"The Sacking of Fredericksburg"

War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg, by Donald C.

Excerpt from War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg, by Donald C. Pfanz, (pp. 44-46)

Donald C. Pfanz is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is also the author of Abraham Lincoln at City Point and Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.  This chapter is reprinted on CRRL's history site with his permission.

“The Sacking of Fredericksburg”

By the time the fighting ended on Dec. 11, Fredericksburg was desolate.  Fighting in the streets combined with a bombardment by more than 180 cannons had left the venerable old town shattered and ruins.  Those citizens who had not fled Fredericksburg had seen their homes riddled with bullets, shot and shell.

Worse was yet to come.  On Dec. 12, the Union army crossed the Rappahannock River in force, occupying Fredericksburg and the plain south of town.  Hour after hour the troops crossed, the heavy tread of their shoes causing the pontoon bridges beneath their feet to sway gently back and forth.  The endless columns of men with their shiny rifles and colorful flags presented an image of power and invincibility.  “whomsoever would say to me at that time that anything else but certain victory awaited this army, I would have looked upon him with scorn and contempt,” wrote Captain John Donovan of the Irish Brigade. “I was not aware that hell personified was so close at hand and ready for our destruction.”

Just how close became evident later that day when Confederate gunners on the hills behind Fredericksburg began to drop shells near the bridges.  The projectiles narrowly missed their targets, plunging into the river and showering troops with a spray that one man considered “cooling but not refreshing.” Fragments injured dozens of soldiers, the crossing continued.

The band of 122nd Pennsylvania Volunteers took a position at the foot of a bridge.  It had just started to play the tune “Bully for You” when the Southerners opened fire.  For a moment there was panic, as band members scattered for cover.  One musician took a ribbing from his friends for seeking shelter behind his bass drum.  “It was about as much protection as a sheet of paper,” laughed one soldier.

The bombardment was an unpleasant reminder of what lay ahead.  The Confederates held a strong position, and Union soldiers knew that hundreds—even thousands—of men might die trying to capture it.  Undertakers knew it too, and as the Union columns crossed the river one enterprising mortician stood at the foot of the bridges handing out business cards.  His aggressive marketing angered some of the soldiers, and they finally drove him off.  Thoughts of death were less easy to dispel, however, and as soldiers crossed the river many threw away their playing cards.  Gambling was considered a sin, and no soldier wanted to face his Maker with a deck of cards in his pocket.  By the end of the day, thousands of cards littered the bridges.

Once across the river, Union soldiers engaged in a more lucrative pastime: the search for tobacco.  Tobacco was a scarce commodity in the North, selling for about two dollars a pound.  When Union soldiers learned that city authorities had dumped a large shipment of the fragrant leaf into the Rappahannock River, willing hands plunged into the frigid waters next to the city dock and brought it up.  Soon every man had as much as he could carry.

The Union crossing lasted throughout the morning and into the afternoon.  Soldiers with time on their hands broke into shelled-out houses looking for food, tobacco or some small token of the town.  What began as minor pilfering quickly degenerated into wholesale pillage.  For a few 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, unmindful of how they would get it home.  A Connecticut soldier saw his comrades leave houses carrying absurd and often worthless 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 vandalism and wanton destruction.  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.  The widespread pillaging reminded a New Hampshire soldier of incidents in previous wars.  “I had read in history where the Grecian army entered Troy and where Napoleon had entered Moscow with the French army, and how those cities were given up to pillage; but never had the real meaning of war come to me until now.”

The soldiers tore Fredericksburg residences apart with a savage glee.  Some grabbed chairs, lounges and beds and smashed them into kindling for their fires.  Others, caught up in the frenzy of destruction, manhandled rosewood pianos into the streets then set them on fire or battered them to 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 othr 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.’”

Decent men voiced outrage at the proceeding.  “… The conduct of our men and officers…is atrocious,” wrote Quartermaster John Godfrey.  “Their object seems to be to destroy what they can’t steal & to steal all they can.”  “… The sacking our soldiers gave the city was shameful,” agreed a surgeon.  “The town was fairly turned inside out.  Not a nook or crevice…but was ransacked.”  Soldier Tully McCrea expressed outright revulsion at what was going on.  “I never felt so much disgusted with the war as I did that day.”

The sacking of Fredericksburg was the most disgraceful episode in the Army of the Potomac’s history.   Second Corps historian Francis Walker tried to justify the soldiers’ actions, insisting that in plundering the town the army had done “nothing contrary to the laws of war.”  Because the town had refused the army’s demand to surrender and had to be taken by assault, he argued, “the conquerors had the right to sack and pillage.  At the same time,” he added with a twinge of conscience, “it would be pleasanter to remember Fredericksburg had nothing of the sort taken place.”

About the image:

The Sacking of Fredericksburg, available from the Library of Congress
Title: “Night. The sacking of Fredericksburg-- & biovace[sic]of Union troops” Creator(s): Lumley, Arthur, ca. 1837-1912, artist
Date Created/Published: [1862 December 12]
Medium: 1 drawing on tan paper : pencil ; 17.4 x 22.2 cm. (sheet).
Summary: Street scene of soldiers plundering, buildings in shambles--some on fire.
Written on the back of the sketch: 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.