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Longstreet on Fredeicksurg - History


In the early fall of 1862, a distance of not more than thirty miles lay between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. A state of uncertainty had existed for several weeks succeeding the battle of Sharpsburg, but the movements that resulted in the battle of Fredericksburg began to take shape when on the 5th of November the order was issued removing General McClellan from command of the Federal forces.

The order assigning General Burnside to command was received at General Lee's headquarters, then at Culpeper Court House, about twenty-four hours after it reached Warrenton, though not through official courtesy. General Lee, on receiving the news, said he regretted to part with McClellan, "for," he added, "we always understood each other so well. I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find some one whom I don't understand."

The Federal army was encamped around Warrenton, Virginia, and was soon divided into three grand divisions, whose commanders were Generals Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin.

Lee's army was on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River, divided into two corps, the First commanded by myself and the Second commanded by General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson. At that time the Confederate army extended from Culpeper Court House (where the First Corps was stationed) on its right across the Blue Ridge down the Valley of Virginia to Winchester. There Jackson was encamped with the Second Corps, except one division which was stationed at Chester Gap on the Blue Ridge Mountains.

About the 18th or 19th of November, we received information through our scouts that Sumner, with his grand division of more than thirty thousand men, was moving toward Fredericksburg. Evidently he intended to surprise us and cross the Rappahannock before we could offer resistance. On receipt of the information, two of my divisions were ordered down to meet him. We made a forced march and arrived on the hills around Fredericksburg about 3 o'clock on the afternoon of the 21st. Sumner had already arrived, and his army was encamped on Stafford Heights, overlooking the town from the Federal side. Before I reached Fredericksburg, General Patrick, provost- marshal-general, crossed the river under a flag of truce and put the people in a state of great excitement by delivering the following letter:

Under cover of the houses of your city, shots have been fired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactorics are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and by direction of General Burnside I accordingly demand the surrender of your city into my hands, as the representative of the Government of the United States, at or before 5 o'clock this afternoon. Failing in an affirmative reply to this demand by the hour indicated, sixteen hours will be permitted to elapse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, etc., which period having expired I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city every necessary means will be taken to preserve order and secure the protective operation of the laws and policy of the United States Government.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

E. V. SUMNER.

Brevet Major-General, U. S. Army, Commanding Right Grand Division

While the people were in a state of excitement over the receipt of this demand for the surrender of their town, my troops appeared upon the heights opposite those occupied by the Federals. The alarmed non-combatants heard of my arrival and immediately sent to me the demand of the Federal general. I stated to the town authorities that I did not care to occupy the place for military purposes and that there was no reason why it should be shelled by the Federal army. We were there to protect ourselves against the advance of the enemy, and could not allow the town to be occupied by the Federals.

The mayor sent to General Sumner a satisfactory statement of the situation and was notified that the threatened shelling would not take place, since the Confederates did not purpose to make the town a base of military operations.

Before my troops reached the little city, and before the people of Fredericksburg knew that any part of the Confederate army was near, there was great excitement over the demand for surrender. No people were in the place except aged and infirm men, and women and children. That they should become alarmed when the surrender of the town was demanded by the Federals was quite natural, and a number proceeded with great haste to board a train then ready to leave. As the train drew out, Sumner's batteries on Stafford Heights opened fire on it, adding to the general terror, but fortunately doing no serious damage. The spectacle was nothing, however, to what we witnessed a short time after. About the 26th or 27th it became evident that Fredericksburg would be the scene of a battle, and we advised the people who were still in the town to prepare to leave, as they would soon be in danger if they remained. The evacuation of the place by the distressed women and helpless men was a painful sight. Many were almost destitute and had no where to go, but, yielding to the cruel necessities of war, they collected their portable effects and turned their backs on the town. Many were forced to seek shelter in the woods and brave the icy November nights to escape the approaching assault from the Federal army.

Very soon after I reached Fredericksburg the remainder of my corps arrived from Culpeper Court House, and as soon as it was known that all the Army of the Potomac was in motion for the prospective scene of battle Jackson was drawn down from the Blue Ridge. In a very short time the Army of Northern Virginia was face to face with the Army of the Potomac.

When Jackson arrived he objected to the position, not that he feared the result of the battle, but because he thought that behind the North Anna was a point from which the most fruitful results would follow. He held that we would win a victory at Fredericksburg, but it would be a fruitless one to us, whereas at North Anna, when we drove the Federals back, we could give pursuit to advantage, which we could not do at Fredericksburg. General Lee did not entertain the proposition, however, and we continued our preparations to meet the enemy at the latter place.

At a point just above the town, a range of hills begins, extending from the river edge out a short distance and bearing around the valley somewhat in the form of a crescent. On the opposite side are the noted Stafford Heights, then occupied by the Federals. At the foot of these hills flows the Rappahannock River. On the Confederate side nestled Fredericksburg, and around it stretched the fertile bottoms from which fine crops had been gathered and upon which the Federal troops were to mass and give battle to the Confederates. On the Confederate side nearest the river was Taylor's Hill, and south of it the now famous Marye's Hill; next, Telegraph Hill, the highest of the elevations on the Confederate side (later known as Lee's Hill, because during the battle General Lee was there most of the time), where I had my headquarters in the field; next was a declination through which Deep Run Creek passed on its way to the Rappahannock River; and next was the gentle elevation at Hamilton's Crossing, not dignified with a name, upon which Stone wall Jackson massed thirty thousand men. It was upon these hills that the Confederates made their preparations to receive Burnside whenever he might choose to cross the Rappahannock. The Confederates were stationed as follows: On Taylor's Hill next the river and forming my left, R. H. Anderson's division; on Marye's Hill, Ransom's and McLaws's divisions; on Telegraph Hill, Pickett's division; to the right and about Deep Run Creek, Hood's division, the latter stretching across Deep Run Bottom.

On the hill occupied by Jackson's corps were the divisions of A. P. Hill, Early, and Taliaferro, that of D. Hill being in reserve on the extreme right. To the Washington Artillery, on Marye's Hill, was assigned the service of advising the army at the earliest possible moment of the Federal advance. General Barksdale, with his Mississippi brigade, was on picket duty in front of Fredericksburg on the night of the advance.

The hills occupied by the Confederate forces, although over-crowned by the heights of Stafford, were so distant as to be outside the range of effective fire by the Federal guns, and, with the lower receding grounds between them, formed a defensive series that may be likened to natural bastions. Taylor's Hill, on our left, was unassailable; Marye's Hill was more advanced toward the town, was of a gradual ascent and of less height than the others, and we considered it the point most assailable, and guarded it accordingly. The events that followed proved the correctness of our opinion on that point. Lee's Hill, near our center, with its rugged sides retired from Marye's and rising higher than its companions, was comparatively safe.

This was the situation of the 65,000 Confederates massed around Fredericksburg, and they had twenty-odd days in which to prepare for the approaching battle.

The Federals on Stafford Heights carefully matured their plans of advance and attack. General Hunt, chief of artillery, skillfully posted 147 guns to cover the bottoms upon which the infantry was to form for the attack, and at the same time play upon the Confederate batteries as circumstances would allow. Franklin and Hooker had joined Sumner, and Stafford Heights held the Federal army, 116,000 strong, watching the plain where the bloody conflict was soon to be. In the meantime the Federals had been seen along the banks of the river, looking for the most available points for crossing. President Lincoln had been down with General Halleck, and it had been suggested by the latter to cross at Hoop-pole Ferry, about 28 or 30 miles below Fredericksburg. We discovered the movement, however, and prepared to meet it, and Burnside abandoned the idea and turned his attention to Fredericksburg, under the impression that many of our troops were down at Hoop-pole, too far away to return in time for this battle.

The soldiers of both armies were in good fighting condition, and there was every indication that we would have a desperate battle. We were confident that Burnside could not dislodge us, and patiently awaited the attack.

On the morning of the 11th of December, 1862, an hour or so before daylight, the slumbering Confederates were awakened by a solitary cannon thundering on the heights of Marye's Hill. Again it boomed, and instantly the aroused Confederates recognized the signal of the Washington Artillery and knew that the Federal troops were preparing to cross the Rappahannock to give us the expected battle. The Federals came down to the river's edge and began the construction of their bridges, when Barksdale opened fire with such effect that they were forced to retire. Again and again they made an effort to cross, but each time they were met and repulsed by the well-directed bullets of the Mississippians. This contest lasted until 1 o'clock, when the Federals, with angry desperation, turned their whole available force of artillery on the little city, and sent down from the heights a perfect storm of shot and shell, crushing the houses with a cyclone of fiery metal. From our position on the heights we saw the batteries hurling an avalanche upon the town whose only offense was that near its edge in a snug retreat nestled three thousand Confederate hornets that were stinging the Army of the Potomac into a frenzy. It was terrific, the pandemonium which that little squad of Confederates had provoked. The town caught fire in several places, shells crashed and burst, and solid shot rained like hail. In the midst of the successive crashes could be heard the shouts and yells of those engaged in the struggle, while the smoke rose from the burning city and the flames leaped about, making a scene which can never be effaced from the memory of those who saw it. But, in the midst of all this fury, the little brigade of Mississippians clung to their work. At last, when I had everything in readiness, I sent a peremptory order to Barksdale to withdraw, which he did, fighting as he retired before the Federals, who had by that time succeeded in landing a number of their troops. The Federals then constructed their pontoons without molestation, and during the night and the following day the grand division of Sumner passed over into Fredericksburg.

About a mile and a half below the town, where the Deep Run empties into the Rappahannock, General Franklin had been allowed without serious opposition to throw two pontoon-bridges on the 11th, and his grand division passed over and massed on the level bottoms opposite Hamilton's Crossing, thus placing himself in front of Stonewall Jackson's corps. The 11th and 12th were thus spent by the Federals in crossing the river and preparing for battle.

Opposite Fredericksburg, the formation along the river-bank was such that the Federals were concealed in their approaches, and, availing themselves of this advantage, they succeeded in crossing and concealing the grand division of Sumner and, later, a part of Hooker's grand division in the city of Fredericksburg, and so disposing of Franklin in the open plain below as to give out the impression that the great force was with the latter and about to oppose Jackson.

Before daylight on the morning of the eventful 13th I rode to the right of my line held by Hood's division. General Hood was at his post in plain hearing of the Federals south of Deep Run, who were marching their troops into position for the attack. The morning was cold and misty, and everything was obscured from view, but so distinctly did the mist bear to us the sounds of the moving Federals that Hood thought the advance was against him. He was relieved, however, when I assured him that the enemy, to reach him, would have to put himself in a pocket and be subjected to attack from Jackson on one side, Pickett and McLaws on the other, and Hood's own men in front. The position of Franklin's men on the 12th, with the configuration of the ground, had left no doubt in my mind as to Franklin's intentions. I explained all this to Hood, assuring him that the attack would be on Jackson. At the same time I ordered Hood, in case Jackson's line should be broken, to wheel around to his right and strike in on the attacking bodies, telling him that Pickett, with his division, would be ordered to join in the flank movement. These orders were given to both division generals, and at the same time they were advised that I would be attacked near my left center, and that I must be at that point to meet my part of the battle. They were also advised that my position was so well defended I could have no other need of their troops. 1 then returned to Lee's Hill, reaching there soon after sunrise.

Thus we stood at the eve of the great battle. Along the Stafford Heights 147 guns were turned upon us, and on the level plain below, in the town, and hidden on the opposite bank ready to cross, were assembled nearly 100,000 men, eager to begin the combat. Secure on our hills, we grimly awaited the onslaught. The valley, the mountain-tops, everything was enveloped in the thickest fog, and the preparations for the fight were made as if under cover of night. The mist brought to us the sounds of the preparation for battle, but we were blind to the movements of the Federals. Suddenly, at 10 o'clock, as if the elements were taking a hand in the drama about to be enacted, the warmth of the sun brushed the mist away and revealed the mighty panorama in the valley below.

Franklin's 40,000 men, reinforced by two divisions of Hooker's grand division, were in front of Jackson's 30,000. The flags of the Federals fluttered gayly, the polished arms shone brightly in the sunlight, and the beautiful uniforms of the buoyant troops gave to the scene the air of a holiday occasion rather than the spectacle of a great army about to be thrown into the tumult of battle. From my place on Lee's Hill I could see almost every soldier Franklin had, and a splendid array it was. But off in the distance was Jackson's ragged infantry, and beyond was Stuart's battered cavalry, with their soiled hats and yellow butternut suits, a striking contrast to the handsomely equipped troops of the Federals.

About the city, here and there, a few soldiers could be seen, but there was no indication of the heavy masses that were concealed by the houses. Those of Franklin's men who were in front of Jackson stretched well up toward Lee's Hill, and were almost within reach of our best guns, and at the other end they stretched out to the east until they came well under the fire of Stuart's horse artillery under Major John Pelham, a brave and gallant officer, almost a boy in years. As the mist rose, the Confederates saw the movement against their right near Hamilton's Crossing. Major Pelham opened fire upon Franklin's command and gave him lively work, which was kept up until Jackson ordered Pelham to retire. Franklin then advanced rapidly to the hill where Jackson's troops had been stationed, feeling the woods with shot as he progressed. Silently Jackson awaited the approach of the Federals until they were within good range, and then he opened a terrific fire which threw the Federals into some confusion. The enemy again massed and advanced, pressing through a gap between Archer and Lane. This broke Jackson's line and threatened very serious trouble. The Federals who had wedged themselves in through that gap came upon Gregg's brigade, and then the severe encounter ensued in which the latter general was mortally wounded. Archer and Lane very soon received reinforcements and, rallying, joined in the counter-attack and recovered their lost ground. The concentration of Taliaferro's and Early's divisions against this attack was too much for it, and the counter-attack drove the Federals back to the railroad and beyond the reach of our guns on the left. Some of our troops following up this repulse got too far out, and were in turn much discomfited when left to the enemy's superior numbers, and were obliged to retire in poor condition. A Federal brigade advancing under cover of Deep Run was discovered at this time and attacked by regiments of Pender's and Law's brigades, the former of A. Hill's and the latter of Hood's division; and, Jackson's second line advancing, the Federals were forced to retire. This series of demonstrations and attacks, the partial success and final discomfiture of the Federals, constitute the hostile movements between the Confederate right and the Federal left.

I have described, in the opening of this article, the situation of the Confederate left. In front of Marye's Hill is a plateau, and immediately at the base of the hill there is a sunken road known as the Telegraph road. On the side of the road next to the town was a stone-wall, shoulder-high, against which the earth was banked, forming an almost unapproachable defense. It was impossible for the troops occupying it to expose more than a small portion of their bodies. Behind this stone-wall I had placed about twenty-five hundred men, being all of General T. R. Cobb's brigade, and a portion of the brigade of General Kershaw, both of McLaws's division. It must now be understood that the Federals, to reach what appeared to be my weakest point, would have to pass directly over this wall held by Cobb's infantry.

An idea of how well Marye's Hill was protected may be obtained from the following incident: General E. Alexander, my engineer and superintendent of artillery, had been placing the guns, and in going over the field with him before the battle, I noticed an idle cannon. I suggested that he place it so as to aid in covering the plain in front of Marye's Hill. He answered: "General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."

A little before noon I sent orders to all my batteries to open fire through the streets or at any points where the troops were seen about the city, as a diversion in favor of Jackson. This fire began at once to develop the work in hand for myself. The Federal troops swarmed out of the city like bees out of a hive, coming in double-quick march and filling the edge of the field in front of Cobb. This was just where we had expected attack, and I was prepared to meet it. As the troops massed before us, they were much annoyed by the fire of our batteries. The field was literally packed with Federals from the vast number of troops that had been massed in the town. From the moment of their appearance began the most fearful carnage With our artillery from the front, right, and left tearing through their ranks, the Federals pressed forward with almost invincible determination, maintaining their steady step and closing up their broken ranks. Thus resolutely they marched upon the stone fence behind which quietly waited the Confederate brigade of General Cobb. As they came within reach of this brigade, a storm of lead was poured into their advancing ranks and they were swept from the field like chaff before the wind. A cloud of smoke shut out the scene for a moment, and, rising, revealed the shattered fragments recoiling from their gallant but hopeless charge. The artillery still plowed through their retreating ranks and searched the places of concealment into which the troops had plunged. A vast number went pell-mell into an old railroad cut to escape fire from the right and front. A battery on Lee's Hill saw this and turned its fire into the entire length of the cut, and the shells began to pour down upon the Federals with the most frightful destruction. They found their position of refuge more uncomfortable than the field of the assault.

Thus the right grand division of the Army of the Potomac found itself repulsed and shattered on its first attempt to drive us from Marye's Hill. Hardly was this attack off the field before we saw the determined Federals again filing out of Fredericksburg and preparing for another charge. The Confederates under Cobb reserved their fire and quietly awaited the approach of the enemy. The Federals came nearer than before, but were forced to retire before the well-directed guns of Cobb's brigade and the fire of the artillery on the heights. By that time the field in front of Cobb was thickly strewn with the dead and dying Federals, but again they formed with desperate courage and renewed the attack and again were driven off. At each attack the slaughter was so great that by the time the third attack was repulsed, the

ground was so thickly strewn with dead that the bodies seriously impeded the approach of the Federals. General Lee, who was with me on Lee's Hill, became uneasy when he saw the attacks so promptly renewed and pushed forward with such persistence, and feared the Federals might break through our line. After the third charge he said to me: "General, they are massing very heavily and will break your line, I am afraid." "General," I replied, "if

you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line. Look to your right; you are in some danger there, but not on my line."

I think the fourth time the Federals charged, a gallant fellow came within one hundred feet of Cobb's position before he fell. Close behind him came some few scattering ones, but they were either killed or they fled from certain death. This charge was the only effort that looked like actual danger to Cobb, and after it was repulsed I felt no apprehension, assuring myself that there were enough of the dead Federals on the field to give me half the battle. The anxiety shown by General Lee, however, induced me to bring up two or three brigades, to be on hand, and General Kershaw, with the remainder of his brigade, was ordered down to the stone-wall, rather, however, to carry ammunition than as a reinforcement for Cobb. Kershaw dashed down the declivity and arrived just in time to succeed Cobb, who, at this juncture, fell from a wound in the thigh and died in a few minutes from loss of blood.

A fifth time the Federals formed and charged and were repulsed. A sixth time they charged and were driven back, when night came to end the dreadful carnage, and the Federals withdrew, leaving the battle-field literally heaped with the bodies of their dead. Before the well-directed fire of Cobb's brigade, the Federals had fallen like the steady dripping of rain from the eaves of a house. Our musketry alone killed and wounded at least 5000; and these, with the slaughter by the artillery, left over 7000 killed and wounded before the foot of Marye's Hill. The dead were piled sometimes three deep, and when morning broke, the spectacle that we saw upon the battle-field was one of the most distressing I ever witnessed. The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless. I thought, as I saw the Federals come again and again to their death, that they deserved success if courage and daring could entitle soldiers to victory.

During the night a Federal strayed beyond his lines and was taken up by some of my troops. On searching him, we found on his person a me memorandum of General Burnside's arrangements, and an order for the renewal of the battle the next day. This information was sent to General Lee, and immediately orders were given for a line of rifle-pits on the top of Marye's Hill for Ransom, who had been held somewhat in reserve, and for other guns to be placed on Taylor's Hill.

We were on our lines before daylight, anxious to receive General Burnside again. As the gray of the morning came without the battle, we became more anxious; yet, as the Federal forces retained position during the 14th and 15th, we were not without hope. There was some little skirmishing, but it did not amount to anything. But when the full light of the next morning revealed an abandoned field, General Lee turned to me, referring in his mind to the dispatch I had captured and which he had just re-read, and said: "General, I am losing confidence in your friend General Burnside." We then put it down -as a ruse de guerre. Afterward, however, we learned that the order had been made in good faith but had been changed in consequence of the demoralized condition of the grand divisions in front of Marye's Hill. During the night of the 15th the Federal troops withdrew, and on the 16th our lines were reestablished along the river.

I have heard that, referring to the attack at Marye's Hill while it was in progress, General Hooker said: "There has been enough blood shed to satisfy any reasonable man, and it is time to quit." I think myself it was fortunate for Burnside that he had no greater success, for the meeting with such discomfiture gave him an opportunity to get back safe. If he had made any progress, his loss would probably have been greater.

Such was the battle of Fredericksburg as I saw it. It has been asked why we did not follow up the victory. The answer is plain. It goes without saying that the battle of the First Corps, concluded after nightfall, could not have been changed into offensive operations. Our line was about three miles long, extending through woodland over hill and dale. An attempt at concentration to throw the troops against the walls of the city at that hour of the night would have been little better than madness. .

During the attack upon General Jackson, and immediately after his line was broken, General Pickett rode up to General Hood and suggested that the moment was at hand for the movement anticipated by my orders, and requested that it be executed. Hood did not agree, so the opportunity was allowed to pass. Had Hood sprung to the occasion we would have enveloped Franklin's command, and might possibly have marched it into the Confederate camp. Hood commanded splendid troops, quite fresh and eager for occasion to give renewed assurances of their mettle.

It has been reported that the troops attacking Marye's Hill were intoxicated, having been plied with whisky to nerve them to the desperate attack. That can hardly be true. I know nothing of the facts, but no sensible commander will allow his troops strong drink upon going into battle. After a battle is over, the soldier's gill is usually allowed if it is at hand. No troops could have displayed greater courage and resolution than was shown by those brought against Marye's Hill. But they miscalculated the wonderful strength of the line behind the stone fence. The position held by Cobb surpassed courage and resolution, and was occupied by those who knew well how to hold a comfortable defense.

After the retreat, General Lee went to Richmond to suggest other operations, but was assured that the war was virtually over, and that we need not harass our troops by marches and other hardships. Gold had advanced in New York to two hundred, and we were assured by those at the Confederate capital that in thirty or forty days we would be recognized and peace proclaimed. General Lee did not share in this belief.

I have been asked if Burnside could have been victorious at Fredericksburg. Such a thing was hardly possible. Perhaps no general could have accomplished more than Burnside did, and it was possible for him to have suffered greater loss. The battle of Fredericksburg was a great and unprofitable sacrifice of human life made, through the pressure from the rear, upon a general who should have known better and who doubtless acted against his judgment. If I had been in General Burnside's place, I would have asked the President to allow me to resign rather than execute his order to force the passage of the river and march the army against Lee in his stronghold.

Viewing the battle after the lapse of more than twenty years, I may say, however, that Burnside's move might have been made stronger by throwing two of his grand divisions across at the mouth of Deep Run, where Franklin crossed with his grand division and six brigades of Hooker's. Had he thus placed Hooker and Sumner, his sturdiest fighters, and made resolute assault with them in his attack on our right, he would in all probability have given us trouble. The partial success he had at that point might have been pushed vigorously by such a force and might have thrown our right entirely from position, in which event the result would have depended on the skillful handling of the forces. Franklin's grand division could have made sufficient sacrifice at Marye's Hill and come as near success as did Sumner's and two-thirds of Hooker's combined. I think, however, that the success would have been on our side, and it might have been followed by greater disaster on the side of the Federals; still they would have had the chance of success in their favor, while in the battle as it was fought it can hardly be claimed that there was even a chance.

Burnside made a mistake from the first. He should have gone from Warrenton to Chester Gap. He might then have held Jackson and fought me, or have held me and fought Jackson, thus taking us in detail. The doubt about the matter was whether or not he could have caught me in that trap before we could concentrate. At any rate, that was the only move on the board that could have benefited him at the time he was assigned to the command of the Army of the Potomac. By interposing between the corps of Lee's


Legends of America

In mid-February, 1863 most of Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps was moved south by rail. Confederate President Jefferson Davis made three purposes clear to General Longstreet — 1) Longstreet was to keep himself able to cover Richmond in case the Union landed troops at Fort Monroe and moved up the James-York Peninsula again. 2) Be able to move back to Fredericksburg in case Major General Joseph Hooker moved. 3) Push the Union troops back to their bases, capture any of those ports if possible, gather all the provisions and volunteers possible in the area, which had been under Union occupation for almost a year. Longstreet had to be careful not to get drawn into pointlessly bloody battles in this little campaign. This may be why General Robert E. Lee chose Longstreet over Stonewall Jackson, who had more experience in independent operations. Longstreet’s Tidewater Operations battles were inconclusive and resulted in total estimated casualties of 1,160 for the entire siege.

Norfleet House/Suffolk (April 13-15, 1863) – In cooperation with Confederate General Daniel H. Hill’s advance on Washington, North Carolina, Lieutenant General James Longstreet with Generals John Hood’s and George Pickett’s divisions besieged the Union garrison at Suffolk commanded by Brigadier General John Peck. The Union works were formidable and manned by 25,000 men, as opposed to Longstreet’s 20,000. On April 13th, the Confederate troops pushed their left flank to the Nansemond River and constructed a battery on Hill’s Point, which closed off the garrison to Union shipping. On April 14th, Union gunboats attempted to run the Norfleet House batteries slightly upstream, but Mount Washington was crippled. The Federals, at the same time, constructed batteries to command the Confederate works at Norfleet House. On April 15th, these batteries were unmasked and opened fire, driving the Confederates out of this important position. The number of casualties is unknown.

Hill’s Point/Suffolk (April 11-May 4, 1863) – Also known as the Battle of Hill’s Point, this engagement took place in Suffolk, Virginia. On April 19th, a Union infantry force landed on Hill’s Point at the confluence of the Nansemond River’s forks. This amphibious force assaulted Fort Huger from the rear, quickly capturing its garrison, thus reopening the river to Union shipping. On April 24th, Brigadier General Michael Corcoran’s Union division mounted a reconnaissance-in-force from Fort Dix against Major General George E. Pickett’s extreme right flank. The Federals approached cautiously and were easily repulsed. On April 29th, General Robert E. Lee directed Longstreet to disengage from Suffolk and rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. By May 4th, the last of Longstreet’s command had crossed the Blackwater River en route to Richmond. The inconclusive battle resulted in estimated Union casualties of 17 and 153 Confederate.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2021.


Battle of Fredericksburg History: The River Crossing

Longstreet's corps appeared at Fredericksburg on November 19. Lee ordered it to occupy a range of hills behind the town, reaching from the Rappahannock on its left to marshy Massaponax Creek on its right. When Jackson's men arrived more than a week later, Lee dispatched them as far as 20 miles down river from Fredericksburg. The Confederate army thus guarded a long stretch of the Rappahannock, unsure of where the Federals might attempt a crossing. Burnside harbored the same uncertainties. After agonizing deliberation, he finally decided to build bridges at three places - two opposite the city and the other one a mile downstream. The Union commander knew that Jackson's corps could not assist Longstreet in resisting a river passage near town. Thus, Burnside's superior numbers would encounter only half of Lee's legions. Once across the river, the Federals would strike Longstreet's overmatched defenders, outflank Jackson, and send the whole Confederate army reeling toward Richmond.

Burnside's lieutenants, however, doubted the practicality of their chiefs plan. "There were not two opinions among the subordinate officers as to the rashness of the undertaking, "wrote one corps commander. Nevertheless, in the foggy pre-dawn hours of December 11, Union engineers crept to the riverbank and began laying their pontoons. Skilled workmen from two New York regiments completed a pair of bridges at the lower crossing and pushed the upstream spans more than halfway to the opposite bank then the sharp crack of musketry erupted from the river-front houses and yards of Fredericksburg.

These shots came from a brigade of Mississippians under William Barksdale . Their job was to delay any Federal attempt to negotiate the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. Nine distinct and desperate attempts were made to complete the bridge[s] reported a Confederate officer, "but every one was attended by such heavy loss that the efforts were abandoned.."

Burnside now turned to his artillery chief, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, and ordered him to blast Fredericksburg into submission with some 150 guns trained on the city from Stafford Heights. Such a barrage would surely dislodge the Confederate infantry and permit completion of the bridges. Shortly after noon, Hunt gave the signal to commence fire. "Rapidly the huge guns vomited forth their terrible shot and shell into every corner and thoroughfare of [Fredericksburg]," remembered an eyewitness.

The bombardment continued for nearly two hours, during which 8,000 projectiles rained destruction on Fredericksburg. Then the grand cannonade ceased and the engineers ventured warily to the ends of their unfinished bridges. Suddenly -impossibly - muzzles flashed again from the cobble-strewn streets and more pontoniers tumbled into the cold waters of the Rappahannock.

Burnside now authorized volunteers to ferry themselves across the river in the clumsy pontoon boats. Men from Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York scrambled aboard the scows, frantically pulling at oars to navigate the hazardous 400 feet to the Confederates' side. Once on shore, the Federals charged Barksdale's marksmen who, despite orders to fall back, fiercely contested each block in a rare example of street fighting during the Civil War. After dusk the brave Mississippians finally withdrew to their main line, the bridge builders completed their work, and the Army of the Potomac entered Fredericksburg. [See text of a walking tour brochure on this street fighting.]


Battle of Fredericksburg History: Marye's Heights

In several ways, Marye's Heights offered the Federals their most promising target. Not only did this sector of Lee's defenses lie closest to the shelter of Fredericksburg, but the ground rose less steeply here than on the surrounding hills.

Nevertheless, Union soldiers had to leave the city, descend into a valley bisected by a water-filled canal ditch, and ascend an open slope of 400 yards to reach the base of the heights. Artillery atop Marye's Heights and nearby elevations would thoroughly blanket the Federal approach. "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it," boasted on Confederate cannoneer.

Sumner's first assault began at noon and set the pattern for a ghastly series of attacks that continued, one after another, until dark. As soon as the Northerners marched out of Fredericksburg, Longstreet's artillery wreaked havoc on the crisp blue formations. The Unionists then encountered a deadly bottleneck at the canal ditch which was spanned by partially-destroyed bridges at only three places. Once across this obstacle, the attackers established shallow battle lines under cover of a slight bluff that shielded them from Rebel eyes.

Orders then rang out for the final advance. The landscape beyond the canal ditch contained a few buildings and fences, but from the military perspective it provided virtually no protection. Dozens of Southern cannon immediately reopened on the easy targets, and when the Federals traversed about half the remaining distance, sheets of flame spewed forth from the Sunken Road. This rifle fire decimated the Northerners. Survivors found refuge behind a small swale in the ground or retreated back to the canal ditch valley.

Quickly a new Federal brigade burst toward Marye's Heights and the "terrible stone wall," then another, and another, until three entire divisions had hurled themselves at the Confederate bastion. In one hour, the Army of the Potomac lost nearly 3,000 men but the madness continued.

Although General Cobb suffered a mortal wound early in the action, the Southern line remained firm. Kershaw's Brigade joined North Carolinians in reinforcing Cobb's men in the Sunken Road. The Confederates stood four ranks deep, maintaining a ceaseless line of fire while the gray-clad artillerists fired over their heads.

More Union units tested the impossible. "We came forward as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet, our faces and bodies being only half- turned to the storm, our shoulders shrugged," remembered one Federal. "Everybody from the smallest drummer boy on up seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity," recalled another. But each blue wave crested short of the goal. Not a single Union soldier laid his hand on the stone wall.


Gettysburg Day – Was Pickett’s Charge Necessary?

What had been a three-day showdown between the Union Army under the command of Major General George G. Meade and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces reached its peak on the third and final day of the battle, July 3, 1863.

Pickett’s Charge was one of the most devastating infantry attacks recorded during the American Civil War. The charge led by George Edward Pickett, Confederate States Army general is best known for leading his division into the center of the Union lines.

General Pickett – When asked why his attack failed, he reportedly answered, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

The previous fighting which had transpired on July 1-2 left neither the Union or Confederate armies significantly better off.

71st Pennsylvania Infantry Monument, Gettysburg Battlefield.

General Lee’s military secretary, gave the following description of Lee’s plan for the attack on July 3:

“There was a weak point…where Cemetery Ridge, sloping westward, formed the depression through which the Emmitsburg road passes. Perceiving that by forcing the Federal lines at that point and turning toward Cemetery Hill, Hays’ Division would be taken in flank and the remainder would be neutralized….Lee determined to attack at that point, and the execution was assigned to Longstreet.”

A small portion of the Gettysburg Cyclorama

George Pickett was one of the three division commanders under General Lee’s “Old War Horse” James Longstreet. Pickett’s division consisted of three brigades as General Montgomery D. Corse’s Brigade was ordered to remain in the region of Taylorsville. However, all these units were fresh having arrived late on the previous day.

Cannons at Gettysburg battlefield representing Hancock’s defenses, stormed by Pickett’s Charge. 71st Pennsylvania Infantry Monument in middle ground. Photo by Joshua Sherurcij

On July 2, just two hours past midnight, the soldiers started their twenty-five mile march to Gettysburg, arriving late in the evening.

Cemetery Ridge, looking south along the ridge with Little Round Top and Big Round Top in the distance. The monument in the foreground is the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Monument.

In a council of war held by Union forces on the eve of July 2, Major General George G. Meade speculated about Lee’s line of attack to engage the center of his defenses. He correctly surmised that Lee would challenge the center of his lines having failed on both his flanks on preceding days.

General Lee’s initial plan on the 2nd day was to send General Longstreet to attack the left flank of the Union forces with Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell leading the attack on Culp’s Hill on the Union right.

Copse of trees and ‘high-water mark of the Confederacy’ on the Gettysburg Battlefield looking north.

However, while Longstreet was gathering his men, Union forces started a massive military bombardment against Ewell’s troops at Culp’s Hill and after a gruesome seven hours of battle, the Union Army had managed to hold their positions. Despite the early engagement by Ewell’s forces and their failure to take Culp’s Hill, Lee continued his offensive strategy to strike right at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

Field of Pickett’s Charge, viewed from north of The Angle, looking west.

Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt came up with a brilliant idea to hold fire from their center lines when the Confederates carried out an artillery bombardment against their position early on in the afternoon. This led the Confederates to believe that their enemy’s batteries had been knocked out.

This further encouraged Lee’s decision to attack there and around 3 p.m., when the firing had died down, 12,500 Confederate soldiers in nine infantry brigades came tearing down the 1300 yards that led to the Cemetery Ridge.

Map of Pickett’s Charge of the American Civil War. Drawn in Adobe Illustrator CS5 by Hal Jespersen. Map by Hal Jespersen CC BY 3.0

Pickett commanded his three brigades on the right while Joseph Pettigrew with his four brigades and Trimble’s two brigades were on the left. As the infantry advanced, Union soldiers began hailing “Fredericksburg!,” referring to a previous charge which they, the Union forces attempted and failed in the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

Pickett taking the order to charge from Gen. Longstreet, Gettysburg, July 3, 1864

Union forces reigned artillery fire from the flanks of Cemetery Hill, and heavy musket and canister fire came from Hancock’s II Corps. As Pickett and the others drew closer, the Union forces unleashed a heavy fire on their attackers, much to the surprise of the Confederate commanders and General Lee.

The charge only got as far as the low stone wall that acted as a shield for the Union soldiers, breaching it and temporarily breaking the U.S. lines Confederate and Union soldiers battled and brawled, clawing at each other in an urgent attempt to hang on to their positions, one side advancing and the other defending until reinforcements were sent in, breaking off the Confederates’ short contact with the opposing forces and pushing them back.

Pickett’s Charge from a position on the Confederate line looking toward the Union lines, Ziegler’s Grove on the left, clump of trees on right, painting by Edwin Forbes

Massive casualties were sustained on the side of the Confederates a hailstorm of projectiles were fired at Pettigrew’s men, while the other divisions also encountered heavy fire, sustaining losses too great to continue the march further.

General Lee’s army was exhausted and depleted both in ammunition and in physical condition. He thereafter ordered the retreat of his men and the three-day battle was finally over, resulting in a huge number of casualties on both sides.

The monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield marking the approximate place where Lew Armistead was fatally wounded. The wall behind the monument marks the Union lines.

During the three days of fighting, over 560 tons of ammunition were fired resulting in over 50,000 casualties almost equally shared by the Confederate and Union Armies, making this one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.

General Pickett’s Virginian brigades went furthest in the assault, making a turn in what is called “the Angle” at the edge of the stone wall. Their position marks what is called the “High-water mark of the Confederacy,” arguably representing the closest the Confederates ever got to achieving independence from the Union through military action.

Thure de Thulstrup’s Battle of Gettysburg, showing Pickett’s Charge

General Lee gathered his wounded and exhausted Army, taking a whole day to prepare his retreat. However, Meade’s army did not try to pursue giving the reason that his army was also too battered and exhausted. Having had his own fill of bloodshed for the day, he allowed the Confederates to make their exit without further contact.

Pickett remained embittered long after the war, recounting in his memory the massive number of men he lost that day.


Longstreet on Fredeicksurg - History

On March 14 the Stonewall Jackson Civil War Roundtable featured a talk and slide presentation entitled "Jackson, Longstreet and Randolph: Sons of Appalachia in Living History." The presentation by Nicholas E. Hollis, president of the Agribusiness Council (ABC) and Pat Griffith, a former press secretary of the late US Senator Jennings Randolph (and native of Clarksburg) provided a unique weave of themes linking the Civil War to the present. Hollis described how genealogical research last summer, connected with ongoing efforts to memorialize Randolph, had uncovered the kinship ties with Longstreet's family, opening a rich vein of historical inquiry.

The talk illuminated several threads weaving rural backgrounds, childhood tragedies, military experience and command styles of two of the most famous generals in US history, providing examples of their leadership and courage under fire, as "brothers in arms" at key engagements such as Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. As he profiled the two generals , Hollis refuted notions that Old Jack (Jackson) and Old Pete (Longstreet) had anything but a deep mutual professional respect for eachother while they made history together.

Beyond the Civil War, Hollis' talk included perspectives on Longstreet's struggles during the Reconstruction Era and his penchant for speaking truth to power, his prescience with military tactics and technology and links with his relative, Jennings Randolph, who became a great (if unheralded) "warrior for peace" throughout the 20th century in the spirit of his namesake, William Jennings Bryan, three time Democratic nominee for president (1896, 1900, 1908). The slides also featured some examples from Randolph's international statesmanship during the last major energy price spike by OPEC in the late 1970s (i.e. Agri-Energy Roundtable). In addition Randolph's efforts as a modern day Populist and the last of the New Dealers were described - much to the delight of the overflow audience. The program also included a special focus on Harrison County (WV) where two of the Sons were born and bred, and where the third (Longstreet) visited while commissioner of railroads in the late 1890s when Clarksburg was a prosperous city on the nation's "mainstreet" railroad (Baltimore & Ohio). Longstreet was raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge near Gainesville, Georgia.

Hollis encouraged more cooperation on citizenship development among history, genealogy and civil war groups aimed at involving young people and drew a sharp correlation between voter apathy, youth violence and the willingness of so-called political leaders to engage in perpetuating "Half-truths, falsehoods and innuendo to distort honest history for momentary advantage". The young people know what is going on," Hollis continued, "No one is fooling them. The country is awash in lies and the 20th century has been soaked in blood", he continued, reminding his audience that Randolph, known as the "Father of the 26th Amendment" fought for younger adult suffrage (at age 18) after witnessing American youth march off to four foreign wars in this century by 1971. Randolph was saddened by the decline in voter registration and interest in civic affairs."Randolph knew our Nation would reap the whirlwind if we continued to accept falsehoods as currency in our public discourse," Hollis stated. He then outlined the tragedies which beset Longstreet and Randolph, who unlike Jackson, who died of battle wounds after Chancellorsville (May 1863) lived long lives on the public stage -- and were victimized by the negative politics of their times.

By the end of the evening a resolve emerged from certain members of the audience that remembering honest history with accent on the positive nature of these heroes of Appalachia could create an exciting foundation to advance good works and citizenship outreach to a broader network of Americans interested in lighting our Nation's future by learning the lessons of our preserved heritage.

It is anticipated that more discussions will take place aimed at convening a larger program in the coming months. Your support would be be most appreciated as we forge new bonds among those who want to reach out to our young people and inspire them with lives of those who came before and sacrificed for their beliefs.

The Jennings Randolph Recognition Project (JRRP) and the General Longstreet Recognition Project (GLRP) are sponsored by the Agribusiness Council (ABC), a nonprofit, educational organization and a number of state agribusiness council affiliated associations, including the West Virginia Agribusiness Council (WV/ABC) which provides logistical support for the JRRP.


James "Old Pete" Longstreet and the Lost Cause

The Lost Cause was pretty much created by Confederate General Jubal Early. The basics of it were that General Robert E. Lee was just about a saint and a military genius, the martyred Stonewall Jackson was indeed a saint, the war was about defending the Southern way of life rather than slavery, and Longstreet was a prime reason that the war was lost. The Lost Cause made the case that the defeated Confederates had fought for honorable reasons. It bolstered the white southern reaction against Reconstruction, Black suffrage and any whites who went along with it. Northern whites who moved south and backed Reconstruction were termed carpetbaggers. Even worse were southern whites who backed the new system and were termed scalawags. Longstreet was the most prominent scalawag of all. Herein lies the root of his fall from Confederate grace.

Longstreet was a South Carolinian. In Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, officers from Virginia were first among equals, and more equal than the others. These officers were proud and prone to quarrel. Lee early on decided to divide his army into two corps, one led by Stonewall Jackson, the eccentric and highly aggressive soldier-professor from Virginia Military Institute. The larger one was led by Longstreet, a life-long soldier in the US Army who had resigned his commission after Fort Sumter and joined the Confederacy. Lee called Longstreet his old war horse.

At the 1862 Battle of Second Bull Run Longstreet’s corps made a powerful attack that broke the Union flank. Longstreet was methodical and slow, but he hit like a mule once ready.

At the Battle of Antietam, Longstreet and his staff had to man two abandoned Confederate cannons to fool tired Union soldiers into thinking there was still resistance at that part of the line. The Confederates hung on by the skin of their teeth before retreating back to Virginia.

That winter Ambrose Burnside (whose facial hair gives us sideburns) made a bone-headed frontal attack at Fredericksburg against Longstreet’s meticulously entrenched position. Multiple attacks failed with great loss.

In the Spring of 1863 Longstreet was sent with part of his corps in a undecisive campaign in coastal North Carolina. Meanwhile, Lee and Jackson had their most famous victory at Chancellorsville. Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops. He lost an arm, infection set in and he ascended into the pantheon of Confederate martyrs.

With Jackson gone, Lee decided to divide his army into three corps, one led by the methodical, dependable Longstreet. He promoted two others, Ewell who was nearly as eccentric as Jackson but cautious and a bit over his head, and Ambrose Powell (AP) Hill. Hill had been a brilliant if difficult and argumentative division commander, but would find corps command a promotion too far. He also suffered from increasing bouts of the venereal disease he’d contracted from a New York City prostitute back when he was a West Point cadet. Hill and Ewell were no replacements for Jackson.

The unplanned battle of Gettysburg started when Hill sent some troops into the town “looking for shoes”. This was unlikely since other Confederate troops had been already been there days before and could be guaranteed to have cleaned out any shoes on hand. Hill was looking for a fight against Lee’s orders and he got one. Hill and Ewell managed to beat the Union troops on the first day, pushing them back through the town with heavy losses on both sides. Ewell cautiously decided against a late day attack on the new Union position. The Yankees used this breathing space to dig in reinforcements streamed in during the night.

Longstreet arrived early the next day with two of his three divisions. Lee wanted him to attack the Union left. Longstreet wanted to go deep around the Union left and set up behind them, forcing them to attack him. Lee vetoed this and ordered an attack. Longstreet, sulking, went ahead. His attack was delayed when his first approach route was found to be under Union observation. Finding an unseen route took some time. When the attack finally went in, the Union left was in serious trouble. Hill and Ewell failed to coordinate, allowing many Union troops to move to the threatened sector and finally hold off the attack.

On the third day Lee reasoned that both Union flanks had been pushed hard their center must be thin. But by this time many of the troops sent to the embattled left flank had returned to their original positions. Longstreet was ordered to attack with his third division led by George Pickett, along with some of Hill’s troops who had taken serious losses on the first day of the battle. Longstreet said it was hopeless. Unable to change Lee’s mind, he made the attack under protest. Pickett’s division of Virginians managed to briefly break into the Union line but the attack was a massive failure, with nearly half of the attackers killed, wounded or captured. What had been a bloody stalemate was now definitely a Union victory. Longstreet was furious at the loss of his troops and angry with Lee.

The Lost Cause blames the loss of the battle on Longstreet on the second day. Hill and Ewell are absolved. AP Hill was shot dead near the end of the war, getting him onto the Confederate martyr list and likely freeing him from a horrific, lingering death from his disease.

Longstreet went on to go west and break the Union center at Chickamauga. At the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, he saved the Confederate right from utter defeat, then flanked and drove the Union troops back. He was accidentally shot by his own troops, a few miles from where Jackson had been hit the year before. Badly wounded, he was out of action for nearly a year, returning to the army just before the end of the war.

After the war he joined Grant’s administration. He had been the best man at Grant’s wedding before the war. Longstreet and a few other Confederate officers supported Reconstruction and Black suffrage. Longstreet was the highest ranking one. He criticized Lee for Gettysburg, breaking a serious taboo. And he said he recollected much of the talk before the war had been about protecting slavery. All of this ensured that he was the target of much abuse. He was in charge of the Louisiana police and militia, many of them Black, when the White League stormed New Orleans in 1874. Longstreet tried to reason with the armed League. He was hit by a spent bullet, dragged from his horse and captured. The 8,000+ strong White League charged and routed the 3,600 police and militia, with over 100 killed or wounded. Later, Federal troops were called in and the White League backed down. After Reconstruction was terminated and the Black vote suppressed, the White League erected a monument to the rising with a plaque explicitly praising white supremacy. It was replaced by a bland, anodyne plaque during the later 20 th century. The monument was removed in 2017 along with 3 other Confederate monuments by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Longstreet continued to defend his military decisions and his post-war politics until his death in 1904, having outlived most of his Confederate peers. I submit that had Longstreet joined in with the Lost Cause crew he would not be blamed for losing that battle, or the butt of much of the other rancor he received.

I will leave the final comment on who lost Gettysburg to the marble man of the Lost Cause, Robert E. Lee. Upon meeting the shattered survivors of Pickett’s Charge, he told them over and again, “This is all my fault”.


Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania Historical Markers

Historical Marker Text

Fredericksburg Campaign N-4
Frustrated by the Army of the Potomac’s lack of progress, President Abraham Lincoln replaced army commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan with Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, who assumed command on 9 Nov. 1862. Within a week, he had the army marching from its camps near Warrenton toward Fredericksburg along this road. Burnside hoped to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg by pontoon bridges and march on Richmond, but a delay in the arrival of the pontoons thwarted his plan. By the time the bridges arrived, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army blocked his path. Burnside forced a crossing of the river on 11 Dec. but was defeated two days later at the Battle of Fredericksburg. [2002]

Battles of Fredericksburg E-44
During the First and Second Battles of Fredericksburg, the Confederates occupied Marye’s Heights, a defensive position enhanced by a sunken road and stone wall on the eastern slope. On 13 Dec. 1862, during the first battle, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederate corps withstood attempts by Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s and Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Divisions to take the heights. During the second battle (Chancellorsville campaign), on 3 May 1863, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Union troops repeatedly attempted to capture the ridge from Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s brigade. A bayonet charge finally drove the Confederates off the heights. [2000]

Extended Research
On November 7, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln replaced the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. McClellan was much beloved by his men, but Lincoln was in need of a Union victory by the end of the year, so changes needed to be made. The army had suffered a string of defeats, elections were approaching, and Lincoln’s Republican party needed military progress to retain their strength in politics. Burnside was reluctant to take over from his friend McClellan, claiming that he was not qualified enough to command such a large force as 120,000 men (Finfrock 6). McClellan stayed at the army’s camp in Warrenton for a few days to help Burnside’s transition to command (O’Reilly, Fredricksburg, 17).

Burnside’s goal of his new campaign was to capture Richmond. He intended to concentrate his forces near Warrenton to make the Confederates believe that he would attack Culpeper or Gordonsville and send forces to the upper Rappahannock, and then to quickly move his army to Fredericksburg (O’Reilly 21). Within a week, he had reorganized the army into three Grand Divisions, under major generals Edwin V. Sumner, Joseph Hooker, and William B. Franklin.

On November 15, the army began its march toward Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac would need to build pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock in order to take the town, since civilian bridges had been burned earlier, so Burnside ordered pontoons to be delivered there by the time troops arrived and were ready to cross . They would need to cross unopposed for the plan to go well. Unfortunately, although Union forces began to arrive at the Rappahannock on November 17, the pontoons did not arrive until November 25. This had given Lieutenant General James Longstreet time to quickly march his Confederate troops from Culpeper to Fredericksburg in anticipation of the crossing, reaching it on November 19, and already chances of Union success were decreasing (Greene 19-20).

The weather only made things worse. With snow and freezing rain, any crossing would be delayed for days. Within two weeks of Longstreet’s arrival, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and his corps arrived from the Shenandoah Valley to reunite the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee ordered them to guard different points on the river as far as twenty miles down.

On December 10, Burnside determined that his troops would lay bridges and cross the Rappahannock the following morning. One officer even wrote that “under favorable circumstances, [the river] could be bridged in two hours” (O’Reilly, Fredericksburg 54). Two bridges were to be built at the northern side of Fredericksburg, one at the southern side, known as the middle pontoon crossing, and two a mile to the south, known as the lower pontoon crossing .

Before dawn on the morning of December 11, men from the 50 th New York Engineers began to lay the pontoons at the upper pontoon crossing, under cover of a fog. They didn’t go undetected for very long. They were halfway across the 400-foot span when Confederate sharpshooters from the opposite shore picked off the engineers as they worked on the bridge, making it near impossible to proceed. Nine separate attempts to complete the bridges were driven back, and even after a two-hour bombardment on the city from Union artillery on Stafford Heights, Confederates still were there to fire upon the bridge-builders. Only after Federals rowed across the river to drive out the brigade of Confederate sharpshooters could the 50 th New York come close to finishing the pontoon bridges. After dusk, they were completed and the Army of the Potomac finally forded the Rappahannock (Greene, Fredericksburg, 20-21).

The next day, Burnside sent more reinforcements into Fredericksburg, but gave no orders to attack. Lee took the opportunity to strengthen the area around Fredericksburg, spreading his army out over seven miles (Greene, Fredericksburg, 24). Longstreet positioned an artillery battalion onto Marye’s Heights, and below the heights Brigadier General Thomas R. R. Cobb’s brigade entrenched along the Sunken Road, behind a stone wall that would provide an advantageous offensive position (O’Reilly 105-106). Jackson’s command post was at Prospect Hill, a few miles south of the city, where he stacked his four divisions nearly a mile deep.

On December 13, Burnside issued orders for Franklin’s Left Grand Division to attack Jackson’s Corps and then Sumner’s Right Grand Division to advance toward the well-defended Marye’s Heights (Greene, Fredericksburg, 24). Burnside’s directives lacked clarity, and thus Franklin interpreted them cautiously, designating only one division out of his three, providing merely 4,500 men, to lead the attack against Jackson (29). Meade set out at about 8:30, but in the middle of the morning his division was delayed an hour due to the bold actions of Confederate Major John Pelham , who boldly fired against their flank with only one gun and its crew, from a protected spot 400 yards away (O’Reilly, Fredericksburg 144). Once Meade continued and was 500 yards away from Prospect Hill, Jackson let loose his concealed artillery and, with the Union response, an artillery battle persisted for an hour. Meade’s division was ultimately too outnumbered against Jackson’s Corps, reserves, and superior tactics, and was eventually forced to retreat to the Richmond Stage Road. By dusk the battle’s fighting had finished (Greene, Fredericksburg, 29-30).

Closer to town, Sumner’s advance against Marye’s Heights fared much worse. The heights were well-fortified by the Confederates and from the beginning Sumner’s infantry had little chance of accomplishing anything significant. One artilleryman declared “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it” (Greene, Fredericksburg, 30). He was hardly exaggerating. Late in the morning Burnside ordered the advance to begin, and until dusk Sumner sent wave after wave of brigades across open fields toward the heights. Longstreet’s artillery upon the heights and Cobb’s infantry, entrenched in the Sunken Road and protected behind its stone wall, slaughtered the Union troops as they came, entirely unprotected. During the course of the day Sumner sent a total of fifteen waves, and not a single one ever came closer than within twenty yards of the road. All during the night the moans of the wounded lying in the fields could be heard (35). However, the Confederates did not get by without casualties of their own. Among the men lost at that engagement was General Cobb. Above is a photograph of the Confederate dead in Sunken Road, taken after a similar set of advances in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, in May 1963.

Burnside originally wanted to renew assaults the following day, but was persuaded against it, and he finally withdrew the army during the evening and night of December 15-16, having them dismantle the pontoon bridges in their wake so they could not be pursued. The defeated Army of the Potomac camped on Stafford Heights and in Falmouth , and thus ended the fateful Fredericksburg Campaign, only the first of several “On to Richmond” campaigns (Greene, “Battle”). The Army of Northern Virginia camped around Fredericksburg.

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of the Potomac lost 12,600 men, while the Army of Northern Virginia suffered only 5,300 casualties. Yet the Confederates gained nothing from their victory, while their loss of men and supplies—not so easily replaced—had serious effects, compared to the Federals, who could afford and obtain replacement infantry and supplies (Greene, “Battle”). For all its gore, the Battle of Fredericksburg benefited neither army.

The ensuing winter was an easy one for neither army. Both experienced hunger, most extremely the Confederates, due to insufficient supplies. But Burnside didn’t stop there. In late January he initiated his next ‘On to Richmond’ advance, known as the Mud March, which was a complete failure and resulted in the loss of troops, supplies, horses and mules, and last but not least, the men’s morale and their will to do anything further for their inept commander. Within days, Lincoln replaced Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac with his rival, General Hooker.

To read more about Hooker and the changes he made, see General Hooker’s Headquarters N-34. To read more about Confederate winter camps and excursions, see Lee’s Winter Headquarters E-38, Longstreet’s Winter Headquarters E-41, and Stuart E-8. For information about the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, see Cox House E-42 and The Chancellorsville Campaign , E-118

Photo Credits
“Battle of Fredericksburg,” Library of Congress (accessed April 15, 2008).

“Confederate Dead Behind the Stone Wall of Marye’s Heights, Killed During the Battle of Chancellorsville,” civilwarphotos.net, http://www.civilwarphotos.net/files/images/096.jpg (accessed April 17, 2008)

For Further Reference
Finfrock, Bradley. Across the Rappahannock. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1994.

Greene, Wilson A. “Battle of Fredericksburg.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/frsp/fredhist.htm (accessed April 30, 2008).

_____. Fredericksburg Battlefields: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, Virginia. Division of Publications, National Park Service. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

O’Reilly, Francis Augustín. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

O’Reilly, Frank A. “Stonewall” Jackson at Fredericksburg: The Battle of Prospect Hill, December 13, 1862. Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1993.

Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.


The Passion of General James Longstreet

Time’s unrelenting march is always ticking down to things known and unknown, never celebrating or mourning what once was. This is especially true regarding the nature of war. For General James Longstreet, the awful minutes passing before 2 p.m. on July 3rd, 1863, are marked by the roar of a cannonade whose concussions shake his broad frame. At least, that is why he hopes he is shaking. Weeks of marching and two days of vicious fighting over rocky hills and tidy fields wears on him. How their misadventure ends now falls to him. On this occasion, he knows too much.

Dark Pennsylvania soil plays host to Longstreet’s anxious boots as he paces. Amidst the trees around him, Pickett’s division huddles against Federal counter-battery fire. Pettigrew and Trimble’s boys do the same, completing a line of battle running north towards the old seminary. The rawest of them press themselves flat on the ground, seeking shelter against the Earth’s bosom. Ragged veterans stare off into the distance, content to pass the time reliving the glories and horrors of past battles. At some point, all of them will think of home. Longstreet shudders. Faith holds each man in place. It’s a faith born in those who trust the gun in their hands and the perceived miracles they have seen conjured up by their commanders. Commanders such as Longstreet. The Staff of Lee’s Right Hand. Why should this battle differ from all the others?

Map of Pickett's Charge of the American Civil War. Drawn by Hal Jespersen. (Wikimedia Commons)

Longstreet considers glassing Cemetery Ridge once again. No use, it’s shrouded in thick pewter gun smoke. In Mexico he had learned to memorize the landscape. Terrain is the god of war its highest priests know they only have to flow with its contours to realize victory. Attacking uphill is a fool’s errand. The high ground the Federals occupied outside Gettysburg haunted Longstreet since he arrived on the battlefield two days ago. A grove of trees huddled atop the ridge was his target. Between him and it was three quarters of a mile of open ground sloping uphill, each acre of it fertile soil charged by the Almighty with giving life where men chose to put roots down. Longstreet fully expects to nourish it.

The clock ticks down to what is known and unknown.

Porter Alexander, whom Longstreet placed in command of Lee’s prescribed bombardment, sends word: his ammunition is starting to run low. Colonel Alexander's bombardment lasted longer than his staff anticipated. General Pickett bounces about like a terrier awaiting the opening of the hunt. Lee, the human embodiment of their Cause, sits serene on a stump, making himself visible for the sake of the men about to charge the field. Longstreet examines the ground in his mind’s eye once more. In the distance Hood and McLaws’ shattered divisions stand in reserve. Pride swells up in his chest. Longstreet had never seen his men fight so hard as they did yesterday. Only his immediate staff kept him from charging into the fray alongside the division commanders. Even now, the boulder-strewn ground to the south still writhes with their wounded comrades. Cries for water and momma can still be heard across the valley.

There is another course of action, a way to avoid all of this, but the ultimate decision is in the hands of the grey god-man, and he wants to fight. Longstreet’s knows they should have marched around the little hills on Meade’s left flank and occupied a defensive position between the Federals and the great cities of the Northeast. Then, await battle fresh and concentrated against an exhausted foe. Let the Federals charge uphill in sweltering heat after exhausting all other options. The enemy, however, is here, now. So Longstreet paces on.

Pickett's Charge from a position on the Confederate line looking toward the Union lines, Ziegler's Grove on the left, clump of trees on right, painting by Edwin Forbes.

Anguish rises in his throat, which is already dried by the July heat and years of inhaling the acrid smoke of battle. He believes in The Cause down to his rattling bones. He believes, even though three of his five children, Mary Anne, James, and Gus were all snatched away from him by scarlet fever the year before. Longstreet’s home is devoid of everything that brought joy to his life, yet he fights on. The North had not the right to injure the South as it pleased. Old Uncle Augustus’ thundering secessionist serenades echoed in Longstreet’s head. Still, Longstreet had ordered the forced acquisition of property from Pennsylvania farmers along their invasion’s route to replenish the army’s stores of food. The South’s soil could no longer provide for its boys. Freedmen and escaped slaves alike were rounded up and herded south with little regard for who was which under his watch. If the people of the North had any doubts about the war, like Lee said they did, surely now they did not. There is no time to think of that. Scanning the assembled men, he knows he cannot afford to lose any of them. Each body that tumbles to the ground, each limb torn away from its master, is a national treasure their nascent country’s meager coffers could never replace. Anything short of a thunderous blow against their enemy would not be worth the price the Confederacy paid.

The clock ticks down to what is known and unknown.

Anguish turns to anger. No battle should have to be fought here. Longstreet loves General Lee like a father. He recalls the Seven Days’ battles, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg. Longstreet gave himself over to Lee and earned the trust of the man who filled the void left by the father he hardly knew. Now he learns that there’s no feeling comparable to when a father disappoints his son. Lee had countenanced Longstreet’s opinion before, why not now? In their consultations, Lee had reacted favorably to Longstreet’s suggestion that the intent of the campaign should be to fight only defensive battles. Lee had stood beside Longstreet on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg as wave upon wave of Federal troops were cut down on the plains below. He thought, if history does not speak to us, it should at least echo. Lee was not a reckless man, which raises Longstreet’s ire further. Fighting a battle here, in Gettysburg, was a gambler’s manic impulse not a poker player’s call on a bet.

Longstreet’s mind wanders west, to the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. General Grant had Vicksburg in his grasp. Threatening the Tennessee Valley with invasion may lure Grant away and preserve the Confederacy’s integrity. If the Federals succeeded in splitting the Confederacy in two, General Grant might come east. Longstreet knows Grant well, a man after his own heart, one who makes up for a lack of pedigree with a grim tolerance for the pain that accompanies learning hard lessons. Men like the two of them did not repeat their mistakes. Longstreet knew to attack now would be pointless. Especially here, in this open space. Now, no matter what, disaster was upon the Confederate Army.

The clock ticks down to what is known and unknown.

Major General (CSA) George Pickett (Wikimedia Commons)

Anger turns to obstinacy. If Lee refuses to see the calamity that Longstreet knows so plain, then let someone else give the order to Pickett. If Lee did not trust Longstreet’s tactical assessment, he should not have placed him in charge of this abomination. He should beseech Stonewall’s ghost if need be. Porter Alexander knows when his ammunition expires, have him judge the right time to step off. Instead, Pickett approaches, glory burning in his heart, and asks to proceed as the cannonade slows.

Alexander’s artillery goes silent. The moment has arrived.

There is much Longstreet does not know and will never know. He does not know that after this moment there will be no more miracles to conjure up, the war in the west would become a futile exercise, or just how successful Grant would be after the Siege of Vicksburg. After this moment, he cannot know The Cause would be broken after the freedom both Union and Confederates shared was redefined by President Lincoln over the bones of those who died here. Longstreet does not know that, even as the battlefield comes back into view, the jackals who will one day hang responsibility for The Cause’s demise around his neck for accepting the South’s defeat and honoring his old oath prowled his own lines.

Obstinacy turns to resignation. In this moment, what Longstreet does not know is unimportant. What he knows for sure is that he had done his duty as the senior Lieutenant General in the Army of Northern Virginia. No one present could say they were not warned. Now he is numb. Without an outlet, his emotions implode inward and he just stares out across the killing fields. Few of the blades of grass he sees will be spared a watering of blood and shot. Better angels cry out to Longstreet from somewhere beyond, but it is too late. Unable to support the weight of his assignment, Longstreet bows his head. Pickett’s wet eyes plead for the order to advance, oblivious to his commander’s torment.

Longstreet can only nod once.

Kyle Gaffney earned his master’s degree in History from William Paterson University in New Jersey.


Watch the video: Which wounding was more fatal for the Confederacy, Jackson or Longstreet?: War Department (January 2022).