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Caught in the crossfire: Civilians at Fredericksburg

Part 11 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines’

Don PfanzA new weekly series, ‘Behind the Lines.” An anecdotal narrative will tell the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg—the action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ‘Abraham Lincoln at City Point’ and ‘Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.’

FREDERICKSBURG WAS an old and dignified town, even in 1862. Nestled close to the Rappahannock River, its 5,000 inhabitants enjoyed an easy, comfortable existence. Although places like Richmond and Alexandria had taken away much of Fredericksburg’s trade, the establishment of several new mills and the construction of a narrow-gauge railroad leading to Orange gave promise to more prosperous times ahead.

The national crisis that engulfed the country in 1860 divided Fredericksburg, as it did many communities in the country. Most residents wished to remain in the Union as long as the constitutional liberties of the South—that is, slavery—were protected. States in the Deep South were not quite so willing to compromise, however, and in the wake of President Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860, many of them voted themselves out of the Union and established the Southern Confederacy.

Virginia remained in the Union until April 1861, when South Carolina forces fired on Fort Sumter. President Lincoln declared the South in a state of rebellion and called on the loyal states to supply 75,000 troops to defend the Union. Forced to choose between her brethren in the North and the South, Virginia sided with the South.

The war had little direct impact on Fredericksburg until April 1862, when 30,000 Union troops pushed south from Washington and occupied the town. Abraham Lincoln visited Fredericksburg in May to confer with Gen. Irvin McDowell about future military operations. Under McDowell’s lenient tenure, Fredericksburg suffered few indignities or hardships. War’s iron fist had not yet landed on the Tidewater town.

That changed in December 1862 with the arrival of Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Potomac. Fredericksburg residents watched in dismay as division after division of Union soldiers appeared on Stafford Heights.

“Watched with trembling hearts the long line of Yankees pouring over the Chatham hills to take the same station they occupied last summer,” wrote one resident. “They come in countless number and our hearts sank within us.”

Three days later, Lee’s army began to arrive, bringing with it the promise of imminent conflict. The Confederate leader urged Fredericksburg residents to evacuate their homes and sent army wagons and ambulances to speed their departure. Many citizens boarded trains and headed toward Richmond. Five hundred ended up at Milford Station, 15 miles south of town. Compassionate Caroline County residents sent carriages to bring refugees to their homes. Some houses took in as many as 30 people.

As days passed with no sign of a Union crossing, many Fredericksburg residents returned to their homes. The sound of two cannon shots fired at 5 a.m., Dec. 11, startled them from their sleep. The Union army was crossing the river! Confederate soldiers ran from house to house pounding on doors, urging residents to flee. Grabbing blankets to protect them from the winter chill, women, children, and old men hurriedly left their homes and trudged out of town. Some stayed at the homes of friends who lived in the country; others gathered at outlying sanctuaries like Salem Church. Many simply camped in the woods, throwing up a blanket or a piece of carpeting for shelter.

“It made me feel so sad this evening to see an old man and Lady supporting a sick son,” a Confederate officer confided to his diary, “and just behind them were an old white man and an old black woman leading him, he being blind.”

Some civilians did not move quickly enough and were caught in the Union bombardment of the town later that day. As houses caught fire, terrified families dashed through the streets searching frantically for a safe haven. They found none. Jane Beale was asleep at her home at 307 Lewis St. when the artillery fire jarred her awake. Hastily gathering her family, she took refuge in the cellar of the house. They could hear shells shrieking and crashing through the roof and upper rooms above.

“I shall never forget to the day of my death, the agony and terror of the next four hours,” she wrote. Each minute “was burnt in on my memory as with hot iron. I could not pray, but only cry for mercy.”

A minister who was staying with the family began to read from the 27th Psalm: “Tho an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear ... ” No sooner had he spoken these words than a 12-pound cannonball crashed through the wall, shattering glass and splintering a timber. Miraculously, no one in the room was seriously injured.

Toward evening, Beale’s brother banged on the cellar door. The Yankees had crossed the river, he informed them; they had to get out. Ignoring the danger, the family left the dark cellar and piled into a military ambulance. Excited horses whisked them away at a full gallop down Hanover Street to the Telegraph Road (now Lafayette Boulevard).

Just past Marye’s Heights, near modern “Dead Man's Curve,” the vehicle passed a crowd of women and children who had taken refuge near a mill on Hazel Run. The women were weeping and the children crying, Beale noted.

“I saw one [woman] walking along with a baby in her arms and another little one not three years old clinging to her dress and crying ‘I want to go home.’ My heart ached for them, and if I could I would have stopped the Ambulance and taken them in, but I did not know then that I might not have to spend the night out in the open air myself.”

In their hurry to exit the town, some families got split up. A soldier in the 21st Mississippi Infantry regiment was pulling out of town when he encountered a little girl in the fire-swept streets. Scooping the infant up in his arms, the rough soldier raced back the main Confederate line on Marye’s Heights.

By Dec. 12, Fredericksburg was firmly under control. Union soldiers who occupied the town broke into houses looking for food and plunder. In several houses, food remained half-eaten on the table, showing the haste with which the residents had left. For four days, Union troops occupied the town, using the buildings as barracks or as makeshift hospitals.

Civilian casualties were surprisingly light. Fewer than half-a-dozen residents appear to have been killed in the battle. The destruction of property, on the other hand, was immense. The buildings in town had been shelled, ransacked, then turned into hospitals. Fires had destroyed some of the structures; artillery shells and human malice had severely damaged the rest.

“Almost every house has six or eight shells through it;” wrote resident Betty Herndon Maury, “the doors are wide open, the locks and windows broken, and the shutters torn down. Two blocks of buildings were burned to the ground.”

Like most buildings, Maury’s house had been used as a hospital. “Every vessel in the house ... [was] filled with blood and water ... the table in the parlour was used as an amputating table, and ... a Yankee [Byron Pearce of N.Y.] was buried at the kitchen door.”

Major W. Roy Mason lived at the “Sentry Box” on lower Caroline Street. After the battle, he discovered three dead Union soldiers in his home, including one whose form had left a bloody imprint on the floor of his parlor that would last for many years. The corpses of five or six others had been buried in the yard outside. That was not uncommon: The entire town had become a graveyard.

There was at least one happy ending, however. The day after the Union retreat, the soldiers of the 21st Mississippi marched back into Fredericksburg, bearing on their shoulders the little girl they had rescued five days before. As they entered the town, a young woman dashed up to the officer who was holding the child, screamed, and fainted into his arms. The toddler’s mother had been found.

NEXT: The sacking of Fredericksburg

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.”