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Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/22


The Battle of Fredericksburg.—1862

I ASCERTAINED on December 9 that all the preparations for the proposed active operations were completed, and that they would be undertaken immediately. The plan decided upon by General Burnside, and communicated formally to the Grand Division commanders, was as follows:

To concentrate all the siege and most of the field artillery on the ridge on which the plateau on the left bank abutted, and from which their fire would command the town, the opposite plain, and the encircling hills beyond it.

To throw five bridges across the river during the night of the 10th to the 11th — two at the upper end of Fredericksburg, one at the lower end, and two a mile below the latter; making the total distance between the extreme bridges about two miles.

Immediately after the completion of the bridges, the Right Grand Division was to cross by the upper bridges and move through Fredericksburg and form beyond the town. The Left Grand Division was to cross by the two lower bridges to the plain on the right bank, and the Centre Grand Division to be held in reserve on the north bank, ready to move either to the support of the Right or Left Grand Division.

The Right Grand Division to attack the enemy's left on the Fredericksburg heights with one of Hooker's corps and with a division of the other as reserve.

The Left Grand Division to make a simultaneous and diverting attack on the rebel right, with Stoneman's division in reserve.

On the 10th, the unmistakable signs of impending action were observable on all sides. There were conferences at army-corps and division headquarters, increased home letter-writing, and talk about the expected fighting, throughout the encampments, special inspections of the arms and accoutrements of infantry and artillery, distribution of ammunition, cooking of extra rations, and enlargement of field-hospital accommodations. The artillery was assembled in four groups or divisions at as many convenient points, and the pontoon trucks advanced nearer to the edge of the plateau. The artillery moved first into position between dusk and midnight. No less than one hundred and seventy-nine guns, nearly all rifled, and ranging from 4½-inch siege and 20-pounder Parrott to 3-inch guns, were arrayed, forming a close chain from Falmouth down the bank for two miles, ready to belch forth death and destruction in terrible concert whenever the signal was given. I believe it was the greatest assemblage of artillery in any battle of the Civil War. I watched the movement in front of the Right Grand Division for several hours, and was much impressed with the regularity, quickness, and noiselessness of it.

The first duty of the artillery was to cover the construction of the five bridges. The line of batteries being established, the Brigade of Volunteer Engineers, under General Woodbury, with a battalion of regular engineers, started with five bridge trains so as to reach the bank of the river at three o'clock in the morning (December 11). The way for the descent of the trains had been carefully prepared; still it was a difficult and risky undertaking, for there were no less than one hundred and fifty boats to be hauled on wagons, each of which required four horses. From the upper plateau with the encampments, a steep road led to a second plateau about one hundred feet below, nearly half a mile wide, which gradually inclined to the bank proper; the last hundred feet to the water being rather abrupt. The movement of the pontoons was to be concealed from the enemy, but, what with the accompanying five hundred engineers, the six hundred animals, and the escort of an infantry regiment to each of the trains, success in this seemed hardly probable. Yet the trains not only reached the bank at the fixed hour, but the engineers, according to orders, began at once unloading the material, and accomplished this without being at all disturbed by the rebels in Fredericksburg until daybreak. Their guards, reliefs, and main bodies must all have slept very soundly, or they would surely have tried some rifle practice, even in the dark. I did not see the creditable night performance of the pontoniers myself, having sought a good night's rest after the artillery had got into position, in view of the fatiguing labors I looked for on the next day. I slept so well that I was not roused by the musketry and artillery fire to which the bridge-throwing led, between six and seven o'clock, and did not stir till called for breakfast at seven. I dressed and ate very hurriedly amidst the roar of artillery, but it was nearly eight o'clock before I got to the line of our fighting batteries.

I quickly learned that the fire had no other object than to cover the completion of the bridges. The pontoons for those at the upper and lower ends of the town not only had been pushed into the water without interference from the enemy, but were half way across when, shortly after six, the bridge-builders received a sharp musketry fire from the other side which compelled them to abandon their work, after having some officers and a number of non-commissioned officers and privates killed and wounded. The infantry supports fired in return, but effected nothing. Thereupon, four batteries on the bluffs above opened a violent fire, with shot and shell from twenty-four guns, upon the other bank, for about fifteen minutes. When they ceased, the engineers tried to resume their work, but were pelted again with rebel bullets. As a thick fog hung over the river, obliging the batteries to fire at random, six light batteries were ordered down to the river bank; four near the upper and two near the middle bridge. The fire from the batteries above and below was then kept up at intervals, and was going on when I reached the scene.

A lull then occurred for another attempt of the engineers to finish the bridges, but again they failed, owing to the increased severity of the rebel fire. At nine another general cannonade was opened upon the rebel cover from over a hundred light and heavy guns. The roar of the discharges, the whizzing of the missiles, the bursting of the shells, and the crashing as they struck the buildings, combined in a deafening and yet inspiring war concert. At ten, our fire ceased, when the engineers once more endeavored to add pontoons to those already in place, only to be again driven back. Our batteries repeated their performance, pouring shot and shell upon the buildings from which the rebels fired. At eleven, the fog had lifted sufficiently to make the houses and streets distinguishable, thus giving surer aim to our artillerists. To a column of rebel infantry seen moving down a street they at once gave attention, making it disappear. The whole forenoon was thus spent in futile efforts for the completion of the upper bridges. It became evident, too, that every new attempt made it harder for the engineer officers to get their men to expose themselves. The latter finally refused to obey orders, or ran away from the pontoons to shelter as soon as the hostile bullets whistled around them. Irritated at this successful defiance of us by a small rebel force, General Burnside, shortly after noon, ordered a general bombardment of the town at large. Some one hundred and fifty guns were accordingly turned upon it, causing, as it seemed to me, twice as furious a roaring as before. Several buildings were soon seen to burn. This terrific cannonade was kept up for nearly two hours, when it was stopped for a further effort to finish the bridges.

At the suggestion of the chief of artillery, General Hunt, it was decided to try and rush troops across the river in bridge boats, to attack and drive away the enemy. This dangerous duty naturally devolved upon, and was accepted with alacrity by, the regiments serving as supports to the several bridge trains. At the upper bridge, the Seventh Michigan was to cross, while the Nineteenth Massachusetts deployed along the bank to cover the boats with their rifles. The daring venture was preceded by another tremendous outburst of our artillery, lasting half an hour. While it continued, boats were to be pushed into the river, manned by officers and men of the regiment named, and rowed over as fast as possible. But the engineers who were to push the boats skulked off again at the first rebel fire. The Michigan men, under Colonel Baxter, promptly assumed their part and shoved and carried the boats into the water. Six started off first, filled with less than one hundred men. Our batteries became silent, and on our side all eyes were anxiously fixed upon the small flotilla. There was great risk of a failure, as there were not enough experienced oarsmen to handle the boats, and as the force in them was small. The rebels sent a shower of bullets, killing one man and seriously wounding the Colonel and several others. But the other bank was reached, and the party formed quickly under it and then rushed up the first street, and in a few minutes had captured some thirty rebels and established themselves in a building after losing another officer and more men. This achievement was one of the bravest feats of the whole war. The remainder of the Michigan regiment and the Nineteenth Massachusetts followed in boats as rapidly as possible. As they forced their way into the town, there was some street fighting, but our men, spreading to right and left, soon had the loopholed buildings along the bank cleared of all rebels. The engineers could not be induced to resume the bridge work until our men had secured a foothold, when they took hold again, and by four o'clock the upper bridge was at last completed.

At the three other bridges to be thrown by the volunteer engineers, a similar experience was had. The enemy foiled successive efforts to lay them by his severe musketry fire, which inflicted, however, but slight losses. The second and third could not be completed until, as at the upper bridge, one of the covering regiments, the Eighty-ninth New York, had secured a lodgment on the other bank by a dash in boats across the river, which was effected without loss and with the capture of a company of rebels. The least resistance was encountered by the regular engineer battalion charged with laying the lowest bridge. Only a small party of rebels confronted them on the south bank, and they were speedily driven off by the fire of the infantry supports. The approach to the water was difficult, and all the material had to be hauled by hand for several hundred yards. Ice in the river also impeded progress, yet the commandant of the battalion could report at 11 A.M. that the bridge was ready for the passage of infantry and artillery.

After the lower bridges were finished to the south bank, the rebels did not disturb the Federal detachments that established themselves upon it for the protection of the structures. In the town, however, the conflict described did not end the fighting. The Seventh Michigan and the Nineteenth Massachusetts had been rapidly followed, partly in boats but mainly over the bridge, by two New York, one Pennsylvania, and another Massachusetts regiment of General O. O. Howard's division. After being formed in the first street parallel to the river, they advanced up the streets crossing it at right angles. When they attempted to pass the second parallel street they were met by a hail of bullets, and it required a hard struggle to force the rebels gradually out of the town. Darkness set in before our troops reached its upper end, and compelled the cessation of firing lest they should fire upon each other. During the night the rebels retired entirely from the place. The remainder of Howard's division and Hawkins's brigade of the Ninth Corps passed over, and by morning the whole town was occupied by our troops. The street fighting cost us nearly a hundred officers and men killed and wounded. I did not myself observe the last-mentioned occurrences. I had watched the bridge-throwing attempts all day, first from the upper and in the afternoon from the lower plateau. But, as it was so near nightfall when it became possible to get over, I concluded not to cross, but proceeded to General Sumner's headquarters.

The result of the day was, of course, very disappointing to General Burnside. He had relied on getting sufficient troops over the river to strike on the next day, and had issued formal orders to that effect, instead of which twenty-four hours were lost and the enemy given a long warning of his purposes and sufficient time for counter-preparations. Moreover, the delay impaired the fitness of his army for the bloody task before it, from the fatigue involved in its being kept massed under arms ready for the movement across the river so long before it could be executed. As all experienced commanders know, lying still under such circumstances is more wearing to troops than activity. Having satisfied myself that nothing was likely to happen during the night, I returned to my quarters for a good rest.

I was ready for duty early in the morning. The weather continued mild, but a heavy fog again prevailed, making it impossible to see more than a hundred yards ahead. I found Hancock's and French's divisions ready to move, and they commenced crossing before 8 A.M. They were followed closely during the forenoon by Burns's, Sturgis's, and Getty's divisions of the Eleventh Army Corps. The five divisions used the three upper bridges. As the day advanced, the fog lifted, and the five heavy, long bodies in motion over the floating structures formed a curious and withal impressive sight. At a distance the men and animals seemed to be stepping on the water itself. Everybody looked for a great effort of the rebel artillery to impede our passage, but, to our general surprise, instead of the anticipated cannonade from the enemy, only scattering shot and shell at intervals were aimed at us, without doing any harm. The rebel official reports state, in explanation of this weak demonstration, that the river lay too low for effective firing; but I can bear personal testimony to the contrary, as I saw some of their projectiles strike the water within a few feet of the upper bridge.

After watching the crossing of the troops for two hours, I rode over the second bridge myself and at once looked the town over. Fredericksburg is not only one of the oldest, but was, up to the outbreak of the Rebellion, one of the most substantial Virginia towns. It was compactly built up, with brick structures of plain but solid appearance. The red brick, white door- and window-sills, and white marble steps, reminded one of Philadelphia. The lower part was devoted to business; the upper consisted of private residences, among them a number of spacious two- and three-story mansions. As the mart of a rich agricultural district, the place was once thriving, but its prosperity had waned since the opening of railroads had to a great extent diverted its trade to Alexandria and Richmond. Along the river front, where formerly steamboat traffic had been carried on, there were marked signs of decay. The population of between four and five thousand included some of the oldest and best-known families in the State. The white inhabitants had nearly all fled. I saw only two, one of whom, in reply to a question, told me that he did not believe there were twenty-five left. Even of negroes not more than a score were in sight, and they seemed to be much cowed and rather afraid to be friendly with their liberators. Our troops had either found the business buildings open, or had forced them and used them for night quarters. As might be supposed, private property in the abandoned shops, especially in the warehouses from which the enemy had fired, such as tobacco, flour, bacon, sugar, and other articles of consumption, was not respected, but was taken without stint. Of tobacco particularly a large quantity was appropriated.

As the built-up portion of the town extended only a dozen blocks along and five blocks from the river, there was not enough street space for the 30,000 men of the two corps and their concomitant animals, batteries, ammunition wagons, ambulances, and all the rest. Howard's division moved from the lowest to an upper street to make room for Hancock and French, and they in turn made room for the divisions of the Ninth Corps. When I got over, the streets were already so densely filled with masses of infantry, mounted staffs and cavalry escorts, guns and vehicles, that I could hardly make my way through them. In the afternoon the overcrowding reached a choking point, and orders had to be sent to stop the crossing of artillery after about two-thirds of the batteries of the two corps had got over. There was nothing to do but to let the troops make themselves as comfortable as they could in the buildings and on the sidewalks and streets, preserving their organizations as much as possible. Much hardship was endured during the night by those bivouacking on the frosty ground in mud ankle-deep. But, as may be supposed, there was a good deal of swarming about by the soldiers, and resultant confusion, with too much opportunity to skulk out of sight. I could not help thinking, and all the officers I talked with about this cramped condition of our force had similar thoughts, that the enemy would surely make use of this tempting opportunity to bombard the town in his turn, after we got jammed and packed into it like sheep in a pen. Had he improved it, there would have been no attack by us, but a desperate struggle to regain the north bank, ending probably in the slaughter and capture of most of our troops. Not only was this reflection shared by the general officers I met, but also the logical deduction from it that it was a grave error to place the Right Grand Division in such a perilous position. The opinion prevailed, too, that even if the much-feared bombardment should not foil the whole movement before it could be made, it would not be possible to debouch from the town for an attack on the enemy, as all the approaches to his front were perpendicular to it, open and swept by his guns. During the whole afternoon I apprehended every moment that there would be an outburst of the rebel artillery, and felt most anxious accordingly. But the enemy happily confined himself to the desultory firing already mentioned. Night came on without a noteworthy incident. I had come prepared to spend it in Fredericksburg, but as I could find nothing better for a resting-place than space to stretch out on the floor of a room in one of the private residences with half a dozen others, I decided to return to my camp, after I had learned positively from General Couch that we should rest on the defensive till the next day.

The Centre Grand Division, being designated as the reserve and support to both the Right and Left Grand Divisions, moved near the three upper bridges, but no part of it crossed the river on the 12th, and the entire body remained in position till the next day. During the night, however, General Hooker received orders to send Sickles's and Birney's divisions, of General Stoneman's corps, to the two lower bridges, ready to cross and support General Franklin. This was promptly done. The river thus separated the main body of the army from its reserve—a strategic risk which all the authorities on the art of war condemn, and which can be explained, but not justified, in this case on the theory that the enemy would not dare to attack us.

General Franklin's two army corps, according to orders, had marched before daybreak on the 11th to near the points fixed upon for the two lower bridges, which were completed during the forenoon, but the General received no orders to cross until 4 P.M., when he was directed to take his whole command over. The movement had commenced when a new order came to remain on the north side, and to send only one brigade over for the protection of the bridges. Devens's brigade, of Newton's division, being on the other side, was assigned for this service. Renewed orders to cross having been received, Smith's corps commenced passing over at daybreak. Brooks's first division led, followed by Howe's second and Newton's third. The first and second divisions immediately formed in line of battle, with the third in reserve. In this formation the corps advanced during the forenoon, concealed by the fog from the enemy, a distance of about one mile to the Richmond road. Here they took up a protected position, in which they remained all day and bivouacked in the night. Towards noon the fog lifted and revealed the corps to the enemy, who, however, did nothing but maintain a feeble and almost harmless artillery fire. Reynolds's First Corps followed immediately in the wake of the Sixth; Gibbon's division leading, with Meade's and Doubleday's next in order. It formed with Gibbon on the left, Meade on the right, and Doubleday in reserve. The corps then advanced so as to connect with Smith's left. With the exception of slight skirmishing in moving forward, the corps was not disturbed during the rest of the day or the night, which it also passed in bivouac.

Hoping to hear something of the programme for the morrow, I went to General Burnside's headquarters about 10 P.M. I found a great assemblage of general and staff officers in conference with the General-in-chief or awaiting orders. The drift of their conversation was such as to warrant the inference that the enemy would be assailed in the morning. I was aware that orders for the action had been issued to the Grand Division commanders during the night of the 10th and 11th, and they appeared to be left standing as originally given. I could not find out, however, the hour for the opening of the conflict. It had not then been fixed, and, indeed, the order to attack was issued only in the morning, so as to observe special caution. I was awake at six and again in Fredericksburg before daylight — too early by several hours.

The day was like the preceding ones — mild, but very foggy at daybreak and until late in the forenoon. General French's division being in the front and certain to lead in the impending fight on our right, I made my way to its commander with some difficulty. The division was ready to move, but the commander was awaiting his orders. They came only at half-past nine, and directed that the division should move out on the telegraph and plank roads and form in column by brigades, led by heavy lines of skirmishers, and be ready to attack, but not to do so without further orders. After drawing in the picket line, the division was accordingly formed in the outskirts of the town (through which the streets, with scattered buildings, still extended), under cover of the fog, by eleven o'clock. Hancock's division supported it immediately in the rear. Extraordinary as it may seem, no attempt had been made during our occupancy of the town to reconnoitre the ground between it and the heights, and therefore nothing was known of its character in detail. A reconnoissance in force to ascertain what natural or artificial obstacles there were to a front attack, and to discover the best line for its delivery, should have, but had not, preceded it. The assailants throughout the impending struggle had to take their chances in this respect; and to this, I was persuaded then, and am so now, after an examination of all the official reports of the corps, division, brigade, and regimental commanders engaged, our fearful failure was largely due.

French received the order to move forward only at noon. I was with his staff when it came, and remained with them, as will appear. The division advanced on and between parallel streets. A strong body of skirmishers led, and was followed at a distance of three hundred yards by the three brigades of General Kimball and Colonels Andrews and Palmer, with intervals of two hundred yards between them. The two streets mentioned led to the so-called plank and telegraph roads, which crossed a canal, or rather mill-race, a short distance beyond. This watercourse was fifteen feet wide and from four to six feet deep, and proved a first serious impediment, as it could be crossed only by bridges, necessitating the contraction of the deployed lines into long, narrow columns, and involving loss of time. Beyond the bridges, the line of battle was quickly re-formed and the advance continued in the described order. The ground for perhaps 1200 feet rose gradually to a low crest and was obstructed considerably by a number of isolated dwellings with outbuildings and board and rail fences and stone walls. The passage of the canal and the deployment beyond led evidently to our first discovery by the enemy, for, immediately, there was a combined outburst upon us of artillery and musketry fire, with a mighty roar and rattle from the front, right, and left. The fire was converging and shook our column by its suddenness and severity, killing and wounding hundreds. Several shells struck right in the lines, tearing wide gaps in them. But they pushed on over the intervening space and reached the crest mentioned, under the shelter of which the formation was restored as much as possible. Then the skirmishers rushed over the crest, followed by Kimball's and the other brigades, on towards the second heights. They found themselves again exposed to a murderous rain of shot, shell, and bullets, from the front and each flank, but continued on with fixed bayonets and without stopping to fire, despite the constant thinning out of their ranks. They made their way for a thousand feet or so over rough and muddy ground and over fences, walls and other obstacles, when they found themselves within a short distance of the enemy's first line, along a ravine from which they received such a hail of bullets from rebel infantry in rifle-pits and behind a high stone wall, covering their front for nearly a mile, and such showers of grape-shot from field-pieces and from guns in position in earthworks on the heights a thousand feet to the rear of the wall, that they staggered and halted and in part lay down for shelter in the unevennesses of the ground. The skirmishers and Kimball's first brigade were the first thus brought to bay; the latter after losing one-fourth of their number, including their commander, who was badly wounded. Some time passed before the other brigades, also rather disordered by the hindrances described and decimated by rebel fire, came up to support. The lines of the three brigades became mixed into one. Numbers sought safety in retreat without orders, the remainder holding the position gained, but making no headway towards that of the enemy. They kept up an irregular fire, which, however, could have but little effect upon the sheltered rebels.

Hancock's first division had followed the third closely, but, unlike it, was not permitted to pass up the streets unopposed. It was exposed to the rebel shot and shell all the way to the canal and beyond it, suffering thereby heavier losses than the third before reaching the front. Colonel Zook's brigade was in the lead. When it reached French's line, an order came from the corps commander to French and Hancock, at about two o'clock, to storm the rebel position. Zook immediately started for it, followed by French's mixed-up line. Hurrying forward at double quick, they came within twenty-five yards of the stone wall, but could not withstand the terrible fire that swept from it against them, and fell back, leaving the ground covered with their dead and wounded. The next brigade of Hancock — the Irish under General Meagher — repeated the attempt, but was also bloodily repulsed, and the last brigade, under General Caldwell, speedily met with the same fate. Its commander received two severe wounds while urging his men forward. To this brigade belonged the 61st and 64th New York regiments that had relieved French's picket line in the morning and rejoined the brigade as it moved to the front. When it had come within a hundred feet of the rebels, Colonel Nelson A. Miles, of the 61st New York, observing that they were on the defensive, asked General Caldwell's leave to lead a rush with his regiment and such other troops as would follow, but was refused. Miles's men then did good work in picking off the rebel cannoneers with their rifled muskets at close range, when he was shot in the neck and obliged to leave the field. I mention this incident because the then Colonel is the present Commander-in-chief of the United States army, and has always been confident that, if permitted, he would have carried the rebel works and turned the fortune of the day.

I had ridden on with the staff of General French behind his division to the first crest. We were exposed to the hostile fire up to that position, but relatively sheltered by it from bullets, while shot and shell continued to fall around us. I remained there, as it enabled me to see the approach of the several bodies of our troops and even watch (while lying down) from the crest the actual onsets. My station also proved very advantageous, owing to the frequent reports that came in from sub-commanders of the progress of the struggle, and to the opportunity it gave me to meet, first, General Hancock, and, later on, other division commanders, and even General Couch, at the base of the crest. After the failure of the assaults described, I began to fear that the day would go against us. The stream of wounded told of heavy losses. Officers and men showed signs of physical exhaustion and demoralization. Some regiments at the front broke and dispersed. Skulking to the rear increased. The officers found it hard and often impossible to get their men up again for new efforts after they had once lain down. Generals French and Hancock themselves were forced to the conclusion, between two and three o'clock, that the rebel position could not be carried by direct assault.

General Couch also no longer believed in the possibility of the success of a front attack, and hence ordered General Howard's division to make an effort to turn the enemy's left. But he had hardly commenced this movement when Couch countermanded it, owing to urgent appeals for support from both French and Hancock, and ordered the division to the front. It advanced with Owen's brigade in the lead, Hall's and Sully's next. The first two brigades came as near to the enemy as French's and Hancock's brigades, and likewise made several onsets on his rifle-pits, but could make no more headway against the rebel fire than the others. The three divisions, however, steadily kept their positions, replying to the enemy's fire as best they could. They held them even after a number of the regiments had exhausted their ammunition and were left with nothing but their bayonets for defence.

Simultaneously with the forward movement of the Second Corps, General Willcox's Ninth Corps had moved into position on Couch's left, with Sturgis's division next to it, Getty's as the centre, and Burns's as the left; each division being in two lines. The line of the corps extended over two small creeks, known as Hazel Run and Deep Run, flowing due north into the river and to Franklin's right. When Couch advanced, Sturgis was ordered to follow in support of his left, and took his command at once to the outskirts of the town. He had just formed his line under heavy fire when the stream of demoralized men from Couch's front reached it. He at once ordered Ferrero's brigade to the front. It soon collided with a rebel column that was coming down from the heights, threatening to turn Couch's left, and succeeded in checking its advance and driving it back to the line of rifle-pits. The brigade became exposed to an intense fire, and Sturgis directed his other (Nagle's) brigade to a position from which he hoped that a flank fire might be opened for Ferrero's relief, but the broken ground made this move a fruitless one. Thereupon, Nagle went to the direct support of the latter. The whole division became thus engaged, and, like Couch's divisions, made several attempts to take the rifle-pits and stone wall, but recoiled before the enemy's furious fire.

Of the two other divisions of the Ninth Corps, Burns's acted in concert with Franklin's Grand Division; Getty's was held in reserve to guard the lower end of the town and observe the roads leading down from the heights between Sumner and Franklin until late in the afternoon, when Willcox ordered it to the relief of Sturgis. Its experience was but a repetition of the other vain efforts against the rebel position. Formed in two lines of brigades, it advanced to and beyond the first crest, only to be stopped by the destructive storm of rebel missiles. Towards noon General Hooker was ordered to send support to Sumner, and, accordingly, Whipple's division crossed over to Fredericksburg. Carroll's brigade was directed to the front for the relief of Sturgis, and Viatt's marched through Fredericksburg and took position to the extreme right of Couch's line for the protection of that flank. Carroll arrived at the front just as part of Sturgis's line was yielding. It rushed forward with a shout to reoccupy the position, and regained and held it.

The unfavorable reports from Sumner's front led General Burnside to direct General Hooker, shortly before 2 P.M., to send his remaining force — Butterfield's Fifth Corps — to the support of the right. General Hooker obeyed, but with a natural reluctance, as this movement tended to deprive him of the opportunity to exercise independent command in the battle, for Whipple's division of Stoneman's corps was already detached and placed under Sumner's orders, and its other two divisions had been ordered, as Hooker bitterly relates in his official report, to the Left Grand Division without his knowledge. While Butterfield was crossing, an order came from the general headquarters to hurry one of his divisions to the relief of Sturgis. Griffin's was selected for that duty and moved to the front as quickly as possible, but it was nearly four o'clock when he reached it. The first brigade, under Colonel James Burns, was directed to relieve Ferrero's, and did so under a murderous fire. A short time before nightfall, Griffin was ordered to make a last attempt to carry the enemy's position. His first and second brigades, aided on the left by Carroll's brigade of Whipple's division, undertook once more the desperate task. The line advanced bravely, losing hundreds by the deadly rebel hail of lead and iron, and pushed up to within a score of yards of the fatal stone wall, only to be stopped and forced to take refuge behind the crest from which they had started. The third brigade was brought up, but, before the attack could be renewed, darkness ended the fighting.

General Butterfield's orders were, to go, with his remaining two divisions, to the relief of Sumner's right by a new attack. Burnside, Sumner, and Hooker had in the morning obtained full information regarding the defences of the enemy from an intelligent and communicative prisoner. This had raised doubts in Hooker's mind as to the possibility of the success of any direct attack, and they were confirmed by his observations after arriving on the ground with Butterfield, and by information from some of the generals who had already been in action. Believing that another attack would result in further waste of blood, he sent an aide to General Burnside with the request for a revocation of his orders. The reply of his superior was that the attack must be made. Hooker thereupon went himself to see and remonstrate with Burnside, but this effort, too, was futile, and Butterfield had also to try what his brother commander had already found to be an absolutely forlorn hope.

I felt sure that to send in division after division, to butt against and recoil from the rebel bulwarks, would be simply seeking defeat in detail, and that our only hope lay in the success of the Left Grand Division, whose aim was to force back the enemy's right and thus compel the withdrawal of his left also. But when no encouraging tidings had come from Franklin up to three o'clock and the advance of Howard's division had also miscarried, I began to be alarmed about the safety of our right. It seemed logical to expect that, after repelling a series of attacks, the enemy would take the offensive in his turn and pour down from the heights in main force upon our beaten, decimated, confused, exhausted, and discouraged troops. This was indeed looked for by Couch and his division commanders. But, fortunately for our side, the rebels proved not as aggressive as expected. They came out of their entrenchments only twice in force, in pursuit of our retreating men, and were readily driven back. One of these attempts I have already mentioned; the other occurred about three o'clock, when a column advanced within 150 yards of Hancock's front, but, its leader being killed, fell back. Still, the danger remained of our being overwhelmed and driven back in confusion upon the town, and of my being caught in the catastrophe, and, therefore, about half-past three, I started for the rear. There was then a lull in the rebel fire, but, when I had traversed half the distance to the mill-race, shot and shell and rifle bullets again went over and by me in showers for a few minutes.

I observed further striking evidence of the rapid disintegration of our troops. I passed at least a thousand officers and privates making for the town; perhaps one-fourth of them were slightly wounded, many of whom were needlessly helped along by skulkers — a very common trick on battle-fields. The remainder simply were tired, hungry, and thirsty, and had no more stomach for fighting. I came upon General Thomas Francis Meagher, who stood mounted in front of some buildings used as hospitals for the Irish brigade, with about three hundred men and officers, both wounded and in good condition, around him. I asked him what he was about, and he answered: “This is all that is left of my 1200 men, and I am going to take them to the other side of the river,” which he actually did. I learned afterwards that, after leading his brigade part way on foot to the front under fire, he turned back on the pretence that he could not walk any further, owing to an abscess in his knee, and had to get his horse. During his absence the brigade pushed on, but was driven back, like the rest of Hancock's division, after losing nearly one-third of their force, and retired in disorder. His retreat across the river without orders was nothing but a piece of arrant cowardice, for which, however, he never received punishment on account of his popularity among the Irish.

I carried some eatables for myself in one side of my saddle-bags, and oats for my horse in the other. Passing a fine brick dwelling with a stable attached, and seeing a negro looking out of one of the front windows, it occurred to me to take a rest, as all firing had again ceased. I called the negro, and he reluctantly came out with a very frightened look. I asked him to take my horse to the stable and give him the oats while I ate my lunch inside. He was too scared to refuse, and so I dismounted and entered the house and the parlor on the lower floor. It was elegantly furnished, and the owners had evidently taken sudden flight and left everything in their home undisturbed in charge of the servants. I made myself comfortable in an armchair, and made short work of my hard-tack and bacon. Overcome with fatigue, I fell asleep, but was roused directly by a tremendous crash. A shell had struck the building, entering through the rear of the house and reaching a front chamber on the upper floor, where it exploded and destroyed all the contents. The negro appeared with chattering teeth and scarcely able to speak from terror. I was not inclined to continue my rest under such circumstances, and, as the roar of battle made itself again heard, I got my horse and passed on.

It was then a little after four o'clock. I did not know that Butterfield's corps had been ordered to cross and to join in the attack, but I learned of this movement by coming up with the infantry and artillery of the corps in the streets. Ascertaining the direction which Hooker and Butterfield had taken for the outskirts, I went in search of them and was lucky enough to come up with them in a few minutes. Hooker had determined to precede the attack of the Fifth Corps by a concentrated artillery fire upon the enemy's position. Very little use had been made of artillery on our side up to that hour. Ten batteries, with fourteen rifled 3-inch and forty-two 12-pounder guns, had crossed with Sumner's Grand Division, and nine batteries, with forty-eight light rifles, with Butterfield's corps and Whipple's division. Of the nineteen batteries only seven took part, in any degree, in the battle; the remainder being left in the streets of the town or sent back to the north bank. The limited employment of our guns was due to the rising ground over which our troops had to pass to the attack. It ascended to such a degree that our batteries could not well fire from the rear without the risk of hitting our own troops. Further, the location of the rebel batteries was so high, and they were so well protected by earthworks, that an effective fire could not easily be brought to bear upon them. Moreover, the field afforded hardly any other than greatly exposed positions for our batteries. The outcome of several attempts made before Hooker's to employ them showed this. Dickinson's mounted battery of four 10-pounders was called forward after French's and Hancock's repulse, and opened fire from the outskirts on the left; but its commander and one-fourth of the gunners and horses were killed and disabled in a short time, compelling it to retire. Arnold's battery of six rifled guns was put to use near the same point, but their fire was impeded by our columns coming within range. Two New York batteries also supported our advances as well as possible. This and the prelude to Butterfield's attack constituted the artillery's part in the day's work on our right.

It was Captain Hazard's regular-army battery of six 12-pounders and four pieces of Captain Frank's battery, of the same calibre, to which the perilous duty of leading off in the last effort to storm the enemy's position was assigned. They had already started for the front when I met Hooker and Butterfield. They reached a favorable point for their work within two hundred yards of the death-dealing stone wall. In a few minutes after they had opened a most vigorous fire, the horses of all the officers were shot under them, and such further havoc caused among the gunners and animals that Captain Hazard impressed some of the infantry near him to serve his pieces. The batteries held their ground until they were ordered to withdraw.

The execution of the dread task of the Fifth Corps devolved upon Humphreys's division of two brigades. Allabach's second brigade took the lead, and was formed for the attack under the crest with Tyler's first brigade as support. Making for the front, Allabach, accompanied by Humphreys, came up with the mixed-up remainder of Couch's divisions that were still holding the line from which their attack started. They were lying on the ground. Allabach's regiments, which had been in service only four months and never under fire, at once instinctively followed their example, lay down, and opened fire from the ground. Humphreys saw at once that musketry could have no effect, and ordered a bayonet charge. Allabach's men could, however, be induced only with great difficulty to stop firing and rise and push on. The charge was made but checked, after only about one hundred and fifty feet had been passed over, by the tempest of the rebel fire. Our men broke and ran back. Humphreys at once led up Tyler's brigade to renew the charge. What happened to it had better be told in Humphreys's words:

Riding along the two lines of the brigade, I ordered the men not to fire, saying that it was useless that the bayonet alone was the weapon to fight with here. Anticipating, too, the serious obstacle they would meet in the masses of men lying along the front, I ordered them to disregard and pass right over them. I ordered the officers to the front, and, with a hurrah, the brigade, led by General Tyler and myself, advanced gallantly over the ground under the heaviest fire. As the brigade reached the masses of our men lying down, they actually tried to stop our advance. They called to our men not to go forward, and some attempted to prevent by force their doing so. The effect upon my command was what I apprehended the line was somewhat disordered and in part forced to form into a column, but still advanced rapidly. The fire of the enemy's musketry and artillery, furious as it was before, now became still hotter. The stone wall was a sheet of flame that enveloped the head and flanks of the column. Officers and men were falling rapidly, and the head of the column was brought to a stand when close up to the wall. Up to this time, not a shot had been fired by the column, but now some firing began. It lasted but a minute when, in spite of all our efforts, the column turned and retired slowly. I attempted to rally the brigade behind the natural embankment [the crest so often mentioned], but the united efforts of myself, General Tyler, my staff, and the other officers could not arrest the retiring mass.

General Humphreys had two horses shot under him, and all the members of his staff, except one, had their animals killed or disabled. The loss of the division was over a thousand killed and wounded in the ten to fifteen minutes during which the brigades were charging, including five colonels, three lieutenant-colonels, and three majors. Sykes's division of the Fifth Corps moved to the front and relieved Howard's men, but did not get into action.

Night came soon after Humphreys's repulse, and ended the dreadful havoc of the day. On our right, not only was the whole Right Grand and half of the Centre Grand Division completely beaten piecemeal, with the severe average loss in action of nearly fifteen per cent., but one-half of the remainder was reduced to a confused mass, demoralized by the exposure to useless slaughter and by the great hardships suffered for forty-eight hours. Yet greater disaster threatened from the cooping up of our troops in this condition within the narrow space of the town, which, with the pontoon bridges — the only precarious means of escape from this trap — was completely exposed to the rebel fire. I remained with Hooker until the report of Humphreys's failure had reached us, when I rode back into the town a little before five. Riding about the streets to learn something of the condition of our wounded, I saw the extent of the demoralization that had befallen us. It is not too much to say that the town was in possession of a cowed mob, thousands and thousands of officers and men of probably all the regiments that had been engaged filling from roof to cellar every building not used for headquarters and hospital purposes — just the worn-out crowd in the midst of which a stampede was as likely to break out at any moment as in a frightened flock of sheep. I knew that the line from which we attacked was still held, but not one-third of the force that had advanced to it still defended it. What, I asked myself, must not inevitably happen if the almost unharmed and relatively fresh enemy should come upon us by a night or early morning attack? Was Robert E. Lee, with his record of vigorous, daring leadership, likely to let escape him such an opportunity to profit by our incompetent generalship, inflicting a greater disaster than any yet upon the North by forcing the surrender or destruction of forty thousand Unionists? I knew that Hooker, Couch, and Butterfield, and the division commanders likewise, shuddered at the dreadful plight of their commands; and it was, therefore, in the deepest anxiety for the fate of the army that I returned at about six o'clock to the north bank, in order to receive the reports of my assistants at Burnside's headquarters. One was to watch the operations of the Left, another those of the Centre Grand Division, and the third to collect lists of casualties. All three disappointed me grievously. The first turned up only at seven, and had but a very meagre and otherwise unsatisfactory account of the events on the Left. The second did not appear till after nine, and handed in an entirely worthless account of the doings of the Centre. This obliged me to work till nearly midnight in gathering fuller information myself from the general staff officers who came to the general headquarters in the course of the evening.

It seems proper to let an account of what happened on our left come immediately after my story of the experiences of the right. The following summary description is derived not only from my own observations and the statements of others at the time, but from other authentic sources, including the evidence given before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War and the published Official Records.

The position occupied by our left on the eve of the battle, to restate it briefly, was as follows: The line of Smith's corps, forming the right, extended in the plain about a mile from and almost parallel to the river, across Deep Run Creek. Reynolds's First Corps was in close contact with Smith's left, and continued the line in the same general direction to the small hamlet of Smithfield, where Meade's division, on the extreme left, formed an obtuse angle with the division next to it, in order to guard that flank more effectively. Birney's and Sickles's divisions of Stoneman's corps, intended as the support and reserve of the two corps, remained on the north bank, close to the bridges over which Franklin had crossed.

General Burnside had conferred with General Franklin and his corps commanders during the previous afternoon, at the headquarters of the Left Grand Division, regarding the plan of battle. General Franklin proposed that he should be authorized to attack the enemy from his position with a main strength of 30,000 men. If this were permitted, Hooker's two divisions would have to be ordered across the river during the night and advanced so as to be ready to act as his reserve. Burnside neither consented to, nor dissented from, this recommendation during the conference, but, when he rode away at six P.M., promised, in response to Franklin's urgent request for early instructions, to send his final orders before midnight. Franklin waited anxiously for them all night, but heard nothing until Brigadier-General Hardie of the general headquarters appeared at half-past seven in the morning with an oral message that orders would follow immediately. They arrived at eight, and were to the effect that Franklin should keep his whole command in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road (running from Fredericksburg parallel to the river, near our front), and send at least a division to seize the heights below Smithfield.

General Franklin construed these rather indefinite instructions as directing simply a reconnoissance in force, and acted under that impression. He sent corresponding orders to General Reynolds, who designated Meade's division to advance towards the enemy, supported by Gibbon's division on the right and covered by Doubleday's on the left. Meade was under way at 8:30 A.M. The objective point of his advance was near the eastern outrunners of the heights encircling Fredericksburg and the adjacent plain, where they abut upon the valley of the Massaponax. Between the heights and Meade's starting-point there was a depression crossed by the track of the railroad. The ground first sloped and was cleared and cultivated for several hundred yards, and then came thick woods up to and beyond the track and to the very heights. The enemy held the track, the woods, and the heights. The column of attack was, as usual, led by a regiment deployed as skirmishers, followed by a brigade in two lines, with the division artillery and another brigade behind it, and the third brigade in reserve. The movement was slow at first, as the impediments of fences and draining ditches had to be overcome. The column, having moved parallel to the river for a quarter of a mile, turned to the right and crossed the old Richmond highway. The enemy then opened a violent fire upon it. The column was halted, and the division artillery brought into play against the rebel batteries, which ceased firing after twenty minutes, when the advance was resumed. Meantime, Gibbon's division had been ordered to advance and to make a front attack simultaneously with Meade's. This advance was likewise opposed by the rebel artillery and brought Doubleday's into action. Meade's guns, having gained a new position, reopened fire, and some of the batteries belonging to the left of Smith's corps joined in. The furious cannonade lasted for some time, but the enemy's fire finally came to a stop, owing to the blowing up of several of his ammunition-boxes. Our batteries then shelled the woods in our front in order to clear them of rebel infantry. About one o'clock Meade and Gibbon resumed the advance.

Meade's front brigade passed the cleared ground, entered the woods and drove the rebel infantry through them to the railroad track, where they offered a strong resistance but were forced from this position and beyond the woods up the heights and over the crest, with the loss of several flags and three hundred prisoners. Having reached some open ground, the brigade received musketry fire from the front, and shell and grape-shot from the right flank. No support arriving, the brigade, after sustaining this severe fire for a time, fell back. Meade's next brigade, after passing the track, was assailed on both the right and left flanks, and in facing and following the enemy in both directions its regiments got separated, some working to the right and some to the left. One regiment on the right got nearly as far as the leading brigade, but turned back with it. The last brigade of the division was exposed to a destructive fire from the rebel guns that were supposed to be silenced, before it reached the woods in front of the track. General Jackson, the commander, being killed as the brigade was ascending through the woods, it began to waver under the severe fire when only a part had attained the heights, and retreated with the other brigades.

Gibbon's attack was made to the right of Meade in the same formation by three successive lines of brigades. They did not get beyond the track. The leading brigade was brought to a stop at the railroad embankment by an artillery fire from the enemy behind it and in the woods. Its left was at once thrown into confusion. Another brigade, ordered to its support, soon in turn became disordered, and the greater part of it gave way. The division commander now ordered his last brigade to drive the enemy from his position at the point of the bayonet. After unslinging knapsacks and fixing bayonets, the brigade advanced to the attack with three regiments forming a front and two a rear line. It passed over open ground through the confused, retreating throngs of the other brigades of the division. The rebel fire was so galling that the brigade staggered and the men commenced firing without orders. By strenuous efforts of the officers, however, they were made to discontinue firing and resume the advance vigorously, and, as the brigade neared the embankment, the men with a shout and on a run leaped the ditches, rushed over the track and into the woods beyond, killing a number of the enemy with the bayonet and capturing two hundred prisoners. But the further advance of the brigade was stopped by new forces of the enemy assailing it on both flanks. General Gibbon being wounded and obliged to leave the field at 2:30 P.M., his successor in command, General Taylor, on failing to receive support and being advised of Meade's retrograde movement on his left, ordered the brigade to retreat. It was commanded by Colonel Root, of the 94th New York, and composed of that, the 104th and 105th New York, 107th Pennsylvania, and 16th Massachusetts regiments. I have given these details of its performance because it was the most gallant incident of the whole battle.

While Meade's division was engaged, General Birney's division of the Third Corps had advanced to its support with three brigades. It did not relieve Meade on the front, but served as a barrier to the enemy's forces that had started in pursuit of our repulsed divisions. Part of Ward's brigade gave way, but the remainder of it, and the other two brigades, rendered splendid service in checking and driving back the foe that was advancing rapidly with triumphant yells. Not only was Meade protected in his retreat, but two regiments of Berry's brigade went to the aid of Gibbon's retiring division. How little power the latter and Meade's had left to stay the hostile pursuit is shown by what General Stoneman says of their condition: “Every effort was made to rally them [the two divisions], but all to no purpose. Regardless of threats and force and deaf to all entreaties, they sullenly and persistently moved to the rear, and were re-formed near the bank of the river by their officers, many of whom used every endeavor to halt their weary and overpowered troops.” It may be added that their retreat left all the artillery that had been in action without any support, so that but for Birney it would have been captured.

Sickles's division of Stoneman's corps did not reach the south bank until nearly 3 P.M., and, being ordered to take position on the right of Birney, did not get into line until after the latter's successful encounter with the enemy was over. One of Sickles's batteries got engaged with a rebel one and silenced it after a score of rounds. His skirmish line, too, had a lively exchange of shots, but the rest of his command did not get into action. But it is not too much to say that, but for the timely intervention of Stoneman's two divisions, the pursuing enemy would have made his way through the gap in our line and to the flanks of the Left Grand Division, and probably overcome them easily.

Doubleday's division of Reynolds's corps had been designated to protect the left flank of the Grand Division by diverting the enemy from the front, and moved forward some two miles for that purpose when Meade set out for his attack along the river, over the plain towards the Massaponax. Its progress was slow, owing to obstructions similar to those encountered by Meade. His skirmishers exchanged fire with the enemy during most of the day, and he was also exposed to the rebel guns, which some of his batteries engaged. But he did not collide with the enemy in force and suffered but little loss. Smith's corps remained passive all day. Its pickets kept up a desultory exchange of shots. It was within the range of the rebel guns, but suffered barely any damage, though some of the corps artillery participated in the cannonading during the forenoon and afternoon. Shortly before dark, Newton's division was ordered to support Stoneman's divisions, but did not become engaged.

Except along the picket lines, the infantry fire ceased on both sides before four o'lock, but the rebels kept up a determined fire upon us from some forty guns, which our batteries answered as vigorously as possible. The cannonade did not cease till nightfall, which found the Left Grand Division substantially occupying the same position from which Reynolds's corps had sallied forth in the morning.

It clearly appears from the foregoing narrative that Franklin's failure on the left was the result of the same causes that brought about our discomfiture on the right. Here, as there, the offensive strength was spent in successive fruitless assaults, with limited forces, upon strong rebel positions. Happily, only three of Franklin's divisions were subjected to this waste of blood, while seven divisions were used up under Sumner and Hooker. But the rebel defences above Fredericksburg were much more formidable and less approachable than those confronting the left, and hence made the attempt to take them by front assaults, a priori, a grievous error. With Franklin the case was different. For, while it cannot be absolutely maintained that an attack in main force, such as he had himself recommended to General Burnside, would have been successful, a favorable outcome was possible, whereas the attacks in detail by divisions were foredoomed to repulse. These were the hard facts: only three of the eight divisions at the disposal of Franklin took part in the action; the movement of Doubleday proved useless, the enemy not being in strength in that direction; and not a shot was fired by Smith's infantry, except on the skirmish line.

Franklin's course brought on another of those numerous painful and humiliating controversies that mark the ill-starred career of the Army of the Potomac. No blame can attach to this commander for taking the indefinite orders he received from Burnside in the morning to mean a reconnoissance in force only. But two other orders from the Commander-in-chief were orally delivered to him at about 2 P.M., by Captain Goddard, aide-de-camp, in these words: “Tell General Franklin, with my compliments, that I wish him to make a vigorous attack with his whole force. Our right is hard pressed.” This order appears to have been based on the report of another aide-de-camp who had been sent by Burnside to Franklin for information about the doings of the latter's command, and who had reported that General Smith's corps was not engaged. Franklin admitted in the subsequent investigation before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War that he received this order, but that he could not execute it, owing to the unfavorable turn the action had already taken on his front. But, except on the ground that he mistook the bearing of his first orders, it seems impossible to justify and excuse the inaction of the Sixth Corps. Its commander, General Smith, told me himself, at a later stage of the war, that he had been expecting every minute orders to move to the attack, and was puzzled and disappointed that he had to stand still all day. Of course, it cannot be positively claimed that the offensive employment of Smith's corps would have ensured victory on the left, but it is of official record that both Meade and Gibbon ascribe their repulse to the want of support, and, moreover, there can be no doubt that our failure, after the success of Meade's first onset, must be ascribed to our giving the enemy the chance to concentrate all his forces on the left against a little more than one-third of ours.

After learning that we had been discomfited on the left as well as on the right, I felt fully persuaded that our defeat was irretrievable, and that nothing remained to the Commander-in-chief but to solve the seemingly desperate problem of getting the army again over the river without further harm. I was sure, moreover, that if a resumption of the offensive should be recklessly attempted, it would be vehemently opposed by Generals Sumner and Hooker, and by their corps and division commanders. Nor was my conviction shaken by the sneering and contemptuous rebuffs my corresponding expressions met with from certain members of Burnside's staff. They talked as though the day's fighting had been only a prelude to another and greater action. Their swagger was so confident that, stirred up as I was by the grave peril of the army, I came near yielding to an impulse to approach Burnside and tell him the dire truth, which I feared he did not know. But I gave up that design when I heard, at about eight o'clock, that he had made up his mind to see Generals Sumner and Hooker and their corps commanders in person in Fredericksburg, and learn from them the condition of their commands.

I did not think for a moment that the result of Burnside's visit to the other side of the river would be anything else than an immediate withdrawal of the Right and Centre Grand Divisions to the north bank. But I was mistaken in this. For, when Burnside returned to his headquarters, he had made up his mind to repeat the folly of the day before, and to try another direct attack, and he actually telegraphed to General Halleck at 4:30 in the morning: “I have just returned from the field. Our troops are all over the river. We hold the first ridge outside the town and three miles below. We hope to carry the crest to-day. Our loss is heavy — say 5000.” The Commander-in-chief had actually formed the desperate resolve of leading, himself, a storming column of his own former Ninth Corps. General Sumner, however, succeeded in dissuading him from the rash venture by telling him that not one general officer approved of it.

In the meantime, confident of the correctness of my judgment that there would be no more fighting, and in pursuance of my regular instructions after every important action to carry, whenever feasible, the account of it in person to New York or Washington, I had made up my mind to set out for the national capital after getting a few hours' sleep. I was confirmed in this intention on being informed that Burnside had interdicted all telegraphic communications to the North regarding the battle, which opened the possibility of achieving a great “beat” for the Tribune by exclusive first news.

Memoirs of Henry Villard, volume 1.djvu

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