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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Quick Stop to the Music

This weekend marks the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862. Union troops, including several hundred from Wisconsin, were trying to advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond. To get there, they had to cross the Rappahannock River, march through the town, and climb over a steep hill.

Bureaucratic boondoggles delayed their crossing so long that Confederate forces had time to fortify two ridge-top locations called Prospect Hill and Marye's Heights. From those vantage points, they had easy shots at the advancing Union troops. Milwaukee journalist Cullen Aubery recalled that new recruits in an untried Michigan unit marched innocently into the line of fire.

"The Iron Brigade," Aubery wrote in his memoirs, "when crossing over into Fredericksburg, were hidden by a dense fog from the enemy. One of the regiments, the Twenty-fourth Michigan, who were to receive their first baptism under fire, were marching in front of the old Sixth [Wisconsin Infantry] veterans, colors flying, the band playing its favorite tune, 'The Village Quickstep,' when, alas! the sun appeared; the fog lifted and the trained guns of a half dozen rebel batteries opened their work of destruction.

"Almost the first shell landed in the midst of the band and scattered them right and left. Those who survived beat a hasty retreat to the sheltering banks of the river. Brave Col. Morrow kept his gallant regiment well in hand, shouting, 'Steady, men, those Wisconsin men are watching you.' I don't remember seeing that band in any other battle their regiment ever participated in."

The combat that followed was one of the war's great slaughters. More than 100,000 Union troops tried again and again to cross the river and push through Fredericksburg. As they left the town and started uphill, the Confederates on top of the ridge simply bombarded them with shells or shot them down with rifles.

The 5th Wisconsin Infantry was under fire for most of the battle but miraculously escaped major harm. Berdan's Sharpshooters, a Wisconsin unit of snipers, were deployed at multiple locations to pick off Confederate artillerymen and cover the Union retreat. They were the last unit to re-cross the Rappahannock River when the Union forces left the field on Dec. 15th. By then, more than 1,000 Union bodies lay piled along the base of the ridge.

Read a five-page account of Wisconsin troops at Fredericksburg on pages 344-349 in William D. Love's "Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion" Chicago, 1866).

View battle maps

View original documents about Wisconsin troops at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

:: Posted in Strange Deaths on December 8, 2011
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