November 21, 1862 (Friday)
Seven months had passed since Marsena Patrick rode through the streets of Fredericksburg ahead of his brigade. Finding it unoccupied by Confederates, he placed it under the rule of the United States military. Patrick was a strict soldier from the old army. He was a God-fearing, honest man, ready to do his duty. Few complaints came from occupied Fredericksburg in the Spring of 1862. While he wasn’t exactly seen as a hero, he was certainly no Benjamin Butler.
As the year went by, Patrick was promoted to Provost Marshal General, and it was in this post he would be most remembered (when remembered at all). It may have been his past amicable history with the town that caused Generals Ambrose Burnside and Edwin Sumner to send Patrick to meet the mayor.
By the previous evening, Burnside knew that he needed to stall for time. He had beaten the Confederates under Robert E. Lee to Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, but lacked any means of crossing the Rappahannock River to seize the town. Before the sun set, at least two of General Longstreet’s Confederate divisions were in the town, with three more close at hand. Burnside probably didn’t know that so many Rebel troops were in town, but he did understand that they were coming and he had to act quickly.
And so he, Sumner and Patrick met in the morning of this date to hammer out an ultimatum. When finished it began: “Under cover of the houses of your city, shots have been fired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and, by direction of General Burnside, I accordingly demand the surrender of the city into my hands, as the representative of the Government of the United States, at or before 5 o’clock this afternoon.”
As for the ultimatum, they were willing to give the mayor, should he decline to surrender, sixteen hours “for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, &c, which period having expired, I shall proceed to shell the town.”
This was the message that Marsena Patrick was to deliver to Mayor Montgomery Slaughter. When he reached the docks in the late morning, things didn’t go as planned. He was escorted to Col. William Ball, who had commanded the small gaggle of Confederates troops in the town prior to Lee’s arrival. Col. Ball was insistent that proper military protocol be observed, and sent a message to his commander, General Longstreet, that Provost Marshal General Patrick had dropped by and had some sort of ultimatum to deliver.
This was telling. Ball was no longer the head man in charge. Longstreet was here, and where Longstreet was, Lee was. All of this was for nothing – it was too late. Still, Patrick waited for three and a half hours, passing his time making idle conversation with the Confederate soldiers nearby.
Towards mid-afternoon, Major Moxley Sorrel of Longstreet’s staff rode up to receive the demand for surrender and take it back to Longstreet for perusal. When it arrived, General Lee and Lafayette McLaws (of Longstreet’s Corps) were there to read it. Lee understood that he couldn’t simply surrender the town, but he agreed to no longer use the town for military purposes, and sent Longstreet and McLaws to meet with Mayor Slaughter with the assurance that he would pull all of his soldiers from the town itself. He also promised that his army would resist any attempt by the enemy in occupying Fredericksburg.
By this time, it was 4:40pm. There was no time for Mayor Slaughter to call together his council for an emergency meeting prior to the 5pm deadline. In his reply, he explained as such, before insisting that it was the Confederate troops and not the citizens of his city who fired upon the Federal soldiers. He also explained that while the Confederate troops “will not occupy the town, they will not permit yours to do so.”
As for the sixteen hours to remove the sick, wounded, women, children and elderly prior to the bombardment, Slaughter argued that there were only three or four hours of daylight within those sixteen hours. Additionally, thanks to the Union cannons, the railroad was shut down and all transportation leading away from the city was cut off. He saw it as an “utter impossibility” to remove anyone.
It wasn’t until 7:30pm that Mayor Slaughter met with General Patrick to explain in person the contents of the reply. With that, Patrick returned to the Federal side of the river to give General Burnside the bad news.
That night, General Sumner penned a reply to the Mayor agreeing not to occupy nor shell the town if the Confederates move out as they said they would. He also invited him and his council to meet with General Patrick the next morning at 9am. Through various misunderstandings and miscommunications, both Patrick and Slaughter went round and round about this for a couple of days. Ultimately, however, a truce between the Union army and the city of Fredericksburg was struck. The Federal guns would remain silent unless fired upon first.
But already the exodus had begun. Mayor Slaughter probably couldn’t have organized an orderly evacuation, but that didn’t mean that the citizens themselves couldn’t flee in disorganized chaos. Some went to Richmond, while others went to Spotsylvania, and still others just hoofed it to anywhere but Fredericksburg. It wasn’t long until Confederate army wagons and ambulances were helping cart off any families that wanted to leave.
To all, it was obvious. Here were the two armies, faced off across the Rappahannock. And here they would eventually fight.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p783; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; The Battle of Fredericksburg: We Cannot Escape History by James K. Bryant; Historic Fredericksburg, The Story of an Old Town by John T. Goolrick.))