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Two days of suspense

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 32 on a series of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

FOR THE ARMY of the Potomac, the days following the Battle of Fredericksburg were ones of fear and confusion. The Union army had been whipped, and it now stood with its back to the Rappahannock River awaiting--one might add, dreading--a Confederate attack that might complete its annihilation.

The attacks of Dec. 13, 1862, had thinned the army's ranks and shattered its organization. Men wandered about the town searching for their regiments--or what was left of them. The 24th New Jersey Volunteers mustered just 36 men the day after the battle; the Irish Brigade was able to rally less than one-quarter of the 1,200 it had taken into the fight.

Had the Confederates assaulted the town that morning, they might have destroyed a large portion of the Union army, but Gen. Robert E. Lee held his men in check, hoping perhaps that his counterpart, Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, would be foolish enough to attack him again.

Northern soldiers replenished their ammunition and cleaned their rifles in anticipation of renewed hostilities, then wandered off in search of food and plunder. But the battered town had little left to give. Every building had been ransacked; every store and business looted. Some soldiers managed to crack safes at the local banks, but they profited little for their effort.

In one instance, the earth yielded that which the buildings could not give. A soldier in a Rhode Island battery camped near Federal Hill, a house near the intersection of Hanover and Prince Edward streets, noticed a wooden headboard in the yard on which a civilian had carved the words "Our Little Willie." Suspicious, the soldier got a shovel and started to dig. A few feet down he struck a box, which, when opened, revealed eight smoked hams. "We were all of us cannibals," he crowed, "eating 'Little Willie' for a week after"

Sgt. Thomas Bowen of the 12th United States Infantry was on picket duty throughout Dec. 14. Relieved at midnight, he walked back into town on streets littered with debris. On the way he passed men eating from fine china taken from nearby homes. The soldiers had smashed chairs to make kindling for their fires. In one house Bowen found a Bacchanalia in progress. One soldier was banging away on a piano, while others sang, danced, and guzzled wine. Bowen joined the revelry.

Occasionally, the Confederates threw a stray shell into the town, but the Union soldiers paid them no heed. "We were not to be frightened out of our spree," Bowen explained, "for we don't often have one."

Some soldiers took advantage of the temporary lull in the fighting to write letters home to let family members know that they had survived the blood letting. A few regiments even received mail, suggesting that postmen of that era not only braved rain and snow in order to make their appointed rounds, but also shot and shell.

The busiest men in the army following the battle were the surgeons. Ninety-six hundred Union soldiers had been wounded in the fighting, and most of them required immediate care. Those who could walk made their way back across the river to Aquia Creek, where steamships waited to carry them to hospitals in the North. Those with more serious wounds made the journey to Aquia Creek via ambulance and train.

The number of Union casualties increased each day that the army remained south of the river. Although there was no general engagement after Dec. 13, opposing artillerists continued to ply their trade.

On the Union side, the firing was slow and deliberate, as if the Northern artillerists wished to remind Lee that they would not be caught napping should he get it into his mind to attack. On the Confederate side, firing was more sporadic--a round here, a round there--followed by long periods of inactivity. Southern gunners who were low on ammunition had to husband what little remained against the possibility of further attacks.

Skirmishing between opposing infantrymen, by contrast, was unusually active. Although Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside had withdrawn his army to Fredericksburg after his defeat, he had left a strong line of infantry in front of Marye's Heights, one-half mile outside the town, to keep an eye on the Confederates.

The Union skirmishers lay sprawled across an open field on a line that roughly followed modern Littlepage Street. They exchanged fire with Confederate skirmishers located 150 yards away, in the Sunken Road. The Confederate fire was particularly spiteful.

"We commenced firing at any and every thing moving in our front," remembered one Rebel, "and were wasting so much ammunition and doing so little damage to the enemy that three men from each company only were allowed to shoot. Sometimes we would see a man run from one house to another and we would fire hundreds of shots at him."

Union soldiers had to press themselves flat against the earth to avoid the bullets humming just above their heads. "What a sight!" remarked one Northern officer. "To see men by the thousands lying in such a position covered or protected by a slight rise of ground simply that rise furnishing the only barrier between themselves & death. It fairly made my heart sick."

Yet, amid the killing there were instances of courage and compassion. Union skirmishers occupied a tannery near the modern intersection of William and Littlepage streets. From this brick fortress they fired at Confederate artillerists sheltered behind huge gun pits on Marye's Heights. (One of these gun pits can still be seen on the Mary Washington College campus, at the northeast corner of William Street and College Avenue.)

Lt. Col. E. P. Alexander of the Confederate army decided to put a halt to their shenanigans. Lowering the muzzle of a cannon, he fired a single shot through the building, causing the Union soldiers inside to flee for their lives. As they left the building, Mississippi riflemen mowed them down. One Union soldier, running toward the rear, turned back to help a wounded friend to safety. Southern soldiers raised their rifles to shoot the man, but their commander prevented them, declaring, "That man is too brave to be killed." The Confederates instead cheered the courageous man. As he disappeared behind a protective building with his friend, the heroic soldier acknowledged the Confederates' chivalry with a wave of his cap.

South of town, things were quieter. In the afternoon, Union and Confederate soldiers called a temporary truce to bury the dead and succor wounded soldiers who had been lying between the lines for 48 hours. By then, many of the corpses had become black and bloated. They lay "in every conceivable posture," wrote one witness to the gruesome scene, "some on their backs with gaping jaws, some with eyes as large as walnuts, protruding with glassy stare, some doubled up like a contortionist, here one without a head, there one without legs, yonder a head and legs without a trunk, everywhere horrible expressions, fear, rage, agony, madness, torture, lying in pools of blood, lying with heads half buried in mud, with fragments of shell sticking in oozing brain, with bullet holes all over the puffed limbs"

Needy Confederates took advantage of the truce to strip the Union dead of their shoes, clothing, and weapons. When a Union officer objected to such actions as violating the terms of the cease-fire agreement, a scavenger eyed the officer's fine boots and replied, "I'll shoot you tomorrow and git them boots."

A short distance away, a Confederate soldier began to remove the shoes from a prostrate Yankee when the man suddenly lifted his head and looked at him in silent reproach. "Beg pardon, sir," the startled Southerner replied, "I thought you had gone above."

While some Confederates took advantage of the truce to scour the field for clothing, others met with their Northern counterparts between the lines to trade newspapers, tobacco, and coffee. Watching the soldiers as they chatted and joked together, one would think that they were the best of friends rather than mortal enemies.

"It is to[o] bad to make men slaughter each other when they would be friends," wrote a Vermont man, expressing a sentiment shared by thousands that day.

The truce lasted only a couple of hours, after which the soldiers returned to their lines and resumed shooting. The killing would not last much longer, however. Even as the two sides talked and traded, Union officers were planning to bring the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River.

NEXT: The Angel of Marye's Heights

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."