Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Battle of Fredericksburg - Day 1

Thursday, December 11, 1862

At 3:00 A.M. the engineers began deployment of the pontoon bridges at each of the three stations along the Rappahannock River. The Confederates were well-prepared for the crossing. General William Barksdale ordered companies from his brigade to cover each of the pontoon crossings, deploying his men in the houses along the riverbank. As soon as the engineers began their work they were met with a hailstorm of rifle fire which killed many of the engineers. General Henry Hunt, chief of artillery, suggested sending the army across the river in pontoon boats and supporting the crossing with artillery fire on Fredericksburg to drive the Confederate snipers away from the river. The Second Corps was to lead the army across the Rappahannock, and the Third Brigade of the Second Division, commanded by Colonel Norman Hall, was selected as the lead unit to cross the river at the Upper Pontoon Crossing. Colonel Hall chose the Twentieth Massachusetts as the lead regiment in his brigade.

Around noon the artillery barrage began. Union artillery rained heavy fire on Fredericksburg for over two hours. At 2:30 P.M. Colonel Hall began to send his brigade across the river in pontoon boats. The Seventh Michigan was first to cross the Rappahannock, followed by the Nineteenth Massachusetts and the Twentieth Massachusetts. After the Twentieth Massachusetts crossed the river the engineers began to resume construction of the pontoon bridges so that the remaining regiments may cross the river on foot. As Hall's brigade ascended the slope of the bank and entered Sophia Street, they began to encounter rifle fire from General Barksdale's Confederates still deployed in and around the houses. At 4:15 P.M. the Twentieth Massachusetts entered Sophia Street to reinforce the Seventh Michigan and the Nineteenth Massachusetts and to push the lead units into the city. The firing became deadly as they pushed along Hawke Street toward Caroline Street. The Seventh Michigan refused to enter the intersection of Hawke and Caroline Streets, proclaiming that "no man could live around that corner." Captain Henry Abbott coolly led Company I of the Twentieth Massachusetts into the intersection of Hawke and Caroline Streets and met an intense storm of bullets. Company K of the Twentieth Massachusetts followed and sealed off the left flank of the intersection, and Companies A and F of the Twentieth sealed off the right flank of the intersection. Company I continued to push forward along Hawke Street as other regiments began to follow. With stubborn persistence the Twentieth Massachusetts held their ground. Around 7:00 P.M. General Barksdale withdrew his forces from the streets of Fredericksburg to a stone wall at the foot of Marye's Heights. The city of Fredericksburg was under the control of the Union Army.

The Twentieth Massachusetts sustained heavy casualties during the street fighting but also gained praise and respect for their bravery in action. Ninety-seven officers and men of the Twentieth Massachusetts were reported killed or wounded.1

1George A. Bruce, The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861 - 1865 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1906), 195-203. Richard F. Miller, Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005), 197-206.

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