Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 19

Camp-Fires of General Lee


LET us look over the scene of conflict before the bloody drama opens.

Fredericksburg lies on the south bank of the Rappahannock, and directly opposite extends a range of hills which completely command the city. On the southern shore the land is lower, but the depth of the channel is such that a line of bluffs is formed, which serve as excellent entrenchments for a force after crossing to attack the troops beyond. The only offset to this advantage is a range of hills enclosing the level ground. Beginning on the west of Fredericksburg—where it is called “Marye’s Hill”—it curves around back of it, gradually sloping away from the city, until about a mile from the river it becomes a level plain. It is thus seen that it is easy for a strong force to cross the Rappahannock from the northern shore, because the bluffs command the opposite city and banks, while on the southern side the opponents must necessarily post themselves so far back that little resistance can be offered. It was not difficult for the Federal army to reach the other shore, but the all-important question was, What was to be done after it got there?

On the night of December 10, General Hunt, chief of artillery of Burnside’s army, posted one hundred and forty-seven cannon on the Stafford Heights, designed to command the city, to protect the crossing of the river and to occupy the attention of the Confederate batteries beyond. Burnside’s plan was to cross at five different points by means of ponton-bridges, three of which were to span the river opposite the city and two a couple of miles below. The grand divisions of Sumner and Hooker were to use the upper, and Franklin’s grand division the lower, bridge.

Lee could not prevent the Federals from coming over, and his dispositions were made with that fact in view, and with the purpose of opening on his adversary after he should plant himself on his side of the Rappahannock. With a view of annoying the Federals as much as possible while attempting the crossing, the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Mississippi regiments, of Barksdale’s brigade, were posted along the southern shore. They were able to secure good shelter, and were very successful in their work.

Burnside made his preparations with great secrecy, and at two o’clock on the morning of December 11 the working-parties cautiously moved down to the edge of the stream and began launching the boats and constructing the bridges. A heavy fog overhung the Rappahannock, which gave ground for the hope that the bridges might be finished without discovery; but the Confederates were on the alert, and the Federals were no more than fairly at work when the boom of two cannon in quick succession announced that the movement was discovered.

The Mississippians in Fredericksburg were wide awake. In the stillness of the night they could hear the bridge-builders, and as the wintry morning slowly broke they caught the outlines of the spectral forms through the mist. The riflemen instantly opened with such effective aim that the toilers were driven from their work. The attempt was several times repeated, but the Mississippians commanded the situation until they were dislodged by a furious bombardment from the one hundred and forty-seven Federal cannon. This bombardment was frightfully disastrous to Fredericksburg. Many of the citizens who had fled on the first alarm had returned with their fam[i]lies, believing they were in no danger. Burnside gave no notice of his intention, but opened with such fury that consternation, terror and widespread death followed. In the bleak morning the women and children fled to the open fields, half clothed and terrified, while others crouched in the cellars of their houses and tremblingly prayed for the awful storm to subside. The bombardment lasted an hour, during which tons of death-dealing missiles were hurled into the city, and it was set on fire in several places. Little else, however, was accomplished, for the guns could not be depressed enough to reach the sharpshooters along-shore, while the Confederate army was too far removed to receive any material injury.

At noon another attempt was made to lay the ponton-bridge, but the workmen were again driven off. Then Burnside hastily crossed three regiments in boats, who drove the Mississippians into the upper part of the town; after which, but a few minutes sufficed to complete the structure. Later in the afternoon Howard’s division of Couch’s corps passed over and entered the town, the Mississippians keeping up the fight until dark, when they were withdrawn. Franklin found no such difficulty when he attempted to lay his bridges, two miles below. The sharpshooters were without protection, and were easily driven off; so that by noon he had completed the means for transporting his division across the river.

The sheltering mist and fog still brooded over the river and served the Federals well. All through the raw and chilly night of December 11, during the following day and part of the following night their legions were hurrying over the ponton-bridges which spanned the stream. The Confederates crouched among the hills above, grimly awaiting the hour for opening the death-struggle. By dawn of the 13th the entire Army of the Potomac was on the southern shore of the Rappahannock, and at the same hour the whole Army of Northern Virginia was concentrated on the heights behind Fredericksburg.

General Lee’s position was as follows: Longstreet’s corps constituted the left, with Anderson’s division resting on the river, and those of McLaws, Pickett and Hood extending to the right in the order named. Ransom’s division supported the batteries on Marye’s and Willis’s hills, at the foot of which Cobb’s brigade, of McLaws’s division, and the Twenty-fourth North Carolina, of Ransom’s brigade, were stationed, protected by a stone wall. The immediate care of that point was given to General Ransom. The Washington Artillery occupied the redoubts on the crest of Marye’s Hill, and those on the height to the right and left were held by part of the reserve artillery, Colonel 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. Lieutenant-Colonel Walker, with fourteen pieces of artillery, was posted near the right, supported by the Fortieth and Thirty-fifth Virginia regiments, of Field’s brigade, commanded by Colonel Brockenborough. Lane’s brigade, thrown forward in advance of the general line, held the woods, which here projected into the open ground. Thomas’s brigade was stationed behind the interval, between Lane and Pender, and Gregg’s in rear of that, between Lane and Archer. These two brigades, with the Forty-seventh Virginia regiment and the Twenty-second 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.*

This position of Lee was one of unusual strength, and fully justified his confidence that he could successfully resist every attempt of the Federals to carry it. Burnside, having failed to surprise Lee, determined to storm the Confederate position. His plan contemplated the assault of Jackson at Hamilton’s Crossing by Franklin’s grand division, which composed the Union left, strengthened by one of Hooker’s corps, the force including about one-half the Federal army. The point aimed at was the weakest part of the Confederate line. After carrying it Franklin was to seize the railroad and the wagon-road leading to Richmond, while Sumner with the rest of the army was to storm the formidable heights on Lee’s left.

Early on the morning of the 13th, General Lee mounted his horse at his headquarters, in the rear of his centre, and galloped along his line of battle toward his right, where he expected the main assault would be made; Generals Jackson and Stuart rode with him. The cavalry leader was, as usual, in full uniform; but Lee was in his suit of plain gray, with slouch hat, high cavalry-boots, short cape, without sword and with little to denote his exalted rank. Jackson amazed every one by his appearance; he was clothed in a uniform so gorgeous that it fairly dazzled the eyes of the beholders. The fact was, as we have stated in another place, the uniform was a present to him from Stuart, who mischievously enjoyed the fun it caused among the soldiers and the disgust of Jackson himself over the attention he excited.

The Confederate army was in high spirits, and cheered the leaders as they rode along the lines. The officers continued until they reached the river-road approaching Fredericksburg parallel to the line of battle; there they paused and endeavored to find out whether the Federal line was moving. The fog would not permit them to see clearly, but from the gray mist came the hum and muffled roar which told of the number in motion. General Lee was still intently peering into the obscurity, when the near crack of rifles fell upon his ears: the Federal sharpshooters had caught sight of the famous leaders and were firing at them. Lee remained several minutes as though unconscious that he was the target for so many bullets, and then rode back in his dignified fashion until he reached the eminence in his centre, near the telegraph-road; there he stationed himself, so as to overlook and direct the battle.

It was near ten o’clock when the fog lifted and the combatants gained a clear view of each other. The column of General Franklin was seen moving to attack the Confederate right, near Hamilton’s Crossing. The force was Meade’s division, which was checked for a time by an extraordinary obstruction in the form of a single section of a battery of Stuart’s horse-artillery, under the command of the daring youth Major Pelham; he was on the Port Royal road, and opened a destructive enfilading fire upon the Federal left. Four of their batteries hotly replied, but he held his ground until ordered to withdraw by Stuart. Thereupon Franklin extended his left down the Port Royal road, and opened his batteries upon Jackson’s lines. Receiving no reply, the Federal infantry were pushed forward toward the position held by Walker’s guns. When but little more than two thousand feet separated them, Walker’s fourteen guns converged on the advancing line with such fury that for a few minutes it was thrown into confusion. The men soon rallied, however, and rushed forward, assailing Jackson’s front line, under A. P. Hill. Before an open space between the brigades of Archer and Lane could be closed Meade’s two divisions swarmed through, and forced back Hill’s men upon Jackson’s second line. Jackson immediately brought up this line, which included the divisions of Early, Trimble and Taliaferro. Attacking the Federals in front and on both flanks, they were driven over the railroad upon the plain beyond. Taliaferro’s division routed the Federals from the woods in front and drove them into the railroad-cut, from which they were dislodged by Hoke and Atkinson’s batteries and forced across the plain to the shelter of their own batteries. The assault on Jackson’s extreme left was repulsed by his artillery, while Early drove back his assailants until checked by the guns on Stafford Heights. Thus the attack of Franklin had failed, and for the rest of the day he occupied himself in shelling the Confederate line and in skirmishing with Jackson’s advanced infantry.


* General Lee’s report.

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