The Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. Through the Eyes of William H. S. Burgwyn

On December 11, 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac, under command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, laid five pontoon bridges across Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va., in preparation to cross over and strike at the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia entrenched on the heights behind the city. This movement was the beginning of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. On the next day, December 12, 1862 the federal army crossed the river, and consolidated its gains, and then General Burnside mounted a series of attacks on General Robert E. Lee’s entrenched Confederate army on Saturday, December 13, 1862. These series of assaults, especially in the area of Marye’s Heights, resulted in a series of bloody repulses for the Union Army. With his offensive toward Richmond, Va. prevented from moving forward, General Burnside pulled his Union Army of the Potomac back across the river in defeat.

William H. S. Burgwyn and the Thirty-Fifth North Carolina Troops participated in the defense of Marye’s Heights on December 13th. In this excerpt of a letter from William H. S. Burgwyn to his Aunt “Emmy,” Sarah Emily Burgwyn, William recounts the battle from his view point.

“On the 1st of November we camped near Culpeper C.H. where we camped [sic] three months before when on our march to Maryland. On the 23rd of Nov. camped about 8 miles South of Fredericksburg and remained in camp till the 11th of Dec. when about 4 AM the stillness of the morning was broken by the firing off of two large guns which was the signal that we were attacked.
As soon as we could be got under arms and having issued to the men 60 rounds of cartridges twice as much as commonly given we started for the source of action. All that day and the day after no small arms were engaged of any consequence and the enemy having completed the pontoon bridge in the evening of the 12 commenced crossing their forces. That day the 13th they shelled the town we being placed on a high hill overlooking the town had all more terrified view of the magnificent and grand sight of the shelling a town. At dark the sight from a hundred guns the busting of the innumerable shells the city on fire in many places and the enemys [sic] artillery placed in a semi circle [sic] on the North bank of the Rapahannock [sic] and the commanding position of the Stafford Hights [sic] which when they would fire presented the spectacle of a semi circular [sic] line of about mile = half long from which large flashes of fire were constantly coming. They did not continue to fire long after dark and all was silent and The men was fully alive to the danger and tremendous results at stake and if the Yanke [sic] Genl. Could have seen the willingness that men took dangerous and exposed positions and the determination written on their faces to conquer or die he would have trembled to think of the consequences that would occur in placing his hired mercenaries against them.
On the morning of the 13th there was a heavy fog which cleared off about 10 AM and I thought tho this was not such a seen [sic] as that of Austerlitz I hope it will prove as fortunate to us as that was to Napoleon.
About 1 ½ PM we moved through a storm of shell to a position in a ravine about 60 yards closer to our batteries to support them. While in that position though it seemed impossible for us to be hurt we lost one officer and two privates killed. We staid [sic] there about an hour and then moved our position about 100 yards closer to the batteries still through a storm of shell + musketry which killed and wounded five or six men and just as I had formed my Company in line and were dressing and making them step up to the line and prevent them from lying down for shell and mini balls were coming over our heads powerful I saw a shell coming about three feet from the ground right towards us which was spent sufficiently to let me see it as it went I only had time to say “poor fellow” when it struck a man in the Company on my left sending him to his final resting place. We were then ordered to lie down and while lying down two spent mini balls struck a Color Corp. lying on my right side and a spent shell about a foot long came tumbling over the ground right in front of me and if it had not struck an oak post that had been pulled up the night before for fire wood in all probability I would not now be here to write you.
We lay down there exposed all the time under the most severe storm of shell grape canister and musketry that I imagine was ever seen in the continent but the Yankees being below us it mostly passed over our heads. About sun down the firing slacked and we were hoping it was over for the day and the men had mostly all got up to stretch themselves having been all day lying on the damp ground when of a sudden there was such a tremendous roar of all the instruments of death that the Yankees could bring”

To read the letter in its entirety http://digital.ncdcr.gov/u?/p15012coll8,11430

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One Response to The Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. Through the Eyes of William H. S. Burgwyn

  1. Gerald says:

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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