The wintry blast goes wailing by,
the snow is falling overhead;
I hear the lonely sentry’s tread,
and distant watch-fires light the sky.
Dim forms go flitting through the gloom;
The soldiers cluster round the blaze
To talk of other Christmas days,
And softly speak of home and home
My saber swinging overhead,
gleams in the watch-fire’s fitful glow,
while fiercely drives the blinding snow,
and memory leads me to the dead.
My thoughts go wandering to and fro,
vibrating ‘twixt the Now and Then;
I see the low-browed home again,
the old hall wreathed in mistletoe.
And sweetly from the far off years
comes borne the laughter faint and low,
the voices of the Long Ago!
My eyes are wet with tender tears.
I feel again the mother kiss,
I see again the glad surprise
That lighted up the tranquil eyes
And brimmed them o’er with tears of bliss
As, rushing from the old hall-door,
She fondly clasped her wayward boy –
Her face all radiant with they joy
She felt to see him home once more.
My saber swinging on the bough
Gleams in the watch-fire’s fitful glow,
while fiercely drives the blinding snow
aslant upon my saddened brow.
Those cherished faces are all gone!
Asleep within the quiet graves
where lies the snow in drifting waves, –
And I am sitting here alone.
There’s not a comrade here tonight
but knows that loved ones far away
on bended knees this night will pray:
“God bring our darling from the fight.”
But there are none to wish me back,
for me no yearning prayers arise
the lips are mute and closed the eyes –
My home is in the bivouac.
— A poem written by 21-year-old Confederate Soldier William Gordon McCabe on Christmas Night outside Fredericksburg, Virginia
U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes, near Falmouth, Virginia, writes in his diary that “We have passed a very quiet day and except that we have been excused from drill, the day has been like others. My brother-in-law, Colville D. Brown came today from Washington and made me a call. In the evening Lt. Col. Goff of our Regiment and other officers came to my tent and we had a sing. I should like to be at home on this Christmas night.” This is his second Christmas in the army; this year he does not feel as homesick and alone. He is now a seasoned veteran, even if he is just a volunteer. This is his life.
In Washington, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary spend the day visiting wounded soldiers in the nearby hospitals while their children Robert and Tad stay at home.
Out West in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is almost 1,000 miles away from his wife Varina and their children in Richmond, Virginia. As a man who once served with high honors in the Mexican-American war, he misses his family but also feels at home surrounded by military men in the field.
In Fredericksburg, Virginia, C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee writes an emotional letter to his wife Mary. He begins by thanking God for the recent successes of the Confederate army, but laments “what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!“
“The country is gone unless something is done at once. We must have men in command of our armies who are anxious to crush the rebellion.” — Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler to his wife Letitia
In the Western theater, Confederate cavalry leader General Nathan Bedford Forrest leads a raid into western Tennessee, an area held by the Union. With U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s main force occupying northern Mississippi, C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg had ordered Forrest several days ago to cut the Federal supply lines in Tennessee in hopes that it will capture Grant’s attention and force him back north and out of Mississippi.
This morning Forrest advances along Lower Road outside of Lexington, Tennessee. U.S. Colonel Robert Ingersoll’s scouts had left the Confederates a clear path towards the smaller part of Ingersoll’s command by failing to destroy a key bridge the day before. The inexperienced Union troops try to swing around and stop the attack but it is too late; Forrest’s troops overwhelm the panicked Union soldiers and they capture Ingersoll along with 140 of his men. Forrest also obtains artillery pieces, horses, rifles and supplies that can now support the Confederate cause. From here, Forrest sets his sights on Jackson, Tennessee, followed by a push into Kentucky.
This evening a delegation of nine Republican Senators present a resolution to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln calling for a “partial reconstruction of the Cabinet.” Both Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were warned two days ago that Seward is the Senators’ particular target; his conduct, and that of the Cabinet in general, having been repeatedly, though cautiously, maligned by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Chase, feeling superior to Lincoln and Seward, has been divulging private Cabinet meeting information to the nine senators, though not all of it is truthful in nature; it can, however, be considered self-serving. Chase wants Seward’s position, after which he feels he will have enough power to control what he feels is an inept President not up to the task of managing the country or the war. Lincoln listens quietly to the nine senators and simply asks them to return tomorrow evening so he has time to process their concerns.
Northern editorials also blame the Lincoln Administration for losing the war, especially after the recent defeat in Fredericksburg. The Hartford Daily Courant publishes an editorial today that echoes the sentiments of many in the Union:
Mismanagement in the War Department
There is no mistaking the fact that the people of the United States are enraged at the blundering and incompetency of the War Department. No one questions the integrity of Mr. Lincoln. Though nominally Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, he cannot directly plan campaigns, or guide the movements of our forces. The experiences of a civilian do not fit one in a month or a year to exchange peaceful pursuits for supreme leadership in war. The multiplicity of other duties, too, compels the Chief Magistrate of the nation to rely on the honesty and wisdom of his immediate advisers. The generous heart of the people attributes the errors of the Administration to the misplaced confidence of the Executive. Dependence upon subordinates is an inseparable condition of the Presidential office, and especially is this true in the midst of a terrible civil war, like that now convulsing the nation, giving rise as it does to an infinitude of new duties and new responsibilities.
From the beginning, as our readers will bear witness, we have never surrendered our columns to the adulation of imaginary heroes. We have endeavored to know but one cause—the cause so precious to every patriotic heart. The fate of party measures, the prospects of individual men, sink into utter insignificance when the life of the rising nation of the world is imperiled. Politicians will pass into oblivion. The achievements of their ambition will be forgotten, and their names will rot their bones. But this noble land will either continue entire, scattering blessings among long lines yet unborn, and holding up the beacon light of liberty for the guidance of the nations, or it will crumble into contemptible fragments. In a crisis of such magnitude every man, woman, and child, forgetful of self, should burn the incense of pure patriotism on the altar of their country.
Last spring our arms were prosperous everywhere. The people were full of hope. The rebels were discouraged and demoralized. Our legions swept triumphantly into the very heart of the Mississippi valley. We had victories almost to satiety. To fight was to win. The enemy lost heart. Despair was fast sapping the last lingering remnants of courage in the rebellious states.
So far the plans devised at headquarters were crowned with admirable results. While cheering news from the South and the West was daily giving us fresh cause for rejoicing, Gen. McClellan left Washington to finish the grand and comprehensive campaign which thus far had progressed so magnificently. Scarcely had he left when Mr. Stanton took the bits in his teeth. Intoxicated by the consciousness of power, he staggered into monstrous absurdities. He tacked rotten rags to a sound garment. He presumed to meddle with matters where he was profoundly ignorant. The army of the Potomac, which according to the original design was to have been hurled unitedly and irresistibly upon Richmond, was divided, and a portion of it left unsupported, to contend alone against the combined hosts of the Confederacy.
The campaign at Fredericksburg will bring down a storm of indignation upon the heads of the military managers at Washington, which will probably compel Mr. Lincoln to throw them overboard. General Burnside, with the gallant officers and men under him, have done nobly. When the change of base was determined on, he moved rapidly to the banks of the Rappahannock. From lack of foresight at the War Department, the means of crossing the river were not provided till Gen. Lee had been allowed sufficient time to mass his troops and render the heights beyond Fredericksburg impregnable. Had the promptitude of the War Department equaled the celerity of Gen. Burnside, the army of the Potomac ere this would have reached the precincts of Richmond.
Many thousand lives and many millions of treasure have been thrown away already, through imbecility, chicanery, and general mismanagement. Neither the patriotism nor the patience of the people can long endure such exhausting and fruitless drains. A land of unrivaled power and resources, impelled by a spirit of consecration to a noble cause, has unquestioningly placed its wealth of men and means at the disposal of the Government. Though matters have gone badly, the strength of our army is by no means materially impaired. It far outnumbers the rebel army, and in all respects is incomparably better supplied. The soldiers fight like veterans. Our generals in the field are gallant and true. What we need is intellect and honesty at headquarters. Let Mr. Lincoln repudiate all political plotters. Let him entrust the momentous interests of the hour to those who have genius to plan, and the fidelity to execute, with an eye single to the good, the honor, and the happiness of the land.
Just before light our Regiment was sent to the front and pushed behind the bank of a road. Here we lay all day watching the enemy’s forts. About 3 p.m. our Batteries opened firing over our heads, and as the Rebels replied the shots would cross in the air. It was not pleasant for us and somewhat dangerous.” — U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Throughout the night and into the day and during a bad storm, the Union army continues to retreat and makes a skillful and organized recrossing of the Rappahannock River. C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee’s army doesn’t provide them much resistance at this point; they have held their lines, Richmond is safe, and the Union cost is high. Union casualties are 12,653; Confederates lose 5,377, though most were from the right flank under Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson’s Corp, who did not have as much time to dig in and did not have the protection of a stone wall. Even though the Confederate losses are much smaller, so is their population; it will be more of a challenge to bring in fresh recruits to replace the men they lost in this battle compared to the Union and their larger population.
In Fredericksburg and the surrounding area, every building has been converted into a hospital for Union and Confederate wounded. Each side is burying their dead, though many of the Confederates will be taken back to their homes for burial or placed in cemeteries in Fredericksburg. Even with the battlefield still covered with blood, politicians in both the North and South begin their criticism. In Richmond, Virginia, where news of a victory should have been a reason to celebrate, there is instead questioning as to why Lee did not follow-up the successful defense of the heights above Fredericksburg with a counterattack. They ignore the crucial fact that even after U.S. Commanding General Ambrose Burnside’s significant losses, Lee’s army is still outnumbered and heavy Union artillery is undamaged across the river at Stafford Heights. In Washington, fury against Burnside pours in from every direction. Reports from Major General Joseph Hooker are perhaps the most loud and damaging. President Abraham Lincoln is unable to criticize; he fired George B. McClellan for failing to move/fight. Burnside did what Lincoln had wanted, even if it wasn’t the plan Lincoln had suggested a week before when it was obvious that the situation had changed from when the original plan to take Fredericksburg and Richmond had been developed. Still, he could not chastise Burnside and knew that the politicians, media and public would demand answers.
Though Fredericksburg was a costly battle, nothing is gained on either side and the war continues.
U.S. Brigadier General John G. Foster continues his “Goldsboro Expedition”, and this morning in Kinston he paroles 400 Confederates he has captured over the previous few days. He recrosses the partially-burned Jones Bridge and then successfully burns the remainder of it to prevent a Confederate rear attack. Foster and his men proceed west toward Whitehall (now Seven Springs) and Goldsboro. They are within four miles of Whitehall before they stop for the night. Knowing that Foster is on his way, C.S.A. Cavalry Officer Beverly H. Robertson crosses the Neuse River and burns the bridge at Whitehall to help protect Confederate troops and a gunboat being constructed on the north side.
From Oxford, Mississippi, U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant writes a letter to his sister Mary Grant, who is watching his children as his wife Julia travels into Mississippi with his father Jesse Grant:
Yesterday I received a letter from you and the children and one from Uncle Samuel. Today I learn by telegraph that father is at Holly Springs thirty miles North of here. Julia is there and as I expect the railroad to be completed to here by tomorrow I look for them soon. I shall only remain here tomorrow, or next day at farthest; so that Julia will go immediately back to Holly Springs. It was a pleasant place and she may as well stay there as elsewhere.
We are now having wet weather. I have a big Army in front of me as well as bad roads. I shall probably give a good account of myself however not with-standing all obstacles. My plans are all complete for weeks to come and I hope to have them all work out just as planned.
For a conscientious person, and I profess to be one, this is a most slavish life. I may be envied by ambitious persons but I in turn envy the person who can transact his daily business and retire to a quiet home without a feeling of responsibility for the morrow. Taking my whole department there are an immense number of lives staked upon my judgment and acts. I am extended now like a Peninsula into an enemies country with a large Army depending for their daily bread upon keeping open a line of railroad running one hundred & ninety miles through an enemy’s country, or at least through territory occupied by a people terribly embittered and hostile to us. With all this I suffer the mortification of seeing myself attacked right and left by people at home professing patriotism and love of country who never heard the whistle of a hostile bullet. I pity them and a nation dependent upon such for its existence. I am thankful however that although such people make a great noise the masses are not like them.
With all my other trials I have to conduct against is added that of speculators whose patriotism is measured by dollars and cents. Country has no value with them compared with money. To elucidate this would take quires of paper so I will reserve this for an evenings conversation if I should be so fortunate as to again get home where I can have a day to myself.
Tell the children to learn their lessons, mind their grandma and be good children. I should like very much to see them. To me they are all obedient and good. I may be partial but they seem to me to be children to be proud of.
Remember me to all at home.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis is in Chattanooga, Tennessee to meet with General Joseph E. Johnston and to review the troop situation there. Even though he’s only been gone a few days, he writes a letter to his wife Varina back home in Richmond; he has yet to hear the news that Lee has been successful at Fredericksburg:
My dear Wife,
We had a pleasant trip & without an incident to related reached this place on the 11th. The troops in Murfreesboro were in fine spirits and well supplied. The enemy keep close within their lines about Nashville, which place is too strongly fortified and garrisoned for attack by troops unprepared for regular approaches on fortifications.
Many of your acquaintances made kind inquiry for you. Especially Genl. Hardee. I saw Joe Mitchell and Willie Farish, both were well. Last night on my arrival here a telegram announced the attack made at Fredericksburg. You can imagine my anxiety. There are indications of a strong desire for me to visit the farther West expressed in terms which render me unwilling to disappoint the expectation.
Mrs. Joe Johnston is well, not quite pleased with her location. Genl. Johnston will directly to Miss. and reinforce Genl. Pemberton. I saw Mr. Clay, who gives a discouraging account of the feeling of the people about Huntsville. He says the fear of the traitors is so great lest they should in the event of a return of the Yankees bring down vengeance on the true men that our friends look around to see who is in earshot before speaking of public affairs.
It is raining this morning and unreasonably warm. I have traveled constantly since starting and feel somewhat the want to rest, but otherwise am better than before the journey. Joe was a little unwell yesterday, but seems bright today. Many of the officers inquired for Col. Preston Johnston and felt, as I did, regret at his absence.
Kiss the children of their loving Father. They can little realize how much I miss them. Every sound is the voice of my child and every child renews them memory of a loved one’s appearance, but none can equal their charms, nor can any compare with my own long-worshipped Winnie.
She is na my ain Lassie
Though fair the lassie be
For well ken I my ain lassie
By the kind love in her eye.
“From the battle field near Fredericksburg: We crossed the river Thursday night and have been under fire ever since. The Rebels are strongly entrenched, and we have not made much headway. Today has been very quiet with an occasional shell from the Rebels. We tried to keep the Sabbath the best we could. We lay all day in our rifle pits awaiting events. I write this on the battlefield.” — U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Yesterday 19-year-old C.S.A. Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland’s unit, Company G of the 2nd South Carolina, had spent the day behind the stone wall inflicting heavy casualties against Union troops. As morning came, daylight reveals over 8,000 Union soldiers still on the battlefield in front of them. Many are still alive but there are thousands that are wounded and suffering terribly from pain and a lack of water. Orders have not been given to the men to retreat and no truce has yet been reached to remove the wounded from the field, so the Union troops are stuck on the cold, open field, shielding themselves from occasional Confederate rifle fire and the cold by propping dead soldiers up around them as a “wall” of protection.
Men from both sides are forced to listen to the painful cries throughout the night and morning, with neither side daring to make a move to help anyone for fear of being shot. By mid-morning Kirkland approaches C.S.A. Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw and tells him that he wishes to help the wounded soldiers. At first Kershaw declines the request, but later he relents. Once given permission, Kirkland asks if he could show a white handkerchief, but white flags are used for surrender; this is not a surrender situation so Kershaw declines. Kirkland responds “All right, sir, I’ll take my chances.”
Kirkland gathers all the canteens he can carry, fills them with water and then makes his way out into the battlefield. He ventures back and forth several times, giving wounded Union soldiers not only water, but warm clothing and blankets that his fellow Confederates have donated to the cause. Kershaw watches in amazement, thinking that the Union will open fire and the Confederacy will respond in return, leaving Kirkland in the crossfire; but no one fires a shot. Within a very short time it is obvious to both sides as to what Kirkland is doing, and soon cries for water erupt all over the battlefield. Kirkland does not stop until he helps every wounded soldier who asks for him – Union and Confederate – on the hill near the stone wall. He is dubbed “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
Despite the horrific results of yesterday’s attacks, U.S. Commanding General Ambrose Burnside wants to continue the attack and has to be talked out of it by the other generals as they refuse to continue the wave after wave of suicidal marches with their men. If his generals won’t do it, Burnside will; he still believes he can break Lee’s lines and offers to personally lead another attack. He is finally talked out of it.
This afternoon Burnside requests a truce to tend to the thousands of wounded soldiers and C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee agrees. Under the cover of darkness and a storm, the Union army starts its withdrawal that will go well into tomorrow.
Lee writes to the Confederate War Department that Fredericksburg has been a victory. So far he counts 1,800 killed or wounded on his side, with 550 Union men captured; he is unsure, however, what the full extent of Burnside’s loss is.
C.S.A. Major General George Pickett writes to his love interest, Sallie Ann Corbell, who has changed her name to LaSalle Corbell but whom Pickett still calls “Sallie.” Pickett has been married twice before and rumor has it that his new girl is just that – a girl who is 14 years old compared to his 37 years of age. It turns out she is 18, but she likes being referred to “Schoolgirl Sallie.” They had first met in 1852 when she was just 9 and recovering from whopping cough, and Pickett was recovering from the loss of his first wife and child. When he can he travels to Suffolk, Virginia to see her. He now writes to her about what he has witnessed these last few days at Fredericksburg:
Here we are, my darling, at Fredericksburg, on the south side of the Rappahannock, half-way between Richmond and Washington, fortified for us by the hand of the Great Father.
I penciled you a note by old Jackerie (headquarters postmaster) on the 12th from the foot of the hills between Hazel Run and the Telegraph Road. In it I sent a hyacinth given me by a pretty lady who came out with beaten biscuit – and some unwritten and written messages from Old Peter (note: James Longstreet) and Old Jack (note: Thomas Jackson), Hood, Ewell, Stuart, and your “brothers,” to the “someone” to whom I was writing.
My division, nine thousand strong, is in fine shape. It was on the field of battle, as a division, for the first time yesterday, though only one brigade, Kemper’s, was actively engaged.
What a day it was, my darling – this ever to be remembered by many of us thirteenth of December dawning auspiciously upon us clad in deepest, darkest mourning! A fog such as would shame London lay over the valley, and through the dense mist distinctly came the uncanny commands of the unseen opposing officers. My men were eager to be in the midst of the fight, and if Hood had not been so cautious they would probably have immortalized themselves. Old Peter’s orders were that Hood and myself were to hold our ground of defense unless we should see an opportunity to attack the enemy while engaged with A.P. Hill on the right. A little after ten, when the fog had lifted and Stuart’s cannon from the plain of Massaponax were turned upon Meade and when Franklin’s advance left the enemy’s flank open, I went up to Hood and urged him to seize the opportunity; but he was afraid to assume so great a responsibility and sent for permission to Old Peter, who was with Marse Robert in a different part of the field. Before his assent and approval were received, the opportunity, alas, was lost!
If war, my darling, is a necessity – and I suppose it is – it is a very cruel one. Your Soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, my darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines. About fifty of my division sleep their last sleep at the foot of Marye’s Heights.
I can’t help but feel sorry for Old Burnside proud-plucky, hard-headed old dog. I always liked him, but I loved little Mac, and it was a godsend to the Confederacy that he was relieved.
Oh, my darling, war and its results did not seem so awful till the love for you came. Now I want to love and bless and help everything, and there are no foes – no enemies – just love for you and longing for you.
When not carrying messages, the Union mounted orderly for Brigadier General Orlando Poe, Emma “Frank” Thompson, assists the ambulance corps with taking the wounded to the Lacy House, where Clara Barton waits to receive them. Since dawn, surgeons have been working frantically in every room, and soon an inch or more of blood covers James Lacy’s beautiful hardwood floors.
On the Western front, U.S. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman is back in Memphis, Tennessee after being charged by Major General Ulysses S. Grant to organize the forces from there and nearby Helena, Arkansas for a move towards Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant was hoping Sherman would have 40,000 troops, but by Sherman’s count he will have 30,000 to move down the Mississippi River via steamers and should arrive by December 18. Sherman is concerned that the different leaders – himself, Grant, Major General Samuel Curtis and Admiral David Dixon Porter – are too apart from each other but has confidence that when the move comes they will all act in concert to take the difficult city fortified by both land and water.
George B. McClellan sends a quick letter to August Belmont, the leader of the National Democrat party: “I fear that Mr L is busily engaged in breaking the rest of the eggs in the basket! Is this the blackest hour which precedes the dawn?”
In Washington, Mary Lincoln attends church services with Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning while her husband stays at the White House looking over maps and discussing military options after what appears to be a defeat at Fredericksburg. President Lincoln is in anguish over the results, yet is still looking for a lot of answers; he has no idea what the cost of the defeat has been.
Today is U.S. First Lady Mary Lincoln’s 44th birthday. But 52 miles south of the city there is no celebration; instead, the day brings the most senseless slaughter that the country has seen to date.
With most of U.S. General Ambrose Burnside’s troops now across the Rappahannock River, the Confederates expect an attack. C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee knows his position is a strong one; most of his men are located on Marye’s Heights, which overlooks the city. The Confederates have a stone wall for protection and the high ground. All they have to do is wait for the Union troops to come to them, which will be no easy task. They have to advance through 200 yards of cannon fire without cover, cross a narrow canal over three small bridges, and then advance against Confederate infantry lined up firing down on them from behind a stone wall. Lee and one of his most trusted Generals, James Longstreet, look to Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, who has been responsible for setting each piece of artillery now aimed at the enemy. Lee believes that artillery will be key in winning this battle. When asked by his superiors for an assessment of their preparedness, Alexander states that “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
Across the Rappahannock River at his headquarters at Chatham House, Burnside issues his attack orders early in the morning. He calls for an assault against Jackson’s Corp by Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division, after which will follow an advance against Marye’s Heights by Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Burnside uses ambiguous and hesitant language in his orders, which may reflect a lack of confidence in his plan or his uncertainty of Lee’s troop positions.
Burnside believes that he is only facing part of Lee’s army on the heights behind the city. He plans to use artillery on Stafford Heights to control the battlefield on either side of the river. While Sumner moves towards the heights as a diversion, Burnside will take Franklin’s stronger left wing and have him storm the ridgeline south of the city, taking Lee by surprise. Once the ridgeline is taken, Franklin is to sweep north into the city while Sumner’s wing continues the attack on the heights. The final goal is the same for both Franklin and Sumner: seize Marye’s Heights.
Franklin and his key Major Generals, John F. Reynolds and William “Baldy” Smith, agree that the best way to defeat Lee is to roll up Jackson’s front. They had waited until 3am that morning for instructions, thinking they would move early, but instead they don’t receive a go-ahead until 7:30 a.m. As they read Burnside’s instructions, they find that it is not an approval for an all-out attack. One division “at least” is to seize the heights near Hamilton’s Crossing “if possible”, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. The rest of the command is to be in position for a rapid move up the old Richmond Road towards Maryes Heights, which will only work if Jackson falls back towards the city.
Reynold’s 1st Corps is picked for the drive up the heights with approximately 5,000 men. The privilege of leading the assault goes to the Pennsylvania Reserves, led by Major General George Meade. Reynolds chooses them because he trusts the men and their commander more than anyone else. At 8:30 a.m. Meade leads his three brigades towards Jackson’s position. Jackson’s men put up a difficult fight. At one point Jackson feels his men are losing their position; he orders the “Rebel yell” and his men slam into the exhausted and outnumbered Pennsylvanians. One Union private will later say that “The action was close-handed and men fell like leaves in autumn. It seems miraculous that any of us escaped at all.”
Sumner receives similar orders from Burnside, using the same language to send one division “at least” to attack Marye’s Heights. Sumner waits until the fog finally lifts at 10 a.m. and then begins to line up his troops in the city streets. Around noon, the first brigade under Brigadier General Nathan Kimball marches out of the city and towards the heights. As they reach the canal ditch they encounter a bottleneck, which is spanned by partially destroyed bridges established at only three locations. Once they cross, they try as best as they can to reform their lines and march up the muddy slope towards the stone wall. The Confederate artillery and massed musket fire opens up a storm around them once they are within 125 feet of the wall; Kimball is severely wounded and his men suffer 25% casualties. None of them reach the wall. Some start to run away from the fire, but most get on the ground with some attempting to fire at the stone wall but with no impact.
An hour later at 1 p.m., Major General William H. French sends out two additional brigades, and the same thing occurs: the men march out of the city, they bottleneck at the canal, they reform lines and make their way up the muddy slope, only to be fired upon by Confederate shells in every direction. These two brigades suffer 50% casualties.
Sumner now looks to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and his men. Hancock first sends in Brigadier General Samuel K. Zook, followed by the famed Irish Brigade led by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher. Thirty-nine year old Meagher, originally from Ireland, had been the leader of the Young Irelanders in Ireland’s Rebellion of 1848. He had been convicted of sedition and sentenced to death, but instead was transported out of Ireland to Australia. In 1852 Meagher had made his way to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where he studied law, worked as a journalist and held traveling lectures on the Irish cause. He had joined the army immediately at the start of the Civil War and encouraged Irish immigrants to support the Union by joining what was eventually his “Irish Brigade,” which has an outstanding reputation. By complete coincidence, Meagher and his men are aimed at attacking an area at the stone wall defended by fellow Irishmen of C.S.A. Colonel Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One of the Confederates spot the Irish Brigade’s green regimental flags approaching them and cries out “Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” But McMillan orders his troops to “Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!” Meagher’s men come very close to reaching the stone wall but are repulsed; 545 are killed, wounded or missing out of 1,200. One of the men, U.S. Private Josiah Marshall Favill, will later write that:
“Immediately the hill in front was hid from view by a continuous sheet of flame…The rebel infantry poured in a murderous fire while their guns from every available point fired shot and shell and canister. The losses were so tremendous, that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure. I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other. Just then there was no romance, no glorious pomp, nothing but disgust for the genius who planned so frightful a slaughter.
By 2:15 p.m. one of Burnside’s staff officers wires his boss regarding Franklin’s Left Division, stating that “Meade and Gibbon badly used up…enemy in force and threatening on left…engaged now heavily in front…too late to advance either to left or front.” There are men waiting to be used, but they are never called in to assist. The Pennsylvania Reserves had gone in outnumbered six to one and against a very strong position held by Jackson; they suffer 40% casualties.
Around 2:30 p.m. Burnside orders continued waves of assaults on the Confederates, convinced he can break through. Brigadier Samuel Sturgis’s brigade attacks and are all thrown back with terrible losses. Not a single soldier gets to the stone wall. As Lee watches the slaughter, he turns to Longstreet and says “It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it.”
After more than two hours of fighting, four Union divisions have failed to take the heights; there are already 5,125 casualties. No progress has been made. Rather than reconsider his approach, Burnside continues to order the same path. He sends orders to Franklin to renew his assault on Jackson’s troops and now orders his Center Grand Division led by Major General Joseph Hooker to cross the Rappahannock into the city and take the same path to the heights as the others who have gone before him.
First Hooker personally performs reconnaissance – something Burnside nor Sumner had done – so he can assess the situation. He returns to Burnside’s headquarters and advises him against the attack. While Burnside and Hooker argue, the Confederates take the time to strengthen their position even more by adding Major General George Pickett’s division and one of Major General John Bell Hood’s brigades to reinforce Marye’s Heights. The Union men still on the field continued to fight or to take cover as best they can, using their dead comrades as shields. Though he had not received orders from Hooker, Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield sends his division over to relieve Sturgis’s men, but they are hit hard by sharpshooter and artillery fire and provide no effective relief to Sturgis.
A soldier in Hancock’s division reports movement in the Confederate lines that lead some to believe that the Confederates might be retreating. Though this seems unlikely, a division of Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys is ordered to attack and capitalize on the situation. Humphreys leads his first brigade on horseback, with his men moving over and around fallen troops with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles; some of the fallen men clutched at the passing pant legs, urging their comrades not to go forward, causing the brigade to become disorganized in their advance. The charge reaches within 50 yards of the wall before being cut down by concentrated rifle fire.
By 4 p.m., Hooker returns from his meeting with Burnside, unable to convince him to stop the attacks. While Humphreys is still attacking, Hooker reluctantly sends in Brigadier General George W. Getty, but this time focuses on the leftmost portion of Marye’s Heights. They move along an unfinished railroad line and are able to get very close to the Confederate line without detection in the gathering twilight, but eventually they are detected, fired upon and repulsed.
At 6:30 p.m. it is dark. Franklin never did follow Burnside’s orders for a second attack towards Jackson’s position. Despite strong protests from his generals, especially Winfield Scott Hancock, Burnside orders his reserves to march over the river and attack the stone wall. Humphreys’ men are told the previous attacks have failed because the men stopped to fire their weapons. They advance with unloaded weapons, planning to use only bayonets. As Hooker watches the last assault, he says “I think I’ve lost as many men as my orders required.”
Seven Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time. There was a total of fourteen individual charges that resulted in 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Confederates losses at Marye’s Heights total around 1,200. C.S.A. James Longstreet later would write that “The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless.”
As the mounted courier/orderly for Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe, Frank Thompson (aka Sarah Emma Edmonds, a female disguised as a male so she could enlist in the Union Army), had been in constant motion and often close to the hottest action during the battle as she spent the day riding up and down the lines carrying messages and relaying orders. The only time in 12 hours that she got off the saddle was to assist an officer of the 79th New York, who lay writhing in agony on the field, having been seized with cramps and spasms and was in extreme pain. Emma provided him with some powerful medicine that got him back on his horse, at his General’s side, within the hour. While many noticed “Frank’s” bravery that day, not everyone was as heroic. Thompson would write that “I never saw, til then, a man deliberately shoot himself, with his own pistol, in order to save the rebels the satisfaction of doing so, as it would seem. As one brigade was ordered into the line of battle, I saw an officer take out his pistol and shoot himself through the side – not mortally, I am sorry to say, but just sufficient enough to unfit him for duty. He was carried to the rear, protesting that it was done by accident.”
From behind the Union lines, London Times reporter Francis Charles Lawley witnesses the wholesale bloodletting:
There, in every attitude of death, lying so close to each other that you might step from body to body, lay acres of the Federal dead. Within the town layers of corpses stretched in the balconies of houses as though taking a siesta. More appalling to look at were piles of arms and legs, amputated as soon as their owners had been carried off the field.”
U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers would later write about what he experienced today:
We slept upon our arms last night and daylight this morning found us in line. The battle began at an early hour and the shot and shell screeched and screamed over our heads. To our right we could see the fight going on for the heights beyond and back of Fredericksburg. General Sumner tried to take the hills but failed. The city was on fire in several places, and the noise was deafening. We could see the long lines of Union troops move up the hill and melt away before the Rebel fire. But we were not idle, although at times there would be a lull in our front and we could watch the fight on the right. At 3pm our Regiment was sent down to the left of the line and ordered to support a Battery. This was no fun for us, for we had to stand the Rebel shells fired at the Battery. Just at dark the firing ceased, but what a scene was before us. The dead and wounded covered the ground in all directions. Ambulances were sent out to pick up the wounded, but the enemy opened fire upon them, and wounded were left to suffer. During the evening if a match was lighted it would bring a shell from the Rebel forts on the hills. At 8pm we were ordered to the rear and our Division rested for the night.
That night “Frank” Thompson rides three miles south from her camp to Franklin’s headquarters to obtain instructions for the morning. Franklin’s house, once owned by Mr. Barnard, has been destroyed from the fighting. Along they way she is haunted by the constant moans from the wounded. The night is bitterly cold, which is causing extreme suffering. Major General Darius Couch would write “as fast as men died they stiffened in the wintery air and on the front line were rolled forward for protection to the living. Frozen men were placed like dumb sentries.” For Emma, this was the darkest night she has witnessed in her military career.
Now occupying the city, the Union men loot the city with a vengeance. The wholesale looting angers the Confederates, who watch it all from Marye’s Heights. U.S. Commanding General Ambrose Burnside spends all day moving the rest of his army across the Rappahannock River and organizing for the upcoming battle. He still believes that he has deceived C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee by crossing at the city.
Senseless property destruction is uncontrolled. U.S. Major General Darius Couch would later describe the scene: “There was considerable looting. I placed a provost-guard at the bridges, with orders that nobody should go back with plunder. An enormous pile of booty was collected there by evening. But there came a time when we were too busy to guard it, and I suppose it was finally carried off by another set of spoilers.”
C.S.A. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps is guarding the river downstream near Port Royal. Up until now, Lee was not certain that Burnside’s main crossing would be at the city. But as he watches the Union army cross over, he orders Jackson’s Corps to quickly move to Fredericksburg. As Jackson’s men arrive, they take over the right flank from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s men. Lee’s strength is now at 72,500 men against Burnside’s 114,000.
U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes quickly writes in his diary:
We were relieved from picket duty and joined our Brigade which was formed in line of battle near the river bank. By this time the entire left grand Division had cross and the plain was covered with soldiers and Batteries of Artillery. About noon Artillery on both sides opened and one shell exploded in our Regiment. In fact one Rebel Battery on a hill seemed to have the range of our Regiment and a few men were hit.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts to a prominent writer and physician and his abolitionist wife Amelia Lee Jackson, 21-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. loves literature and is a proud abolitionist. Graduating from Harvard in 1861, he enlisted in the Massachusetts militia and eventually received a commission as a First Lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. While the rest of Holme’s Regiment is at Fredericksburg, he is laid up at a Union hospital in Falmouth, Virginia, where he decides to kill the agonizing time by writing his mother:
These have been very trying times for me I assure you. First after being stretched out miserably sick with the dysentery, growing weaker each day from illness and starvation, I was disappointed in getting my papers sending me to Philadelphia by the delay at the various headquarters & the subsequent business causing them to be overlooked. Then yesterday morning the grand advance begins. I see for the first time the Regiment going to battle while I remain behind. A feeling worse than the anxiety of danger, I assure you. Weak as I was I couldn’t restrain my tears. I went into the hospital – the only tent left here – listless and miserable. They were just moving out a dead man while another close to death with the prevailing trouble (dysentery) was moaning close by. In the Hospital all day with no prospect of being moved or cared for, and this morning we hear the Regt. has been in it. Exaggerated rumors; then it settles down that poor (Charles F.) Cabot is killed – and several, among them my 2nd Lt wounded. The cannonading of yesterday hasn’t recommenced this morning but the day is young and I expect before night one of the great battles of the war. I was on the point of trying to get down there but found I was too weak for the work. Meanwhile another day of anxious waiting. Of helpless hopelessness for myself, of weary unsatisfied questioning for the Regiment. When I know more I will continue my letter. I have no books I can read I am going to try to calm myself by drawing, but now four days have passed in disappointed expectations. Later.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln may be the leader of a country at war, but he is also a father. He receives correspondence from Thomas Hill, the President of Harvard, where his oldest son Robert is attending school to obtain his law degree. Hill informs the President that the faculty had just approved public admonishment of his son for smoking in Harvard Square after he had privately been warned not to do so. No doubt the subject will be approached when Robert comes home during the holidays.
U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes notes in his diary that “We have found a name for this section: Belle Plain. We are all ready to move and probably will have to cross the Rappahannock River and attempt to drive the Rebels from Fredericksburg.”
U.S. Commanding General Ambrose Burnside calls for council of war with the leaders of his three Grand Divisions: William B. Franklin, Joseph Hooker and Edwin V. Sumner. Burnsides argues C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee is not expecting them to cross at the city and attack Fredericksburg, so therefore that is their best option. The three generals do not agree with Burnside; they take the plans back to their camps to share with their corps, division and brigade commanders, and again there is blatant and bitter opposition. Most vocal are Major Generals Darius N. Couch and Winfield Scott Hancock, who believe it will not only lead to a loss, but a complete, senseless slaughter of Union men.
Burnside is unable to convince those around him of his firm belief that he has Lee right where he wants him. He now turns to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington for support, writing:
“I think now the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than any other part of the river. I’m convinced that a large force of the enemy is now concentrated at Port Royal, its left resting on Fredericksburg, which we hope to turn.”
After giving the situation a little more thought, President Lincoln sends a follow-up message to Brigadier General Henry Sibley in Minnesota regarding the 39 he had sentenced to execution a few days ago. He realized that a lot of the Indians had similar names, so Lincoln cautions Sibley to take special care to make sure that the correct Indians are put to death and to not hang an innocent Indian as a result of simple name confusion.