Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fredericksburg Part 2: Franklin's Assault

As you follow the tour road South and leave behind the determination and despair of the struggle for the Sunken Road, Fredericksburg becomes quite a different battlefield. Thoughts of senseless slaughter at the foot of Marye’s Heights give way to considerations of lost opportunities.

The center of Lee’s position was nearly unassailable, anchored on the commanding height of Howison’s Hill. Here Lee positioned his headquarters and also placed the army’s largest field pieces – a pair of 30 pound Parrott Rifles. The lunettes constructed for these pieces still exist, though the view from both sites is now largely obscured by tree growth. The tour road runs through modern woods along the remains of the earthworks that run the entire length of Lee’s lines, so the view from your car seat is limited at best.

Dismount for the trail to Bernard’s Cabins (see my previous post), as well as the site where Meade’s division breached A.P. Hill’s line and Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg received a mortal wound attempting to stem the tide of the Federal advance. Note the ravine just within the tree line descending eastward. At the time of the battle, the ravine descended to a marshy area considered impassible to attacking troops. Hill left this area largely uncovered, and Meade’s attacking troop exploited the gap, finding the march was not such an obstacle as the rebel commander thought. Had Meade received timely support, perhaps the Federal effort here would have turned the tide of battle against Lee.

Continuing South, you emerge from the woodline along the slopes of Prospect Hill, where Jackson deployed the bulk of his artillery. The hill ascends sharply from the gently rising plain to the east. Though trees now cover much of the field, the railroad embankment perhaps two hundred yards from Jackson’s position afforded the only protection available to attacking Federals during their assault.

The monument across the tracks at the base of the hill, popularly known as the Meade Pyramid, was actually one of several erected by the railroad after the war to mark sites of historical significance along its lines. Meade’s troops penetrated Hill’s lines just to the north of the pyramid.

The guns lining Prospect Hill to the south mark the right of Jackson’s position. These guns had a commanding view of much of the plain to the east where Franklin’s troops formed up, and yet the area was nicknamed “Dead Horse Hill” as a testament to the effectiveness of the Federal bombardment prior to their attack. Stuart’s cavalry and additional artillery extended the line to the east in a broad arc encompassing the area of the Federal deployment. Far out in front of the right flank, John Pelham fought two guns with such effectiveness and against such extreme odds that Robert E. Lee marveled to see “such courage in one so young.” See my previous post on the Pelham marker for details.

The battlefield of Fredericksburg truly presents as study in contrasts. While development has encroached upon the Sunken Road and Pelham’s Corner, the recent acquisition of the Slaughter Pen Farm on the southern part of the field represents one of the most significant preservation victories in recent memory. And while Burnside wasted the lives of his men in fruitless assaults against Marye’s Heights, Franklin squandered the Federals’ one real opportunity to win the battle, failing to support Meade’s breakthrough and turning in a generally mediocre performance. In the end, this battle was indecisive, another misstep for Lincoln along the path toward an effective commander for the Army of the Potomac. Nevertheless, there are few sites that inspire reflection and appreciation of courage and sacrifice like the sunken road and the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights.

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