On December 13, 1862, the Army of the Potomac filed across a series of pontoon
bridges on the Rappahannock River to attack Lee's troops. They were under
the command of General Ambrose Burnside, who had replaced the notoriously
timid George McClellan. Burnside sent his troops over the river and through
the streets of Fredericksburg, Virginia; then he lined them up to make a
straight-on attack against the Confederate trenches on the hills west of
General Winfield Scott Hancock commanded a division
on the right wing of the Union army. Marching behind the troops of General
William French, Hancock urged his men across the winter field to carry
out Burnside's suicidal orders.
They moved through the streets, began to form on the edge of town, out past
the last of the houses. They could still hear the guns down to the left,
the destruction of Meade's division, but their attention was focused on
the hill a half mile across the open ground in front of them.
Hancock rode through the forming lines, stared out at the field, could see
fences, rows of posts and rails that would slow and therefore devastate
his lines when crossed. Farther, he could now clearly make out the canal,
crossing the field at a slight angle, the canal that Burnside said did not
Out beyond his lines the division of William French was already in battle
formation, would be the first across the field. Behind him, still strung
out down the streets of the town, Oliver Howard's division would follow
Hancock. This was Couch's Second Corps, and on them would fall the responsibility
for salvaging Burnside's great plan....
He moved the horse carefully, and the men in the street gave way, moved
respectfully to the side. There was some yelling, a few catcalls, nervous
comments from the men who would do the bloody work. He did not look at them,
did not know them--they were Howard's men. He could see his own lines now,
the formation nearly complete, and he rode out among them, into the open
field. Beyond the end of his lines he saw Couch, riding quickly through
the last row of houses, moving forward, toward French's lines.
Suddenly, the hills in front of them began to speak, small flashes and puffs
of white. There was a silent pause, a frozen moment, the men turning, waiting,
and now came the sounds, the high screams, the whistles and shrieks. The
shells began to fall, shaking the ground, blowing quick holes in the neat
blue lines. French's men moved forward, wavering slightly from the impact
of the explosions. Gaps had already opened in the line, men dying before
they could even begin the attack. Hancock saw Couch riding back toward town,
the order given, the assault under way.
Hancock moved the horse up through his own lines. Sam Zook, one of his brigade
commanders, another Pennsylvanian, was waving at French's men, leading a
cheer, watching them move away. Then he saw Hancock. "You're the first line, Sam. Clear the way."
Zook was smiling broadly, ready for the fight, and he yelled out, over the
sounds of the incoming shells, "General, you best tell old French to
hurry it up, or move out of the way! We're headin' for the top of the hill!"
He rode out along the edge of the formation, watched through his glasses
as French's men reached the first of the fences, the lines slowing, men
pulling down the wooden rails. The shelling was following them out, like
a violent storm that moves with you, the gunners adjusting the range, hurling
their solid shot through French's lines with vicious effect. Hancock saw
a great black mass hit the ground, splattering dirt and men, and the black
ball still coming, rolling and bouncing across the patches of snow and grass,
then burrowing into the lines of his own men. He moved his horse forward,
looked down at the rows of his lead brigade and saw Zook riding out in front,
waving his sword. Now the whole thick line, the First Brigade, began to
move, and Hancock moved with them.
Up ahead French's men were still holding their formation, but the fences
were slowing them down. Zook's brigade began to close the gap between them,
the artillery taking a heavier toll, the blasts and rolling shot cutting
through the bunched-up lines. The smoke began to hide the hill, and Hancock
could see French himself, riding down through his men, waving and yelling, and now he understood. They had reached the canal.
Men began to drop down, out of sight, then Hancock saw them coming back
up, climbing a short embankment. There were small bridges, thin rails, and
the rebels had removed the planking, so the men could only cross single
file. The gunners on the hill had been prepared for that, had the range
and were close enough for the smaller shot, the grape and canister. Men
began to fall into the canal, blown apart by the unseen swarms of hot metal.
The smoke was thicker still as Hancock reached the canal. He could not see
French's lines at all, wondered if there were any lines left. His men began
to jump down into the freezing water, nearly waist deep, splashing through
the thin ice. Down the line he saw Zook, raising his sword at a small group
of men who were moving back, pulling away from the canal, and Zook turned
them around and over they went, pushed along now by the second line, closing
the gap again. He thought, No, this is not good, wait, and he saw the green
flags, saw men moving toward him with the green in their hats. He looked for
Meagher, other officers, saw one man leading a company, rode to him through
the clouds of smoke.
"Wait...hold them up, slow the line!" Hancock shouted. "You're
moving too fast!"