Eshleman’s Battery on Willis Hill
Unfortunately, due to the major ground leveling associated with the establishment of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery in 1866 atop Willis Hill, at the southern end of Marye’s Heights, all trace of Confederate earthworks located upon this terrain is lost to history. In this blog, I will continue my investigation of the Washington Artillery that was located on this key piece of terrain. My focus this time will be on Eshleman’s battery or as it was styled at the time, the 4th Company of the Washington Artillery. In my last blog (click here) I concluded with a graphic that showed the possible fields of fire of the Washington Artillery. While the Confederates tended to use rifled cannon in most of the defensive positions, it is interesting to note that the Confederates used their 12-pound Napoleon cannon and 12-pound howitzer on this point in their defensive scheme; why?
Benjamin F. Eshleman was a member of the Washington Artillery from the beginning of the civil war. He was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1830. He moved to New Orleans to participate in the warehouse business. He enlisted as a private in the Washington Artillery in 1857. He was promoted to lieutenant when the artillery company was expanded to an artillery battalion. He was appointed Captain of the 4th Company before they left for Virginia in 1861. Over time, his natural abilities were recognized with increases in responsibility and promotions in rank. Following the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Captain Eshleman, during the absence of Colonel Walton, acted as the battalion commander. In late September and early October 1862, all of the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia was consolidated and reorganized under Special Order 209 dated October 4th. Losses suffered in horses, wagons, men and equipment during the battles of Second Manassas and Antietam were great. Under the order, nineteen batteries were reduced and the men, guns and equipment were redistributed amongst the remaining batteries. General Pendleton’s proposed solution might have reduced the Washington Artillery to two companies, or batteries, each with six guns. This proposal was not adopted due to conditions the State of Louisiana placed when offering the Washington Artillery to the Confederate government at the start of the war. As acting commander, Eshleman was responsible for the movement of the battalion from Winchester through Culpeper to the vicinity of Fredericksburg. When Colonel Walton returned on December 9th, Captain Eshleman resumed his duties as commander of the 4th Company of the Washington Artillery. When Col. Walton resigned in July 1864, Major Eshleman was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel as its commander. He remained in that capacity until sometime during the siege at Petersburg at which point, William Owen took over as commander. Eshleman remained with the Washington Artillery until its surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. After the war he returned to New Orleans and the mercantile business. He became a partner in the established firm of Stark, Stauffer & Co., which became Stauffer, Eshleman & Co. in 1885. Eshleman maintained his association with members of the battalion informally during Reconstruction.
Finding the guns.
Because of the lack of physical evidence to lead us to the Eshleman battery gun pit locations, I rely instead on supplementary information that provides clues, some of which are more reliable than others. The first is the sketch made by British war correspondent Frank Vizetelly dated December 11, 1862 during the Union river crossing operation. This drawing, made while he stood on Lee’s Hill, is the first indication of the battery location. We also know that Vizetelly visited the Washington Artillery thanks to comments in William Owen’s book.
A representation of the battery can be seen circled in yellow. As explained previously, Eshleman, in his location at the southern end of Willis Hill, had two potential Union avenues of approach with which to be concerned. Note the open plain on the right side of his drawing. This is on the south side of Hazel Run. It provides a clear open approach for a major movement of troops. Due to that threat, Eshleman’s guns had to be able to fire across this open field. My feeling is that Eshleman would have placed the two Napoleons in the right most gun pits. They had the longest range of his available guns, or about 1,680 yards. These two guns would have been able to fire completely across the open field. In the event, however, Burnside’s troops stayed north of Hazel Run in the perfect slaughter pen of Mercer Square. In fact, the avenue of approach on the south side of Hazel Run was used by General Howe’s division of General Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps during the second battle of Fredericksburg, May 3rd, 1863 as part of the battle of Chancellorsville.
Eshleman’s remaining two guns, two howitzers, could more than adequately fire from the left gun pits with their maximum range of 1,050 yards. Vizetelly’s notes on the picture itself that concern the battery reads “Battery of the Washington Artillery, the first defenses of the Confederates; it is on Marye’s [Willis] hill and was assaulted unsuccessfully on day of the battle of Fredericksburg.”
Another view or impression of where the Confederate’s placed their guns is found on a map drawn to accompany General AA Humphrey’s report of his attack. This map shows excellent detail of the ground over which Humphrey’s troops moved and upon which they maneuvered. It is less accurate when showing the Confederate topography including the Sunken Road and its stone wall.
Humphreys’ placement of the Confederate artillery positions seem reasonably accurate. After all, he received their punishing fire. Eshleman’s gun pits would be on the left, at the end of Marye’s Heights.
Next we turn to the work of Alfred Waud which is on file in the Library of Congress. I previously highlighted (click here) his spectacular panoramic drawing that depicts the futile Union assaults against Marye’s Heights. In my view, his work most accurately captured the artillery gun fire or smoke of any contemporary source. He captured the feel of the battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th, 1862.
Here I use a small portion Waud’s drawing focusing on the extreme left side of that work. Waud helps us to ‘fix’ the location of Eshleman’s battery. Note how he captures the individual gun pits or lunettes and the accompanying clouds of smoke which resulted from the discharge of individual guns.
This is equally matched in details hidden in an 1864 photograph found in the Brady collection on file with the National Archives. The photographer is unknown. However, the density of the image on the glass plate allows us to enhance the photo using a computer to draw out detail we would have otherwise have missed.
Used in conjunction with the Waud drawing, we can just make out the earthwork mounds attributed to Eshleman’s battery. These are located at the extreme southern end of Willis Hill, seen low against the shape of a very dark tree, just before it drops off into Hazel Run. Note the distinctive shape of the descending hillside seen in both the drawing and the potograph. The Sunken Road traces along the junction of the open plain and the steep hillside. The roadbed itself falls in elevation from the right side of the photo to the left side where it curls around the end of the slope. The roadway continues back behind the view seen here, crosses Hazel Run and then ascends Lee’s Hill on its way south towards Richmond. Today the elevation of the road on the right side is 93 feet. Where it rounds the hill on the left side as it goes out of view is approximately 50 feet. The elevation of the National Cemetery on the left at the top of hill is 130 feet. Lee’s Hill behind and to the left, is approximately 200 feet, a vertical difference between the two hill tops of 70 feet.
My last picture, I use on the masthead of my blog. It has long fascinated me. It also was taken in 1864 and is part of the Brady collection, probably by the same photographer that took the previous shot. It looks back across the shallow valley formed between Marye’s Heights and the city of Fredericksburg seen in the background. I discussed these two photos in my first blog (click here) Until I was working on this blog, I hadn’t previously truly appreciated what was in the foreground; a gun pit of Eshleman’s battery!
In the right foreground, you can just make out the earthwork of one the gun pits. You can almost see the fascine baskets, which held the earth, as dark patches that rise along the line of the earthwork. It is entirely possible the photographer set his camera up in one of the gun pits. The grass in the extreme foreground appears to be on a higher elevation than the rectangular stone that stands just left of center. This stone helps give a sense of the height of the earthwork immediately behind it. In the left foreground you can make out a stick, almost large enough to be the sizable branch of a tree. It helps visualize this as a possible gun pit due to the way it lays against the ground. It is lying across an access trail leading into the gun pit itself. On the left edge of the photo stands another pile of earth behind which is another possible gun pit or traverse. Then again, maybe I have been looking for something I ‘want’ to see rather than what is actually there.
During the battle of Fredericksburg, the various Union assaults would have moved across the floor of the plain generally from right to left for those Union troops exiting the city via the railroad depot. If they emanated from George and Hanover Streets, they would have moved across the center of the photo, moving on both sides of the Stratton House; the large brick house in the upper left of the photo. The troops would have moved towards the larger trees that can be seen in the photo on the side of Willis Hill. Both avenues converged at the area known a Mercer Square. Oh, how open and exposed they were. Today, this open plain is covered with streets and houses making it much harder to visualize how exposed those Union troops were.
We know from E.P. Alexander and Jennings Cooper Wise, that all of the Confederate guns were placed in individual gun pits. Alexander tells us that by the time of the battle, they had constructed around forty such artillery works along the extent of their defensive line. The construction was accomplished by infantry troops, for the most part, and possibly some by enslaved labor. William Owen, Adjutant of the Washington Artillery, tells us that in this area, the gun pits were originally limited in height to breast high, termed en Barbette. This in theory would be great, in that the artillery could be turned in multiple directions, no matter which way they needed to fire. However, we also know the Washington Artillerymen increased the height to provide more protection and cutting an embrasure or two for the gun to fire through in several but limited directions.
My final piece of source information is a drawing of a page from Major John Weyss field notes. Weyss was the leader of the Michler topographic survey team. It shows two groupings of Confederate gun pits located near Stansbury’s house, about a mile and a half north of where Eshleman was located. These pits seem to be in sets of two, which is how a Section (two guns) of a battery was habitually placed. In it, you can clearly see individual gun pits spaced along the high ground with good observation and field of fire, at the crown of a piece of terrain thereby limiting the amount of digging required to emplace the guns. This had the added benefit of allowing unhindered ingress and egress to the position where possible. Notice that the embrasures, or firing ports, are clearly delineated by the surveyor on some of the gun pits. The land covered in this survey page is on the grounds of the University of Mary Washington sites of Alvey and Goolricks halls.
This being said, E.P. Alexander, in some of his later writing goes to some length to explain that he broke with established doctrine. He instructed General Lee’s Engineer, Captain Samuel R. Johnston, to “…always advance the guns to the brows of the hills so as to be able to sweep the approaches to the hills if it became necessary”. Prior to the battle during an inspection of the gun positions General Lee said “…Ah, Col Alexander, just see what a mistake Captain Johnston has made here in the location of his gun pits, putting them forward at the brow of the hill!” I [Alexander] said, “Gen., I told him to put the pits there, where they could see all this canister and short range ground this side [of] the river”.
Here I take a speculative stab at how Eshleman’s gun pits might have been laid out. I use a very small corner of the 1867 Michler map in the area of the National Cemetery to provide a picture of the terrain and how the individual gun pits could have been positioned. I assume that Eshleman’s gun pits would have been similarly placed, as on Weyss’s field notes, along a convex line or curve at the southern end of Willis Hill. This would enable him to cover both Union avenues of approach on either side of Hazel Run. During the battle of Fredericksburg, only one gun, a 12-pound Napoleon, could not fire on the Union troops. This was most likely the end pit at the far right of his line. According to Colonel Walton in his after-action report, this gun was moved, probably by hand, to a position between two of the other pits where it then participated in the fighting.
Wise, Jennings Cooper, Long Arm of Lee, Volume one, originally published by JP Bell, Co, (Lynchburg, VA, 1915). Reprinted by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1991, pages 337-9, and 373.
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.
Washington Artillery information is found at http://www.washingtonartillery.com/
Vizetelly drawing of Fredericksburg http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/25568865?buttons=y
General Humphreys attack map – http://civilwar.fredericksburg.com/Battle/maps/map_fred_na_34-2349a.jpg
Alfred Waud panorama drawing of the battle of Fredericksburg – http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004660277/
National Archives 111-B-134. On file at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Part_of_the_Battlefield,_Fredericksburg,_Va_-_NARA_-_524553.jpg
National Archives 111-B-342. On file at https://m.flickr.com/#/photos/usnationalarchives/4166922286/in/set-72157624252909428/
1867 Michler map http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/fullbrowser/collection/tx-wotr/id/1739/rv/singleitem
Michler-Weyss Survey Books, cupboard 1, shelf 5, box 9, book 6, Record Group 77, National Archives, Washington, DC.
Harrison, Noel G., A Tour of Civil War Sites on the University of Mary Washington Central Grounds, Center for Historic Preservation, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA, 2008, end piece.
Lowe, David W., From the Rapid Ann to Cold Harbor, Post-War Topographical Survey of Civil War Battlefields, PDF March 18, 2004.
Alexander, Edward P., Ed by Gallagher, Gary W., Fighting for the Confederacy, the Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1989, page 167.