On December 11th, 1862, the Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside crossed the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Despite crossing the river under fire, and encountering stiff resistance and engaging in rare (for the Civil War) urban street fighting, the Federals occupied the town. The rest of the day, and the next, saw a buildup of Union forces in the town in preparation for an assault on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, who were now just to the west and southwest of Fredericksburg.
Burnside had marched south to Fredericksburg in November. His plan was to arrive at Falmouth, Virginia across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg and cross the river before Lee could get his army there and contest the crossing. Burnside did indeed arrive before Lee, but pontoon bridge building materials that were supposed to be there at the same time as Burnside, were delayed. The Union army waited for two weeks before the pontoons arrived; by that time, Lee was waiting on the other side of the river.
Despite this, Burnside was determined to attack, and did so on December 13th. Part of the plan was an attack against some high ground west of town called Marye’s Heights. These heights were bristling with artillery on top and with Confederate infantry protected by a formidable stone wall at the bottom. Burnside launched wave after wave of attackers against this position, and all of them ended in failure, with appalling numbers of Union casualties. Federal attacks in other locations also failed to achieve their objectives and Burnside quietly withdrew on the night of December 14th to 15th, having gained nothing at a cost of over 13,300 total casualties.
General William French’s division of the Union 2nd Corps led the first of the many futile assaults against Marye’s Heights, with Brigadier General Nathan Kimball’s brigade out in front. Kimball’s brigade consisted of the 14th Indiana, 24th and 28th New Jersey, 4th and 8th Ohio, and 7th West Virginia infantry regiments; plus the 1st Delaware infantry which had been temporarily assigned to Kimball’s command. General Kimball was wounded in the attack, and turned brigade command over to Colonel John S. Mason of the 4th Ohio.
Both Kimball and Mason wrote after action reports on the assault. Here’s General Kimball’s report:
WASHINGTON, D. C., December 22, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report that, in obedience to your orders, I moved my command, on the morning of the 11th instant, at daybreak, from the camp of the division to the front, opposite Fredericksburg, and halted at 8 o’clock in a ravine near the railroad, to the right of General Sumner’s headquarters.
At 3 p.m. I moved to the bank of the river, near the Lacy house, expecting to cross, but at sundown, being then under fire from the enemy’s batteries, I was ordered back, and bivouacked on the hill, about half a mile from the river, for the night.
At sunrise on the morning of the 12th, I was ordered forward again, and, crossing the pontoon bridge, entered Fredericksburg and formed my brigade on Sophia street; my right at Hanover street, and my left on Princess Anne street.
At 11 o’clock, I moved forward and formed on Caroline street, opposite my first position, where I remained during the afternoon and night, the troops sleeping on their arms.
At 10 o’clock on the morning of the 13th, I received the order to lead the advance in an attack on the enemy’s works in rear of the city. The First Regiment Delaware Volunteers having been ordered to report to me, I placed them on the center, the Eighth Ohio on the right, and the Fourth Ohio on the left, the whole under the command of Col. John S. Mason, of the Fourth Ohio, and sent them forward as skirmishers. The Eighth Ohio passed out Hanover street until it crossed the canal in rear of the town, when it deployed to the left, until it connected with the Fourth Ohio and First Delaware, which passed out Princess Anne street; crossed the canal near the depot buildings, and deployed to the right. This movement commenced at 11.30 o’clock.
At a few minutes before 12 o’clock, I moved my brigade, which had already been formed on Caroline street, with the Seventh [West] Virginia on the right, the Fourteenth Indiana on the left, and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-eighth New Jersey in the center, by the right flank, out Princess Anne street; crossed the open space near the depot buildings and the canal bridge near there; filed to the right, and formed line of battle under cover of the low bluff, on which my skirmishers had deployed, my right resting on Hanover street, and my left on the so-called Telegraph road.
From the time my column came in sight at the depot buildings all these movements were executed under a most murderous fire from the enemy’s artillery, several shells bursting in the ranks and destroying a company at a time. Yet all the regiments, without an exception, moved steadily forward without confusion, those in the rear quickly closing up the gaps left by their fallen comrades.
My skirmishers having already driven the enemy’s pickets from the plain in front of their position, I moved rapidly forward in line of battle. As soon as my line came in sight on the top of the small hill, under cover of which it was formed, it was met by a deadly fire from the enemy’s batteries in front and on each flank, but in the face of this it moved steadily forward with fixed bayonets, and without firing a gun, over rough and muddy ground, through fences and all other obstacles, until, reaching the enemy’s rifle-pits, it was met by his infantry, posted behind stone walls and earthworks, and in cover of a small ravine, in superior numbers, and by a fire so fierce as to compel it to halt and open fire upon him.
The right of my line then occupied a small village at the forks of the Hanover road, and my left rested at the Telegraph road. A fourth of my command had fallen while crossing the plain, and those left with me Were exhausted by the fatigue of clearing away fences and marching so far at double-quick over rough and muddy ground; and they were exposed to a most murderous fire of grape and musketry. The support had not then come up from under cover of the bluff. My command held its ground, but could advance no farther.
At this moment I was severely wounded in the thigh, and was soon after carried from the field, after sending orders to Colonel Mason to take command of the brigade. I respectfully refer you to the report of this officer for the subsequent action of my brigade, and for lists of killed and wounded.
My command, both officers and men, behaved with the most determined bravery and coolness.
I cannot speak too highly of the skill and gallantry with which Colonel Mason, of the Fourth Ohio, commanding the skirmishers; Colonel Snider, of the Seventh West Virginia; Colonel Wisewell, of the Twenty-eighth, and Colonel Robertson, of the Twenty-fourth New Jersey; Lieutenant Colonels Godman, of the Fourth Ohio, Sawyer, of the Eighth Ohio, and Lockwood, of the Seventh West Virginia, and Majors Cavins, commanding the Fourteenth Indiana, and Smyth, the First Delaware, managed their several commands. Colonels Snider and Wisewell, and Lieutenant-Colonel Godman, were dangerously wounded while leading their regiments.
My staff, Capt. E. D. Mason, assistant adjutant-general, and Lieuts. J. R. Swigart and John G. Burrill, aides-de-camp, by my orders reported to Colonel Mason on the field when he took command, and remained with him until after the evacuation of Fredericksburg. I am deeply indebted to them for the prompt and fearless manner in which they performed their perilous duties. Lieutenant Swigart was wounded while carrying dispatches to you.
I desire to call your special attention to the conduct of Private M. A. Wixon, of Company B, Twenty-third New York Volunteers, whom you sent as guide, and who performed his duties with intelligence and skill, faithfully bearing important information on the field, and bearing himself in a manner deserving distinguished notice.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieut. J. W. PLUME,
Aide.de. Camp and Assistant Adjutant-General, Third Division.
Colonel Mason’s report:
HEADQUARTERS FIRST BRIGADE,
Camp near Falmouth, Va., December 17, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report that on Saturday morning, December 13, the Eighth Ohio Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyer; the First Delaware Volunteers, Major Smyth, and the Fourth Ohio Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Godman, numbering about 700, were placed under my command, to form the line of skirmishers in the attack on the enemy’s works in front of the city of Fredericksburg.
My orders were to throw out a cloud of skirmishers, to be well supported, and to drive the enemy’s skirmishers before us, and enter their breastworks simultaneously with them; to take advantage of the ground; to cover our men, and to keep about 200 yards in front of the first line.
My command rested on Princess Anne street, the right near Hanover street, and moved at about 12 o’clock. I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyer to move his regiment, by the left flank, up Hanover street, cross the canal, and deploy as skirmishers to the left, joining his left with the right of the First Delaware. I took the First Delaware and Fourth Ohio to the left, moving, right in front, to the railroad depot, where I ordered them to deploy to the right as skirmishers. Captain Grubb, Fourth Ohio, was detailed to go with the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyer, and Captain Jones, Fourth Ohio, with the First Delaware, as these officers had previously made a reconnaissance of the ground. The movement was ordered as above, as there was a deep canal, about 15 feet wide, and from 4 to 6 feet in depth, on our front, which could only be crossed by bridges at the heads of different streets. As soon as our column debouched from the streets, the enemy opened a very heavy cross-fire of artillery on our troops, doing very great execution. At the same time their line of skirmishers opened with a well-directed fire of small-arms.
At this time Lieutenant-Colonel Godman, Captain Wallace, and 16 men of the Fourth Ohio and several of the First Delaware were wounded. The deployment was made under the most terrific fire, and the connection made with the Eighth Ohio, when the line advanced, driving the enemy’s skirmishers before them until we reached a ridge, which partially sheltered our men, about 400 yards to the front, the intervening ground being very muddy and obstructed in places by fences. Then they were ordered to lie down and hold the line. The ground beyond was a slope toward the front; at its foot a ravine, lined with rebel infantry, posted under cover. To their rear the hill rose abruptly; on its crest the enemy’s batteries were in full play, commanding the ground in front, and also the whole rear to the town, except the small slope under which our men were sheltered. The right of the line moved forward at the same time and took up their position, partially sheltered by some houses, in addition to the natural configuration of the ground. I attach the report of Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyer, marked A.
General Kimball’s brigade formed in good order, under a heavy enfilading fire, and moved briskly forward to our support. This re-enforcement enabled the line to be maintained, but did not warrant an advance or a charge. I regret to say that General Kimball was severely wounded in the right leg while gallantly leading his brigade forward.
Upon the arrival of these troops, having to move at a double-quick for nearly a quarter of a mile under a fire of both artillery and infantry, and after having been formed in line under a heavy fire, they were so completely exhausted as to be unable to make a farther advance without resting, and useless without full support. This brigade remained on this line for some time unsupported, when a second, third, and fourth line advanced, but were unable to gain ground beyond our line.
On moving to our right, I learned that General Kimball had been wounded. I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyer to take charge of the skirmishers, when I was joined by Lieutenant Swigart, Eighth Ohio, aide-de-camp to General Kimball, who informed me that I was to take command of the brigade, but not to advance until the order for a charge was given, and to look out for the right. The Seventh [West] Virginia had arrived and was supporting the Eighth Ohio. Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyer was directed to watch the right with these two parts of regiments, and resist a charge at the point of the bayonet. As Kimball’s brigade was the first to gain the line, its front was necessarily very much extended to cover it; and, as fresh troops arrived, they at once took position with those already on the line, lying down on the ground. As a consequence, it was almost impossible to keep up regimental organization. I then moved to the right, and having found Captain Mason, adjutant-general of the brigade, I directed him to go to General French, and report to him that, as new troops had come up and my brigade was out of ammunition, I would endeavor to reform it on the right under cover and await ammunition, and at the same time order bayonets fixed to resist a flank movement of the enemy. Later in the day I dispatched Lieutenant Swigart, aide-de-camp, with a report to General French. I regret to say that he received a painful, although not a severe, wound while executing this duty.
Another brigade having taken a position on the right, such portions of our shattered regiments as had been collected were withdrawn to the suburbs of the town at about 4.30 p.m., having remained on the field without ammunition for more than two hours. I then learned that the brigade had been ordered to reform near the hospital on the street, at which point the brigade bivouacked for the night.
The whole command behaved nobly. Colonel Wisewell, Twenty-eighth New Jersey; Lieutenant-Colonels Sawyer, Eighth Ohio, Lockwood, Seventh West Virginia, and Godman, Fourth Ohio; Major Winslow, Eighth Ohio, and Captains Grubb and Jones, Fourth Ohio, came under my immediate notice, doing all that men could do in the discharge of their respective duties. To Captain Mason, assistant adju-tant-general, and Lieutenant Swigart, aide-de-camp to General Kimball, and Lieutenant Lester, Fourth Ohio, acting adjutant, I am indebted for their valuable assistance on the field. Lieutenant Lester was particularly conspicuous for his coolness and daring. Major Cavins, Fourteenth Indiana; Lieut. John Burrill, aide-de-camp to General Kimball; Captain Stewart, Fourth Ohio, and Lieutenant Bailey, adjutant Fourteenth Indiana, did efficient service on the left of our line.
A list of the killed and wounded has already been forwarded.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JNO. S. MASON,
Colonel Fourth Ohio Vols., Comdg. First Brig., French’s Div.
Lieut. J. W. PLUME,
Aide-de-Camp and Acting Assistant Adjutant General.
Kimball recovered from his wounds and returned to field command in 1863, although he was assigned to the western theatre of operations for the rest of the war. His brigade suffered 520 total casualties at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock
by Francis O’Reilly
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the Way of the Rebellion, Series I
“Sumner’s Right Grand Division” by Darius Couch. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 3.