December 13 & 14, 1862
By November 5, 1862, Abraham Lincoln was at last fed up with George McClellan. The costly Union victory at Antietam had not been followed up, and the president found himself with little choice. He removed the hugely popular McClellan from command, replacing him General Burnside.
Burnside was not a naturally bold man; no one knew that better than himself. But his plan to catch the Army of Northern Virginia by surprise that winter certainly was. He intended to quickly move down the Rappahannock River and take possession of the city of Fredericksburg, flanking Lee's army and making further attempts on Richmond possible.
Unfortunately for Burnside and his men, reality shortly put paid to his good intentions. Rather than crossing the river above the city and seizing the heights immediately, Burnside was determined to erect a series of pontoon bridges directly in front of Fredericksburg. This would have worked had the pontoons arrived immediately. The didn't. By the time the needed supplies arrived Lee had brought his army to Fredericksburg and strongly the fortified the heights outside of town.
On the morning of December thirteenth the attack began. Laying the pontoon bridges and getting the army across was a ponderous task, made all the more difficult by the presence of Confederate sharpshooters inside the ruined city.
One of Burnside's first acts upon taking command was to alter the army's structure. He did away with the old corps and created three Grand Divisions. The 20th Maine was a part of the Center Grand Division at Fredericksburg, under the command of Joseph Hooker. That division would suffer the worst in the coming battle.
The 20th Maine and the rest of the brigade crossed the Rappahannock late in the day on December thirteenth. Earlier that day they had watched, in horrified fascination, as the Confederate artillery on Marye's Heights had decimated charge after charge. Now it was their turn to enter that maelstrom.
The Third Brigade attacked the Heights straight on. They passed by the results of previous attacks; wounded men littered the plain. They advanced as far as the could against the artillery fire, and when evening came they were pinned on the Heights below the stone wall. They remained there that night, and all day on December fourteenth. They were relieved at approximately eleven p.m. on the fourteenth and made their way back to the city. On the sixteenth the Army of The Potomac crossed back over the Rappahannock, defeated.
The Battle of Fredericksburg would haunt Chamberlain for the rest of his life. He wrote eloquently on a number of subjects, but his story of Fredericksburg is one of the best. And it wasn't so much the horror of the actual fight that stuck with him, but everything that happened afterwards. Here are some excerpts from My Story Of Fredericksburg.
For myself it seemed best to bestow my body between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of hid coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and, still more chilling, the deep, many-voiced moan that overspread the field.
One sound whose gloomy insistence impressed my mood was the flapping of a loosened window-blind in a forsaken brick house to our right, desolate but for a few daring or despairing wounded. It had a weird rhythm as it swung between the hoarse-answering sash and wall. To my wakened inner sense it stuck a chord far deepening the eternal song of the "old clock on the stairs": "Never - forever; forever - never!" I still seem to hear, in lonely hours with the unforgotten, that dark refrain sounding across the anguished battlefield.
Remains of the Stone Wall ~ Fredericksburg, Virginia
National Park Service - Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park
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