December 12, 1862 (Friday)
General Robert E. Lee spent much of the previous night preparing his lines, which stretched from Marye’s Heights, above the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, along Prospect Hill, an extension of the Heights, south of town. In all, the line would be seven miles long. His left, atop Marye’s Heights, was held by James Longstreet’s Corps. Because of the almost too-perfect defensive position, Longstreet commanded fully five miles of the entire Confederate line. A stonewall and rifle pits allowed his men to spread out, thus covering more ground.
Holding the right was Stonewall Jackson’s Corps, which, on this foggy dawn, was still fairly spread out. Jackson’s right extended all the way to Port Royal, fifteen miles down the Rappahannock River.
The Federals had been able to establish beachheads and throw up five pontoon bridges across the river the previous day. From all appearances, they aimed to fight the battle here, on ground of Lee’s own choosing. At dawn, General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, began crossing his men in earnest.
Confederate artillery met the crossing with a smattering of fire, but there wasn’t much they could do. Union gunners answered and the booming sounds of the artillery dual blanketed most of the day.
General Lee joined Longstreet and Cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, as they reconnoitered their lines above the town. Though it would climb to the mid 50s as the day progressed, the temperature as the sun was peeking over the Union artillery opposite their own was still in the bitter 20s.
To Lee, it had been likely that Burnside would try such a move. With the bridges thrown up the previous day, it was an almost certainty. But now, they were crossing. This was no feign, no ruse or deception. The entire Army of the Potomac was about to attack.
Leaving Longstreet to finalize his five-mile line, Lee and Stuart rode to meet with Jackson, who had, as usual, risen early. So early was his rising on this cold and foggy morning that the only one to make it to the pre-dawn breakfast was Jim Lewis, a slave on loan to (or possibly “rented” by) Jackson. Lewis had become extremely devoted to the General by this time and was usually not too far away from him.
Jackson’s lines differed from Longstreet’s in that there was a mile and a half wide open plain running from the banks of the Rappahannock, up the slope to Prospect Hill. A born artillerist, Jackson must have been frustrated that he could not make use of all his guns. While the ground was fairly good for defending with infantry, only a third of his cannons could be properly deployed. Still, he did what he could to ensure that every inch of ground the Federals would use to attack was covered.
And still, there was a gap of 1,000 yards between James Archer’s and James Lane’s brigades. The gap consisted of a wooded, marshy area that everyone seemed to notice, but few thought would be utilized by the Yankees. It was too thick, too swampy and would be avoided by organized enemy infantry. Jackson himself, for as many times as he rode his lines, must have seen it and thought the same thing. If he had noticed it and thought it a threat, he would have done something about it.
By noon, Lee and Stuart arrived to meet with him. Lee quickly took notice, not of the gap, but at the general weakness of Jackson’s right flank, near Hamilton’s Crossing, where the Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad crossed the road to Richmond. He ordered Jackson to consolidate his corps, bringing Jubal Early and D.H. Hill’s troops from Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck to the Crossing.
Later in the afternoon, Jackson and his topographer, Jedidiah Hotchkiss, took a ride down to the river, following the road from Hamilton’s Crossing. Though many of the Federal troops had crossed, most were still near enough to the bridgeheads, over a mile away. So comfortable was Jackson that he whistled a tune on his way back to his lines. Early and Hill’s men would arrive by 3am the next morning, and Jackson felt confident his line could hold against the Federals, still crossing the Rappahannock.
With the bridges secured, General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Army of the Potomac, began crossing his men a few hours after dawn. There seemed to be no rush. He gave no orders, allowing his three Grand Division commanders to choose for themselves the best time to do it.
Edwin Sumner, commanding the Right Grand Division, started crossing his two corps on the upper bridges at 8am. William Franklin’s Left Grand Division started shortly thereafter. Franklin ordered another pontoon bridge to be constructed (giving him three) to expedite the movement.
As Sumner’s II and IX Corps crossed the Rappahannock and entered Fredericksburg, they were greeted by the smoldering remains of their fallen comrades and of the city itself. And then something snapped. All order and rule turned to an orgy of chaos and plundering. By the hundreds, Union soldiers fled their ranks to ransack the abandoned homes and businesses in the town.
There was little sense or logic to their pilfering. Some grabbed children’s toys or women’s clothing, while others hauled away books or furniture. Much of this ended up tossed into bonfires. Some men found alcohol, which fueled fires of their own. Jewelry stores and banks were picked as clean as the houses.
General thievery gave way to absolute destruction. When a soldier with an armful of goods found something better, he dashed his bundle to the ground to gather fortunes anew. Any art that hung on the walls was slashed just as drapery, carpets and furniture were all needlessly destroyed.
This was more than luting, more than rummaging around to see what one could find. This was nothing less than ruthless vengeance overseen by some rather high ranking officers. The only houses spared (more or less) were the ones that had been commandeered by Generals for use as their headquarters.
Captains and Lieutenants actually oversaw the destruction, picking for themselves souvenirs to send home. With these examples and a canteen full of brandy, even the more reserved soldiers fell prey to their base natures. The corps commanders, at best, turned a blind eye to it, allowing their men to blow off a little steam before the battle.
Fredericksburg saw history’s first contested beachhead established by American soldiers. It also saw the first urban warfare on American soil. And now, it had the dishonor of being the first city sacked in America since the British hit Washington during the War of 1812.
Burnside personally crossed just before dark (as the pillaging continued) and rode the lines with General Sumner. Because of the woods and walls along the Rebel lines, few of the enemy could be seen. After finishing with his right, he rode to meet with Franklin on the left. There, Franklin strongly urged Burnside to attack on his front, against Jackson’s men at Prospect Hill. It was there, argued Franklin, that the Rebels were weakest.
Franklin wanted to attack before dawn the next morning, so his men could cover the wide plain before the Rebels could mow them down. He also requested reinforcements from Joe Hooker’s Center Grand Division, which had, for the most part, not yet crossed. Burnside was joyously convinced and rode off into the early dark to compose the orders.
Unfortunately, he seemed to have gotten himself lost in the fog. It would take six more hours for him to issue the orders. By that time, it would be far too late.1
- Sources: The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Fredericksburg Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert; Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss. [↩]