Thursday, December 13, 2012

December 13, 1862: The Battle of Fredericksburg

The field before Mary'e Heights.  This is the field that Union soldiers tried to cross on December 13, 1862.  In the foreground is the canal they had to cross;  above that is the sunken road, and in the distance is Marye's Heights.

From "A Hot Day on Marye's Heights" by First Lieutenant William Miller Owen of the New Orleans Washington Artillery.
At dawn the next morning, December 13th, in the fresh and nipping air, I stepped upon the gallery overlooking the heights back of the little old-fashioned town of Fredericksburg. Heavy for and mist hid the whole plain between the fog and mist hid the whole plain between the heights and the Rappahannock, but under cover of that fog and within easy cannon-shot lay Burnside's army. Along the heights, to the right and left of where I was standing, extending a length of nearly five miles, lay Lee's army. The bugles and the drum corps of the respective armies were now sounding reveille, and the troops were preparing for their early meal. All knew we should have a battle to-day and a great one, for the enemy had crossed the river in immense force, upon his pontoons during the night. on the Confederate side all was ready, and the shock was awaited with stubborn resolution. Last night we had spread our blankets upon the bare floor in the parlor of Marye's house, and now our breakfast was being prepared in its fire-place, and we were impatient to have it over. After hastily dispatching this light meal of bacon and corn-bread, the colonel, chief bugler, and I (the adjutant of battalion) mounted our horses and rode out to inspect our lines. Visiting first the position of the 10-pounder Parrott rifle on the Plank road, we found Galbraith and his boys wide-awake and ready for business. Across the Plank road, in an earth-work, was the battery of Donaldsonville Cannoneers, of Louisiana, all Creoles and gallant soldiers. Riding to the rear of Marye's house, we visited in turn the redoubts of Squires, Miller, and Eshleman, and found everything ready for instant action. The ammunition chests had been taken off the limbers and placed upon the ground behind the traverses close to the guns. The horses and limbers had been sen to the rear our of danger. We drew rein and spoke a few words to each in passing, and at the 3d Company's redoubt we were invited by Sergeant "Billy" Ellis to partake of some "cafe noir" which his mess had prepared in a horse bucket. Nothing loath, we drank a tin-cupful, and found, not exactly "Mocha," or "Java," but the best of parched corn. However, it was hot, the morning was raw, and it did very well.

At 12 o'clock the fog and cleared,and while we were sitting in Marye's yard smoking out pipes, after a lunch of hard crackers, a courier came to Colonel Walton, bearing a dispatch from General Longstreet for General Cobb, but, for our information as well, to be read and then given to him. It was as follows: "Should General Anderson, on your left, be compelled to fall back to the second line of heights, you must conform to his movements." Descending the hill into the sunken road, I made my way through the troops, to a little house where General Cobb had his headquarters, and handed him the dispatch. He read it carefully, and said, "Well! if they wait for me to fall back, they will wait a long time." Hardly had he spoken, when a brisk skirmish fire was heard in front, toward the town, and looking over the stone-wall we saw our skirmishers falling back, firing as they came; at the same time the head of a Federal column was seen emerging from one of the streets of the town. They came on at the double-quick, with loud cries of "Hi! Hi! Hi!" which we could distinctly hear. Their arms were carried at 'right shoulder shift," and their colors were aslant the shoulders of the color-sergeants. They crossed the canal at the bridge, and getting behind the bank to the low ground to deploy, were almost concealed from our sight. It was 12:30 P. M., and it was evident that we were now going to have it hot and heavy.

The enemy, having deployed, now showed himself above the crest of the ridge and advanced in columns of brigades,a nd at once our guns began their deadly work with shell and solid shot. How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel. The very force of their onset leveled the broad fences bounding the small fields and gardens that interspersed the plain. We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps; but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us. Now we gave them canister, and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their field barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advance brigade. This was too much; the column hesitated, and then, turning, took refuge behind the banks. But another line appeared from behind the crest and advanced gallantly, and again we opened our guns upon them, and through the smoke we could discern the red breeches of the "Zouaves," and a hammered away at them especially. But this advance, like the preceding one, although passing the point reached by the first column, and doing and daring all that brave men could do, recoiled under our canister and the bullets of the infantry in the road, and fell back in great confusion. Spotting the fields in our front, we could detect little patches of blue-the dead and wounded of the federal infantry who had fallen facing the very muzzles of our guns. Cooke's brigade of Ransom's division was now placed in the sunken road with Cobb's men. At 2 P. M. other columns of the enemy left the crest and advanced to the attack; it appeared to us that there was no end of them. On they came in beautiful array and seemingly more determined to hold the plan than before; but our fire was murderous, and no troops on earth could stand the feu d'enfer we were giving them. In the foremost line we distinguished the green flag with the golden harp of old Ireland, and we knew it to be Meagher's Irish brigade. The gunners of the two rifle-pieces, Corporals Payne and Hardie, were directed to turn their guns against this column; but the gallant enemy pushed on beyond all former charges, and fought and left their dead within five and twenty paces of the sunken road. Our position on the hill was now a hot one, and three regiments of ransom's brigade were ordered up to reenforce the infantry in the road. We watched them as they came marching in line of battle from the rear, where they had been lying in reserve. They passed through our works and rushed down the hill with loud yells, and then stood shoulder to shoulder with the Georgians. The 25th North Carolina regiment, crossing Miller's guns, halted upon the crest of the hill, dressed its line, and fired a deadly volley at the enemy at close range, and then at the command "Forward!" dashed down the hill. It left dead men on Miller's redoubt, and he had to drag them away from the muzzles of his guns. At this time General Cobb fell mortally wounded, and General Cooke was borne from the field, also wounded. Among other missiles a 3-inch rifle-ball came crashing through the works and fell at our feet. Kursheedt picked it up and said, "Boys, let's send this back t them again"; and into the gun it went, and was sped back into the dense ranks of the enemy.

General Kershaw now advanced from the rear with two regiments of his infantry, to reenforce the men in the sunken road, who were running short of ammunition, and to take command.

The sharp-shooters having got range of our embrasures, we began to suffer. Corporal Ruggles fell mortally wounded, and Perry, who seized the rammer as it fell from Ruggles's hand, received a bullet in the arm. Rood was holding "vent," and away went his "crazy bone." In quick succession Everett, Rossiter, and Kursheedt were wounded. Falconer in passing in rear of the guns was struck behind the ear and fell dead. We were now so short-handed that every one was in the work, officers and men putting their shoulders to the wheels and running up the guns after each recoil. The frozen ground had given way and was all slush and mud. We were compelled to call upon the infantry to help us at the guns. Eshleman crossed over from the right to report his guns nearly out of ammunition; the other officers reported the same. They were reduced to a few solid shot only. It was now 5 o'clock, P. M., and there was a lull in the storm. The enemy did not seem inclined to renew his efforts, so our guns were withdrawn one by one, and the batteries of Wolfolk and Moody were substituted.

The little whitewashed brick-house to the right of the redoubt we were in was so battered with bullets during the four hours and a half engagement that at the close it was transformed to a bright brick dust red. An old cast-iron stove lay against the house, and as the gullets would strike it it would give forth the sound of "bing! bing!" with different tones and variations. During the hottest of the firing old Mr. Florence, our non-combatant friend, was peering around the end of the house (in which, by the way, our wounded took refuge), looking out to see if his son, who was at the gun, was all right. A cannon- ball struck the top of the work, scattering dirt all over us and profusely down our necks, and, striking the end of the house, carried away a cart load of bricks, just where Mr. Florence had been look in an instant before. We thought surely he had met his fate, but in a moment we were pleased to see his gray head "bob up serenely," determined to see "what was the gage of the battle."
After withdrawing from the hill the command was placed in bivouac, and the men threw themselves upon the ground to take a much-needed rest. We had been under he hottest fire men ever experienced for four hours and a half, and our loss had been three killed and twenty-four wounded. Among them was Sergeant John Wood, our leading spirit in camp theatricals, who was severely injured and never returned to duty. One gun was slightly disabled, and we had exhausted all of our canister,shell and case shot, and nearly every solid shot in our chests. At 5:30 another attack was made by the enemy, but it was easily repulsed, and the battle of Fredericksburg was over, and Burnside was baffled and defeated.

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