“Scarcely had we reached our camping ground,” Spartan Band Private Albert Wymer Henley wrote of the 13th’s arrival near Fredericksburg on Nov. 20, 1862, “when our Regiment and the 17th were detailed to go to town to move some commissaries.”
It had been raining all day, the regiment was “tired, weary and wet” and darkness had fallen. But darkness was what the high command wanted. They were “afraid to do it in the day,” Henley continued, “lest it should entice the enemy to open with their batteries and expose the citizens to danger.”
Their mission was to move some flour. “Had to carry it a mile,” 17th Private Robert A. Moore wrote in his diary. “Had to wade several creeks and the mud was knee deep….Some of the boys are quite merry. Hard times.”
Friday dawned cloudy and cool after an all-night rain.
“…but few slept any….spent the day trying to get dry but it rained & wet us about as fast as we dried.”
Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade spent the next day, Sunday, Nov. 22, 1862, on Marye’s Heights, watching an exodus of women and children from Fredericksburg below. The exodus had begun the night before, in darkness, also watched by Gen. Burnside’s Union army on Stafford Heights across the Rappahannock River.
“I suppose there is an apprehension that the city will be shelled,” Moore recorded in his diary.
It was more than an apprehension. Burnside’s troops had threatened a shelling in a message to the mayor and town council, according to the brigade’s division commander Gen. Lafayette McLaws.
In a Nov. 22 letter to his wife, Emily, McLaws could not hold back his contempt for the “scoundrels” and their threat, though he, himself, had ordered the shelling of Harpers Ferry, back in September.
“….now the whole of Longstreets Corps has arrived,” he wrote, “and circle the hills all around on this side—and our camp fires shine up and light the air as far and wide as those of the enemy—and we no longer care for any attempts they may make to cross the river.
“But the effect of their threats is plainly visible in the numerous [w]omen & children, sick and infirm, and aged who are flying from the threatened bombardment—our ambulances have been running all day…carrying out the families…
“Up to this evening they have done nothing but open fire upon two trains leaving the city, crowded with women & children, not doing any damage however.—The commanding officer Gen [Edwin Vose] Sumner says it was a mistake. But it was not—it was merely an exercise of cowardly malice which could not be restrained.”
“I never saw a more pitiful procession than they made,” Robert Stiles of the brigade’s Richmond Howitzers wrote in his 1903 memoir Four Years Under Marse Robert. “Most of them had to cross a creek swollen with winter rains, and deadly cold with winter ice and snow. We took the battery horses down and ferried them over…Where they were going we could not tell and I doubt if they could.”
Excerpts from McLaws letters to Emily via John C. Oeffinger’s 2002 history A Soldier’s General, the Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws.