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Union troops sent on suicide mission

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 20 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

BEHIND THE Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center on Lafayette Boulevard is a 40-foot-high ridge known as Marye's Heights. This modest acclivity was the focal point of repeated brave but fruitless Union assaults on December 13, 1862.

Confederate forces commanded by Gen. James Longstreet occupied the ridge. Nine guns of the Washington Artillery, a crack unit from New Orleans, La., held the crest of the hill, while a Georgia infantry brigade--perhaps 1,500 men--occupied a sunken road that ran along its base. Another 5,000 North Carolinians were on hand nearby, ready to reinforce the Georgians in the sunken road if needed.

At first glance the position may not seem all that formidable, but looks can be deceiving. Marye's Heights was, in fact, a fortress--the strongest natural defensive position enjoyed by Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during the war.

It was high enough to allow Confederate artillerists on the crest to fire over the heads of their comrades in the road below, yet low enough to allow them to scour the fields in front. The Georgians, by like token, found a ready-made trench in the sunken road and the 4-foot-high stone wall that bordered it.

Union troops attacking Marye's Heights had no such advantages. Fredericksburg then hugged the Rappahannock River, extending west only four blocks, to Prince Edward Street. Between the town and the ridge the ground was open, offering little in the way of protective cover. To make matters worse, a millrace carrying excess water away from the Fredericksburg canal circumscribed the town like a belt before emptying into the river near the train depot.

The canal ditch, which was later paved to form Kenmore Avenue, was approximately 15 feet wide and 6 feet deep. To cross it, Union troops would have to break ranks, splash through the cold water, clamber up the muddy bank on the opposite side, and re-form--all under the searching fire of Confederate artillery on the ridge.

The task of capturing Marye's Heights fell to Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, the commander of Burnside's Right Grand Division. At age 65, Sumner was the oldest active corps commander in the Union army. His military service stretched back more than four decades, to the year 1819, before most men in the Army of the Potomac--including its commander, Ambrose E. Burnside--were even born.

Sumner was well-liked by his troops, who had nicknamed him "Bull Head" (or simply "Bull") after a spent bullet reputedly ricocheted off his head doing him no harm. Beneath his long gray locks and quiet demeanor, beat the heart of a brave and faithful soldier. In an army known for its jealousies and intrigues, Sumner stood out for his honesty and devotion to the Union. Some might question his ability, but none could question the old soldier's courage or his fidelity to the cause.

At Fredericksburg, Sumner commanded the 2nd and 9th corps, together numbering nearly 30,000 men. Because of the terrain, he had to attack across a narrow front. Rather than throwing his entire force against the ridge in one grand assault, as Lee would later do at Gettysburg, Sumner had to feed his troops into the battle one or two brigades at a time. From the air the blue lines, advancing one after another in regular intervals of 200 yards, would have looked like waves lapping against the shore.

Nathan Kimball's brigade led the assault. Known as the "Gibraltar Brigade," Kimball's command included two new regiments, which had never tasted combat. Fredericksburg would be their baptism of fire. Kimball led his troops across the millrace near the train depot and deployed them in line of battle on the plain beyond, near modern Lee Avenue. As he did so, a fog that had blanketed the town began to clear, exposing his brigade to Confederate guns on Marye's Heights. Solid shot began to rain down on the Union soldiers, knocking some of them out of the ranks. Kimball galloped to the front of the brigade in an effort to encourage his downcast men.

"Cheer up, my hearties, cheer up!" he cried. "This is something we must all get used to! Remember, this brigade has never been whipped--don't let it get whipped today!"

In a less-inspired moment, the general told a regiment, "Look out boys, they can't kill all of you, but they may hurt some of you." His men found cold comfort in that assurance.

It was nearly noon when Kimball finally led his men across the deadly plain. Fragments of Confederate artillery shells pelted the advancing Union line, creating too many holes for the officers to fill. When the Gibraltar Brigade got within 200 yards of the heights, the Georgia riflemen in the road let loose a devastating volley that injured Kimball and nearly annihilated his brigade.

Union survivors fled back toward the town or sought shelter in a shallow ravine approximately 150 yards from the stone wall. It was a grim pattern that would be repeated more than a dozen times that afternoon.

By 2 p.m., the bodies of more than 5,000 Union soldiers littered the plain in front of Marye's Heights. Sumner had committed 10 brigades to the attack, but not one had reached the sunken road. His grand division was a wreck.

Gen. Darius Couch watched the slaughter from his vantage point in the courthouse cupola. What he witnessed through the smoky haze chilled his soul. "The whole plain was covered with men," he recalled, "prostrate and dropping, the live men running here and there, and in front closing upon each other, and the wounded coming back. The commands seemed to be mixed up. I had never before seen fighting like that, nothing approaching it in terrible uproar and destruction. There was no cheering on the part of the men, but a stubborn determination to obey orders and do their duty."

One by one, he remembered sadly, each new brigade approached the wall only to dissolve "like snow coming down on warm ground." By now, it was clear that Marye's Heights could not be taken by frontal assault. Committing more men to the attack would only increase the casualties.

"It is only murder now," Couch informed his superiors.

But Burnside refused to listen. The Union commander was monitoring the progress of the battle from his command post in Stafford County, two miles behind the front. The lack of success in both Franklin's and Sumner's sectors frustrated, but did not daunt, him. At Antietam he had been criticized for a lack of aggression; he would not make the same mistake at Fredericksburg.

At 2:30 p.m. Burnside ordered Franklin to renew his assault south of town and instructed Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the army's reserves, to support Sumner's attack on Marye's Heights. The carnage would continue.

NEXT: Tom Cobb gives his life for the Confederacy

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