A momentous decision on December 11, 1862–the fate of Fredericksburg and the changing nature of war

From John Hennessy:

Bombardment of Fredericksburg.1211It’s often overlooked, especially in Southern climes: the man most responsible for the town of Fredericksburg itself becoming a battlefield was Robert E. Lee. He fully understood that when he directed his men to contest the Union crossing at the river’s edge, the Union army would respond in a way that would be unhealthy for Fredericksburg’s neat urban landscape.

But that’s not the decision I’m talking about today.

134 Caroline

134 Caroline

Let’s speed ahead a few hours.  Barksdale’s men contest the crossing; the Union artillery responds with a bombardment intended to drive them out.

I’m not talking about that decision either. While destructive to the town, the Union decision to fire on the crossing sites was perfectly legitimate. There was little angst among the Union high command about that and certainly no surprise among the Confederates.1

But when the bombardment of the crossings stopped and the Union bridge-builders again went to their work, Barksdale’s men re-emerged again and again.

Fredericksburg panorama.850 cropped for damage

Damaged buildings at the upper crossing

And that brings us to the decision I’m talking about.

Colonel-Henry-HuntUnion chief of artillery Henry Jackson Hunt was of a mind common in the Army of the Potomac–convinced, as had been his friend George McClellan, that the war must be prosecuted carefully, without inflicting undue damage on Southern civilians or Southern “institutions” (slavery). The underlying philosophy was best described by Fitz John Porter in mid-1862:

“We will…reconquer the country in a manner which will develop Union feeling and cause Virginia to rejoin us.  The army goes as a disciplined body, not an armed mob, compelled to respect private rights and to win the respect of the people we will be with.2

[A little aside for fun, because I think we don’t describe people enough any more:  Hunt was one of only four officers (at least so far as I can determine) who served in a command position in every major battle from Manassas to Appomattox (can you name the others?).  Hooker described him as “opinionated but able,” and a staff officer wrote that he had a complexion “about the color of an old drum-head.”  He was garrulous and much beloved by his fellow officers, who called him “Cupid.”3]

A Forgotten but Dramatic Moment

On December 11 Hunt found himself both at odds with his commander and at a fulcrum point in the army’s policy and practice of waging war.

In his report, Hunt took care to point out that the fire of his guns that morning (150 years ago this moment as I write this) was directed specifically at those buildings where Barksdale’s men were thought to be secreted.  When several attempts failed to subdue the Confederate infantry fire at the river, Burnside, no doubt frustrated, issued a momentous order.  Hunt recorded,  “All the batteries that could be brought to bear were now, by order of General Burnside, turned upon the town…”  A general bombardment–not the targeted, purposeful (albeit ineffective) fire of the morning.

Burnside at Fredericksburg.1898Edward Longacre, in his biography of Hunt, cites an 1886 letter I have not seen, from Hunt to C.C. Buel, editor of the Century War Series, the basis for Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.  According to Longacre (page 131), Hunt was “shocked” by the directive and argued against the decision. Burnside remained adamant. Hunt complied, and as many as 183 guns fired into the hapless town. But Hunt and his conservative conscience could take it only so long. He soon ordered the bombardment stopped. Burnside just as quickly countermanded him and ordered the barrage to resume. And so Fredericksburg rocked and burned.

It was the first wanton, sanctioned, wholesale destruction inflicted on an American town by an American army. By expanding the scope of the bombardment beyond the likely hiding places of Confederates resisting the crossing, Burnside crossed a threshold that Hunt , Robert E. Lee, and many others recognized.  It was a betrayal of the conservative principles of war that had so governed the high command of the Army of the Potomac since the beginning. And while neither this nor what followed would become policy, the decision certainly reflected the hardening of war.

[Regarding Lee, he likely watched the bombardment from his headquarters on a hill that now bears his name. John Esten Cooke noted that it was not the bombardment itself, but apparently its general nature that caused Lee to comment bitterly, “These people like to make war on the defenseless.  It just suits them.”]

A Decision that Doomed

Battle damage in the roof of the Baptist Church. Courtesy Dennis Sacrey

Battle damage in the roof of the Baptist Church. Courtesy Dennis Sacrey

Few if any others noted the change in the nature of the bombardment that afternoon, from specific to general. It’s possible that only Hunt and Burmside were privy to it. It might be tempting, then, to say the change had little or no significance.

You’d be wrong. When the Union army entered the town that evening and all the next day, soldiers found a town not precisely shelled but generally ruined. Some soldiers saw in this an adoption of the high command an attitude that many of them had long espoused: hard war. A Connecticut soldier rejoiced, “the numerous secession families have been made to feel the awful horrors of war brought on by their treason.” A man of the 140th New York proclaimed while he watched Fredericksburg burn that day, At the present time we are witnessing a splendid sight, as the city of Fredericksburg is on fire….I call it beautiful because it is just the way that I wish to see our Generals operate, for then I begin to think that they mean business.”4

Of all the things that lay the groundwork for the looting of Fredericksburg those ugly days, the general nature of the bombardment was by far the most important. The general destruction inflicted by the bomardment  implied, to the soldiers, sanction for the destruction to continue. Chaplain John Stuckenburg of the 145th Pennsylvania state the perception clearly.  “It seems to have been the intention of the generals to give the city for pillage to our soldiers, at least no efforts were made to check them in their work of plunder and of destruction.”5

And so the looting of Fredericksburg followed–a horror to Hunt and other old-line officers of the Army. When the army’s provost Marsena Patrick entered Fredericksburg on December 12, he thought the effect of the bombardment a “horrible sight.” But, he said, “this was not the worst.  The Soldiery were sacking the town!”6

This largely forgotten moment between Hunt and Burnside about noontime on December 11, 1862, begot the most dramatic and destructive days in Fredericksburg’s history–a decision between two men that signaled one of those momentous shifts in the nature and bitterness of the war.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

1 John Esten Cooke, “Fredericksburg,” Philadelphia Weekly Times, April 26, 1879. Cooke recorded that Lee fully expected the Union army to fire on Fredericksburg if his men resisted from the town.

2 Porter to Manton Marble, editor of the New York World, May 21, 1862, Manton Marble Papers, Library of Congress.

3 Joseph Hooker to Samuel Penniman Bates, February 18, 1878, Bates Papers, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and Morris Shaff, The Battle of the Wilderness, p. 45.

4 Letter of “True Blue” to the Rochester Evening Express, December 27, 1862.

5 Stuckenberg, I’m surrounded by Methodists, p. 38.

6 Patrick Diary, p. 188-189.

6 thoughts on “A momentous decision on December 11, 1862–the fate of Fredericksburg and the changing nature of war

    • Ding ding ding! You are 100% correct. M&C would give you a lovely prize, but we don’t have any. I will just say that it took me a month to figure that out way back when, and you did it a few days. Congratulations.

  1. As I recall, I don’t think that Griffin was in a command position at the Battle of Gettysburg – at least not during the 3 days of fighting (July1-3).

  2. Pingback: Fredericksburg … Fredericksburg « Crossroads

  3. I wrote an article in a peer-reviewed journal comparing the urban combat here in Fredericksburg with that in Monterey in 1846 to compare battlefield adaptation in a foreign/unexpected environment–in these cases, the urban environment.

    I discussed Hunt’s bombardment of the city but wish I had uncovered his hesitation. I would have liked to have (or perhaps should have) included that inner turmoil in my piece.

    If y’all had a chance, I’d love to hear your thoughts, positive or negative: Jonathan A. Beall, “The United States Army and Urban Combat in the Nineteenth Century,” War in History 16:2 (2009): 157-188.

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