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The Union army retreats

 
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 34 on a series of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

ON THE NIGHT of Dec. 14, 1862, an unearthly ribbon of light illuminated the sky above Fredericksburg: an aurora borealis. Although it lasted just 30 minutes, this rare spectacle was seen by the Confederates as an omen of triumph, as if "the heavens were hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our victory."

To the mind of Gen. Robert E. Lee and most other soldiers on the field, the battle was not over. The Union army had been defeated the previous day--and soundly--but it had not been crushed. Lee fully expected his opponent, Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, to renew the attacks he had begun on Dec. 13. Once Burnside had again bloodied his army against the Confederates' impenetrable defenses, Lee would go over to the offensive and drive the Northern army into the Rappahannock River. But he would not get that chance. Burnside's officers persuaded him that further attacks would be useless, and the Union commander reluctantly ordered the army to retreat back across the Rappahannock on the night of Dec. 15.

Luck was with Burnside that night. After dark a storm blew in hard from the west, obscuring the moon and wafting the sound of the retreat away from the Confederates on the hills outside of town. On the heels of this gale came a torrential rain that added to night's intense darkness. All this worked to Burnside's advantage, for it prevented Lee from detecting the retreat. Had he done so, Lee could have attacked the Union army as it lay straddled across the river and perhaps destroyed it.

As it was, the Union army escaped. "Perhaps in a whole year so good a night for that purpose could not be had again," thought one Union staff officer.

Burnside began sending ambulances and supply wagons across the river during the day. As darkness set in, cavalry, artillery and infantry troops joined the procession. To muffle the sound of the Union army as it crossed the river, soldiers scattered dirt, pine branches, sawdust, and other debris across the wooden pontoon bridges. Straw wrapped around the wheels of wagons and cannon also helped dampen the sound. Soldiers spoke in whispered voices and tied down their tin cups so that they would not rattle as they walked. Any noise that could give the army away was strictly forbidden: its safety, indeed its very existence, depended on secrecy and silence.

South of town, near the modern Fredericksburg Country Club, Gen. William B. Franklin began quietly pulling his troops out of line and sending them toward pontoon bridges in the rear. An informal truce between pickets of the opposing sides aided Franklin in his task. By 4 a.m., his entire grand division--40,000 men--was safely across the Rappahannock and marching toward its old camps near White Oak Church.

Farther north, in front of Marye's Heights there was no truce, making it more difficult for the Union army to slip away. Confederate pickets had advanced 75 yards in front of the stone wall that bordered the Sunken Road, placing them well within earshot of Union soldiers, now just a stone's throw away. Col. Edward Hill's 16th Michigan was one of several Union regiments sent to picket the front that night. Advancing out Hanover Street toward Marye's Heights, the regiment crossed the millrace (now Kenmore Avenue), angled left, and climbed the bluff beyond.

At the top of the hill, the regiment encountered a line of men lying on their weapons. When Hill inquired as to their corps, the men did not respond. They were dead, victims of the Dec. 13 fighting. Under the cover of darkness someone had laid their corpses in a row to imitate a line of battle. "The stern necessities of war," Hill grimly observed, were "still exacting duty from the dead."

While Hill's regiment and others kept their sleepless vigil in front of Marye's Heights, Union soldiers in town quietly made their way back across the river. It was after 3 a.m. before many of the pickets learned that the army had retreated. "Imagine our feelings," wrote Nathaniel Brown of the 133rd Pennsylvania. "Here we were, within 200 yards of the rebel batteries, and the majority of the army already across the river. What if the enemy should become aware of thisand fall upon us? Few of us would escape."

Only after the rest of the army was safely across were the pickets allowed to fall back. One by one, the men crept back through the deserted town and hurried toward the river. Occasionally, the moon would break through the clouds, casting light on the corpses that littered the streets. "The flicker of that light, the loud moaning of the wind, and the rattling of shattered housesmade a feeling of dread creep over one--which was not easily banished," wrote Brown. "There is something, certainly not courage breeding, in such a night and amid such scenes."

Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain would have agreed. Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Volunteers were also on picket duty that night. The first knowledge that they had that the army was retreating was when a staff officer galloped up in the darkness and said in an excited voice, "Get yourselves out of this as quick as God will let you! The whole army is across the river!"

Chamberlain quickly had his men count off by twos. While half the soldiers dug in as loudly as possible to deceive the enemy, Chamberlain led the other half back to a point 100 yards to the rear. Once they were in place, those at the front quietly left their position and fell back to a point 100 yards behind the second line. Chamberlain continued the leap-frogging process until his men were well away from the Confederate line, then hurried them toward the bridges. Southern pickets fired a stray shot or two in their direction. At the same time, a dog let out a mournful howl "as if he too were set upon our tracks." Chamberlain's men picked up their pace.

Meanwhile, back at the river, Union engineers waited impatiently for the last regiments to arrive before taking up their bridges. One floating span remained in place until 8:30 a.m. By then, the Confederates had discovered the retreat and were cautiously entering the town. Rather than take time to dismantle the bridge, engineers simply cut loose the southern end and allowed the current to swing it over to the Stafford shore. Officers later sent pontoon boats back across the river to pick up stragglers who had lagged behind. Even so, several hundred prisoners fell into Confederate hands.

By 9 a.m., the crossing was complete. Without exception, it was hailed as a great accomplishment. "We had not expected to get away so cheaply," wrote a soldier in the 35th New York. "To move an army with a six-mile front, every foot of which was menaced by the enemy's lines at a distance of twenty to fifty rods, and withdraw the pickets without discovery, was no small undertaking."

Artillerist George Breck agreed. "The retreat began and was conducted from beginning to end almost noiselessly, without a particle of panicThe pontoon bridges were taken up, and scarcely a thing was left behind." If the Army of the Potomac had done nothing else right in the campaign, its retreat at least had been a success. The army would live to fight another day.

NEXT: Burying the dead at Fredericksburg

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."