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.

“If these signatures could talk…” Innis House Graffiti

From: Eric Mink

Innis House

The Innis House – 2019

The Innis House is the last building along Fredericksburg’s Sunken Road to have witnessed the fighting that occurred there in 1862 and 1863. Built ca.1859, the small wood frame building is today an exterior exhibit, occasionally open to the public during the summer months. Visitors who walk along Sunken Road and stop to look through the windows of the house can see the lasting damage caused by two battles. The lead and iron missiles that filled the air in December 1862 and May 1863 passed into and through the Innis House, leaving their marks on the walls and the doors. Some bullets still remain lodged in the building’s framing timbers. The Innis House is a witness to the war and its appearance is an evocative display that conveys the destruction that twice visited Sunken Road.

Innis Interior

Interior first floor partition of the Innis House, showing the damage caused by the war – 2019

The National Park Service (NPS) acquired the Innis House in 1969. The agency stabilized the building in 1973 and four years later began the process of restoring and rehabilitating the house. Post-Civil War additions and vegetation were removed and a new wood shingle roof was added. In 1985 began the longer and more involved effort of returning the interior of the building to its wartime appearance. It was in the course of this work that park staff uncovered lasting evidence of the war.

Continue reading

Souvenir Battlefield Photos – 1887

Eric J. Mink

As described in a prior post (found here), a large group of Massachusetts veterans traveled to the Fredericksburg area in May 1887. Their visit to the local battlefields wrapped up a weeklong trip to Virginia that started in Norfolk, took them to Petersburg and Richmond, before arriving in Fredericksburg.

Among the party were two photographers. William H. Tipton, the famed photographer of the battlefield at Gettysburg is highlighted in the prior post.  The second photographer chronicling the veterans’ excursion was Frederick H. Foss of Dover, New Hampshire. A veteran of the war, Foss joined the 56th Massachusetts Infantry in March 1864, accepting a $325 bounty. He suffered a gunshot wound, which resulted in the loss of an index finger, at Bethesda Church on May 31, 1864. After the war, Foss lived in Dover, New Hampshire and made his living as a photographer.  The list of attendees for the May 1887 visit to the Fredericksburg area does list Foss as being present.

Both Tipton and Foss marketed for sale the images they made on this trip. The two men used their lenses to record similar, but different, things, however. Tipton appears to have been more interested in landscape images of the battlefields that might appeal to a broad audience. Foss, on the other hand, took numerous photos of excursion members, thus chronicling the visit and marketing his photos as souvenirs of the trip.

Foss’s “List of Views” from that trip shows that he offered copies of 25 photos from the visit, including scenes from Petersburg, Richmond area battlefields, and the Fredericksburg area battlefields.


Foss Catalog

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Gettysburg battlefield photographer visits Spotsylvania County – 1887

From Eric Mink:

Students, historians, and collectors of Civil War battlefield photography are quite familiar with the name William H. Tipton. He was one of the most prolific postwar photographers in Gettysburg, Penn. and his landscape images are quite sought after, as they are wonderful documents in helping understand the sites of that battlefield. Little known, however, is the fact that he lugged his camera to historic sites outside of South Central Penn., including an 1887 visit to the battlefields around Fredericksburg.

On May 5, 1887, a train from Richmond arrived at the Fredericksburg station. Among its passengers were approximately one hundred Union veterans on an excursion to visit Virginia’s battlefields. Most of these men were veterans of the 57th and 59th Massachusetts regiments and they had, prior to their arrival in Fredericksburg, visited the battlefields around Petersburg and Richmond. Their trip brought them to the Fredericksburg area for the same purpose. They spent two days touring the local battlefields and revisiting sites that many of them had not seen since the war. The Fredericksburg Free Lance covered their visit, describing the places they went and even listing the members of the party. Included in that list was “W.H. Tipton, photographer from Gettysburg.” Fortunately for us 125 years later, Tipton wasn’t merely sightseeing, but was capturing on glass those sites that he saw.

Upon arrival in Fredericksburg, the group immediately headed to Spotsylvania Court House. The first site they chose to visit was the “Bloody Angle” at the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. (This photo complements one that John Hennessy posted a couple weeks ago and can be found here.)

Bloody Angle Tipton Blog Post

“Bloody Angle Spottsylvania May 5th 1887. Near the stump of tree shot down by bullets; the but of the tree, 15 inches in diameter is in the National Museum in Washington.” Typed label pasted on photo mount.

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Some new art–the fairgrounds and swale

From John Hennessy:

We have written about our use of new art in our exhibits here and here, and we have discussed at some length the nature of the fairgrounds and the bloody plain in front of the Sunken Road…and so I wanted to share with you the latest piece of art we have collaborated to create–an image of one of the earlier Union attacks in front of the Sunken Road, painted from an aerial viewpoint almost directly in front of Brompton. Directed by Frank O’Reilly and created by Mark Churms, this piece will be used in a wayside exhibit located just east of the Innis House. It will also be incorporated into our re-do of interior exhibits at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, a project now in design.

At some point artist Mark Churms will be making this image available for sale as a print.  We’ll let you know when that happens.

Another view of Brompton–and a reminder

From Hennessy:

Saturday is our inaugural Sesquicentennial event, which in fact helps explain the slow pace of posts on here this week. Bill Freehling will be speaking on Virginia’s tortuous descent to war, illuminating his book Showdown in Virginia. George Rable will speak on Secession and the Confederate nation.  And I will treat secession as it played out in the Fredericksburg area. Bill and George are heavy hitters and great speakers. The speakers get going at 1 p.m.  The event is in the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street.  Registration is requested (famcc.org) but not required.  We have well over 250 registered.  Everything is free, except the books. They will be on sale throughout, and a book signing and reception will follow at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. The weather is supposed to be great, the Fredericksburg Area Museum has done a great job of organizing the event.  We hope to see you.

As we have mentioned here before, in the morning we will be doing a walk-around at Brompton, featuring Frank O’Reilly, Greg Mertz, Eric Mink, and me–each of us covering a different aspect of the place and its story.  That starts at 10:30 and runs till noon.  You can join in any time–we’ll be rotating people around the grounds from stop to stop.  We’re very grateful to the University of Mary Washington and President Rick Hurley for giving all of us the chance to spend some time on the grounds of Brompton, the home of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s delegate to the secession convention, John L. Marye.  The walk around too is free. Just come along.

In advance of that, I wanted to share a an image that has rarely been seen–a nice addition to our earlier post on Brompton. We present it here today courtesy of Jerry Brent, one of the premier collectors of things Fredericksburg, and, fortunately, incredibly generous in sharing his finds.  It is an immediate postwar image taken from the ravine that borders Brompton to the South. The camera is located almost directly across the Sunken Road from the Stephens house site, facing northwest. At the Second Battle of Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863, it was up the ravine in this view that men of the 6th Maine rushed after breaking through the paltry Confederate defenses in the formerly unassailable Sunken Road. The bullet holes that still mark the house and the outbuildings of Brompton are likely from the combat that attended this breakthrough.

Courtesy Jerry Brent

Now look at this wartime image taken from atop the hill. The farm office and barn are both clearly visible in the postwar view.   Continue reading

Brompton in the background: rare view of the Bloody Plain, Part 2

From Hennessy:

[A preface: Brompton, the subject of what follows, is the home of the president of the University of Mary Washington, and is not open to the public.  But, as you likely know, we are holding our first 150th event on November 20th at the Baptist Church, “Years of Anguish: The Coming Storm,” which will look at how the nation, state, and community tumbled toward secession, featuring George Rable and Bill Freehling. You can register here (the program is free). As prelude to that event, from 10:30 till noon that morning, we will be hosting a walk-around of the grounds at Brompton, the home of Fredericksburg’s delegate to the secession convention, John Marye. If you want to see for yourself some of what is in these images, we heartily invite you. Enter through the pedestrian entrance off Hanover Street. For the walk, there is no pre-registration required.]

In our last (click here), we explored the background of a couple of A.J. Russell images, getting a new look at the Bloody Plain in front of the Sunken Road. The second of those images, above, also offers an unparalelled look along the top of Marye’s Heights, specifically at Brompton and the outbuildings that surround it.

Brompton is a place of visual and historical prominence, and yet much of its story remains obscure. Its wartime owner, John L. Marye (rhymes with Marie), acquired newly built Brompton about 1823 and would, on the eve of Civil War, represent Fredericksburgers and Spotsylvanians at the 1861 secession convention in Richmond. He was a man of calm manner and centrist politics, disinclined toward confrontation–either individually or on behalf of the constituents he represented.  He was, by his own admission, a “slow coach” when it came to secession.  Yet beyond this and a few scattered details, we know little of Marye and his life before the war (though we know a great deal about his son, John Jr., who was lieutenant governor of Virginia in the 1870s and a prominent local attorney–the two men are routinely confused with each other). We don’t even have a picture of him. We do know this: his majestic home projected power and wealth, a stark contrast to his neighbors just yards away on the Sunken Road (a heterogeneous lot of families you can read about here).

He is, though, synonymous with the Battle of Fredericksburg, for it was John L. Marye Sr. who gave his name to Marye’s Heights, the commanding Confederate ground that dominated the plain below. This image offers by far the best sense of how dominant Brompton was, and it offers a terrific view of the landscape beyond the big house.

To the left of the big house, most apparent is a white building with narrow pillars supporting an overhanging roof–it is either a shed or, more likely, an office.  Here is the same building photographed a year later, in May 1864, medical officers lounging about while Brompton was being used as a Union hospital. Continue reading

Rare views of the Bloody Plain–Part I

From Hennessy:

How ironic is it that the most important battlefield landscape in Virginia that’s been virtually lost is also the one that’s the best documented photographically?  I suppose there’s some consolation in that.

These images are nearly 150 years old, but they’ve rarely been seen or published. At first glance they look to be fairly common images of Fredericksburg during the Civil War, offering little that hasn’t been noted before. But a closer look into the background in fact reveals an entirely new perspective on the fields beyond town–the Bloody Plain. These images, together with the Federal Hill panorama  surely make Fredericksburg’s Bloody Plain the best photographically documented battlefield landscape anywhere (at least in terms of wartime images). 

There are three images, two of which we share here today. Both by A.J. Russell; both 1863. The first shows a familiar foreground–John Marye’s Excelsior Mill, just below the ruined railroad bridge, and beyond it Alexander and Gibbs’s Tobacco Factory, where the slave John Washington worked in 1860.

Original at the Wes. Res. Hist. Soc.

The second image takes in ground a bit farther downstream and focuses on an industrial part of town that is today largely consumed with parking lots associated with the train station.

Original at the West. Res. Hist. Soc.

We will look at all these things eventually, but for today let’s look into the distant background of these images, for together they offer a view of the Bloody Plain and Marye’s Heights beyond Fredericksburg that is exceeded only by the famous Federal Hill panorama (which we have explored extensively here, here, and here). Continue reading

Mary Washington to the rescue: the most dramatic land save in the park’s history (and a home for the Kirkland monument)

From John Hennessy:

In July 1963, Fredericksburg native and former Detroit Tiger turned developer Russell Sullivan (you can see Sullivan’s Major League stats here) acquired a small parcel of land along the Sunken Road just below historic Brompton and started planning a new apartment complex. One 72-foot long, 4-unit apartment was to face south, along Mercer Street; another of eight units was to face Brompton itself.

Location and scale of proposed buildings gleaned from news reports

The National Park Service reacted with alarm, but due to “technical difficulties which we couldn’t overcome” (probably issues with the deed or a lack of money), Superintendent O.F. Northington was unable to acquire and protect the property. In early 1964, the bulldozers started to move, preparing the site for the apartments–just 25 feet from the original section of stone wall on the Sunken Road. Newspaper photos from the Free Lance-Star show piles of earth and heavy equipment in action. The site was a mess.

An image from the Free Lance-Star showing work underway. That’s the original section of the stone wall.

A hue and cry went up from history sorts, but with the NPS “dreadfully disappointed” and  powerless (apparently) to intervene, and with the city absent any ordinance governing the protection of historic resources, all seemed loss. The bulldozers rumbled.  Continue reading

Battlefields as fundraising tools–1868 (and the fate of walls on the Sunken Road)

From John Hennessy (based on an article in the Washington National Republican, August 6, 1868):

The Sunken Road at about the time of the Episcopal visit in 1868; note the camp for the burial parties at left.

The year was 1868. The collection of the bodies of Union soldiers from the battlefields around Fredericksburg, and the burials of those soldiers in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, was ongoing. Likewise, the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg was tilting along full speed ensuring Confederate dead were gathered from the fields and reinterred in the Confederate Cemetery at the end of Amelia Street. The fresh dirt of newly disinterred graves pocked the landscape around Fredericksburg.

Yet, in August 1868, the aspiring congregation of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in what is today Anacostia (for a time called Uniontown) conceived what was then surely a novel fundraising scheme: mount a field trip to the battlefields around Fredericksburg. The destination was apparently inspired by some former Fredericksburg residents in the congregation.

“Every effort was put forth to make the excursion a success and to get up just such a party as would be a credit to the prime movers in the effort and a pleasure to those who would compose the body of visitors.  Quite a large number of persons who had been born and reared in the town of historic renown (Fredericksburg) embraced this opportunity of paying their old and honored home a visit, many of them returning there for the first time since the outbreak of the rebellion, and they did so with evident delight and gratification.”

The jolly group left the Seventh Street wharf in Washington at 11 a.m., stopped briefly in Alexandria, and arrived at Aquia Landing at 3 and the rail station in Fredericksburg b y 4.  Along the way, the travellers enjoyed themselves:  “the excursionists were tripping the light fantastic toe to Weber’s fine music, and if there were any that did not enjoy themselves it was all their own fault,” wrote the reporter. Continue reading