In 1885 S. Millett Thompson, former lieutenant of the 13th New Hampshire (NH) Volunteer Regiment, revisited Fredericksburg and other sites in Virginia that he and the 13th NH marched and fought through during the Civil War. He had last been there during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th, 1862. His regiment had been part of General Burnside’s last assault against Marye’s Heights. This assault had been undertaken by five regiments of Colonel Rush C. Hawkins’ 1st Brigade part of Brigadier General George W. Getty’s 3rd Division. Upon Thompson’s return home from this memorable trip to Fredericksburg he began to write a book based upon his wartime diary and letters writing to family members in the late 1870’s. During the writing, he made use of many published sources on the war, interviews with other participants and had the manuscript reviewed by unit members and others for accuracy. The book, in narrative form, was eventually published in 1888. Luckily for us, he included several sketches of the ground over which he passed over during the battle that fateful December day.
In this post, I will compare his principle sketch with the ground as it is today in 2017.I find that his map is generally correct, even at a distance of 154 years since the day of battle. Unfortunately, Thompson’s pacing is off the mark. Assuming his pace or stride was 32 to 36 inches (0.8 to 0.9 meters), the horizontal measurements, using the city’s Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping tool, do not seem to match. What I find most interesting about his sketch is the accuracy of the terrain depicted; i.e. the slope of the hill, the position of the roads and railroads, the national cemetery and the relationship between all of these. Thompson went to great lengths to record this information for his book. His foresight allows us to appreciate what he and his unit did during the battle.
We find the same ground on Michler’s map of 1867. I added notations on Michler’s work in order to orient you with Thompson’s sketch. Only a few Union regiments approached Marye’s Heights from the same direction as Lieutenant’s Thompson unit. The other units would not have noted a “hill” because their assaults were from a different direction and covered different terrain.
Before going further, I will summarize this last attack upon the Confederates located on Marye’s Heights. Initially, it was thought that General Getty’s assault upon the left of the Confederate Sunken Road line would assist General Humphreys attack on the right of that line. However, this effort took too long to get organized and move from the river to the point of attack. Around 5 PM, as night was fast drawing in below the shadow of Marye’s Height, Colonel Russ Hawkins’ troops moved up to the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad. The First Brigade started out with five regiments formed in three lines, two regiments abreast. The first line had the 103rd New York (NY) on the left and the 25th New Jersey (NJ) on the right. This was followed with the 10th New Hampshire (NH) and the 13th NH in the second line and the 89th NY on the right in the third line. The intent was to attack in depth on a narrow front. Advancing at a double-quick trot as they left the RF&P tracks, the brigade angled to the right to stay away from Hazel Run, paralleling the unfinished railroad. The 103rd NY was stopped cold by the thick mud of the marshy ground. The 25th NJ lost the left half of its regiment to the same boggy ground. Its right half and the majority of the 13th NH pushed forward becoming entangled and mixed in the process. The 10th NH was delayed starting and never joined the main body of the brigade. It moved across the unfinished railroad and joined with other Union units in the Swale. The 89th NY followed a different route entirely. It was almost dark. Fire along the Confederate line sputtered to a stop with the conclusion of Humphreys attack. What remained of the First Brigade’s attacking force pushed forward along the unfinished railroad bed. This force then moved obliquely to the right, mounting the steep side of Thompson’s hill, arriving at the flat hill top. Here the green and unseasoned Union troops gave a battle cry which alerted the Confederate defenders who opened fire. The initial volley went over the heads of the Union troops. In the confused fire fight which ensued, the 13th NH dropped to the ground. Both sides fired at the gun flashes of the other. Union fire seemed to fade away first. After 30 to 40 minutes, the Union troops gradually pulled back to the unfinished railroad. Here officers and NCO’s attempted to bring order out of the chaos. This disorganized aggregation withdrew to the RF&P railroad and lower Fredericksburg beyond. The day’s fighting was finished.
From a photograph taken in the 1870’s we can see Thompson’s hill. In the foreground, at the foot of the National Cemetery, we see the road that ran from Fredericksburg to Spotsylvania Courthouse. This road has gone by many names, to include Courthouse Road. In the 1860’s it was called Telegraph Road. During the battle, a portion of it was given the name of Sunken Road. This road was joined by Frederick Street that came out from the city. Due to the location of the two railroads in town, Frederick Street was cut off on the other side of the railroad so the road was realigned north of the railroad tracks to connect to Prussia Street. The upper mile of this road was again renamed National Boulevard because it went to the National Cemetery. During WWI, Prussia Street was renamed Lafayette Boulevard for obvious reasons. The entire road is now Lafayette Blvd and runs from the river to well past the National Cemetery. Confusing?
There have been a number of photographs taken from the National Cemetery looking east towards town. The following shot was taken in the early 1870’s. It provides a good feel for the agricultural nature of this end of town prior to construction of houses between 1890 and 1930.
The fence line that crosses the field in the middle distance is the east-west property line that follows Lafayette Blvd about 170 feet (50 meters) south of the road. Notice how it raises somewhat from where Lafayette follows along the base of the National Cemetery. As it snakes over the land, you get a sense of the topography of the hill. In the early evening of the Thompson assault (Colonel Hawkins’ brigade attack) Thompson moved from the extreme right of the photo towards the plateau found just on the other side of the fence line.
This photo, from the 1870’s, looks west at Thompson’s Hill from the vantage point of the RF&P railroad. If you look closely just below the tip of the arrow pointing to Thompson’s Hill, you can make out the fence line seen in the previous photo. The National Cemetery is in the background. This high ground also known as Willis Hill was the aiming point for Colonel Hawkins’ assault. In the foreground you can see the low marshy ground that, coupled with the deep evening gloom, proved such a disaster to the troops of the 103rd NY, the 25th NJ infantry and some of Thompson’s 13th NH of Colonel Hawkins’ brigade. The unfinished railroad bed traverses the photo from right to left.
This next photo is an aerial shot taken in March 1937 for the purpose of locating farm land in the county. It also captured whatever else was happening on the ground at that point in time. Luckily for us, the area that I call ‘Thompson’s Hill’ is also visible. It is clear from this photo that the land closest to the railroad has been leveled out. Inside the yellow circle, to the right of the arrow head, you can make out a large rectangular building constructed in 1929. This building started out as a shirt factory and then expanded to become a pant factory in 1955 and remained so until it went out of business in 1986. It is now the Gladys Oberle School, the region’s first alternative, special education day school. The open land which is now an athletic field was once a lumber yard serviced by the railroad.
The next photo shows the land as it appears today. I attempted to replicate the 1880’s shot seen above as S3. The toe of Thompson’s Hill would have reached most of the way towards the railroad. The fence line marks the edge of a cut made on the hill which was done in order to flatten out the land for commercial use. The hillside along the fence line was sliced away and the land to the south or right side of the photo was flattened. The school building is in the center between the fence line and the parked automobiles. It is tucked up right against the steep slope. The railroad bed is at the far right with Lafayette Blvd seen at the bottom of the National Cemetery before it turns 90 degrees to the east heading towards downtown Fredericksburg.
Let’s review Thompson’s sketch map again. We can make out Thompson’s line of march from the RF&P railroad on the right. The brigade formed in three lines and attempted to skirt around the low marshy land associated with Hazel Run before making an oblique right turn for the assault on the high ground that I call Thompson’s hill.
Next is the original Sneeden plat of Mercer Square and the surrounding area (click here for further information). This plat was surveyed in 1856. Noted on it are three natural springs which came together prior to going under the railroad bed. These three contributed to the marshy ground upon which so many Union soldiers floundered during the approach march.
I follow this with a portion of the city GIS 2016 aerial photo that has topographical lines in green. I note with interest where the springs were located, as well as the alignment of the then unfinished railroad, Thompson’s Hill, the marshy land and Mercer Square.
Lastly, we look up Willis Street from where it intersects with the unfinished railroad bed. You can make out the Gladys Oberle School just above the automobiles. Directly behind this brick building is a 15 to 20 foot (5-7 meters) cut slope. Above that is what remains of Thompson’s Hill.
Getty’s attack ended in futility. For many in Hawkins Brigade, this was their first fight. The promise of a strong narrow front assault never materialized. Rather the brigade blundered on with, at best, a regiment and a half making the final uncoordinated effort. Casualties were thankfully light considering the forces originally scheduled to attack and when compared with the nearly 7,500 Union casualties reported for the Marye’s Heights part of Burnside’s assault. The 13th NH reported 42 casualties (2 killed, 31 wounded and 6 missing). The 25 NJ reported 85 (6 K, 61 W, 18 M) while the 103rd NY had 25 (3 K, 10 W, 12 M). On this December day, General Lee held all the cards. A Union victory in the Civil War would have to wait for another leader in the future. After Fredericksburg, Lieutenant Thompson and the 13th New Hampshire Regiment fought in many battles in Virginia and acquitted themselves well. They ended the Civil War as part of the occupying force in Richmond, Virginia in 1865.
O’Reilly, Francis Augustin, The Fredericksburg Campaign, Winter War on the Rappahannock, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Pages 412-420. https://www.amazon.com/Fredericksburg-Campaign-Winter-War-Rappahannock/dp/0807131547
Phanz, Donald C., Where Valor Proudly Sleeps, A History of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866 – 1933, Virginia: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park PDF, 2007. P 63 & 153.
Thompson, S. Millett, Thirteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the Rebellion 1861-1865, A Diary Covering Three years and a Day, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1888. Page 43 (map) and 50-57. https://archive.org/details/thirteenthregime88thom
Aero Services Corp, 4 March 1937, # FG4-21 http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/BAH/dam/mg/mg416.htm
Central Rappahannock Heritage Center http://crhcarchives.org/
National Park Service, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park
Michler map of Fredericksburg published in 1867, on file at Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/99439215/
City of Fredericksburg GIS map site: http://fredericksburgva.gov/index.aspx?NID=515