December 12, 1862 – The Federal Army of the Potomac crossed pontoon bridges and looted Fredericksburg, while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia awaited the enemy’s advance from the heights west of town.
Federal teamsters began building the pontoon bridges at 2 a.m. on the 11th. The plan was to lay six bridges in three pairs, with one pair north of Fredericksburg, one south, and one farther downstream. This had to be done by mooring flat-bottomed boats in a line and securing pontoons on top of them across the freezing 400-foot-wide Rappahannock River.
General John Bell Hood’s Confederates contested bridge construction downstream, but Federal artillery drove them off. These bridges were completed by 11 a.m., to be used by Major General William B. Franklin’s Grand Division. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal army, had ordered Franklin earlier, “After your command has crossed, you will move down the Old Richmond Road, in the direction of the railroad, being governed by circumstances as to the extent of your movements.”
When Franklin informed headquarters that the bridges had been built, Burnside seemingly contradicted himself by ordering him to stay put and await further orders. Burnside did not order Franklin to begin crossing until 4 p.m., five hours after the bridges were ready. By that time, Franklin’s troops could have easily been across the river and ready to confront the Confederates.
Meanwhile, General Henry Hunt, commanding the Federal artillery, positioned 147 guns on Stafford Heights to protect the engineers as they worked on the four bridges in front of Fredericksburg. Heavy fog initially hid the workers, but the Confederates finally realized what was happening and fired artillery rounds from Marye’s Heights at 4:45 a.m. to signal that the enemy was forcing a river crossing.
Sharpshooters from General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade hurried into position to fire on the pontoniers once they came within range. The Confederates took up positions in rifle pits, houses, and brick buildings along the riverside to stop the four crossings north and south of Fredericksburg.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, watched the action from a ridge that became known as Lee’s Hill. The rising sun enabled the Confederates to see the bridge workers through the fog and drive them off under fire. The workers then returned to the bridges under Federal covering fire. Three more times the Confederates drove them off, and they came back after each time.
As the fog lifted around 10 a.m., Burnside ordered the artillerists on Stafford Heights to bombard Fredericksburg. The guns hurled 5,000 rounds into the town in two hours, demolishing buildings, churches, and houses, and setting much of Fredericksburg on fire.
A correspondent witnessing the action wrote that “the earth shook beneath the terrific explosions of the shells, which went howling over the river, crashing into houses, battering down walls, splintering doors, ripping up floors.” Civilians who had not already evacuated hurried out of town; many left their homes in ruins. Some who could not flee huddled in cellars or any other shelter they could find.
Following the bombardment, the Confederate sharpshooters returned and continued firing on the teamsters. Federal troops from three regiments finally crossed in boats and drove the Confederates out of town, fighting from block to block, street to street, and house to house. The first bridge was finally completed by 4:30 p.m., allowing more Federal troops to cross and join the fray. The Confederates put up a fight before falling back to their defenses on the hills west of Fredericksburg around 7 p.m.
Barksdale’s Confederates had held the Federals off for over 15 hours, stopping nine attempts to span the river. This gave Lee more than enough time to finalize preparations to defend against the general Federal advance coming soon. Lee directed two of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s nearby divisions to move closer to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps on the ridges west of town.
Burnside remained unaware that four of his six crossings were at the Confederates’ strongest point. He received information from scouts in observation balloons that the Confederates downriver were making no effort to reinforce those at Fredericksburg. This convinced Burnside that the Confederate defenses outside town were weak and emboldened him to spend another day organizing his forces for an attack.
As his Grand Divisions began crossing the river and entering Fredericksburg, one soldier wondered aloud why it had been so easy getting into the town. Another replied, “They want to get us in. Getting out won’t be quite so smart and easy. You’ll see if it will.”
The Left and Right Grand Divisions under Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner and Franklin continued crossing the Rappahannock on the morning of the 12th. They took up positions both in and southeast of town. The area was shrouded in heavy fog until around noon, making it too late for Burnside to launch his attack. He instead spent the day planning to attack tomorrow. Both sides exchanged sporadic artillery fire.
Federal troops looted what was left of Fredericksburg, taking artwork, furniture, pianos, china, jewelry, and anything else they could find. They vandalized nearly every private residence and destroyed whatever they did not want. This marked the first instance of urban warfare in America, and the first time an American town had been looted since the British plundered Washington in the War of 1812. A correspondent from the New York Tribune wrote of the spectacle:
“We destroyed by fire nearly two whole squares of buildings, chiefly used for business purposes, together with the fine residences of O. McDowell, Dr. Smith, J.H. Kelly, A.S. Cott, William Slaughter, and many other smaller dwellings. Every store, I think, without exception, was pillaged of every valuable article. A fine drug-store, which would not have looked badly on Broadway, was literally one mass of broken glass and jars.”
Most officers seemed unable or unwilling to stop the destruction. Some even joined in the ransacking with their men. Only Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding II Corps, posted guards at the bridges to stop troops from trying to bring their loot back across the river to their camps.
Lee called on Jackson’s last two divisions at Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck to come support the rest of the army outside Fredericksburg. Longstreet held Marye’s Heights with his corps, which covered five miles. To his right, Jackson’s corps took positions on Prospect Hill and along the wooded ridges south of town. A swampy region caused a 1,000-yard gap in Jackson’s line, but the Confederates did not expect the Federals to test it.
The Confederate line stretched seven miles. Lee’s ranks had swelled to over 75,000 effectives in nine divisions grouped into two corps (five in one and four in another), along with 275 guns. Lee said, “I shall try to do them all the damage in our power when they move forward.”
Burnside set up headquarters in Chatham Mansion, where Lee had courted his future wife 30 years before. Burnside next inspected Sumner’s lines, which faced Longstreet, and then Franklin’s, which faced Jackson. Franklin persuaded Burnside to begin the attack in his front because the Confederates seemed weakest at that point. Part of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Grand Division, which was still crossing the river, would reinforce Franklin.
By nightfall, Burnside had nearly 120,000 effectives in three Grand Divisions of two corps each, and three divisions within each corps; he also had 312 guns. He planned to attack at dawn.
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