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The Struggle for Prospect Hill

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells 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

Part 19 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

WHEN PEOPLE THINK about the Battle of Fredericksburg, they picture the assaults against Marye's Heights, where Confederate soldiers standing behind a stone wall beat back wave after wave of Union attacks.

That is the battle's enduring image, and rightly so. But four miles to the south, another attack was taking place--an attack which, if properly supported, might have brought the Union army victory. It was there that the outcome of the battle was decided.

Gen. William B. Franklin directed the Union attacks on the southern end of the battlefield. Opposite him, on a wooded ridge known as Prospect Hill, stood Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's Confederates. Franklin's goal was to pierce Jackson's line and seize a military road that ran along the crest of the ridge. Once in possession of that road, Franklin could move up the ridge, unraveling the Confederate line.

Franklin, however, misinterpreted the orders given to him by his commander, Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. Instead of attacking Prospect Hill with a large force, Franklin committed just two divisions--just one-third of his command. Gen. George G. Meade's Pennsylvania division spearheaded the assault, supported on his right by Gen. John Gibbon.

Meade deployed his 3,800-man division in the fields next to the Richmond Stage Road (modern Routes 2 and 17), near the spot now occupied by General Motors' Powertrain plant. To reach the heights, his troops would have to cross one-half mile of open ground, cross the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad (now CSX), then charge up the hill and into the woods.

A Confederate artillerist, watching the buildup of Union troops on the plain below, thought that enemy host might "eat us up," but Jackson had no such concern. Earlier in the day, when a staff officer had expressed doubt that the Confederates could defeat the thousands of Union soldiers arrayed against them, Jackson brushed aside his fears. "Major, my men may sometimes fail to take a position, but to defend one, never! I am glad the Yankees are coming!"

Jackson had good reason to be confident. At Fredericksburg, he had nearly 40,000 troops to meet Meade's attack--more than four men for every foot of ground he defended. A. P. Hill's division held the front line, near the railroad. Behind Hill, stacked upon one another like layers in a club sandwich, were the remaining three divisions of Jackson's corps. Fredericksburg was the only battle in which Jackson could boast an abundance of troops. He would need most of them before the day ended.

At 1 p.m., following a heavy artillery bombardment, the Union line started forward. Meade directed his attack toward a small ribbon of trees that extended beyond the railroad, toward the river. The ground there was marshy, and the Confederates had left it undefended, thinking it impassible. It was not. As Confederate skirmishers gave way, Meade's men drove across the railroad embankment, slogged through the muddy ground and charged up the slope beyond.

As they approached the top of the hill, they crashed headlong into Maxcy Gregg's South Carolina brigade, which Hill had placed in reserve immediately behind the gap. Gregg was an uncompromising proponent of states' rights and an ardent supporter of secession. As commander of his state's 1st Infantry Regiment, he had taken part in the bombardment of Fort Sumter and gloried in its capture. Now, as an experienced brigadier general, he found himself squarely in the path of Meade's thrust.

Hill gave Gregg the task of covering the 600-yard gap in his line. Hill did not think the Union army would attack the swampy interval, but if it did, Gregg was to engage the Federals in front while brigades on either side of the gap gnawed at the attackers' flanks. Meade's assault, however, caught Gregg unawares. It appears that the general--who was stone deaf--either didn't hear Hill's order or didn't appreciate that the fighting had started. As the Pennsylvanians swarmed up through the woods, they found Gregg's men eating dinner, their rifles stacked neatly in the military road.

Some of the South Carolinians, seeing the Union line approaching, grabbed their guns and began shooting. Fearful that his men were targeting their own skirmishers, Gregg rode down the line and ordered his men to stop shooting. Too late, he realized that the soldiers coming up the hill were indeed the enemy. The Confederate skirmishers on Gregg's front had retreated by a different route.

Before Gregg could rectify his mistake, a bullet pierced his spine, inflicting a mortal wound. Moments later, Union troops charged through Gregg's brigade, scattering it to the winds. Against all odds, Meade's division had broken Jackson's line and seized the military road! But it was one thing to seize a position; it was another thing to hold it. Meade had just 3,800 men; Jackson had nearly 40,000.

If Meade was going to maintain his hold on the hill, he needed help and fast. To his astonishment, he discovered that no reinforcements were at hand. Gen. Franklin, interpreting his orders as a reconnaissance in force rather than a general assault, had kept most of his troops back near the pontoon bridges, two miles away. Meade was on his own.

Before help could arrive, the Confederates launched a massive counterattack. From its position in rear of Hill's line, Gen. Jubal A. Early's division came crashing through the trees, screaming the rebel yell. Farther north, troops from Gen. William Taliaferro's division also joined the fray. Hit on all sides by an overwhelming force, Meade's tired and disorganized division burst like a bubble. The general tried to rally his troops along the railroad embankment, but the line simply would not hold. The defeated bluecoats tumbled out of the woods and streamed back across the plain toward the Richmond Stage Road.

Content to have re-established their line, most Confederates halted at the railroad. One impetuous Georgia brigade, however, pursued the Union army onto the plain. It was a costly mistake. Caught in the open, without cover, the Georgians were stopped dead in their tracks by Meade's artillery and fell back with heavy losses. By 2:30 p.m., both sides were back where they started.

Meade was furious. His troops had punched a hole in Jackson's line and seized the military road against overwhelming odds, only to relinquish their gains for lack of proper support. In the process, they had lost 1,850 men killed, wounded, or captured--more than 40 percent of those who had taken part in the attack. Meade himself narrowly escaped death when a bullet pierced his hat.

But it was all in vain. As a result of the bad communication between Burnside and Franklin, the Union army had lost its best chance for victory.

NEXT: The fighting at Bernard's cabins

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