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Union artillery pounds Prospect Hill

Part 16 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

 
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

FOUR MILES SOUTH of Fredericksburg, at the end of the battlefield tour road, stands a cannon-studded knoll known as Prospect Hill. Today the hill is a quiet, peaceful place, but 139 years ago it was the scene of a fierce duel between artillerists of the Blue and the Gray.

John F. Reynolds, commanding the Union armyís 1st Corps, had orders to take the hill, a task he delegated to Gen. George G. Meadeís division of Pennsylvania Reserves. As Meade aligned his men for the attack, Maj. John Pelham of the Confederate army brought forward a lone cannon and began shelling Meadeís left flank. Union artillery drove away the annoying Confederate, allowing Meade to proceed with his attack.

Pelhamís was not the only Confederate cannon on the field, however. Meade knew that the wooded ridge ahead harbored dozens of additional guns. Before ordering his troops to attack the forbidding heights, Meade resolved to knock out with artillery any Confederate guns that might be lurking there.

The bombardment began at 11 a.m. Meade opened with four batteries totaling 18 guns. Union artillery across the Rappahannock River on Stafford Heights added their weight to the attack. For an hour, wrote one witness, ìthe air was resonant with the savage music of shells and solid shot.î

The Union gunners fired at a slow, steady rate. Three months earlier, at the Battle of Antietam, artillery chief Henry J. Hunt had watched in disapproval as gun crews rapidly fired off their ammunition so as to be able to leave the battlefield. He was not going to let that happen again. At Fredericksburg, he ordered his gun crews to fire no more than one round every three minutes. Firing at a more rapid pace, he sternly lectured, would be viewed as evidence of cowardice.

At the height of the bombardment, Hunt had as many as 60 guns in action. The shelling was impressive in terms of the noise and smoke it generated; however it failed to draw out and destroy Confederate artillery on the ridge. Lt. Gen. Thomas J. ìStonewallî Jackson had approximately 50 guns on his portion of the line, but he had wisely ordered his men to withhold their fire until the Union army sent forward its infantry. Because Jacksonís artillery did not reply to his bombardment, Wainwright could not tell where the Confederate guns were were, much less whether he had damaged any of them.

Jacksonís gunners finally tipped their hand about noon. As Meade aligned his division for the attack, he pushed forward the 9th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment as skirmishers. Capt. David G. McIntosh, commanding a Confederate artillery battery on Prospect Hill, watched breathlessly as the Union line approached.

ìWhat an awful suspense these last moments are,î he later recalled. ìThe gun is charged, lanyard in hand, the gunner at the trail, ammunition heaped in piles nearby, waiting for the order to fire. Minutes seem like hours. One holds his breath and then breathes hard. But at last the moment comes.î

Eight hundred yards in front of the Confederate guns stood a lone tree. Southern artillerymen had precisely measured its distance and cut the time fuses on their exploding shells accordingly. When the Union line reached the tree, 14 guns let loose with a roar.

ìFrom then on,î McIntosh wrote, ìit is load and fire, load and fire, as fast as sponge and rammer and lanyard can do their work, and as fast as muscle and skill and consuming zeal can direct and control ... î

By firing on the Union line, the Confederates had exposed the position of their guns to Union view. Wainwright once again ordered his cannon forward to shell the heights. There was now no reason for the Confederates to hold back, and for an hour both sides went at it hammer and tongs. The Union army had superior artillery and ammunition, and the Confederates took a beating. The 14 guns at Prospect Hill were especially hard hit.

In the ranks that day was a young South Carolina soldier named Ben. As he stood by his gun, iron fragments struck all around him. ìThe trees around our guns were literally torn to pieces and the ground plowed up,î he informed his parents. ìI have been several times covered with dirt, and had it knocked in my eyes and mouth.î

Three men in Benís battery were killed in the maelstrom; 16 others were wounded. Ben himself survived by only the narrowest of margins:

ìA piece of shell went through my coat sleeve; it stung a little. A MiniÈ ball went through the ramrod, and it or a splinter struck me on the head. I was by the gun looking at the Yankees when a great piece of shell, big as my two fists, came along and knocked a spoke out of the wheel, and it or a piece of the spoke, or something else, hit me square in the breast ... I saw a piece of shell go a-ëkitingí by my leg, missing it an inch or two. This is only a few of the narrow escapes I made today.î

ìIt was,î he noted, ìa time to test a manís courage.î

Few passed the test. One by one, Confederate artillerists began abandoning their guns and fleeing toward the back of the hill, where they hoped to find cover. It was little safer there. Many Union projectiles skimmed over the crest and exploded beyond, killing men and battery horses alike. So many animals were victims of the shelling that for years afterward the place was known as ìDead Horse Hill.î

One man who did not seek safety was Capt. Willie Pegram. With his thin, pale face, wavy hair, and thick spectacles, the earnest 21-year-old officer looked more like a graduate student than a warrior, but in his breast beat the heart of a lion. Pegram commanded six of Prospect Hill's 14 guns.

As his men fled their pieces, Pegram shouted at them to return. When they did not respond, Pegram wrapped himself in his battery flag and strode calmly among the deserted guns, as if to shame his men by a display of his own boundless courage.

Capt. James Hall matched Pegramís coolness under fire. Hall commanded one of the Union batteries that was firing at Prospect Hill. He was chatting with some fellow officers when a solid shot skipped past him and struck an ammunition chest nearby. A deafening explosion followed.

Hall calmly walked over to the nearest cannon, sighted it, and sent a shell screeching toward the enemy lines. His shot was right on the mark, detonating a Confederate ammunition chest. Having exacted his revenge, Hall returned to his conversation.

Shots like Hallís had their effect. One by one, the Confederate guns fell silent. After an hour, Meade determined that the time had come to strike. The 3,800 men of his division rose to their feet and started toward the smoking ridge. As they passed through the line of barking Union guns, a sooty artillerist shouted after them: ìBoys, we have done our duty, now go and do yours.î

NEXT: Mannsfield

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