Union Action at the Poor House

On the day of the Union attack against Marye’s Heights, two batteries of Union artillery supported these attacks from lower Fredericksburg. They were Lieutenant George Dickinson’s Battery E, 4th US Light Artillery and Captain Charles A. Phillips 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery; alternatively known as Battery E of the Massachusetts Light Artillery (I will use the former designation for simplicity). Choice in placement of these batteries quite literally meant the difference between life and death. Both batteries are described using as landmarks high ground near the Poor House and a brick yard. First, let me review where the Poor House was located. As you saw in my previous post (click here) the Poor House, also known locally as the Academy or the Gunnery, was a prominent feature. It was located on some of the highest ground in lower Fredericksburg. It could easily be seen by the Washington Artillery batteries stationed on Willis Hill, as well as those artillery units stationed on Lee’s Hill and other batteries further south (click here).

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This is a section of the 1867 Michler map of Fredericksburg. I highlight selected Confederate (Red) and Union (Yellow) batteries. The overlay of modern streets (white) provides an indication of development between 1860 and 2016. Railroad development is in green.

Union Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox reported “No good positions were found for the light batteries by Captain Edwards, chief of [9th Corps] artillery, but several were brought into action afterward by other officers, and did some service.”

Early in the conflict, Lieutenant Dickenson’s Battery E, 4th US Artillery was directed by General Sturgis to a point near a brick kiln. His battery was armed with four 10-pound Parrott Rifles. General Willcox reported “About noon of the 13th, I directed the Second Division to support General Couch’s attack, then about to begin. General Sturgis promptly got his troops in readiness, and selected a point near a brick-kiln for Dickenson’s horse artillery.

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John L. Knight’s Poor House (yellow) and Brick Yard (blue) placed on the 1867 Michler map of Fredericksburg. Mercer Square (red) and the two railroad are added for clarity.

As you saw previously, the Poor House and the brick yard and kilns of John L. Knight were located on high ground near the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad tracks. This was an exposed position with little or no cover. General Willcox’s report continues;

 “As soon as Couch’s left began to break, General Sturgis advanced four regiments of Ferrero’s brigade, under cover of Dickenson’s battery, now in position. General Ferrero succeeded in checking the advance of the enemy on the left of the Second Corps, and drove him back to his cover of stone wall and rifle-pits. But the gallant Dickenson fell gloriously at his post, and his battery suffered considerably in men and horses, under a concentrated fire of artillery and some musketry.”

Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis reported that “Lieutenant Dickenson’s battery, Fourth U. S. Artillery, was held in readiness to take up a position on a bluff to the left and front of the brick-kiln, with a view to driving the enemy from behind a stone fence, used by his sharpshooters as a breastwork… As soon as Lieutenants Dickenson’s battery opened, the enemy concentrated a very heavy artillery fire upon it, and I was forced in less than a quarter of an hour to withdraw it, Lieutenant Dickenson and some 4 men and a number of horses having been killed and many others wounded”.

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Lieutenant Dickenson’s battery (red) was placed on high ground near the brick yard (blue) and the Poor House (yellow). This 2016 aerial with topographic lines shows a modern parking lot underneath Dickenson at the top left which distorts our understanding of the terrain as it was in 1862.

Second Lieutenant John Egan took over command of Dickenson’s battery upon the latter’s death. Egan reported that “About 12 o’clock on the 13th, in obedience to your orders, Lieutenant George Dickenson brought the battery into position on the crest of a hill near the left of General Couch’s line of battle, and within about 1,200 yards of the earthworks of the enemy. Before the first piece was in position, the enemy opened from his earthworks, and sharpshooters from concealed places singled out the men of the battery. For the first ten minutes, seeing no infantry, we replied to their fire from the earthworks, but with no effect. After seeing a few skirmishers, we directed our fire upon them while the battery was in position. In the meantime the enemy changed his projectiles from solid to shell and case shot, which burst just at the point to make most destructive, and continually their fragments and bullets hailed upon the battery. In less than twenty minutes the commanding officer and 12 of the cannoneers were killed or wounded. Twice all the cannoneers were driven from the pieces. Seeing by remaining longer all my men would be destroyed, and that I was producing but little effect upon the enemy, and certainly not enough to justify such destruction of life, after thirty minutes I retired the battery and reported the fact to you. According to orders, I drew into the street. Just as I had my ammunition re-arranged, I received orders from General Hooker to go into position on the left of his line, and remained there until 12 o’clock Monday night, when I withdrew, by your order. I expended about 30 rounds of ammunition to each piece.”

“The following is the list of casualties, as shown by report dated January 2, 1863-Killed: officers, 1; enlisted men, 2. Wounded-enlisted men, 10. One horse killed and 4 wounded.”

Later in the day, Captain Charles A. Phillips, 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery was directed by Captain Stephen W. Weed commanding 9th Corps artillery, to a position near the same bluff previously occupied by Lieutenant Dickenson’s E/4 US artillery battery. Captain Phillips selected a defilade position which protected his battery, yet allowed him to fire on the Confederates. This position, as you shall see, was constrained. He used only four of his six guns. Whether this was due to the terrain limitations or lack of sufficient men to operate his 3-inch Ordnance Rifles is unclear.

“About 4 p.m. on the 13th, by orders from Captain Weed, I crossed the river by the pontoon bridge opposite the lower part of Fredericksburg, and came into battery between the poor-house and some brick-yards. The enemy immediately opened on us from several pieces of artillery on the hills in our front, killing 1 of my men and wounding 1. I opened upon the enemy’s infantry, behind a stone wall at the bottom of the hill, with what effect I cannot say. After dark, having fired 107 rounds of shell and shrapnel, I withdrew the battery, by orders of Captain Weed, and bivouacked in the city.”

The next day Phillips noted in a letter, “In Battery between Fredericksburg Poor House and a Brick Kiln, 2 ½ p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, 1862 …The infantry of the Division crossed over, and about 3 o’clock Captain Weed sent for my Battery… I crossed and came into battery on this ground, my guns pointed over a crest of a hill. Our infantry were deployed in front, and the enemy about 1000 yards in front of us, their infantry at the bottom of a hill behind a stone wall, and their batteries on top of the hill, 100 ft. higher than we were. As soon as we got in position, we opened on them and they on us. We devoted out attention to their infantry without minding their batteries, while their artillery paid close attention to us. They made some good shots, the Poor House being riddled through… Corporal Platts, a fine young fellow, was killed by a shrapnell shot. Brand, a new recruit, slightly bruised and badly frightened by a shell which killed the horse he was on and another one. Five horses killed and several scratched. Mine was struck in the flank…”

In a letter home, written in the safety of camp near Falmouth on the last day of 1862, Captain Phillips sheds further light on his fight.

I was in the fight but did not go in until 4 p.m. on the 13th I did not see the principal part, nor could I see the whole field. I had a view of the rebel batteries, and they were kind enough to send quite a number of their shells towards the spot I was, so I ascertained their guns to be 12 pdrs. And 3 inch chiefly. I lost men and several horses. We were in a position on the left… The right of the Battery rested on a brick kiln, the left on the Fredericksburg Poor House. The Telegraph Road and the stone wall were 1000 yards in front of us…”.

…Passing up a nearby street at right angles with the river, we went into position on sloping ground where we were covered from the enemy’s fire from Marye’s Heights, the left of the Battery resting close to a two story brick building which had been the city’s asylum for the poor. Our right rested on a bank where the clay had been dug out for brick-making, and near the railroad [to their front], which passed near, curving past our front. The ground was cramped, the guns were in reduced intervals, close to one another. We could see the fight going on to our right over the plain, where Edward’s battery had been. The brick house stood on the side of the hill, the ground receding rapidly to its north front facing the city, thus forming a basement… We commenced firing at the rebel batteries with our rifled guns. After loading them, we would run them up the slope by hand, so the muzzles would clear the bank, take aim and fire, the guns running back to be reloaded…”

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Captain Phillips battery (red) was located between the brick yard (blue) and the Poor House (yellow) on sloping ground that provided protection from Confederate artillery fire. Note his position relative to that of Lieutenant Dickenson’s battery. By the time Phillips arrived at 4 PM, Dickenson had long since withdrawn.

…Passing up a nearby street at right angles with the river, we went into position on sloping ground where we were covered from the enemy’s fire from Marye’s Heights, the left of the Battery resting close to a two story brick building which had been the city’s asylum for the poor. Our right rested on a bank where the clay had been dug out for brick-making, and near the railroad [to their front], which passed near, curving past our front. The ground was cramped, the guns were in reduced intervals, close to one another. We could see the fight going on to our right over the plain, where Edward’s battery had been. The brick house stood on the side of the hill, the ground receding rapidly to its north front facing the city, thus forming a basement… We commenced firing at the rebel batteries with our rifled guns. After loading them, we would run them up the slope by hand, so the muzzles would clear the bank, take aim and fire, the guns running back to be reloaded…”

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Confederate defensive batteries available available to fire upon Lieutenant Dickenson and Captain Phillips’ batteries during the Battle of Fredericksburg. By late afternoon when Captain Philips took up the fight, both of the 30# Parrott Rifles had exploded and were out of action.

So in his own words, we learn that Captain Phillips used terrain to his advantage. He used the slope as a natural parapet to fire over. As each gun fired, its recoil pushed it down the slope into a defilade position which saved all but one man from injury.

From Captain Phillip’s “Diary December 13th, 1862. Crossed the river about 4 p.m. came into Battery and opened. The enemy fired on us from several guns in commanding entrenchments, killing Corporal E.M. Platts and several horses… Fired about 100 rounds, — 47 Hotchkiss shell, 60 Schenkle Perc. Fuse Shrapnell.”

 On 16 December, Lieutenant Scott of the battery noted “While in the fight at Fredericksburg, [Brigadier] General [Charles] Griffin had instructed Captain Phillips to confine the most of his fire to the Telegraph Road, coming past the center of the rebel lines, to prevent reinforcements from their flank on their Right.”  General Griffin may well have had another thought in mind in his instructions to Captain Phillips. He may have feared friendly fire accidents from Phillip’s rifled guns, due to premature explosions of some rounds. This was not an uncommon issue for both armies’ artillery ammunition early in the Civil War. By firing at the left of the Confederate infantry position along Telegraph Road (Sunken Road) from Phillips position on the far left of the attack, General Griffin would have prevented this from occurring. The majority of his shots would not have flown over the heads of assaulting Union troops.

 Lieutenant Scott reported that “Sunday, December 14th, 1862, opened clear and quite warm… Everything was as still and solemn as a New England Sabbath. We took the shutters off one of the houses and made a box in which the body of Corporal Platts was placed. A grave was dug in an adjoining garden, a Chaplin of the Brigade read the service, and after the body was covered a board was placed at its head, giving his name and Battery.

From Phillip’s Diary: “Sunday, Dec 14, 1862. Buried Platts this morning. About 10 a.m. returned to yesterday’s position… [Captain Augustus P.] Martin’s [3rd Massachusetts] Battery was placed on our left. No shots exchanged. I slept on a sofa in the Poor House.”

 Corporal Edward M. Platts is buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery under stone Number 2742.

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The final resting place of Corporal Edward M. Platts is found at grave 2742 in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. He died of a wound suffered during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The National Park Service provides the following information regarding Platts. He was a member of the 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery, age 18. Occupation at enlistment listed as a clerk. Residence: Boston. Enlisted 29 September, 1861 and mustered in as a Private on 3 December, 1861. He was wounded in the left breast on 13 December, 1862 at Fredericksburg and was admitted to the 1st Division, 5th Corps Hospital near Falmouth. He died of wounds 14 December, 1862. He was originally buried on Rever’s Lot in Fredericksburg.

Final thoughts;

So why did the two Union artillery batteries face such different outcomes in battle?  Dickenson, early in the battle, was poorly placed. He was a sitting duck placed on high open ground. Phillips, on the other hand, observed the fall of Confederate artillery and selected a position that was ideal under the circumstances. He was directed to the same high ground but chose a position with defilade protection. He wisely let the terrain provide cover and stayed in action for two hours until darkness stopped the fighting.

My map selection of the artillery positions differs somewhat from those shown on maps by Frank O’Reilly in his excellent book on the battle, as well as the National Park Service maps of the battle also prepared by Frank. If you look closely at the NPS battle map used above, you can see this difference of position. The essence of both Dickenson’s and Phillips artillery battles, Frank so skillfully describes, is the same; I simply selected a different physical location for the reasons previously stated. The bottom line is that the Union artillery on this end of the field paid a heavy price when not protected.

My next post will focus on the land found in between the two railroads as I continue my investigation of the Union Avenue of Approach number three.

Sources:

Books:

OR XXI, Report of Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox, U. S. Army, commanding Ninth Army Corps. Page 311.

OR XXI, Report of Second Lieutenant John Egan, First U. S. Artillery, commanding Battery E, Fourth U. S. Artillery. Page 318-9.

OR XXI, Report of Captain Charles A. Phillips, Battery E, Massachusetts Light Artillery. Page 407-8.

Members of the Battery, History of the 5th Massachusetts Battery, Luther E Cowles, Boston, 1902. Pages 498, 504, and 517.

O’Reilly, Francis Augustin, The Fredericksburg Campaign, Winter War on the Rappahannock, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2003. Maps at pages 255 and 416. https://www.amazon.com/Fredericksburg-Campaign-Winter-War-Rappahannock/dp/0807131547

Maps:

City of Fredericksburg GIS map site:  http://fredericksburgva.gov/index.aspx?NID=515

National Park Service printed map set of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Michler map of Fredericksburg published in 1867, on file at Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/99439215/

 

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About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
This entry was posted in Cemeteries, Confederate Artillery, Terrain, Union Artillery and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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