A town atwitter, bridges abuilding: the Yankees move in, 1862


From John Hennessy (the links herein are generally to posts we have done about whatever topic is in hypertext.  Explore):

One hundred and fifty years ago, Fredericksburg was in the midst of a painful, annoying (at least to white residents) tumult, as the Union army took firm possession of the town.  The army spent the three weeks between the Battle of Arby’s and May 9 restoring the railroad line between Aquia Landing and Fredericksburg and preparing for McDowell’s advance south on Richmond.  The biggest task was the reconstruction of the massive Potomac Creek Bridge, which like everything else had been destroyed by the retreating Confederates.

The ruins of the bridge over Potomac Creek. The bridge would be reconstructed by May 15. Lincoln would christen it the “beanpole and cornstalks” bridge. For photos of the site today, click here.

Elsewhere, the army was busy building bridges into town, establishing camps on Stafford Heights (and farther back from the river), and cautiously feeling for hovering Confederates west and south of Fredericksburg. The first of the bridges to be completed was the canal boat bridge spanning Ferry Farm to the town docks in Fredericksburg.  On May 5, Union engineers completed a more traditional pontoon bridge from the Stafford shore to the base of Hawke Street–just above Chatham.  The army would reuse this site in December 1862, labeling it the Upper Crossing.

The pontoon bridge into Fredericksburg, May 1862.

By mid-May, as many as 400 soldiers had been assigned to help re-build the burned bridge of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad into Fredericksburg–75 feet high and 600 feet long. It would take the completion of the Potomac Creek Bridge for the Fredericksburg bridge to become operational. The first train crossed into town on May 19.

Rebuilding the ruined RF&P bridge at Fredericksburg, May 1862.

After early May, the Union army had the ability to move troops into Fredericksburg freely, but in fact most remained in Stafford–in part because of Union General McDowell’s fear that putting too many in town would lead to difficulties of discipline, and difficulties with the locals.  Only two regiments of cavalry and four New York regiments commanded by Marsena Patrick moved into and beyond the town. A man of Patrick’s 20th NY State Militia left one of the best descriptions of early interactions with the locals.

Fredericksburg is a fine old town…. It exhibits less evidence of thrift, enterprise, and progress than most of our Northern towns, but one can readily regard it as the abode of wealth, taste, and refinement and its society as being intelligent and agreeable.  Most of the wealthier families have left the place, being as a matter of course secessionists…. The men that you meet in the streets, though civil when accosted, do not look upon Union soldiers very lovingly.  A haughty curl of the lip, and an ominous scowl, not seldom reveal the owrking of the inner man.  As for the well dressed ladies, they seem scarce, or at least show themselves rarely. And when they do, are sure to avert their pretty faces when a Unionist passes them, disdaining even the poor privilege of having their scornful faces scanned.  Some of the ladies too will swear.” [Letter of “C” to the Schenectady Evening Star and Times, published May 2, 1862]

A young soldier from Corning, New York, wrote his hometown newspaper that he “received nothing but cold looks and scowls” from local women.  Other than two Unionists, “not a single one took any notice of us, despite our rows of bright brass buttons, and our boots blackened brilliantly, and our forage caps jauntily stuck on our loyal American heads.” Relations between the army and local woman would get no warmer than that. [Unsigned letter to the Corning Journal, published May 8, 1862.]

The mighty annoyance of Fredericksburg’s ladies was matched only by the provocations of Union soldiers, who took every opportunity to ruffle skirts. Indeed, as we shall see over the next month or two, the bantering took on a sense of sport by both combatants, though more like a Flyers-Penguins game than a golf match.

A Fredericksburg woman refuses to pass under a U.S. flag. The more adamant the locals became, the more flags the Yankees hung–from buildings, over streets, even from the horns of oxen.

Of course the Yankees’ purpose in Fredericksburg involved more than just annoying the locals. McDowell’s command was preparing for a climactic march south toward Richmond, to join McClellan’s army there. But the date for that was still two weeks away, and in the meantime the Yankees occupied and Fredericksburg suffered. But more on that in our next….

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