MEMOIRS OF HENRY VILLARD
IN CIVIL-WAR TIME: FREDERICKSBURG
In Washington Once More.—1862
I WAS very kindly received by my employers of the Tribune, and, according to their liberal practice, was given a week's leave of absence, which I spent in New York. On reporting again for duty, I offered to write a full review of the operations of the Army of the Ohio under Buell, and the managing editor authorized me to prepare it. Hearing from friends on McCook's staff that the official reports of the Perryville campaign had been forwarded to Washington, I asked permission to go there in order to get a sight of them, if possible. My application led to the discussion of my future duties. George W. Smalley had been the chief correspondent of the Tribune with the Army of the Potomac until after the battle of Antietam, of which he wrote a remarkable description — the best piece of work of the kind produced during the Civil War, in my opinion. (He subsequently served as the London correspondent of the Tribune for nearly thirty years, and since the summer of 1896 has represented the London Times in the United States.) A regular editorial writer on war subjects being needed, it had been decided to keep him, as such, in New York. It was determined that I should fill the vacancy, and, with that understanding, I started for the national capital early in November. My departure was hastened by the momentous announcement of the second removal of General George B. McClellan from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and the appoint ment of General Ambrose E. Burnside in his place, by direct order of the President of the United States.
The disastrous end of the humiliating Peninsular campaign under McClellan in the early part of the summer had produced such deep and angry dissatisfaction in the loyal States, that President Lincoln felt compelled to change his forbearing course towards the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and to entrust another with the conduct of the operations in Virginia. His choice fell upon General John Pope, who, in the last days of June, was placed in command of the Army of Virginia, then consisting of only three army corps, but which was to be strengthened by transfers from McClellan's forces. The hopes entertained of General Pope were grievously disappointed by his utter defeat by General Lee in the second battle of Bull Run. The vanquished General pleaded in extenuation of his total failure the insufficiency of his army, owing to the slowness of McClellan in reinforcing him and to the deliberate and malevolent disregard of his orders during the battle by General Fitz-John Porter. The story that McClellan and the commanders under him, among whom Porter was his strongest partisan, were determined not to allow Pope to achieve a victory, was spread by the press and found general credence. Great, therefore, was the astonishment and indignation of the loyal public when the President again placed McClellan at the head of the remnants of the armies of the Potomac and of Virginia. This feeling was greatly intensified when it became known that his restoration had been opposed and, indeed, formally protested against by a majority of the Cabinet. The battle of Antietam reconciled the North to the President's action, but the passiveness into which McClellan relapsed after that success rekindled the general impatience and distrust of him. Again the President exercised altogether too much forbearance under the greatest provocation. He resisted all pressure for McClellan's removal until the latter failed to meet the final test of his ability as a strategist which the Commander-in-chief had resolved to apply to him, by allowing Lee to appear once more with his whole force to the east of the Blue Mountains.
The removal formed the all-absorbing topic in Washington. I soon satisfied myself that the bulk of the army under McClellan and a majority of the general officers disapproved and were, contrary to all discipline, loud in their denunciations of it. In the Capitol, as well as throughout the loyal States, there were signs of a tendency to make a national political issue of it. The President's proclamation of the abolition of slavery of September 22 had met with strong opposition in the border States and among the Democrats of the free States, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana. It was known that McClellan, and the generals nearest to him, were also opposed to this portentous act. It was proclaimed by the Democratic press that his relief from active command was due to his hostility to it, and a concession to the “Abolitionists,” who then, as I could personally confirm, still seemed to many Union generals no better than the rebels. General McClellan did nothing to disclaim this pseudo-political martyrdom, which was certainly a convenient cloak for the real cause of his dismissal — his military shortcomings. I even heard talk in the hotel lobbies and bar-rooms about the intention of the deposed commander to lead the army to Washington and take possession of the Government; but that impious wish of not a few never became a real purpose. McClellan quietly obeyed the Presidential order to repair to, and report from, Trenton, New Jersey.
Since my encounter with General Burnside in the memorable night of the retreat from Centreville after the first battle of Bull Run, he had achieved creditable successes in the North Carolina expedition, and risen from a brigade to a corps command, and was apparently held in high esteem by the Government, the press, and the public. But I had not got over the feeling of prejudice caused by his behavior on that occasion, and hence the news that he had been selected as the successor of McClellan did not inspire me with confidence in a change for the better from the continuous defeats of the national forces in the Eastern theatre of war. Nor was my apprehension modified by the chorus of rejoicing among loyalists in Washington and the North over the definitive retirement of McClellan and the substitution of Burnside in his place; for it was not based wholly upon the incident referred to, but on my personal knowledge of his limited mental capacities, acquired during my intercourse with him in the spring and summer of 1861. My fears were heightened when I learned, soon after his elevation was made known, that he had at first declined the promotion, on the ground that he was not qualified for the highest command and that McClellan was the only proper man to lead the Eastern army. This admission of incapacity and want of confidence in himself made his appointment in spite of it an inexcusable mistake. Thus to force the gravest responsibilities upon a reluctant man was almost to invite the further disaster that came. I know of but one other similar instance — the ordering of Field Marshal Benedek to the chief command of the Austrian army in the war of 1866.
Washington had changed greatly since I last saw it in August, 1861. Owing to the increase of the regular Government officials by many thousands, because of the vast growth of the public business in connection with the war, the population had nearly doubled. At the time of my departure, dozens of stores on the business thoroughfares and hundreds of residences were to rent for a mere song. Now, not a building of either class was unoccupied, and high rents were asked and readily obtained. New hotels had been opened, and were, like the old ones, well filled. What with the constant presence of tens of thousands of troops in the barracks and camps in and about the capital, and the thousands of wounded in the hospitals, and the multitude of visitors from the North to relatives and friends in the army, the principal streets always presented a very lively appearance. There was also a good deal of building going on — the best evidence of faith in the ultimate triumph of the Government.
I devoted myself first to the elaboration of the review of the campaigns of the Army of the Ohio above mentioned. It was not easy to obtain access to the official reports relating to them in the War Department, but I managed to secure copies of the more important ones. The review was completed in time for its publication in the Tribune of November 12. It filled more than an entire page of the paper.
The Washington office of the Tribune was then in a small, one-story brick building on F Street between 13th and 14th, directly opposite Willard's Hotel. Samuel Wilkeson, who had accompanied Secretary Cameron to Louisville, was principal correspondent in charge. As a co-laborer, he had Adams S. Hill, a graduate of Harvard College, twenty-nine years old, a sharp-witted and indefatigable collector of news, who had previously been connected with the editorial department of the paper. I was entirely independent of Wilkeson, and had only to make the office the medium for transmitting, with a view to greater safety and despatch, my war news to New York while I was in the field. I naturally made much use of it, however, during my stay. It was the resort of politicians, officials, and army officers, who frequented it, especially in the evening, to bring news or to hear and discuss it. This made it a very interesting place.
I made special efforts to renew former acquaintances in higher circles in order to learn the inside workings of the Government and its intentions regarding the army. In common with the public, I was aware that the President was not in harmony with the strongest members of his Cabinet. Edwin M. Stanton had succeeded Simon Cameron as Secretary of War. This change, while of immeasurable benefit to the country, proved a decided disadvantage to my profession; for whereas Cameron was always accessible and communicative — no doubt, too much so for the public good — his successor had the doors of the War Department closed to newspaper men. Seward, Blair, and Chase still practised their affable ways towards them. I saw and had a long talk with each of the first two. Secretary Chase I saw frequently, as of old. He spoke very freely of the past and present, and in confidence criticised without stint the mistakes that had been made in the civil administration and the conduct of the war. It was very evident that he was too confident of his own superiority, mental and otherwise, to get along smoothly with the head of the Government, and that sooner or later there would be an open breach. The emancipation proclamation had temporarily improved the relations between him and the President, as the treatment of the slavery question had been one of the principal subjects of disagreement, but their characters were too radically different to get along without further friction.
I also had a long conversation with Mr. Lincoln. It took place after the publication of my review of Buell's campaigns, a reference to which by the President made it the exclusive subject discussed. He asked my opinion of the principal commanders under Buell, which I expressed with entire frankness. He surprised me by his familiarity with details of movements and battles which I did not suppose had come to his knowledge. As he kept me talking for over half an hour, I flattered myself that what I had to say interested him. This impression was confirmed by his intimation that he should be glad to see me again, after I had told him, in response to his question as to my future movements, that I should be with the Army of the Potomac.
My inquiries soon satisfied me that the army would not be allowed to go into winter quarters, but that the President, the Secretary of War, and Halleck, as General-in-chief, would insist, notwithstanding the near approach of winter, upon an immediate resumption of active operations, and accordingly I made my preparations to take the field at the earliest necessary moment. I anticipated a good deal of embarrassment at first, from the fact that my acquaintance with superior officers in the Army of the Potomac was very limited, and that the Tribune had severely attacked McClellan and some of his corps commanders in connection with both the Peninsular and Pope's campaigns. I hoped, however, to overcome this hindrance to a successful discharge of my duties. Under the regime of Stanton and Halleck, it was anything but easy for correspondents to obtain permits to go to, and remain at, the front, as the Secretary fully shared the opinion of the General-in-chief that newspaper men were a pest. It had been arranged that I was to have three assistants, who were to be directly under my orders, and whose reports were to be revised by me before being forwarded to the New York office. We were all allowed horses, camp equipments, and a servant.
To overcome McClellan's slowness, the President issued, on October 6, a peremptory order requiring him to cross the Potomac with his army and “give battle to the enemy or drive him South.” As it produced no effect, the President, a week later, addressed a long letter to him explaining the plan of operations the General was expected to follow and the reasons therefor. It began: “You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess and act upon that claim?” The letter was altogether a very remarkable production, and proved that the author had acquired a clear and sound judgment upon strategic questions. The prescribed plan was well conceived and perfectly feasible. The very fact, however, that the President found it necessary to address such an implied censure to McClellan and to tell him what to do, was conclusive proof of the grievous error he committed in re-appointing him.
According to the Presidential order for the new campaign, the army was to follow Lee by a flank march on the interior line to Richmond, keeping close to the base of the Blue Ridge, so as to prevent debouchments from its passes upon the Federal right and rear, and to force the enemy into battle whenever and wherever practicable. McClellan's tardiness in carrying it out had enabled Lee to obstruct its execution by passing through the Ridge and moving on the same line as the Union army, but ahead of it, towards Richmond. This led, as mentioned, to the final dismissal of the Federal commander.
After assuming command, General Burnside proposed, instead of following Lee directly, to move down the Rappahannock on the north side to Falmouth, opposite the town of Fredericksburg, and to establish a new base of supplies on the estuary of the Potomac, fifteen miles to the north of it, known as Acquia Creek. Neither the President nor General Halleck approved of this change of programme, and the latter paid a visit to General Burnside at Warrenton in order to persuade him to adhere to the President's plan. But he did not succeed in this, and the result was an understanding that he should submit to the President a modification of it, in pursuance of which the army was to cross the Rappahannock by the upper fords and to move down the south side and seize the heights of Fredericksburg; this movement to be accompanied by repairing and reopening the railroad opposite Washington as a line of communication between Alexandria and Fredericksburg. Until this could be accomplished, the Acquia Creek route was to be used as a line of supplies. On November 14, Halleck telegraphed the “assent” of the President, who would not permit the use of the word “approval.” Thus the brief and fatal Fredericksburg campaign was inaugurated.
General Burnside had made himself responsible for the outcome by insisting upon the deviation from the Presidential plan. But, unfortunately, he assumed still graver responsibility. Instead of crossing the river by the upper fords, he marched down the north side to Falmouth. General Halleck makes the point-blank charge, in a report to the President, that the movement on the north side was never approved or authorized. It was the cause of Burnside's failure to occupy the Fredericksburg heights ahead of the enemy, and of the subsequent terrible defeat of his army. Our forces moved from Warrenton on November 15 and reached Falmouth on the 20th. Lee, on discovering the direction of our march, started Longstreet's corps for Fredericksburg, but it did not arrive there till the 21st; hence there was ample time to anticipate the rebels in taking possession of the commanding heights. General Sumner, commanding the corps, asked permission to cross a few miles above the town, where the river was fordable, but did not obtain it. Thus the position, in the vain attempt to secure which so much loyal blood was afterwards shed, was left to the enemy.
This neglect became the subject of one of the most virulent controversies engendered by the shortcomings of the Federal commanders during the war. The Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War inquired into it, and the testimony taken before it fills several hundred pages. It was attempted to be shown, in defence of General Burnside, that his plan of marching to Falmouth had been approved by his superiors in Washington, and that he was led to expect, on his arrival there, to find supplies, pontoons for bridges, and gunboats to protect them. General Halleck not only absolutely denied that he authorized the move to Falmouth, but also insisted that Burnside could not expect supplies at points held by the rebels until he reached these, and that he was repeatedly informed that gunboats could not at that time ascend the river to Fredericksburg. But the truth was confessed by General Burnside himself in this passage in his brief and only report of the coming battle to General Halleck: “The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton on this line rather against the opinion of the President, the Secretary of War, and yourself, and that you left the whole movement in my hands without giving me orders, makes me the only one responsible.”
With Burnside before Fredericksburg.—1862
HAVING, after a good deal of effort, received permission to proceed to the front, I secured an order for transportation on one of the Government boats from Quartermaster-General Meigs. I managed to get myself and belongings, including my horse, on one of the many craft loading with army supplies, on the morning of November 29. We steamed off in the afternoon, but, Acquia Creek being sixty-five miles from Washington, and the boat making only six and seven miles an hour, we did not reach our destination before midnight. The captain let me share his supper, but there were sleeping accommodations only for the officers and crew, so that I was obliged to seek rest on the floor of the small mess-room. I was up at daybreak. In the estuary were several score of vessels at anchor — gunboats, steamboats of all kinds, schooners, scows, barges, and canal-boats — all awaiting their turn to discharge at the one available wharf. It looked as if I might have to wait for days before I could get my horse ashore. The captain was rowed to the landing early, and I accompanied him to ascertain the prospect before me. Fortunately, we had some railroad material aboard that was urgently needed in repairing the section between Acquia and Falmouth of the road from Alexandria to Fredericksburg, which had been utterly destroyed at an earlier stage of the war, and we were made fast to the wharf by noon and my luggage and animal safely transferred to it shortly afterward.
The railroad was near the wharf, and a locomotive and an old passenger coach and a dozen freight cars stood upon the track, but I was told that the section to the front would not be opened for traffic for several days. Accordingly, I saddled my horse, and, with my valise in front and my roll of bedding strapped behind me, started for Falmouth. There had been a severe frost followed by a thaw, and the thousands of army wagons that had passed over the road for several days had reduced it to a very bad condition, so that I could only walk my horse. It took me over four hours to reach the first camps, about a mile from the Rappahannock. The ravages of war were visible all the way. The country seemed to have been burned over. The scrub timber was coal-black, and, in the frequent clearings where farming had been carried on, there was nothing to be seen but half-destroyed fences and the ruins of dwellings and outhouses without any inhabitants.
I had letters of introduction to General John G. Parke, the chief-of-staff, from a regular-army friend in Washington, and to General Hooker from Mr. Smalley, who had been with the General in the Antietam campaign. I also knew General E. V. Sumner, and General Daniel Butterfield, who had set out from New York as colonel of the 12th New York Militia, a three months' regiment. As night was approaching, and it was evident that I should not be likely to find any of these officers except with difficulty in the dark, it occurred to me to ask a division sutler, whose tent showed a large display of goods, whether he could not accommodate me for the night. I told him who I was, and he readily consented to do the best he could for me and my beast. I had a really luxurious supper and a good night's sleep on a camp-bed, for which my generous host, whose name I have forgotten, would not accept any compensation.
The next day was brisk and clear — just right for my first sight of the Army of the Potomac. A short ride brought me to an elevated point commanding a wide view of the surroundings. There was a large plateau, forming several plantations with commodious brick mansions — one of which had been burned — standing amidst groups of the usual outbuildings and stately groves of shade trees. Patches of timber broke the cultivated surface. In every direction vast encampments were visible. The plateau was from 100 to 125 feet above the Rappahannock, whose flow was for several miles almost due east. It seemed like a regular plain, but was really divided by two deep wooded ravines, down which “runs,” as small water-courses were called in the local vernacular, made for the river. Through one of these the railroad approached it. The small village of Falmouth appeared some distance above, on the left bank of the Rappahannock. Almost directly before and beneath me, on the right bank, the old town of Fredericksburg was situated. It presented itself as a compact mass of brick buildings extending half a mile along, and a quarter of a mile from, the river. The site of the city rose but slightly near the river, but a mile south of it there were considerable heights, extending like the arc of a circle, with the river as the chord, and forming an amphitheatre, as it were, about a mile wide and two miles long, traversed by several highways, the Richmond rail road, and three streamlets, of which the Massaponax was the farthest to the east, and the most considerable. It was known that the rebels occupied the town, but no signs of them were then discernible. The railroad bridge at the east end was in ruins.
After assuming command, General Burnside reorganized the army into three grand divisions of two army corps each — the right, centre, and left — under the respective commands of Major-Generals Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin. The right Grand Division consisted of the Second and Ninth Army Corps, commanded by Major-General D. N. Couch and Brigadier-General O. B. Willcox; the centre Grand Division, of the Third and Fifth Army Corps, under Brigadier-Generals George Stoneman and Daniel Butterfield; and the left Grand Division, of the First and Sixth Army Corps, under Major-General John F. Reynolds and Brigadier-General William F. Smith. The army and the grand-division and army-corps headquarters were all in prominent positions and were readily recognized by flags and other signs, so that it was easy for me to make my way to them. I first proceeded to General Burnside's headquarters, which consisted of a group of tents next to a large dwelling called, I believe, the Lacy house, the home of a planter of that name. The Commanding-general had shunned it, and was setting the good example of camping. General Parke received me politely and readily countersigned my pass, but put me under strict injunction not to write anything about the position, strength, and condition of the army. I learned that, two days before, a meeting of the President and General Burnside had taken place at Acquia Creek, in the afternoon, on the boat in which the President had come from Washington, and lasted several hours, Mr. Lincoln returning immediately afterwards to Washington. I ascertained the purport of his flying visit after my return to Washington, and may as well mention here that it was to dissuade Burnside from a direct attack on the enemy in his obviously very strong position on the heights of Fredericksburg. But the President found the General stolidly bent on making the attempt to defeat Lee where he was. Nicolay and Hay relate that, on his way back to Washington, Lincoln prepared a memorandum for a flanking movement, which he allowed Halleck and Burnside, however, to overrule.
I next sought General Hooker. I had never met him and was, of course, eager to see and take my own measure of “Fighting Joe,” which sobriquet the press had already affixed to him. His exterior was certainly most attractive and commanding. He was fully six feet high, finely proportioned, with a soldierly, erect carriage, handsome and noble features, a slight fringe of side-whiskers, a rosy complexion, abundant blond hair, a fine and expressive mouth, and — most striking of all — great, speaking gray-blue eyes; he looked, indeed, like the ideal soldier and captain, fit for a model of a war-god. There was only one other man in the army, as far, as my own observations went, that came near him in these external qualities — General Winfield S. Hancock. My letter of introduction from Mr. Smalley commended me very strongly to the General's confidence, yet he received me rather stiffly and coldly. This I found, however, to be his natural manner, for, after a short general conversation — his voice being most agreeable — he burst forth into unsparing criticism of the general conduct of the war in the East, of the Government, of Halleck, McClellan, Pope, and, last but not least, of his present immediate superior. He had even then an unenviable notoriety for a rash tongue, to which he added lamentably in his subsequent career. His language was so severe and, at the same time, so infused with self-assertion as to give rise immediately to a fear on my part that he might be inclined to make use of me for his own glorification and for the detraction of others. This made it prudent for me not to place myself under more personal obligations to him than I could possibly help. Hence, I abstained from requesting, as I had first intended, permission to stop at his headquarters. After an hour's talk I passed on, with the General's assurance that he should always be glad to see me.
General Sumner, on whom I next called, remembered me very well and gave me a hearty welcome. A colonel of cavalry at the outbreak of the war, he, like all regular-army officers, had had no practical experience up to that time in serving with larger bodies of troops than a regiment. He had been an excellent regimental commander, very strict in the enforcement of discipline and thorough drilling, and withal a model cavalry soldier. But he was almost too old for the proper discharge of the duties of higher command, and also lacked the natural parts for it. Yet the force of circumstances, or, rather, his rank in the regular army and the lack of competent commanders, together with his fervid loyalty and enthusiastic devotion to the flag, had carried him rapidly in a year and a half from the command of a regiment to that of a brigade, a division, an army corps, and an army wing numbering sixty thousand men. He was the very picture of a veteran soldier — tall, slender, erect, with a fine head thickly covered with white hair, and a noble face fringed with a white beard. He was polished in speech and manner, and seemed almost too full of kindliness for his stern profession. Encouraged by his hearty way, I ventured to ask whether I could be provided for at his headquarters, whereupon he sent at once for his son, Captain S. S. Sumner, who served as his aide-de-camp, and instructed him to take care of me, which was quickly done. I was to take my meals with the medical director, Surgeon Dougherty, and his assistants, and to sleep with the latter in a large hospital tent. I had every reason to be grateful for the provision made for me, as I was treated with unvarying courtesy by my mess and tent-mates during the two weeks and a half I was to spend with them. To be at the headquarters of a grand division proved a very great advantage to me.
Having thus come well to anchor, I sought to make further acquaintances among the officers. Everybody understood that an early offensive movement was contemplated, and it was the general belief that it would take place within a few days. But the end of the month came, and the first days of December passed, without the expected stirring events, so that I had more time for familiarizing myself with the army than I anticipated. General Butterfield I saw early and often, and he helped me in every possible way. Starting in a practical life as a business man in New York, he always had a strong penchant for military matters, and entered the militia early, and, by his enthusiasm and aptitude, worked his way up to the command of a regiment when he was but thirty. His regiment was among the first to enlist for three months, at the expiration of which term he was appointed a lieutenant-colonel in the regular army and a brigadier-general of volunteers. He had gone through the Peninsular campaign with credit, and risen to the command of a division. The formation of the grand divisions secured his promotion to the command of the Fifth Corps. He was a very handsome man, of middle stature, with regular, delicate features, jet-black hair and mustache, and very soldierly bearing. He seemed to have a better knowledge of men and matters in the army than any other officer I became acquainted with, and he allowed me to draw liberally on his store.
I met General Burnside twice. He showed to me, as to everybody else, a prepossessing bonhomie that made one feel at home with him at once. Indeed, he wore his genial, frank, honest, sincere nature on his sleeve. But there was nothing in his exterior or in his conversation that indicated intellectual eminence or executive ability of a high order. He inspired confidence in his honesty of purpose and ardent loyalty, but it was not possible that any experienced judge of men should be impressed with him as a great man. He talked without reserve of his intention to take the offensive at the earliest possible moment, but, of course, gave no intimation of his plan of operations. As he complained of the delay in the arrival of the pontoon trains for bridging the river, I was satisfied that the purposed blow at Lee would not be struck until that difficulty was removed, and that the risky attempt of a front attack would be made.
Besides the generals named, I had the opportunity to meet General Couch, commanding the Second Corps, and Generals W. S. Hancock, O. O. Howard, and William H. French, division commanders under him; General Willcox, commanding the Ninth Corps, and General S. D. Sturgis, commanding his Second Division; Generals Stoneman and A. A. Humphreys, division commanders under Hooker; General Reynolds, commanding the First Army Corps under Franklin, and the division commanders John Gibbon, George G. Meade, and John Newton; and General Hunt, chief of artillery. Couch, Hancock, Reynolds, Humphreys, Newton, and Hunt impressed me most as thorough soldiers. Hancock's imposing physique, already spoken of, was sure to attract attention. I also found four more old acquaintances among the general officers — Daniel E. Sickles, division commander under Hooker, well known as a Democratic politician and member of Congress from New York (who afterwards lost a leg at Gettysburg and is still living at this writing); John Cochrane, commanding a brigade, also a New York Congressman of more than local fame; Brigadier-General Sol. Meredith, a popular Indiana politician, remarkable for his great size; and the redoubtable Irish leader and poet, Thomas Francis Meagher, who, mirabile dictu, had likewise reached the rank of brigadier-general. At the end of a fortnight, indeed, I already felt very much at home in the Army of the Potomac.
When the army first appeared opposite Fredericksburg on November 20, the rebels occupying the town kept up a fire from small arms upon any Union parties that ventured to go to the river for water. General Sumner thereupon addressed a communication to the mayor, demanding the surrender of the place, under threat of bombardment, on the expiration of sixteen hours allowed for the removal of the population. A compromise was reached under which, on the one side no more acts of hostility were to be committed from the town, and on the other the Federal forces were not to occupy it until further notice. It was well known, however, that the Confederates occupied the buildings along the river for a determined resistance to any attempt to cross, but the established truce was strictly maintained. According to my recollection, not a shot was fired from small arms or artillery within my hearing up to the formal opening of hostilities. This was, of course, mainly due to the fact that the contending forces were separated by the river.
The delay in the arrival of the pontoons was caused by a succession of mishaps and mistakes. During the Antietam campaign, the pontoon trains attached to the army had been ordered to Harper's Ferry and remained there ever since, as no occasion had arisen meanwhile to call for their use elsewhere. They were supposed by Generals Burnside and Halleck to be at Washington, and, of course, the longer time required for their transportation from the other point was not at first taken into account. An order to send them forward was, for some never-explained reason, six days in reaching its destination. When they reached Washington, they were ordered to be hauled overland to the Rappahannock. This was a grave error of judgment, as it took several days to secure the necessary teams, and the roads were found to be so bad that the pontoon wagons could not progress more than five miles a day. The attempt had finally to be abandoned altogether and the water route taken. A whole fortnight was thus lost in getting the bridge material to the front. It was this delay that prevented the earlier occupation of Fredericksburg and its surroundings by our forces, and may have been the principal cause of our eventual defeat. As it was, the full means for bridging the river simultaneously at several points were not at hand until after the first week in December.
The great natural obstacle of the river made it impracticable to discover the position and strength of the enemy by regular reconnoissances. Nor did we seem to obtain much information regarding him from spies. It was chiefly through the Richmond papers, which were as indiscreet in publishing army news as their Northern contemporaries, and which reached headquarters from various directions, that we received intelligence from the other side. But even through them we had only circumstantial evidence that Lee's whole army was distributed over the opposite heights. While an air line to them from the bluffs on the left bank was not much over a mile in length, even with the strongest field-glasses little could be discovered of the rebels beyond the field-works they had immediately undertaken and steadily continued. Theyprobably saw not much more of us than we of them.
JULIUS BIEN & CO. N.Y.}}
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 Tribuneby exclusive first news.
Carrying the News to Washington.—1862
I SOUGHT my quarters shortly before eleven, and arranged to be called so as to start for Acquia Creek at 3 A.M. I set out on horseback. Never before or since have I had such a terrible ride. It was pitch dark — indeed, I could not make out anything beyond my horse's head. There was no distinct road, but the army trains, in trying to avoid mud and move on solid ground, had made tracks of a seemingly infinite width, but all reduced to a miry state. Hence I travelled most of the way through a sea of mire from one to two feet deep. From time to time I struck stretches of corduroy, but, as the logs were loose, they made riding only more difficult and dangerous. Four times my horse stumbled and fell, throwing me once, so that I landed with a splash in a pool from which I emerged covered with liquid earth. I could not tell in what direction I floundered on, and, not meeting any one, had to trust to my animal's instinct. I was glad enough, therefore, when day dawned and broken-down wagons and debris of all sorts assured me that I had not gone astray. I had calculated on making the distance in from three to four hours, but I did not reach Acquia Creek before nine o'clock.
I proceeded directly to the tent of the quartermaster in charge of the depot of supplies and transportation. He was the same official whom I had met on my way down. He had heard the boom of the artillery the day before and knew that a general action had taken place, but had heard nothing of the result. Hence, he was glad and grateful to get the scanty scraps of news I was inclined to give in exchange for a plentiful breakfast which his cook prepared for me. Naturally I cherished the hope that my night ride would give me the start of my rivals, the correspondents of other Northern papers, and was very much elated on learning that none of them had arrived before me. But imagine my dismay when the quartermaster, in reply to my question as to when the first boat would start for Washington, informed me that he had received orders before daylight from General Burnside not to allow any officer or soldier, or any one else attached to the army, or any civilian, and especially no press correspondents, to go North without a special permit from his headquarters.
This was a knockdown blow, for it looked not only as if I should be disappointed in my hope of getting ahead of my competitors, but as if my coming to Acquia Creek would prove a great blunder, leaving me separated from the army and unable to get back to it for at least a day, owing to my own extreme fatigue and the exhaustion of my animal. To my further disgust, C. C. Coffin, the correspondent of the Boston Journal writing under the signature of “Carleton,” whom I knew as one of the most intelligent, energetic, and indefatigable reporters in the field, turned up in the quartermaster's tent as I was finishing my break fast. To be sure, the interdict applied to him as well as to me, and he was always very genial company; but one never likes to discover that other people are as smart as one's self.
My ambition as a correspondent was too strong, how ever, to make me submit meekly to the situation. On the contrary, with body and spirit refreshed by a solid breakfast, nothing was further from my thoughts, and I resolved to try my best to defy Burnside and circumvent Coffin. But the resolution was easier than its execution, and I wandered up and down the long dock — the only dry spot in sight — for an hour or so, vainly taxing my brain for an escape from the trap I was caught in. It naturally occurred to me first to arrange to slip off secretly on one of the four vessels discharging on the dock, but on inquiry it appeared that only one of them would go directly to Washington after unloading, and that at least twenty-four hours would elapse before the craft started on its return trip. Suddenly, however, I conceived a possible solution of the quandary. I saw two negroes row away from the dock in a small boat and stop a hundred yards or so from it to fish. The idea flashed upon me that I might get them to row me out into the river, about half a mile away, in order to intercept one of the numerous steam-vessels passing up and down between the capital and Hampton Roads. But in executing this plan it was necessary to prevent discovery and imitation by Coffin. Walking back to the quartermaster's, I found to my joy that the Boston Journal's correspondent had given way to his fatigue and was fast asleep on a camp-bed. I lost no time in retracing my steps and hailing the negroes. They promptly responded and rowed up to the dock. Not deeming it safe to disclose my real purpose, in case I should be seen and stopped by some one in authority, I offered them a dollar each to let me fish with one of their rods. They accepted with a pleased grin, and I let myself down into the boat. Telling them that I wanted to fish further out, I made them row out to the river proper so as to be beyond recognition from the dock. Then I let them know that I wanted to be put aboard the first steamer from below, and, pulling out two five-dollar greenbacks, told them that they should have them if they did this for me. The size of the reward was evidently overwhelming, and they agreed promptly to my proposal.
We slowly rowed down the river, and in less than an hour a steam-vessel came in sight that proved to be a freight-propeller under Government charter. Getting as near as practicable, I hailed a person standing on the upper deck, who proved to be the captain. Shouting to him that I wished to be taken aboard, he asked whether I had a transportation order, as he was forbidden to carry passengers without one. As he slowed down, I had got hold of a rope hanging from the side of the propeller, and, fearing that the captain would refuse to take me, I pulled the boat up to an opening in the guard railing on the lower deck, jumped aboard, tossed the greenbacks to the oarsmen, and told them to make off as fast as possible, which they did with a vengeance. The captain was at first disposed to be wrathy at my summary proceeding, but became mollified on being shown my general army pass, and on my assurance that I commanded enough influence to protect him in case my performance should get him into trouble. Being now certain of having the start of all my rivals, I felt very jubilant. The only drawback was that the propeller was very slow, making only about eight or nine miles against the stream, so that I could not expect to reach Washington before 7 or 8 P.M. This gave me ample time, however, to clean up, which my night ride had rendered very necessary, to sleep for a couple of hours, and, most important of all, to get an account of the battle ready for instant transmission by mail or telegraph. I had it finished at seven, but we reached the dock on the Eastern Branch only at a quarter-past eight. Before leaving the boat, I thanked the captain warmly for his kindness, and begged him to accept a fifty-dollar bill in recognition of the great service he had rendered me. He was much surprised, and at first declined the present, but yielded when I urged him to accept it for his wife and children.
I made all speed to the Tribune office, where I was told there would be no use in trying to send my report by telegraph, as the Government censor at the main telegraph office had been ordered by the Secretary of War not to allow any news from Fredericksburg to be transmitted without previous submission to and special approval by him. But there was time to send it by special messenger on the night train, which was done. It may as well be mentioned here that my account met the same fate as that of the first battle of Bull Run. I had stated in it as strongly as possible that the Army of the Potomac had suffered another great, general defeat; that an inexcusable, murderous blunder had been made in attempting to overcome the enemy by direct attack; and that the Union cause was threatened by the greatest disaster yet suffered, in consequence of the perilous situation in which the defeat left the army. The editor was afraid to let the Tribune solely assume the whole responsibility for what would no doubt prove a great shock to the loyal public, lest I might be mistaken in my opinion, and, accordingly, the report was very much modified, but was printed as an extra issue the following morning.
My duty being thus fully discharged, I went to Willard's Hotel for my supper. At the entrance I met Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, known to the local correspondents as the most persistent news-hunter in Washington. He knew I had joined the Army of the Potomac, and at once surmised that I was from the front, and greeted me with the questions: “Have you come from the army? What is the news? Have we won the fight?” I answered: “Senator, you know whatever news I have belongs to my paper, but, for the sake of the cause, I will tell you in strict confidence that Burnside is defeated, and in such a bad plight that I think you can render no greater service to the country than to go at once to the White House and tell the President, if he does not know what has happened on the Rappahannock, to make an immediate demand for the truth. You can state further to him that, as I believe he knows me to be a truthful man, I do not hesitate to say to him, through you, that, in my deliberate judgment, he ought not to wait for information, but instantly order the army back to the north bank.” Afer a few more words, the Senator started for the Presidential mansion. After supper I went back to the Tribune office, but had hardly entered it when the Senator reappeared, and, taking me aside, told me that he had seen the President, who desired me to come with him to the White House at once. Of course I went, although I was still in my campaign clothes and hardly presentable. It was nearly ten o'clock. The Senator informed me on the way that he had not given my message to the President.
We found Mr. Lincoln in the old reception-room on the second floor, opposite the landing. He greeted me with a hearty hand-shake, saying, “I am much obliged to you for coming, for we are very anxious and have heard very little.” He then asked me to give him, as far as my personal knowledge permitted, a general outline of what had happened, which I did as fully as I could in a few minutes. He followed up my account with one question after another for over half an hour. He inquired regarding the defences of the rebels on our right front, their command of the town and river, the physical and moral condition of our troops before and after the fight, the chances of success of another attack from either of our wings, the extent of our losses, and the feeling among the general officers. He was very careful not to ask anything so as to imply criticism of anybody, although I ventured to mingle a good deal of censure with my statements of facts. But his questions and the expression of his face showed that he believed I was aiming to tell the truth, and that he felt growing anxiety. When he ended the interview by repeating his thanks, I made bold to say as earnestly as I could: “Mr. President, it is, of course, not for me to offer advice to you, but I hope my sincere loyalty may be accepted as my excuse for taking the liberty of telling you what is not only my conviction but that of every general officer I saw during and after the fighting, that success is impossible, and that the worst disaster yet suffered by our forces will befall the Army of the Potomac if the attack is renewed, and unless the army is withdrawn at once to the north side. Pardon me, Mr. President, but I cannot help telling you further that you cannot render the country a greater service than by ordering General Burnside to withdraw from the south bank forthwith, if he has not already done so.”
The President took no offence, but, with a melancholy smile, remarked, “I hope it is not so bad as all that,” whereupon we took our leave. The Senator was fully impressed with the danger of the situation and gratified that I had spoken so frankly. I felt thankful myself that I had been thus permitted to make an effort in the highest quarter for the salvation of the army, and I walked away with a sense of having discharged a patriotic duty. I have always been proud of my action, though it produced no effect. Burnside was, indeed, allowed to dispose of the fate of the army without interference from Washington; but, fortunately, the truth that there was safety only in withdrawal came to him in the end, after two days of floundering and vacillation, and the Army of the Potomac returned unmolested to the north bank during the night of the 15th-16th.
With the official history of the memorable Saturday, from both Union and Confederate sources, before me, I contend unhesitatingly that the escape of the Army of the Potomac from the Fredericksburg trap must be ascribed to the ignorance of the rebel Commander-in-chief of the extent of our losses and of the confusion and demoralization of our right. His despatches, during and immediately after the action, to the Richmond Secretary of War prove that he not only did not know the physical and moral disability wrought among our forces, but believed that there had been only a preliminary trial of arms, and that the battle would be renewed at daylight the next morning. Further proof is furnished by this quotation from his report: “The attack on the 13th had been so easily repulsed, and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to an attempt which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. . . . . . But we were necessarily ignorant of the extent to which he had suffered, and only became aware of it when, on the morning of the 16th, it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of night and the prevalence of a violent storm of wind and rain to recross the river.” To assume that, with a knowledge of our condition, Lee would not have launched his columns, under the protecting fire of his artillery, down upon our broken, shattered, cowed, huddled-up right, would be simply to deny, as I have already said, his indisputable mastery of the art of war. It is true that the line of the right on the first crest, from which our attacks were started, was held during the night following the battle and during the next day by the organizations that last came into the fight. But, owing to casualties and depletion through skulking, they numbered barely one-third of their strength before the battle, and hence could have offered but a weak resistance.
The discredit to the Federal arms on account of the battle of Fredericksburg is not diminished by the relative strength of the two armies. The Army of Northern Virginia was composed of the First Army Corps under General James Longstreet and the Second under General Thomas J. Jackson; the former opposed to our right and the latter to our left. The First Corps consisted of five divisions with a total of sixteen brigades, varying from two to five regiments. The Second Corps was made up of four divisions with nineteen brigades of from two to seven regiments. The two corps thus represented an aggregate of nine divisions with thirty-five brigades. There was a cavalry force also, but it played as little part in the battle as our own. There appear to have been fifty-one batteries attached to the rebel army. The Army of the Potomac consisted, as set forth, of six army corps of eighteen divisions and fifty-six brigades, with seventy batteries of from four to six guns each. A comparison of the respective organizations shows that our brigades averaged more regiments than those of the enemy. The entire effective force of Lee, according to rebel authority, was, indeed, under fifty thousand, while Burnside's before the battle was more than double that number. Nor is this all. Lee, in his congratulatory order to his army, says that it took less than twenty thousand of his men to repel our attacks both on the right and on the left. This is perfectly credible, considering that our attacks were made by divisions and brigades only, and is borne out by his official list of casualties showing the organizations actually engaged. But it is true, also, as set forth in my narrative, that five divisions on our left and one on our right did not take part in the action.
We lost 124 officers and 1160 men killed, 654 officers and 8946 men wounded, and 20 officers and 1749 men missing or captured (of which, as the rebels claimed only 900 prisoners, one-half were doubtless killed), making a total loss of 12,653. The proportion of officers among the killed and wounded was extraordinary and not equalled in any other battle of the Civil War. The rebel loss is reported only under the general head of killed and wounded, at 458 and 3743 respectively, or a total of 4201. The prisoners we took brought it up to about 5000, or forty per cent. of our loss. Jackson's corps lost three-fifths of the total, namely, 328 killed and 2354 wounded, and more than half of the prisoners taken by us. Our divisions which attacked him lost, together, 4284. Deducting Jackson's and Franklin's losses from the totals, the horrible fact appears that our loss on the right amounted to more than four times that of the enemy, which brings out in gory relief the useless butchery of our soldiers.
With this I gladly close the sickening story of the appalling disaster for which Ambrose E. Burnside will, to the end of time, stand charged with the responsibility.
END OF VOLUME ONE.
The Riverside Press
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Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.