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Dueling Diatribes at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg

By Joseph Pierro
8/31/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

On the morning May 3, 1863, a majority of the men in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were making their final push against the beleaguered main body of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac in its lines surrounding the Chancellorsville crossroads. At the same time, another fight was getting underway at Fredericksburg, Virginia, some 10 miles to the east. A force of more than 27,000 men under the overall command of Major General John Sedgwick had remained opposite the town for days to divert Confederate attention. Now it crossed the Rappahannock River, meaning to relieve the pressure on Hooker by marching on Lee’s right and rear.

In their path was a line of Southerners occupying the same positions along the heights beyond the town that they had held to such great advantage during the battle of the previous December—nearly six miles of ground stretching from Taylor’s Hill to Hamilton’s Crossing. But where an entire army had once stood, the Confederate defenses on this day were manned by less than 13,000 infantrymen under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early—four brigades of his own division and one brigade each from those of Maj. Gens. Richard H. Anderson and Lafayette McLaws.

This last unit, four Mississippi regiments under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale, was charged with holding the center of the line—a sector that included the Stone Wall and the Sunken Road, which had proved so critical in disrupting earlier Union assaults. On this day, however, the men behind these barriers were too few to repeat the effect. The Federal attackers smashed through the thin gray lines around 10 a.m., scattering Early’s command. Sedgwick’s march would be arrested late that afternoon at Salem Church, five miles to the west, but for a time Lee’s hitherto successful operations lay open to reversal by a Union counterstroke.

Both the passage of time and the magnitude of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville have rendered the Second Battle of Fredericksburg a mere historical footnote to many analysts. To the participants, however, it was an engagement of undeniable significance. Hooker believed Sedgwick’s decision to assault Marye’s Heights contributed greatly to the unraveling of the entire Union campaign (see the related feature in this issue on P. 42), while some Southerners grumbled that the loss of that position did no credit to Confederate arms.

In a time hyperactuated by questions of personal honor, perhaps no figure on either side of the conflict took such an active role in shaping historical memory as Early. The antebellum lawyer was as aggressive on the page as he was on the battlefield, and in the decades to come many a luckless opponent would discover that his words could do even more lasting damage than his men’s rifles had. Though the fighting along the Rappahannock had scarcely ended and the Federals on the opposite bank still constituted a great danger, Early took advantage of the proximity of the Richmond press to transfer any blame from himself to another.

In Barksdale, however, he had met his equal. A former newspaper editor and member of Congress, the combative Mississippian was no stranger to feuding in print. He was not cowed by the Virginian’s superior rank, nor did he feel himself disadvantaged at having to defend himself in a Virginia broadsheet. If Early wanted a press fight, Barksdale would oblige.

Following their appearances in the Daily Richmond Enquirer, both letters were immediately reprinted in the city’s other papers. Yet no second volley was loosed. Perhaps higher authorities intervened, or perhaps preparations for what would become the Gettysburg campaign left no time for further internecine carping. It is even possible (though highly doubtful) that Early was duly chastened by the reply. Whatever the reason, he uncharacteristically let someone else have the last word.

To the Editors of the Enquirer:

Hamilton’s Crossing, May 11, 1863

Gentlemen:—The statements of correspondents ignorant of the real facts, or writing in the interests of particular commands, too often form the basis of newspaper comments and of public opinion in regard to military operations; and events follow so rapidly on the heels of each other that first impressions rarely give way to more correct views founded on authentic accounts. This consideration induces me to place on record a correction of one or two of the misrepresentations contained in communications to several of the Richmond papers from correspondents at Fredericksburg, in regard to the capture of Marye’s Hill on the 3d inst.

It is stated in these communications that Barksdale’s brigade was left without support to defend the heights in rear of Fredericksburg, and a line of two miles in length. The fact is, that when informed at light on the morning of the 3d by Gen. Barksdale that the enemy had thrown a bridge across Fredericksburg, I immediately sent [Brig. Gen. Harry T.] Hays’ Louisiana brigade to his assistance, and [Brig.] Gen. [Cadmus M.] Wilcox, with three regiments of his brigade, came down from above. This left only three brigades on the long and comparatively weak line from the heights in rear of Fredericksburg to the mouth of the Massaponax to confront the heavy column of the enemy on this side at the mouth of Deep Run, while there were two brigades and three regiments of another to defend the strong and comparatively short line in rear of and above Fredericksburg. Barksdale’s brigade occupied the position which was strongest in natural and artificial defences and was better guarded by artillery than any other. There were no reserves for any part of the line, which extended over several miles, and military men will understand the difficulties of the position.—Without meaning to cast censure on Barksdale’s brigade, even by implication, I will state that my division did not lose Marye’s Hill, but one of my brigades ([Brig. Gen. John B.] Gordon’s, formerly [Brig. Gen Alexander R.] Lawton’s) re-captured it before 9 o’clock on the next morning, and three of my brigades (Hays’, [Brig, Gen. Robert F.] Hoke’s and Gordon’s) bore the brunt of the fight when the enemy was driven back across the river—Barksdale’s brigade and [Brig Gen. William] Smith’s, of my own division, having been left to keep the enemy in check from the direction of Fredericksburg. Having done all in my power to avert the disaster, and to arrest and retrieve it, I am willing to abide the judgment of the commanding General upon my own conduct and that of my division. Respectfully,

J.A. Early, Maj. Gen. P.A.C.S.

Fredericksburg, May 13, 1863

To the Editors of the Enquirer: Gentlemen: I desire briefly to respond to a communication from Gen. Early, which appeared in the columns of your paper of yesterday.

His insinuation with reference to correspondents “in the interest of particular commands,” if intended for this brigade, is gratuitous and unfounded. To my knowledge no publication has been made by any one connected, directly or indirectly, with it; and I was not aware that his conduct in the late engagements around Fredericksburg had been made the subject of newspaper censure until I saw it announced over his own signature.

When Gen. McLaws moved up the river on the night of the 30th of April, my brigade was detached from his command, and I was ordered to report to Gen. Early, who was charged with the duty of watching the movements of that portion of the Federal army which had been left in the vicinity of Hamilton’s Crossing and opposite this place and on the other side of the river and, as I supposed, to give him battle if he should offer it.

About two o’clock on Sunday morning, having thrown a pontoon bridge over the river, the enemy commenced crossing into Fredericksburg in large numbers. General Early was then with his entire division at Hamilton’s Crossing. I at once informed him of the fact and asked for reinforcements. With several batteries, which were under the command of [Brig.] Gen. [William N.] Pendleton, and a single brigade of infantry, I had a front of not less than three miles to defend, extending from Taylor’s Hill, on the left, to the foot of the hills in rear of the Howison house, and not “the short line in rear of and to the left of Fredericksburg,” as stated by Gen. Early. The 21st [Mississippi] regiment was posted between the Marye House and the plank road, three companies of which were afterwards sent to the support of the 18th [Mississippi] regiment, which was stationed behind the stone wall at the Marye House. The 17th [Mississippi] regiment was placed in front of Lee’s hill [sic], and the 13th [Mississippi] still farther to the right.

One regiment from General Hays’ command was subsequently placed to the right of the thirteenth. Four pieces of artillery were placed on the right of Marye’s house [sic], two on the left, and the balance on Lee’s and the hills in the vicinity of the Howison house, thus making the only disposition of the small force at my command, which, in my judgment, would prevent the enemy from passing the line. The battle commenced at daylight. A furious cannonading was opened from the enemy’s batteries in town and along both banks of the river. Two assaults were made upon Marye’s heights, but both were signally repulsed. About eight o’clock a heavy column of the enemy was seen moving up the river, evidently for the purpose of getting possession of Taylor’s hill, which, if successful, would have given him command of the position which I held. But this was prevented by the timely arrival of General Hays with four regiments of his brigade. The enemy, having thus been foiled in his purpose, turned the head of his column down the river again; but it was impossible to tell whether he had abandoned the attempt or intended to advance again upon the same position with a still heavier force. Gen. Wilcox had now reached Taylor’s hill with three regiments of his brigade, one of which he promised to send to the right in case it should be needed. This regiment was sent for, but there was not sufficient time for it to come up before the action was over. With a line as extended as this, and in consideration of the small number of troops at my disposal, and the uncertainty as to the point against which the enemy would hurl the immense force he had massed in town, I deemed it proper that the regiments should remain as they then were; and await the happening of events.

Very soon, however, the enemy came out from his hiding place and moved in three columns and three lines of battle— twenty thousand strong—against the positions held by my brigade. At the same instant Col. [Benjamin G.] Humphries [Humphreys; 21st Mississippi] was assailed on the left, Colonels [William D.] Hulder [Holder; 17th Mississippi] and [James W.] Carter [13th Mississippi] and the [6th] Louisiana regiment on the right, and Col. [Thomas C.] Griffin [18th Mississippi] in the centre. After a determined and bloody resistance, by Col. Griffin and the Washington [Louisiana] Artillery, the enemy, fully twenty to one, succeeded in getting possession of Marye’s hill. At all other points he was triumphantly repulsed. But seeing the line broken at this point, I ordered the 13th, 17th and the Louisiana regiment to fall back to the crest of Lee’s hill, to prevent the enemy from getting in our rear. This they did, resisting his approach at every step, and with the aid of [Capt. John C.] Frejin’s [Fraser’s] and [Capt. Henry H.] Carleton’s batteries [the Pulaski (GA) and Troup (GA) Light Artillery], both of which were handled with the most consummate skill and courage, finally succeeded in checking his advance. The 21st regiment, with the remainder of the 18th, after Marye’s hill had been taken, fell back and rejoined the brigade on the hills.

The distance from town to the points assailed was so short, the attack so suddenly made, and the difficulty of removing troops from one part of the line to another was so great, that it was utterly impossible for either Gen. Wilcox or Gen. Hays to reach the scene of action in time to afford any assistance whatever.

It will thus be seen that Marye’s hill was defended by but one small regiment, three companies and four pieces of artillery, and not by the entire brigade. A more heroic struggle was never made by a mere handful of men against overwhelming odds. According to the enemy’s own accounts, many of this noble little band resisted to the death, with clubbed guns, even after his vast hordes had swept over and around the walls. His loss, from reports published in his own newspapers, was a thousand killed and wounded; but, according to the statements of intelligent citizens, it reached two thousand.

The inference naturally drawn from Gen. Early’s statement is, that on Monday morning Gen. Gordon’s command drove the enemy from Marye’s hill, which my brigade had failed to hold the day before. I would scorn to detract from the wellearned reputation of this brigade and its gallant commander; but the truth is, the enemy had abandoned Marye’s heights, and Gen. Gordon took possession without opposition.

My brigade needs no defence at my hands. Its reputation, won upon many battle fields, is well established. This communication is not written for that purpose, but to correct erroneous impressions which Gen. Early’s publication was calculated to make.

Wm. Barksdale

 

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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