December 11, 1862: Building Bridges
The ball opened this morning, the 57th and 66th were detailed to assist in building pontoon bridges. the work was commenced at 3 O’clock A.M. Our Regt. was under arms at an early hour. at 6 A.M. the Rebs opened fire and soon after our Regt. was moved down to a point opposite the lower portion of Fredericksburg. We left our knapsacks at the Division [sic], taking with us our blankets. We found a large force waiting the completion of the bridges, meantime our Artillery opened on the Rebs. 148 pieces kept up an incessant fire all day, making the whole country resound with their thunder. the 57th and 66th suffered severely in the morning. at night 100 of the 7th Michigan crossed the river in boats and drove the Reb sharpshooters away. then parts of Howards Division crossed and held the town all night. We bivouacked [sic] in a woods.
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After waiting for several weeks outside of Fredericksburg for the pieces of pontoon bridges needed to cross the river to arrive, pieces were finally in place for the Army of Potomac to make preparations to attack General Lee and the Confederate troops in the city. To get the entire Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River, the engineers first had to build six pontoon bridges for the infantry and cavalry. A brigade of Mississippians anticipated this and opened fire on them from across the river. General Burnside ordered artillery to blast Fredericksburg and over the course of two hours, they shot at least 5,000 projectiles at the town. A report in the Delaware State Journal and Statesman described the barrage by saying the “shot and shell went crashing through the houses. In many cases setting them on fire, causing a dense smoke to gather, which, with the explosion of so large a quantity of powder, almost hid the city from view.”
Still, the Union artillery could not dislodge the snipers hidden in the town shooting at those soldiers building the bridges. One Michigan and two Massachusetts regiments were chosen to cross the river using some of the pontoons as boats. Once across the river they attempted to dislodge the snipers and engaged in street fighting with Confederates. This was the first time soldiers engaged in urban combat in the war, and it gave the Army of the Potomac time to finish building the bridges. The bridges were finally completed at about 4 p.m., when Union soldiers began to make their way into Fredericksburg. The remainder of the Army would cross in the following two days.
Building Pontoon Bridges at Fredericksburg, December 11th
Alfred R. Waud
Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Collection
Sources: Battle of Fredericksburg History-National Park Service, Fredericksburg: Confederate Victory, Union Story by George C. Rable, and December 16, 1862 edition of the Delaware State Journal and Statesman, Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division