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The Battle of the bridges

Part eight of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

GEN. AMBROSE BURNSIDE had made his decision. The Union Army of the Potomac would cross the Rappahannock River at dawn, Dec. 11, 1862, and storm the Confederate position on the hills behind Fredericksburg. The plan's success depended on speed and surprise.

Gen. Robert E. Lee had deployed his Confederate army over a 20-mile area, from the fords above Fredericksburg, on the left, to Port Royal on the right. Lee's position was strong, but if Burnside attacked quickly, before Lee had time to bring his troops together, he might be able to punch a hole in the Confederate line and win a victory. It all depended on a speedy passage of the river.

Burnside planned to span the river at three points. He ordered his engineers to lay two bridges at the foot of Hawke Street, in the northern end of town; one at the city dock, just below the railroad bridge; and two more at a point one mile below Fredericksburg, near the modern Bowman Center. Construction of the pontoon bridges was to begin at 3 a.m.

As the hour approached, large wagons carrying the pontoon boats crept quietly toward the river bluffs. Engineers, working in silence, slid the boats off the wagons and manhandled them down the steep slopes toward the river's edge. The first boats entered the water and were anchored to the shore. Other boats followed, the engineers connecting them by means of timbers and planks. The bridges slowly began to take shape.

A few hundred feet away, on the opposite shore, Confederate soldiers were listening. In order to give him early warning of a crossing, Lee had posted sentries, known as pickets, all along the riverbank. Those in Fredericksburg belonged to Gen. William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade. Although darkness and a heavy fog prevented Barksdale's men from seeing the Union engineers, their ears clearly told them what was taking place. Soldiers went from door to door, urging the few remaining civilians in town to flee, while a horseman dashed to Lee's headquarters to deliver news of the crossing. A short time later a Southern artillery battery fired two shots in rapid succession: a pre-arranged signal alerting Lee's troops that the Union army was in motion.

The Union engineers heard the shots and understood their meaning. Their pace quickened. By now, the first rays of sunlight were beginning to appear in the east, yet the bridges were still more than 100 feet from the Confederate shore. Capt. Wesley Brainerd had charge of one of the two upper bridges.

"I was standing at the extreme outer end of the bridge encouraging my men," he recalled, "when, happening to cast my eyes to the shore beyond just as the fog lifted a little, I saw, what for the moment almost chilled my blood. A long line of arms moving rapidly up and down was all I saw, for a moment later they were again obscured by the fog. But I knew too well that line of arms was ramming cartridges and that the crisis was near."

A moment later, the Confederates opened fire. "The bulletts of the enemy rained upon my bridge," Brainerd remembered. "They went whizzing and spitting by and around me, patting on the bridge, splashing into the water and thugging through the boats."

As soon as the firing started, the engineers sprinted toward the Stafford shore and threw themselves face down in the mud to escape the leaden hail. Many, Brainerd noted, did not make it.

"Some fell into the boats, dead. Some fell into the stream and some onto the bridge, dead. Some, wounded, crawled along on their hands and knees and in a few moments all of us were off the bridge, all except the dead. It was simple murder, that was all."

In an effort to provide covering fire for the engineers, more than 50 cannons on Stafford Heights opened fire on the town. When the Confederate fire slackened, Union engineers made a second, then a third, attempt to complete the bridges. Each time the Mississippi riflemen drove them back to the Union shoreline.

Casualties mounted. Among them was Brainerd, who received a bullet in the arm. In all, the engineers made nine different attempts to complete the bridges. Each failed. Gen. Barksdale reportedly sent word back to Lee saying that "if he wants a bridge of dead Yankees he can furnish him with one."

Gen. Daniel Woodbury commanded the brigade to which the engineers belonged. Endowed with more courage than sense, Woodbury repeatedly ordered his troops back out onto the river. After several failed attempts, they refused to go.

"I was greatly mortifiedto find that the pontoniers under my command would not continue at work until actually shot down," he reported with some astonishment. "The officers and some of the men showed a willingness to do so, but the majority seemed to think their task a hopeless one. Perhaps I was unreasonable."

Meanwhile, Ambrose Burnside grew more and more frustrated. He had not anticipated such staunch resistance, and he had no clear idea of how to overcome it. In desperation, he ordered his artillery to bombard the town. For eight hours, nearly 150 cannon poured shot and shell into the unfortunate town, shattering walls and setting houses on fire.

When Union gunners on the bluffs reported difficulty in depressing the muzzles of their guns low enough to strike the buildings along the waterfront, artillery chief Henry Hunt ordered 36 pieces down to the water's edge, where they blasted the town at point-blank range.

"Tons of iron were hurled against the place," wrote one unfortunate Mississippian. "The deafening roar of cannon and bursting shells, falling walls and chimneys, brick and timbers flying through the air, houses set on fire, the smoke adding to the already heavy fog, the bursting of flames through the housetops, made a scene which has no parallel in history. It was appalling and indescribable, a condition which would paralyze the stoutest heart, and one from which not a man in Barksdale's Brigade had the slightest hope of escaping."

Damage to the town was immense. "Fredericksburg is all knocked to pieces," wrote one soldier. "Every house almost is full of holes where the shells have been sent. Possibly it may be repaired again but I think [it] doubtful."

A Georgian who toured the shattered town after the battle was shocked at the thoroughness of the destruction.

"There is scarcely a house in the town that has not some mark of the siege," he wrote home. "Chimneys knocked off, roofs torn up, and walls scarred with holes of various sizes, some as large as a man's head and others as large as a flour barrel.The large tall houses suffered more than the low buildings. A large Baptist Church [Fredericksburg Baptist Church] has fifteen large holes through the walls, four through the steeple and the roof torn up in many places. I think there are twenty five or thirty houses burned."

Some Mississippians were struck by shells or crushed by falling masonry, but others stubbornly hung on and continued to fight. By afternoon, the Union army was no closer to crossing the river than it had been at dawn. Time was running out. If Burnside was going to get across the river, he had to employ a different strategy. But what?

Gen. Hunt offered a suggestion: Send pontoon boats filled with soldiers across the Rappahannock and push the Confederates back from the water's edge. The plan was fraught with peril, but Burnside had no choice. At 3 p.m., he ordered the assault.

NEXT: Fighting in the streets of Fredericksburg