Bobby Lee had set a trap, and the men were headed straight for it. Every man knew what would happen, but they went forward anyway. Duty required it.
It was a disaster from the start. Gen. French’s Third Division of the Second Corps led the assault upon the Confederates, who were dug in on Marye”s Heights beyond the city and behind a stone wall along a sunken road at the base of the hill. Kimball’s Brigade led the division. Upon leaving the city streets they were forced to cross a deep sluice-way, but the Rebels had taken up all the planking from the bridges and the men had to make their way very carefully across on the narrow timbers, all the while under heavy artillery fire. Then, after a short halt to regroup, the brigade marched up the slope toward the sunken road, right into the full fury of the massed Confederate guns. Kimball’s men didn’t stand a chance. They fired a couple of volleys and fell in rows well short of their objective. Then they broke for the rear.
Kimball’s men were followed by Andrews’ Brigade and they suffered much the same fate. Then the Third Brigade under the command of Col. Oliver Palmer drove up the incline. Panicked troops from the first two brigades of infantry raced backward through their lines, but onward they went, with the 108th New York on the left, the 130th Pennsylvania in the center, and the 14th Connecticut on the right with its flank exposed to fire from the heights both to the front and to the right.
Lt. Col. Perkins of the Fourteenth raised his saber high and cried for his men to go forward against the hail of lead. It would be his last order for he was almost immediately struck in the neck by a musket ball and carried from the field. (The wound would not be fatal, but he would never return to active duty.) The men advanced to within about a hundred yards of the sunken road. They remained in some semblance of a line of battle for a few minutes, long enough to fire off a few volleys while under the most deadly blasts of canister and musketry. Then they too broke for the rear, some pausing to help wounded comrades safely from the field, and a few others frantically searching for and recovering the regiment’s colors that had fallen during the worst of the fighting. (Note the position of French’s Division on this map of the assault of the Second Corp.)
Their fight was done, but the day of terror would continue until an end of daylight brought an end to the carnage. Between 300 and 350 men of the Fourteenth Connecticut fought at Fredericksburg. Ten were killed, ninety-two were wounded, and twenty were missing in action, a casualty rate of more than one third. The Union army suffered a crushing, lopsided defeat and returned to the north side of the Rappahannock River after darkness fell on the night of Monday, December 15th. The pontoon bridges were also taken up that night, with the last boat lifted from the river as the first streaks of dawn etched the eastern sky.
Fiction Connection: In An Eye for Glory, Michael Palmer is slightly wounded during the battle. He stays on the battlefield to help a seriously more wounded friend and witnesses the heroic, though likewise futile, assault of the Irish Brigade.