Prospect Hill Fredericksburg

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KianGaf

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I was watching a documentary on the battle of Fredericksburg and it mentioned briefly the union attack on Prospect hill. The doc said due to miscommunication the attack faltered after early gains. Can anyone elaborate on this ?
 

Miles Krisman

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The following is an account of the experiences of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment which was part of Jackson's command. For more information, there was a good article in the Blue and Gray magizine if you can find a copy. “The Real Battle of Fredericksburg – Stonewall Jackson, Prospect Hill and the Slaughter Pen” by Frank A. O’Reilly, Blue and Gray Magazine, XXV, #5, 2009, page14-17


Although the usual campaigning season had ended with the approach of winter, there was to be one more confrontation in 1862. Due to administrative bungling, the pontoon bridges needed by the Union army to cross the river, had just arrived. Now, the Confederate Army awaited the Federals on the heights west of the Rappahannock River behind the town of Fredericksburg. The Federals enjoyed a sizable numerical advantage. They had about 120,000 men to the Confederates 80,000. In addition to this advantage in troop strength, Federal General Ambrose Burnside also had the advantage of knowing that his army could not be attacked effectively. To cover his planned crossing of the river and to prevent Lee's army from mounting any major counterattacks, he had 220 artillery pieces placed on the ridge known as Stafford Heights on the east side of the Rappahannock.

Very early on the morning of December 11, 1862, the five Companies of the 5th Alabama that had remained in camp, were marched out to the picket line to relieve their comrades. The pickets were posted along the banks of the river and the Yankee Cavalry pickets were on the opposite bank. Not long after taking up their position, the men on both sides struck up conversations with each other. It wasn’t long before the Federals boasted that twenty thousand Union soldiers were crossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg.

The Union Army had in fact succeeded in building their pontoon bridges and had crossed into Fredericksburg, thoroughly sacking it. The Confederates soon began to draw in their flanks to concentrate their forces. The men of the 5th Alabama could hear the artillery early the following morning, when they were ordered to cook three days rations and be ready to march. Down by the river on the picket line, the men were told to watch out for gunboats and if they did appear, to try and shoot through the port holes. The men at camp formed for their advance to Fredericksburg, but remained waiting in columns throughout the day on December 12, 1864. Finally, that evening, General Lee summoned their division, as he marshalled his troops on the high ground surrounding Fredericksburg. The 5th Alabama Infantry now moved with the rest of General D. H. Hill’s Division, on a miserable, cold march of about eighteen miles to a ridge south of Fredericksburg in the area near Prospect Hill, arriving there at about three o’clock the next morning.

Prospect Hill had a magnificent field of fire that stretched unobstructed for almost a mile across open farmlands. Heavy timber on the hilltop masked the Confederates from the Federals, but it also made it difficult for the Southerners to see and communicate among themselves. It would also be almost impossible to evacuate the artillery through the forest if the Yankees somehow overran the position. The Confederate commanders trusted that they would never get that far. The men took advantage of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad which passed in their immediate front. The railroad embankments made ideal breastworks for some of the soldiers, and railroad ties helped fortify gun pits for the artillery. Just north of Prospect Hill, a swampy morass blighted the front for 600 yards. Stonewall Jackson laid out his line several divisions deep. General A. P. Hill’s “Light Division,” the largest division in Lee’s army, held the front. Brigadier Generals W. B. Taliaferro and Jubal Early’s divisions formed a second line 400 yards behind A. P. Hill’s troops. General Daniel Harvey Hill’s division made a third line 300 yards behind Early and Taliaferro. The Confederate Second Corps crammed 37,000 men into a narrow sector with only a two-mile front.

On December 13, 1862, Union General Burnside initiated his attacks on the Confederate held positions. His plan of battle, called for a frontal assault on the Confederate line entrenched on Marye’s Height. This was to be a feint to draw troops away from the main attack south of Fredericksburg where the men of Rodes’ Brigade waited. However, due to the strong position of the Rebels behind a stone wall, the Federals were unable to dislodge them or put enough pressure on the line, to have the desired effect. Throughout the long day, the Federals threw Brigade after Brigade into the fray, only to see their ranks decimated. The carnage was truly appalling and as the day dragged on, General Burnside became more desperate in his assaults. Late in the afternoon, the Confederate artillery ran low on ammunition having utilized almost all of their available canister, case shot, and shells, leaving only a few rounds of solid shot. As the Confederate Batteries were changed, the Federals pressed forward yet again.

During this time, the men of the 5th Alabama Infantry waited at the foot of Prospect Hill in the Confederate third line of battle. “From the hill on which we were posted,” reported Major Eugene Blackford, “the whole Yankee army could be seen in the plain below, drawn up in three lines of battle, their arms glistening in the sun.” The men along Prospect Hill could hear the cannon and musket fire throughout the day. The Union artillery fire would occasionally sail over their heads, some shells bursting before reaching them, others after, but the men remained relatively safe, awaiting orders. At about 1:30 P.M., General D. H. Hill’s Division was moved east through Hamilton’s Crossing in support of the Confederate Artillery of General Pelham. Rodes’ Brigade was the third line behind Grimes’ and Iverson’s Brigades. They could see the Confederate artillery battery about two hundred yards to their front and witnessed a Union shell exploding on target killing one man, a horse, and breaking another horse’s leg. The Brigade was ordered to the right to meet an attack and had to pass through an open field. While doing so, shot, shell and grape passed over them. Upon arriving at the edge of some woods, they form a line of battle and loaded their weapons. The men thought they were going to charge ahead, but it turned out that the Union attack came further to their left, so they were ordered back to their original position. Once back at the hillside, they lay down and awaited further orders.

In the growing darkness, General “Stonewall” Jackson sensed victory. All that remained was a devastating counterattack by his men to crush the Union Army. He quickly dispatched orders to move to the attack. Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances, only a third of his force received those orders. The divisions of Generals D. H. Hill, A. P. Hill, and J. B. Hood moved forward at the double-quick to prepare for the twilight assault. General Jubal Early first learned of the attack as D. H. Hill’s men came through his lines. After quickly confirming Jackson’s orders, he was only able to garner two Brigades under his command to aid in the attack.

The Confederates organized their line behind the railroad and along the crest of Prospect Hill. General Earl’s two brigades formed along the RF&P tracks, with D. H. Hill Division deployed on the hill behind them. The right of his line was anchored by the division artillery. The Brigades formed from there to the left as follows: Ramseur’s, Rodes’, Doles’, and Colquitt’s. Iverson’s Brigade had remained in the rear without orders. Jackson, concerned about the declining daylight, ignored the fact that half his troops were not ready to go and ordered the artillery forward. By 5:00 P.M., all of Jackson’s guns were blazing away. The Federal artillery response was immediate. They unleashed a barrage that surpassed that at Malvern Hill raking Prospect Hill in a most merciless manner. The Confederate guns had to be recalled to the woods and Jackson cancelled the attack.

The order countermanding the attack never reached General D. H. Hill until it was too late. He assumed that the end of the artillery fire signaled the beginning of the infantry attack, not having seen their withdrawal due to the darkness. Hill rode to the front and led his men as they charged through the thick woods. As Rodes’ Brigade extricated themselves from the woods, the Brigade split in two as they splashed through the marsh. Private William S. Campbell of Company H reported, “It being nearly dark, we could scarcely see, consequently, the brigade became badly mixed up.” The left of the Brigade consisting of the 5th, 6th, and 26th Alabama, cleared the swamp and continued after Doles” Brigade. However, the 3rd and 12th Alabama reached the edge of the woods sometime later and stopped under a punishing barrage. Rodes’ left also felt the fire, forcing the men to lie down in the field. “We dodged down to the ground,” recalled one of Rodes’ soldiers, “and lay as still as mice.” Samuel Pickens of Company D later wrote, “Came up to another line of troops and halted in confusion. While trying to form, a Yankee battery opened on us. It was very near us. We all lay down and shell, and grape, and canister whizzed just over our heads and cut bushes and saplings all about – a ball struck between Colonel Hall and a man beside him. One man in the regiment was shot in the shoulder and one with finger off.” Jackson’s belated reprieve finally caught up with General D. H. Hill in the open flatlands between the lines. He withdrew his men back to Prospect Hill under a continuing Federal barrage. Some of the men of the 5th Alabama waited until it was pitch dark before falling back.


 

James N.

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I was watching a documentary on the battle of Fredericksburg and it mentioned briefly the union attack on Prospect hill. The doc said due to miscommunication the attack faltered after early gains. Can anyone elaborate on this ?
That sounds like a typical but not inaccurate generalization of the attack by Franklin's Grand Division on Jackson's line so well summarized in detail by Miles Krisman above. For a look at the ground involved: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-battle-of-fredericksburg-december-13-1862.152459/post-1944549

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