Death dance with a Confederate cannonball

1st Lt. George Waters Bicknell was the adjutant of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment during the May 1863 Battle of Fredericksburg. In a detailed regimental history that he wrote after the war, he described the regiment’s bloody battles at Fredericksburg and Salem Church. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Maine Museum)

After enjoying the “beautiful night” that slipped away with the dawn on May 3, 1863, 1st Lt. George Bicknell saw that Sunday turn decidedly ugly.

Sheltered by the Virginia darkness, he stood with his 5th Maine Infantry comrades as they waited the orders to attack nearby Confederate troops defending the heights southeast of Fredericksburg. As Gen. Joseph Hooker sent his Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers well upstream to outflank Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, Union troops threatened to attack the city.

Five days earlier, the 5th Maine boys had been minding their business elsewhere. Now they faced death.

After “my regiment broke camp near White Oak Church” during the afternoon on Tuesday, April 28, the Maine boys marched several miles and bivouacked “near the point selected for crossing the Rappahannock, a short distance below Fredericksburg,” Col. Clark S. Edwards wrote Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon on Saturday, May 9.

Orders then came for the 5th Maine boys to participate in Wednesday’s amphibious assault. They and other troops would board pontoon boats, paddle across the Rappahannock, “and capture and hold the opposite bank … while the pontoon bridges were being laid,” Edwards wrote.

During the mid-December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Union infantrymen cross the Rappahannock River in pontoon boats (left) and go ashore to find and kill the Confederate sharpshooters shooting Federal combat engineers extending a pontoon bridge across the river (right). On Wednesday, April 29, 1863, the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment crossed the Rappahannock in similar boats, landed at Fredericksburg, and chased away Confederate pickets. (Library of Congress)

“My regiment was among the first to cross,” he recalled. Perhaps an hour before dawn, “the boats were loaded with troops and pushed boldly out into the stream.”

Nature sheltered the 5th Maine boys that Wednesday. “So heavily did the fog lie around us, that one could see only a very short distance in advance,” recalled Bicknell, the regimental adjutant.

“If fog was to be of any protection, we certainly had plenty of that kind of protection upon that morning,” he remembered.

Awaiting their turn to board the pontoon boats — actually the floating “piers” for pontoon bridges — Bicknell and his comrades listened. “From the sounds which reached us, we knew some portion of our troops were upon the move,” he noted.

As the cumbersome pontoon boats of the first assault wave slowly approached the Fredericksburg shore, “a volley of musketry was discharged from the rifle pits of the enemy,” Edwards wrote.

Confederate infantry evidently fired high, though their volley killed or wounded several soldiers in the boats. On the opposite shore, “a full chorus of bullets from the other side” came “whistling their infernal songs” and “skipped over our heads,” Bicknell described that initial volley. The Maine boys dropped to the ground, and horses bolted, often towing cannons, caissons, and wagons far from the action.

“Soon our time came to move,” Bicknell wrote. Approaching the pontoon boats that were spread out “to receive an entire brigade,” the 5th Maine boys packed 60 to 70 men per boat. Then “we pushed off.”

Union troops had already “gained a foothold,” formed into line, “charged up the opposite banks, and reached the enemy’s picket line,” Bicknell remembered. Confederate troops fired another “full volley” at the approaching boats. Bicknell reported two men killed and nine wounded, but he may have counted total casualties among all troops in the second wave; Edwards claimed the 5th Maine escaped unscathed.

As their boats brushed the far bank, the Maine boys leaped ashore, Edwards remembered. His men joined other regiments in forming a line; they then “gallantly charged up the bank, and into the rifle pits[,] scattering the enemy in all directions.”

Enemy skirmishers “fell back rapidly,” and Union skirmishers spread across “the wide plain in front of our position,” Edwards reported.

Leaning over a rail fence, a Union officer studies Confederate pickets killed at Fredericksburg, Va. after Union troops crossed the Rappahannock River in late April 1863 to attack the town. (Library of Congress)

The Virginia sun burned away the fog by 10 a.m. Bicknell stood amazed that “there in plain view lay the Union army,” yet the Confederates on the heights did not open fire. Union combat engineers finished building the pontoon bridges by noon; horse-drawn artillery batteries rattled and thumped across the bridges to deploy amidst the infantry.

On Thursday, April 30, the 5th Maine “performed picket duty on the extreme advance,” Bicknell said. “The picket lines … were so near together, that conversation between the two could be easily carried on.

“Some trading of coffee for tobacco was indulged in, coffee being as great a luxury to the Reb, as good tobacco was to the Yank,” Bicknell recalled.

“A heavy fog coldly enveloped us in complete gloom” as the 5th Maine boys “paced on the designated beats” that night, he said. The 6th Maine Infantry relieved the 5th Maine on the picket line late on Friday morning, and shooting soon broke out all along the opposing lines.

Between lulls in the nearby musketry, “upon our right … we heard the sound of severe fighting, and we learned that evening that” Hooker had attacked Lee’s troops at Chancellorsville, Bicknell reported.

Union troops maneuvered downstream from Fredericksburg to keep Confederate forces pinned to their fortifications. Lee desperately needed additional troops to face Hooker miles to the west; if the Federal divisions outside Fredericksburg actually attacked the town, he could not spare the men in the defenses there.

Saturday dawned “beautiful and quiet for us,” according to Bicknell. Some fighting took place below the Fredericksburg heights later that day.

According to Edwards, Union troops remained in position until 1 a.m., Sunday, May 3, “when the troops were ordered under arms” and maneuvered into “a line of battle” on “the centre of the plain.”

“It was a beautiful night, almost too lovely in which to engage in blood and carnage,” Bicknell recalled.

The order to advance came at dawn; the 5th Maine crossed the plain “and occupied a position at the point where the Bowling Green Turnpike intersects a wide ravine,” Edwards reported. To the northwest, the 6th Maine and other regiments attacked Marye’s Heights, scene of horrible carnage in mid-December 1862.

Bicknell, Edwards, and the 5th Maine struck downriver. About 7 a.m., Edwards received orders to “move down the turnpike to the left of the ravine” to support an artillery battery noisily hammering away at Confederate artillery on the heights. “Amidst a storm of shell from the enemy’s batteries,” the 5th Maine redeployed “without loss” and formed a line “about one hundred yards from the road facing the ravine,” Edwards wrote.

New orders sent the regiment “up the ravine” to “occupy the railroad,” Edwards recalled. As his men advanced, Confederate artillery opened “a rapid fire …with Shrapnel or Grape and Cannister” (sic) from “a range of two hundred yards, thinning our ranks at every discharge.”

As he penned his report to Hodsdon, Edwards probably paused to think about the men lost at this point. Bicknell described advancing “perhaps an eighth of a mile, under a terrible fire”; in just “over two minutes … we lost in killed and wounded, in a place not twenty feet square, eighteen of our number,” he reported.

Despite their losses and “scarcely heeding” the accurate cannon fire, “my men pushed boldly forward, up the ravine through a thick undergrowth, and over broken ground.” Edwards reported.

“The ranks seemed mowed down” throughout the advancing First Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett, Edwards said. He watched as Bartlett, “sitting on his horse near by amidst bursting shells … could only exclaim, as he saw these men rushing into the very jaws of death … ‘Noble men, noble men.’”

The 5th Maine finally anchored its right flank on the left flank of the 98th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Suddenly a solid cannonball bounded down the ravine and struck the knapsack slung over a Maine soldier’s shoulder.

The cannonball ripped away the knapsack and scattered “its contents,” including “his rations of pork and hard bread, on every hand, and the force of the blow rolling the soldier over two or three times,” Bicknell watched awestruck.

“Picking himself up,” the soldier grinned and said, “‘Golly, boys, five days’ rations gone to thunder,’” Bicknell recalled.

His comrades roared with laughter.

Just minutes later Bicknell “was severely wounded in the head by a piece of a shell,” he later added to his tale. The wound kept him out of combat for three months.

Now in view of the railroad embankment, Bartlett realized that the position was too strongly held to warrant a bloody assault. He ordered his regimental commanders to deploy skirmishers; Edwards sent “my left companies,” with “the best marksmen employed as sharpshooters to pick off the enemy’s gunners.

“A sharp fire was kept up for nearly an hour,” Edwards recalled. Then Bartlett received orders to withdraw.

“The regiment retired in good order, bringing off the killed and wounded” and “occupying the old position,” Edwards wrote. Word reached him about noon that the assault on Marye’s Heights had been successful; with Union troopers now advancing beyond their left flank, the Confederates on the heights soon retreated.

Edwards reported “three officers and eighteen men … killed and wounded” during the Sunday attack. He identified the men by rank, name, and condition; only four privates had died, but the 14 wounded men would later be grateful they had earned the “Red Badge of Courage” on this Sunday.

The length of the 5th Maine’s future casualty list would be almost incomprehensible by Monday.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.