The town of Fredericksburg was at the center of fighting in Central Virginia from 1862 until 1864. Early on the town on the Rappahannock River was occupied by Union troops. The Union Army withdrew but returned to the area in December 1862.
Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside chose to cross the Rappahannock from his bases around Falmouth on the north side of the river. With this decision Robert E. Lee had no choice but to contest the crossing. The ensuing battle which ran from December 11th until the 15th led to artillery bombardments by both sides.
The Union artillery bombed the private residences to prevent their use by Confederate sharpshooters who attempted to prevent the completion of Union pontoon bridges. Eventually Union troops crossed the river in pontoon boats and laboriously cleaned out the Confederate sharpshooters from the buildings in the town.
During the fighting Union troops sacked the town, something that was quite in the Middle Ages. Fredericksburg was the first American town or city to be sacked during the American Civil War. The fact that an American town sacked by Americans was not lost on either side. It would not be the last.
The Union troops crossed the river on the pontoon bridges under enemy fire. Dozens of Union soldiers were wounded by shrapnel. They would be the lucky ones. Early on they were met by an enterprising undertaker who busily handed out cards to all takers. Eventually he was run off but his appearance made the Union troops realize that this might be a one-way trip.
Once across the river Union troops began an exhaustive search for tobacco, food other items. Minor pilfering quickly degenerated into wholesale pillage. For several hours discipline and order vanished as soldiers dashed from building to building, stealing whatever they could find.
“The ladies [of Fredericksburg] said before the battle they would sooner see the city destroyed & their homes made desolate forever than to see it surrendered to us,” crowed one Union soldier. “We have accommodated them in every particular for there is not a building left untouched in the whole city.”
Soldiers took whatever caught their fancy , not even thinking about how they would get it home. A Connecticut soldier saw his comrades leave houses carrying absurd plunder: a stuffed alligator, a pair of brass andirons, an apothecary’s pestle, musical instruments, and even mouse traps—“everything that was ever made to eat, drink, wear or use.”
Financial institutions were a favorite target of the thieves. A group of particularly determined soldiers managed to crack the safe at the Bank of Virginia, where they found silverware, half dollar coins, and a large quantity of currency. “…Everything valuable was carried away,” wrote an approving lieutenant.
Theft gave way to outright vandalism and systematic destruction of private property. Soldiers bayoneted paintings, smashed mirrors and china, hurled glasses through windows, pulled down draperies, and tore up carpeting. Books from private libraries were hurled into the muddy streets; barrels brimming with flour were turned over and poured onto the floor. “The soldiers seemed to delight in destroying everything,” wrote one witness.
Furniture was dragged into the street and smashed for kindling. Pianos were carried into the streets and battered into pieces. “Vandalism reigned supreme,’ wrote one disgusted artilleryman. “Men who at home were modest and unassuming now seemed to be possessed with an insatiate desire to destroy everything in sight.”
Some soldiers donned women’s clothing and paraded down the street with parasols and bonnets, adding a bizarre twist to the chaotic events of the day. “It was a rich scene” thought a Minnesota man. “There was a dirty soldier dressed in the choicest silks, escorted by other soldiers dressed in long tail coats, and plug hats…. One of the boys picked up a violin, and a soldier was soon found who could play it, so they took positions for a cotillion…. But I cannot do justice to the scene.” A chaplain put the best face on the matter, claiming, “This was simply the spirit of eternal youth exemplified, the thing that kept men’s hearts from ‘failing them.’”
Sketch artist Arthur Lumley described the deplorable behavior of Federal soldiers on the eve of battle fittingly: “Friday Night in Fredericksburg. This night the city was in the wildest confusion sacked by the union troops = houses burned down furniture scattered in the streets = men pillaging in all directions a fit scene for the French revolution and a discrace [sic] to the Union Arms. this is my view of what I saw. Lumley.”