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The Mississippi College Rifles at Fredericksburg

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

After the stalemate at Sharpsburg, Lee pulled his army across the Potomac River into Virginia, ready to go into winter quarters. Lincoln’s new commander, General Ambrose Burnside, ordered the Army of the Potomac to cross the Potomac into Virginia. Burnside moved his army towards the Rappahannock River in the direction of Richmond. From Burnside’s movements, Lee recognized Fredericksburg as his next line of defense. He sent General Barksdale’s brigade of three Mississippi Infantry Regiments ahead of his army to take defensive positions at Fredericksburg.
The 18th Mississippi Infantry and the Mississippi College Rifles were part of Barksdale’s brigade. In marching towards Fredericksburg, they crossed two shallow streams, taking off their shoes and wading across barefooted with sleet falling. When the brigade reached Fredericksburg, they set up camp outside town. The Rifles and three other companies of the 18th occupied the river front as a picket line, while Burnside’s army waited across the river as engineers built pontoons to cross the river. When Lee arrived with the main army, he took defensive positions on hills behind Fredericksburg and ordered civilians to evacuate the town.
While both armies awaited the arrival of the pontoons, Yankee and Rebel soldiers crossed the river in small boats, trading southern tobacco for northern sugar and coffee. One evening, a Yankee band played patriotic music, including “The Stars Spangled Banner” and “Hail Columbia.” Yankee soldiers cheered after each song, and the Rebels booed. When the band struck up “Dixie,” both sides cheered loudly!
Once the pontoons were in place, Union artillery began a bombardment of Fredericksburg on December 10, destroying most of the town. Barksdale ordered the picket companies back to Maryle Heights, which had a sunken road and stone wall in front of the Heights. The Union army crossed the river and occupied what was left of Fredericksburg.
On December 13, Burnside ordered an attack along the federal line against the fortified positions of the Confederates. The major assault was at Marye’s Heights, where Barksdale’s 18th Mississippi held the enemy in check for most of the day. The Rifles, fighting behind the stone wall, stood face to face against Union soldiers. Joel Green of Utica. John Baskin of Jackson and Henry Beauchamp were captured during the Union assaults. James Dunkin, a solider in one of the other companies of the 18th, described the fighting in front of Marye’s Heights as the worst he ever witnessed.:“The dead were so thick on the ground, the Union soldiers stumbled about in their retreat.” Failing to dislodge Lee’s army, Burnside could only order a retreat across the Rappahannock out of range of Lee’s artillery.
General Burnside considered renewing the battle the next morning; but, after reviewing his heavy losses and the seemingly impregnable positions of Lee’s army, he decided to withdraw from Fredericksburg, giving victory to the Confederates. Both generals agreed to a truce, and their armies spent the next two days retrieving and burying the dead. Burnside’s losses at Fredericksburg were 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded and1,769 missing – a total of 12,653. Lee lost 603 killed and 4,116 wounded, the most lopsided casualty figures of the war. The Rifles had forty-three men in rank during the battle. Captain Lewis was wounded in the leg. George Allen and Stephen Brown were wounded and given leave. Green, Baskin and Beauchamp were held briefly by Union soldiers and then exchanged. Holding prisoners of war was expensive and awkward. It was more practical to exchange prisoners than to hold them.
It was after the battle of Fredericksburg that Robert E. Lee made the observation that “God was on the side of the army that was best entrenched before battle.”


Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the tenth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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