Eyewitness 1862: Bridge snag holds up Fredericksburg attack
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Major Gen. Ambrose Burnside moved fast in mid-November 1862. He assembled a Union Army of more than 100,000 men on the north shore of the Rappahannock River, but he found himself blocked by logistics.
The pontoon bridges he needed to cross the broad, cold river and open the way to Richmond, Va., were not there when the first units of his Army of the Potomac arrived on Nov. 17.
Northern newspapers had been expecting a climactic battle, but days turned into weeks with little action other than occasional artillery duels.
"From one of the bluffs of the Rappahannock we had a fine view of Fredericksburg," a Pittsburgh Gazette story said on Nov. 24. The Yankee observer wrote that he could see "two long trains of [railroad] cars, just starting toward Richmond, conveying away the last 'portable property' of the Rebel troops.
"They evidently did not mean to make a strong stand against us; but careful scrutiny with field glasses showed four of their guns in position, ready to detain us as long as possible."
Two batteries from the 1st New York Artillery came forward, "planted on a commanding hill ... Just as they were fairly in position, the rebels opened with their 10-pound Parrotts, at a distance of 1,600 yards, with the river between us."
The Gazette account stated that the Confederate guns "over-shot, and their fuses were a trifle too long."
"One of their shells knocked a spoke from the wheel of one of our caissons, but the others all passed over our heads, and we had no casualties whatever."
The Union guns "made it so hot for them that they all ran away into the woods," according to the story. "They afterward ventured out, and by great activity, succeeded in withdrawing their guns to the protection of the forest, where they finally disappeared."
Artillery success was overshadowed by Southern activity on the other side of the river while the Union forces waited for their temporary bridges. "Availing themselves of the opportunity so unexpectedly afforded them by our delay, the rebels are exerting themselves to the utmost in the erection of earthworks and batteries, new ones appearing almost daily," according to a Nov. 29 story.
Meanwhile, one property owner in Fredericksburg and many local farmers were trying an imaginative approach to protect their property. "A British flag is displayed on one of the houses in the city," the Gazette story said. "Many of the citizens hereabouts claim to be British subjects," using that assertion "as a safeguard against the seizure of forage and the occupancy of their premises by military authorities."
As November turned into December with no action, rumors spread that the invasion across the Rappahannock would be delayed until spring.
The reason for the stalemate along the banks of the river was described in print in convoluted language that would make any present-day Department of Defense spokesperson envious: "The present delay is owing to certain changes in the situation, which is only to take such steps as will insure the vigorous and successful prosecution of the campaign when reopened."
The Union effort to cross the Rappahannock "reopened" on Dec. 11. The results, as described 150 years ago in Pittsburgh's newspapers, will be the subject of the next "Eyewitness."
On the Web
Go to post-gazette.com for a video in which Mark Miner, the author of "Well At This Time," talks about the experiences of one of his ancestors at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
First Published December 23, 2012 12:00 am