Three . The Fight to the South

From Fredericksburg’s City Docks, the tour heads south from town along modern route 2/17. The road has retained its historic character as a busy turnpike, if fully modernized. During the war it was known as both the “Old Richmond Road” and “Bowling Green Road.” It would serve as both the start and end line for the Union I Corps’ assault. Today you would never know of the road’s significance if not aware of it. A group of industrial parks interspersed with modest ranch homes lines the route just south of town. As you continue, the land to the east of the road molds into a bend in the Rappahannock. This was the site of the lower crossing, now on private land. There, across what was a stretch of riparian fields, the greater portion of Franklin’s troops assembled.

Continuing down 2/17, you are held witness to the difficulty of preserving lands in regions brimming with economic vitality—regions like north / central Virginia. There are the run of industrial buildings, dealer lots, and at least one subdivision sprawling squarely across the area where the U.S. Left Grand Division assembled after crossing the river … In 2003, our trip was shadowed by a major fight over 300+ acres of core battlefield land adjacent to Chancellorsville ten miles west. Despite massive public outcry, the land owner had threatened to sell the entire parcel (800 acres in all) to a developer with a plan to build over 2,000 homes and 2.2 million sq. feet of new commercial space. It would have created a new city on the border of a hallowed National Military Park. The county board would eventually disapprove the sale. However, more challenges have come since and there is no reason to think they will stop so long as owners, developers and their financial backers continue failing to appreciate the long-term public and cultural significance of key places in the face of their own desire for short-term profit. It is a scene that repeats itself so regularly in this region, that it almost seems part of a natural cycle anymore. And it would surely have claimed much more battlefield land, if not for the vigilance and fundraising prowess of many highly motivated land preservation groups. Case in point is the large 200+ acre parcel of land sitting squarely on what would be called “The Slaughter Pen” in this southern sector of The Battle of Fredericksburg—a core plot adjacent to NMP land having been purchased and preserved in perpetuity by the Civil War Preservation Trust.

Views along the modern Old Richmond Road begin to trend more rural (due at least in part to the mentioned preservation), as you approach a pull-off marking the start point of the Union assault. Facing west, this looks out across farmland in a scene looking much as it did in 1862. Across these fields, the divisions of George G. Meade and John Gibbon would attack the storied corps of “Stonewall” Jackson having taken up positions in the wooded hills beyond. It would underscore the nature of Union failures at Fredericksburg and presage the outdated futility of Napoleonic-style assaults: hurling masses of men across open fields against the rifled fury of well-engineered defensive positions.

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Robert E. Lee’s defensive line arched across Burnside’s entire front, stretching over ten miles. The Army of Northern Virginia’s left flank rested on the Rappahannock above town and angled down over the abrupt hills west of town. Centered on the prominent “Marye’s Heights” (the landmark “Bromptom” mansion on top), this northern sector was defended by Longstreet’s I Corps, the first Confederate troops to reach Fredericksburg in late November. Longstreet’s line extended south down a series of hills and saddles before connecting with Jackson’s II Corps, who were aligned along a ridge that sloped down to the army’s far right at “Prospect Hill” and “Hamilton’s Crossing” (the latter a rural stop along the RF&P). Lee’s cavalry, under the proven showman J. E. B. Stuart, screened the far-right flank between Jackson’s corps and the river. Lee held one of the strongest defensive positions of the war. His whole line was elevated. Still, Robert E. Lee was not one to rest on perceived advantages. He looked to this southern sector as a potential vulnerability on the morning of December 13, 1862. The massive Union army had begun to stir. If Franklin’s force could punch through or outflank Jackson’s line to the south, then Longstreet’s formidable defensive line to the north would still prove untenable once the blue waves of Sumner and Hooker were sent forward. Stonewall’s troops had yet to fail Lee. That reputation was about to be put to the test.

All night and into the early morning of the 13th, Franklin and his officers awaited the orders that must surely come: attack at dawn. This was the order issued by Burnside on the night of the 12th; but it did not reach Franklin until 7 a.m. on the 13th. The failure of prompt delivery has been attributed to the messenger. Regardless, when it did arrive, the order did not read as conclusive. Franklin believed it implied a diversionary attack. O’Reilly convincingly claims that Burnside’s orders were not fully understood, claiming that he meant for the U.S. Left Grand Division to drive in force on the C.S. flank. In coordination with the secondary assaults of Sumner and Hooker to the north, Lee’s line would buckle at any number of points and give way. Yet Franklin—cautious and deliberate—proceeded just so. John Reynold’s reputable I Corps was ordered up and George G. Meade’s division singled out to go forward across the RF&P in their front. They would drive into the Confederate line under cover of the forested rise before them, the divisions of John Gibbon and Abner Doubleday (the same Abner Doubleday) supporting Meade on right and left, respectively. The Old Richmond Road was their assembly point. By mid-morning, the long drum rolls were calling the field to attention. The Union formations aligned in neat orderly rows, nerves steeled. The “ball” was about to open.

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The tour continues down the “new” Old Richmond Road not quite a mile to Benchmark Road. In the southwest corner of the intersection sits a short squat marble marker: the Pelham marker. This area was the mentioned “no man’s land” patrolled by Stuart’s Confederate cavalry, this marker documenting the significant role they would play … With Meade’s division forming across the Old Richmond 1000 yards to the north, Stuart’s 24 year-young chief-of-artillery, John Pelham, raced a single gun to this exposed position, aimed up the road and began to lob shells into the Union troops. Another gun was brought up, the havoc they created demoralizing. U.S. guns answered en masse; but they had trouble finding the range, Pelham’s men wisely situating themselves in a low depression. When the Union artillerists did home in, Pelham ordered the guns moved after every shot. This went on for over half-an-hour before Pelham’s men were forced to retire. Two guns had greatly disrupted the U.S. Left Grand Division’s assault preparations to the adoration of every Confederate within view—especially their commander, Lee having reportedly said: “It is glorious to see courage in one so young.”

A little further up, the tour banks right onto Mine Road in angling behind NMP land and the position of Jackson’s far right on Prospect Hill. This in turn connects with 638, another right that leads into the park itself and the main interpretive road through it: Lee Drive … December 13, 1862, unfolded bright and clear. A cold morning gave way to higher temperatures. This and the feet of thousands of soldiers turned the thawing fields into sludge. The U.S. I Corps, now aligned for attack, was ordered to lay down in the mud as the main pre-assault cannonade ruptured the tension and announced the commencement of battle. It was 11 o’clock. Franklin looked to soften the C.S. defense, Jackson wisely ordering no response until the assault was underway. The wait along the Confederate line was desperate and deadly. Shells rained down on their positions. The silent Confederate batteries on top of Prospect Hill lost so many horses that the rise was awarded the gruesome epithet: “Dead Horse Hill” … It is at these moments on the fields where it occurred, when you find yourself shocked into disbelief at the ability of men to endure such a barrage; and that such endurance was simply expected. There was no recourse under such a cannonade, just flinching, praying and mortal fear as entire companies tried to dig into the earth. The whistle of incoming shells and the random prospect of being splattered in a shower of blood-and-brains from a direct hit a few yards over — and yet, it was your duty to endure it.

Having spent many hours documenting the life of Civil War soldiers, I have come to know one thing: that despite the efforts of historians and re-enactors, painters and movie producers, we can never know that era of combat in the modern day. Only combat itself can compare; but then nothing of modern warfare can compare to the filthy disease-ridden day-to-day existence of these soldiers. We can read the stories and imagine the hell of a Civil War battlefield. But without first-hand knowledge of the grotesque inhuman destruction of bodies, the asphyxiating sulfuric discharge of black-powder weapons, the days after each battle rent by the guttural cries of the wounded languishing to death between the lines and the rancid smell of dead rotting horses and humans, we can know nothing of this war. Our Civil War was an appalling bloodbath and studying it has had a pacifying effect on my views.

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By now, the tour falls within National Park borders. Weather-worn Confederate trenches line the northeast side of what was once called Military Road, the drive itself following the course of a road built prior to the battle by C.S. “Pioneers.” This is where the southern sector of the battle would be decided: Stonewall Jackson’s front line … With the Union guns falling silent, Meade’s division was ordered up from the mud and across the Old Richmond Road. About a thousand yards, most of it exposed, separated them from the waiting Confederates of A. P. Hill’s division, Jackson’s Corps. The Union troops had no sooner reached a rhythmic gait when the previously silent Confederate batteries opened up. A soldier in the 16th Maine wrote: “[they] threw over a whole blacksmith shop, anvil and all.”13 The U.S. I Corps dropped back down into the mud, as their own superior firepower answered in full throat. Union and Confederate artillerists engaged in a protracted bloody duel, of which the U.S. guns finally got the better. By 1 p.m., the Confederates had taken another terrible pounding and Meade’s men moved forward.

From left to right, the brigades of C. F. Jackson, Sinclair and Magilton rushed towards the RF&P rail lines, over halfway between the Old Richmond Road and Confederate line. There they leveled their muskets and delivered an initial volley into the leafless woods before them. They were answered in kind with a sheet of fire and lead. The C.S. brigades of Archer, Gregg and Lane faced the attacking Jackson, Sinclair and Magilton, respectively. But Hill had set up Gregg and Lanes’ troops with a sizable gap in between. Hill believed that no troops could make it through a swampy bottomland stretch at the front left foot of Prospect Hill. South Carolinian Maxcy Gregg and his troops were under the same impression. They were both wrong. Meade’s three U.S. brigades plunged across the tracks under increasing fire. Sinclair and Magilton’s men reached the swampy treeline and charged in. Casualties mounted quickly. Jackson was shot dead leading his brigade, Archer’s Tennesseans in their front confident and knowing they were supported by all of Jubal Early’s division. Conrad F. Jackson’s brigade—now without their leader—was pinned down under a deadly fire from this portion of the Confederate line. Add to it, that Pelham’s impetuosity had halted the formation of Doubleday’s division on Meade’s left and forced it into securing Franklin’s far-left against another such attack by “horse artillery.” As a result, the legendary “father of baseball” and his troops did not advance in line leaving the left of Meade’s assault—Jackson’s brigade in particular—“hanging in the air.”

To Meade’s right, John Gibbon’s division had moved up. The brigades of Taylor, Lyle and Root were stacked like a battering ram as they moved forward. Taylor’s and then Lyle’s men both ran headlong into the rifles of James Lane’s North Carolinians situated left of the gap in the C.S. line, and behind the RF&P rail bed. C.S. artillery to their left and near a group of slave cabins poured into the flank of the assault. Gibbon’s initial waves were thrown back short of the RF&P. A Private William Martin of the 28th North Carolina was recounted as he “coolly sat on the [railroad] track, and called to his comrades to watch the Yankee colors, then he fired and down they went. This was done repeatedly.”14 But despite this initial success, Lane’s men were exhausting their ammunition and strength. The U.S. brigades of Sinclair and Magilton had not only crossed the un-crossable swampland, but were rolling into the left flank of Gregg’s surprised Confederates. Gregg, on sighting this wave approaching through the smoke-choked woods, believed them to be friendly and ordered his troops to cease firing. Gregg was mortally wounded as the Northerners burst from the smoke. His brigade disintegrated before the rush. Sinclair and Magiltons’ troops, a single mixed-up mass at this point, rolled over the Military Road and drove into the gap. The evaporation of Gregg’s brigade created a ripple effect down the line. The left of Archer’s and right of Lane’s troops buckled. Meade’s men crashed into the wavering Confederates. Add to this the only real support Meade would receive in the form of Gibbon’s final brigade under Adrian Root. With Lane’s Confederates having already fought off the better part of a Union division, and the line wavering on their right, Root’s men plunged over the RF&P and into desperate hand-to-hand fighting with the North Carolinians, sweeping into their ranks those willing from Gibbon’s first two brigades. In conjunction, C. F. Jackson’s brigade, having been halted at rail bed, charged with renewed vigor into the wavering line of Archer’s Tennesseans. If victory was to occur for the U.S. Left Grand Division, it was to occur right then and there on the early afternoon of December 13th.

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Lee Drive within the NMP ends on Prospect Hill. This is the best vantage point to view the terrain over which the attack-on and defense-of the south end of the Confederate line took place. The fields in front, now interspersed with stands of trees, were mostly clear in December 1862. This provided the attackers little cover until they were face-to-face with the defenders. The land rises slowly up to the point of the interpretive park signs and fixed cannon marking the C.S. line, a rise enough to wind the attackers but not discourage attack. The immediate area along the road and behind it are now thick with forest, as they were in December 1862. Pulling off a shoulder a few hundred yards up leads to a unique Civil War battlefield memorial: A stone pyramid about 15-20 feet high stands just across the tracks to the east, a hundred yards in front of where Stonewall Jackson’s men were positioned. This would have been the sector of C. F. Jackson’s U.S. brigade, the left of Meade’s assaulting column. An interpretive sign documents the pyramid having been built in 1903 by employees of the RF&P: a memorial to the Southern victory. Positioned here, it would pass by in plain view of all who rode the train … Doubling-back on Lee Drive, brings you to the site of the C.S. gap and “Meade’s breakthrough.” Heavily forested with no clear view in front, this site remains much as it was on December 13, 1862.

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This fight to the south was now about who could feed in reinforcements first. Meade’s men had broken through with the added weight of Gibbon’s support; but they could never cement a hold on the Military Road without help. It was not forthcoming. The cautious Franklin still believed his Grand Division assault was diversionary, though the opposite was true. The Confederates, meanwhile, had plenty of help: three divisions. Sizing up the situation, the profane and hard-fighting Jubal Early threw in. The conclusion then unfolded rapidly. Early hurled the brigades of Atkinson and Walker into the breach, while Hill ordered Thomas’ brigade, his only nearby reserve, to the aid of Lane’s faltering line. Atkinson’s Georgians drove into the confusion of the smoke-filled woods and rolled over the unsupported blue mass. With Confederates bearing down from left, front and right, the exhausted Union troops of Sinclair and Magilton broke, backtracking over the ground they’d fought so hard to win. The men of C. F. Jackson, who had penetrated only to the foot of Prospect Hill, were likewise swept back—Hoke’s C.S. brigade brought up and fed into the fight.

Meade’s men rallied a final stand at the RF&P; but they lacked strength, ammunition, and reinforcements. When U.S. III Corps division commander, David Birney, was challenged by the then livid Meade to provide support, he refused citing he’d been told to stay put. Yet when the situation in front became clear, Birney’s three brigades—brought across the Rappahannock for the express purpose of support—were thrown forward to halt the swing in momentum, a swing that was proving significant. The Confederate counterstroke “boiled down the hillside,” 15 writes O’Reilly, continuing: “The neat, compact, organized brigades of Atkinson and Hoke caught the Federals overextended and leaderless. Union resistance crumbled.” 16 The brigade from Georgia was caught up in the moment, chasing the disorderly retreat of Meade’s veterans towards the Old Richmond Road. Gibbon’s men were by then taking a pounding from the fresh squads of rifles in their front and Confederate artillery positioned around the slave cabins. They were forced to retreat, as well. The first real U.S. reinforcements of the afternoon’s fighting came in the form of Ward’s brigade, first of the U.S. III Corps brigades. Yet they were quickly caught up in the precipitous retreat, making it nearly impossible to keep formation. Once clear, they were in no position to resist the rolling “grey and butternut” lines of Atkinson’s Georgians, who came on alone, possessed. Not only had Franklin’s “diversion” been thrown back, but now it seemed a full-fledged C.S. counterattack was bearing down. Union artillery, having been brought up for close support of the infantry, leveled their barrels and let loose furious rounds of canister (an ordnance that exploded on being fired like a giant shotgun blast). This was enough to check the exposed and wildly daring Confederate charge, its participants only then realized they were themselves dangerously exposed. The U.S. III Corps brigades of Robinson and Berry pitched into the overzealous Georgians and broke the attack. The colorful 114th Pennsylvania “zouaves”—regaled in red baggy pants, white gaiters and turban-style headwraps made famous by the crack French military outfit of the day—led the way. On coming to this point of our 2003 tour, I recall Dad, an army veteran of the modern era, shaking his head in commenting on the flamboyant dress: “Would only make for good looking corpses,” he’d said.

With this final furious chapter now settled, the fight to the south wound down. Opportunities won and lost were now little more than statistics made grim by the high loss of life. Meade was fuming, and rightfully so. His men had fought courageously and taken their objective, only to be hung out to dry. At the highwater mark of Meade’s breakthrough, Franklin had near two corps at his disposal. Only the mentioned III Corps troops were engaged as reinforcements; and then, only in a defensive role after Meade and Gibbon’s men had been routed out. A late-day move by Stonewall Jackson to launch an all-out counteroffensive never materialized due to logistics and nightfall … A Union veteran involved in the assault and disgusted by the lack of support, caustically spit, “I’ve had enough of this damned business.” 17 Sgt. Jacob Heffelfinger of Magilton’s brigade—who was wounded and captured—documented the events of the assault that afternoon: “All that we gained at so fearful a cost is lost … Death had been doing fearful work today.” 18 Franklin had thrown forward a half-hearted unsupported attack and had failed. Stonewall Jackson had stood his ground and prevailed. The waning notion of Union victory now shifted north to the formidable Confederate bastion on Marye’s Heights.

NEXT: Four › Marye’s Heights


» 1. Intro «

» 2. Prelude «

» 3. South «

» 4. Marye’s «