The Federal Army of the Potomac was poised to capture Fredericksburg, a key town on the path to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. To do this, the troops would need to cross the Rappahannock River in the face of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which was positioned in strong defenses on the high ground behind the town.
Teamsters of the 50th New York Engineers began building pontoon bridges on the river at 2 a.m. on December 11. The plan was to lay six bridges in three pairs, with one pair at the lower end of town, and the other two pairs just north and south of the town center. 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.
Major General John Bell Hood’s Confederates contested bridge construction at the lower end, but Federal artillery drove them off. These bridges were completed by 11 a.m., to be used by Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal army, had ordered Franklin, “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.
Those building the bridges were initially concealed by fog, but by 6 a.m. the fog had lifted, and the Confederates in town fired a signal volley indicating that they could see the Federals heading their way. Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade came up to fire on the pontoniers once they came within range. The Confederates took positions in rifle pits, houses, and the basements of waterfront buildings to stop the four crossings near the town center. This single brigade was able to stop construction in this sector.
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. An engineer said, “For us to attempt to lay a Ponton Bridge right in their very face seemed like madness,” and once the Federals were in plain view of the enemy, it was “simple murder, that was all.”
Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding the Second Corps of the Right Grand Division, directed his Federals to fire on the enemy sharpshooters across the river. The engineers returned to the bridges; three more times the Confederates drove them off, and they came back after each time.
As the fog lifted around 10 a.m., Burnside directed Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, commanding the Federal artillery on Stafford Heights, to train his 147 guns on Fredericksburg and bombard the town. The guns opened a tremendous cannonade that many veterans claimed to be more intense than Malvern Hill or even Antietam. Some 5,000 rounds were fired in two hours, demolishing buildings, churches, and homes, 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. Three regiments from Couch’s corps crossed the river in boats and drove the Confederates out of town, fighting from block to block, street to street, and house to house. This marked the first large-scale urban battle in American history. 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 that was 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 the Grand Divisions began crossing the river and moving into Fredericksburg, a reporter wrote, “Towering between us and the western sky, which was still showing its faded scarlet lining, was the huge somber pillar of grimy smoke that marked the burning of Fredericksburg. Ascending to a vast height, it bore away northward, shaped like a plume bowed in the wind.” When a 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.”
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.