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Ambrose Burnside goes for broke

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

See previous stories.

Part 28 of a series on the
1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside had ordered two assaults against the Confederate line at Fredericksburg. The first and largest assault was to be made by Gen. William B. Franklin against Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's part of the line, south of town. The second assault was to be made by Gen. Edwin V. Sumner against James Longstreet's Confederates at Marye's Heights.

But, as they often do in war, things had gone terribly awry. Franklin had gotten a late start, and when he finally did attack he committed only a fraction of his force. Jackson defeated him handily. On Sumner's front, Union troops swept across an open plain toward Marye's Heights only to be cut down by Confederates ensconced behind a stout stone wall. Sumner repeatedly attacked the Confederates, but nothing could budge them.

In short, the Union army was in a fix, and its befuddled commander had to decide what to do. Should he cancel the ill-advised attacks and look for an opportunity to retreat or should he throw in the rest of his army in one last desperate stab at victory? Burnside decided to go for broke.

Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker commanded the last of Burnside's three grand divisions. At 2:30 p.m. Burnside ordered Gen. Franklin to renew his assault against Jackson's line; at the same time he directed Hooker to cross the Rappahannock River and support Sumner's attacks against the stone wall.

Hooker's grand division consisted of the 3rd and 5th corps. Because he had sent the 3rd Corps to reinforce Franklin earlier that day, he had just one corps--the 5th--available to use against Marye's Heights.

Hooker opposed the attack. After viewing the strength of the Confederate position, he concluded that additional attacks would simply be a waste of life.

He sent word back to Burnside urging him to cancel the assault, then personally rode to army headquarters to plead his case. But Burnside would not listen. He ordered Hooker to attack at once.

Discouraged, "Fighting Joe" rode back into town to prepare for the assault. The only chance he had of capturing the heights, he decided, was if he battered the Confederates into submission with artillery fire. He accordingly ordered every available battery to open on the heights. When their distant fire seemed to have no effect on the Confederates, Gen. Darius Couch settled on a desperate measure. He ordered his chief of artillery Col. Charles Morgan to push a battery up close to the firing line to blast the Confederates at close range. Morgan did not like the idea. At that distance, his gunners would be easy targets for the Southern riflemen behind the wall.

"General," Morgan protested, "a battery can't live there."

"Then it must die there!" Couch replied.

Morgan insisted that Couch would lose his guns. "I would rather lose my guns than lose my men," the general snapped, "Put them in."

Morgan selected Capt. John G. Hazard's Rhode Island battery for the task. Around 4 p.m. Hazard's six guns clattered across a makeshift bridge constructed over a canal ditch located at the intersection of present-day Hanover Street and Kenmore Avenue. They unlimbered on the rise beyond, less than 200 yards from the stone wall.

For half an hour, Hazard's pieces banged away, doing minimal damage to the Confederates behind the wall. In that time, the battery lost 16 men and 12 horses. Considering its proximity to the Confederate line, the battery's losses had been surprisingly light. "I supposed that Hazard would be entirely annihilated," Couch later admitted.

Hooker's men, meanwhile, joined Sumner's troops on the firing line. Charles Griffin's division went in on the left, advancing from the railroad depot toward Marye's Heights along the path of modern Lafayette Boulevard. On the way they passed a brickyard, where wounded soldiers had crawled to find protection. Instead, it was a death trap.

Confederate shells smashed into the bricks, shattering them into deadly fragments. A Pennsylvanian in Griffin's division noted that the "mangled, bleeding forms" of the wounded men "lay strewn everywhere, closely packed together."

Griffin's men swept past the brickyard and toward the heights under a galling fire of artillery and infantry fire.

"It seemed to me that men were falling all around me," remembered one terrified soldier. "Bullets spoke to me zip! whiz! bang!! and the shells screeched! Horrible! It was so new to me and wild; and the men hurrying to shelter or rear, with blood streaming from their wounds, or moaning. To say this is awful is tame; it cannot be described. If this is war," he concluded, "I want to see no more of it."

The division continued toward the heights, its ranks thinning with each step. One man remembered that the soldiers instinctively leaned forward "as though they were breasting a storm of rain and sleet, their faces and bodies being only half turned to the storm, with their shoulders shrugged."

As they neared the wall, Griffin's lead brigade encountered a 5-foot-high board fence. Some soldiers clambered over the obstruction; others paused to batter it down. Beyond it, lying face down on the ground lay the shattered, bleeding remnants of Sumner's grand division.

Griffin's men threw themselves into mud beside Sumner's men and joined them in firing at the almost invisible line of Confederates behind the stone wall. Bullets struck the ground all around them. In an effort to escape harm, some Union soldiers pushed dirt up in front of them; others used their blanket rolls for protection. A few even fashioned breastworks from the bodies of deceased comrades. It was a horrid scene, remembered a Confederate artillerist, "the very saturnalia of death."

Meanwhile, several hundred yards to the north, Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys' division was wading into action. Most of Humphreys' men had never been in battle before, and as the shells screamed over their heads, many soldiers involuntarily ducked or "juked," to use the 19th-century phrase. Dodging enemy shells was unbecoming in a soldier and did no good, and Humphreys did not want to see it.

Over the roar of battle, the grizzled veteran shouted out, "Don't juke, boys!" Just then a particularly large shell went whizzing past Humphreys' head, causing him to duck. Despite the danger, the soldiers could not help but laugh at their commander's expense. Humphreys was embarrassed, but he rose to the occasion. "Juke the big ones, boys," he shouted, "but don't mind the little ones!"

The general had two brigades, one commanded by Col. Peter H. Allabach, the other led by Gen. Erastus B. Tyler. There was only room at the front for one brigade at a time. Leaving Tyler back near the millrace (modern Kenmore Avenue), Humphreys led Allabach's men toward the wall. When they reached the front, however, instead of continuing forward, they instinctively took cover in a shallow ravine 150 yards from the wall. In doing so, they joined thousands of other Union soldiers who were already there.

With great effort, Humphreys got Allabach's men back on their feet and moving again, but the attack's momentum was gone. Allabach's brigade got within 30 yards of the wall before recoiling under the blasts of the Confederate rifles. Staggering toward the rear, they rejoined their comrades in the muddy defile.

With the sun now setting, Humphreys brought up his last brigade. Having seen the futility of exchanging fire with the Confederates, Humphreys ordered Tyler's men to fix bayonets. They would have to take the stone wall using nothing but cold steel!

With a hurrah, Tyler's men started at a double quick across the plain. Bullets shredded their ranks with each step. Humphreys alone lost two horses. As Tyler's men approached the ravine, Union soldiers there waved at them to go back. No one could pass that point and live! Some soldiers went so far as to grab the legs of Tyler's men as they passed, pulling them to the ground.

The effect on the line was disastrous. The brigade became disordered and slowed to a halt; although Humphreys got it going again, its momentum was gone. Like Allabach's a few minutes before, Tyler's brigade dissolved into the growing darkness. With Humphreys' repulse, the Union defeat was complete.

"Finding that I had lost as many men as my order required me to lose," Hooker testified bitterly, "I suspended the attack"

Gen. Burnside had risked everything and had lost. His army, defeated and demoralized, now stood with its back to the river, inviting attack. Burnside had never wanted command of the army; he had insisted that he was not qualified to lead it, but President Lincoln and his advisers had not believed him. Perhaps they would believe him now.

NEXT: One man's ordeal: The story of William McCarter

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."