How did Confederate artillery dominate on the day of the Battle of Fredericksburg, especially on the northern end opposite the city where General Longstreet’s Corps defended? One is accustomed to thinking that it was Union artillery that was dominant. True, the Federals had more artillery in the battle (approximately 340 vs 250 guns). However, most of the Union artillery was east of the Rappahannock River on Stafford Heights. You can see by the map prepared for General Hunt, as part of his report, where the battery locations are shown. The gun emplacements on Stafford Heights effectively eliminated any possibility that Gen. Lee’s Army could counterattack Union forces across the Rappahannock River. During the battle, the Confederate artillery was closer to the action than most of the Union guns. Given that civil war era artillery was essentially a line-of-sight weapon, this was an important factor. (To read my previous blog on artillery chick HERE). Yes, Union artillery did target Confederate Infantry as it moved over Marye’s Heights to reinforce Cobb’s Infantry Brigade stationed in the Sunken Road. It also attempted place counter-battery fire on Confederate artillery locations. The record is replete with accounts of the screeching of Union artillery exploding in the air and plowing up the terrain on the Heights. First and foremost, the Confederate artillery was dug in prepared individual gun pits with traverses to protect against enfilading fire where necessary. Secondly, the smoke from black powder fired by the muskets and cannon obscured the gun locations. This proved a challenge to the Union gunners attempting to judge the impact of their fire over two miles distant. The dozen or so Union batteries that did cross the river in the area of the city had to fight to establish themselves during the battle or were withdrawn when no spot could be found for them to set up in battery. Those that tried to go into battery, especially at the south end of the city near the railroad depot, received hard treatment by the Confederate artillery, losing men, horses and equipment to the accurate fire.
To read Union reports contained in the Official Records, one would be excused to think that they, rather than the Confederates won the battle. The Union certainly dominated the immediate western side of the river and the approaches to it. General Jackson discovered this when he attempted to counterattack late in the afternoon of December 13th from the vicinity of Prospect Hill. Union long-range defensive fires quickly convinced Jackson that such a move was out of the question. It is important to note the strengths and weaknesses of Civil War artillery. Artillery used offensively, especially with the other side in entrenchments, attacks generally fell apart no matter how much artillery was used offensively. Used defensively, Civil War artillery quickly disrupted even determined attacks. One only has to think of Malvern Hill, or Gettysburg, or Cold Harbor, to name just a few battles where defensive artillery either singly, or in combination with infantry, turned back attacks with seriously casualties to the attacker.
While the Confederates located some artillery on Marye’s Heights, their comprehensive artillery fire plan was more extensive. Clearly, the nine guns of the Washington Artillery stationed on Willis Hill were important. They did not nor could not accomplish this mission alone. In this blog, I will concern myself with the overall Confederate artillery fire plan opposite the City of Fredericksburg. In later blogs, I will address individual batteries and the part each of them contributed to the whole.
First, let’s look at the overall plan for the Confederate artillery defense of General Longstreet’s Corps centering on Marye’s Heights. I use a portion of the National Park Service (NPS) printed map set of the Battle of Fredericksburg. These maps were compiled by NPS historian Frank O’Reilly, author of The Fredericksburg Campaign, Winter War on the Rappahannock. From these maps, I took the location of individual batteries.
Next, I used mapping prepared by Phil Brown of the City of Fredericksburg. He superimposed the modern city streets (white) from the city GIS map onto the Michler map of 1867. While there are some slight differences between Michler’s cartography and the modern GIS alignment of the streets and other key terrain features, there is a remarkable match between the two sources. Upon this modified Michler map, I superimposed the NPS map locations to identify individual batteries.
Another source is the Frank Vizitelli drawing executed from Lee’s Hill during the Union cross-river attack on December 11, 1862. The take-away from this drawing is the visual and physical impact of Willis Hill end of Marye’s Heights. For Confederate artillery stationed on Lee’s Hill and extending to their right along the hills, Willis Hill (at least as portrayed by Vizitelli) substantially blocks the view of Union troops as they approached the Sunken Road. The closer they came to the Sunken Road, the fewer Confederate batteries could fire on them. Today, this hill mass is the location of the National Cemetery.
Taken together, here is a possible picture that displays which Confederate batteries could have fired on Union troops. I color coded the different gun types; red for the 10-pound Parrott rifle, green for the 3-inch Ordnance rifle, brown for the 30-pound Parrott rifle, blue for the 12-pound Napoleon smooth bore and light blue for the 12-pound howitzer.
Union Avenues of Approach:
There were two basic avenues of approach for Union troops during the December battle. The first major avenue (labeled A1 in orange) used the railroad depot as the exit point from the city. This wide avenue between Frederick and Prussia Streets, following the line of the railroad tracks, allowed for a large number of troops to funnel out past the depot, cross the canal ditch, edging northward along the shelter of the hollow or slight valley in which the canal ditch ran. Once formed in a battle line of regiments, a brigade would move westward towards the Sunken Road. These troops were exposed for approximately 900 to 1,000 yards of open ground, measured from the depot building at Charles Street to the Sunken Road. The second major avenue of approach (labeled A2 in dark blue) for the Union, was out George and Hanover Streets. It provided the best cover for the troops as they approached the front via George Street. The uncovered distance was approximately 600 yards measured from to the junction of George and Hanover Streets where the cover of buildings ends to the Sunken Road. A third, less used avenue of approach (labeled A3 in dark red), was located south of Avenue of Approach A1. It moved across both railroad cuts, aiming at the southern end of Willis Hill, north of Hazel Run. Its uncovered distance is approximately 800 yards measured from the FR&P railroad at Frederick Street to the Sunken Road.
The Confederate artillery line from Willis Hill, south along Lee’s Hill, extending down across Howison’s Hill were perfectly located to fire obliquely or enfilade both of the southernmost Union avenues of approach (A1 & A3). The range from these battery locations to the railroad depot generally falls between 2,300 and 2,900 yards. An easy enough shot for the 10-pound Parrot rifle or the 3-inch Ordnance rifle, and simple for the 30 pound Parrott rifle. The artillery on Marye’s Heights easily dominates the center of the battlefield with ranges of up to 1,000 yards for the Napoleons and Howitzers. The northern end of the Confederate artillery line beyond the Plank Road (today known as William Street), continuing northward all the way to Parker’s Battery located on Stansbury Hill have estimated ranges from 1,700 to 2,100 yards. Parkers’ battery fire was so obliquely that several Union commanders thought its fire must be from mis-aimed Union guns to the north of the river.
Jennings Cooper Wise in his two volume set titled The Long Arm of Lee provided a perfect summary of the dominance of Confederate artillery during the Battle of Fredericksburg. This is a fitting close to this blog. “Verily the plain of Fredericksburg was an amphitheater upon which the Confederate Artillery won proud acclaims of a martial race, the leaders of which, whether friend of foe, have echoed their applause through the pages of history. Gens. Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, A. P. Hill, McLaws, in fact all the Confederate commanders, in their reports of the battle of Fredericksburg, speak again and again of the “rapid,” “destructive’” “well-directed’” “demoralizing,” “murderous,” “accurate’” “efficacious” fire and “extraordinary” effect of their guns at all points, and of the “unflinching” courage, “unshaken steadiness,” “animation and spirit” with which they were “admirably served,” and repeatedly mention with high commendation individual commanders and batteries.
The tribute paid the Confederate Artillery by the Federal commanders is even more emphatic as to the important and preeminent part played in the repulse of Burnside’s Army. Their reports—from those of Gens. Burnside, Franklin, Summer, Hooker, French, Hancock, Howard, Couch, Meade, Reynolds, Birney and Doubleday, to those officers commanding brigades, regiments, companies, and especially batteries, — characterize the fire of the opposing artillery as murderous, deadly, terrific, destructive, continuous, severe, galling, vigorous, ferocious, heavy, enfilading, cross, and concentrated…”
I will revisit individual batteries or groups of batteries in the future for a more detailed investigation of Confederate artillery dominance. In the meantime, I have several weddings to attend and grandchildren to visit. See you when I get back.