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an early moment after taking command of the army, for a sufficient pontoon train to be forwarded from Washington, and meet his advance on the Rappahannock. A depot of supplies he requested should be established at Aquia Creek, and other provisions sent overland towards Fredericksburg.
As evidencing the spirit and disposition of the President of the United States, and as according with the sentiment of the people throughout the country, we may fitly quote Mr. Lincoln's order, issued on the 16th of November :—" The President, Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, desires and enjoins the orderly observance of the Sabbath by the officers and men in the military and naval service. The importance for man and beast of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiments of a Christian people, and a due regard for the Divine Will, demand that Sunday labor in the army and navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity. The discipline and character of the national forces should not suffer, nor the cause they defend be imperiled, by the profanation of the day or name of the Most High. At this time of public distress, adopting the words of Washington in 1776, 'Men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality.' The first general order issued by the Father of his Country, after the Declaration of Independence, indicates the spirit in which our institutions were founded, and should
ever be defended: 1 The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and privileges of his country.'"
After a delay on Burnside's part, which was unwise, to say the least, when every hour of active operation was important, the new movement was begun on the 15th of November, Sumner's grand division taking the advance. Moving by the north bank of the Rappahannock, he reached Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, on the afternoon of the 17th, and was very desirous to cross the river at once and take possession of the town and the bluffs on the south bank; but the commanding general instructed him not to do so at that time, as he wished to establish his communications before occupying Fredericksburg. During the following days, November 19th and 20th, Hooker's and Franklin's divisions reached the Rappahannock, and the rebel commander, having ascertained Burnside's probable purpose, rapidly moved his troops to meet the emergency.* Both armies were now in easy communication with their respective bases, and the high grounds on either side of the river gave to each army an excellent defensive position.
It now became a serious question what next was to be done. Some forward movement was absolutely neces
* When Sumner reached Falmouth the river was fordable, and Fredericksburg was occupied by a small force. The rebels opened fire upon our troops, but after a few minutes their guns were silenced, and Sumner might readily have secured the town and the heights, had he been allowed to cross.
sary; the demand for action was not to be put off. Lee had lost not a moment in constructing defences along the crest of hills in the rear of Fredericksburg, and by the beginning of December, there was a formidable array of artillery on those terraced heights, which evidenced the terrible struggle in prospect for our men, should they attempt an assault. The crossing the river, too, was by no means the easy matter which it had been at the first, for the rebels were now prepared to contest it to much better advantage, and the pontoon train, owing to some unexplained blundering, did not arrive till the last moment* Nevertheless, a demonstration of some kind was imperative, and accordingly Burnside resolved to cross the Rappahannock directly. All his preparations were made; the president visited the camp; and the whole matter was committed to Burnside without let or hindrance from Washington.
Just where to cross was a grave question. Burnside must either force a direct passage at Fredericksburg, or the attempt must be made on one or other of the rebel flanks. The latter seemed preferable, and it was determined to try the crossing at Skenker's Neck, some twelve miles below Falmouth, and make an attack on Lee's left; but that watchful adversary was not easily to be deceived. Burnside's
* Woodbury investigates this subject with much fulness. Halleck's course is sharply criticised in not giving attention to this matter of the pontoon trains, as he promised, and the damaging effect upon Burnside's plans and expectations, by their non arrival, is well pointed out.—See '* Dwnside and the 2?inth Army Corps," pp 190—199.
plan was discovered; a large body ol troops was concentrated to oppose the crossing; and a considerable force was kept there, after the purpose of crossii g had been abandoned. In this position of affairs, Burnside, hoping to surprise Lee, resolved to make the passage at Fredericksburg. It was a great risk to run, and the chances of surprise were slender; but Burnside had made up his mind, and he expected to pierce Lee's lines and rout his army. For this purpose he meant to secure and occupy a military road which the rebels had constructed in the rear of the line of heights on which they were posted behind Fredericksburg. With a movement on their flank and rear, a direct attack was to be made in front, and the main works carried by storm. Such was Burnside's plan, December 10th, and during the night active preparations were made to carry the design into effect.
The Stafford Heights, near the river's margin and commanding the opposite side, were crowned by twenty-nine powerful batteries, numbering 147 guns, in order to protect the construction of the bridges and cover the passage of the troops. There were five pontoon bridges to be thrown across the stream, which was about three hundred yards wide; three immediately in front of Fredericksburg, within a short distance of each other, and the others about two miles below. In the passage of the river, the division of Franklin was to use the letter, while the right and centre of Sumner and Hooker were to cross at the town. The work was well advanced during the
darkness of the night, and was partially concealed by the morning's fog. The bridges below Fredericksburg were constructed without much hindrance from the enemy's sharpshooters; but these troublesome persons, having obtained secure lodgment behind the stone walls of the river street of the town, gave infinite annoyance to those engaged in building the bridges, and for a considerable time put a stop entirely to the work.
It was about four o'clock, on the morning of the 11th of December, when the engineer troops entered upon their work, amid a dense fog and exposed to the raw winter weather which had already set it. An hour later, two signal guns announced that the rebels
| were awaro of the projected attack. The surprise part of the plan had failed, and as the sharpshooters must be dislodged, Burnside, about ten o'clock, ordered a bombardment of the town. This was accordingly done; but the sharpshooters were unharmed. It was then determined to send a party across the river in the pontoon boats, in order to dislodge the enemy. Volunteers were called for, and the plan was that they should take the boats, of which ten were lying on the bank of the
j river, and crossing over drive out the rebels. The undertaking was gallantly entered upon and executed. Rushing down the steep banks of the river, the party found temporary shelter behind the pontoon boats lying on the bank. After a while, they made a rush for the boats, pushed them into the water, and lying low so as to escape as much as possible the rebel rifles, succeeded in
crossing the river, but not without severe loss. Another and another boat followed ; and our men, with great rapidity, dashed upon the lurking places of the enemy, drove them out, and captured over a hundred of them. The bridges were now speedily com pleted, and the evening of the 11th saw Fredericksburg in possession of the advance guard of Sumner's division, while a brigade of Franklin's division was also encamped on the southern shore at the lower crossing.
Early the next morning, December 12th, the remainder of Sumner's division crossed the Rappahannock, and occupied the town. Franklin's command also crossed by the bridges below, and were in position by one o'clock, P.m. Hooker's grand division remained on the north bank of the river, to serve, if necessary, to fall upon the enemy in their retreat. The day was passed in crossing the troops and reconnoitring the rebel position. Our men lay on their arms, and when Saturday, December 13th, arrived, they were in readiness for the battle which was to follow.
A direct attack upon the enemy was now to be made, under circumstances far from encouraging. It has been asserted* that Burnside, having formed one plan of battle, determined to fight
* Mr. Augustus Woodbury, in his "Burnside and the Ninth Army Corpi," (8vo, pp. 553) is extremely earnest in the defence of the hero of hip book. Ho writes rather too much in the style of an advocate; but his book is worth consulting, both as giving a more full account of Burnside's public services, and also as defending him against unjust criticisms and perversions of truth, such as, he asserts distinctly, Swinton is guilty of, in almost every case, where he speaks of Burnside.
on another. His first purpose was, that Franklin, who had nearly one-half of the whole army under his command, Bhould make the main attack from the left, and that upon his success should be conditioned the assault of the heights in rear of the town by Sumner; but instead of carrying out his original purpose, he resolved, at the last moment, in place of an effective attack, to make a partial operation, by both Franklin and Sumner. "These dispositions," according to Swinton, "were such that it would be difficult to imagine any worse suited to the circumstances."*
Early in the morning, December 13th, Franklin was instructed to hold his command in readiness for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road, while he sent out a division to seize a position on the heights, which, with a similar movement by a column from Sumner's command, farther to the westward, would, it was expected, compel the enemy to evacuate the ridge. The movement upon the heights was carried out by Meade. Gibbon was to support it on the right, and Doubleday was held in reserve. As soon as Meade was in motion, a large force of the enemy was turned on our extreme left, and they were in such position that they could fire into Meade's rear as he advanced. Hence it was absolutely necessary that the enemy should be driven off. Birney's division was sent for, but before he got up, Meade had advanced into the woods and had a severe fight with the rebels; he, however, was driven back
* "Army of the Potomac," p. 244.
with very heavy loss by superior numbers, until Birney's division having reached the ground, enabled him to make a stand and hold part of the woods. While this was going on, Gibbon had also advanced on Meade's right, as a support; but between two and three o'clock, his division fell back. With the aid of two other divisions the line was held for the remainder of the day, and the fighting on the left was brought to a close.
In obedience to orders, Sumner on the right began the assault in the rear of the town, while the fighting was well under way on the left. Though it seemed like a forlorn hope to attempt to drive back an enemy securely entrenched as the rebels were, yet our brave men shrunk not from the terrible contest. "I selected for the attack,'1 said Sumner, " the corps of French and Hancock, two of the most gallant officers in our army, and two corps that had neither of them ever turned their backs to the enemy. They made re peated assaults, but were driven back in spite of all the efforts that could be made by their officers." The rebel position behind a long stone wall, which their artillery enfiladed on both sides, was impregnable, and no troops could stand against the fire which mowed them down. Language cannot convey an adequate idea of the horrible slaughter of our men in this mad and useless assault. Nearly one-half of those heroic veterans were stricken down on the bloody field, amid the yells and shouts of the enemy.
Fearful as was the responsibility of sending men to certain death in this
assault on Lee's impregnable position, Burnside next ordered Hooker to advance. This officer, on reconnoitring the ground and looking into the state of affairs, considered the case hopeless, and begged Burnside to give up the attack; but the commanding general insisted on the attempt being made; and the attempt was made. But it was in vain; out of the column of 4,000 which dashed itself against this stone wall almost half were left on this bloody field. Happily, night was fast coming on, and the desperate conflict was necessarily brought to an end.
But even now, with these dreadful results before his eyes, Burnside did not seem to be satisfied; he purposed, on the morrow, making one gigantic effort to retrieve the fortunes of battle. He gave orders to this effect; but, on the earnest remonstrances of Sumner, seconded by the unanimous voice of the division and corps commanders, further assault was abandoned. This was on Sunday afternoon, December I 14th; at the same time Burnside gave orders for recrossing the Rappahannock, as the town was thought to be untenable. This difficult operation was successfully performed, without any loss whatever, in the deep darkness of a stormy night, Monday, December 15th. the rebels quietly remaining within their entrenchments, and unaware of the disasters of our army.
The entire loss on the Union side, in killed, wounded and missing, was 12,321; so far as can be ascertained the rebel loss was between 5,000 and 6,000. According to Sumner's estimate, there were less than 50,000 of
our men under fire, from which it is evident how large was the proportion of loss, being fully one-fourth of the entire number in action.
Under date of December 19th, Burnside wrote to Halleck, and in reviewing what had taken place assumed the whole responsibility of the affair.* "But for the fog," he said, "and the unexpected and unavoidable delay in building the bridges, which gave the enemy twenty-four hours to concentrate his forces in his strong position, we would almost certainly have succeeded. . . . For the failure in the attack I am responsible, as the extreme gallantry, courage, and endurance shown by the brave officers and soldiers were never exceeded, and would have carried the points had it been possible."
President Lincoln, naturally anxious to represent matters in the most favorable light to the country, issued an address to the Army of the Potomac, December 22nd, in which he said: "Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than • an accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and recrossed the river, in the face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the
* Woodbury devotes a long note, at the end of his chapter on the battle of Fredericksburg, to Swinton and his "Critical History of the Army of the Potomac." He is particularly severe upon Swinton, and charges him with a malignant and persistent effort to traduce Burnside.