Finding the Confederate artillery locations would seem relatively simple. As I was preparing this blog, I realized that this is not really the case. Even in my post on Confederate artillery dominance (click here), in order to look at the “big picture”, I simplified a battery made up of two, three or four guns, plotting only its general location and one type of gun rather than the several different types associated with that battery.
In this blog, I will focus on the Washington Artillery of New Orleans. They held the critical piece of terrain, the Willis Hill portion of Marye’s Heights. The problem is that we don’t know exactly where their nine guns were positioned! Immediately after the battle on the night of the 13th of December, General Robert E Lee felt that there would be a renewed battle the next day. He ordered his army to continue to dig in. While the Union did not renew its attack, this additional entrenchment continued for the next four months. By the time of the second battle of Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863, during the battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederates had altered their positions all along the line. There were additional artillery pits as well as entrenchments for Lee’s infantry that did not exist during the December battle. This occurred as far down river as Port Royal, as well as upstream at the various fords along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. You might call this “contingency planning on steroids”. Sufficient infantry entrenchments and artillery lunettes and redans were emplaced to allow Lee’s army to shift into ready-made defensive positions along the rivers.
Secondly, by the time the Federal topographic engineers of Major Nathaniel Michler arrived in 1867 to record vital topographic information (click here), the key piece of terrain, Willis Hill, had been significantly modified by the construction of the National Cemetery that began in 1866. All Confederate works contained within its twelve acre boundary had been totally eliminated due to the regrading to flatten the hill top for burial plots. The survey team recorded what they found, not discriminating between what had been in place for the December battle and what was added during the extended Confederate construction period between the battles. After all, how were they to know the difference?
Third, in the late 1880’s Captain Richardson selected a site adjacent to and north of the National Cemetery upon which to construct his house. During its construction, he leveled or filled in the remaining Confederate works on Willis Hill.
Marye’s Heights and Willis Hill
Let’s begin with the terrain. Willis Hill is the southern extremity of a ridge commonly known as Marye’s Heights. It has an elevation of approximately 130 feet above sea level. This was roughly twice the height of the city. Its length is roughly 600 yards with a width of 300 yards. It stands between 800 and 1,000 yards from the City of Fredericksburg. The heights trend along a line that slowly drifts westward away from the city as it proceeds south. It terminates rather abruptly at Hazel Run.
Willis Hill, at its northern end, joins Marye’s Hill, the two being separated by a small ravine or saddle. Along its eastern base, runs Telegraph or Courthouse Road that today is called the Sunken Road. The elevation of this road is between 80 and 90 feet as it rises and then falls along the base of Willis Hill, reaching 50 feet at Hazel Run. At the southern end of Willis Hill, Telegraph curled westward between the hill and Hazel Run before it crossed the Run and ascended to the back of Telegraph Hill, now called Lee’s Hill, to the south.
Over time, Willis Hill has had a succession of buildings upon its crest located closer to its northern end. The land was purchased in 1734 by Henry Willis who was associated with the founding of Fredericksburg, hence the name of the hill. The initial buildings were constructed by his son, Lewis Willis. These were built around 1779/80 and burnt down in 1817, never to be rebuilt. All that remained was a one acre cemetery with its stone walls and a well. The second set of buildings was built in 1857 by William M Wallace a local business man.
He built a main house facing the city. This house was constructed of brick with two chimneys, one at either end. There was also a smaller dependency also of brick with one chimney approximately 200 feet north of the main house. This smaller building is in the approximate area of the original Willis homestead. In addition to the buildings, Wallace terraced the eastern face of the hill, possibly to make it more attractive to a new owner. For several years, the property lay vacant. In the 1860 census, Wallace is listed as the sole occupant. On August 30, 1860, Wallace finally sold the land and houses to Douglas H Gordon, another local successful businessman. There is no evidence that Gordon ever inhabited the property. The National Park Service map of the town and environs carries the Gordon name on Willis Hill.
These buildings were destroyed by severe Union artillery fire in the second battle of Fredericksburg on May 3rd, 1863, during the Battle of Chancellorsville. These structures will be important landmarks along the hill top in attempting to fix the location of guns of the Washington Artillery.
The third occupation of Willis Hill began with the construction of the Richardson house in 1889 and continued through various owners, ending with the Montfort Academy. This post-civil war era occupancy stopped when the National Park Service (NPS) acquired the property in 1997. The NPS worked to return Willis Hill to its wartime appearance. They gradually eliminated first the school buildings and then finally, the Richardson House itself in 2014 (click here). The Richardson House is mistakenly labeled as the Willis House in several photographs on Google Earth.
Out of all this activity atop Willis Hill, all that remains is the Willis cemetery. It is landmark in its own right survived the fighting during the civil war.
Washington Artillery of New Orleans.
The Washington Artillery was officially founded on September 7, 1838 in New Orleans. According to one website devoted to the artillery battalion, the actual date is much earlier, possibly with the founding of New Orleans in 1713, under a different name or names (http://www.washingtonartillery.com/). The battalion of four companies, later called batteries, participated in all major actions in the eastern theater during the civil war. They fought from the first battle of Manassas all the way to the surrender at Appomattox. Its fifth company served in the western theater.
The after-action report of Colonel James Walton, commander of the Washington Artillery dated December 30, 1862 states in part; “The signal guns, fired at 4 o’clock on the morning of the 11th instant, aroused my camp and gave notice that the enemy was in motion. Immediately the batteries of the first, third and fourth companies-consisting of two 3-inch rifles and one 10-pounder Parrott gun, under Captain [Charles W.] Squires, Lieutenants [John M.] Galbraith and [C. H. C.] Brown, first company; two 12-pounder light guns (Napoleons), under Captain [Merritt ‘Buck’] Miller and Lieutenant [Frank] McElroy, third company, and two 12-pounder howitzers and two 12-pounder light guns (Napoleons), under Captain [B. F.] Eshleman, Lieutenants [Joseph] Norcom, [H. A.] Battles and [George E.] Apps, fourth company-were placed in position in the redoubts on the hill back of the town, known as Marye’s Hill, extending from the Telegraph road to the Plank road” [modern Hanover Street]. He further noted; “Before closing this report, I may be permitted, without being invidious, to direct the attention of the general commanding to the gallant conduct of Captain [B. F.] Eshleman in directing, and Lieutenant [Joseph] Norcom, fourth company, in executing, the order in taking one of the Napoleon guns from the work, where it was out of range, and placing it between two of the redoubts on the open field, there continuing it in action, entirely exposed to the enemy’s infantry and sharpshooters during the greater part of the engagement.”
While this information is helpful, in that it answers two important questions; who and which guns were involved, it does not assist us in locating where on the height each battery was placed.
William Miller Owen was the battalion adjutant at the time of the battle. He provides a fuller description of their positions. In fact, he gives us two descriptions; one in Battles and Leaders (B&L) in approximately 1884 and the second in his book in 1885. Fortunately, they are quite similar with one exception that I will get to in a moment. In B&L he provides this description: “… The positions were reached, our nine guns were placed as follows: Two 12-pounder howitzers and two 12-pounder light Napoleon guns of the fourth company, under Captain Eshleman and Lieutenants Norcom and Battles, were put in the works on the extreme right of the line next to the Telegraph road; two 12-pounder Napoleon guns of the 3rd Company, under Captain Miller and Lieutenant McElroy, in the center; and two 3-inch rifle-guns of the 1st company, under Captain Squires and Lieutenant Brown, on the left, next to a little brick-house [the small building with one chimney] and in front of the Welford [Willis]graveyard, and one 10-pounder Parrott rifle, under Lieutenant Galbraith, of the 1st Company, next to the Plank road [modern Hanover Street] leading from Fredericksburg.”
In his book Owen wrote: “The artillery on the hill was as follows: — On the right, the Fourth company under command of Capt. Eshleman, Lieuts. Norcom, Battles, and Apps, with two 12-pounder howitzers and two 12-pounder Napoleons. On the left of the Fourth company came Third company, under Capt. Miller, Lieut. McEloy, with two 12-pounder Napoleons. On the left of the third Capt. Squires was posted, with one 3-inch rifle, and one 10-pounder Parrott gun (Richmond make). Of the first company, assisted by Lieut. C.H.C. Brown; and on the plank road Lieut. Galbraith was posted, with one 3-inch rifle of the First company. – nine guns in all of the Washington Artillery. Beyond the plank road Capt. Maurin’s battery, the Donaldsonville connoneers, with four guns, were in position to aid in repelling the attack of the enemy. “
The minor difference between the two descriptions revolves around the placement of Captain Squires guns. Personally, I favor the version from B&L. This keeps the two 3-inch rifled guns together for ease of ammunition management, while Lieutenant Galbraith commanded the 10-pounder Parrott rifle separately. Either way, this seems straight forward enough– three groupings of companies, also called batteries. Eshleman had two potential Federal attacks to account for; one straight out of the city via the railroad directly against his hill. The second contingency he had to plan for and defend against was a Federal attack south of Hazel Run against Lee’s Hill and the valley between Lee and Willis Hills where Hazel Run flowed. If the Federals had moved on this approach, he was in position to enfilade them, striking them in the flank as they moved forward towards Lee’s Hill. For this eventuality, several of his guns could pivot to strike the Union in the flank, especially one Napoleon. We infer this because during the battle (see Walton above), when it became clear that the Federal attack would stay north of Hazel Run, he had to move one Napoleon because it could not fire on Union troops from its original position. This gun was moved by hand to between two of his gun pits.
Owen raises the point that for the first time, they would ‘fight behind dirt’. This is instructive. In previous battles, Confederate guns maneuvered out in the open. Colonel SD Lee, who was in charge of a portion of their guns at Antietam, famously said the battle was “artillery hell”. The Union guns, especially the 20-pound Parrott rifles, were particularly destructive of the Confederate guns in that battle. At Fredericksburg, General Hunt took great care during the two to three weeks prior to the December battle to select positions for the Federal guns. It was this placement that caused the Confederates to construct traverses to protect their gun positions from flanking Union fires located at the bend of the Rappahannock River at Falmouth.
Lieutenant Colonel EP Alexander, in his position as acting chief of artillery for Longstreet’s Corps, also selected the locations of the Confederate guns in the weeks before the battle. Our friend Owen noted that “On ‘Marye’s’ the engineers had laid out works for three of our batteries, en barbette, — that is, with the work only as high as a man’s breast, or as the muzzle of a cannon, — but we improve upon their work by raising the earth higher, and arranging embrasures to fire through. The engineers say we spoiled their work, but as we, not they, have to stand here incase Burnside comes across, they will remain as we have altered them. Longstreet says, ‘If we only save the finger of a man, that’s good enough.
“As the position is enfiladed by the enemy’s batteries at Falmouth, strong traverses are built to protect us from flank fire.”
In my next blog, I will look more closely at the locations of the three companies/batteries of the Washington Artillery on Willis Hill.
The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington DC, 1880-1901) Serial 031, Page 0573, Chapter XXXIII.
Johnson, RU, and Buel, CC, eds, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, 1884-87) Reprinted by Castle (Secaucus, NJ. 1995). Volume 3, page 97.
Owen, William M., In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, original published by Ticknor and Company (Boston, 1885) Reprinted by Louisiana State University Press, (Baton Rouge, 1999) page 176 and 185-6.
Geier, CR , Sancomb, K, Sherwood, WC, The Cultural Resource Assessment of the Willis Hill Parcel, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Park, Volumes II & III, James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA, 2002) on file with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.