The Battle of Fredericksburg – Part Two

[W]e had the first battle of Fredericksburg – two days of hard fighting with heavy loss.

~ Conrad Smith1)Conrad Smith, My Early Life and the Civil War, 1920, page 26

Map 9 just before dawn

The blue arrow  here and in the maps below indicates the position of Newton’s Third Division of which the 139th Pennsylvania was a part.

 

 

We slept on our arms last night and daylight this morning found us in line.

~ Elisha Hunt Rhodes2)Bert Hunt Rhodes, All For The Union, First Vintage Civil War Library Edition, 1992, pf 82

Once again the valley was covered with an early morning fog on Saturday, December 13, a day that was soon to terminate the career of many a good man.  A high wind and bitterly cold night had caused such discomfort to the thousands of men resting on their arms on that congested battlefield-to-be that the chance to get into blood-warming action, even if it should hasten death or dismemberment, was preferable to freezing to death from numbing inaction.

Burnside was at least correct in expecting that there would be a fog, as on previous mornings, but that it would be dissipated in a couple of hours, as indeed it was.  Meanwhile, as of 7:45 A.M., Franklin had his orders.  A few minutes later corps commanders Reynolds and Smith were given the bad news, and the Left Grand Division began to stir.

Since Burnside had refused to release any of Hooker’s divisions on the eastern shore, which would have freed Smith’s Sixth Corps for use as Franklin might see fit, without worrying about bridgehead security, Franklin assigned the attack mission to Reynolds and his First Corps.3)The Fredericksburg Campaign, 2nd Edition, Edward J. Stackpole, 1991, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, pg 178-179

Wm FranklinAbout 7:45 o’clock in the morning of the 13th, Brigadier General Hardie arrived from general headquarters, and informed me verbally of the designs of the commanding general in reference to the attack, and that written orders would soon arrive by an aide-de-camp.  These orders arrived soon after 8 o’clock.  In the mean time I had informed General Reynolds that his corps was to make the attack indicated by General Hardie, and he ordered Meade’s division to the point of attack, to be supported by Gibbon’s division.  As Smith’s corps was in position when the order for attack was received, and as a change in the line would have been attended with great risk at that time, and would have caused much delay, I considered it impracticable to add his force to that about to make the attack.  I though also that General Reynolds’ force of three divisions would be sufficient to carry out the spirit of the order, the words of it being, “You will send out at once a division at least, … taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open.”

~ Major General William B. Franklin, Left Grand Division4)Report of Major General William B. Franklin, U.S. Army Commanding Left Grand Division Headquarters, January 2, 1863, Official Records Series I, Volume 21, page 532, No. 207

Map 10 about noon

Saturday [December 13] the sun appeared [about 10:00 A.M.], bright and warm as on a spring morning.  The battle now commenced in terrible earnest.  First, on the left [south], the booming of heavy guns and the rattle of musketry told of hot work in our own front.  Then gradually the battled rolled on to the right [north]; and while it thundered there, our forces on the left remained comparatively quiet.  Then, back again came the roar of cannon, the shrieking and cracking of shells and the din of musketry.5)The Sixth Corps: the Army of the Potomac, Union Army, During the American Civil War, originally published in 1866 under the title “Three Years in the Sixth Corps: a Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, from 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April 1865”, reprinted 2007, Leonaur Ltd., ISBN: 978-1-84677-333-4 (softcover) pages 145-146

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 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.

~ Elisha Hunt Rhodes6)Bert Hunt Rhodes, All For The Union, First Vintage Civil War Library Edition, 1992, pf 82

Map 11 up to 130pm

The hills in our front were thickly wooded, and in these woods “Stonewall” Jackson had concealed his forces.  General Meade, with his division of Pennsylvania reserves, and Gibbons, with his division, both of Reynolds’ First corps, were sent to take and hold the Bowling Green road, which lay in the edge of the wood.  Gallantly and in splendid order, the two divisions moved up toward the edge of the wood.  Gibbons’ division halted at the railroad, near the wood, Meade’s pressed forward, and presently disappeared among the trees.  Although considerable resistance was met with, the gallant division continued to press forward, the rebels steadily giving way.  Suddenly, the roar of cannon became awful, and the fire of musketry almost deafening.  The rebels had opened an enfilading fire upon the division, which made fearful havoc.  The men who had so gallantly marched into the woods, came hurrying back in disorder; not, however, until they had succeeded in capturing several hundred prisoners from the enemy.  A flag, one or two mounted officers, and a squad of a dozen or twenty men were all that could be recognized as a regimental organization; all others had fallen before the deadly fire that met them, or had lost their commands.  The men quickly rallied about their flags and again charged into the woods, and again they were sent back in disorder.  They were now withdrawn, and the rebels charged upon the line of the Sixth Corps.  The troops of our Second division were lying down behind a slight elevation of ground, and, as the rebels charged down furiously upon us, our men suddenly rose and poured a deadly volley into them.  At the same time the troops of the First division met their attack with spirit, and sent them reeling back to their cover in the forest.7)The Sixth Corps: the Army of the Potomac, Union Army, During the American Civil War, originally published in 1866 under the title “Three Years in the Sixth Corps: a Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, from 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April 1865”, reprinted 2007, Leonaur Ltd., ISBN: 978-1-84677-333-4 (softcover) pages 145-146

Currier and Ives Fburg

John Newton

On Saturday, the 13th, the general attack upon the enemy having been made, my division in the afternoon was ordered to the left of the line, to report to General Reynolds as a re-enforcement.  I reported to that officer, and posted my division in three lines, behind General Berry’s brigade (Birney’s Division) to sustain him.  [See Map 12 below]

~ Brigadier General John Newton, commanding 3rd Division, Sixth Corps8)No. 260, Report of Brig. General John Newton, commanding 3rd Division, Official Records, Series I, Volume 21

 

 

Although they were not immediately involved in the heaviest fighting, the position of the 139th near the battle line was well within the range of Confederate cannons.  Taking shelter behind an earthen embankment, the regiment was exposed to an almost continuous barrage from Confederate artillery.  Robert Guyton described the way the men of the 139th spent the afternoon of December 13:

We were ordered to lie down in the ditch behind the embankment.  We lay there for some time with the Batteries in front of us playing on the Rebels whenever they showed themselves… we were lying along the embankment when all at once they poured in upon us a most terrific shower of shells from two or three batteries and as they had a perfect range of our position and the shells burst over us almost as thick as hail but we lay as still as we could behind the embankment and they only succeeded in wounding 1 or 2 men in the regiment and that slightly.  There was two or three times they threw dirt and mud all over and the pieces were whistling all around.9)Bartlett, pg 88

Map 12 220pm

Meanwhile, on the right, Sumner’s and Hooker’s forces were striving, with Herculean efforts, to dislodge the enemy from his strongholds, but to no avail.  His position was impregnable, and the Union forces only advanced against the works to meet with deadly repulse from the savage fire of the concealed foe, and to fall back with fearful losses.  Thus the struggle lasted until evening, when the roar of the battle was hushed, and our tired troops slumbered upon their arms.10)The Sixth Corps: the Army of the Potomac, Union Army, During the American Civil War, originally published in 1866 under the title “Three Years in the Sixth Corps: a Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, from 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April 1865”, reprinted 2007, Leonaur Ltd., ISBN: 978-1-84677-333-4 (softcover) pages 145-146

When Birney’s and Sickles’ divisions were placed in position it had become too late to organize another attack before dark, and all of the troops under my command had either been engaged or were in line, except Newton’s division, Smith’s Corps, which was held in reserve for both corps after the whole of Reynolds’ corps became engaged.

~ Major General William B. Franklin, Left Grand Division11)Report of Major General William B. Franklin, U.S. Army Commanding Left Grand Division Headquarters, January 2, 1863, Official Records Series I, Volume 21, page 532, No. 207

 Map 13 3pm to dark

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

~ Elisha Hunt Rhodes12)Bert Hunt Rhodes, All For The Union, First Vintage Civil War Library Edition, 1992, pf 82

This position [see Map 13 above] I held after dark, until ordered to encamp near corps headquarters by Major General Smith.  During this day the division was severely shelled by the enemy.

~ Brigadier General John Newton, commanding 3rd Division, Sixth Corps13)No. 260, Report of Brig. General John Newton, commanding 3rd Division, Official Records, Series I, Volume 21

Belles and the 139th fared relatively well at Fredericksburg considering the devastating Union losses incurred in the conflict.  Ordered into battle but halted near the river bank, the 139th suffered thirteen wounded from prolonged and intense Confederate artillery fire.  Three of the wounded men were from Belle’s company.14)Bardnell pgs 29-30

 

Casualty Records

In 1870, Samuel P. Bates wrote “History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5.”  In it he lists the members of each Pennsylvania regiment and a short description of each soldier’s service.  He only lists two members of the 139th who were wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, although other sources say there were as many as thirteen.  More information is being sought.  The Pension Index Cards for the two soldiers Bates listed as wounded at Fredericksburg, William W. Fiscus and David P. Erwin, are shown below.

David Erwin index card Fiscus index card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a discussion of how the battle might have turned out differently had Burnside’s order to Franklin had been more clear and had Franklin used more of the men in his Left Grand division, see The Fredericksburg Campaign by Edward Stackpole, pages 192 through 198.

References   [ + ]

1. Conrad Smith, My Early Life and the Civil War, 1920, page 26
2, 6, 12. Bert Hunt Rhodes, All For The Union, First Vintage Civil War Library Edition, 1992, pf 82
3. The Fredericksburg Campaign, 2nd Edition, Edward J. Stackpole, 1991, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, pg 178-179
4, 11. Report of Major General William B. Franklin, U.S. Army Commanding Left Grand Division Headquarters, January 2, 1863, Official Records Series I, Volume 21, page 532, No. 207
5, 7, 10. The Sixth Corps: the Army of the Potomac, Union Army, During the American Civil War, originally published in 1866 under the title “Three Years in the Sixth Corps: a Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, from 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April 1865”, reprinted 2007, Leonaur Ltd., ISBN: 978-1-84677-333-4 (softcover) pages 145-146
8, 13. No. 260, Report of Brig. General John Newton, commanding 3rd Division, Official Records, Series I, Volume 21
9. Bartlett, pg 88
14. Bardnell pgs 29-30

Leave a Reply