Monday, December 31, 2012

Battle of Stone's River – Day 1

Retreating from the invasion of Kentucky in the fall of 1862, Braxton Bragg pulled back his army to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, eventually taking up a defensive position along Stone's River. His opponent, Don Carlos Buell, was too slow for Abraham Lincoln's liking, so he replaced him with Major General William S. Rosecrans, who had recently won success in the battles of Iuka and Corinth. Although it was clear that the War Department required action from him, he took his time reorganizing his army, and set out towards Bragg on December 26th. The Confederates had launched a cavalry raid under John Hunt Morgan on Union supply lines, and although the raids would impact other armies, such as that of U.S. Grant moving on Vicksburg, Rosecrans continued his movement.

Rosecrans arrived in Murfreesboro on December 29th. He had about 41,000 to Bragg's 35,000. However, the forces were closer than that might appear. Bragg's cavalry under Wheeler was very effective, they day before having ridden around Rosecrans, capturing wagons and prisoners. Bragg also cooperated with detached cavalry forces under Morgan and Forrest. Rosecran's cavalry forces on the other hand were very weak.
Rosecrans at Stone's River

On December 30th, the Union army moved into its lines. The armies were positioned on parallel lines four miles long. Although the Federals did not know it because of the good service of the Confederate cavalry, Bragg's left flank was very weak. So instead he decided to attack the Confederate right and capture the heights across the river, which would give him a good artillery position to bombard the rest of the rebel line. Bragg decided on a similar plan – to strike the Union right. As at the First Battle of Bull Run, the advantage would go to whoever struck first. It was the commanders that made the difference in this battle. Bragg ordered his men to attack at dawn, Rosecrans had his men wait until after breakfast.
Hardee's Attack

At dawn on December 31st, 150 years ago today, the Confederates struck. The 10,000 men of William Hardee's corps struck Union general Richard Johnson's division before they had finished breakfast. As the attack rolled forward, a gap developed in the Confederate line, but it was seamlessly filled by Patrick Cleburne's division. The Union put up a fierce resistance, Johnson's division suffering 50% casualties, but none the less they were driven back three miles. Realizing his army was near disaster, Rosecrans canceled his planned attack. He rode along his lines, covered in the blood of Col. Julius Garesche, who had been beheaded by a cannonball at his chief’s side.

As Hardee's successful attack began to slow, Polk's corps moved forward in a second wave. They encountered serious resistance from Major General Philip Sheridan, who had anticipated an early attack and had his troops ready to meet it. In his area of the Union front was what was called the Slaughter Pen. Fighting continued for four hours before the Confederates finally prevailed. At 11 am, with ammunition running low, Sheridan pulled his division back. He had done well, but his troops had suffered terribly. All the brigade commanders, and one third of the men, had fallen in their defense.
Hell's Half Acre

In the five hours after their attack had began the Confederates had been successful – having driven back the Union lines and captured 28 guns and over 3,000 prisoners. The Union position now hinged on what was called Round Forrest by the locals, a wooded area filled with rock formations, which this day would gain the name Hell's Half Acre. As the Union line was stabilized by the leadership of Rosecrans and others, the Federals beat back Confederate attacks along the line. To complete his victory, Bragg would need more troops. He ordered Breckenridge on the right to move to make this attack. Breckenridge, however, refused. He thought he was facing a large Union force, but they had actually retreated because of the Confederate attacks. When he finally moved forward, he was embarrassed to find the area to his front barren of opposition. When he finally did attack, it was in a piecemeal manner that the Federals were able to repulse. Another attack was tried and it too failed. The battle was over by 4:30 pm.
Breckenridge's Attack

Bragg was convinced he had won a great victory. He telegraphed to Richmond that night,
The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy [the] whole field and shall follow him. General Wheeler with his cavalry made a complete circuit of their army on the 30th and 31st; captured and destroyed 300 wagons loaded with baggage and commissary stores; paroled 700 prisoners. He is again behind them and captured and ordnance train to-day. We secured several thousand stand small-arms. ... God has granted us a happy New Year.
However, his victory was not as sure as he thought. Instead of cutting the Union supply line, the Nashville Pike, the attacks had actually concentrated Federals closer around that point as they fell back under Confederate pressure.
Across the field Rosecrans was holding a council of war to determine what should be done. At first he was inclined to withdraw, but he was convinced otherwise by Gen. George Thomas, later known as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” who said that night, “This army does not retreat!” They did not, and the bloody fighting would continue the next days.

Battle of Parker's Crossroads

Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry commander, after embarking on another of his raids on December 11th, had scored a victory at the Battle of Lexington on the 18th. He would spend the next week destroying railroad tracks crucial to the Union supply lines. As the Union forces began to move towards him, he decided to fall back before he was surrounded and destroyed. As he moved in the vicinity of Parker's Crossroads, Tennessee, he decided to turn and attack the brigade of Col. Cyrus Dunham. Dunham, encountering the Confederate artillery, fell back and formed a defensive line. Forrest ordered his troops to dismount and attack, sending columns around to hit the Union flank while making feints on the front. Forrest, in his usual methods, sent a message to Dunham demanding his unconditional surrender. Dunham refused, but as the battle continued to progress, Forrest was surprised by firing in his rear. Another Union brigade of cavalry under John Fuller had arrived, the Confederate scouts having failed to detect their approach. Outnumbered and surrounded, Forrest did not even think of surrender. "Charge 'em both ways," he ordered. The Confederate troops, turning from Dunham, struck Fuller's force, and after repulsing them moved south, escaping from their dangerous situation. After the battle, Forrest was able to cross the Tennessee River to safety. The Federals had failed to catch Forrest, even when he was in the palm of their hand.


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Battle of Chickasaw Bayou

The Union troops along the Chickasaw Bayou just north of Vicksburg were ready to attack on December 29th, 150 years ago today. As the regiments swarmed forward in the first attack, the troops quickly became confused in the difficult terrain of the swamps and bayous. Many were lost and did not even make it across the bayou that separated them from the Confederates. The assault was a complete failure. The one regiment at least did make it into combat, the 4th Iowa, going through the line of Confederate rifle pits, but completely crumbled when it hit the main line. They were driven back after a valiant fight. Colonel James Williamson was wounded, and later given a medal of honor for his gallant conduct.

General Sherman ordered another attack, but it did no better. Sherman wrote in his report of the defeat:
The men of the Sixth Missouri actually scooped out with their hands caves in the bank, which sheltered them against the fire of the enemy, who, right over their heads, held their muskets outside the parapet vertically, and fired down So critical was the position, that we could not recall the men till after dark, and then one at a time. Our loss had been pretty heavy, and we had accomplished nothing, and had inflicted little loss on our enemy.
Sherman had lost 1,776 men, the Confederates only 207. Sherman decided that there was no chance for a breakthrough here, and he reembarked his men on their transports. Yet again the Federals had been foiled in their efforts to capture Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. "Well," Sherman wrote to his wife, "we have been to Vicksburg and it was too much for us and we have backed out."

Friday, December 28, 2012

Preparations at Chickasaw Bayou

Having set out from Memphis, Tennessee with fifty transports on December 20th, Sherman's army was landed just ten miles north of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg on December 24th. However, the path into Vicksburg would not be easy. Between the Yankees and the town was very treacherous terrain, with bayous running at the foot of the high bluffs of the Walnut Hills, where the Confederate defenders would make their stand.

There was much confusion in the Union army as the troops landed. As the main army prepared to make an attack Sherman sent two brigades on December 26th to make a reconnaissance and check for weak spots in the Confederate line. Then 150 years ago today, on December 28th, Brigadier General Frederick Steele's division was sent to try to turn the Confederate right. But they advanced on a narrow front, and were driven back by Confederate artillery fire. However, undeterred by this reverse, Sherman decided to continue with plans for the attack the next day. As he said, "We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else.”

JEB Stuart Tricks the Yankees

JEB Stuart
Several weeks after defeating Burnside in the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee ordered his cavalry commander, J. E. B. Stuart, to make a raid north across Union lines. He ordered him to "penetrate the enemy's rear, ascertain if possible his position & movements, & inflict upon him such damage as circumstances will permit." He set off with just less than 2,000 troopers and wreaked havoc in the Union rear, capturing 250 prisoners with their horses, wagons and supplies.

Along the way he played a memorable prank on the Union forces. Reaching a telegraph line, he had his telegraph operator tap the line, and began sending messages to confuse the Union forces. He also received valuable information regarding the Union's plans to capture him. When it was time to be moving on, he sent one final message to Montgomery C. Meigs at the War Department: “General Meigs will in the future please furnish better mules; those you have furnished recently are very inferior. J.E.B. Stuart.” With this done, he cut the telegraph lines and went on his way.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sherman Heads to Vicksburg

While Van Dorn and Forrest were raiding Union supply lines, William Sherman was beginning the very movement they were trying to stop. On October 19th Abraham Lincoln had appointed John McClernand to command a new army to attempt to take Vicksburg. This worried Grant, who planned for the capture of that Confederate stronghold to be his next mission. Spurred to action by this threat to his command, he moved quickly, and ordered his trusted subordinate William Sherman to move down the Mississippi River to Vicksburg while Grant converged with him, marching overland.
US transport on the Mississippi
It was 150 years ago today that Sherman boarded a transport in Memphis, Tennesse and set out down river, beginning this new campaign. That say he wrote to his brother, Senator John Sherman, saying:
Dear Brother:

I embarked to-day on the Forest Queen and will have 20,000 men in boats by noon and be off for the real South. At Helena I will get about 12,000 more. Like most of our boasts of the “Myriads of the northwest sweeping away to the Gulf,” “breaking the back bone,” &c. &c., the great Mississippi expedition will be 32,000 men. Vicksburg is well fortified and is within telegraphic and railroad reach of Meridian, Mobile, Camp Moore and Grenada, where Pemberton has 30,000 to 35,000 men. Therefore don't expect me to achieve miracles. Vicksburg is not the only thing to be done. Grant is at Coffeeville! (?) with say 40,000 men. He expected me to have the same but they are not here. We can get the Yazoo, can front in any and every direction and can take Vicksburg, clean out the Yazoo, capture or destroy the fleet of enemy's gunboats and transports concealed up about Yazoo city — and do many other useful things. Blair is down at Helena and will doubtless form a part of the expedition. He will have a chance of catching the Elephant by the tail and get a good lift.

Of course the pressure of this force acting in concert with Grant must produce good results. Even if we don't open the Mississippi, by the way an event not so important as at first sight, until the great armies of the enemy are defeated — we are progressing. I wish Burnside and Rosecrans were getting along faster, but I suppose they encounter the same troubles we all do. . . .

I rise at 3 A.M. to finish up necessary business and as usual write in haste. . . .  I am very popular with the people here and officers and indeed with all my men. I don’t seek popularity with the “sneaks and absentees” or the “Dear People.” . . .



John Sherman

Van Dorn Captures Holly Springs

Earl Van Dorn
In December, 1862 the Confederates in the Western Theater embarked on an all out cavalry attempt to cut Union supply lines. The Union forces under Grant were preparing to move on Vicksburg, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. These cavalry raids were to try to bring him to a halt for lack of supplies to feed his army. Nathan Bedford Forrest had set out on another of his famous raids on December 10th, defeating Union forces in the Battle of Lexington, Tennessee. With Forrest still on the prowl more Confederates would set out under the command of Earl Van Dorn.
Civil War view of Holly Springs, Mississippi

Van Dorn had performed badly as an army commander in the Battles of Pea Ridge and Second Corinth, and although he was acquitted by a court of inquiry, he was demoted back to a cavalry commander. Back in his element, he set out with 3,500 troopers on December 18th and just two days later on December 20th, 150 years ago today, he struck the Union supply depot at Holly Springs. There he captured or destroyed over $1 million worth of supplies, and captured the 1,500 Yankees who had been assigned to guard them. In the next days he would attempt to move north into Tennessee, but meeting Union opposition at Davis Mill would return to his starting point on December 28th, having accomplished a very useful raid for the Confederacy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Battle of Lexington, Tennessee

Nathan Bedford Forrest left Columbia, Tennessee on a raid on December 11, 1862. He had been ordered by General Braxton Bragg, Confederate commander in the area, to stage this raid to cut Union supply lines. On December 17th, Forrest's advance towards Lexington, Tennessee was detected by Colonel Robert Ingersoll, who had about 650 raw men under his command. Forrest had about 2,500 experienced troopers. There were two roads to Lexington, the Old Stage Road and the Lower Road. Ingersoll ordered a bridge to be destroyed on the Lower Road so he could focus all his men on the Old State Road.

On the morning of December 18th, 150 years ago today, as Forrest advanced up the Lower Road, he found the bridge still intact. The Yankee scouts had failed to destroy it. The Confederates were able to move around the Federal flank and catch them competely by suprise. Ingersoll tried to wheel his troops around the meet the threat, but before that could be done they were fleeing in a panic. In the rout that followed, Forrest's cavalry captured Ingersoll, 140 of his men, artillery, supplies and horses, and scattered the rest of the Union far and wide. In the following days Forrest pushed onward in another successful raid, destroying bridges and cutting Union supply lines.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Burnsides Retreats

On December 15th the Union army retreated, two days after the defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Lee had won the most lopsided victory of the war. Burnside had chosen to cross the Rappahannock River and attack where Lee was prepared for him. Instead of focusing his efforts where he achieved a temporary breakthrough, he continued throwing his men forward in hopeless and bloody assaults against the Sunken Road. The Union army and nation lost all their confidence in Burnside. One northern war correspondent wrote:
It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor, or generals to manifest less judgment than were perceptible on our side that day.
A soldier said:
Almost everyone was cursing Burnside as the author of the defeat at Fredericksburg. At the Reviews when he rode along the lines & the Colonels would call out--'Three cheers for Burnside' the men would stand silent & sullen or mutter curses against him.
Although Burnside had been badly defeated, Lincoln had not lost confidence in him. He would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg

The day after his disastrous defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg, General Burnside wanted to renew the assault, leading the attack personally at the head of his old corps. His subordinates, however, were able to talk him out of it.

The day after the battle, the troops remained in position, the dead and wounded still lying where they had fallen. All across the field, the Federal troops were crying for water. Finally Sergeant Richard Kirkland could stand it no longer and went to see Joseph Kershaw, commanding Cobb's brigade. Kershaw wrote:
"All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water" [Kirkland said.] The General regarded him for a moment ... and said "Kirkland, don't you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?" "Yes, sir," he said, "I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it." ... [T]he General said, 'Kirkland, I ought not to allow you to run a risk, but the sentiment which actuates you is so noble that I will not refuse your request, trusting that God may protect you. You may go.' ... With profound anxiety he was watched as he stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy -- Christ-- like mercy. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of "Water, water; for God's sake, water!" More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering. For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field. He returned to his post wholly unhurt. Who shall say how sweet his rest that winter's night beneath the cold stars!
A truce was finally called for Burnside to remove his wounded and care for them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Battle of Fredericksburg – Sunken Road

On the Confederate left the fight began at 11:00 am, when the Confederate artillery opened in an attempt to relieve pressure on the left. The Union artillery across the river replied and an artillery duel commenced. Corps commander James Longstreet, for one, earnestly hoped that Burnside would attack. Two hundred yards from the town was a canal, which the Federals could only cross by three narrow bridges. From there it was 400 yards and about 50 feet up to the Confederate line on Marye's Heights. There the men were placed in the sunken Telegraph Road. This natural entrenchment was improved with a 4 foot stone wall, and in some places a breastwork was even added on top of that. 2,000 Confederates were positioned along this line, with seven thousand more in reserve. It was a very, very strong position. Longstreet's chief of artillery reported:
General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.
Sumner's Attack
The first Union attack was launched at noon, with men from Sumner's grand division. They crossed the canal beyond the town, and hid behind a bluff, ordering their ranks for their changed. When they marched forward they were a grand display. They marched in perfect line of battle, with bayonets fixed, advancing toward the rebels. James Longstreet wrote of the scene:
The field was literally packed with Federals from the vast number of troops that had been massed in the town. From the moment of their appearance began the most fearful carnage. With out artillery from the front, right, and left tearing through their ranks, the Federals pressed forward with almost invincible determination, maintaining their steady step and closing up their broken ranks. Thus resolutely they marched upon the stone fence behind which quietly waited the Confederate brigade.... As they came within reach of this brigade, a storm of lead was poured into their advancing ranks and they were swept from the field like chaff before the wind. A cloud of smoke shut out the scene for a moment, and, rising, revealed the shattered remnants of a gallant, but hopeless charge.
Confederates at the Sunken Road
The Union battle line was decimated by Confederate volleys from the sunken road. 25% of the men in those lines were hit. The formation began to break at 125 yards from the wall, and no one came within 40 yards. The survivors could not even retreat. The Confederate fire was so heavy they clung to the hillside, hoping for a chance to get away. One Yankee remembered:
No one who has not witnessed such a scene can form any idea of the awfulness of that hour, the fearful screeching of the shells, the ominous buzzing and vicious whistling of canister and the endless 'ping ping' of the minie balls, while the reports of the musketry was one continual crash and, far above all, the thunderous tones of hundreds of cannon, completely drowned the encouraging shouts of the officers. The whole line was eveloped in a cloud of sulphurous smoke, almost hiding the regiments from each other and through which crimson flames from muskets and cannon darted fiery tongues. What carnage! comrades fell all around you, mangled and bleeding; the colors go down, but are raised to fall again and again, the line moves forward with decreasing speech until when past the centre of the plain it finally stops, fires a few spasmodic volleys, wavers, breaks and flees to the protection of the bank from whence it had started. Then, without delay, it re-forms, moves up the bank and the tragedy is renacted. Once more the scattered remnants form a regimental line and are led forward with the same result.
Union Attack
Two more brigades were sent forward to renew the attack. They suffered the same fate, half of the men being killed and wounded by the Confederate fire. The Confederates were often four deep along the Sunken Road. The men in the back would load rifles, handing them up to the men in front to fire, handing the weapons back to repeat the process. This meant they could pour a tremendous fire into the Federal ranks. An entire division had been sent forward, but they were stopped in their tracks and pinned down by the Confederate fire. Another division, that of Winfield Hancock, was sent in and they met the same fate. One of Hancock's units was the Irish Brigade under Thomas Meagher, a Irish revolutionary who had been exiled, and escaped from prison into the United States. It was made up of three New York regiments two others from Massachusetts and one from Pennsylvania. It was formed of Irish immigrants in the large northern cities. On the Confederate side of the line one of the regiments of Cobb's brigade was an Irish regiment. These two Irish units met on the fields of Fredericksburg. A northern Irishman wrote of the fight:
Officers and men fell in rapid succession. Lieutenant Garret Nowlenfell with a ball through the thigh. Major Bardwell fell badly wounded; and a ball whistled through Lieutenant Bob McGuire's lungs. Lieutenant Christian Foltz fell dead, with a ball through the brain. The orderly sergeant of Company H wheeled around, gazed upon Lieutenant Quinlan, and a great stream of blood poured from a hole in his forehead. ... No cheers or wild hurrahs as they moved towards the foe. They were not there to fight, only to die.
The Union Irish brigade was unsuccessful in its attack upon the Confederate Irish. They went into battle with 1,200 rifles, and when they rallied the next morning only 230 were left. 14 of its 15 field officers were gone. More men would straggle in later, but the brigade was a shadow of its former self.
Sunken Road

Two entire divisions had attempted to break the Confederate line, but all had failed, leaving the soldiers clinging to the ground. A third division, that of Major General O. O. Howard was sent in. The original plan war to send them to the right in an attempt to strike the Confederate left, but after receiving messages from the two divisions on the field urgently requesting help, the corps commander, Darius Couch, decided to send them straight up the hill. The regimental history of the 19th Massachusetts recorded of the advance:
The waiting line closes up, belts are tightened, all extra weights thrown away. Silence falls upon the ranks, for all know that they must traverse those heaps of dead; that they, too, must soon face that storm of death. They wait, and at last the order comes to advance. ... The wounded were moving to the rear in crowds, a sickening sight. The houses soon were further and further apart but the shells, on the contrary, came nearer and nearer. The air was full of missiles. Soon some fences were encountered and the men hastily crawled over, through or under them and then crossed several yards surrounding some of the hoses. Soon they reached the canal which intersects the city and found the bridges were crowded with fugitives, wounded men and stretcher bearers. The regiment pushed across the ditch, down one side and up the other, - and hurried forward, but soon filed to the right and formed in line of battle in a field, under cover of a steep bank.... The line of the Nineteenth Massachusetts had hardly formed when Capt. Weymouth ordered 'Forward.' Up the ascent they sprang, and on toward the ... enemy. The plain over which they had to charge was some four hundred yards in width and had gradual rise to the base of the Heights. With its colors well to the front, the regiment, - a mere handful of men, - advanced across the plain. ... When the men reached the crest of the bank they were in full view of the enemy's works from which the batteries and infantry opened upon them with such effect as literally to sweep them, reeling and staggering, back to cover. Shells and canister poured down upon them like rain, for not only did the line have to withstand the awful fire from the front, but was subjected to an enfilading fire from the batteries on the rebel left.

In the midafternoon there was a pause from these terrific assaults. Longstreet wrote:
Gen. Lee, who was with me on Lee's Hill, became uneasy when he saw the attacks so promptly renewed and pushed forward with such persistence, and feared the Federals might break our lines. After the third charge he said to me 'General, they are massing very heavily and will break your line, I am afraid.' 'General I replied, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.'
Hooker's Attack

Burnside's attacks had failed. Four divisions had been broken trying to do what he had planned for one. 5,000 men were killed or wounded, and many of the survivors were lying on the ground to avoid the Confederate bullets. But against all reason he decided to continue the attacks. He ordered Joseph Hooker's Grand Division to attack, and the battle was resumed, with the same results. Every quarter of an hour another attack was launched, supported by artillery, but every one was a failure. The Washington Artillery from New Orleans, on the top of Marye's Heights, had been firing throughout the action, breaking up the Union charges. But now they were running out of ammunition. However other cannon were available and so they were pulled to the rear, and other guns were brought up, which continued to fire into the advancing blue lines. The Federal attacks continued until twilight. When they finally were stopped, the field was covered in blue bodies, in some places three thick. A few troops had made it within 25 yards, but not a man had reached the wall. Fourteen brave attacks had been made, but they were all failures. Looking upon the scene, Lee uttered his famous line, “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” 6,000 to 8,000 Federals had fallen in this assault, while only 1,200 Confederates were hit. As night came many Federals were still lying on the field, unable or unwilling to retreat. One of them was Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin of the 20th Maine
[O]ut of that silence rose new sounds, more appalling still. A strange ventriloquism of which you could not locate the source. A smothered moan as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a keynote - weird, unearthly, terrible to hear, and bare - yet startling with its nearness. The writhing concord broken by cries for help - some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity, and some on a friendly hand to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun. Some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names as if the dearest were bending over them. And underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips, too hopeless or too heroic to articulate their agony. At last, cold and depressed, I move two dead men a little and lay down between them, making a pillow of the breast of a third, drew the flap of his overcoat over my face and tried to sleep.
During the night the Northern Lights appeared, filling the sky with tongues of fire. Rare this far South, the Confederates saw it as a sign from God commending their victory.

Battle of Fredericksburg – Slaughter Pen

At around 1 pm George Meade resumed his advance toward the Confederate left, held by Stonewall Jackson. Jackson's men were ready for them, hidden along the wooded ridge. However, they did not know their position had a fundamental flaw. A. P. Hill's division held the front line, but a wooded, boggy section of the line between Archer and Lane was left unguarded. It was thought that the bog was impassable for infantry. However, the Federals soon proved that wrong. Meade's division pushed forward towards the gap, at first faltering upon encountering artillery fire and ditch fences which were dug to keep out animals. As the men struggled through these obstacles they were encouraged by their commander, George Meade, a West Point engineer with significant combat experience. On the Confederate side, James Archer, seeing the Federal advance, realized the Yankees were heading straight for the gap in the line. He threw one of his regiments into the gap, and sent back to the rear to call up another brigade of reinforcements.

Meade's first brigade rushed through the gap, climbing over a railroad embankment and turning to the right, struck Lane's brigade on the flank. The third Union brigade turned to the left, striking Archer. The second rushed in as well, supporting the other two. Archer and Lane's lines bent back under the heavy pressure on their flanks, but were not broken. Maxey Gregg's Confederate brigade was a little to the rear of the Confederate line. They were called up as reinforcements, but did not know exactly where to go. They lay down under artillery fire and stacked their muskets. Hearing musketry fire rolling towards them, they began to reform, but before they could even grab their rifles the Federals were upon them. Unprepared for the fierce attack by Meade's advancing men, the Southerners fled. Gregg, who was partially deaf, did not hear the Federals and was shot from his horse. The bullet cut his spinal cord and he died two days later.

Fredericksburg: Ready to March
Although the Confederate line had been pierced by Meade, there was a second line. The divisions of Jubal Early and William Taliaferro advanced forward to seal the gap. Lane and Archer's men rallied and poured their fire into Meade. Hit from three sides with no reinforcements arriving, the Federals could not hold. They abandoned the ground that they had gained and fell back. One of the brigade commanders was killed and another wounded, along with many of the men, and the formations were scattered and confused.

As Meade's division was recoiling from its defeat, John Gibbon was preparing to go forward on Meade's right. At 1:30 pm this division moved forward, but by that time it was too late to follow up on Meade's temporary success. Gibbon's moved across open fields toward the enemy, taking heavy casualties from the Confederates on the wooded hill. As they grew closer Gibbon halted his men, exchanging fire with the Confederates. Finally he ordered a charge.

View of the Slaughter Pen Farm
Slaughter Pen Farm
They hit the Confederates positioned along a railroad cut, a ready-made defense. The Confederate line held firm, and after the rifles were fired, both sides resorted to hard hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and clubbed muskets. After a bitter fight the Confederates finally broke. However, Gibbon did not long remain in position in peace. The Confederates rallied and counter attacked. Gibbon's men were out of ammunition, and with more hand-to-hand fighting the Confederates were able to recapture the railroad cut. The Federals fell back, having been unable to hold on without reinforcements. Gibbon wasn't done trying however. He launched three more attacks, but was unable to gain any more success. After the fourth failure, he realized that without more troops, he could gain nothing but casualties.

Gibbon and Meade and been unsuccessful primarily because their initial gains were not supported with reinforcements. It was not for lack of men. Meade, coming back from his defeat, encountered David Birney with his division, and poured forth a slew of profanities at him for failing to move forward. The problem was not just with the lower echelons of command. Burnside ordered Franklin to continue his attacks, but Franklin refused saying all of his troops were already in action. However, this was not true. 5,000 Northerners had fallen as had 4,000 Confederates, but he still had 20,000 men available that had not fired a shot. This ended the battle on the Confederate right, and with it ended the Northern chance for victory at Fredericksburg.

It was this section of the field that the Federals had their best chance. They achieved a breakthrough, but troops were not available to make good that success. Franklin's refusal to attack doomed the battle for the Union. George Meade said:
For my part the more I think of that battle the more annoyed I am that such a great chance should have failed me. The slightest straw almost would have kept the tide in our favor.

Battle of Fredericksburg – Council of War

The battle began in earnest on the morning of December 13th. On the right, Jackson was confident that his men could successfully maintain their position. As he commented to a staff officer, "Major, my men have sometimes failed to take a position, but to defend one, never! I am glad the Yankees are coming."

That morning, Jackson joined Lee and Longstreet for a council of war. His appearance made quite the stir:
As he dismounted, we broke into astonished smiles.  He was in a spick and span new overcoat, new uniform with rank marks, fine black felt hat, and a handsome sword.  We had never seen the like before, and gave him our congratulations on his really fine appearance. He said he “believed it was some of his friend Stuart’s doings”.
Jackson and Stuart had one of the most unlikely friendships in the Civil War. At first look, they seemed exact opposites, Jackson, stern, reserved, careless in dress, Stuart, gay, outgoing and showy. However, they did have much in common. Both were firm Christians and aggressive in battle. The staff remembered that, "Jackson was more free and familiar with Stuart than with any other officer in the army, and Stuart loved Jackson more than he did any living man."

As the conference of the Confederate generals was brought to a close, Longstreet shouted out, "Jackson, what are you going to do with all those people over there?" "Sir," Jackson replied, with one of his favorite phrases, "we will give them the bayonet."
John Pelham

The battle on the Confederate right began with the Yankees of George Meade's brigade advancing towards Jackson in long lines with their flags flying. A lone Confederate gun opened at 10:00 am on their flank. That gun was under John Pehlem, a brave young officer who had resigned from West Point to join the Confederacy, and commanded Stuart's horse artillery. His shots took effect, and another gun was brought up. Firing directly into a Union flank, he put a stop to the Union advance. Four Federal batteries on Stafford Heights opened on him, trying to knock him out so the advance could resume. One gun was disabled, but none the less, the gallant Pelhem continued to fire with the other. Lee, watching from a hill in the center of the Confederate line, commented that it was “glorious to see such courage in one so young.” The feat finally came to a close after about an hour when Pelhem ran out of ammunition. More Confederate artillery on Prospect Hill converged with Pelham. From these combined barrages the Federal advance was stalled for two hours.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Battle of Fredericksburg – Plan of Attack

On December 12th, 150 year ago today, the Federals, as on the previous day, began with a bombardment. They crossed the river on the pontoon bridges they had built, and began digging rifle pits. Examining the Federal movements, Lee decided that this was indeed the real attack. He had been slow to arrive at that conclusion because he did not think Burnside would be foolish enough to attack Fredericksburg directly. But now he finally resolved to order up Stonewall Jackson's forces, which had been scattered to guard a large area. The two days Burnside had spent in preparing for the attack had thrown his plans into disarray and given Lee time to bring up his entire army. If he had attacked immediately, he may have caught Lee more off guard and had a better chance of success.
Battle overview

Burnside examined Lee's 8 mile long line and saw that it bowed inwards in the center. He could not attack there without coming under crossfire from the flanks. That left the two flanks, and he decided to attack both. However, his orders were not for the forceful attack his subordinates expected. Franklin, on the Union left, was instructed to send forward at least one division to seize the high ground, as was Sumner, supported by Hooker, on the right. Burnside thought that he would simply be able to brush Lee off without committing all of his forces. He would find out the next day how wrong he was.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Battle of Fredericksburg - Day 1

Movement to Fredericksburg
Burnside had moved his army to Fredericksburg in a hope to quickly cross the river and get around Lee's flank. But his plan had failed when the pontoon bridges did not arrive, and he did not move quickly to find another way across the river. Now, as the Federals began their river crossing 150 years ago today, they were facing Lee's entire army on the heights across the river.

Burnside had several options for crossing the Rappahannock River, but he chose the one he thought would be least expected. Instead of attempting a flanking movement, he would strike directly across the river into Fredericksburg, hoping that Lee by guarding other crossings had weakened his center enough for Burnside to have a chance there. Fredericksburg would be a tough nut to crack. On either side of the river were high bluffs, Strafford Heights on the Federal side and Marye's Heights on the Confederate, and in between on the southern side of the Rappahannock was the town of Fredericksburg. Lee had over 70,000 men in his two corps, half the number of Burnside. They had recovered from their reverse at Sharpsburg and had, increased in numbers and morale. They were confident that they could put up a good fight and whip the Union army, even with its new commander.
Pontoon Crossings at Fredericksburg

On December 11th, 150 years ago today, the Union engineers began working to assemble the pontoon bridges around Fredericksburg. Their work would not go on unopposed. Guarding the town itself was the Mississippi Brigade of Brigadier General William Barksdale. His sharpshooters, hidden in the houses of the town, were well positioned to shoot down the Yankees working on the bridge. The Federals tried to meet this threat with an impressive bombardment, 150 cannon raining down shells into the town. But the Mississippians, protected by the houses, were mostly unhurt by the fire.

As the guns died down, the bridge builders rushed forward. Barksdale's men picked them off with their rifles, foiling several efforts to put the six pontoon bridges across the river. Lee had told Barksdale that he was free to retire, as all was ready on the heights to receive a Union attack, but Barksdale replied, "Tell General Lee that if he wants a bridge of dead Yankees, I can furnish him with one!" The Mississippians drove back nine Federal attempts to cross the river.
Henry Hunt

At this juncture Burnside was convinced by his artillery commander, Brigadier General Henry Hunt, to send landing parties across in boats to establish bridgeheads and clear out the sharpshooters. Colonel Norman Hall volunteered his brigade, and with the army commander's approval, set off in small boats. Although losing some men along the way, they were able to dash across the river, land and began a fierce house to house fight with the rebels. Falling back slowly, in constant contact with the Union troops, Barksdale did not return to the safety of the Confederate lines until after dark. One small Mississippi brigade had held up the entire Union army for a day. But it would take more than that for the Confederates to prevail in the coming days of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
William Barksdale

Friday, December 7, 2012

Battle of Prairie Grove

The Confederates forces under Thomas Hindman were moving toward the smaller Union army under James Blunt in northern Arkansas. However, the Confederates encountered a reverse, when a large cavalry column under John Marmaduke was driven back at the Battle of Cane Hill on November 28th. Undeterred, Hindman set out with his main body on December 3rd. He had 11,000 men and 22 cannon. Blunt, with only 5,000 men and 30 cannon, did not fall back. Instead, he telegraphed for other Union troops in Arkansas to join him, and remained in a defensive position around Cane Hill.

Hindman's plan was to send Marmaduke with the rebel cavalry to strike Blunt from the south as a diversion, while he hit the Federal flank from the east. However, as he drew close to the Yankees he changed his mind and decided to continue on around Blunt, receiving word that the Union reinforcements were arriving. Francis Herron, upon the receipt of Blunt's order, relentlessly pushed his men on a forced march so that he could arrive in time for the battle. Hindman, loosing his usual aggressive nature, took up a defensive position in the low hills of Prairie Grove.

Herron began the Battle on December 7th, deploying his tired troops on Hindman's right and commencing a two hour artillery bombardment. Seeing that his artillery had been very successful, destroying the rebel guns and forcing the infantry to lie down on the reverse slope of the hill, Herron ordered an attack to make use of this opportunity without waiting for cooperation from Blunt's forces. However, the first two regiments set forward met disaster near the Borden House, meeting a counterattack from three sides. The Federals fell back, and soon were running back in disorder to their lines, having lost about half their number. Trying to make the most of this gain, the Confederates launched a disorganized attack on Herron's line, but were driven back by canister from the Yankee guns.

Herron ordered two more regiments to attack in the area of the Borden House, hoping to forestall any movements the Confederates might make. Again they were driven back after fierce fighting, and then drove back a southern counterattack. By this time Blunt realized that Hindman had bypassed his position, and so ordered his troops to march to the sound of fighting. Ignoring the roads and just marching through the fields, his leading elements arrived on the Confederate flank just as they were preparing to launch another attack. They surprised the Confederates and foiled their attack. The fighting continued to sway back and forth until nightfall put an end to the battle.

Although tactically the battle was a draw, neither army having won a clear victory, the Union certainly won strategically. The two Union forces had been able to join without being first destroyed by the Confederate attacks, and Hindman saw no choice but to retreat with no reinforcements or ammunition available to continue the battle on the morrow. He arrived with his defeated army in Van Buren, Arkansas on December 10th, and near the end of the month was driven out of the nortwest part of the state completely by an advance by the Yankee forces.