Never Was a City More Thoroughly Sacked

As the sun rose on December 12, troops of the Federal Army of the Potomac continued to cross the Rappahannock River on the new pontoon bridges leading into the key Virginia town of Fredericksburg. Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division crossed the bridges downriver from the town without major incident, but the crossings near the town center were hotly contested by troops of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. They had finally been cleared out the previous night, giving the Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division a clear path into Fredericksburg.

The Federals took up positions both in and southeast of the town. Franklin’s two corps faced Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate corps to the southeast, while Sumner’s two corps faced Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps to the northwest. Major General Joseph Hooker’s Center Grand Division was in reserve, ready to reinforce either flank when needed. The Confederates held the high ground, while the Federals had superior numbers. 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.

While the Federals waited, they looted what was left of Fredericksburg. They took or destroyed artwork, furniture, pianos, fine china, jewelry, and anything else they could find. Nearly every private residence was vandalized, and anything not considered valuable was destroyed. This marked the first time that 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.”

The army provost marshal, Marsena Patrick, called it “a horrible sight… All the buildings more or less battered with shells, roofs & walls full of holes & the churches with their broken windows & shattered walls looking desolate enough… The Soldierly were sacking the town! Every house and Store was being gutted!”

Ruins of Fredericksburg | Image Credit: Emerging Civil War

Most officers seemed unable or unwilling to stop the destruction. Some even joined in the ransacking with their men. A stunned officer wrote, “Never was a city more thoroughly sacked. The conduct of our men and officers too is atrocious their object seems to be to destroy what they cant steal & to steal all they can.” Only Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding the Second Corps, posted guards at the bridges to stop troops from bringing their loot back across the river to their camps.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, called on Jackson’s two divisions to the far right (southeast) at Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck to come up and support the rest of the army outside Fredericksburg. Longstreet held Marye’s Heights, which covered five miles. When Longstreet asked if there should be more guns placed on the heights, his artillery chief said, “General, a chicken could not live in that field when we open on it.”

To Longstreet’s right, Jackson’s corps took positions on Prospect Hill and along the wooded ridges south-southeast 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. He had nearly 120,000 effectives and 312 guns in three grand divisions. That night, he visited Franklin and reviewed the battle plan. Franklin persuaded Burnside to begin the attack in his front because the Confederates seemed weakest at that point. Franklin was to roll up the Confederate right flank, at which time Sumner would attack the left with such overwhelming force that Lee would have to retreat.

Sumner had suggested this plan three weeks ago, but he proposed attacking the right with the entire army. Burnside believed that just two corps would be enough. He also did not clearly state his intentions in his written orders, which merely directed that Franklin lead a reconnaissance in force while Sumner seized the hill beyond Fredericksburg. Burnside planned to attack at dawn.


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