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.


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