Most are familiar with the brutal December 13, 1862, Battle of Fredericksburg. Less well known is the series of “firsts” that occurred on December 11, when the Union Army conducted its first ever river assault and first major street fight through Fredericksburg itself.
In the fall of 1862, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, marched 114,000 Union troops south toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. In his path, on the far shore of the Rappahannock River, waited General Robert E. Lee and 72,500 Rebel soldiers. Knowing he would have to cross, Burnside ordered pontoons delivered to the north shore, opposite the small town of Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, his Army arrived well before the pontoons, thus tipping off the Confederates.
Starting at 3 a.m. on the 11th, Union engineers began to assemble the bridges, aided by a thick fog that concealed them from Confederate snipers. By 5 a.m., however, the fog had lifted, and for long hours a single brigade of Mississippians under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale held the Union troops at bay. In frustration, Burnside ordered his artillery to open fire. While an estimated 5,000 shells rocked the city, the Mississippians remained. The Union troops would have to cross.
Around 4 p.m., 70 men from the 7th Michigan picked up pontoons and set out across the 200-yard-wide river. They paid a heavy price, as Confederate sharpshooters killed and wounded scores of Yankees. Reaching the far shore, Union troops established a foothold and regrouped. They marched in formation along one street into town. At the first intersection, the Confederates unleashed a withering fire. The beleagured Michiganders retreated to the river.
With the upper bridge nearly complete, the Union sallied forth again, deliberately clearing each block, house by house, room by room. Steadily they pressed the remaining Confederates back toward the center of town. In the end, however, casualties represented almost 30 percent of the 300-plus men who had crossed.
- SOSR. Pronounced “SO-sir” by modern U.S. Army engineers, this acronym could be said to have its origins on December 11, 1862. The general principle applies to any obstacle:
Suppress. You must suppress enemy fire at the point where you mean to cross. You do this by shooting accurately, effectively and ceaselessly, forcing them to keep their heads down.
Obscure. No matter how well you suppress, the enemy will always manage to throw something your way. So make it difficult for them to actually see you. Inaccurate fire is useless fire.
Secure. You can only suppress for so long. Eventually, you need to get your forces across the river to kill or capture enemy holdouts.
Reduce. Bring in your engineers. If it’s a river, bridge it. If it’s a man-made obstacle, blow a hole in it. Whatever the impediment, leave little more than a speed bump for those coming behind you.
- Be ready for some down-and-dirty street fighting. Marching in formation, the first Union regiments to enter Fredericksburg were mowed down. Dispensing with those tactics, the next assault wave cleared the city house by house, with 20 men assigned to each structure.
- Artillery and cities do not mix. The massive Union bombardment that followed their initial repulse was of little help. At best, artillery creates rubble, and rubble shields defenders. It’s just not worth the cost—a lesson oft forgotten. Witness the American bombing of Monte Cassino and the German siege of Stalingrad in World War II, or the Russian carpet-bombing and shelling of Grozny in the 1990s.
- Crossing a river? Bring a boat. The men of the 7th Michigan rode across the Rappahannock on bridge pontoons and paddled with the butts of their rifles. Progress was excruciatingly slow, leaving them exposed to murderous fire. They paid in blood for a contingency that headquarters hadn’t thought out.
- Victory demands grace. In Fredericksburg, as in countless cities taken by storm over the centuries, the officers and NCOs lost control of their units during the house-to-house fighting. What followed was an orgy of looting and destruction. Enraged by the vandalism, Lee rallied his men to repulse the Union siege. City fighting demands more, not less, control of one’s troops.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.