D-Day on the Rappahannock

Among the exterior displays at Chatham House opposite Fredericksburg is this section of a pontoon bridge, comprising two pontoon bridges and the fastened bridge deck. Men of the 5th Maine Infantry carried pontoon boats like these on their soldiers down to the Rappahannock River and then piled into the boats to participate in the first planned inland amphibious assault in American history. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Civil War buffs remember Chancellorsville as Stonewall Jackson outflanking ol’ Oliver Otis Howard and the Confederates then thumping Joe Hooker, so intent on losing the battle that he did not bother to properly fight it. All the action took place out around Hazel Grove and the Chancellor House, or so the story goes.

But heavy fighting took place elsewhere, and before piling into the Johnnies defending Fredericksburg, the 5th Maine Infantry boys participated in D-Day on the Rappahannock.

Hooker marched up the river with four army corps and left three other corps hanging around Falmouth and Stafford Heights across from Fredericksburg. Robert E. Lee had concentrated his army there, and if the three remaining corps could imitate the entire army, he might stay in Fredericksburg long enough so Hooker could fall on his left flank.

Overnight on Tuesday, April 28, 1863, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick moved his VI Corps downriver from Fredericksburg. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds positioned his I Corps about a mile below Sedgwick, and Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles placed his III Corps between the other corps.

The 5th Maine (Col. Clark S. Edwards) belonged to the 2nd Brigade (Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett), 1st Division (Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks) of VI Corps. The Maine boys “marched … to the same position that we occupied” during mid-December 1862, said the regiment’s adjutant, 1st Lt. George W. Bicknell.

Hooker wanted Sedgwick to move the three corps across the Rappahannock to continue the deception on the right bank. Hence on April 28 “all the troops encamped that night behind the heights [on the left bank], without fires, and concealed” from Confederate sight, Sedgwick reported. Soldiers then carried pontoons “to the river by hand” in the darkness.

Prior to the December 13 bloodbath at Fredericksburg, Union engineers had tried building pontoon boats across the Rappahannock to the Fredericksburg shore. Mississippi infantrymen hiding in the city’s ruins picked off so many engineers that Union infantry finally crossed in pontoon boats to chase away the snipers. This was an unplanned amphibious assault, because no one in the Union high command had thought that Confederates might angrily protest at Yankees building bridges to the Southern-held shore.

This time Sedgwick planned a quick amphibious assault across the Rappahannock to occupy the Rebel-held shore, drive away the pickets already there, and establish a solid foothold. The engineers could then build their bridges against no resistance except enemy artillery.

Fifth Maine soldiers helped carry some pontoon boats down to the Rappahannock shore to be incorporated into these two particular pontoon bridges constructed at Franklin’s Crossing in late April 1863. The 6th and 7th Maine infantry regiments later crossed over these bridges to participate in the Battle of Second Fredericksburg. (Library of Congress)

The act of crossing … was done in a workmanlike manner,” commented Samuel Franklyn Parcher, a 5-4½ musician first class in the 5th Maine. Born in Saco and known as “Franklyn” or “Frank,” he lived in Portland before enlisting in late June 1861. As his prolific, well-written letters revealed, his hazel eyes missed little during his army service.

That rainy “and consequently very dark” night, the Mainers and soldiers from other regiments reported to where the United States Engineers Battalion (Capt. Chauncey B. Reese) and 15th New York Engineers (Col. Clinton G. Colgate) had parked the pontoon trains well away from the river “so that the noise of the teams … might not surprise the rebels,” Parcher noted.

The 5th Maine lads “took the pontoons upon their shoulders a mile from the river” and carried the boats to the Union-held shore, he said. Infantrymen filled each boat launched quietly into the fog-shrouded Rappahannock at Franklin’s Crossing. “These pontons were pushed off,” Parcher noticed.

Engineers rowed, and Union troops scrambled up the bank as the boats touched the far shore. “The rebel pickets … fired the charge which was already in their muskets and then ran away to the main picket line,” Parcher said.

Wednesday dawned “very foggy,” with soldiers able “to see only a very short distance in advance,” Bicknell noticed. Prior to embarkation, the full 5th Maine had reached the left bank “when a full chorus of bullets … whistling their infernal songs, skipped over our heads,” he said.

Men bellied to earth, hearts raced, and horse- and mule teams fled into the fog. Officers restored order, and the 2nd Brigade boarded 60-70 men per ungainly pontoon. The boats moved “rapidly” across the Rappahannock; fog-amplified sound indicated other Union troops now storming the pickets, who fired “a full volley” that killed two soldiers and wounded nine others in the boats, Bicknell said.

The 2nd Brigade landed on the right bank, advanced through the fog “upon the same ground” from December, and spread along the shore. “The fog suddenly lifted” at 10 a.m., and “there in plain view lay the Union army,” yet the Confederates ensconced on the hills beyond the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad tracks did not attack, Bicknell said.

Suffering only a few casualties while under hostile fire, Union troops had conducted the war’s first planned amphibious assault across an inland river.

The battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church would soon follow.

Sources: Reverend George W. Bicknell, History of the Fifth Maine Regiment, Hall L. Davis, Portland, ME, 187; George W. Bicknell Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives; Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 25, part 1, No. 206, p. 557; Samuel Franklyn Parcher letter to his mother, May 1, 1863

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.