Merritt B. (Buck) Miller and the 3rd Company of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans are probably best remembered for an incident associated with the Antietam Campaign. During the Union attack on the center of that battlefield at the Sunken or “Bloody Lane”, the Union troops eventually broke through and the Confederate infantry retreated to the Pryor Farm. As the Union forces, under General Richardson, sought to push through the breach in the Confederate lines, Confederate artillery filled the gap. General Longstreet and his staff moved forward to assist the gunners who were exhausted by that point. This was Millers 3rd Company along with other stray guns plugging the hole in the line. Longstreet praised Captain Miller for his heroic efforts during that fight based upon Miller’s leadership of the artillery pieces.
This is what General Longstreet wrote about the incident in Battles and Leaders:
“We were under the crest of a hill occupying a position that ought to have been held by four to six brigades. The only troops there were Cooke’s regiment of North Carolina infantry, and they were without a cartridge. As I rode along the line with my staff I saw two pieces of the Washington Artillery [Miller’s battery], but there were not enough men to man them. The gunners had been either killed or wounded. This was a fearful situation for the Confederate center. I put my staff-officers to the guns while I held the horses. It was easy to see that if the Federals broke through our line there, the Confederate army would be cut in two and probably destroyed, for we were already badly whipped and were only holding our ground by sheer force of desperation… We loaded up our little guns with canister and sent a rattle of hail into the Federals as they came up over the crest of the hill.
That little battery shot harder and faster, with a sort of human energy, as though it realized that it was to hold the thousands of Federals at bay or the battle was lost…”
Adjutant William Owen states that the location of Captain Miller’s battery at the Battle of Fredericksburg was: “…On the left of the Fourth company [Eshleman] came the Third Company, under Capt. Miller, Lieut. McElroy, with two 12-pounder Napoleons. On the left of the third, Capt. Squires was posted…” All trace of Miller’s artillery gun pits was eliminated due to land regrading in 1866 and 67. This occurred within the National Cemetery to provide sufficient acreage suitable for burial plots. In Owen’s description we understand that Miller’s gun pits were between Eshleman and Squires, but where? Was he midway between, closer to one or the other of the adjacent batteries? We cannot tell from Owen’s description.
To help find Miller’s position, I turned to several contemporary sources. The first is the map that I used in a previous post (click here) dealing with Eshleman’s battery. This map was drawn to illustrate the attack by General Humphreys in the closing hours of the Battle of Fredericksburg. On the map, we see three distinct fortified areas on Willis Hill. These are located to the south, or to the left of what was mistakenly labeled as ‘Lee House’. These, presumably, are the battery locations of the Washington artillery.
This map seems to indicate that the three batteries were evenly spaced along the heights. I circled Miller’s possible position in yellow.
Using the Waud panoramic drawing of the battle, Miller’s position appears to be closer to the Eshleman battery, assuming there were three distinct locations.
When I enlarge the Waud drawing, you can see individual gun pits that would have contained Miller’s two Napoleon cannons. Note the stand of immature trees scattered to the right or north of Miller with notable rifle smoke emerging amongst the trees. This could possibly have been the 46th or 48th North Carolina or the 7th South Carolina volunteer infantry regiment, known to have fought from this area of the ridge line during the battle.
Keying off the Waud drawing, we next look at the familiar 1864 Brady photo taken from Federal Hill that shows Marye’s Heights. I highlighted Miller’s position in yellow, between Eshleman’s and Squires’ batteries. Between Miller and Squires, there is a section of small trees and undergrowth which obscure some of the ridge line that clearly showed up in the Waud drawing.
Enlarging the photograph, we can clearly see the immature trees found in the Waud drawing to the right of Miller’s position.
Just to the left of the word ‘Miller’, inside the yellow oval, you can make out the incline or sloping earth of a gun pit. Note the lighter tone of grey behind and to the left of this gun pit. Then again, I may have been looking at the photo too long…
Having said all of this, we are still only guessing as to Miller’s real location. In my opinion, it is a reasonable guess. If you were to go out to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery today, I would place Miller’s Battery in the vicinity of the tall flag pole. This is along the long face of Willis Hill not far from the point where the ridgeline makes a ten to fifteen degree dog-leg turn to the southwest.
I have placed Miller’s Battery location upon the AC Russell photograph. This picture was taken May 3rd, 1863 during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg viewed from east side of the Rappahannock River. During that May, 1863 engagement, Miller’s Battery location was NOT occupied by the Confederates.
On the ridgeline north of Miller’s Battery you can see both of the Mitchell buildings that I discussed in a previous post (click here).
The next familiar Brady photo is taken looking south along the Willis Hill from Squires battery. I noted the general position of Miller’s Battery. The resolution is too dim to make out any detail of the gun pits.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Lieutenant Colonel EP Alexander and General Lee’s engineers as they placed the Confederate gun pits. What might they have taken into consideration during that process? What areas might they wished the guns to dominate? While Alexander wrote of selecting positions based upon where the Federal artillery was placed, we also know that General Lee’s strategy did not involve counter-battery fire. Confederates saved their ammunition for massed Union infantry.
General Longstreet, in a note passed to Colonel Walton and other commanders on the morning of December 11th , said in part: “…Gen. Longstreet does not wish you to enter into an artillery duel. Fire deliberately and with effect at the infantry and pontoons”. Late that day, Longstreet provided additional guidance to the guns: “…Gen. Longstreet wishes you to be in readiness with your batteries to open on them, and thoroughly rake the streets of the town….”
Most of the guns placed on Willis Hill were not long range pieces. Eshleman and Miller were armed with howitzers and Napoleons (click here for more information on Confederate artillery). Only Squires’ Battery was armed with artillery rifles. The Rappahannock River was a mile (1,600 meters) east of Willis Hill. This distance is generally accepted as the limit of a Napoleon. Federal artillery located on Stafford Heights was clearly outside of this range. It is more likely that Alexander targeted natural choke points. These included streets exiting the town, the area of the railroad depot, bridges over the canal-ditch and obstacles like buildings, fence lines and the brick yard. These were areas where the Union troops would be funneled before they could line up in combat formation.
While locating Eshleman and Squires’ batteries, I was helped by accounts written by William Owen or other participants. Such is not the case for Miller and the 3rd Company. Geier in his archaeological work in 2002 on Willis Hill north of the National Cemetery, places both Squires AND Miller in gun pits at the northern end of Willis Hill. I am not convinced this was the case. A copy of this report can be found at headquarters of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. I relied upon maps, photographs and drawings to find a reasonable location for Miller’s Battery.
This graphic created for an earlier post (click here) on the Washington Artillery shows likely target areas for their guns. It is a 3-dimensional rendering of a map of Fredericksburg. I use it to provide some understanding of the targets at which the guns were aimed. The Washington Artillery only had to reposition one Napoleon because it could not fire upon the advancing Union hosts. Colonel Walton tells us it was relocated during the battle to a location in between other gun pits. Late in the afternoon of the battle the Washington Artillery ran out of ammunition. Walton noted that they had only a few solid shot left. Those solid rounds could only be fired by their Napoleons. They were replaced by guns of Alexander’s Reserve battalion to blunt the charge of General Humphrey’s division at the end of the day. Fire from Confederate infantry and confusion among the attackers and Union troops from previous attacks ended this last attack.
In conclusion, the Washington Artillery battalion was ideally suited for its location on Willis Hill. They had the proper weapons for the task assigned. All other Confederate artillery batteries supplemented the Washington Artillery position during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Only the Donaldsonville Artillery Battery could fire directly upon the advancing Union troops in front of Marye’s Heights. These guns were located upon what is now the main campus of Mary Washington University. I will cover this unit in a future post.
Owen, William Miller, In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, Boston: Ticknor, 1885, reprinted by Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1999. p 175-180.
Longstreet, James, Lieutenant General, CSA, Battles & Leaders, Vol II, p 669.
Merritt B. Miller, http://www.washingtonartillery.com/
Brady photo of Part of battlefield, Fredericksburg, VA NARA, 524553.jpg, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Part_of_the_Battlefield,_Fredericksburg,_Va_-_NARA_-_524553.jpg
AJ Russell photo of View of Fredericksburg, VA, NARA 524782.jpg https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_of_Fredericksburg,_Va_-_NARA_-_524782.jpg
Brady photo of Confederate Works at Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg VA, National Archives 111-B-509, https://research.archives.gov/id/524926
Alfred Waud, Attack on the rebel works. Fredericksburg. Dec. 13th  LOC DRWG/US-Waud, no. 189, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004660277/
Michler 1867 map of Fredericksburg https://www.loc.gov/item/99439215/
General Humphreys attack map – http://civilwar.fredericksburg.com/Battle/maps/map_fred_na_34-2349a.jpg
Terrain Navigator – Virginia [Fredericksburg, 38077-C4-TF-024]
Related posts are:
Civil War Artillery
Confederate Artillery Dominance
Washington Artillery (part 1) Battalion
Washington Artillery (part 2) Eshleman’s Battery
Washington Artillery (part 3) Squires’ Battery