Assault on Marye's Heights

The following text was originally published as Part 2 of a two-part brochure (go to Part 1: Fire in the Streets) funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The italicized "Walking Guide" sections will take you on a tour through Fredericksburg, beginning at the Fredericksburg City Visitor Center located at 706 Caroline St, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401.

To Begin the Walk: Remain standing at the point where you finished Part 1, or, if you are starting at the Visitor Center on Caroline Street, turn left down Caroline Street and proceed to George Street. Turn left on George Street and proceed to Princess Anne Street.

The Assault Begins

On the morning of December 13th, US troops deployed in line of battle within the confines of these narrow streets. At approximately 10am, these troops heard the crash of artillery and musketry as other US forces attacked the Confederate lines south of town. One hour later, couriers galloped up with orders for the troops waiting in town to advance and the assault columns pushed forward.

Walking Guide: Cross Princess Anne Street and turn left. Note the Courthouse to your left. Its cupola served as a Union Signal station and observation post. Cross Hanover Street and turn right. You are now following one of the Union army's main avenues of approach to the battlefield beyond town. Once you cross Prince Edward Street, you will see a large frame house, Federal Hill, on the left that sits at an angle to the street.

In 1862, this point marked the edge of town. Brigadier General T.R.R. Cobb, the grandson of one of its prewar owners, commanded many of the Confederate troops who awaited the oncoming Federals. Only gardens, meadows, and a few scattered buildings were located between here and Cobb's veterans.

Once the dense columns of the US Second Corps came into view of the Confederate artillerymen, they were subjected to an increasingly heavy fire that tore through them. The Federal soldiers closed ranks to maintain the integrity of their formations and pressed on.

Walking Guide: Continue down Hanover Street to Kenmore Avenue which, in 1862, was an open canal ditch. The advancing troops became bottlenecked at a bridge at this location and elsewhere where retreating Confederates had taken up some of the planking. The Union soldiers were forced to either gingerly cross on the stringers or wade the freezing waterway. Three new exhibits will be placed at this intersection in the Spring of 1999. Cross Kenmore Avenue and pause by the embankment to your left.

First Attempt

The lead US division crossed the canal ditch and immediately deployed, protected from direct artillery and musketry by this sheltering earth. When they were ready, the first brigade of this division fixed bayonets and charged up the slope to attack the Confederate defenders beyond. As the Federals topped the rise, they were met with a murderous fire which only intensified as they struggled forward over the rough and muddy ground.

Walking Guide: Follow the Union attack up Hanover Street to Littlepage Street. The large brick house in the middle of the block (801 Hanover Street) was here at the time of the battle. There was also a cluster of now demolished buildings at the intersection of Hanover and Littlepage Streets which soon developed into a Union stronghold.

When the first Federal assault reached this vicinity, no other troops had yet emerged from the cover of the embankment. Faced with increasingly intense Confederate fire and without support, the attacking troops could go no farther. They quickly took cover in and around available houses, behind fences, and anywhere else that provided a semblance of protection.

A US officer watched this and subsequent attacks from the vantage point of the courthouse cupola. He reported: "I had never before seen fighting like that...There was no cheering on the part of the men, but a stubborn determination...I don't think there was...much feeling of success. As they charged, the artillery fire would break their formation and they would get mixed; then they would close up, go forward, receive the withering infantry fire, and those who were able would run to the houses and fight as best they could; and then the next brigade coming up in succession would do its duty and melt like snow coming down on warm ground."

Walking Guide: Cross Littlepage Street and turn left. As you cross Kirkland Street, look to your right to glimpse the Confederate infantry position, bordered by stone walls, along Sunken Road.

Artillery Support

Though successive waves of US infantry were ordered into the teeth of concentrated Confederate musketry and artillery fire, the bulk of the US artillery remained on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock River to lend support at long range. A few Federal batteries, however, had been brought across the pontoon bridges and deployed on the high ground east of the canal ditch, near Federal Hill. Around 3:30pm, a Federal commander ordered some of these cannons beyond the canal ditch to relieve the pressure on the hard-pressed infantry. Captain J.G. Hazard and his artillerists of Battery B, lst Rhode Island Artillery hauled their six cannon across one of the bridges and up the slope. They unlimbered for action within 150 yards of the stone wall (likely somewhere near the intersection of Hanover and Littlepage Streets). Their fire was soon joined by that of two other batteries which also crossed the canal ditch. These daring gunners provided a measure of close-in support, but their casualties were horrendous.

Walking Guide: Proceed along Littlepage Street to Mercer Street Pause beside the brick Stratton House (700 Littlepage Street) which stood quite alone in this area in 1862. As the storm of lead and jagged metal flew around it, the house drew wounded and demoralized Union soldiers to its shelter like a magnet.

Finding Protection in the Midst of Chaos

Although the land around you has been extensively developed, you can make out the contours of the ground by looking closely. The slight depression extending past the Stratton house and parallel to Littlepage Street, for example, afforded some protection to soldiers laying prone. As each attack failed, this fold of ground sheltered an increasing number of soldiers. The bravery and endurance of these men became a liability, however, as the momentum of subsequent attacks was lost, not only to enemy fire, but to this obstacle of massed soldiers.

In the late afternoon, a Federal officer in this vicinity observed: "The smoke lay so thick that we could not see the enemy, and I think they could not see us, but we were aware of the fact that somebody in our front was doing a great deal of shooting. I found the brick (Stratton) house packed with men; and behind it the dead and the living were as thick as they could be crowded together. The dead were rolled out for shelter, and the dead horses were used for breastworks. The plain thereabouts was dotted with our fallen."

Walking Guide: Turn right onto Mercer Street and follow it towards the Confederate lines until you reach Willis Street. From here you can readily see the strength of Lee's defenses. Infantry in the sunken road in front of you laid down a continuous hail of lead while artillery on the heights behind them raked the field with a devastating fire. Turn left on Willis Street and follow it to Lafayette Boulevard. On December 13, 1862, this area was strewn with dead and dying soldiers, whose bodies marked the farthest advance of the Union attacks. Turn right on Lafayette Boulevard.

In the gathering twilight, elements of the Union Ninth and Fifth Corps advanced over the broken fields to your left and rear against that section of Marye's Heights directly in front of you. Confederate volleys lit the field as if by sheet lightning and these final attacks, like the previous ones, soon collapsed.

Walking Guide: Continue up Lafayette Boulevard to the National Park Service Visitor Center. Gain a fuller understanding of the events of December 1862 by availing yourself of the excellent exhibits and literature there. This brochure will resume its directions to guide you back to the City Visitor Center when you reach the, which is on the Park Service walking trail

Darkness Brings Different Troubles

Around midnight of December 13, US reserves moved up to relieve those soldiers who had survived the daylight fighting. The night turned bitterly cold as a north wind swept the field. Under the cover of darkness, stretcher bearers searched for the wounded, but many soldiers perished and stiffened before they were found. The dead were stripped of their clothing by ill-clad Confederates as well as by US troops who had been ordered to leave their knapsacks and overcoats in town. Each soldier passed the miserable night as best he could, the experience etching itself differently in their respective memories. One man remembered sleeping next to several corpses while another recalled the sound of a window shutter banging on a nearby building all night.

Walking Guide: Proceed down Kirkland Street to Littlepage Street.

The relieving troops took up their position in the depression parallel to Littlepage Street. At daybreak, the Confederates subjected these exposed newcomers to a horrible, day-long ordeal of sniping and sharpshooting. The cold and muddy soldiers had no option but to hug the ground, barely sheltered by the earth and frozen corpses. When the sun finally went down, the troops received welcome orders to retreat. A soldier from Maine described the return march: "We had to pick our way over a field strewn with incongruous ruin; men tom and broken and cut to pieces in every indescribable way, cannon dismounted, gun carriages smashed or overturned, ammunition chests flung wildly about, horses dead and half dead still held in harness, accouterments of every sort scattered as by whirlwinds."

Walking Guide: Follow the retreating troops back down Hanover Street. After you cross Kenmore Avenue, bear to the left and follow George Street back to Princess Anne Street.

Crossing the Rappahannock Again

A Union officer wrote the following account of the withdrawal:

"We marched past the court-house, past churches, schools, bank-buildings, private houses, all lighted for hospital purposes, and all in use, though a part of the wounded had been transferred across the river. Even the door-yards had their litter-beds, and were well filled with wounded men, and the dead were laid in rows for burial. The hospital lights and camp-fires in the streets, and the smoldering ruins of burned buildings, with the mixture of the lawless rioting of the demoralized stragglers, and the suffering and death in the hospitals, gave the sacked and gutted town the look of pandemonium."

During the night of December 15-16, under cover of a heavy rain, the Army of the Potomac withdrew across the Rappahannock River. The Battle of Fredericksburg was over.

Walking Guide: Follow George Street downhill to Caroline Street and turn right. Proceed two blocks to your starting point at the Visitor Center.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Last updated: September 28, 2021