Civil War: Fredericksburg’s killing fields

This column is not intended to cover the broader war as it was fought in bloody battle after bloody battle, but it is helps put in perspective local events during the period. One memorable battle in particular is the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 11-15, 1863.

I have a personal interest in this battle because my great-great grandfather fought there. I recently visited the hallowed site. Gen. Burnside had taken over the Union Army from Gen. McClellan and was marching south to Fredericksburg along the Rappahanock River to attack Fredericksburg. Problem, he had to cross the river and his pontoon boats to build the bridge didn’t arrive on time holding up his forces for a number of days. This lapse allowed Gen. R E Lee to arrive and position his troops along a high ridge overlooking Fredericksburg. Because of the pontoon boat delay, Gen. Lee was able to bring all his troops and reserves into position, with Burnside sitting across the river waiting to cross.

When the pontoon boats finally arrived and the Union troops started to cross, the Confederates were perfectly situated on the hill overlooking the river, and started picking off the Union troops in a terrible slaughter. Instead of moving to another location, Burnside ordered attack after attack with infantry and artillery and practically leveled the town with cannon fire. The battle raged for days and my ancestor was put on the front line in a terrible slaughter, he being in one of the advanced units that finally made it part way up the hill, only to fall back after losses of 15,000 killed and many numbers wounded.

I sadly walked the ground he fought on, along with thousands of others infantry soldiers, to try and get a feel for what he experienced. At the top of the hill is the battle cemetery, with his corps commanders’s 50 foot statue erected in the center. In defeat, he led his men bravely through the two-day ordeal, having four horses shot out from under him. Fifteen thousand dead is an incredulous figure for a two day battle, but that was becoming the norm. The next battle in this campaign was with Gen. Hooker against Lee at Chancellorsville. My ancestor wrote of that battle that it was even more ferocious and deadly than the one at Fredericksburg.

The locals in Parkersburg had to read about these horrible battles in the national press.

In the meantime, also in March, in the Shenandoah Valley, a Brig. Gen. Imboden was hatching a plan for a spring offensive to invade Northwestern Virginia and the B&O railroad and had forwarded the plan through his channels to Gen. Lee. Gen Lee approved Imboden’s plan with these words “Two simultaneous attacks on the B&O Railroad, at the points proposed, will certainly increase the probabilities of success, and facilitate a more complete destruction of the road. About the time appointed for your departure, I will cause some demonstration to be made east of the mountains, which may serve to fix his attention upon his lines of communication, and thus give you time to make your blow The utmost secrecy in regard to your expedition must be observed, and I consider that the collection of cattle, horses, and provisions will be of as much importance to us, and under certain contingencies, even more, than the destruction of the railroad. I hope, therefore, that what so primarily concerns us may not be neglected.”

Ironically, in Washington, because of the critical nature of the B&O RR, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Halleck had ordered a complete review of the fortifications along the railroad because of the constant attacks by rebel guerrillas. He directed Engineer Col. Thom to conduct the review and on March 31 his recommendations were approved and ordered built. The plan was to build numerous blockhouses at strategic tunnels and bridges and at other locations considered important. The words in the order went thusly. Col W. F. Raynolds who will proceed immediately with orders and authority hereafter given him to have the block houses herein recommended constructed at the points indicated. He will call on Gen. Kelley for support…as the work progresses and at to the points where the houses are most immediately & frequently needed.”

It was as if the Union had read of Col. Imboden’s plan. Already, the Union had assigned almost 30,000 troops to protect the railroad from rebel guerrillas and the blockhouses were to provide support and protection for the forces when ambushed. Back to politics. On the statehood front, plans were afoot for the plebiscite for the population to vote on the new state constitution approved by the President. The plebiscite was held on March 26 and the new constitution was approved. Much anticipation was in the air, but it was thought that passage was assured, since most openly confederate sympathizers were not going to be allowed to vote. Sound rigged to you, it was, as a matter of fact.

Also on the political front plans were being made for the political convention to elect the new Governor, Secretary Of State, Treasurer, Auditor, Attorney General and Judges of the Court of Appeals. This was in accordance with the new constitution, and the political party holding the election was The Constitutional Union Party. The governor’s election obviously the most important and Arthur I Boreman and Peter G. Van Winkle, both of Parkersburg had declared as candidates. Significantly, the convention was going to be held in Parkersburg, not Wheeling. Wheeling had always been selected for its safety from potential military activity, but those in power, and many were from Parkersburg, held that Parkersburg would be safe. We shall see. And Parkersburg began making preparations for its debut in the political arena. Great expectations were the order of the day!

And much to look forward to, back 150 years ago this day!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave McKain is director of the Oil and Gas Museum and is chairman of the area Civil War Roundtable which is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Contact him at