Thursday, January 17, 2019

'Scene sickens the sight': Destruction of Fredericksburg in 1862

A cropped enlargement of a war-time image of Fredericksburg, Va.
(Timothy O'Sullivan | Library of Congress)

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Bombarded by artillery and pillaged by the Union army, Fredericksburg, Va., was a wreck in December 1862. "Beyond all hope of recovery," wrote a New York Tribune correspondent shortly after the Federals re-crossed the Rappahannock River after their humiliating defeat there.

Days after the battle, Union dead lay in "every part of town," according to a reporter. Homes were destroyed, riddled with shot and shells. Many were looted of valuables, including silverware to rare books. Contents of houses were scattered on the streets. Pianos and mirrors were smashed. Beds were torn open.  Churches, used as Union hospitals, were a shambles.

"All who passed through the village of Sharpsburg, two days after the battle of Antietam," the Tribune reporter noted, "thought it would be almost impossible to make a town look more desolate and forsaken, but the appearance of Sharpsburg, as compared to Fredericksburg, is homely and pleasant."

On Dec. 23, 1862, the Richmond Enquirer published on Page 1 a richly detailed account by a Southern correspondent who had visited the town six days earlier. The reporter's venom practically oozed from the page.

War-time sketch by Arthur Lumley shows Union soldiers pillaging Fredericksburg on Dec. 12, 1862.
(Library of Congress collection)
(Special correspondence of the Richmond "Enquirer")

-- Fredericksburg, Va., Dec. 17, 1862

The day is gone, and darkness has settled into night. I wrote you last night of what I had heard in regard to matters hereabouts. To-night I can appeal to facts which mine own eyes have witnessed, and to observations common to all who chose to make them, "in vindication," as the Brute Butler once said, "of the truth of history." But where shall I begin, or in what sequence shall I recount the sights which I have this day witnessed?

Fredericksburg has been sacked and in part burned. Would to Heaven that not one stone had been left upon another, rather than it should have been the scene of such fiendish work, as is everywhere discernable! Had Satan, in the councils of Hell, called together the worst spirits of the damned, and charged them to put out upon this people the concentrated vials of their wrath, I honestly believe less mischief would have been done by them than the "Union restoring" Yankees.

A cropped enlargement of an 1864 image shows damage
 to a house on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg.
Much of the damage probably was caused in 1862.
The scene sickens the sight, and human language is inadequate to express the amount and manner of injuries inflicted. Not a single dwelling, office or out-house in the town escaped their search, use and abuse. Where families remained, it was only to be insulted by the ruffianly mob, whose incentive to action, if not battle cry, was "booty and destruction."

A most respectable gentleman of the town, whose house had been plundered on Thursday night, was awakened by efforts made on Friday night to force it open. Hastening at once to admit them, rather than have his portal destroyed, he was bidden to prepare supper for the party. On replying that his provisions had all been destroyed on the previous night, the leader of the impudent gang of thieves, with pistol in hand, said, "I must see for myself that what you say is so."

"Very well," said the gentleman, "Come on."

He did so, and looking at but one room, that sight was enough for a thieving Yankee. He said, "I am satisfied," and left. The same gentleman met General Patrick Preston the same day, and having known him when here as Military Governor, extended his hand to him and asked for a guard to protect his property. Preston replied, with much feeling, "I cannot take your hand; the time is past for that; nor will I protect your property; if you can persuade the men not to injure your effects you can do so; if not, you must take the consequences."

This leads to the observation that the pillaging and wanton destruction of property was not only permitted by those in command, but authorized, In other words, the Yankee troops sacked the town as their reward for crossing the river. In proof of this, on Monday, the day of their departure, wagons were busy running all day carrying off bedding, furniture, and whatever else they could bear away. The damage to the town can be estimated at $750,000; and this I think, a low figure -- if one should question this, he has but to visit the town and see the amount of property actually destroyed, and then contemplate the wanton abuse which everywhere meets the gaze.

The Fredericksburg Baptist Church suffered significant
damage during the war. (Library of Congress)
Nearly every door in town has been broken, windows are torn from their places, shutters wrenched forcibly from the walls, fencing pulled down, scattered and burned, beds ripped open and the feathers or straw, as the case may be, strewn over floors, streets and alleys, mirror frames scattered here and there, cribbed of their glasses, crockery and glass were broken into a thousand fragments, printing offices pitched into pi, flour wasted on every square and corner of the streets, the houses that are left rifled with shot and shell through sides and roofs, books taken from libraries, backs torn off and leaves flying in every direction; even children's clothing and play things ripped to pieces and scattered to the winds. Provisions of all sorts stolen, and what could not be used, destroyed.

Dead Yankees are lying in every part of the town -- and in the thick profusion in the Fair Grounds. Every iron safe in the city was forcibly broken open and their contents abstracted, as far as was valuable, and the rest consigned to the flames. Merchants's books of accounts in every instance mutilated, destroyed or carried off. The grave-stones, that for years have silently marked the last resting place of the dead, have been laid hold of with violent hands and mutilated or destroyed.

The day is gone, and darkness has settled into night. I wrote you last night of what I had heard in regard to matters hereabouts. To-night I can appeal to facts which mine own eyes have witnessed, and to observations common to all who chose to make them.

A close-up of an 1864 photograph of the Baptist Church
in Fredericksburg reveals extensive damage.
The arms and legs of dead Yankees challenge the sight at every step. The walls of houses are scribbled over with the wretched vulgarity and obscenities, and the houses in some instances turned into stables and even used for worse purposes. The sanctuaries of the living God have been violated and abused. Merciful Father in Heaven what a recital and what a people! We could go on in our recital, it seems to us, ad infinitum; but we forbear. Our enemies provoked in all this, the vengeance not of man, but of Jehovah.

On Friday there were rioting with devilish lust and unbridled license. On Saturday the bloody and fatal battle field told the word of awful retribution so recently evoked and so signally manifested. The tale of blood and carnage was truly frightful. Our men, shielded by natural and Providential barriers in the hands of the Almighty, administered a most terrible chastisement to those who had outraged man and defied God. The work is done, and the almost entire appropriation of the houses of the town as hospitals, and the further fact, that many of their wounded had to be cared for in the streets, where they have since died, and where their bodies still remain, satisfy the belief that the shock of battle to them was appalling in the highest degree. Fifteen thousand will not cover their loss -- my word for it.

I have conversed with citizens of intelligence, and from all the information I can obtain, there were at least 60,000 Yankees in the town prepared to engage in the fight on Saturday. It may have gone up to 75,000. Every street running parallel with the river was literally packed with the Yankees, whilst the sidewalks of the streets running at right angles with the river as many were placed as it was deemed safe to put in such position. Not only was this the case but numerous private lots were full of troops likewise. This, be it remembered, was only on their right. On their left they had a force equally as large, if not larger.


1864 photograph of severely damaged houses on Hanover Street and George Street extended. Damage to the  residences, long attributed to Union artillery, may have been caused by Confederate guns during December 1862 battle. |   Mega-Then & Now site. 

I think there can be no doubt that the officers would have renewed the fight on Monday, could they have gotten the men to the work, or have relied upon them. For they so announced here and so telegraphed to their journals -- but it was no go. They themselves admitted that 500,000 men could not have carried our position. They left on Monday, evidently alarmed lest [Stonewall] Jackson, aided by Providence and high water, should cut them off. Their officers, who came over under flag of truce to-day, wonder why Gen. [Robert E.] Lee did not fire upon the town. To us it is now wonder. That pure and able general desired neither Yankee blood nor life, and with far less reason did he wish to involve a slaughter of Yankees with probable destruction to lives of our people and to the certain destruction of their property. His forebearance is creditable to his sagacity and humanity, though the shelling would have enhanced the victory and resulted in the death of thousands of our unprincipled and malignant foe.

The town, of course, looks desolate; not over two hundred citizens remained. It is to be regretted that since the Yankees have left little or no effort has been made to protect what little property the thieving Yankees spared.

The town is left in a most shamefully filthy condition. Some steps ought to be taken by our Generals to put it in better order. There are not enough citizens left to do it.

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1 comment:

  1. The Battle of Fredericksburg is of special interest to me as this is where the 114th Collis Zouaves recieved their "baptism by fire" astonishingly well especially for being green. It was here that vivandiere French Mary was wounded. The whole battle, beginning to end,was a debecle.