Battles of Fredericksburg, Prairie Grove, Chickasaw Bayou, and Stones River: December 1862

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

After a relatively quiet November, the month of December 1862 saw significant fighting in several locations. 

After his late November victory at the Battle of Cane Hill in northwest Arkansas, Union Brigadier General James Blunt kept his division in position in the vicinity of the battlefield. The nearest reinforcements, two divisions under Brigadier General Francis Herron, were over 100 miles away in Springfield, Missouri. However, the 1st Corps of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Army under the command of Major General Thomas C. Hindman was just 30 miles away. With Blunt isolated, Hindman decided to attack and set his corps in motion on December 3rd. Blunt was aware of the movement and ordered Herron’s two divisions to march as quickly as possible to Cane Hill.

Herron did indeed move quickly, covering about 35 miles per day and by the evening of December 6th the lead elements of his divisions were about six miles from Cane Hill at Fayetteville. Hindman was also approaching Cane Hill, and changed tactics after discovering the unexpected presence of Herron’s force. Instead of attacking Blunt, Hindman bypassed Cane Hill and attacked Herron’s advancing divisions between Cane Hill and Fayetteville at a place called Prairie Grove.

Herron’s outnumbered men were driven back, but Union artillery fire temporarily held the Confederate assault in check. The Federal position was in danger of being overrun, but Blunt heard the sounds of battle and marched to the aid of Herron.  Blunt attacked the Confederate left flank, relieving some of the pressure on Herron’s position. A late Confederate counterattack was beaten back by Union artillery, and the fighting ended as night fell. Hindman withdrew south under  cover of darkness, and the Union maintained control of northwest Arkansas.

Fredericksburg

The Army of the Potomac under Major General Ambrose Burnside had left the Warrenton, Virginia area in the middle of November and made a quick march to Falmouth, Virginia across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.  Per Burnside’s plan, his army had arrived at Falmouth before General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could arrive at Fredericksburg. Burnside’s plan quickly unraveled as he had no way to cross the Rappahannock.  Burnside had ordered pontoon bridge building materials, but none of that equipment arrived until November 25th, and by that time, Lee had arrived in force. Undeterred, Burnside prepared his army to cross the Rappahannock on December 11th.

Before dawn on the 11th, engineers began the bridge building process at three locations– at the northern end of town, at the southern end of town, and at a location about a mile down river from Fredericksburg.  The latter was built with little resistance, but the engineers at the locations in town met with fierce resistance from Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippi infantrymen. Union artillery bombarded the town, but the Mississippians would not be dislodged. Finally, two Union infantry regiments crossed the river in boats, and for one of the few times in the Civil War, Union and Confederate infantry fought in the streets of a town. Barksdale eventually withdrew, and the town was in Federal hands. Burnside moved the rest of his army across the Rappahannock on the 12th.

With his army at full strength, Burnside attacked on December 13th.  Lee was in a good defensive position to the west of town. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps defended the Confederate right. Burnside sent the 60,000 man strong Left Grand Division under the command of Major General William B. Franklin against Jackson.   But Franklin, who was a cautious commander, had received vague orders from Burnside and as a result attacked with only the 4500 man division of  Major General George G. Meade.  Meade’s soldiers  had some minor success when they penetrated a gap in Jackson’s line, but a counterattack drove them out. 

General James Longstreet’s corps defended the Confederate left. Longstreet placed artillery on the high ground of Marye’s Heights and infantry was deployed behind a stone wall in a sunken road at the base of the heights.  Burnside launched a series of futile frontal assaults against this highly fortified position, first with Major General William Sumner’s Right Grand Division and later with Major General Joseph Hooker’s Center Grand Division. Fifteen separate assaults were made, involving tens of thousands of men (and resulting in thousands of casualties) but no Union soldiers reached the stone wall.

Burnside wanted to renew the assaults on the 14th but was talked out of it. On the night of the 15th to 16th, Federal forces withdrew back across the river under cover of darkness. The Union Army suffered nearly 12,700 total casualties, including 1284 dead. Confederate forces had 608 killed, and about 5400 total casualties.

Mississippi

While Burnside was crossing the Rappahannock River on December 12th, action was taking place  on another river in Mississippi. That day, the City Class river ironclad USS Cairo was patrolling the Yazoo River near Vicksburg when the vessel struck an electrically detonated mine and sank. It was the first time a ship had been sunk by such a device, called a “torpedo'” in those days. The ship’s crew escaped.  Cairo was recovered from the river bottom in the 1960s and partially restored. It’s now on display at Vicksburg National Military Park.

Elsewhere in Mississippi, Federals suffered a setback December 20th when General Earl Van Dorn led a raid against the Union supply base at Holly Springs. Van Dorn captured 1500 soldiers and destroyed a million and a half dollars worth of supplies. On the 29th, General William T. Sherman attempted to take the high bluffs north of Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bayou.  The Confederates were in a very strong defensive position on top of the bluffs and easily repulsed Sherman in the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. It was not a good month for the Union Army in Mississippi.

USS Monitor Sinks

On December 30th, the USS Monitor was being towed by the USS Rhode Island off the coast of North Carolina  on its way to duty at Charleston, South Carolina. T he weather turned rough, and the Monitor, which was designed for use in more sheltered water near shore, was no match for the storm. Early in the morning of the 31st, the Monitor sank as the crew was abandoning ship.  Sixteen men were lost and 47 survived the sinking.

Back in March, the Monitor battled the CSS Virginia (also called the Merimack) to a draw at Hampton Roads, Virginia in history’s first battle of ironclad warships. Before the year was out, both ships had been lost.

Battle of Stones River, Tennessee, Begins

On December 31st, elements of General Braxton Braggs’ Army of Tennessee attacked the right flank of Major General William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Confederates drove the Union troops back about three miles until they were able to form a tight semi circle. The new compact Union line, backed up with artillery, held despite repeated attacks, and the day’s fighting drew to a close late in the afternoon.

That evening, Rosecrans held a council of war with his generals to decide what the pan of action would be for the next day. Though some thought  the army should withdraw while it still had an escape route; Rosecrans himself and some of his subordinates were opposed to withdrawing. The decision was made. The army would stay and fight into New Years Day of 1863.

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