I’m again on this topic as I watched a brief scene last night before bed on my iPad; movie watching this way is punctuated and drawn out and takes me days sometimes.
From the movie we know that Burnside was a stubborn boob, Hancock was a prescient anti-boob, and Lee talks too much with a pseudo southern lisp. We also know that of all of the other brigades that stormed Maree’s Heights the Irish Brigade is most remembered. It’s a movie, so you have to cut some stuff.
General Sumner, in command of Burnside’s Left Grand Division, and Hancock have a little chat about the probably outcome of the battle and Hancock exclaims that Jackson’s line will not be turned. Well, it almost was in the real battle, not the movie one. Jackson’s Corps occupies Lee’s line on the right and extends along a treed and forested area parallel to the Mine Road and behind the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac railroad.
The following is excerpted from the NPS Fredericksburg web site about this action:
Burnside had reinforced Franklin’s sector on the morning of battle to a strength of some 60,000 men. Franklin, a brilliant engineer but cautious combatant, placed the most literal and conservative interpretation on Burnside’s ill-phrased instructions. He designated Major General George G. Meade’s division — just 4,500 troops — to spearhead his attack.
Meade’s men, Pennsylvanians all, moved out in the misty half-light about 8:30 a.m. and headed straight for Jackson’s line, not quite one mile distant. Suddenly, artillery fire exploded to the left and rear of Meade’s lines. Major John Pelham had valiantly moved two small guns into position along the Richmond Stage Road perpendicular to Meade’s axis of march. The 24 year-old Alabamian ignored orders from Major General J.E.B. Stuart to disengage and continued to disrupt the Federal formations for almost an hour. General Lee, watching the action from Prospect Hill, remarked, “it is glorious to see such courage in one so young.” When Pelham exhausted his ammunition and retired, Meade resumed his approach, Jackson patiently allowed the Federals to close to within 500 yards of the wooded elevation where a 14-gun battalion lay hidden in the trees. As the Pennsylvanians drew near to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad north of Hamilton’s Crossing, “Stonewall” unleashed his masked artillery. Confederate shells ripped gaping holes in Meade’s ranks and the beleaguered Unionists sought protection behind wrinkles of ground in the open fields.
Union guns responded to Jackson’s cannoneers. A full throated artillery duel raged for an hour, killing so many draft animals that the Southerners called their position “Dead Horse Hill.” When one Union shot spectacularly exploded a Confederate ammunition wagon, the crouching Federal infantry let loose a spontaneous Yankee cheer. Meade, seizing the moment, ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. Meade’s soldiers focused on a triangular point of woods that jutted toward them across the railroad as the point of reference for their assault. When they reached these trees they learned, to their delight, that no Southerners defended them. In fact, Jackson had allowed a 600-yard gap to exist along his front and Meade’s troops accidentally discovered it.
The Unionists pushed through the boggy forest and hit a brigade of South Carolinians, who at first mistook the attackers for retreating Confederates. Their commander, Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg, paid for this error with a fatal bullet through his spine. Meade’s men rolled forward and gained the crest of the heights deep within Jackson’s defenses.
Jackson, who had learned of the crisis in his front from an officer in Gregg’s brigade, calmly directed his vast reserves to move forward and restore the line. The Southerners raised the “Rebel Yell” and slammed into the exhausted and outnumbered Pennsylvanians. “The action was close-handed and men fell like leaves in autumn,” remembered one Federal. “It seems miraculous that any of us escaped at all.” (See Jackson’s Official Report)
Jackson’s counterattack drove Meade out of the forest, across the railroad, and through the fields to the Richmond Stage Road. Union artillery eventually arrested the Confederate momentum. Except for a minor probe by a New Jersey brigade along the Lansdowne Road in the late afternoon and an aborted Confederate offensive at dusk, the fighting on the south end of the field was over.
What is curious, if you take a look at a battle map of Fredericksburg, that part that is most known and remembered is but a bare portion of where the lines were drawn and the fighting took place. The positions occupied by Jackson’s Corps are still visible, off to the left hand side of the Mine Road there’s a string of depressions that face the wide open field that Mead’s and Gibbon’s troops advanced across.
I like this sequence in the movie in particular, and not to detract from the determined assaults up Maree’s Heights and the perfect storm of shot, shell, and small arms fire that swept the incline up to the stone wall, Jackson’s near debacle is little acknowledged at times.