Wednesday, December 12, 2012

December 1862: Battle of Fredericksburg (Part One)

On December 11, 1862, soldiers of the 7th Michigan Infantry Regiment, the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment launched an amphibious assault across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia. 
Warren County soldiers were on the march toward Fredericksburg.  The 11th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Robert McAllister of Oxford Furnace, was assigned to General Daniel Sickels division when it began its march to Falmouth, Virginia, located across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.  Sickels' father had founded The Belvidere Apollo newspaper in Warren County, and young Daniel Sickels had for a time worked in his father's newspaper in Belvidere.
The newly created 15th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edward L. Campbell, of Belvidere, was assigned to the Sixth Corps.  The 15th NJ was ordered to proceed toward Fredericksburg. 
Second Lieutenant Birdsall Cornell, of Branchville, and the 1st NJ Volunteer Cavalry Regiment were one of the first Federal units to engage in the battle.  Cornell wrote to The Belvidere Intelligencer [formerly The Belvidere Apollo], "Our Regiment has the distinguished honor of being the first to commence the engagement on the left at the great battle of Fredericksburg.  We moved across the river early in the morning, and were thrown immediately to the front as skirmishers. In about an hour, the infantry came up and we were ordered to the rear.   Strange as it may appear, although we were under galling fire during this time, both of infantry and artillery, not a man was injured, and only two horses were killed."
Sergeant Cicero H. Drake, of Belvidere, had joined the 142nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment in Stroudsburg. He was wounded in the leg during the battle on December 13 and was sent to Finley Hospital in Washington, DC to recuperate. He wrote a letter to J. R. Butts, of Belvidere, while in hospital.  "On the 10th instant, we encamped near White Oak Church, three miles from Fredericksburg.  On the morning of the 11th, we were aroused at 2:00 by the long [drum] roll, and we started for the Rappahannock.  Shortly after, on our way, we heard the thunder of cannon in the direction of Fredericksburg and knew that the first scene of the great drama had opened - the bombardment of Fredericksburg.  About 9 a.m. we formed in line of battle in the woods, a mile or two from the town.  All day the fire continued, and about dark, the town was taken by a detachment of two regiments."
The Confederate troops had fortified the heights just outside of town.  A stone wall gave many cover from Federal rifle and musket fire.  The 15th NJ Regiment arrived at Stafford Heights on the morning of December 11.  Lt. Colonel Campbell was in command because Colonel Samuel Fowler was ill with typhoid fever.   While awaiting orders, the men of the 15th NJ watched the town being shelled by rebel guns.
Colonel McAllister's 11th NJ Regiment also arrived at Stafford Heights.  Pontoon bridges were under construction down on the Rappahannock.  On the morning of December 12, McAllister was ordered to have his men guard the bridges.  Campbell was ordered to have his men cross the river and prepare for battle orders. 
Sgt. Drake wrote, "On Friday, 12th, our forces crossed the river and took a position beyond. All this time, the mighty hosts of the rebels lay strongly fortified in the mountains back of Fredericksburg and directly in our front.  Although they were not a mile from us, and had a large army, that night not a sign of them could be seen.  No campfire, no noise, but all in that direction, silent as death.  The next morning (Saturday), we were led in the direction of the enemy.  The ground between us and the rebel works presented a level appearance.  As we came out in this open field, the lines were formed.    Our Regiment was on the left of the 2nd Brigade Pennsylvania Reserves, and in the 2nd line of battle.  After forming, we were ordered to advance, which we did, and took a position near to and in the rear of  our batteries.  Our batteries were placed on a ridge, perhaps a quarter of a mile from the enemy's works.  They had been shelling the enemy for some time. 
"Occasionally solid shot came whistling over our heads but doing no damage.  About 12, we shifted our position a little to the left.  This attracted the foe, and they opened on us with solid shot and shell.  We fell on our faces, everything, so as to escape the fire.  At the same time, the battery attached to our Regiment opened in return, firing right over our heads, and poured into the ranks solid 24 and 48 pounders.  Although we lay flat on the ground, their shot came unpleasantly close.  One cannon ball came so close to my head that I felt the wind from it  on my ear.  Sometimes I would look up and around me.  I then could see balls bounding majestically over the field.  They sometimes would strike a hundred yards front of us, throw up a sheet of sand, bound over us, and light perhaps fifty yards in our rear.  At this time, along the line, there was a perfect thunder of artillery. 
"Although we were on the left, we could hear the conflict rage on the right several miles off.  Between us and the rebels was a rise of ground hiding them from our view, but between this hill and them was a level field, occasionally cut by deep rifle pits.  On this rise, our batteries were planted, and in their rear, we lay.
"Soon after 12, the command, 'Attention, Battalion - Forward - Double Quick - March' was given, and we advanced to storm their stronghold.  When we reached the top of the rise before mentioned, we came to a deep rifle pit; we broke over this and formed beyond.  then the command, 'Fix Bayonets,' and the order for a grand charge across the plateau, but here they opened on us a most awful fire, but on went the 142nd; soon our advance was checked, and we were compelled to fall on our faces to escape total destruction.  Again we up and pressed forward.  Here I saw my Captain fall, and a moment after, my brother [Levi C. Drake, of Blairstown] fell by my side."
Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards

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