By Colin Woodward
Students of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War know about the battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought on 1862 December 13. The best known portion of the battle took place at Marye’s Heights, which today is on the outskirts of downtown Fredericksburg. There, at the northern end of the fighting, Union forces under Ambrose E. Burnside launched a series of hopeless assaults against the well-protected Confederates under Lee and his corps commander James Longstreet.
Marye’s Heights, however, was just one, albeit bloody, portion of the field. The southern extreme of the battle took place at Slaughter Pen Farm. I visited that area briefly the other day. The preserved area is much larger, and flatter, than Marye’s Heights. It is the site of a working farm and so has not fallen prey to the kind of urban construction that has impinged on Marye’s Heights.
Slaughter Pen Farm is aptly named. The fighting there was just as vicious as that at Marye’s Heights. The battle did not begin well for the Union. Just down the road from the place is a marker dedicated to the young artilleryman John Pelham, who, for an hour, singlehandedly held up the Union attack along the southern portion of the Confederate line. Armed with one cannon, Pelham poured fire into the Yankees until he ran out of ammunition. “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!” said General Lee when he heard about Pelham’s exploits. Despite the “Gallant Pelham’s” efforts, he alone could not hold off thousands of Yankee attackers.
Once the Union attack got underway, Northern troops encountered a long ditch that they didn’t know was there before heading into the field. The obstruction further delayed the Yankees, who became disorganized.
The Confederates opposing them were under Stonewall Jackson, who had about 37,000 troops to hold back the 65,000 men under the Union commanders William B. Franklin, George Gordon Meade, and John Gibbon. Despite their advantage in numbers, the North only sent about 8,000 men into combat at Slaughter Pen Farm.
Had the Northern assault been properly directed and reinforced, the Yankees might have turned the Confederate right flank and have won the battle for Fredericksburg. Jackson’s men, however, in intense fighting that left 9,000 men killed wounded or captured (5,000 Union, 4,000 Confederate), held their ground.
For the Rebels it was hot work. Around noon, the Union made its final concerted assault. The fighting descended into hand-to-hand combat along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad tracks. General Meade’s and Gibbon’s assaults made progress, but Gibbon was wounded and the Confederates held on and were able to make a fierce counterattack that drove back the Union men.
The fighting at Slaughter Pen Farm was just as vicious as at Marye’s Heights (though Confederates suffered far fewer casualties at the latter location). But, unfortunately, we don’t remember it. In hindsight, the bloodshed along the sunken road at Marye’s Heights came to epitomize many things: the stupidity of the Union high command under Burnside, the gallantry of Northern soldiers (especially those of the Irish Brigade) in the face of hopeless odds, and Robert E. Lee’s mastery of the battlefield.
The Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, while sweet for the Rebels, was not decisive. In May of 1863, fighting would occur again at Marye’s Heights as part of the battle of Chancellorsville, most of which was waged not far down the road. John Pelham, who was killed in March of that year, would not take part. At Chancellorsville, the Confederates would win yet another victory. But the Rebels would lose more men than they had at Fredericksburg–one of whom was the irreplaceable Stonewall Jackson.
The struggle for Marye’s Heights is one of the best known stories of the Civil War. The story of Slaughter Pen Farm, however, shows that the battle of Fredericksburg was more uncertain and complicated than many of us remember it. Bravery was abundant there, too. And the toll in human life just as great.
Those who visit the Fredericksburg battlefield should make sure they visit the entire site, not just Marye’s Heights, to get a sense of what happened on that cold, overcast, and bloody late fall day in 1862.