The Donaldsonville Artillery Battery of Louisiana was formed on August 8, 1837. It was mustered into Confederate service in August 1861. Captain Victor Auguste Maurin was the battery commander. The battery participated in most of the engagements of the Army of Northern Virginia from Yorktown to Appomattox Courthouse.
On September 13th, 1861, the Donaldsonville Artillery numbered 103 gunners. They were mostly Creoles and Cajuns from Donaldsonville, Louisiana and the surrounding Ascension and Assumption Parishes. In addition, there were descendants of Spanish settlers, Irish Catholic laborers, and French immigrants. They were mustered into Confederate service for three years or the duration of the war. Victor Maurin was mustered in at age 43. He had been a successful businessman in Donaldsonville where he had served as postmaster, an alderman and city treasurer, and mayor for two terms until his resignation in 1861.
On Saturday, October 5th, 1861, the Donaldsonville Artillery arrived in Richmond Virginia by rail. On Wednesday November 6th, they received orders to report for duty to Major General Magruder in Yorktown. Their war had begun!
At Fredericksburg, they were one of four batteries of the artillery assigned to Major General Richard H. Anderson’s Division in the 1st Corps under General James Longstreet. In assigning batteries to man the strong line of Confederate artillery on Marye’s Heights, Lieutenant Colonel E.P. Alexander was directed if two artillery battalions were not sufficient to occupy the redoubts on the line he was to “call on any suitable brigade battery near”. Alexander selected the Donaldsonville Artillery battery to occupy the four individual gun pits located just north of the Plank Road (now William Street). The first two pits north of the Plank Road were manned by 10-pounder Parrott rifles under command of Lieutenant R. Prosper Landry. The next two pits held a 3-inch Ordnance rifle and a 6-pound smooth-bore gun under the command of Lieutenant Camille Mollere. The distance between the first and last pit was “about four hundred yards”. Maurin’s remaining two guns, 6-pounder smooth bores, were held in reserve under cover of the hills.
In 1867 the Michler-Weyss survey team plotted the Confederate field positions in their field survey notes. The four gun pits occupied by the Donaldsonville Artillery Battery were very clear. If you look closely at the field notes, you can see that each gun pit appears to have two firing embrasures. It is likely that the gun pits were enlarged to accommodate the two firing ports following the battle in December. During this time the Confederates were improving all of their defenses. The connecting infantry trench line found in between the artillery positions were also added after the battle.
The first 10-pound Parrott rifle was located in a pit just north of the Plank road.
This gun pit is located on the grounds of Mary Washington University. Of the four gun pits, it is the only one to survive. For clarity, I label this gun pit number one. This gun was aligned to fire east along the Plank Road towards the Rappahannock River.
Captain Maurin tells us in his official report of the battle that on “Saturday morning [December 12th], a column of the enemy being seen crossing the street of which the Plank road is a prolongation, a few shot from the first piece forced it to take another line of march behind the brow of the hills…”
The initial alignment of the gun positions took advantage of firing down roads perpendicular to the river. The fourth gun, the 6-pound smooth bore, was limited to firing at Union troops who took shelter at the incomplete Mary Washington Monument and the city grave yard adjacent to William Street.
Captain Maurin continued;”… but when his heavy columns [the Union infantry] debouched from the town and were marching across the valley in line of battle to attack our lines, the second and third pieces were the only guns that could be brought to bear on them …”
The middle two guns, the second 10-pound Parrot rifle and the 3-inch Ordnance rifle, were the only Donaldsonville guns that substantially took part in the fighting on December 13, the day of the battle. Lieutenant Landry, located with his second gun, said of their positioning “Until we saw them advancing, we had no idea of the splendid position of that gun. It could enfilade them as easy as rolling off a log…and we did it with a hearty good will.” These two guns could fire along the shallow valley along which the canal ditch flowed from Hanover Street to the brick yard near the train station.
At 10:30 in the morning, General Lee ordered Longstreet’s guns to test the ranges. A half-hour later Longstreet sent word that the batteries were to open fire through the streets or at any points when Union troops were seen about the city.
Looking at the Michler survey sketch overlay on the existing grounds of Mary Washington University, we see how the gun pit locations conformed to the terrain.
Maurin described how the Union artillery located on the eastern side of the Rappahannock attempted to eliminate one or more of his gun pits on the 11 December. “As soon as the fog that covered us until 9 a.m. had disappeared, the enemy opened fire on me from his numerous field batteries and heavy guns on the opposite bank of the river, his shots falling around, some striking the works, but none doing any injury. This he repeated at intervals each succeeding to orders, I withheld my fire until late in the evening, when the enemy came down to cross, but the increasing darkness preventing me from seeing the effects of my shots, I ceased firing.”
Maurin continued; “…The enemy was now seen coming down in force from the opposite hills [on the eastern side of the Rappahannock probably adjacent to the Lacy House, called Chatham] in order to cross. The distance was rather too great for much accuracy, yet a shell from my 10-pounder Parrott [likely from gun pit #2] proved effective, bursting in the midst of an advancing column, causing it to stagger, making some run, and sending the mounted officers to arrest the flight of the fugitives. That this shot effected more than a mere panic was attested, a short time after, by the arrival in that spot of four ambulances, which returned with their load of killed and wounded.”
Captain Maurin commented on the effectiveness of Union counter-battery fire during the battle “….and so effectually [were his middle two guns] that the enemy brought forward, immediately in front, on the edge of the town, eight pieces, which opened on me so furiously that they succeeded in diverting my fire, but not before I had fired more than 200 rounds. Their shots were so well directed that I could only occasionally give a round to the infantry whenever the opportunity occurred. What harm I did them their smoke, as well as mine, prevented me from seeing, yet I saw one shell burst fairly among one of his detachments…”
Landry also recorded that a “number of sharpshooters from many windows before us began to send us those little bullets which kill more men than your big cannon balls. These guns soon got the range on us to such a fine point that almost every shot hit the epaulments of our pit and ricocheted over our heads. We had to load and fire kneeling”.
“…a company of sharpshooters advanced on my left, but a few well-directed shots from Mollere’s section drove them back into the town.” Mollere’s far left gun pit faced Mary Washington’s monument and the graveyard near the Plank Road (William Street). During the Union charges against the heights many soldiers seeking shelter, crawled out of the canal ditch up to the monument and the grave yard nearby. These soldiers then fired their rifles against their tormentors, the artillery. In response to their fire, a message was sent them to flush them out. The request to shell the monument was refused. They consented to fire a few shots on the cemetery. The Union fire from this source ceased.
One of the things I find fascinating about this battery is the fact that late on the 13th, one small, seemingly insignificant, but specific action, was written about by both sides in some detail. This incident involved the second 10-pounder Parrott rifle under Lt. Prosper Landry and 91st and 126th Pennsylvania Regiments of General Tyler’s 1st Brigade in General Humphreys’ Division. This attack was the last made by the Union on this approach. It began around 3:30 P.M. in the afternoon and finished when it was too dark to see movement. Tyler’s brigade was the second of two brigades in General Humphreys’ attack. The incident occurred as the troops waited on the field while the other brigade formed up and launched its attack. They were positioned on the northern side of Hanover Street on swampy ground, known locally as Gordon’s Marsh. It is also possible that they were in the area of the ice pond. In any case, they were bunched up rather than being in line formation.
Colonel Edgar M. Gregory of the 91st Pennsylvania Infantry captured the incident in his official report; “About 3.30 o’clock the regiment, along with the brigade, moved off to the battle-field, via one of the main roads leading from the city toward the rear, and, crossing the canal or creek, took our position on the left of the road [Hanover Street]. We halted but a short time here, when we were ordered to move to the right of the road, beneath a hill (beyond which the enemy’s batteries were posted), our right resting in the meadow, near a tan-yard. While in this position the enemy moved a gun from one of the earthworks on our right, and placed it in position to enfilade our lines. They immediately commenced shelling our position, and I have to report the following as the casualties in this regiment, in consequence of the fire of the rebels at this place, viz: One lieutenant severely wounded, since died, 6 men killed, and 1 man wounded.”
“We were immediately removed to our former position, on the left of the road, where we remained until directed to prepare for assaulting the rebel works.”
My next post will cover the details of this incident from both the Confederate and Union point of view.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. R.E. Lee, A Biography, Vol 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1934. P 456.
Landry, R. Prosper. The Donaldsonville Artillery at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Southern Historical Society Papers, XXIII, 199.
Harrison, Noel G. A Tour of Civil War Sights on the University of Mary Washington Central Grounds , Center for Historic Preservation University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA. 2008.
Marshall, Michael, Gallant Creoles, A History of the Donaldsonville Canonniers, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, Lafayette LA, 2013
OR 21, 438-40, Colonel Edgar M. Gregory, Ninety-First Pennsylvania Infantry.
OR 21, 620, Captain Victor Maurin, Donaldsonville Artillery Battery.
Michler-Weyss Survey Books, cupboard 1, shelf 5, box 9, book 6, Record Group 77, National Archives, Washington, DC. 1867.
Michler 1867 map of Fredericksburg https://www.loc.gov/item/99439215/