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Lee directs battle from Telegraph 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 25 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. See previous stories.

"IT IS WELL that this is so terrible! we should grow too fond of it!" These words, among the most famous of the Civil War, were uttered by Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Fredericksburg, from his command post atop Telegraph Hill. They express the divided emotions of a man who found attraction in the challenge, excitement and pageantry of war, while at the same time being repelled by its death and destruction.

Lee first made his headquarters at Telegraph Hill on Dec. 11. The booming of two cannons at 5 a.m. had notified the general that the Union army was crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Dressing hastily, he rode the five-mile distance from Hamilton's Crossing and established himself on the hill by early morning. Throughout the day, he watched as a brigade of Mississippi riflemen kept the Union army at bay along the water's edge.

In an effort to dislodge the Confederates, the Northern commander, Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, ordered his artillery to shell the town. Five thousand or more shells crashed into the city, destroying walls and setting buildings ablaze. The sight made Lee's blood boil. "These people delight to destroy the weak and those who can make no defense; it just suits them!" he fumed.

By evening, the Army of the Potomac had thrown pontoon bridges across the river at three places and appeared ready to occupy Fredericksburg in force. Lee's army held a strong position on the hills behind the town, but his outnumbered army was scattered over a 25-mile area.

In an effort to concentrate his troops to meet an attack, Lee ordered "Stonewall" Jackson to bring up two of his four divisions from their positions south of town and place them on Prospect Hill, on the right end of his line. In the event that Burnside's efforts at Fredericksburg proved merely a ruse to cover a crossing farther downstream, Lee cautiously allowed Jackson's remaining two divisions to remain where they were.

Uncertainty as to Burnside's intentions vanished the following day. On Dec. 12, Lee accompanied Jackson out to the skirmish line and watched as tens of thousands of Union soldiers poured down Stafford Heights and across the pontoon bridges south of town. Certain now that the Union general intended to make his main attack at Fredericksburg, Lee ordered Jackson to bring up his remaining two divisions from their position near Port Royal. When the Union army attacked, Lee would have his entire force on hand to meet it.

Dec. 13 dawned cool and foggy. Telegraph Hill was astir with artillerymen, staff officers and generals. Gen. James Longstreet made his headquarters with Lee on the hill. Longstreet commanded half the troops in Lee's army, and at Fredericksburg he held the left and center of Lee's seven-mile line. Also present were generals Lafayette McLaws, commanding a division in Longstreet's corps, and William Nelson Pendleton, the army's chief of artillery.

"Stonewall" Jackson and cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart also appeared, having ridden up from Prospect Hill to receive their final instructions before the fighting began. Jackson chose the occasion to don a new uniform coat given to him as a gift by Stuart and a new hat, encircled in gold braid, recently sent to him by his wife. The sight of the normally plain-dressed general decked out in such finery caused tongues to wag. Some soldiers joked that "Stonewall" had drawn his bounty; others laughingly suggested that the general might be so worried about soiling his new clothes that he would not get down to work.

The banter continued after Jackson reached Lee's headquarters. By then the fog had lifted somewhat, giving the Confederate generals a peek at the enormous strength of the Union army. Northern might was particularly apparent on the plain below town, fronting Jackson's position.

Longstreet, in an awkward attempt at humor, asked Jackson, "General, do not all these multitudes of Federals frighten you?"

Jackson, a relatively humorless man, replied simply, "We shall see very soon whether I shall not frighten them."

Longstreet pursued the jest.

"Jackson, what are you going to do with all those people over there?"

With growing fire in his voice, the earnest general replied, "Sir, we will give them the bayonet."

Burnside opened his attack against Jackson's corps. More than 50,000 Union soldiers--enough to fill a modern sports stadium--deployed in broad lines across the fields south of town, their flags snapping smartly in the winter breeze. It was this soul-stirring sight that undoubtedly prompted Lee's remark about the glory and horror of war.

As the left wing of the Union army prepared to engage Jackson at Prospect Hill, the right wing advanced out of town and engaged Longstreet's men at Marye's Heights. By 1 p.m. the battle was raging furiously on both fronts. A momentary Union breakthrough on Jackson's part of the line gave Lee a few anxious moments, but it was the repeated Union attacks against Longstreet's position at Marye's Heights that worried him most.

"General, they are massing very heavily and will break your line, I am afraid," said Lee, turning to Longstreet.

"General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac in that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line," replied Longstreet confidently. "Look to your right," he said, nodding toward Jackson's position, "you are in some danger there, but not on my line."

Longstreet knew what he was talking about. Although more than 30,000 Union soldiers attacked Marye's Heights that afternoon, not a single man reached the Confederate line.

In addition to being Lee's headquarters, Telegraph Hill served as an important Confederate artillery position. More than a dozen cannons crowned the hill, including a huge gun brought up from Richmond that was capable of hurling a 30-pound shell a distance of more than two miles. The Federals had large guns too, however, and the cannons on Telegraph Hill soon drew fire from Union guns on Stafford Heights. Lee narrowly escaped death when one Union shell struck an earthwork beside him but failed to explode.

The Confederates did not return the long-range fire of the Union batteries. Instead, they saved their limited ammunition for Northern infantry on the plain below. As Union soldiers toiled toward Marye's Heights, Southern gunners on Telegraph Hill flayed the left flanks of their lines with a savage fire. In an effort to escape the punishment, some Union soldiers sought shelter in an unfinished railroad cut that still exists just south of Lafayette Boulevard.

But the ditch's safety was an illusion. Confederate gunners on Telegraph Hill had a clear shot down the railroad, and as Union soldiers packed into the cut, exploding shells sliced through the ranks, killing and maiming dozens. The railroad cut had become a death trap.

Things were only marginally safer on Telegraph Hill. During the firing of its 39th round, the large cannon from Richmond burst, sending the forepart of the barrel whirling down the hillside, while the back part went flipping into the woods to the rear. Although Lee and Longstreet were standing nearby when the explosion occurred, miraculously neither they nor anyone else was injured in the mishap.

Today, Telegraph Hill is Stop No. 2 on the Fredericksburg Battlefield tour. Now called Lee Hill, it is a place of quiet reflection. As one stands on its peaceful summit gazing out over the landscape that witnessed the struggle of a nation, Lee's paradoxical words about war echo in the heart: "It is well that this is so terrible! we should grow too fond of it!"

NEXT: Brompton: Front door of the battle

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."