December 11, 1862 (Thursday)
Under the cover of early morning darkness and some very opportune fog, the Union engineers began their work. Six pontoon bridges were to be built across the icy waters of the Rappahannock River so six infantry corps could cross and attack the Confederates at Fredericksburg.
General Ambrose Burnside, the Union commander whose plan the bridge layers were enacting, spent the previous night readying the 147 guns of his artillery to protect the engineers and the infantry, when they were ready to cross. General Henry Hunt, commanding the Union artillery, had every piece in position by 2am. Below them, at the banks of the river, they could hear the first pontoons being worked into place.
Across the river, through the fog, they could see the fires of Confederate pickets winking out as dawn approached. The enemy quickly caught on to Burnside’s bridges. At 5am, two cannons fired from across the river, signaling to the Southern army that the Federals were about to bring on a battle. By this time, all six spans were well underway.
The pontoon bridges were being constructed in three pairs. The first was on the north end of town, the second was on the south end, and the last was well below the town. Burnside planned on using all six to cross each of this three Grand Divisions.
For the engineers building the most southerly bridges, over which William Franklin’s Left Grand Division would cross, the construction was relatively simple. They came under fire for a bit from some of John Bell Hood’s Texans, but before long, Union artillery drove them off, allowing the two bridges to be complete by 11am.
The quiet so enjoyed by the builders of the lower bridges was wholly due to the fact that the Rebels had become preoccupied with the two crossing in Fredericksburg proper. Around the time of the signal guns, the middle bridges were two-thirds of the way complete. An hour later, the bullets started to fly.
Confederate artillery was more or less useless in confronting the bridge builders, and so it fell to the infantry to take care of the problem. Specifically, it fell to William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, which had occupied the city, to contest as best they could the coming Federal wave.
Barksdale’s men had not wasted their time idly enjoying all the pleasure Fredericksburg had to offer. They had constructed rifle pits and fortified buildings and houses along the riverbank. Through gaps in the fog, the Mississippians spotted the Union engineers and opened a steady fire. These were more than just potshots coming from Southern pickets. This was organized and prepared. General Lee had been ready for Burnside, and this was his welcome.
The Federal builders were pinned down, falling flat against the planks of the bridges or crawling into the pontoons to escape the musketry. As best they could, they scurried back to shore, having little desire to face more of the same. And yet, they did. Four times they hurried to the end of their bridges and four times they came tumbling back. By 10am, after long hours of trying to complete the four bridges into the town, the Union bodies were being to pile up. Nearby infantry was sent in to replace the downed engineers, but they too lasted only a short time before being mauled by Barksdale’s riflemen.
Through the entire morning, the fog clung to the Rappahannock, preventing the artillery of either side from engaging with any accuracy. Both were firing slowly and blindly. But a bit after noon, when the fog began to lift, Union and Confederate artillery blackened the sky with iron.
At 12:30pm, seeing that the bridges to the town were in grave danger of failing, General Burnside ordered every single gun in Hunt’s artillery to open upon Fredericksburg itself. The destruction was without mercy. Stone and brick houses were leveled with only a few of solid shots. Wooden houses were set ablaze by shells. Many before him had threatened to level towns with artillery, but Burnside was actually attempting it.
But he could not level the town. He couldn’t even drive off Barksdale’s men. In fact, the holes ripped into wooden buildings by solid shot made neat little firing holes through which Rebel infantry could poke their muskets. This was not going well at all.
Two hours after the heavy cannonading began, Burnside could see very clearly that he might not even be able to cross the river. General Hunt, his artillery commander, came up with the idea of ferrying infantry across the Rappahannock and landing a bridgehead to hold Barksdale’s riflemen at bay. Burnside loved it!
Meanwhile, across the river, the residents of Fredericksburg were streaming through the streets and scrambling out of town as fast as they could go. Behind them, their homes, their city, was in ruins.
As the remaining townspeople fled in terror, a few Federal regiments loaded themselves onto the pontoons and began rowing across the river. Once across, the men leapt into the icy waters and splashed their way to shore. Somehow taken by surprise, the Rebels fell back, deeper into the smoldering town.
Street by street, block by block, they Federals tried to take the city. But Barksdale’s men put up a vicious resistance, fighting hand to hand and firing from windows down upon the advancing Union troops.
With Barksdale’s men occupied, the bridge builders could return to their work. By 4:30pm, the first of the town bridges was complete and several more regiments joined the bloody fray, where over the path of fifty paces, more than 100 Federals fell wounded or dead.
The Rebels were suffering losses as well, though not nearly as many as the attackers. But by 7pm, it was clear that Barksdale could not hold back the tide. He was never supposed to stop it; his orders were to slow it, and slow it he did. He was ordered to withdraw his men a couple of hours after darkness fell. He refused to even acknowledge the first order. With the second, however, he relented.
By this time, all but one of the bridges had been built and a Federal brigade had already crossed the lower bridges. Barksdale’s steadfast fight had bought General Lee enough time to call together his army for a stout defense. He now knew exactly where Burnside was going to attack, and by the next morning, he would be ready. What’s more, Lee could hardly believe that his adversary had chosen the exact spot where the Confederates were strongest.1
- Sources: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. [↩]