I have always been interested in finding out how the terrain of Fredericksburg influenced the Battle of Fredericksburg. I begin this research by looking at one area of the city; the lower or southern end. This area of study is bounded by the Rappahannock River on the east, Hazel Run on the south, and the Fredericksburg, Richmond and Potomac (RF&P) Railroad on the west and north. It is this part of town, just south of the RF&P railroad tracks, that is often neglected by tourists. It was an important area because several Union divisions formed up brigades and regiments here. It was the place to which those troops returned after their failed attempt at Marye’s Heights. This part of Fredericksburg was pillaged, like other sections of town. Its large houses were used as headquarters and hospitals. All the houses and yards and streets sheltered troops. It was the location of the Middle pontoon bridge and hence a battleground on 11 December, 1862. It was battered first by Union artillery in the effort to clear out Confederate riflemen, and then by the Confederates as they attempted to interdict the pontoon bridge and to reach out and strike the Union troops as they moved out of the city on the day of the battle. While there were a few grand houses in this area, most homes were lower in cost than in the rest of town. It was also where you found the Gas Works, the community Poor House, two brick yards and their kilns, a slaughter house, two slave jails or holding facilities and where the canal-ditch (read here) emptied into Hazel Run.
What to call this area; South Fredericksburg, Hazel Hill, as seen on recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) maps, Darbytown, a name adopted in early 20th century, Lower Caroline Street, or what? No matter what we call it, it contains many sites of importance during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It is also an area of historic importance to the development of the city and the region.
The high ground upon which the city is built runs generally along Caroline Street and Princess Anne Street. In my study area, the ground stands at about 50 feet above the Rappahannock River. This elevation drops off to the river on the east and low ground near Hazel Run to the south. Early in Fredericksburg history, a part of the southwestern area was the site of a foundry which made muskets during the American Revolutionary War. The foundry building was converted into a school for about ten years after the foundry building fell into disuse. That education effort lent its name to a large ten acre plot of land known as ‘The Academy’ lot. This building was later rented to the city as a Poor House which figures as a landmark in the battle.
Fredericksburg’s Docks along the river and the ferry from George Washington’s boyhood home, gained prominence during the Civil War as one of the three Union pontoon bridge locations; the Middle Crossing. This was the scene of a cross river assault by the 89th New York regiment on December 11, 1862.
In 1856, Edward Sachse & Co. of Baltimore published View of Fredericksburg, VA. This was an accurate birds eye view depiction of the entire city, looking west across the Rappahannock River. It shows a city with a population of approximately 5,000 people, a quarter of which were enslaved. This panoramic chromolithograph was created using artists who sketched buildings, some of which are shown across the bottom of the image, and gathering enough technical data so they could put the whole city together in one view. This technique had been used to depict a number of other cities at the time.
Frank Vizitelli, a noted sketch artist of the period, provided a view of the city from the opposite direction. This drawing was made on December 11th while the Union was constructing the Pontoon bridges to capture Fredericksburg. His point of view is from Lee’s Hill looking east towards the river. He captured my study area at a distance of a mile and a quarter (2,200 meters). Hazel Hill is the tall building found on the right and the train depot is on the left. I used his drawing in a previous blog, to locate Eshleman’s battery of the Washington Artillery on Willis Hill (see here).
Hazel Hill was the name of a large three-story house or mansion located at the end of Princess Anne Street. It overlooked Hazel Run valley and the Rappahannock River. At the time of the Civil War, it was the home of John Slaughter, Mayor of Fredericksburg, and his family. That building with its prominent ornamented copula was a Union signal station and served as an observation point for Union Major General George W. Getty on the day of battle on December 13th. Units from his division made use of what I term ‘Avenue of Approach A-3’ to attack the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights. In 1864 it used as a Union hospital gaining the name ‘Amputation Hospital’ during the Wilderness and Sprttsylvania battles.
The following three dimensional mapping depicts my study area shows the initial height advantage the Confederate defenders had on December 11th during the river assault by Union troops. It also depicts the subsequent protection for Union troops along the river edge from Confederate artillery. It shows the low ground along Hazel Run ending at more high ground along the RF&P railroad tracks. You see the area being named ‘Hazel Hill’ by the USGS on this 1960’s quad map.
Next I turn your attention to the events of December 11, 1862; the day of the Union river assault that became necessary to safely construct the Union pontoon bridges. Bridges used to cross up to 60,000 Union troops and all their supplies and equipment. On the morning of the 11th, Confederate troops, under the command of Brigadier General William Barksdale, occupied positions designed to impede the Union from occupying Fredericksburg. The location of Union pontoon bridges were strongly suspected because in that the previous April the Union built pontoon bridges at the same location, during the Peninsula Campaign. Confederate riflemen hid in basements and buildings overlooking these sites. Union engineers took casualties while attempting to construct their ponderous pontoon bridges. General Burnside replied by bombarding the immediate river front with cannon fire to drive out the Confederate defenders. This continued four times from early morning until mid-afternoon it was clear that a solution based upon only artillery fire was not going to accomplish getting the bridges built. It was then that the novel, and until then, untried solution of a cross-river assault was proposed by General Henry Hunt. The first assault occurred at the upper crossing site. This was followed by the 89th New York at the Middle bridge; 100 men crossed in four pontoon boats manned by the 15th New York Engineers. Once the Confederate defenders were killed, captured or were driven off, the pontoon bridges were quickly completed. Barksdale’s Brigade not only stalled the Union bridging effort, they gained valuable time for General Lee to gather all Confederate troops for his defense of Fredericksburg.
Report of Colonel H.S. Fairchild, 89th New Your Regiment.
…”At 3:15 p.m. I received an order from General Burnside, directing me to detail from my regiment 4 officers and 100 men, to be sent over tin pontoon boats to the south [west] shore, to take possession of the houses on either side of the landing, and hold them until the bridge was completed… Each detachment took possession of the places designated, capturing in their charge 65 prisoners, including 4 commissioned officers, and holding these positions until the bridge was completed. In the meantime I launched another boat and sent over the balance of the regiment before the bridge was completed, occupying the city opposite the bridge shortly after 4 o’clock that day.”
Over the next two days after the city was secured, Union troops poured across the river. During this time, the much pummeled and burned city was occupied. Union troops, almost out of frustration, pillaged and looted. The record is full of reports and letters sent home of Union troops, some drunk others not, that talk about throwing books, dishes, toys, furniture and clothes out of windows and doors into the streets in an orgy of wanton destruction.
In the interim, General Burnside and his senior commanders planned the upcoming battle. Gone was any hope of a quick surprise attack. By the day of the battle on the 13th, Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson marched his troops into position at Prospect Hill at the southern end of the battle. General Lee had sufficient time to consolidate General Longstreet’s Corps northward. He positioned Jackson’s Corps to cover the lower two miles in depth, while General Longstreet’s Corps used terrain to cover the northern five miles. Longstreet’s area of responsibility included Mercer Square,the city’s fairgrounds upon which my blog is focused.
On the following Michler map of my study area, I placed Union divisions that crossed into the city in preparation for the battle. By the start of the battle, they were not all across the river. Some units did not move over until the day of the main battle on the 13th. I based the unit placement on an article by historian Frank O’Reilly published in Blue and Gray magazine in 2008.
You can see what the area looked like in this National Archives photograph by Andrew J. Russell taken in May, 1863. It is from the eastern shore of the Rappahannock River looking west. The burned RF&P railroad bridge is located on the right or north end of the photo. It extends on the left to just past Princess Elizabeth Street; this is almost as far as the location of the middle pontoon bridge. In the background we can make out Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill. In the middle background, you can see smoke from the second battle of Fredericksburg, then underway on the morning of 3 May, 1863.
I follow Russell’s photo with an extract of work by historian John Hennessy showing the 1860 buildings in Fredericksburg. On the left side is Prussia Street and the adjacent train depot that figure prominently in many accounts of the battle. Caroline and Princess Anne Streets lead to the Gas Works and Hazel Hill is on the right edge. The Poor House and one of the brick yards is found at the bottom, while the Rappahannock River with its docks or wharfs is on the top.
The ever present danger of artillery from both sides, and the noxious fumes from the Gas Works downstream made for unpleasant companions for Union troops located here before and after the battle. Here are a few accounts written by participants.
William Miller Owen of the Washington Artillery reported “When day dawned on the 12th the whole valley between us and the town was covered with a dense fog, which shut everything from our view. About 2 P.M. it finally cleared away, and we could see the Stafford Heights densely crowded with troops. At 3 P.M. a column was observed marching down to cross one of the pontoon bridges; but a few well-directed shots from our guns checked it, and caused it to halt and then retire.
“At 4 P.M. a large force of the enemy appearing near the gas-works, our guns opened, and, being fired with an accurate aim, scattered it. Our position on the hill afforded fine opportunities for the gunners to show their marksmanship, and all were trying to do their best, for, when a good shot was made, the boys applauded. Gunners John Payne and Parsons [from Captain Squires’ first company of rifled guns] made the best shots today.”
Report of Major Martin P Buffum, Fourth Rhode Island Infantry.
“During the day, until about sunset, the Fourth Rhode Island lay, with its brigade, near the [middle] pontoon bridge, changing its position once a few paces, to secure partial protection from the enemy’s fire under the hillside. While there, several of the men were wounded by shellfire from one for our own batteries [Captain Diederich’s A/1 NY, 4 20# Parrott Rifles] across the river, very many of which exploded in our immediate vicinity.”
Diary of Lieutenant S. Millett Thompson, 13th New Hampshire Regiment.
“…Early this morning the 13th, with the [First] Brigade [General Getty’s Division], moves from Caroline St. to the riverbank near the Gas Works, and just below the pontoon bridge which we crossed the night of Dec. 11. We reach our position on the river bank at eight o’clock.
“… Part of the 13th are lying about you on the grass at the south side of the Gas Works, … The rest of the 13th are near about, preserving no particular order… all making themselves as comfortable as the dirt and mud, the extremely offensive Gas Works, and the clouds of gunpowder smoke will permit.
“The rest of the Brigade are nearby, and very similarly disposed. The river bank shelves down to a muddy street and wharf all along… Our position on the grassy bank, or on the open ground exposes us to the flying pieces of many of the enemy’s shells intended for the cannoneers of our batteries on the… bluffs across the river, but bursting short of their mark; while many shells from our own guns, on those very bluffs, bursting as soon as they leave the guns, pour their jagged pieces thrown into the river, and upon the hither bank among our men. The water is in a constant state of disturbance made by them. Many men of our brigade are wounded here by pieces of shells and their lead rings.”
In my next post, I will continue this investigation how the terrain influenced the battle of Fredericksburg, focusing on the areas that some of the Union troops moved.
Harrison, Noel G., Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume Two, December 1862 – April 1865, H.E. Howard, Inc., Lynchburg, 1995, p 211-14.
Official Records of the War of Rebellion, Serial 31, Series 1, Vol 21, p 353.
Owen, Willian Miler, In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery, … p182-3.
Thompson, S. Millett, Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865; A Diary Covering three years and a Day. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 188. p 45-49.
Magazine: O’Reilly, Frank A., Attack at the Stone Wall, Blue and Gray Magazine, XXV, #4, 2008.
Drawing: Harvard University, Houghton Library, modbm_ms_am_1585_20_recto
NA 111-B-362A, https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4166197579