On December [10th] our pontoon boats arrived and the next night, after bombarding the city, we crossed the river on the pontoons in a rain storm and had the first battle of Fredericksburg – two days of hard fighting with heavy loss.
~ Conrad Smith
Order of Battle- Units That Participated
The Army of the Potomac, like the other armies in the Civil War, was organized into Corps, Divisions, Brigades and Regiments. The exact makeup changed as needs and the supply of troops changed. For this battle Burnside also added three “Grand Divisions”, Right, Center and Left. To give a perspective of where the 139th Pennsylvania fit into that order, the following is an abbreviated list of the Order of Battle for the Battle of Fredericksburg:
- Right Grand Division
- II Corps…
- IX Corps…
- Center Grand Division
- Left Grand Division
- I Corps…
- VI Corps – Major General William F. Smith
- 1st Division…
- 2nd Division…
- 3rd Division – Brigadier General John Newton
- 1st Brigade…
- 2nd Brigade…
- 3rd Brigade – Col. Thomas A. Rowley/Brigadier Genl. Frank Wheaton
- 62nd New York regiment
- 93rd Pennsylvania regiment
- 98th Pennsylvania regiment
- 102nd Pennsylvania regiment
- 139th Pennsylvania regiment – Lt. Col. James D. Owens
In the excerpts of reports below these commanders’ names will be highlighted to show which include the 139th PA.
Each regiment had approximately 1,000 soldiers so the total strength of the Army of the Potomac at this battle was about 120,000, of which about 114,000 were engaged in the battle.
General Burnside’s goal was to capture Richmond, Capital of the Confederacy. He decided to move to Fredericksburg, despite having wider rivers to cross than a more westerly route through Warrenton or Gordonsville, because it would be easier to supply his troops by way of Aquia Creek. This tributary of the Potomac River provided a secure line by water to Washington.
After administrative and weather problems, the pontoon bridge equipment finally arrived on the east bank of the Potomac and six bridges were laid across the river. Three were directly across from the town itself. The other three were laid about a mile further down river.
At the three bridges south of Fredericksburg, December 11th was spent getting into position to cross the river. Orders came to cross late in the day and were promptly obeyed only to be countermanded sending the troops back to the east side of the Rappahannock.
Adjutant Albert Harper described in a letter to his parents the tense anticipation he felt when they had awoken to the sounds of cannons blaring. The reason for the firing, he wrote, “needed no explanation – we were to have a battle.” On the march towards the front, excitement was the pervasive sentiment among the ranks, but it can be imagined that many of the men were as anxious as Harper, who wrote “I drew long breaths and made up my mind to be a man.”
Major General William F. Smith, Commander of the Sixth Corps reported:
On Thursday, December 11, the corps marched from its camp toward the bridges, below Deep Creek [also known as Deep Run] the head of the column arriving at the river about 7:30am. The bridges not being completed, the command was sheltered as much as possible from the view of the enemy, where it remained till about 4pm, when I received order to cross the river. General Devens’ brigade, of General Newton’s division (Third), was ordered to occupy both bridges in the crossing, and after that the lower bridge was to be used by the division of General Brooks (First), while the remaining brigades of the Third Division were to cross on the upper bridge. As soon as the skirmishers, under Colonel Wheaton, Second RI, were ready to cross, I opened a heavy fire of artillery on the houses on the plateau near the crossing, to drive out any enemy holding them, and this fire was maintained until our skirmishers reached the plateau. The troops were being rapidly thrown across, when an order came to retire all troops but one brigade.
Owing to the lateness of the hour, there would not have been sufficient time for me to have deployed my command and taken any defensive position, and I was glad I was to have the daylight of the next day for that purpose. General Devens was selected by General Newton to keep the bridge head, while the troops were kept at a convenient distance, to support him in case he was attacked.
Brigadier General John Newton of the 3rd Division reported:
On the morning of Thursday, 11th instant, the division broke up its camp, near the White Oak Church [see photo below], and marched to the bank of the Rappahannock. About an hour before sundown the division received orders to cross on the pontoon bridges below Fredericksburg. General Devens’ brigade led (Colonel Wheaton’s Second Rhode Island Regiment in front as skirmishers)… Colonel Wheaton’s regiment met with opposition from five companies of rebel skirmishers, whom they succeeded in driving back without difficulty, after inflicting a slight loss of prisoners and killed and wounded upon them. Immediately after crossing, all of my division, except Devens’ brigade, was ordered to recross the river. I held General Cochrane’s brigade during the night close to the river bank, ready to go to the assistance of General Devens if necessary.
During the Civil War in November 1862, White Oak Church became the center, for seven months, of an encampent of the Army of the Potomac. Around 20,000 soldiers of the VI Corps camped in the immediate area. At this time the church served as a military hospital, a United States Christian Commission station, and as a photographic studio.
Elisha Hunt Rhodes (in Wheaton’s Second Rhode Island) described the scene:
Thursday December 11th we left our camp about two o’clock in the morning and just at daylight reached the banks of the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg. The river is narrow and for about five hundred yards back the ground is nearly of a level with the river. Back of this plain are high bluffs and here [on the east side of the river] we had nearly two hundred cannon in position. These cannon were constantly firing and the roar was tremendous. The air was filled with shot and shell flying over our heads and into Fredericksburg. The Rebels did not often reply but would at times land a shot over onto our side. Just at sunset the 2nd R. I. was ordered to cross the bridge at a place now called Franklin’s crossing. It is opposite a plantation owned by A. N. Bernard and is about three miles below the city [other sources show the crossing about a mile down river from the city].
The photo below shows Franklin’s crossing in April of 1863. This is the same place where the 139th crossed on similar pontoon bridges in December 1862.
The weather early on the morning of December 12 was a duplicate of that of the day before – a heavy, damp mist which served the Union army well in concealing its movements. … At the lower bridges where Franklin’s grand division crossed, Smith’s corps led the way, followed by Reynolds’ corps. By late afternoon the entire force had completed the passage of the river and formed in a continuous arc composed of four divisions in two successive lines, Smith’s right resting astride Deep Run, Reynolds’ left on the Rappahannock; one division of each corps, Doubleday’s and Newton’s being held in reserve near the river. There they bivouacked for the night, halted in place, without order from higher up for further movement or action and with nothing to do but wait for Burnside to release another fragment of his fuzzy tactical plan.
Major General William B. Franklin, commander of the Left Grand Division reported:
At daylight on the morning of the 12th, Smith’s corps began to cross… and by 1 pm the whole of the grand division was on the south bank of the river. The crossing was made in excellent order, without the slightest confusion or stoppage. Smith’s Corps had been previously ordered, in compliance with the directions of the commanding general [Burnside] to form parallel to the old Richmond road, with two divisions in front and one in reserve. … The disposition indicated were made in the face of some slight opposition by the enemy’s skirmishers, and a spiteful, though nearly harmless, fire from his artillery, and by 4 o’clock the troops were in the positions assigned to them.
[see map above for perspective on the following description] The ground upon which the troops were disposed is, in general, a plain. It is cultivated and much cut up by hedges and ditches. The old Richmond road traverses the plain from right to left, about 1 mile from the river and nearly parallel to it. This road is bordered on both sides by an earthen parapet and ditch, and is an exceedingly strong feature in the defense of the ground, had the enemy chosen to hold it. On the right of my position is Deep Run, and on the left, about 1 mile in front of Reynolds, is Massaponax Creek. Both streams are tributaries of the Rappahannock. The plain is bordered by a range of high hills in front, which stretches from Fredericksburg to the Massaponax, nearly parallel to the river. In front of and nearly parallel to the Old Richmond Road, and about 500 or 600 yards from it, at the foot of the range of hills, is the railroad. The ravine through which Deep Creek [Deep Run] runs passes through the hills near the center of my front. Two brigades of Brooks’ division, Smith’s Corps, were in front of Deep Creek, forming the extreme right. The remainder of Smith’s Corps was in the rear and to the left of Deep Creek, Reynolds’ corps being about 1 mile from the Massaponax. The enemy had artillery on the ills and in the valley of Deep Creek, in the wood near Reynolds’ right and on the Massaponax, so that the whole field was surrounded by it, except the right flank. His infantry appeared in all directions around the position….
Major General William F. Smith, commanding the Sixth Corps reported:
On Friday morning, soon after daylight, General Brooks’ (First) division was crossed, and took position in front of General Devens, relieving his skirmishers. General Howe’s (Second) division was then ordered across, and formed in line of battle on the left of Brooks. Newton’s troops were then crossed and formed in columns in reserve.
As soon as the crossing was completed and the lines formed, I pushed the command forward, Brooks holding the Richmond road and Deep Creek [Run] with one line in front of the creek, while Howe occupied the crest of the hill, over which ran the Richmond road, his right at a sharp turn of Deep Creek. These movements were all made, when the fog, which had concealed us, lifted, and our lines became visible to the enemy, who occupied the hills in front of us.
The troops were as well protected as the topography would allow, and there was nothing to be done but maintain our skirmish line, which was engaged nearly all the time, and to submit quietly to the feeble and spasmodic artillery fire of the enemy, which both encircled and commanded us.
Brigadier General John Newton, 3rd Division reported:
On Friday, the 12th, the rest of the left grand division crossed the river, the remainder of my division leading the way. Nothing occurred of note this day, except Col. (now Brig. General) T. H. Neill’s regiment, the 23rd Pennsylvania, being ordered to the left of the line, which was found to be occupied by the enemy’s skirmishers, whom they steadily pushed back, and held the position until it was occupied and extended by Genl. Reynolds’ corps, and a partial shelling of my command by the enemy’s batteries. My division is now in reserve….
Next time – The Battle of Fredericksburg – Part Two – December 13, 1862