Fredericksburg: Federal Fiasco that Floridians Fought to Forget
The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought on December 11-13, 1862, along the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, was one of the low points for the Union during the war. A stunning Confederate victory, which saw General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia decimate the blue-clad columns of Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac, the Battle of Fredericksburg was, however, a battle that Florida’s troops would sooner forget. As George C. Rable, the battle’s foremost historian, observed, the Floridians at Fredericksburg “proved utterly worthless.” What were the circumstances that led to this devastating indictment?
On the morning of December 11, Union engineers began construction on pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg. General Burnside planned to have his divisions on the south bank of the river as early as mid-November, before Lee could position enough troops to oppose the crossing. Unfortunately for the Union, logistical failures delayed the arrival of most of the bridges until the end of the month. By early December, General Lee had shifted his army to Fredericksburg, where his troops enjoyed prime defensive terrain on Marye’s Heights overlooking the city. The Confederates also placed Brigadier General William E. Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, supported by the Eighth Florida Infantry Regiment, inside Fredericksburg where they could disrupt the Federal crossing from the cover of riverside buildings.
While the Eighth Florida was the most engaged of the Florida units at Fredericksburg, it entered the battle as part of the recently created Florida Brigade within the Army of Northern Virginia. Brigadier General E. A. Perry commanded the brigade, which consisted of the Second, Fifth and Eighth regiments. The men of the Fifth and the Eighth had their first intense fighting at Antietam in September. Along with the Second regiment, the Fifth and Eighth experienced heavy casualties at Antietam, where they fought along the Sunken Road. Casualties among officers led to the appointment of new regimental commanders. Captain David Lang of Suwannee County, Florida, assumed command of the Eighth Florida, which he would lead at Fredericksburg.
General Barksdale divided the Eighth Florida into two groups. The larger force under Captain Lang took up positions within Fredericksburg on the left wing of the Seventeenth Mississippi Infantry Regiment, which along with the Eighteenth Mississippi would be the first Confederate forces to oppose the Federal crossing. Barksdale ordered Captain William Baya (commander of Company D, Eighth Florida, from St. Johns County) to take command of three of the regiment’s companies on the right of the Seventeenth Mississippi. While Lang’s companies and the Mississippians took up positions within buildings or behind walls, a Mississippi officer ordered Baya’s men to place themselves along the riverbank without the benefit of cover.
The Confederate sharpshooters in Fredericksburg were in an excellent position to pick off Union engineers as the latter began construction on pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. The Federals responded with a tremendous bombardment against Fredericksburg, which became the first town in the war to be devastated by artillery fire. While the Mississippians maintained fire on the engineers during the bombardment, Captain Baya refused, despite orders, to allow his companies to fire on the Federals out of fear that Union guns would be turned on his exposed force. When the bombardment failed to subdue the Confederate fire, General Burnside ordered several regiments to cross the river in boats to dislodge Barksdale’s men. Despite horrendous casualties, the Union men established a bridgehead and pushed into the city. Fredericksburg, in addition to being the first city to fall victim to massed artillery fire, gained the notoriety of being the first city during the Civil War to witness urban fighting and subsequent plunder by Union troops.
The Union forces quickly overran Baya’s exposed companies, capturing dozens of the Floridians. Meanwhile, Captain Lang’s men endured Union artillery and rifle fire on the left of the Mississippians. The Floridians fought bravely, but when Captain Lang was wounded and had to be carried from the field, his companies lost focus, and returned only desultory fire against the Union advance. After twelve hours of some of the most intense fighting of the war, Lang’s companies withdrew along with the rest of Barksdale’s command to the shelter of the massed Confederate formations on Marye’s Heights.
Lee’s forces made sure the Union advance ended outside of Fredericksburg. The Confederates laid down massive fire on the advancing Federals, who tried to take Marye’s Heights in assault after bloody assault on December 13. When Burnside finally called off the attack, over 12,000 Union soldiers were casualties of war.
Although Fredericksburg was an impressive Confederate victory, it was a low point for the Florida Brigade. History has not been kind to the Eighth Florida’s performance, which was anything but distinguished. The Eighth could take heart, however. It was hardly the only Civil War unit (Southern or Northern) to perform poorly in a particular battle. Command decisions, circumstances, and the terrors of war all played a part in the actions of the Eighth at Fredericksburg. The unit, along with the rest of the Florida Brigade, would have plenty of opportunities to redeem itself in the campaigns that awaited them in 1863.
For more on the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Floridians’ role in it see the following studies: George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and Zack C. Waters and James C. Edmonds, A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010).