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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville

Before the storm, peaceful interlude

Before the Battle of Fredericksburg offensive began, there were several weeks of tacit truce. Troops on both sides of the Rappahannock River paused for peaceful pursuits.

Part seven of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg; see earlier stories

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC reached Fredericksburg in mid- November 1862, but it did not attempt to cross the Rappahannock River until Dec. 11.

The Union troops made good use of their time erecting earthworks along the river, building corduroy roads across the muddy Virginia terrain, reconstructing the wharves

at Aquia Landing, and repairing the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac

Railroad between Aquia Landing and Falmouth.

Building a new bridge across Potomac Creek was the greatest challenge to putting

the railroad in operation, but Union engineers set their minds to the task and, by Nov. 28, the trains began to run.

The Confederate army was also busy during those weeks, constructing earthworks

along the river and on the hills behind the town. Among the works were nine gun pits built for the Washington Artillery. The gun pits stood on Marye’s Heights, directly behind the town, and frowned down on Fredericksburg. The Confederates had placed them there so as to scour the open plain that then extended from the outskirts of the town to the heights.

Gen. James Longstreet commanded that part of the line. When he suggested that the artillery commander in that sector squeeze another gun onto the heights, the man replied: “General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”

A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not much, as later events would show. Both sides sent spies across the river in an effort to discover the position and intentions of the opposing army. At the same time, Union signalmen intercepted messages transmitted by their Confederate counerparts who were wig-wagging messages up and down the line by means of large flags.

The Confederate signalmen knew that they were being watched, and transmitted their messages in code. What they didn’t know was that the Union signalmen had broken the code. Even so, Northern signalmen gained little useful information. The weather was unusually balmy in the weeks leading to the battle. But on Dec. 5, a cold front swept in from the north, drenching the countryside with a pouring rain.

Temperatures continued to drop, and by late afternoon the rain switched to sleet, then to snow. By the following morning, four inches of white powder covered the ground. The weather turned bitterly cold. Soldiers’ hands and beards froze; water turned to ice; a few soldiers literally froze to death while standing picket near the river.

The Confederates suffered the most, having the fewest supplies. Some were without shoes, most lacked adequate clothing, and none had yet been issued tents.

“They manage to eke out some kind of shelter, either with oil cloths [rubber tarps], or a blanket over poles, or brush-wood covered with leaves,” wrote Gen. William Nelson Pendleton. “And by dint of good out of doors fires, and many lodging together they are enabled, I hope, to sleep in tolerable warmth. At best, though,” he admitted, “it is a rough business.”

Union soldiers had adequate suplies of clothing and blankets and therefore suffered less. But the freezing temperatures still had their effect. A Union soldier huddled over his campfire recorded his discomfort in the pages of his diary: “Feet are aching, noses biting, ears and fingers tingling.”

The frigid temperatures, wrote another, were “enough to cool down the most ardent patriotism.” Soldiers farsighted enough to build winter huts found their tiny homes packed with guests looking to keep warm.

“We’re too thick to be welcome,” noted one intruder, “but we don’t mind slight rebuffs—we take them good-naturedly and stay until crowded.” The cold front soon passed, however, and temperatures again rose. By the time the Union army would cross the river, daytime temperatures were back into the 50s.

That was good news for Union and Confederate soldiers assigned to picket duty along the Rappahan nock. By tacit agreement, opposing pickets agreed not to shoot at one another unless one side or the other attempted to cross. For several weeks, they walked their beats in full view of one another, occasionally stopping to converse or to exchange barbs across the watery divide.

Some soldiers rigged up toy sailboats. When the wind was right, Confederates would send small amounts of tobacco plying across the river. Union pickets gratefully pocketed the fragrant cargo and when the wind shifted they sent back coffee in return.

Officers eventually put a halt to the illicit trade. Relations between opposing pickets became so chummy that, in rare instances, soldiers from one army actually crossed the river under a flag of truce to talk and trade newspapers with their counterparts on the other side.

One Confederate got more than he bargained for. When he reached the Stafford shore, he encountered a man who had been his enemy long before the war and was assaulted. To avenge the insult, Johnny Reb’s friends opened fire on the Yankees, killing several. Such behavior was an anomaly, however. For the most part, pickets scrupulously honored the informal truce.

During periods of inactivity, boredom became the soldiers’ worst enemy. Some Confederates relieved the tedium by paying visits to residents in the town, where they received a cordial reception and a warm meal. Others engaged in sports and games. Union pickets gazing across the shimmering river watched as Confederates played baseball, competed in footraces, engaged in jumping contests, and held boxing tournaments.

On the heights back of town, the Washington Artillery erected a stage and sold tickets to an open-air theatrical production. Using logs for seats and tent flies for curtains, the hardened veterans performed “The Lady of Lyons,” a play popular at the time. A lieutenant played the lead role, with Sgt. John Wood acting the part of the heroine, Pauline.

“The play went off admirably well,” remarked one amateur critic, “but where the sergeant got his petticoats from he won’t tell!” This peaceful interlude terminated abruptly in December. Despite the approach of winter, the Northern people continued to clamor for an advance on Richmond.

Bowing to public pressure, Union commander Ambrose E. Burnside ordered a crossing of the Rappahannock on Dec. 11. The long-awaited offensive was about to begin.

NEXT: The battle of the bridges

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point” and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”