Brigadier General John Caldwell’s Brigade in the Assault on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg

Gen. John C. Caldwell

The December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, in large part due to wave after wave of Union assaults against the fortified Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights on the west edge of the town. None of the attacks on December 13th were successful in carrying the heights, and the result for U.S. forces was a long list of casualties with nothing gained, and ultimately, a Confederate victory.

One of the Union brigades that participated in the assault was the 1st Brigade of Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock’s 1st Division of the Second Corps. This brigade, under the command of Brigadier General John C. Caldwell, consisted of five veteran infantry regiments—the 5th New Hampshire, 7th, 61st, and 64th New York, and the 81st Pennsylvania—plus a new regiment, the 145th Pennsylvania.

In the morning and early afternoon of the 13th, Hancock’s division was deployed on the streets of Fredericksburg. After Major General William H. French’s 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps had been repulsed in its assault on the Confederate left on Marye’s Heights, Hancock ordered his brigades to form for attack. Colonel Samuel K. Zook’s 3rd Brigade would attack first, with Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher’s 2nd Brigade (better known as the Irish Brigade) after Zook, and Caldwell’s brigade after the Irish Brigade.

Battle of Fredericksburg Dec, 13 1862 by Edwin Forbes

Both Zook’s and Meagher’s attacks were repulsed with heavy casualties. Caldwell’s men prepared to go into action. They were greeted with the sight of a battlefield strewn with dead and wounded, with Georgians and North Carolinian infantry behind a stone wall, backed up by artillery of the Washington Artillery of Louisiana on the heights above, commanding the battlefield. As Caldwell’s men marched through town and moved into position, they were pounded by Rebel artillery. The regiments lined up left to right with the 145th Pennsylvania on the left, 7th New York, 81st Pennsylvania, and the 5th New Hampshire on the right flank. The 61st and 64th New York arrived after the others and went into position behind the left side of the line.

Caldwell’s after action report provides a narrative of his brigade’s fighting in the assault on Marye’s Heights:

January 21, 1863.

CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my brigade in the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13 :

My brigade constituted the third line of the division, and was formed in line of battle on the street parallel to the river and nearest to it. Three of my regiments the Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York and One hundred and forty-fifth Pennsylvania had, previous to the action, relieved the picket line of three regiments of General French s command, with orders as soon as the first line of attack had passed the pickets to assemble and join their brigade as it passed to the battle field. The brigade marched to the field, by the right flank, in the following order:

The Fifth New Hampshire, commanded by Colonel Cross, on the right, followed by the Eighty-first Pennsylvania, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel McKeen. The Seventh New York, led by

Col. Edward Cross 5th New Hampshire Infantry

Colonel Von Schack, was third in the line. The three regiments which had been on picket joined the column near the outer edge of the city the One hundred and forty-fifth Pennsylvania (Colonel Brown) following the Seventh New York, and the Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York, consolidated, under the command of Colonel Miles, of the Sixty-first, on the extreme left of my line.

While marching through the streets to our position, we were exposed to a severe artillery fire, by which several of my men were killed. I formed my men in line of battle behind the Irish Brigade, coming on right by file into line. While forming, there was heavy and continuous firing in front, and shells exploded continually over my line. The left of my brigade had not yet got into position when I was ordered by General Hancock to move immediately forward. Colonel Miles command was at the same time ordered to the right, to guard against an apprehended attack on our right flank. The brigade advanced steadily in line until they came to a line which was lying down and occasionally firing. Some of my men, especially on the left, were halted and commenced firing. I then passed along the entire length of my line, from right to left, not only to urge forward my men in person, but also to stop the men in our rear from firing on my line. The brigade was now exposed to a terrific and well-directed fire of musketry and artillery, by which its ranks were rapidly thinned. The regiments, however, all behaved with the greatest gallantry and fought with steadiness, except the One hundred and forty-fifth Pennsylvania, which broke and fell back, its colonel being severely wounded.

My regiments had now advanced to, and the Fifth New Hampshire and part of the Eighty-first Pennsylvania beyond, the brick house. The fire here was terrific the hottest I have ever seen. The men fell by hundreds. Just at the right of the brick house is the confluence of two roads, down both of which the enemy was firing incessantly. Here I met Colonel Miles, who wished to charge directly up the road. Had there been any support, I should not have hesitated to give him the order to do so; but, with the small force at my disposal, it seemed to me a wanton loss of brave men. I therefore formed him on the right of the road, the left side, but did not leave the field until struck a second time, in the left shoulder. I then went down the road to direct one of the regiments of Colonel Owen’s command, which was now coming up, to our right; but the colonel said his orders were most positive to go to the left of the road. I went to a hospital near by to have my wounds dressed, and did not again return to the field.

Confederates at the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg

All my regiments, except the One hundred and forty-fifth Pennsylvania, fought with desperate courage under great disadvantages. The enemy fought behind rifle-pits and stone walls, while our troops were entirely uncovered, and exposed to a murderous fire of artillery and musketry combined. They advanced bravely to within a few yards of the enemy’s line, when their ranks were so thinned and their numbers so reduced that it was impossible to go farther. The right of my line remained in position, and was not relieved until after dark.

Map of 2nd Corps at Fredericksburg Dec 13 1862

To mention individual officers worthy of particular praise is in the present instance a task of the greatest difficulty. With the exception before mentioned, men and officers never behaved with greater gallantry or devotion. I do not desire to lead braver men or be supported by better officers. Colonel Cross, at the time of the action, was suffering from an attack of chills and fever, which would have laid most men on their beds. He did not hesitate, however, to lead his noble regiment into battle, and was struck down, severely wounded, while at the head of his regiment, bravely leading his men forward. Colonel McKeen was also severely wounded while gallantly urging on his men. The same is true also of Colonel Brown. Colonel Von Schack behaved, as he always does, with the greatest coolness and daring, and, when I was wounded, remained on the field in command of the brigade. Colonel Miles, who has always signally distinguished himself on the battle-field, displayed on this occasion the highest qualities- of an officer coolness, judgment, and intrepidity.

Battle of Fredericksburg by Carl Rochling

I am especially indebted to the officers of my staff for the valuable services they rendered. Captain Caldwell was struck by rifle balls three times, but fortunately only slightly wounded. Lieutenant Alvord was wounded by a fragment of a shell not seriously. Lieutenant Scott’s services were highly valuable. Lieutenant Cross was in every part of the field, fearless in the execution of his duty and ceaselessly active. He is deserving of the highest praise and reward. Of the noble dead I may truly say that braver or better officers or firmer patriots never fought on a battle-field.

Your obedient servant,

Brigadier- General, Commanding Brigade.

Captain HANCOCK,
Assistant Adjutant- General.

Col Nelson Miles

During the attack, Colonel Nelson Miles met with both Caldwell and Zook asking for support for an assault on the stone wall by his two regiments, but the two turned him down, believing that they could not provide adequate support for such an attack. Despite Caldwell praising Miles in his report, the ever aggressive Miles (who would rise to the rank of Commanding General of the Army during his long career) stated in his report that he was confident of success. Miles was wounded soon after the meeting with Zook and Caldwell, ending any chance of an attack by his command, many of whom did not share his confidence in success of such an operation.

Although the right flank of the 145th Pennsylvania fell back during the assault before being turned around, the regiment’s first combat had been deadly, with 34 killed, 152 wounded, and 43 missing or captured. Caldwell’s entire brigade had suffered severely, with 108 killed, 729 wounded, and 115 missing or captured, for a total reported casualty count of 952, about 36% of the total engaged. It was the largest loss of any Union brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg.


The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis A. O’Reilly

The Maps of Fredericksburg by Bradley M. Gottfried

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 21.

“Sumner’s Right Grand Division” by Darius N. Couch. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

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