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Lee misses his chance

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

See previous stories.

Part 31 on a series of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

IT WAS THE NIGHT of Dec. 13, 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg was over. The Union army had lost. Like a wounded animal, it lay bloodied and battered with its back to the Rappahannock River awaiting attack by Gen. Robert E. Lee's victorious Confederate army.

In front of Marye's Heights, within easy rifle range of Confederate soldiers in the sunken road, a line of Union soldiers tenaciously held the ground they had won during the day. Among them was Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Volunteers.

As Chamberlain lay in the cold mud, a plaintive wail drifted over the battlefield, like the moan of the winter wind: the sound of wounded soldiers dying helplessly nearby. The sound had no distinct source. Rather, it seemed to Chamberlain that a thousand discordant voices had blended together "into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear." What made it all the more terrible was that neither he nor anyone else could help the suffering. They lay in the no-man's land that separated the Union and Confederate lines. To attempt to succor them meant almost certain death.

In an effort to shield himself from the chilling wind, Chamberlain lay down between two other soldiers--whether they were asleep or dead, he could not tell, nor did he care. The carnage of that frightful day had made the former Bowdoin College professor callous to such distinctions. " The living and the dead were alike to me," he remembered.

A third body lay at Chamberlain's head. Pulling the skirt of the man's coat over his face, Chamberlain tried to get some sleep. He had just drifted off when a hand pulled the garment away and a "half vampire-like" visage stared intently into his face. It was a soldier looking for the body of a friend. The man started when Chamberlain spoke, not expecting to find the living among the dead. He moved on, and Chamberlain resumed his uneasy sleep. Nearby, a window blind flapped mournfully in the wind as if to say, "Never-forever; Forever-never!"

Chamberlain was not alone in his macabre vigil. A few hundred yards away a soldier in the 1st Minnesota Volunteers likewise sought shelter from the bone-chilling winds by crawling under the blanket of a comrade. When he awoke the following day, he found he had been resting next to a corpse. "With cold chills creeping all over me, I sought my place in the ranks and tried to 'forget it,'" he recalled. He never would.

The Union army's commander was also awake that night. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside clattered across a pontoon bridge into town after midnight, Dec. 14, to confer with his officers in Fredericksburg. The commander "was cheerful in his tone and did not seem greatly oppressed," remembered Gen. Darius Couch, "but it was plain that he felt he had led us to a great disaster, and one knowing him so long and well as myself could see that he wished his body was also lying in front of Marye's Heights. I never felt so badly for a man in my life."

Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith also witnessed the general's despair. Walking into his commanding general's tent the following day, Smith found Burnside walking up and down alone and distracted, "apparently in great distress of mind." Seeing Smith, Burnside blurted out, "Oh! those men! oh! those men!" When Smith asked him what he meant, Burnside pointed across the river toward Marye's Heights, where thousands of his men lay dead or dying on the frosty turf. "I am thinking of them all the time," he said.

As dawn approached, Burnside issued orders to the army for another attack on Marye's Heights. This time, instead of attacking in waves, as he had done before, he would mass the 9th Corps--his old command --in the Hazel Run Valley and rush the Heights in a column of regiments: a solid block of men some 36 files deep and perhaps 200 ranks wide.

The general's orders left his subordinates aghast. Such a compact formation would make a perfect target for the Confederate cannon crowning the ridge. More astonishing still, Burnside proposed to lead the charge himself. Mounted on a horse in full view of enemy riflemen, he would certainly be among the first to fall. Perhaps that is what Burnside had in mind. Having ordered thousands of other men to their deaths the previous day, he may now have wished to take his own life.

Fortunately, reason prevailed. The morning the attack was to occur, Gen. Edwin Sumner came to Burnside and urged him to reconsider the assault. "General, I hope you will desist from this attack; I do not know of any general officer who approves of it, and I think it will prove disastrous to the army."

Such advice from the army's most aggressive officer gave Burnside pause. At Sumner's suggestion, he called a council of war to solicit the opinions of the army's other top officers. Without dissent, they agreed that another attack against Marye's Heights would be nothing short of slaughter. Burnside reluctantly bowed to the majority will. Canceling the attack, he made arrangements to bring his army back across the Rappahannock River.

As word of Burnside's decision filtered down through the ranks, the men of the 9th Corps heaved a collective sigh of relief. "He has a great deal of confidence in his old corpse," wrote Pvt. James Gormley in a telling, but unintentional, slip of the pen, "but I am afraid it would have been the last of it if they had went up there."

The 9th Corps would have taken the battery-studded hill had it been ordered to do so, William Taylor of the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteers thought, "but it would have cost three-fourths of their number to do it, and the other fourth would be 'blown to Kingdom Come' in five minutes after they took it."

The surgeon of the 11th Connecticut Volunteers agreed. "It was virtually devoting the regiment to a glorious death," he concluded.

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee patiently waited for Burnside to renew the attack. He felt that his opponent could not abandon the offensive without at least one more effort--the people in the North would not allow it. As if to confirm that view, Confederate pickets early on Dec. 14 captured a Union courier who carried a copy of Burnside's order to attack Marye's Heights.

Armed with this inside information, Lee strengthened his position and confidently awaited Burnside's assault. But to Lee's puzzlement, the day passed in relative quiet. Had the Union general changed his mind or was he simply awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from Northern Virginia?

Union soldiers were puzzled too--not by Burnside's inactivity, but rather by Lee's. The Confederate general had them trapped with their backs against the Rappahannock. Why didn't he attack and finish them off? The answer stood on the bluffs behind them. The Union commander had more than 100 guns deployed across Stafford Heights. Had the Confederates tried to attack the Union army near the river, Burnside's cannon would have torn them to pieces.

But why did Lee not shell the town? The Union army was packed into Fredericksburg like herring in a barrel. Southern artillerists could have killed or maimed thousands without any danger to themselves by simply unleashing their cannon on the town.

"Why they did not fire on us while were in the city I cannot imagine," wrote one perplexed, yet relieved, Union soldier. "Had they opened on us while laying therethey would have slaughtered the whole corps, and we were expecting it too."

Some historians have suggested that Lee refrained from shelling Fredericksburg out of consideration for civilians still trapped in the town. Others argued that he did not want to inflict further damage on Fredericksburg's houses and businesses.

Neither explanation seems valid. After all, Lee's guns had intermittently shelled the town nearly every day since the Union army had crossed. More likely, he withheld his blow in the hope that Burnside would renew his disastrous attacks. Once he had given the Union army a second drubbing, Lee would go on the offensive.

Lack of ammunition also may have factored into his decision. After the battle, Confederate gunners admitted to Union soldiers that they had been low on shot and shell. They had ordered additional ammunition from Richmond, but the new supply had arrived one day too late.

Whatever the reason for Lee's inaction, he missed a golden opportunity to inflict added damage on the enemy. He would not get a second chance.

NEXT: Two days of suspense