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December 11th: A Day of Firsts in US Military History
December 11, 2012 7:17 AM   Subscribe

On Dec 11, 1862 the Union Army was pinned on the Northern shore of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, unable to cross the river and invade the town. This desperate situation led to two decisions by General Burnside of the Union Army that ultimately had wide ranging effects not just on the outcome at Fredericksburg, but on how the US would conduct war in the future.

The Confederate's strong positions in Fredericksburg made it impossible for Union engineers to build the pontoon bridges needed to get the army across the river. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the targeted shelling of the landing points and known Confederate positions, Union General Burnside ordered a general and widespread shelling of the town. That order represented the first time in US History that an American town was wantonly shelled and destroyed by American forces. This seemingly minor pivot in Union strategy would have repercussions not just for the Battle of Fredericksburg, but for the conduct of the war from that point on.

Later that day, frustrated by the inability to get the pontoon bridges built to enable the river crossing, Artillery Chief Henry Hunt (who earlier in the day argued against the general shelling of the town) suggested using the pontoon boats not as bridge pieces, but as landing craft. General Burnside asked for volunteers, as he felt he could not order the men to do something so reckless. Several hours later the Union Army completed the fist river crossing under fire in US military history. That attack is the great-grandfather of the more famous ampibious assaults in WWII or at Inchon in Korea.

Once on shore, the 200 odd Union soldiers that crossed under fire were not done making history. The Confederates under the command of General Barksdale held strong defensive positions in the houses that lined the streets near the river. They had to be dislodged house by house in fighting very similar to the urban warfare more closely associated with the modern war on terror. Dec 11, 1862 also represents the first instance of urban combat in North America.
posted by COD (40 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:24 AM on December 11, 2012


People really underestimate the degree to which the Civil War was truly a modern one. It's tempting to think of dudes in top hats and long coats and generals on horses and all that jazz, and some of that is true, but lots of modern military tactics and technologies (amphibious landings, urban warfare, the machine gun, submarines) first debuted in the conflict.
posted by downing street memo at 7:43 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Marines in Officer Candidate School at Quantico still hike the route of Stonewall Jackson's flanking attack at Chancellorsville every year. And you'll sometimes see military folks wandering downtown Fredericksburg studying the urban warfare issues.
posted by COD at 7:49 AM on December 11, 2012


Dec 11, 1862 also represents the first instance of urban combat in North America.

Everyone forgets the Mexican War.
posted by Jahaza at 7:53 AM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


but lots of modern military tactics and technologies (amphibious landings, urban warfare, the machine gun, submarines) first debuted in the conflict.

Don't forget trench warfare.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:57 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


That order represented the first time in US History that an American town was wantonly shelled and destroyed by American forces.

The good people of Niagara-on-the-Lake note the qualifier of American town.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:04 AM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Ah, my hometown. As a kid, our house was on the hills north of the river where the Union Army was encamped. I used to find horseshoes, uniform buttons, and minie balls in the woods and in my yard.
posted by smoothvirus at 8:10 AM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I often hear that the American Civil War, in the context of the mid-19th century, was a sideshow, and it always surprises me that this would be so, given how often I've heard that the American Civil War was the first modern war. Was anyone outside of America paying attention? What were the wars overseas like?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:11 AM on December 11, 2012


Trench warfare actually saw use in General Washington's seige of Yorktown eighty-odd years earlier.
posted by valkyryn at 8:14 AM on December 11, 2012


And for all the very modern aspects of that conflict, Jackson had a warehouse full of medieval pikes with which he was fully intending to arm his men.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Trench warfare actually saw use in General Washington's seige of Yorktown eighty-odd years earlier.


Digging trenches in order to approach a fortress is something that dates at least to the 30 Years War.
Digging trenches in order to hold a line, while your enemy does the same thing, is a Civil War novelty.

Was anyone outside of America paying attention?

The mill towns in northern England certainly paid attention. The repercussions were worldwide.

The Australian wool trade was expanded. British control of Egypt intensified for the sake of Egyptian and Indian cotton.

And many of the manor houses in Britain were expanded to the level you see in Downton Abbey because of the availability of laborers idled in the Cotton Famine.
posted by ocschwar at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ah, thank you. I love this post.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


That order represented the first time in US History that an American town was wantonly shelled and destroyed by American forces.

The good people of Niagara-on-the-Lake note the qualifier of American town.


That's great for them, but as their town was burned, like many other towns, rather than "shelled and destroyed" I don't see your point.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:22 AM on December 11, 2012


I feel like it's worth note that we were still a young country then - less than 100 years old. When you see a civil war break out in some newly independent nation these days, we kind of tend to shrug it off. "Oh, yeah, they don't really know what they're doing" or "Those people are so fractious" and such. Let them finish themselves off.

Also, judging by a quick peek at Wikipedia, Europe was dealing with the Italian Unification and wars in the Papal States, the British were probably busy recovering from the Crimean and Opium Wars, the French were paying more attention to Mexico, Japan was setting up for the Meiji restoration, and China was still dealing with the Taiping Rebellion. Again, that's just looking at the Wikipedia articles on the 1850s and 1860s, which are headlined by the American Civil War.
posted by maryr at 8:23 AM on December 11, 2012


This post has made me decide to visit Fredericksburg. Anybody who's done that -- any suggestions on what to see/do, what's worthwhile & what's not?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:23 AM on December 11, 2012


Wars? Not really any truly major ones between the Crimean in the 1850s and WWI in the 1910s. Not in Europe anyway.This is why WWI was such a shitshow. Military technology had advanced enormously since the Napoleonic Wars, but military tactics really hadn't, partly because there were practically no generals with actual experience in large-scale military action. And none who had used modern hardware in any serious action.

Stuff was definitely happening--1848 anyone?--but it mostly didn't involve the major powers shooting at each other for more than a few weeks, months at most.
posted by valkyryn at 8:24 AM on December 11, 2012


The Australian wool trade was expanded. British control of Egypt intensified for the sake of Egyptian and Indian cotton.

Interesting tactic: Wear down the enemy.
posted by hal9k at 8:26 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and wars between European powers with modern hardware and colonial or indigenous powers don't really count. Something like Fredericksburg was only possible between regular armies with modern weapons.
posted by valkyryn at 8:26 AM on December 11, 2012


And yes, the British were paying attention. Kind of. They had tentative diplomatic relations with the Confederacy, but stopped short of recognizing it or intervening in the war, partly because the British public would never support a slave state, partly because they thought the Confederacy was doomed, and partly because they couldn't really afford to piss off the Union.

But this attention seemed to be mostly economic and geopolitical. They didn't seem to learn much from the military situation.
posted by valkyryn at 8:34 AM on December 11, 2012


StupidSexyFlanders: I live here. If you are coming for Civil War history give yourself two full days to explore the 4 battlefields in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. Add another 2 days (at least) if you want to do Richmond 60 miles to the South. Then you could also spend a day at Manassas too. We also have George Washington's boyhood home at Ferry Farm and his Mother's home in Fredericksburg. The Civil War dominates here, but Fredericksburg has pretty deep roots in the Revolutionary War too.

In the evenings there is a plenty of bars and restaurants in downtown Fredericksburg, all locally owned and operated.

Ping me when you start planning a trip.
posted by COD at 8:36 AM on December 11, 2012


This post has made me decide to visit Fredericksburg. Anybody who's done that -- any suggestions on what to see/do, what's worthwhile & what's not?

Sadly, a lot of Fredricksburg has largely been turned into a melange of anti-development farms and massive, ugly, big-box style shopping centers flanking swaths of protected battlefields and monuments.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:40 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rustic Etruscan: "Was anyone outside of America paying attention? What were the wars overseas like?"

The Taiping Rebellion was happening in China, with a body count that made the civil war look like a game of hopscotch.
posted by mullingitover at 8:41 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"It's tempting to think of dudes in top hats and long coats and generals on horses and all that jazz, and some of that is true, but lots of modern military tactics and technologies (amphibious landings, urban warfare, the machine gun, submarines) first debuted in the conflict."

People at the beginning of the war expected the top hats and foppery. And technology overwhelming tactics is part of why the war was so bloody.
posted by klangklangston at 9:08 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's great for them, but as their town was burned, like many other towns, rather than "shelled and destroyed" I don't see your point.

You're right, in that there were two separate events. The town received shelling by 'hot shot' incendiaries in May, 1813, where those incendiaries were intended for the British Fort George. Fort George is/was immediately behind the town, placing the town in the line of fire from the American Fort Niagara. The town suffered damage then, but it was not actually burned without warning until December.

The residents got it twice. You are right in that it was not the shelling which actually destroyed the town.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:10 AM on December 11, 2012


Not really any truly major ones between the Crimean in the 1850s and WWI in the 1910s. Not in Europe anyway.This is why WWI was such a shitshow. Military technology had advanced enormously since the Napoleonic Wars, but military tactics really hadn't, partly because there were practically no generals with actual experience in large-scale military action.
this is bit of a derail, but the above isn't really true. At its outbreak, most of the continental powers expected the conflict that would become The Great War to be a sequel to The Franco Prussian War, and much of the strategy and tactics implemented at the outset of WWI were taken from the lessons of that conflct (ie. planning troop deployments on railroad timetables, shifting of tactical importance from infantry to artillery, etc.) What made WWI a shitshow was a combination of German hubris at being able to replicate their success and the demonstrated ability of France to learn from their earlier mistakes, combined with the system of treaties and alliances that drew in every other power into the conflict. The result was a conflict where the two sides were so evenly matched on logistical and tactical practices that the only way it would be resolved would have been through attrition.
posted by bl1nk at 9:11 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


My impression of the state of development around Fredericksburg area battlefields.

Fredericksburg: Given its location so close to town and the fact that most of the encroaching development occurred before the park was created, it's not too bad. There are still buildings standing that played a part in the battle, and downtown is not that different than it was 150 years ago. Mary Washington University has taken over the heights that were commanded by Confederate artillery in 1862.

Chancellorsville: The NPS and a local trust is slowly trying to buy back the private farms that took over much of the battlefield many years ago. There really isn't much commercial development near it though and you can still get a good sense of how the battle played out.

Wilderness: The WalMart was defeated and it moved a few miles down Hwy 3. Wilderness hasn't really changed much since the battle. However, since that battle lacked any distinguishing landmarks in the first place, it's hard to tell. It's the most difficult battlefield around here to understand without expert interpretation. However, in the hands of the good guide, it really comes alive.

Spotsylvania: The primary feature, Bloody Angle, is well preserved, and Spotsylvania around the battlefield is not that built up.It's still pretty much a cross roads with everything centered around the intersection of 208 and Brock Road, which was the case 150 years ago too.

Salem Church: Commercial development has obliterated the battlefield of this under appreciated battle. The original church is still standing and is open to visitors on selected weekends in the summer.

My neighborhood was a confederate campground the night before the action at Salem Church, and was farm land until the neighborhood was built 12 years ago. They only camped here a night or two, so odds are that there isn't much under my yard. But someday I'd like to rent a high quality metal detector and see if my 1/2 acre yields anything interesting.
posted by COD at 9:12 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


//And technology overwhelming tactics is part of why the war was so bloody.//

True. On one hand, there was a lot of new happening, as we've discussed. On the other hand, Generals on both sides still kept attempting frontal assaults into entrenched defensive lines, which was suicide with the advent of the rifled barrel.
posted by COD at 9:14 AM on December 11, 2012


Was anyone outside of America paying attention? What were the wars overseas like?

Karl Marx was paying attention. Quite a few European nations were involved on many levels, and many sent officers to the front as observers. This was a common professional courtesy back then. They definitely took some notes and wrote about their experiences. Largely, what they saw was not anything new. Ironclads and railroads were already happening in Europe, so seeing them in action just reinforced what they already knew. I think what insight the observers gleaned was of minimal value to the decision makers in Europe and didn't have much impact. American Armies were using tactics that were already seen as outdated in Europe, so what we called warfare in North America must have looked a bit like amateur hour in contrast to European military culture.
posted by snottydick at 9:29 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Stupidsexyflanders - along with COD's recommendations I would suggest visiting the Rising Sun Tavern, a restored colonial-era tavern. Also Kenmore, which was the home of George Washington's sister and brother in law. If the weather is nice it's worth visiting Mary Washington's gravesite with the mini Washington monument. Head behind the marker to find Meditation Rock - where I used to smoke clove cigarettes with freinds when we were all in college.

As for development a lot has changed, even in the past few years. I was in town last night and told my sister that there are parts of town where I get lost because the roads have all been reconfigured.
posted by smoothvirus at 9:32 AM on December 11, 2012


Many people forget that there was also fighting south of Fredericksburg, at what is now called the Slaughter Pen. Soldiers under General George Gordon Meade actually managed to pierce Stonewall Jackson's line at Prospect Hill, but didn't receive the support they needed to hold the position. The Civil War Trust has preserved a big portion of that part of the battlefield, and there's a trail with some interpretive markers. (Please pardon the shameless self-promotion, but I have a book about Meade coming out in February). If you want to venture south on the way to Richmond, another cool (and overlooked) place is the North Anna Battlefield, which has some very well preserved trenches.
posted by Man-Thing at 10:14 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man-Thing: Your book conveniently comes out mere weeks before my history major son's birthday, which will allow me to buy it for him. Because really, it's all about him. I swear.
posted by COD at 10:23 AM on December 11, 2012


Down south of Richmond, Petersburg is a really nicely preserved battlefield. I really enjoyed my visit there. Of special interest is The Crater.
posted by maryr at 11:11 AM on December 11, 2012


If you're in the Fredericksburg area, you might enjoy visiting the burial spot of Stonewall Jackson's arm.
posted by newmoistness at 12:34 PM on December 11, 2012


>Don't forget trench warfare.

Trench warfare was almost 20 years old by then.
posted by pompomtom at 12:45 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here is a better link to the (alleged) location of Stonewall Jackson's Arm.
posted by COD at 12:52 PM on December 11, 2012


Trench warfare was almost 20 years old by then.

Well, that depends on what you define as "trench warfare." Trenches have been a feature of warfare since ancient times. There are several accounts of Roman armies engaging in battles that were very much like modern trench warfare. Dyrrachium is the example I've seen cited the most. Entrenched defensive works and entrenched siege works were nothing new in the 19th Century, and they were utilized by everyone from Frederick The Great to George Washington. Going "over-the-top" is a very old concept. You could argue that the First World War was almost a throwback to Medieval warfare, with the reintroduction of metal helmets and a state of mutual siege warfare.
posted by snottydick at 1:45 PM on December 11, 2012


The Civil War Isn't Tragic
posted by homunculus at 8:49 PM on December 11, 2012


maryr: I feel like it's worth note that we were still a young country then - less than 100 years old. When you see a civil war break out in some newly independent nation these days, we kind of tend to shrug it off. "Oh, yeah, they don't really know what they're doing" or "Those people are so fractious" and such. Let them finish themselves off.
Unless you're talking about nations that became independent in the early 20th-C, it really doesn't compare.

Four generations of Americans were born, raised, and began their adult lives under the USA government. Fifteen presidents governed the Executive branch of the government without serious military opposition from within.

We weren't a fledgling country at that point. The Civil War was our mid-20's screwup-and-straighten-out period, not a childhood learning experience.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:31 PM on December 12, 2012


I agree with that, IAmBroom, I'm just suggesting that Europe might not have.
posted by maryr at 7:57 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


We weren't a fledgling country at that point.

We were, actually, a full-blown world power at that point, and were widely recognized as such.
posted by snottydick at 6:52 AM on December 13, 2012


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