Confederate Lieutenant General (LG) Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson’s Second Corps was the right-hand portion of General Robert E. Lee’s seven-mile defensive line at Fredericksburg. Jackson’s two-mile line was laid out in depth to make up for the less favorable terrain which he occupied. The front line was occupied by Major General (MG) Ambrose P. Hill’s division. Behind Jackson was stacked the divisions of Generals Early, Taliaferro and D.H. Hill.
The southern end of this line was anchored on Prospect Hill, where Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ruben L. Walker’s artillery battalion deployed fourteen guns in dug-in positions (click here).
The northern end of MG AP Hill’s defensive line was girded with another artillery concentration. It was anchored on an elevated open field adjacent to Bernard’s Slave Cabins. Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield, General Jackson’s Chief of Artillery, selected the most experienced captain in Walker’s artillery battalion not posted on Prospect Hill; Captain Greenlee Davidson, to lead this artillery effort. Crutchfield tells us his plan and reason for it.
On the morning of December 13,1862, Major General (MG) George Gordon Meade’s Pennsylvania division was selected by MG John Reynolds, 1st Corps Commander to lead the attack against Confederate troops commanded by General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. Meade and Reynolds selected a Point of Woods that extended from the wooded hillside across the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad tracks to focus the attack and guide troop movement. This terrain feature was not dissimilar in purpose to the famous ‘Copse of Trees’ that guided Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg. There would be no guessing where the Union brigade commanders should align their movement across the open farm field ahead of them. MG Reynolds reported:
“I directed General Meade to put his column directly for the nearest point of wood… which extended this side of the railroad…”
MG Meade amplified in his report:
“…The slope to the railroad from the extreme left for the space of 300 or 400 yards was clear; beyond this it was wooded, the woods extending across the hollow and in front of the railroad. The plateau on our side was level and cultivated ground up to the crest of the hollow, where there was quite a fall to the railroad. The enemy occupied the wooded heights, the line of railroad, and the wood in front…” (emphasis added).
Confederate Lieutenant Colonel R.L. Walker, General A.P. Hill’s Chief of Artillery reported:
“… the enemy concentrated in mass, and, in enormous forces, moved forward rapidly, protected by a fearful fire from all their guns, toward the point of woods in the plain in defiance of our guns…” (emphasis added).
General Jackson’s artillery chief reported:
“… From the first it was evident that the enemy’s attack might be expected upon our center, where the heights on our right descended to a level with the plain, and a point of woods running out into the field offered them early and good shelter…” (emphasis added).
What does the Point of Woods look like today?
For this study, I collected several maps, as well as an aerial photo, in my attempt to fully understand this feature. The maps begin with the field notes from the 1867 Michler-Weyss survey team. I follow this using the final version of the 1867 Michler map and the printed version published in the Official Records Atlas. Each of these clarifies small, seemingly unimportant bits of topographical information, which when taken together, amplify my understanding of the terrain. More on this later! I captured salient map features to overlay upon succeeding maps for comparison. I adjusted the scale of each original map to compile the set of common overlays which I derived to conduct my analysis. I complete my study with a 1933 aerial map taken in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, looking south at the fields Meade’s attacking troops would cross.
I begin with the Michler-Weyss field notes of 1867. Inside the yellow oval at the upper left, notice the notation that the Point of Woods (solid black line) extended 500 feet (152 meters) beyond the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac railroad (RF&P) track. Not until the late 19th century was the RF&P upgraded along this stretch with two parallel tracks.
You can see the tree cover within this area. There are both deciduous trees, primarily white oak (rounded squiggles), and coniferous trees (the X’s) and low brush. I use a dotted black line to encompass a slightly larger area following a conversation with National Park Service (NPS) historian and author Frank O’Reilly.
A third version of the extent of the woods was taken from the NPS battle map set, which I label the NPS Edge of Woods (black dashed line). On Prospect Hill itself, note the other indications of tree cover. Participants commented that this was a white oak forest, however, there were patches of pine trees and other dense forested areas. The RF&P track is crossed by a farm road that runs up onto Prospect Hill. Water runs in culverts under the track in three locations, the most significant of which is associated with the Point of Woods itself. It was along this drainage that the Union troops penetrated the confederate defense line and surprised and overwhelmed BG Maxcy Gregg’s brigade. The survey team also noted the location of confederate earthworks.
The Michler-Weyss survey was conducted five years after the war as part of an effort to document troop positions during the war. In the case of Fredericksburg, Confederate troops remained on the land for up to six months following the battle. During that time, they improved existing fortifications and dug new ones in case the Union were to attack again. In addition, they cut and burned trees to keep warm, built huts, and survived the winter. This no doubt influenced what the survey team drew on their map.
The next map is an extract of the final 1867 Michler map. Let us start with the drainage found in the region (blue line). The survey team noted the extent of trees along these water courses on an otherwise level field of farmland. We see indications of planted fields and roads.
All roads were unpaved. There were two major roads: the first was Old Richmond Stage Road, also known as the Bowling Green Road (today’s State Highway 2/17 that runs north south. The second road leading the first to Hamilton’s Crossing, which today is called Benchmark Road, runs east-west. Both roads were lined with thick hedges of cedar on one or both sides as well as drainage ditches.
MG Meade described the impact of the cedar hedge on his deployment:
“Immediately on receiving orders, the division was moved forward across the Smithfield ravine, advancing down the river some 700 or 800 yards, when it turned sharp to the right and crossed the Bowling Green road, which here runs in a parallel direction with the railroad. Some time was consumed in removing the hedge fences on this road, and bridging the drains on each side for the passage of the artillery.” (Emphasis added).
The junction of these two roads is known as Pelham’s Corner, where a hedge of cedar, also along the streambed, provided protection for Major John Pelham’s audacious artillery attack early in the battle.
The published version of the map found in the Atlas, Plate XXXIII-1, which accompanied the Official Records Volumes provides a slightly different view of the terrain. Our overlay of the Point of Woods shows how this important terrain feature plays a key role during the battle. The larger map shows the environs of Fredericksburg giving Union entrenchments in blue and Confederate entrenchments in red. It shows roads, the Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, the street plan of Fredericksburg and Falmouth, as well as houses, fences, names of residents in rural areas, vegetation, drainage, and relief by hachures.
The next map, published by the National Park Service of the Battle of Fredericksburg, is part of a series of five maps which displays unit positions in various phases of the battle. This one covers from daybreak to noon at the opening of the battle. Union and Confederate skirmishers are arrayed in the middle of the field. Pelham’s single Napoleon from Henry’s battery is situated at the crossroads located at the right-side middle.
This is the map from which I derived the “NPS Edge of Woods”. I believe that Archer’s Brigade displayed on the map should be shifted to the left or north two regiments, based upon work on the Walker’s artillery on Prospect Hill (see here and here). The artillery should be shifted to the left, replacing two of the infantry regiments. For purposes of our discussion, the “Dense Pine Thicket” may help to explain why Walker’s batteries, especially those under Potts, Clutter and McIntosh, make no mention of Union infantry fire, which resulted from Meade’s breakthrough to their left or north. These units were located where I placed the arrow for “Prospect Hill Confederate Artillery”.
The next map is a topographical study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) of the region covered by the 1867 Michler map. This USGS field work was conducted and published in 1931 and again in 1934 when the map was updated. Its 10-foot (3-meter) contour is invaluable, especially as the entire area of Meade’s assault is now altered and covered by an industrial park.
For the most part, the water drainage seen on the earlier Michler maps agrees with the mapped topography on this map. The roads and trails remain relatively unchanged. In the quarter century following the civil war, the RF&P replaced its aging single track and by 1903 this section was double tracked. I think that the track was likely raised above its original grade at the time of double tracking. Today it is triple tracked in this region, thanks to a freight requirement. This was generated by the need for freight car storage relatively close to the freight depot, established in Fredericksburg in early 1900’s, and by quarry operations in the vicinity of Hamilton’s Crossing, as well as creation of the Industrial park.
I noticed that the Confederate trench line on this USGS map is different from that of Michler. I felt this important enough to differentiate between the two. Look for “Michler Confederate Trenches” and “USGS Confederate Trench” on each map. It is important to note that there was limited trenching, especially for Confederate infantry prior to the battle. Following the battle, General Lee ordered these be substantially improved and expanded. This post-battle entrenching work makes it difficult to separate the two efforts and clouds modern historical investigation and interpretation of the battle.
My last mapping effort is taken from Google Earth. It shows the land as it was as of 2017. It is an aerial photo upon which I placed the information derived from all the foregoing maps. The actual forested area of the Point of Woods is larger today. It occupies the land which is too wet to economically build upon.
The open land in the upper left corner is part of the battlefield associated with Slaughter Pen Farm and is located further to the north west. You can readily see the Industrial Park in the upper left corner. The rail shunt line that services it curves from the RF&P main track underneath the words ‘Point of Woods’ to the large white building. There is further development along the Old Richmond Road where Meade’s division and artillery formed up prior to their assault.
The farm road crossed the railroad (see tan dashed line) running from the Old Richmond Stage Road located at the top of the photo. It likely runs along the tree line a little to the north or left. According to O’Reilly, this tree line is raised above the adjoining fields, as if to keep its passage dry. Pelham’s Corner is commemorated today by the Central Virginia Preservation Trust on land just south-east of the junction.
The 1933 aerial is a good companion to the USGS topo map. It documents this land as it looked when it was simply open farmland. The trees are mature in the photo image.
I used this photo in earlier work about Prospect Hill (click here). You can imagine the Union forces, having crossed the pontoon bridges at Franklin’s Crossing, just off the bottom left of the photo, lined up along the eastern (river) side of the Old Richmond Stage Road. From there they advanced to the positions displayed on the NPS battle map, in preparation for their assault against General Jackson’s Second Corps located in the woods west of the RF&P railroad between Deep Run and Prospect Hill. The Old Richmond Road runs along the high ground which slopes east down towards the river or west down towards the RF&P railroad and Prospect Hill.
Understanding the Point of Woods as a terrain feature helps in the interpretation of the Battle of Fredericksburg where the battle was won and lost on the morning of December 13th, 1862.
My next post will return to Slaughter Pen Farm and pick up with Davidson’s battery at Bernard’s Slave Cabins and Latimer’s battery.
Aerial Photograph: Fredericksburg taken 5-15-1933 on file with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, copy in author’s possession.
O’Reilly, Francis Augustin, The Fredericksburg Campaign, Winter War on the Rappahannock, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2003. p 142, and generally 126-197.
In my last post, I covered the deployment of Captain John Bower Brockenbrough’s demi-battalion of artillery in front of the Confederate line of defense. This time I look at two questions:
How long might Brockenbrough’s demi-battalion have stayed on the field of battle?
What punishment might they have taken in this advanced position?
Overview of Franklin’s attack:
Major General William B. Franklin’s attack, executed by General John Reynolds’ First Corps, moved into position after 9 AM on December 13th, 1862. General Meade and General Gibbon’s divisions were just getting set west of the Old Richmond Stage Road, sometimes called the Bowling Green Road, when Major Pelham opened fire on their left flank at 10 AM. Union artillery then fired upon Pelham to drive him off. When this was accomplished, Union artillery then conducted a general bombardment of suspected Continue reading →
Seldom, if ever, is artillery placed on the front lines during combat. Less frequently still is artillery placed in advance of the front lines. I was intrigued by this seldom observed case that happened during the Civil War at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Late in the afternoon of December 12, 1862, Captain John Bower Brockenbrough was handed an order from Lieutenant General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson by Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield, Jackson’s Chief of Artillery. This order directed him to take three artillery batteries out in front of the entire confederate defensive line that night. What Brockenbrough did not yet know was that this would be his last combat. Col. Crutchfield, Continue reading →
Slaughter Pen Farm, similar to the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields, is where you get the actual ‘feel’ of the terrain over which the armies fought during the Civil War. During brief periods between growing crops, Slaughter Pen is open to the eye and appears absolutely flat, but the vista can fool you. The infantryman who walked the ground quickly discovered the height variance of the terrain
I begin by using one of the National Park Service battle maps to lay the scene. First Corps Commander Major General John F. Reynolds selected two of his three divisions to attack the southern end of General Lee’s confederate army. This ground was occupied by Continue reading →