Union fire from the Swale

Having seen the ballistic path of the Minieball in actual use from the Confederate soldiers’ point of view, what were the ballistic implications for Union soldiers firing from the Swale? These soldiers had several possible targets to be concerned with: Confederates stationed on the Sunken Road behind the stone wall; Confederate soldiers who occupied the Hall, Stephens, Innis and Ebert houses along the Sunken Road; and those Confederate units who were on top of both Marye’s and Willis Hills. This latter group constituted a potentially severe risk to the Union soldiers, due to their ability to see the entire plain, even those taking refuge in the Swale. This last group of Confederates will be my next focus. This will constitute PART 3 of my research.
Building on the information and techniques developed previously, I started by running cross sections up the Heights from the Swale. I selected nine for this investigation. While the Union troops were peppered by the General Cobb’s brigade along the Sunken Road, there were also Confederate units from Cooke’s, Kershaw’s and Ransom’s brigades sent as reinforcements over the course of the battle. Initially, these reinforcements took up positions behind the crest of the hills, coming forward when called. I will look specifically at three of these reinforcing units. The 3rd South Carolina (SC) Regiment was originally sent to the north side of Brompton, John Marye’s mansion on Marye’s Hill. They took up a position on the brow of the hill just south of Hanover Street. The 15th North Carolina (NC) was placed on the crest of Marye’s Hill generally south of Brompton, extending into the saddle located between the two hills. The third reinforcing unit was the 48th North Carolina (NC) of Cooke’s Brigade. It came on line on Willis Hill in the neighborhood of the Willis Cemetery adjacent to Squires Battery of the Washington Artillery that was firing from prepared artillery positions on the crest. The southern infantry units took significant casualties while engaged on the crest of the Hills.


Colonel Nance, commander of the 3rd SC reported ...” When we reached the neighborhood of Marye’s house, a severe fire was opened upon us, but we steadily advanced to the crest of the hill, when my men laid down and opened fire upon the enemy, who were in the flat in our front. By this time their fire was strongly directed against us. The other companies of my regiment came up immediately after we became engaged. I went to the right to see that they were put in proper position, and was shot down by a minie ball entering my left thigh just to the right and above my knee…. I soon saw, however, that we were too much exposed, and that we were contending at disadvantage…. Having been moved back to Marye’s house, I sent word to the officer in command to withdrawn far enough to get shelter behind the crest of the hill without retiring too far to deliver and effective fire.” [OR.592-3] The 3rd SC took so many casualties, especially amongst its officers that it was forced to pull back more than 50 yards in line with the mansion. It was eventually sent around the back of the mansion and down through the saddle between the two hills as reinforcement to the Sunken Road.



It is easy to see from these diagrams, that the parabolic curve of the Minieball seems to follow the curve of the crest of the Heights. This made it deadly for the 3rd SC while they were stationed on the brow of the crest. When they pulled back, and stayed low, they were much safer.

The 15th NC was placed to the right front of Marye’s house extending down into the saddle between the Marye and Willis hills for some distance. The 15th NC was in an exposed position similar to that of the 3rd SC and paid dearly for it. It was probably from the latter position in the saddle, that it had the unfortunate distinction of firing into the backs of other southern soldiers of the Phillips Legion that was in the Sunken Road. Later in the battle, the 7th South Carolina (SC) Regiment was called upon to assist the 15th NC. They wisely chose not to go to the crest, in front to Marye’s house, preferring to take advantage of a small outcropping behind which they reloaded. They then advanced to the top, fired, and then pulled back again out of harm’s way. They took far fewer casualties using this tactic. Both the 7th SC and the 15th NC were later summoned into the road as a further reinforcement.

The 48th NC came forward with other units in Cooke’s’ Brigade to Willis Hill. Initially the brigade took shelter behind the Willis Cemetery. The brigade then moved forward to the crest, in line with the Washington Artillery, and fired a volley. The 48th NC remained on the crest for most of the battle, while the rest of the brigade headed down to the Sunken Road.


By the end of the day, there were ten Confederate regiments crammed into the Sunken Road. They were stacked four men deep. The first rank did the firing at the Union troops. The remainder was occupied with reloading rifles for those firing. This enabled heavy and rapid fire by the Confederates.


The Washington Artillery fired from prepared positions. For the most part their casualties were minimized by these Lunettes. The Union soldiers fired plenty and often at the artillery attempting in any way, to diminish their deadly fire. The Union troops firing at the crest of the hills had ranges of between 300 yards in the north from near Hanover Street to 380 yards further to the south near Lafayette Blvd. These Union soldiers firing from the Swale evidently took careful aim at longer ranges. The saddle between the two hills enabled almost enfilading fire against some of the Confederate soldiers that occupied the crest near Brompton.
Every Confederate unit that occupied the crest of Marye’s Heights took casualties. While some of these resulted from long range Union artillery fire as they moved from behind the Heights to the crest, most occurred due to Union small arms fire. In the Battle of Fredericksburg, total casualties reported by the South from fighting at the Sunken Road were at less than 1,000 killed and wounded. While Confederate figures are difficult to pin down due to lost or inaccurate records here is what I have found:
McLaws’ Division
Cobb’s Brigade:
• Phillips Legion = 69
• 16th Georgia = 65
• 18th Georgia = * casualties not listed
• 24th Georgia = 30
Kershaw’s Brigade
• 2nd South Carolina = 40
3rd South Carolina = 120
• 7 South Carolina = 35
• 8th South Carolina = 7
• 15th South Carolina = 47
Washington Artillery = 34
Ransom’s Division
Cooke’s Brigade
15th North Carolina = 121
• 27th North Carolina = 15
• 46th North Carolina = 58
48th North Carolina = 175
Ransom’s Brigade
• 24th North Carolina = 28
• 25th North Carolina = 88
• 35th North Carolina = 29
• 49th North Carolina = 9

I highlighted the three regiments for emphasis.
Units that occupied the Sunken Road incurred less than half the number of casualties of those that were on the crest.

• Despite Union firing handicaps, Confederate casualties for units stationed on Marye’s Heights were significantly higher than those at the Sunken Road.
• Union soldiers in the Swale could see and fire on the Confederates at the crest of Marye’s Heights; conversely, the Confederates could see them. Therefore the Swale provided no protection from observation or fire from the Heights.

Sources of information include:
Guild CSA Med Dir, OR 557-562, Gen McLaws, OR 578-83, Gen Kershaw, OR 588-91, Col Nance, OR.592-3, Col DeSaussure, OR 599, Gen Ransom, OR 625-8, Col Hall, OR 629-30, and O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign, A. Dickert, History of Kershaws Brigade, . Wyckoff, A History of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry: 1861-65., ibid, 3rd South Carolina Infantry. R. Coffman and K. Graham, To Honor These Men; A History of the Phillips Georgia Legion Infantry Battalion. , W. Owen, In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans.



About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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2 Responses to Union fire from the Swale

  1. Michael May says:

    Very well researched and well written article. My confederate ancestor, Thomas Aaron Starnes of Laurens Co., South Carolina was killed in this battle. He was a private in Co. G, 3rd South Carolina Infantry. Thanks for posting.


  2. joemaghe says:

    Excellent theories posted here with great information to support them.


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