December 9, 2012

Civil War anniversary: Whitfield County Soldiers at the famous stone wall

The Battle of Fredericksburg

By Dr. Elizabeth Hoole McArthur Dalton 150th Civil War Commission

— On a bitterly cold day in December 1862, Whitfield County soldiers took part in one of the legendary military defenses of the Civil War — at the stone wall at Fredericksburg. They were among a total of 172,500 soldiers engaged in the Virginia battle — more than the combined populations at the time of Charleston, Richmond, Mobile, Memphis, Savannah and Nashville.

These Confederates were members of Co. B (the Dalton Guards) of Phillips’ Infantry Battalion.

Robert Thomas Cook of Dalton, previously captain of their company, had been promoted only six weeks earlier to lieutenant colonel of the battalion. The unit served with Brig. Gen. Thomas Cobb’s Georgia Brigade, one of four brigades in Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ Division.  They were part of the famed First Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Following the deadly clash at Antietam Creek in September, Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan had failed to follow up his advantage against Lee’s retreating army. Becoming impatient, President Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Now “Honest Abe” expected swift, decisive action.

In response, Burnside planned a rare winter assault against the Confederate capital of Richmond.  He intended to approach by way of Fredericksburg, a town of about 5,000 located 60 miles directly to the north on the Rappahannock River. Needing speed and surprise for success, Burnside raced his army to the site, arriving Nov.17.  

The Rappahannock generally flows west to east, but here briefly runs north to south before continuing eastward to the Atlantic.  To reach the western bank, where Fredericksburg was located, Burnside needed to construct pontoon bridges, but when materials failed to arrive on time, his advance was stalled. Lee, who initially had only a few thousand Confederates in the vicinity, took advantage of the delay to concentrate and entrench his army across the river on the hills behind Fredericksburg.



Yankees loot town

Finally, on Dec. 11, Union engineers began building pontoon bridges. Their efforts were thwarted by Confederates firing from across the river.  These were troops of William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, one of Cobb’s fellow brigades in McLaws’ Division. In response, Burnside shelled the town and the desperate civilians fled.  

When his bombardment failed to dislodge the Confederates, Burnside ordered his troops to cross the river by boats, which some did under fire, finally establishing a beachhead. Barksdale’s Confederates fought doggedly in the streets of Fredericksburg, contesting every block. But by nightfall they withdrew, and Union engineers completed their bridges.  The Federal army crossed the Rappahannock on Dec. 12, and Union soldiers looted and vandalized the historic old town’s homes and shops.

On Saturday, Dec. 13, concealed by dense early morning fog, Burnside launched his two-pronged attack to drive Lee’s forces from the hills behind Fredericksburg. His first assault struck south of the city on Prospect Hill, where he sought to crush Lee’s right flank, commanded by “Stonewall” Jackson. While this offensive gained some initial success, Jackson’s men ultimately expelled the Federals, inflicting heavy losses.

The focus of Burnside’s second attack was the Confederate left, directly west of town, where Longstreet’s First Corps controlled the vicinity of Marye’s Heights. At the foot of this hill was Telegraph Road, the main thoroughfare to Richmond.  Generations of wagon traffic had worn down its surface, creating a sunken appearance. Beside it was a four-foot stone retaining wall.  Confederate artillery would be positioned atop the hill, and Cobb’s Georgians — including  Whitfield County’s Co. B — would be at its base, along a 600-yard portion of the road, with the shoulder-high stone wall providing excellent cover.

Between the town of Fredericksburg on the east, where the Federals were located, and Marye’s Heights to the west, was a 600-yard-wide open plain the Federals would have to cross to reach the Confederates. Further complicating Burnside’s planned charge was a mill race across the field, 15 feet wide and 5 feet deep, filled with three feet of water. Longstreet’s artillery chief declared, “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”



Charging across wide open field

The Union attacks began shortly before noon. Cobb waved his hat in the air and shouted, “Get ready, boys, here they come!” The Georgians opened fire, and when the smoke cleared, the Union line had virtually disappeared. Soon thereafter, Cobb was mortally wounded by an exploding shell.  As the dying officer was carried to a field hospital, he cried out, “I am only wounded, boys, hold our ground like brave men.”

Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade, another of McLaws’ brigades, was brought up to reinforce Cobb’s men at the stone wall, and Kershaw was placed in command. Since the Georgians occupied the front along the stone wall, Kershaw’s troops “doubled up,” making the Confederate line four-men deep. Those in the rear loaded the muskets and passed them forward, allowing the Confederates to fire rapidly and continuously.

Throughout the afternoon Burnside sent wave after wave of his infantry across the open field toward the stone wall, to almost inevitable slaughter.  Refusing to believe his situation was hopeless, and desperate to succeed after his earlier failure against Jackson, Burnside sent no fewer than 14 successive brigades. All were mown down by rifle and artillery fire from the Confederates’ nearly impregnable positions.

Though Union artillery pounded Marye’s Heights, not a single Union soldier reached the Confederate line, and few got within 50 yards. Finally, about 7 p.m., the Union assaults ended.

 Behind the stone wall, about 300 Confederates had been shot, while in front, approximately 8,000 Union soldiers had fallen.



A hero emerges

As night fell, the scene across the field was one of unspeakable carnage and suffering. Thousands of Union casualties were trapped in freezing cold, with no food, water or medical attention. The cries of the wounded were heard by both sides, but no one on either side, fearing for their own safety, answered the calls.

By dawn a 19-year-old sergeant of Kershaw’s Brigade could no longer bear the screams. With Kershaw’s permission, he gathered warm clothing and canteens of water and, at great personal risk, helped the suffering soldiers.  From afar, Union soldiers, seeing his efforts, held their fire and applauded his compassion.

For his kindness and courage Richard Kirkland would become known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” and today a statue stands at the site in his honor.

Whitfield County’s Co. B suffered 11 casualties at Fredericksburg.  Seven were wounded, two mortally: Abram M. Crow and Samuel Stinson.  Two others, Frank M. Eldridge and Lt. Col. Robert Thomas Cook, were killed in action. Cook was buried in the Old Hamilton Presbyterian Cemetery in Dalton.

For its time, Fredericksburg had been one of the largest battles fought in North America and one of the deadliest. It included the first major shelling of an American city since the Revolutionary War, the first opposed river crossing in American military history, and the Civil War’s first instance of urban warfare.

On Dec. 15, Burnside’s beaten army retreated across the Rappahannock. The Union had lost 13,000 soldiers in a battle in which the dreadful carnage was matched only by its utter futility.

Total Confederate losses numbered about 5,000. Burnside would soon be relieved of his command, Federal morale would plummet, and Confederate spirits would soar.

The war would go on another two and a half years, and the tide would eventually turn for the Union cause.  But the stone wall at Fredericksburg would become part of Civil War legend, as would the young men of Whitfield County who fought behind it on that cold December day in 1862.



This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton-Whitfield Civil War 150th Anniversary Commission. To find out more about the committee go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or robert.jenkins@robertdjenkins.com.