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Fighting in the streets of Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

Part nine of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

THE BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG was unique in many ways: it was the largest battle in North America up to that point in history, it featured the first major bombardment of any American city since the Revolutionary War, and it was a rare instance of urban warfare.

The Union army shelled Fredericksburg on Dec. 11, 1862, after Mississippi riflemen led by Gen. William Barksdale thwarted its efforts to throw pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River. The bombardment failed to dislodge the Confederate sharpshooters, however, and about 2:30 p.m. Union commander Ambrose E. Burnside ordered troops to cross the river in pontoon boats and seize the town.

The task was fraught with peril. Hundreds of Confederates held the town, firing from the protection of cellars, barricades, and in shallow earthworks built along the river’s edge. To reach the town, Union troops would have to cross the river in open boats, form a hasty line of battle on the Confederate side, and charge into town, all the while exposed to a murderous fire. It was a task to daunt the most fearless heart.

Because of the danger involved, Gen. Burnside asked for volunteers. Col. Norman J. Hall stepped forward. Just 25 years old, Hall had seen more action than many men twice his age. As a young lieutenant fresh out of West Point, he had taken part in the defense of Fort Sumter, S.C.

After serving briefly on the staff of the Army of the Potomac's chief engineer, Hall was appointed colonel of the 7th Michigan Infantry Regiment. By December 1862, he led a brigade. Brave and eager for glory, he offered the services of his troops in making the desperate attempt. Hall’s old regiment, the 7th Michigan, would spearhead the assault.

The crossing began shortly after 3 p.m. Under the cover of a heavy Union bombardment, two companies of the 7th Michigan readied boats along the Stafford shore. When the firing stopped, the soldiers dashed from their places of concealment along the riverbank, shoved the 31-foot-long pontoon boats into the water, and began rowing and poling with all their might.

Some 70 men went across in the first wave, led by Lt. Col. Henry Baxter. As the small craft raced across the muddy river, bullets struck the water around them and splintered the sides of the boats. Baxter and several others were hit, but casualties as a whole were remarkably light. Just one man was killed in the initial crossing.

The boats touched shore at the foot of Hawke Street. (Today the National Park Service owns a small parcel of land there, marked by a small monument and historical sign.) The Michigan soldiers jumped out of the boats and formed a hasty skirmish line in the shelter of the river bluff then charged up into town. Smashing down doors, they entered the houses that lined the river and drove out the Confederate sharpshooters inside. “The orders were to give no quarter,” remembered one Union participant, “but for humanity’s sake, we did not obey them ... ” Within minutes, the 7th Michigan had scooped up 31 prisoners and secured a toehold along Sophia Street.

Additional troops were needed if the 7th Michigan was to hold the town. While the regiment engaged the enemy in house-to-house combat, the pontoon boats returned to the Stafford side of the river and brought over two companies from the 19th Massachusetts. The Bay State troops deployed to the right of the 7th Michigan, expanding the bridgehead one block north, to Pitt Street.

The pontoon boats continued to ferry back and forth across the river with additional reinforcements, enabling Hall to solidify his grip on the town. Union soldiers on Stafford Heights cheered as each new boatload of troops reached the contested shore.

“It was a display of heroism, which moves men as nothing else can,” wrote a Massachusetts soldier. “The problem was solved. This flash of bravery had done what scores of batteries and tons of metal had failed to accomplish.”

Much hard fighting remained before the Union army could claim success, however. Barksdale’s men fought doggedly, contesting each house, each yard, each woodpile.

“Nearly every house and cellar had some one in it, firing from the windows,” a Union officer asserted, “but we soon cleaned them out.”

Sometimes a body of Confederates would conceal themselves in a cellar or attic, wait for the Union soldiers to pass, then shoot at them from the rear. Bullets seemed to come from all directions from an invisible foe.

“The most dangerous and trying part of the action,” thought one Union soldier, “was that the enemy could fire a volley at such close range without being seen.”

One Northern company lost 10 out of 30 men in five minutes. The fighting waxed hottest along Caroline Street, which the Confederates had turned into a stronghold. They not only occupied the buildings along the street, but also had erected barricades made of earth and stone between buildings. For nearly two hours, they held their ground against the growing number of Union soldiers in their front.

The task of breaking the impasse fell to the 20th Massachusetts. Known as the “Harvard Regiment,” the unit included the sons of some of Boston’s finest families.

Pushing the boats across the river by means of poles, the regiment formed in rear of the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts. At orders from Hall, the regiment, 307 strong, advanced down Hawke Street in a lengthy column that had the appearance and function of a human battering ram.

The massed body of men, hemmed in by houses on the left and right, made a perfect target for Barksdale’s soldiers. When the head of the regiment reached Caroline Street, the Confederates unleashed a torrent of fire that staggered the regiment and nearly annihilated the leading platoon. Nevertheless, the regiment pressed ahead.

One group of men charged across the intersection and engaged the Confederates beyond. Other companies wheeled to the left and right at the intersection, only to be decimated by a murderous fire. In less than 30 minutes, the 20th Massachusetts had lost 97 men.

By now the pontoon bridges had been completed, and Hall’s remaining regiments charged across, extending the Union line as far south as William Street. At the same time, a second Union brigade crossed the Rappahannock at the lower end of town, at the modern city dock, and threatened to turn the Confederates’ flank.

With darkness stealing over the contested town, Barksdale decided that he had done enough. He ordered his men to fall back to the main Confederate line, located on Marye’s Heights.

The 21st Mississippi covered the retreat. The fighting flared briefly when one of its officers discovered that an old friend from college commanded the Union forces in his front. Unwilling to give ground to his erstwhile friend, the Southern officer halted his troops and counterattacked. Ignoring orders from his superior officer to fall back, the renegade officer continued to attack and had to be placed under arrest. His replacement continued the retreat, and by evening Fredericksburg was in Union hands.

Capturing the town had come at a heavy price. Barksdale’s stubborn stand had cost the North hundreds of men and had given Robert E. Lee time to concentrate his forces on the heights outside of town. As Ambrose Burnside would soon learn, in taking Fredericksburg he had stepped into a trap.

NEXT: The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point” and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”