The Battle of Fredericksburg began on the morning of December 11, 1862, when Confederate sharpshooters opened fire on Federal engineers building a pontoon bridge by which the Union Army of the Potomac planned to cross the Rappahannock River. Fredericksburg's defenders consisted of approximately 16,000 men of Brigadier General William Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade, McLaw's Division, Longstreet's Corps. With the threat of imminent combat, many of the town's residents had previously evacuated their homes and fled to safety. Union artillery, in trying to suppress the Southern marksmen, convinced the remaining residents to leave as well, as over 9,000 shells shrieked into town, knocking apart chimneys, houses, and fences; damage that sometimes remains visible to this day. When elements of the Union Army subsequently forced their way across the River and into the town, the opposing soldiers fought through the streets and around buildings that had been wrecked and left burning by the artillery. As darkness fell, the tired troops engaged in a final, vicious fire fight in this area before the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia time to concentrate on the heights beyond town.
Brochures for a walking tour of Civil War Fredericksburg that more fully describe these events are available at the City Visitor Center.
"Knowing there were many families occupying the houses on the margin od the river, I deemed it proper to notify all the women and children of their danger and give them time to get from under range of the enemy's guns. This being accomplished, about 5:00 a.m. I ordered my men to fire on the bridge builders, which they obeyed promptly and deliberately..."
Lieutenant Colonel of the 17th Mississippi Infantry
"My company was close to (the leading company) and we entered upon the main (Caroline) street within a moment of each other. that instant a tremendous and deadly fire swept down from the front nd left. The Rebels occupied the houses and were behind fences, and could not be seen except by the flash of guns. It staggered the column but in a moment they pressed on...."
A company commander in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry