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Slave cabins were center of 1862 battle maneuverings

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

HALFWAY DOWN Lee Drive, a little more than a half mile beyond its intersection with Lansdowne Road, begins one of the newest and least-known trails on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The trail starts at the road and winds through the woods for half a mile before emerging into a large plowed field overlooking Shannon Airport and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad (now CSX). It terminates at Bernardís Cabins, the site of a small slave community. The cabins and their occupants belonged to Arthur Bernard, the owner of Mannsfield, a plantation house that stood about one and a half miles to the east.

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Bernardís Cabins became an important Confederate artillery position on Lt. gen. Thomas J. ìStonewallî Jacksonís end of the line. Jackson held nearly a two-mile front along the RF&P Railroad. The center of his line was wooded, preventing the Confederate leader from placing any artillery there. Instead, he placed a large number of cannons on either side of the woods and angled the guns toward one another so as to catch any Union troops who might attempt to attack the woods in a deadly crossfire.

To the right of the woods, Jackson had Lt. Col. Rueben Lindsey Walkerís battalion of 14 guns. To the left of the woods, at Bernardís Cabins, stood nine guns of Capt. Greenlee Davidsonís battalion. However, Jackson determined that Davidsonís guns were too far back to effectively cover the woods on his right. Before the fighting began, he sent Capt. John B. Brockenbrough forward with 12 additional guns to take position on Davidsonís right front, beyond the railroad tracks. Brockenbroughís position placed him directly in front of Gen. James Laneís North Carolina brigade and immediately to the left of a marshy gap in Jacksonís line.

On the morning of Dec. 13, 1862, Union skirmishers crept forward through the mist-shrouded fields and began shooting at Brockenbroughís exposed gunners. When Laneís men were unable to drive them away, Brockenbrough opened on the pesky Union riflemen with canisterólarge cylinders filled with dozens of marble-sized iron balls that had the effect of a giant shotgun blast.

Brockenbroughís guns drew the fire of Union artillery batteries on the plain ahead, and soon the Confederate guns were under intense fire from enemy sharpshooters and cannon alike. Brockenbrough fell with a crippling wound to the arm, and one of his battery commanders was hit in the thigh.

With casualties mounting, the battered battalion withdrew from its exposed position east of the railroad and fell back behind Davidsonís guns to the safety of the woods.

Convinced that he had silenced most of the enemyís cannons, Union Gen. George G. Meade ordered his division to attack the heights. Supporting Meade, on the right, was Gen. John Gibbonís division. Altogether the two divisions numbered approximately 8,000 men. Meadeís division had the good fortune to find a 600-yard hole in Jacksonís line. Pushing through the gap, it routed a South Carolina brigade and seized a military road that ran along the crest of the hill.

Gibbon found the going tougher. The 35-year-old Pennsylvanian steered his division toward the woods on Meadeís right. His course brought him into direct collision with Laneís North Carolinians, who held a strong position behind the railroad embankment.

Lane initially held his own, driving back two of Gibbonís three brigades. But as Meadeís men poured through the gap and begin filtering into the woods on Laneís right flank, the North Carolina line began to unravel. Sensing victory, Gibbonís men surged forward for a third time. Cascading down the slope and over the railroad embankment, they engaged Laneís men in hand-to-hand combat. One hundred eighty Confederates threw down their arms in surrender; the rest fell back through the woods and formed a new line 100 yards to the rear.

Having seized the railroad, some Union soldiers made a dash for Davidsonís nine guns, now just a few hundred yards away. The North Carolina captain waited until the Federals were within easy range, then let loose with a deadly storm of canister.

ìThe head of the column went down like wheat before the reaper,î he wrote with satisfaction. ìAnother and another volley in quick succession completed the work. The Yankees broke, took to their heels and you never saw such a stampede in your life.î

The slave cabins and a small pine grove had stood between Davidson and his Yankee assailants, but no more. By the time he stopped shooting, the cabins were in ruins and the grove had been reduced to kindling.

Gibbon reformed his division along the railroad. By then, he was under pressure from all sides. On the left, Meadeís division had given way, exposing Gibbonís flank to attack. In the center, Laneís brigadeóheavily reinforcedówas pushing forward in an effort to retake the railroad. On the right, Davidsonís guns continued to pour shot and shell into the ragged Union line.

When Gibbon had to leave the field with an injured hand, his successor, Gen. Nelson Taylor, wisely ordered a retreat. Jackson had repaired the break in his line.

Gen. William B. Franklin was in overall command of the Union troops below Fredericksburg. No sooner had Meadeís and Gibbonís men returned to their starting point on the Richmond Stage Road (modern Routes 2 and 17), than Union commander Ambrose E. Burnside ordered Franklin to renew the attacks. Franklin said heíd try, but it was a hollow promise. He had no stomach for frontal assaults, and with his grand division beaten and bloody, his only concern was keeping open his line of retreat.

ìStonewallî Jackson was not so timid. Not content to simply repulse Franklinís attacks, Jackson planned a crushing counterattack that would drive the Union army into the Rappahannock River. At sunset, his artillery rolled forward in an effort to soften up the Union position for the attack. Franklinís guns responded with a vengeance.

At Bernardís Cabins, Union shot ignited one of Davidsonís ammunition chests, causing a terrific explosion. Fifteen or 20 shells caught fire and exploded, blackening the ground and stampeding the battery horses. One shell cut a Confederate gunner in two and threw his blackened clothing into a nearby tree; another took off the leg of an officer just above the knee. At one gun alone, five artillerists were injured. Jackson witnessed the vigor of the Union response and wisely canceled the attack. South of town, at least, the killing was over.

NEXT: Edwin Sumner begins his assault

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