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Final preparations on battle's eve

Part 13 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

 
ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA new weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative will tell the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe 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: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

AMBROSE BURNSIDE still had no very clear idea of what to do. The general commanded the 115,000-man Union Army of the Potomac. For three weeks, the army lay poised in Stafford County awaiting its commander's orders to cross the Rappahannock River and strike the enemy.

Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederates, meanwhile, were busily constructing earthworks on the heights behind the town. Burnside finally made his move on Dec. 11, throwing three sets of bridges across the river at Fredericksburg. After massive bombardment, followed by hours of house-to-house fighting, the town had finally fallen to the Union.

Gen. Edwin B. Sumner's Right Grand Division, 30,000-men strong, tramped across the upper bridges on Dec. 12 and occupied Fredericksburg. At the same time, Gen. William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division filed across another set of bridges 1 miles below town and deployed in the fields along the Richmond Stage Road (State Routes 2 and 17) near modern Shannon Airport. After watching one another across the Rappahannock River for nearly a month, the two sides were ready to come to blows.

Lee, by all odds, held the upper hand. Although Burnside significantly outnumbered Lee's 78,000-man army, the Confederate leader occupied a formidable defensive position on the heights behind the town. Southern engineers had improved the position with gun pits and trenches. If Lee could only bring together enough men to hold this strong position, victory would follow.

Initially, however, the Confederate chieftain was not certain that Burnside intended to make his main effort at Fredericksburg. "Stonewall" Jackson's corps, comprising half of the Southern army, covered the area between Fredericksburg and Port Royal. Lee brought up two of Jackson's four divisions on Dec. 11, the day the Union army bridged the river, but he left the troops of Gens. Jubal Anderson Early and Daniel Harvey Hill back at Port Royal, just in case Burnside's crossing at Fredericksburg proved to be a decoy to cover a crossing farther down river.

On Dec. 12, Sumner's grand division poured down the heights near Chatham and occupied Fredericksburg in force. At the same time, the troops of Franklin's grand division pounded across the wooden pontoon bridges south of town and took position along the Richmond Stage Road. Any doubts Lee may have had about Burnside's intentions vanished at the sight of this host, and he sent couriers galloping south with orders for Early and Hill to bring their divisions to Fredericksburg with all haste.

The Confederate commander spent the rest of the morning riding his lines, making sure that everything was ready for the coming clash. By afternoon, he was back at his command post on Telegraph Hill conferring with his generals and awaiting his opponent's next move. (After the war, Telegraph Hill was renamed Lee Hill in the general's honor. It is located on the northern end of the park tour road, Lee Drive, at Tour Stop No. 2.)

Lee's opponent, Gen. Burnside, had no idea what that move would be. Having successfully fought his way across the Rappahannock, the Union commander hoped that Lee might give up the heights without further bloodshed. When Lee confounded those hopes by staying put, Burnside seemed at a loss. It was obvious to Gen. Darius Couch that his superior "had no fixed plan of battle. After getting in the face of the enemy, his intentions seemed to be continually changing."

On the afternoon of Dec. 12, as his troops wantonly ransacked the town, Burnside looked in vain for a promising point of attack. His options were limited. Lee's army occupied the heights west and south of town. Its left flank was anchored on the Rappahannock River at the Taylor house, "Fall Hill" (near modern Bragg Hill Apartments), and his right flank tied into Massaponax Creek south of town (near the community of New Post).

Burnside could not turn his opponent's flanks without returning to Stafford County and recrossing the Rappahannock elsewhere. It was too late for that; besides, Lee would simply shift his army to meet the new crossing.

Unable to get at Lee's flanks, Burnside had no choice but to make a frontal assault. The Union commander scanned the Confederate line with his telescope, looking for weaknesses. He found none. On Lee's left, north of town, the Confederate line ran along a precipitous ridge, the same one now occupied by Mary Washington Hospital. In front of the ridge was the Fredericksburg canal. In order to attack Lee's left, Union troops would have to bridge the canal--not once, but twice--form in the open under a severe artillery fire, then storm the ridge. The chances of success were slim.

The Confederates continued to hold the ridge south of this point, their line running straight through the middle of modern Mary Washington College's campus. The ground at the foot of the hills--near modern Kenmore Park--was so marshy that Burnside considered it impassable.

South of that point was Marye's Heights. Although it, too, was formidable, as Union troops would soon learn to their grief, an attack there had one great advantage. Because the heights were immediately behind the town, Union troops would have less ground to cross in order to reach the Confederate line than at any other point on the field. Less ground meant fewer casualties.

South of Marye's Heights, the Confederate line curved gently away from the Union lines, forming what modern military analysts call a "pocket." Pockets are dangerous places to attack because they subject attacking troops not only to a frontal fire but to fire on both flanks--in short, a crossfire. Even Ambrose Burnside knew better than to attack there.

That left just one other spot: the far right end of the Confederate line, a place known locally as Prospect Hill. (Today, Prospect Hill lies at the end of Lee Drive, at Tour Stop No. 4.) There, just short of Massaponax Creek, the Confederate line again flattened out and the heights were less lofty. A strong attack there might break Lee's line, placing the Union army between Lee and Richmond.

Burnside reviewed his options and issued his orders. Franklin would attack Confederate forces led by "Stonewall" Jackson at Prospect Hill and drive them off the ridge, while Sumner, to his right, attacked Gen. James Longstreet's corps on Marye's Heights, thereby preventing Longstreet from reinforcing Jackson. In pugilist terms, Burnside planned to throw a left hook followed by a right jab.

Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding Burnside's Center Grand Division, would remain on Stafford Heights in reserve, ready to pursue the defeated Confederates once Franklin and Sumner had broken their lines. It was a blueprint for victory--or a recipe for disaster.

NEXT: William B. Franklin and the trials of command

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of ìAbraham Lincoln at City Pointî and ìRichard S. Ewell: A Soldierís Life.î