like a salient into the open end of the plain. That particular section of woods, as it turned out, offered a more gradual ascent for the attackers than did other portions of Jackson's line. It was Reynolds' plan that Meade's division would gain the crest and then turn left along it towards Jackson's right flank at Hamilton's Crossing, where the bulk of the enemy artillery appeared to be massed. Gibbon's division advanced on Meade's right, echeloned to the rear, brigades in successive lines. Gibbon's had suffered equally with Meade's from the Confederate shelling, especially from batteries near Bernard's cabins. At the same time, Reynolds directed Doubleday's division to change front to the left facing
Stuart's cavalry on the flank, in order to take the weight off Meade's advancing left flank and to prevent a surprise attack from that quarter. Meade also took similar precautions by facing his reserve brigade to the left.
The Federals hugged the ground as the artillery duel raged for well over an hour. The redoubtable Pelham, commanding Stuart's artillery on the extreme Confederate right, stood well out in front of the cavalry with two venturesome guns exposed,
far to the front in the triangle formed by the junction of the Mine Road with the Richmond Road. Nimbly shifting his guns each time the Federals found his range, the young officer kept many times his own number of Federal guns engaged until Stuart, fearing to lose the brave but rash artilleryman, issued peremptory orders that he give up the unequal gun fight and retire to a safer position.
As Meade and Gibbon advanced, none of the Confederates on the crest or forward slope of the wooded ridge were visible. The attacking Federals were allowed to approach the railroad, within 800 yards of the crest of the ridge, before running into trouble. At that stage all the Confederate batteries opened with a crash, with such effect that Meade's men were stopped in their tracks, wavered, and pulled back. It began to appear that the Federals had been stopped almost before they started, because several hours now passed before they pulled themselves
together for a second attempt. About one o'clock the Federal batteries laid down a strong and well directed concentration of fire on the woods that were Meade's initial objective and the Confederate guns on either side of it. Under the protection of this fire Meade and Gibbon resumed their advance, crossed the railroad, and drove the Confederates back into the woods and up the hill.
Along the one and one-half mile front held by A. P. Hill's Confederate Division, the left of Archer's Brigade was separated from the right of Lane's Brigade by 500 yards of swampy woods which the Confederates had failed to reconnoiter carefully or which they negligently assumed could not be crossed by the enemy, overlooking the fact that the ground was frozen sufficiently to make it possible. In rear of the swamp Hill had placed Gregg's Brigade, as a part of the second defensive line, but the open space between Lane and Archer proved too wide for mutually supporting fire.
The swampy woods, which Jackson's generals thought would be a deterrent, proved to be nothing if the sort; Meade's brigades surged through the woods, taking between them several hundred prisoners, smashing Gregg's Brigade and mortally
wounding its commander. Gibbon, on Meade's right, advanced only to the Confederate front line. In the dense thicket the divisions lost contact and opened a gap, whereupon the Confederate brigades promptly rallied, counterattacked, and drove Meade's men back in great confusion. Although Taliaferro's Division was in direct support of Gregg's Brigade, it was Early's that rushed over from the right to meet the crisis and turn the tables on Meade. Lane's Brigade put the damper on Gibbon's assault which had reached the railroad but not much further, except for small groups and individual soldiers who followed Meade's example and advanced into the woods.
Enthusiastic rebel cheers, coupled with rapid footwork and vigorous musket fire, followed the retreating Federals down the hill and over the railroad. Gibbon was wounded and forced to retire. Brigadier General C. F. Jackson, one of Meade's brigade
commanders, was killed. Reynolds, Meade, and officers of lesser rank did their best to halt the backward drift of the broken regiments, but the troops of both divisions had had all they wanted and there was no stopping them in their sullen withdrawal, particularly those of Meade's division, through the hastily formed line which Birney's division of the Third Corps brought up in support. Birney had fortuitously arrived on the scene at the critical moment; he struck the Confederate right flank and in turn drove the counterattackers back into the woods with a loss of more than 500 killed and wounded. His own casualties were heavy, but his brigades fought magnificently as the retreating elements of Meade and Gibbon streamed through their lines to the rear. Had it not been for Birney, there is no telling what might have happened.
At two o'clock Reynolds' corps, strengthened by Birney's and then by Sickles' division, both of Stoneman's Third Corps, which had finally been summoned from the east shore, still held the railway line. But they were unable to make progress against Jackson's strong defense. Later in the afternoon the entire line was withdrawn to re-form in the shelter of the Richmond Road from whence the attack had been launched in the morning.
The Federal Attack Lacked Power and Depth
Franklin's failure to make better use of Smith's.corps was as much a reflection on his generalship as on Burnside's. Granted that the latter's directive was vague and inconclusive, a more energetic wing commander, having committed two divisions to the attack against the Confederate heights, would and should have utilized Smith's 25,000-man corps, the largest in the Union army, to better advantage. As it was, that corps remained virtually static deployed along the Richmond Road from Deep Run on the right, two divisions in the line and one in support. When Meade and Gibbon were repulsed, Newton's support division was shifted to the left to back up Birney, but remained in column of brigades in a position of readiness on both sides of the road and never did get into action. This was
equally true of Doubleday, who had deployed and advanced a short distance toward the flank, but who played a virtually inactive role throughout the battle.
About the only actual fighting in which Smith's corps engaged was a lively succession of artillery duels with the Confederates in the Deep Run area, and a spirited advance and bayonet charge by a portion of Colonel Torbert's brigade of Brook's division, which in the middle of the afternoon attempted to drive the Confederates from a railroad cut in the Deep Run (Lansdowne) Valley where the railroad crossed a deep ravine. Torbert's troops succeeded in driving back a regiment of Pender's Brigade of A. P. Hill's Division, and capturing several dozen of the enemy. Torbert in turn was counterattacked and forced to retire by Law's Brigade of Hood's Division. Lansdowne Valley was a well-known landmark at the time of the battle and since it was approximately the dividing line between
the two Confederate corps, and appeared to be a natural avenue of attack along the upper reaches of Deep Run, the sortie might have had important results had it been launched with sufficient strength and depth.
What should have been a major and decisive turning movement by Franklin's 54,000-man force, against not much more than half that number of Confederates on Lee's right flank, thus turned out to be a relatively inconclusive although very sanguinary engagement in which a majority of the forces available to each of the opposing commanders was not fully engaged. The reported casualties significantly tell the story (see Appendix 11); Meade's division lost 1,853 officers and men; Gibbon's losses were 1,267; Birney's were 950; Doubleday and Sickles suffered, respectively, only 218 and 100 casualties, mainly from Confederate artillery fire; while the other four divisions lost a mere 473 men altogether, for a grand total of 4,861 casualties among the troops under Franklin's command. The opposing Confederates lost approximately 3,400, mostly in the divisions of A. P. Hill and Jubal Early.
As the afternoon waned, Stonewall Jackson made preparations for a counterattack which he judged it would be safer to launch under cover of darkness, just in case it might be necessary for his divisions to retire to their secure haven on the heights after making the attack. The plan called for his artillery to precede the infantry, but nothing came of it because, in Jackson's own report: "The first gun had hardly moved forward from the wood one hundred yards when the enemy, s artillery reopened, and so completely swept our front as to satisfy me that the proposed movement should be abandoned."
While it can fairly be said that Burnside's attack order to Franklin was much too indefinite and restrictive for the required effort, the army commander did have an out in that he had directed an attack by at least one division. At the same time, however, and somewhat conflictingly, Franklin was told to hold his entire command in readiness for a rapid movement down
the Richmond Road. It was clearly Burnside's expectation that the spearhead division (Meade's) would gain the heights and Lee would then hasten to withdraw his troops to the south, at which moment Burnside wanted the bulk of Franklin's grand division to be ready to move after him in a rapid pursuit.
In the heat and excitement of battle, what a general thinks and does is sometimes quite different from what he subsequently testifies to explain his motivations and actions. In the early part of 1863, in the lull between the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, a Congressional Committee on the conduct of the war received testimony from both Burnside and Franklin, among others, on the controversial order to the latter. Burnside's ex-post-facto explanation was that he had been informed by a "colored gentleman" from Fredericksburg that the Confederates had built a military access road in rear of the heights, to avoid long detours, that Burnside wanted possession of that road, and his instructions to Franklin contemplated that the
latter would capture it, separate Lee's two wings, throw confusion into Lee's ranks, and then Burnside would push the frontal attack on the right of , the Union army. If that were actually the case, it is difficult to understand why Burnside did not so stipulate in his order to Franklin, who in turn testified that he interpreted the order which he received at 7:45 that morning to call for "an armed observation to ascertain where the enemy was." Franklin testified further: "I put in all the troops that I thought it proper and prudent to put in. I fought the whole strength of my command, as far as I could, and at the same time keep my connection with the river open." In view of the historic facts, that was the overstatement of the year.
Franklin clearly interpreted the order too literally. Had he been mentally more flexible, he would with complete justification have thrown Smith's corps of three divisions into a strong holding attack against the high ground to their immediate front,
which in turn would have served to keep a portion of the Confederate line so busy that they could not with impunity have come to the aid of A. P. Hill's Division, which manned the Confederate first and second lines and which, as the battle progressed, was with help able to neutralize the efforts of the divisions of Meade and Gibbon.
Nor did Franklin attempt to explain his surprising reluctance to promptly summon the divisions of Birney, Sickles, and Burns, which had been assembled and were waiting near the river for the express purpose of supporting his attack. It is true that he did call in Birney, belatedly and barely in the nick of time, to block the Confederate pursuit of the divisions of Meade and Gibbon, in their headlong retreat. But the other two divisions were merely placed on the field in a defensive position along the Richmond Road without achieving any constructive result.
When the score was finally added up, it was clear that Franklin, who Burnside believed would make the major attack,
had badly misinterpreted the army commander's intentions and employed offensively only three of the nine divisions, one-third of his strength. By that failure, which Burnside must share, he lost the opportunity to turn Jackson's flank in advance of the frontal assault by Sumner's divisions in Fredericksburg.
The Congressional Committee reached the following conclusions: "The testimony of all the witnesses before your committee proves most conclusively that had the attack been made upon the left with all the force which General Franklin could have used for that purpose, the plan of General Burnside would have been completely successful, and our Army would have achieved a most brilliant victory."
In the opinion of the committee, at least, Franklin more than Burnside was to blame for the failure.
But now that all available evidence is on hand and has been carefully weighed, it appears that the foregoing conclusion of the Congressional Committee is of doubtful worth. The plan of Burnside might have succeeded (1) if the attack had been launched early, before D. H. Hill and Early were in position; (2) if the Federal cavalry been used to screen the left flank, neutralizing Pelham and Stuart; (3) if the assault had been made as an envelopment, striking west at Hamilton's Crossing; and (4) if Doubleday, Newton, Birney, and Sickles had been thrown into the assault as well as Meade and Gibbon. All this would have been possible had the attacking force been moved under cover of darkness and fog, shortly after midnight of the 12th, and been in the jump-off position at or before daybreak.