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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville
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The winter before Chancellorsville

Series archive

Date published: Sat, 03/16/2002

Part 2 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

THE FEDERAL SURVIVORS who retreated across the Rappahannock River on Dec. 15-16, 1862, left behind them a city more savagely sacked than any other American community in history--"played out," a witness wrote, "completely torn to pieces & destroyed." The river they crossed became the military frontier between the United States and the Confederate States for nearly six months, making Fredericksburg a perilously situated frontier outpost.

Citizens struggling to eke out an existence in town lived in shattered houses and had to cope with an economy and infrastructure wrenched completely out of alignment by the war. The main artery leading out of town, the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3), had become "so dilapidated as to make it exceedingly hard to walk upon, having frequently to jumpto reach from one plank to another."

Fredericksburg, a soldier from Richmond wrote to his mother, would "make you weep to see it."

A Mississippian who walked through Mary Washington's house on Charles Street felt "sad when I saw that the househad been pierced by the enimyone ball had burried its self in the wall and stop[p]ed."

A great outpouring of sympathy for Fredericksburg's ravaged citizens swept through the Army of Northern Virginia, and eventually on across the entire South. Women in Mobile staged a charity bazaar to raise money; Augusta ladies sent $52, two blankets, and one bag of dried fruit; and preachers spread the call from their pulpits. Soldiers of the 7th Louisiana Infantry Regiment donated $1,079. Stonewall Jackson and his personal staff gave $625. Contributions from Jackson's corps totaled $12,583.50, an average of about two-days' pay per man.

Mayor Montgomery Slaughter eventually received nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations, a really remarkable sum in 1863 money from a hard-pressed infant nation in the midst of war. (For context: the net worth of all of Mayor Slaughter's personal real property in 1860 was $18,000.)

Fredericksburg's churches played host to an immense and ardent revival of religious interest early in 1863. The audience for the fervent daily services included almost exclusively soldiers: The rector of the Episcopal Church noted that civilians hesitated to attend for fear of picking up lice from the soldiers, who were universally infested.

The revival began at the Presbyterian Church on George Street, but outgrew that space. The spacious Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street had suffered so heavily during the bombardment and occupation in December that it was not fit for use, so St. George's Episcopal became headquarters. Preachers from across Virginia came to town to participate in services of ecumenical mien, with representatives of most of the Protestant faiths sharing the dais.

Southern troops who manned outposts in Fredericksburg that winter did not pose the violent threat that Yankee soldiery had during December, but they fell far short--as armies always do--of being ideal visitors. Local citizens complained that Confederate officers did not do enough to keep the troops in check. Confederate officers complained that local citizens overcharged for such necessities as wood.

Men hardened by experience in desperate battles sometimes ran amok. In February, a young South Carolinian named Earle S. Lewis cornered a fellow named Owens, who was dodging conscription, in a "house of ill fame." Owens grabbed a hatchet and hit Lewis in the head with it. Lewis died. Owens escaped.

In another episode, Thomas Griffin of Mississippi invaded the home of a black family, evicted the owners, and started raising a commotion. The victims called the provost guard (the 19th-century military police). One of the guard, Floridian Reuben Brown, shot and killed Griffin. A court of inquiry ruled that Brown had merely been doing his duty. Gen. Robert E. Lee reviewed the ruling and approved it.

Douglas Gordon, who lived at the corner of Princess Anne and Fauquier streets, wrote aptly: "To the dwellers on the frontier, Civil War is no pastime."

Across the Rappahannock River, more than 125,000 members of the Federal army bivouacked throughout southern Stafford County. Most of them used "Falmouth" as an address on letters, but their camps actually sprawled east beyond White Oak Church and north to Belle Plain and Aquia Creek. They had less impact on the local citizenry than during the occupation of Fredericksburg because the region was only sparsely populated; but what contact they had often involved the kind of misbehavior for which invading armies are notorious.

Near White Oak Church that winter, a sergeant and seven men of the 5th Vermont beat a free black man, then half of them raped his wife and the other half raped his 13-year-old niece. The screaming women attracted soldiers from another unit, who exchanged gunfire with the felons. One man died in the shooting. Northern courts martial heard scores of cases involving theft, assault, murder and general mayhem.

Ambrose Burnside must have known that he had used up his credibility in the fiasco at Fredericksburg in December, but he clung to command and lashed out at subordinates as the cause of all his difficulties. Burnside particularly condemned Gen. Joseph Hooker. The generals returned Burnside's scorn redoubled, and without much discretion.

On Jan. 20, hoping to retrieve his own and the army's fortune, Burnside announced plans to march upstream toward Hartwood and beyond. There he could hope to threaten Lee's rear, and get behind the daunting heights near Fredericksburg that had thwarted the Federal army in December.

The name that fastened itself to Burnside's January gambit conveys its result: "The Mud March" degenerated into a sticky mess and accomplished nothing. In an era before even the most primitive attempts at meteorological forecasting, Burnside cheerfully launched his columns in nice weather. That evening a storm set in. A downpour lashed the region mercilessly for two days. A nearby weather station measured more than 2 inches of rain and lows of 36 degrees, and reported "blew nigh all night."

Mules sank into the mud up to their ears, then the ears disappeared. When the commanding general sloshed past troops, "hooting and yells" followed him. A lieutenant from Massachusetts thought that the army had reached "the verge of mutiny."

On Jan. 25, Abraham Lincoln relieved Burnside of his command. A new general would lead the Army of the Potomac to Chancellorsville in the spring.

(Note: A feature article by Robert K. Krick about mistreatment of Southern civilians by Northern soldiers is scheduled to appear in the Autumn 2002 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. It is based on a wide array of sources, most of them never before published, including a Federal general orders printed at Chatham that expresses horror over rape of Fredericksburg-area women.)

Next week: The Yankees prepare
an onslaught.

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.