Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia
April 10, 1863
I have the honor to submit herewith my report of the operations of this army from the time that it moved from Culpeper Court House in November, 1862, and including the battle of Fredericksburg. This report is sent in prior to reports of some of the preceding operations in consequence of the subordinate reports of this period having been first received.
I have not yet received all the reports of the division & corps commanders for the intervening period, but hope soon to be able to furnish to the Department complete records of our operations during the last campaign.
I have the honor to be with great respect, your obt servt
R E Lee
On the 15th November it was known that the enemy was in motion towards the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, and one regiment of infantry with a battery of light artillery was sent to reinforce the garrison at Fredericksburg.
On the 17th it was ascertained that Sumner’s corps had marched from Catlett’s Station in the direction of Falmouth, and information was also received that on the 15th some Federal gunboats and transports had entered Aquia Creek. This looked as if Fredericksburg was again to be occupied, and McLaws’ and Ransoms’ divisions accompanied by W. H. F. Lee’s brigade of cavalry and Lane’s battery, were ordered to proceed to that city. To ascertain more fully the movements of the enemy, Genl Stuart was directed to cross the Rappahannock. On the morning of the 18th he forced a passage at Warrenton Springs in the face of a regiment of cavalry and three pieces of artillery, guarding the ford, and reached Warrenton soon after the last of the enemy’s column had left. The information he obtained confirmed the previous reports and it was clear that the whole Federal Army under Major Genl Burnside was moving towards Fredericksburg.
On the morning of the 19th therefore, the remainder of Longstreet’s corps was put in motion for that point.
The advance of General Sumner reached Falmouth on the afternoon of the 17th and attempted to cross the Rappahannock, but was driven back by Col [William B.] Ball with the 15th Virginia Cavalry, four companies of Mississippi infantry, and [Captain J. W.] Lewis’ light battery. On the 21st it became apparent that General Burnside was concentrating his whole army on the north side of the Rappahannock. On the same day General Sumner summoned the corporate authorities of Fredericksburg to surrender the place by 5 p.m., and threatened in case of refusal, to bombard the city at 9 o’clock next morning.
The weather had been tempestuous for two days, and a storm was raging at the time of the summons. It was impossible to prevent the execution of the threat to shell the city, as it was completely exposed to the batteries on the Stafford hills, which were beyond our reach.
The city authorities were informed that while our forces would not use the place for military purposes, its occupation by the enemy would be resisted, and directions were given for the removal of the women and children as rapidly as possible. The threatened bombardment did not take place, but in view of the imminence of a collision between the two armies, the inhabitants were advised to leave the city, and almost the entire population, without a murmur, abandoned their homes.
History presents no instance of a people exhibiting a purer and more unselfish patriotism or a higher spirit of fortitude and courage than was evinced by the citizens of Fredericksburg. They cheerfully incurred great hardships and privations, and surrendered their homes and property to destruction rather than yield them into hands of the enemies of their country.
General Burnside now commenced his preparations to force the passage of the Rappahannock and advance upon Richmond. When his army first began to move towards Fredericksburg General Jackson, in pursuance of instructions, crossed the Blue Ridge, and placed his corps in the vicinity of Orange Court House, to enable him more promptly to cooperate with Longstreet. About the 26th November he was directed to advance towards Fredericksburg, and as some Federal gunboats had appeared in the river at Port Royal, and it was possible that an attempt might be made to cross that vicinity, D. H. Hill’s division was stationed near that place, and the rest of Jackson’s corps so disposed as to support Hill or Longstreet as occasion might require.
The fords of the Rappahannock above Fredericksburg were closely guarded by our cavalry, and the brigade of General W. H. F. Lee was stationed near Port Royal to watch the river above and below. On the 28th General Hampton, guarding the upper Rappahannock, crossed to make a reconnaissance on the enemy’s right, and proceeding as far as Dumfries and Occoquan, encountered and dispersed his cavalry, capturing two squadrons and a number of wagons.
About the same time some dismounted men of Beale’s regiment, Lee’s brigade, crossed in boats below Port Royal to observe the enemy’s left, and took a number of prisoners.
On the 5th December, General D. H. Hill with some of his field guns assisted by Major Pelham of Stuart’s horse artillery, attacked the gunboats at Port Royal, and caused them to retire.
With these exceptions, no important movement took place, but it became evident that the advance of the enemy would not be long delayed. The interval was employed in strengthening our lines, extending from the river about a mile and a half above Fredericksburg along the range of hills in the rear of the city to the Richmond railroad. As these hills were commanded by the opposite heights in possession of the enemy, earthworks were constructed upon their crest at the most eligible positions for artillery. These positions were judiciously chosen and fortified under the direction of Brig General Pendleton, Chief of Artillery; Col [Henry C.] Cabell of McLaw’s division; Col E. P. Alexander, and Capt S. R. Johnston of the engineers. To prevent gunboats from ascending the river, a battery protected by entrenchments was placed on the bank, about four miles below the city in an excellent position selected by my aide-de-camp, Major [Thomas M. R.] Talcott.
The plain of Fredericksburg is so completely commanded by the Stafford Heights that no effectual opposition could be made to the construction of bridges or the passage of the river without exposing our troops to the destructive fire of the numerous batteries of the enemy.
At the same time the narrowness of the Rappahannock, its winding course and deep bed presented opportunities for laying down bridges at points secure from the fire of our artillery. Our position was therefore selected with view to resist the enemy’s advance after crossing, and the river was guarded only by a force sufficient to impede his movements until the army could be concentrated.
Before dawn on the 11th December, our signal guns announced that the enemy was in motion.
About 2 a.m. he commenced preparations to throw two bridges over the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg, and one about a mile and a quarter below near the mouth of Deep Run.
Two regiments of [General William] Barksdale’s brigade, McLaws’ division, the 17th and 18th Mississippi, guarded these points, the former, assisted by the 8th Florida of [General Richard H.] Anderson’s division being at the upper. The rest of the brigade, with the 3rd Georgia Regiment also of Anderson’s division was held in reserve in the city. From daybreak until 4 p.m. the troops, sheltered behind the houses on the river bank, repelled the repeated efforts of the enemy to lay his bridges opposite the town, driving back his working parties and their supports with great slaughter. At the lower point where there was no such protection, the enemy was successfully resisted until nearly noon, when being greatly exposed to the fire of the batteries on the opposite heights and a superior force of infantry on the river bank, our troops were withdrawn, and about 1 p.m. the bridge was completed.
Soon afterwards, one hundred and fifty pieces of artillery opened a furious fire upon the city, causing our troops to retire from the river bank about 4 p.m. The enemy then crossed in boats and proceeded rapidly to lay down the bridges. His advance into the town was bravely resisted until dark, when our troops were recalled, the necessary time for concentration having been gained.
During the night and the succeeding day the enemy crossed in large numbers at and below the town, secured from material interruption by a dense fog. Our artillery could only be used with effect when the occasional clearing of the mist rendered his columns visible. His batteries on the Stafford Heights fired at intervals upon our position.
Longstreet’s corps constituted our left, with Anderson’s division resting upon the river, and those of McLaws, Pickett, and Hood extending to the right in the order named. Ransom’s division supported the batteries of Marye’s [Heights] and Willis’ Hills, at the foot of which Cobb’s brigade, of McLaws’ division, and the 24th North Carolina of Ransom’s brigade were stationed protected by a stone wall. The immediate care of this point was committed to General Ransom.
The Washington Artillery under Col [James B.] Walton occupied the redoubts on the crest of Marye’s Hill, and those on the heights to the right and left were held by part of the reserve artillery, Col. E. P. Alexander’s battalion, and the division batteries of Anderson, Ransom, and McLaws.
A P. Hill of Jackson’s corps was posted between Hood’s right and Hamilton’s Crossing on the railroad. His front line, consisting of the brigades of Pender, Lane, and Archer, occupied the edge of a wood. Lieut Co Walker, with fourteen pieces of artillery, was posted near the right, supported by the 40th and 55th Virginia Regiments, of Field’s brigade, commanded by Col [John M.] Brockenbrough, Lane’s brigade, thrown forward in advance of the general line, held the woods which here projected into the open ground. [General Edward L.] Thomas’ brigade was stationed behind the interval between Lane and Pender, [General Maxcy] Gregg’s in rear of that, between Lane and Archer. These two brigades with the 47th Virginia Regiment and 22d Virginia Battalion of Field’s brigade, constituted General Hill’s reserve. Early’s and Taliaferro’s divisions composed Jackson’s second line. D. H. Hill’s division his reserve.
His artillery was distributed along his line in the most eligible positions so as to command the open ground in front.
General Stuart with two brigades of cavalry and his horse artillery, occupied the plain on Jackson’s right, extending to Massaponax Creek. On the morning of the 13th the plain on which the Federal army lay was still enveloped in fog, making it impossible to discern its operations.
At an early hour the batteries on the heights of Stafford began to play upon Longstreet’s position. Shortly after 9 a.m. the partial rising of the mist disclosed a large force moving in line of battle against Jackson. Dense masses appeared in front of A. P. Hill, stretching far up the river in the direction of Fredericksburg. As they advanced, Major Pelham of Stuart’s horse artillery, who was stationed near the Port Royal road with one section, opened a rapid and well directed enfilade fire, which arrested their progress. Four batteries immediately turned upon him, but he sustained their heavy fire with the unflinching courage that ever distinguished him.
Upon his withdrawal, the enemy extended his left down the Port Royal road and his numerous batteries opened with vigor upon Jackson’s line. Eliciting no response, his infantry moved forward to seize the position occupied by Lieut Col Walker. The latter, reserving his fire until their line had approached within less than eight hundred yards, opened upon it with such destructive effect as to cause it to waver and soon to retreat in confusion.
About 1 p.m. the main attack on our right began by a furious cannonade, under cover of which three compact lines of infantry advanced against Hill’s front. They were received as before by our batteries, by whose fire they were momentarily checked, but soon recovering, they pressed forward until, coming within range of our infantry, the contest became fierce and bloody. Archer and Lane repulsed those portions of the line immediately in front of them, but before the interval between these commands could be closed, the enemy passed through in overwhelming numbers and turned the left of Archer and the right of Lane. Attacked in front and flank, two regiments of the former and the brigade of the latter, after a brave and obstinate resistance, gave way. Archer held his line with the 1st Tennessee, and with the 5th Alabama Battalion, assisted by the 4th Virginia Regiment and the 22d Virginia Battalion, continued the struggle until the arrival of reinforcements. Thomas came gallantly to the relief of Lane, and joined by the 7th and part of the 18th North Carolina of that brigade, repulsed the column that had broken Lane’s line and drove it back to the railroad. In the meantime a large force had penetrated the wood as far as Hill’s reserve and encountered Gregg’s brigade. The attack was so sudden and unexpected that Orr’s Rifles, mistaking the enemy for our own troops retiring, were thrown into confusion. While in the act of rallying them, that brave soldier and true patriot, Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg fell mortally wounded. Col [Daniel H.] Hamilton upon whom the command devolved, with the four remaining regiments of the brigade and one company of the Rifles, met the enemy firmly and checked his further progress. The second line was advancing to the support of the first. Lawton’s brigade of Early’s division under Col [Edmund N.] Atkinson first encountered the enemy, quickly followed on the right and left by the brigades of Trimble, under Col [Robert F.] Hoke, and Early, under Col [James A.] Walker. Taliaferro’s division moved forward at the same time on Early’s left, and his right regiment, the 2d Virginia belonging to [General Elisha F.] Paxton’s brigade, joined in the attack. The contest in the woods was short and decisive. The enemy was quickly routed and driven out with loss, and though largely reinforced, he was forced back and pursued to the shelter of the railroad embankment. Here he was gallantly charged by the brigades of Hoke and Atkinson, and driven across the plain to his batteries.
Atkinson continuing the pursuit too far, his flank became exposed, and at the same time a heavy fire of musketry and artillery was directed against his front. Its ammunition becoming exhausted, and Col Atkinson being severely, and Capt [Edward P.] Lawton, [assistant] adjutant-general, mortally wounded, the brigade was compelled to fall back to the main body, now occupying our original line of battle, with detachments thrown forward to the railroad.
The attack on Hill’s left was repulsed by the artillery on that part of the line, against which the enemy directed a hot fire from twenty-four guns. One brigade advanced up Deep Run, sheltered by its banks from our batteries, but was charged and put to flight by the 16th North Carolina of Pender’s brigade, assisted by the 54th and 57th North Carolina of [Evander M.] Law’s brigade, Hood’s division.
The repulse of the enemy on our right was decisive, and the attack was not renewed, but his batteries kept up an active fire at intervals and sharpshooters skirmished along the front during the rest of the afternoon.
While these events were transpiring on our right, the enemy in formidable numbers, made repeated and desperate assaults upon the left of our line. About 11 a.m., having massed his troops under cover of the houses of Fredericksburg, he moved forward in strong columns to seize Marye’s and Willis’ Hills. General Ransom advanced [General Joseph R.] Cooke’s brigade to the top of the hill, and placed his own with the exception of the 24th North Carolina a short distance in the rear. All the batteries on the Stafford Heights directed their fire upon the positions occupied by our artillery with a view to silence it and cover the movement of the infantry. Without replying to this furious cannonade, our batteries poured a rapid and destructive fire into the dense lines of the enemy as they advanced to the attack, frequently breaking their ranks and forcing them to retreat to the shelter of the houses. Six times did the enemy, notwithstanding the havoc caused by our batteries, press on with great determination to within one hundred yards of the foot of the hill, but here encountering the deadly fire of our infantry, his columns were broken and fled in confusion to the town.
In the third assault, the brave and lamented Brigadier General Thomas R. R. Cobb fell at the head of his gallant troops, and almost at the same moment, Brigadier General Cooke was borne from the field severely wounded.
Fearing that Cobb’s brigade might exhaust its ammunition, General Longstreet had directed General Kershaw to take two regiments to its support. Arriving after the fall of General Cobb, he assumed command, his troops taking position on the crest and at the foot of the hill, to which point General Ransom also advanced three other regiments. The Washington Artillery, which had sustained the heavy fire of artillery and infantry with unshaken steadiness and contributed much to the repulse of the enemy, having exhausted its ammunition was relieved about 4 p.m. by Col Alexander’s battalion. The latter occupied the position during the rest of the engagement, and by its well directed fire, rendered great assistance in repelling the assaults made in the afternoon, the last of which occurred shortly before dark. This effort met the fate of those that preceded it, and when night closed in the shattered masses of the enemy had disappeared in the town, leaving the field covered with dead and wounded. Anderson’s division supported the batteries on Longstreet’s left, and though not engaged was exposed throughout the day to a hot artillery fire which it sustained with steady courage.
During the night our lines were strengthened by the construction of earthworks at exposed points, and preparations made to receive the enemy next day. The 14th, however, passed without a renewal of the attack. The enemy’s batteries on both sides of the river played upon our lines at intervals, our own firing but little. The sharpshooters on each side skirmished occasionally along the front. On the 15th the enemy still retained his position, apparently ready for battle, but the day passed as the preceding.
The attack on the 13th had been so easily repulsed and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to an attempt which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations and the extent of his force, seemed to be comparatively insignificant.
Believing therefore that he would attack us, it was not deemed expedient to lose the advantages of our position and expose the troops to the fire of his inaccessible batteries beyond the river, by advancing against him. But we were necessarily ignorant of the extent to which he had suffered, and only because aware of it when, on the morning of the 16th it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of night, and the prevalence of a violent storm of wind and rain, to recross the river. The town was immediately reoccupied and our positions on the river bank resumed.
In the engagement more than nine hundred prisoners and nine thousand stand of arms were taken. As large quantity of ammunition was found at Fredericksburg.
The extent of our casualties will appear from the accompanying report of the Medical Director. We have again to deplore the loss of valuable lives.
In Brigadier Generals Gregg and Cobb, the Confederacy has lost two of its noblest citizens, and the army two of its bravest and most distinguished officers.
The country consents to the sacrifice of such men as these and the gallant soldiers who fell with them, only to secure the inestimable blessing they died to obtain.
The troops displayed at Fredericksburg, in a high degree, the spirit and courage that distinguished them throughout the campaign, while the calmness and steadiness with which orders were obeyed and maneuvers executed in the midst of battle, evinced the discipline of a veteran army.
The artillery rendered efficient service on every part of the field, and greatly assisted in the defeat of the enemy. The batteries were exposed to an unusually heavy fire of artillery and infantry, which officers and men sustained with a coolness and courage worthy of the highest praise. Those on our right being without defensive works suffered more severely. Among those who fell was Lieut Col [Lewis M.] Coleman, 1st Regiment Virginia Artillery, who was mortally wounded while bravely discharging his duty.
To the vigilance, boldness, and energy of General Stuart and his cavalry is chiefly due the early and valuable information of the movements of the enemy. His reconnaissance frequently extended within the Federal lines, resulting in skirmishes and engagements in which the cavalry was greatly distinguished.
In the battle of Fredericksburg the cavalry effectually guarded our right, annoying the enemy and embarrassing his movements by hanging on his flank, and attacking when opportunity occurred. The nature of the ground and the relative positions of the armies prevented them from doing more.
To Generals Longstreet and Jackson great praise is due for the disposition and management of their respective corps. Their quick perception enabled them to discover the projected assaults upon their positions, and their ready skill to devise the best means to resist them. Besides their services in the field, which every battle of the campaign from Richmond to Fredericksburg has served to illustrate, I am also indebted to them for valuable counsel, both as regards the general operations of the army and the execution of the particular measures adopted. To division and brigade commanders I must also express my thanks for the prompt, intelligent, and determined manner in which they executed their several parts.
To the officers of the General Staff, Brig Genl Robert H. Chilton, Adjutant & Inspector General, assisted by Major [Henry E.] Peyton; Lieut Col [James L.] Corley, Chief Quartermaster; Lieut Col [Robert G.] Cole, Chief Commissary; Surgeon [Lafayette] Guild, Medical Director, and Lieut Col Briscoe G. Baldwin, Chief of Ordnance, were committed the care of their respective departments, and the charge of supplying the demands upon each. They were always in the field, anticipating as far as possible the wants of his troops.
My personal staff were unremittingly engaged in conveying and brining information from all parts of the field. Col Long was particularly useful before and during the battle in posting and securing the artillery, in which he was untiringly aided by Captain Samuel R. Johnston of the provisional Engineers; Majors Talcott and [Charles S.] Venable in examining the ground and the approaches of the enemy; Majors [Walter H.] Taylor and [Charles] Marshall in communicating orders and intelligence.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obt servt
R E Lee
Source: The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin, pp. 366-374.
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2016 December 7