Was it really a diversion?


From Peter Maugle

What was Burnside thinking? The question has been posed by innumerable battlefield visitors, historians, and even Civil War veterans in regards to Fredericksburg. The notable Union defeat leads many to ponder the Federal commander’s intent. Burnside indeed had a plan, however its premise has been debated since 1862.

One hypothesis regarding the Union plan postulates a primary effort by Major General William Franklin’s Left Grand Division against the Confederate right, while Major General Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division conducted a diversion on the Confederate left at the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights. On the surface, this notion appears to explain an otherwise misunderstood tactical plan. But is it really that simple? How did an intended diversion result in 30,000 troops launching all-out attacks for six hours? A closer look at the facts seems to refute the diversion theory.

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside (Library of Congress)

To begin, consider the orders Burnside wrote on the morning of the battle. While they may lack clarity, these orders attempted to outline Burnside’s intentions. Here is the order issued to General Franklin on the morning of December 13th: [emphasis added]

“The general commanding directs that you keep your whole command in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road, and you will send out at once a division at least to pass below Smithfield, to seize, if possible, the height near Captain Hamilton’s, on this side of the Massaponax, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. He has ordered another column up the Plank road to its intersection with the Telegraph road, where they will divide, with a view to seizing the heights on both of these roads. Holding these two heights, with the heights near Captain Hamilton’s, will, he hopes, compel the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge between these points …”

The order does not designate primary or secondary attacks. Consequently, in his testimony to the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Franklin claimed he was unaware that his assault held any precedence.

Major General William B. Franklin (Library of Congress)

Next is the order issued to General Sumner, which is similar to Franklin’s instructions: [emphasis added]

“The general commanding directs that you extend the left of your command to Deep Run, connecting with General Franklin, extending your right as far as your judgement may dictate. He also directs that you push a column of a division or more along the Plank and Telegraph roads, with a view to seizing the heights in the rear of the town. The latter movement should be well covered by skirmishers, and supported so as to keep its line of retreat open. Copy of instructions given to General Franklin will be sent to you very soon. You will please await them at your present headquarters, where he (the general commanding) will met you. Great care should be taken to prevent a collision of our own forces during the fog … The column for a movement up the Telegraph and Plank roads will be got in readiness to move, but will not move till the general commanding communicates with you.”

After the battle, Sumner testified to the Congressional committee, “I was ordered by the general commanding to select the corps to make the attack … They made repeated assaults … I do not think it a reproach to those divisions that they did not carry that position …”

Sumner did not mention any effort to distract the enemy, but rather he provided rationale for why his troops did not take their assigned objective, as was apparently expected of them. Surely, Sumner would have cited the intent of his orders if they had never stipulated success in the first place!

Major General Edwin V. Sumner (Library of Congress)

An eager contributor to the Congressional committee’s inquiry was Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Center Grand Division at Fredericksburg. Portions of his forces were engaged on both ends of the battlefield, and Hooker recalled, “But General Burnside said that his favorite place of attack was on the telegraph road. Said he, ‘That has always been my favorite place of attack.’ The army was accordingly divided to make two attacks.”

The most direct reference to the diversionary attack concept was during Franklin’s questioning by the committee. When queried about the potential for Union success, Franklin responded:

“It is my opinion that if, instead of making two real attacks, our whole force had been concentrated on the left – that is, our available force – and the real attack had been made there, and merely a feint made upon the right, we might have carried the heights.”

Franklin definitively asserted there was no diversionary demonstration, which in his opinion ultimately contributed to the failure of the plan. Admittedly, Franklin was under scrutiny by the committee and attempted to justify his actions. However, to declare a blatantly false statement would likely generate rebuttals, of which there were none. And as we have seen, this deposition by Franklin does not contradict any of the other testimonies.

Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.cwmaps.com

Thus, it seems the actual plan was more complicated and nuanced than simply a main attack supported by a diversion. Burnside, in his testimony to the committee, stated:

“I wanted to obtain possession of that new [military] road, and that was my reason for making an attack on the extreme left. I did not intend to make the attack on the right until that position had been taken; which I supposed would stagger the enemy, cutting their line in two; and then I proposed to make a direct attack on their front, and drive them out of their works.”

In a letter to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Burnside reinforced his goal of seizing the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights: [emphasis added]

“I discovered that he did not anticipate the crossing of our whole force at Fredericksburg, and I hoped, by rapidly throwing the whole command over at that place to separate, by a vigorous attack, the forces of the enemy on the river below from the forces behind and on the crest in the rear of the town, in which case we could fight him with great advantage in our favor. For this we had to gain a height on the extreme right of the crest which commanded a new road lately made by the enemy …”

Regardless of Burnside’s ultimate intentions, much relied on how well he communicated them and if they withstood the changing nature of a fluid battle. While legitimate criticisms may be leveled on Burnside for those shortcomings, there is no basis to misconstrue the assaults on the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights as diversions or anything other than what they were meant to be – genuine attacks.

 

Franklin, William B. A Reply of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin to the Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863.

U.S. Congress. Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. 3 vols. Washington: GPO, 1863; 5 vols. 1865.

U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington: GPO, 1880-1901.

Murder in Fredericksburg: The Legacy of a Tragedy (Part 4)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the fourth and final in a series exploring the details of the death of German shopkeeper Charles Miller’s brother George after an exchange in Charles’ shop with four Union soldiers on their way home from war in May 1865. The previous posts can be found here: Part One, A Darkness on Commerce St.; Part 2, Suspects and Scapegoats; and Part 3, Doctor Galland Takes the Stand.

Four soldiers of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, stood trial in late May and early June on charges of murdering a citizen of Fredericksburg. Beginning on June 1, 1865, a court martial convened to hear the case of Private William Irvin, Co. D, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Private Amos Fielding, Co. E, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers brought up on the charge that they did, “maliciously and unlawfully take the life of George Miller a Citizen of the City of Fredericksburg, Va.” Both pled not guilty.

The next trial convened just two days later, charging Private James Lynch, Co. A, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers that he did, “unlawfully and maliciously aid and abet in taking the life of George Miller.” A fourth soldier, Private John Wilson, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was brought to both trials, but charges were not specified against him.

A standout among the other witnesses, Doctor Galland, an African American camp servant and cook, offered pivotal testimony. His words refuted James Lynch’s testimony against John Wilson and identified Lynch as a suspicious individual along with the other men. The resulting verdict demonstrated that the courts gave validity to Galland’s testimony over Lynch’s—a remarkable decision in itself, to trust a black man’s word over a white man’s.

Modern view of tan historic building with two doors at a corner, one opening to Liberty Street and the other to William Street.

Modern view of Charles Miller’s shop at 600 Commerce Street (William Street). The brothers exited the door to the left, walked past where today stands the “Do Not Enter” sign, and continued down Commerce Street toward the river in search of a provost guard. Brick-wielding Union soldiers attacked them halfway through the next block. George Miller was found injured just 25 steps from the front door of his brother’s shop.

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Murder in Fredericksburg: Doctor Galland Takes the Stand (Part 3)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the third in a series exploring the details of the murder of a Fredericksburg shopkeeper’s brother, attacked on the night of May 25, 1865, by soldiers of the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps on their way home from war. Part one can be found here, and part two is here.

WARNING: Graphic language from original documentation used in this post

As the court martial trial of James Lynch and William Irvin progressed, Lynch had set up fellow-soldier John Wilson as the man responsible for throwing bricks at shopkeeper Charles Milller and his brother George, fatally injuring George Miller. Wilson had not put up a convincing defense, and both the attacker and the details of that dark night’s events remained clouded in mystery, until the next witness—a source more likely to be overlooked than trusted—took the stand.

View of snow-covered Liberty Street with several men standing and a cart bearing three ladies. Some barreled goods rest at the edge of the street.

A turn of the century view of the Liberty Street side of 600 Commerce St., Charles Miller’s shop. Both the Miller brothers and their assailants exited the door at the far right and crossed Liberty Street. The attack occurred just a few yards from this location, down Commerce Street. Two doors opened to Liberty Street from Miller’s shop, and another opened on Commerce Street.

As Doctor Galland rose to testify, he must have presented both an unusual figure on the stand and a deep surprise to the soldiers on trial. Galland was an African American camp servant and cook in the employ of accused soldier Amos Fielding, and he stood in the unique position of being able to relate the words and actions of the accused in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Like countless camp servants serving the Army of the Potomac, Galland’s background and future remain a mystery (but will hopefully manifest in enough detail for another post someday),and he held little to no status, perhaps a former slave escaping to freedom as contraband or a free man looking for work. However, as he was sworn in on June 2, 1865, Galland’s story had the power to clear a man’s name and reveal the threads of guilt among the accused soldiers. Through the words of his testimony, we perceive a man who was perhaps not well-educated but was courageous enough to speak of his experiences with clarity and determination.

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Murder in Fredericksburg: Suspects and Scapegoats (Part 2)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the second in a series on the murder of a Fredericksburg shopkeeper’s brother in May 1865, as the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Army Corps passed through Fredericksburg on their way home from war. Part one can be found here.

What happened to the Miller brothers after they left Charles’ shop? Officials in the Army of the Potomac called a court martial as soon as they identified the four soldiers who had entered the shop. Charles’ testimony on May 31, 1865, shed some light on the situation:

“The one who called for the cherries and one of the last three which came in and walked out there & crossed the street myself and my brother walked out and went down [the] street on the same side where I lived. While we were walking down the street the two which I saw cross the street recrossed the street. I heard nothing of them except that when we were near the middle of the graveyard on the street they came close to us, about 5 or 6 feet of us nearly as I can guess and one of them said ‘Tap’ so much as I could understand. At the same time as soon as they said that word there was two bricks thrown at myself and my brother, my brother was knocked down at once, and one brick struck me very slight on my elbow. I then jumped to the left hand side out into the road trying to escape. Two more bricks were thrown after me but did not strike me. I hallowed once ‘Guard’ to try to stop them from following me up.”

After this harrowing experience, Charles made it to the headquarters of Col. Sumner, and they attempted to find the men responsible but were unsuccessful.

Detailed map showing the Miller brothers proceeding down Commerce Street toward the river, with the Union soldiers first crossing to the corner opposite Miller's store, then proceeding down Commerce Street and attacking the brothers.

Detail of the movements of each group, according to Charles Miller, August Ebert, and Louis Kruger, with some corroboration by the Union soldiers on trial. Green lines and text indicate movements of the Miller brothers heading down Commerce Street toward downtown and the Rappahannock River, and blue lines show the movements of at least two of the soldiers. It should be noted that the exchange may have taken place some feet further down Commerce Street, as there were two cemeteries along their route. Base map: Virtual Fredericksburg

Charles returned to the shop to find his brother grievously wounded in the head, retrieved by Mr. Louis Kruger, Mr. August Ebert, and the young boy who had been sitting outside the shop. After his brother passed away between 1 and 2 in the morning, it became imperative to find the soldiers who had, intentionally or unintentionally, killed an innocent citizen.

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Murder in Fredericksburg: A Darkness on Commerce St.


From Beth Parnicza:

It was a dark night. By all accounts, the darkness that fell in Fredericksburg on May 25, 1865 was remarkable, obscuring the events and identities associated with a fateful occurrence. In the streets of “Liberty Town” just west of downtown Fredericksburg, one man said he could only see six steps in front of him.

As the church bells tolled 9:00 p.m., 25-year-old August Ebert sat in the darkness beside a “colored boy” on the pavement outside Charles Miller’s store at the corner of Commerce Street (modern William Street) and Liberty Street and watched four Union soldiers enter his sometime employer’s shop. First one pushed open the door and walked inside, then three more arrived soon afterward.

KMBT_C284e-20150305141820

The Commerce Street/William Street front of Charles Miller’s shop postwar. Situated on the acutely angled corner of Liberty Street and Commerce Street, Miller’s shop featured two entrance doors–one that opened to each street–here at its front left corner. The building still stands today at 600 William Street.

Inside the shop, a typical Thursday night scene played out. Charles Miller’s older brother George had walked in earlier, remarking that if the weather was good, he would plant Charles’ lot the next morning. Mr. Louis Kruger, a Baltimore resident who helped Charles mind the shop, walked into the store proper from a next door room just after the soldiers entered.

Charles attended the soldiers who quietly gathered in the store. The first man asked for a quart of cherries; the three who joined sat at the counter and ate with him. Another soldier called for a round of cigars, which Charles distributed. When they finished the cherries, a soldier asked for an orange apiece, and Mr. Kruger obliged.

The first soldier stated the price for the fare: 50 cents. Charles objected; the price for all the goods was 70 cents. The soldier disagreed. He was only prepared to pay for the cherries and oranges, which totaled to 50 cents, leaving the cigars to his friends’ responsibility. When Charles agreed, it seemed the matter was settled as the soldier reached to pay for the goods.

Drawing his hand back from his pocket, the soldier changed his mind, declaring, “Oh well, charge it to Uncle Sam!”

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The Case of the Officer’s Hut Exhibit


From: Beth Parnicza

A hidden piece of the park’s past lies tucked away behind a false wall and a Union Sixth Corps flag in the basement of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Peering over the false wall, a dusty wooden floor, painted wood pattern, and painted fireplace are all that remain of what was once a much-desired Confederate officer’s hut display. Its existence and composition have passed out of easy park staff memory, provoking a small mystery begging to be solved. Had the exhibit ever been in use? If so, what did it originally look like? When was it dismantled, and why?

modern view officer's hut

The remains of the Confederate officer’s hut as it appears today

Both of the park’s visitor centers feature exhibits that primarily date to the “Mission 66” period of park development, part of a National Park Service-wide initiative to improve the infrastructure and interpretation of park sites for the NPS’s 50th Anniversary. The initiative happily coincided with the Civil War centennial, producing an increased sense of urgency for Civil War sites to expand their interpretation. Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center’s exhibits date to 1962, and looking around the Visitor Center, it is hard to imagine that much has changed in the ensuing years.

The original layout of the 1962 exhibits featured a room of Fredericksburg-specific and general Civil War exhibits on the main floor, and two basement exhibit rooms included a room filled with rows of firearms as a “study collection” and a room highlighting life in camp and social history elements like the roles of women, religion, and relief organizations. This layout featured a fascinating combination of subjects: modern Visitor Center elements upstairs, a nod to past museum styles with rows of barely interpreted relics downstairs, and the inclusion of social history, which rose to prominence during this period.

camp life corner floor plan

The floor plan for the Confederate officer’s hut exhibit. This is the back corner of the exhibit room at the bottom of the stairs to the right.

The centerpiece of the “camp life” exhibits in the basement was a recreated Confederate officer’s hut corner. When proposed, it was emphasized by the park as a favorite element, noted in one plan that its inclusion was something “the park greatly desires.”  Continue reading

Confederates on the Railroad Bridge: 150 Years Later, an Identification


From Eric Mink:

This post is adapted from an article I authored for Volume 10 (2011) of Fredericksburg History & Biography, an annual publication of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

It is nearly impossible to open a book about Civil War Fredericksburg without seeing the photo of Confederate soldiers posing on the ruined railroad trestle along the Rappahannock River. The photo represents one of only two instances in which a Northern artist photographed as his subjects non-captive Confederate soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia in the field. (The other instance involved Confederates marching through Frederick, Maryland.) That alone makes it an unusual image, yet the ability to identify the previously anonymous soldiers makes this photo even more remarkable.

Landscape

The Union photographer captured this scene from the north bank of the Rappahannock River. The Confederate soldiers stand on the south bank with the river flowing between the artist and his subjects. They are on the literal front line of the war. This is a location that should be hostile, yet the Confederates don’t appear to pose a threat. Their casual pose and the absence of visible weapons suggest an almost friendly demeanor. We know that the site of the ruined railroad bridge was a place where the opposing pickets and outposts gathered to fraternize, exchanging newspapers as well as insults. (For an earlier discussion of this location, see John Hennessy’s post here.) When the photographer appeared at the bridge, we can assume some communication must have taken place between the cameraman and the Confederates. The relaxed gathering at the far end of the bridge suggests cooperation between the man behind the camera and his subjects.

Many of us have studied this image in great detail. We know its location. We can see in the distance the buildings, Willis Hill cemetery and defenses upon Marye’s Heights. We even know the name of the photographer – Captain Andrew J. Russell of the United States Military Railroads. (At least one historian has suggested that the photographer may have been Egbert Fowx, Russell’s mentor). What we have not known, however, are the identities of the figures on the far side of the river. We can’t help but wonder who these men are that posed so calmly for a Yankee cameraman along a boundary between the warring armies? To date, no diary or letter has been found, by either a Union or a Confederate soldier, that recalls what must have been an event worth chronicling, or at the very least worth mentioning.

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