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Washington Artillery mans the guns

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 23 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. See previous stories.

ARTILLERY PLAYED an important role on many Civil War battlefields, but on few did it have a more decisive result than at Fredericksburg, where Confederate guns broke up repeated Union assaults and inflicted thousands of casualties.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's delay in crossing the Rappahannock River had given Southern engineers three weeks to prepare for the attacks. On Marye's Heights, directly behind the town, they had constructed more than half a dozen U-shaped gun pits to protect Confederate artillerists from hostile fire. Col. Edward Porter Alexander ordered the engineers to build the gun pits along the brow of the hill, so that Confederate cannon could sweep the plain in front.

Later, when Gen. Robert E. Lee inspected the works, he criticized Alexander for building the pits along the front edge of the hill. Alexander held his ground, however, and as a result, the Confederate guns inflicted appalling damage on the attacking Union columns.

The young officer could not pass up the chance to let his commander know that he had been right. A few days after the battle, within Lee's hearing, Alexander remarked to a fellow officer how fortunate it was that they had placed the guns where they did rather than moving them back to the crest of the ridge as Lee had insisted.

"I was half afraid the general might think me impertinent," Alexander confessed, "though I could not resist the temptation to take one little dig at him." Lee said nothing, and in the future he often assigned the young artilleryman the task of locating Confederate batteries.

Col. James B. Walton had the task of defending the gun pits that Alexander and the engineers had constructed. A New Jersey native, Walton had attended college in Louisiana and later settled there, opening a grocery store in New Orleans. At Fredericksburg he commanded a battalion of 16 guns known as the Washington Artillery.

Walton's men reached Fredericksburg in mid-November to find the Union army still across the Rappahannock River in Stafford County. With little to do, the Confederates made camp and relaxed. Some paid visits to acquaintances in town, others put on a theatrical production, but most simply bided their time thinking of home.

The Union army put an end to their reveries. On Dec. 11, 1862, the Army of the Potomac crossed the river and took possession of Fredericksburg. The booming of two signal guns at 5 a.m. gave notice of the crossing. Within minutes, the Louisianians had hitched up their horses and were moving toward the heights. Walton took possession of the Marye house, Brompton, near the center of the ridge, while his men muscled nine of their 16 guns into the crescent-shaped pits prepared for them earlier by Alexander and the engineers.

Walton's men did not find the gun pits to their liking. The engineers had purposely left the walls low so that the artillerists could fire over them. Low walls meant less protection. As soon as they reached Marye's Heights, Walton's men increased the height of the works, cutting an opening in the front walls through which the cannons could fire. The engineers complained that the artillerists had ruined the gun pits, but Walton's men paid them no heed.

"We have to fight here, not you," they argued, "we will arrange them to suit ourselves."

And so they did. Gen. James Longstreet agreed with the artillerists, commenting that the extra digging would be well worth the effort, if it saved the finger of just one man.

Longstreet had responsibility for defending the left half of the Confederate line, including Marye's Heights. He took his responsibility seriously. When he saw a cannon lying idle, Longstreet suggested that Alexander roll it into position beside Walton's guns. Alexander balked at the idea.

"General," he replied, "we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."

The young artillery officer knew what he was talking about, as events would later show.

The battle took place on Dec. 13. That morning, before the fog lifted, Walton left Brompton and rode across the ridge on his coal-black stallion, "Rebel." As he scanned the fields below with his binoculars, he looked, said one man, like "the picture of Napoleon"

Walton found his men awake and ready for action. They had taken the ammunition chests off the wheeled limbers and placed them on the ground near the guns, allowing the horses and limbers to be sent safely to the rear.

At noon the fog cleared, and Gen. Nathan Kimball's brigade started forward shouting "Hi! Hi! Hi!"

"It was 12:30 P.M.," wrote Confederate adjutant William Miller Owen, "and it was evident that we were now going to have it hot and heavy."

The Union army deployed on the plain below Marye's Heights and after dressing ranks started forward.

"How beautifully they came on!" wrote Owen in admiration. "Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel."

No sooner did Kimball's brigade emerge from the cover of the town than Walton's guns opened on them with a savage fury.

"We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps," remembered Owen, "but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us."

As the blue lines surged closer, Confederate gunners switched from shell to canister. Canister consisted of several dozen marble-sized iron balls wrapped in a light metal casing. As the cannon fired, the casing would tear apart, spraying the iron balls in an ever-widening swath of destruction. It had the effect of a large and very deadly shotgun blast.

The canister rounds staggered the Union attackers, but they continued to press forward until hit by the rifle fire of Georgia infantrymen posted in a sunken road at the foot of the hill. Riddled by artillery fire from the heights above and by infantry fire from the road below, some of Kimball's men broke ranks and fled back to town. Others took shelter in a shallow ravine 150 yards from the Confederate line (near modern Littlepage Street), where they maintained a steady fire against the artillerists on the ridge.

Despite the protection afforded by Alexander's gun pits, Confederate gunners began to go down.

"Corporal Ruggles fell mortally wounded," recorded Owen, "and Perry, who seized the rammer as it fell from Ruggles' hand, received a bullet in the arm. Rodd was holding 'vent,' and away went his 'crazy bone.' In quick succession Everett, Rossiter, and Kursheedt were wounded. Falconer in passing in rear of the guns was struck behind the ear and fell dead."

So many men were killed or wounded that Walton had to impress nearby infantry troops to help man his guns. Ammunition was harder to replace. As their supply of shell, case shot, and canister ran low, the Washington Artillery had to relinquish its position and go to the rear. Another battalion would have the honor of finishing the fight.

Although the Washington Artillery would take part in dozens of other fights before the war's end, nowhere did it contribute more to Confederate victory than at Fredericksburg. Today, a solitary gun stands on Marye's Heights to remind us of the pivotal role that the Louisianians played in shaping the outcome of the battle.

NEXT: Professor Lowe's observation balloons

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