The Sacking of Fredericksburg

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Sacking of FredericksburgThe 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.”


The Union Forces Retreat

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series The Red River Campaign

After the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks‘ Army of the Gulf began their retreat back down the Red River to the Atchafalaya River. In the course of this retreat his forces fought several actions in attempts to fend off the advancing Confederates under Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor.

At Blair’s Landing in Red River Parish, Louisiana a mixed force of troops from Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Kilby Smith‘s Provisional Division, XVII Corps, and the Navy gunboats furnished protection for the army transports engaged  Brig. Gen. Tom Green‘s Cavalry Division on April 12, 1864.

Green’s force charged the boats at the landing area.  Hiding behind bales of cotton, sacks of oats, and other ersatz obstructions, the men on the vessels, along with the Navy gunboats, repelled the attack, killed Green, and savaged the Confederate ranks.

Map of the Red River CampaignThe Confederates withdrew and most of the Union transports continued downriver. On April 13, at Campti, other boats ran aground and came under enemy fire from Brig. Gen. St. John Richardson Liddell‘s Sub-District of North Louisiana troops throughout April 12–13. The convoy rendezvoused with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s army at Grand Ecore, providing the army with badly needed supplies. The Confederates lost some 200 men while the Union force suffered only 7 casualties.

On April 23rd, the Union army’s advance party, commanded by Brig. Gen. William H. Emory, encountered Brig. Gen. Hamilton P. Bee‘s cavalry division near Monett’s Ferry, or Cane River Crossing in Natchitoches Parish, on the morning of April 23. Bee had been ordered to defend the area against a Union crossing and had dispersed his forces to take advantage of the area’s natural features.

Emory made a demonstration in front of the Confederate defenders in order to hold them in place. Meanwhile, he dispatched two of his brigades to search for other crossings. One brigade located a ford, crossed in force and attacked the Confederate’s flank. Bee was forced to order a retreat. The Union troops built a pontoon bridge and crossed the river, escaping a potential Confederate trap.

At Mansura on May 16th, General Taylor made an attempt to bring Banks to battle. He hoped to slow down the Union withdrawal and deplete their numbers or even destroy them. He massed his forces on an open prairie near the town and when the Union troops approached, opened fire with his artillery. After a four hour battle, the Union forces massed for an attack and the Confederates fell back. The Union forces continued on to Simmesport while the Confederates continued to harass them.

The final engagement of the campaign took place at Yellow Bayou on May 18th. The Union force had reached the Atchafalaya River the previous day but were force to wait while their engineers constructed a bridge across the river. Banks ordered Brig. Gen. Joseph A. Mower to defend their rear with his division while the construction took place.

General Mower order his troops to attack and they drove the Confederate line back. Taylor order a counterattack and forced the Union troops to give up ground. The Union troops eventually repulsed the Confederates. All the while, the bridge continued to be built. Eventually both sides withdrew and Banks’ Army was able to cross the river to safety.

The Red River Campaign was a Union fiasco, the outcome of which did not have a major impact on the war. It may have extended the length of the war by several months as it diverted Union efforts from the far more important objective of capturing Mobile, Alabama, an event that did not occur until 1865, and could probably have been accomplished by June 1864 if not for the Red River Campaign.

The failure of the campaign effectively ended the military career of Banks, and controversy surrounding his retreat, the presence of cotton speculators and the use of military boats to remove cotton dogged his early postbellum congressional campaigns. Admiral Porter realized a substantial sum of money during the campaign from the sale of cotton as prizes of war.

The Confederates lost two key commanders, Mouton and Green, and suffered casualties they could not afford. Perhaps more importantly, relations between the aggressive Taylor and cautious Kirby Smith were permanently damaged by their disagreement over Smith’s decision to remove half of Taylor’s troops following the battle of Pleasant Hill.

The lost opportunity to capture the entire Union fleet as it lay helpless above the falls at Alexandria haunted Taylor to his dying day, certain that Smith had robbed him a chance to cripple the Union forces. The arguments between the two generals resulted in Taylor’s transfer to command of the Department of East Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama soon after the campaign ended.