In a hazy, wintry fog, Union engineers found themselves exposed to a brigade of Confederate rifles as they worked
to lay pontoons across the Rappahannock River. While striving to complete the task which would allow the Union Army access to their
foes beyond the town, Brigadier General William Barksdale's Mississippians fired from the homes of Fredericksburg,
Virginia, thwarting the Federal engineers' determined efforts. In his official report, General Longstreet said of this effort,
"Brigadier-General Barksdale with his brigade held the enemy's entire army at the river bank for sixteen hours, giving us
abundance of time to complete our arrangements for battle. A more gallant and worthy service is rarely accomplished by so small a
Years later, when James Longstreet sat to write his memoirs, he further described the scene on that morning.
"The first noise made
by the enemy's bridge-builders was understood by the picket guards, as was all of their early work of construction, but a heavy mist
along the water concealed them from view until their work upon the bridge was well advanced. As soon as the forms of the workmen could
be discerned the skirmishers opened fire, which was speedily answered from the other side in efforts to draw the fire from the
bridge-builders, but the Confederates limited their attention to the builders till they were driven off, when they ceased firing.
Another effort to lay the bridge met a like result. Then a third received the same stormy repulse, when it seemed that all the cannon
within a mile of the town turned their concentrating fire of shot and shell upon the buildings of the devoted city, tearing, crushing,
bursting, burning their walls with angry desperation that must have been gratifying to spirits deep down below."
In his book "History of
Kershaw's Brigade", D. Augustus Dickert wrote of the artillery General Burnside situated along the river banks. "When
Burnside became aware of the mighty obstacle of Lee's battalions between him and his goal, the deep, sluggish river separating the
two armies, he realized the trouble that lay in his path. He began fortifying the ridges running parallel to and near the river, and
built a great chain of forts along "Stafford Heights," opposite Fredericksburg. In these forts he mounted one hundred and
thirty-seven guns, forty being siege pieces brought down from Washington by way of the Potomac and Aquia Creek, and lined the entire
range of hills with his heaviest and long-distanced field batteries."
It was these guns that General Burnside ordered to target the houses sheltering the sniping
Major General Lafayette McLaws would briefly note the destruction to follow.
"It is impossible fitly to describe the effects of
this iron hail hurled against the small band of defenders and into the devoted city. The roar of the cannon, the bursting shells, the
falling of walls and chimneys, and the flying bricks and other material dislodged from the houses by the iron balls and shells, added
to the fire of the infantry from both sides and the smoke from the guns and from the burning houses, made a scene of indescribable
confusion, enough to appeal the stoutest hearts!...**Colonel Fiser himself had been knocked down and stunned by a portion of a falling
wall, but, recovering consciousness, held to his post, and cheered on his men."
D. A. Dickert of the 3rd South Carolina of Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw's Brigade would include in greater detail the
effect of the Federal rain of iron.
"After making several ineffectual attempts in placing the bridge, the destructive fire of
Barksdale's Riflemen forcing them back, the enemy attempted the bold project of filling the boats with armed soldiers, pushing out in
the stream, and fighting their way across, under cover of their artillery fire. While the dense fog was yet hanging heavily over the
waters, one hundred and forty guns, many siege pieces, were opened upon the deserted city and the men along the water front. The roar
from the cannon-crowned battlements shook the very earth. Above and below us seemed to vibrate as from the effects of a mighty upheaval,
while the shot and shell came whizzing and shrieking overhead, looking like a shower of falling meteors. For more than an hour did this
seething volcano vomit iron like hail upon the city and the men in the rifle pits, the shells and shot from the siege guns tearing
through the houses and plunging along the streets, and ricocheting to the hills above. Not a house nor room nor chimney escaped
destruction. Walls were perforated, plastering and ceiling fell, chimneys tottering or spreading over yards and out into the streets.
Not a place of safety, save the cellars and wells, and in the former some were forced to take refuge."
In his report to Confederate President
Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee would describe this action by writing, "The narrowness of the Rappahannock, its winding
course, and deep bed afforded opportunity for the construction of bridges at points beyond the reach of our artillery, and the banks had
to be watched by skirmishers. The latter, sheltering themselves behind the houses, drove back the working parties of the enemy at the
bridges opposite the city, but at the lowest point of crossing, where no shelter could be had, our sharpshooters were themselves driven
off, and the completion of that bridge was effected about noon on the 11th. In the afternoon of that day, the enemy's batteries opened
upon the city, and by dark had so demolished the houses on the river bank as to deprive our skirmishers of shelter, and under cover of
his guns he effected a lodgment in the town. The troops which had so gallantly held their position in the city under the severe
cannonade during the day, resisting the advance of the enemy at every step, were withdrawn during the night, as were also those who,
with equal tenacity, had maintained their post at the lowest bridge."