NO JOHNNY REB manning the Confederate line at Mayre’s Heights could be unimpressed at the spectacle before him. On an open plain between this high ground and the nearby town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, thousands of Federal troops were massing for an attack.
William M. Owen, a Confederate artillery officer, watched on December 13, 1862, as the enemy soldiers ran toward him behind unfurled battle-flags, chanting a deep-throated refrain — Hi! Hi! Hi! “How beautifully they came on,” he wrote years later. “Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel.”
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside was hurling his Army of the Potomac against the Southern defenses. He wanted to rout General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, and then march into Richmond about 50 miles south and end the war. Burnside had massed 27,000 men for the attack on Mayre’s Heights; Lee had only 6000 defending it. Although Federal assaults earlier that day had failed elsewhere along Lee’s line, Burnside hoped this attack would work.
The Union attack, however, was doomed to fail. Lee held a superb defensive position. Mayre’s Heights commanded nearby terrain and was studded with artillery. At its base, a breast-high stone wall provided shelter for the Georgia infantrymen of Cobb’s Brigade. Also, many of Lee’s men had rifled muskets, the war’s most common infantry weapon. A properly trained soldier could hit tar gets at 300 yards, firing three rounds a minute.
That so many of these weapons would be in Southern hands was a miracle. When the various states that comprised the Confederacy left the Union in 1860 and 1861, they had few modern military rifles. U.S. arsenals seized by the South held older, less-desirable guns.
Plus, the South had virtually no rifle-making facilities. Perceptive Southern leaders knew that a Union naval blockade eventually could slow, and probably halt, imports. All these factors produced an ill-armed military.
“At the commencement of the war, the Southern army was as poorly armed as any body of men ever had been,” wrote John H. Worsham of the 21st Virginia Infantry Regiment. “Using my own regiment as an example, one company of infantry had Springfield muskets, one had Enfields, one had Mississippi rifles, and the remainder had the old smoothbore flintlock musket that had been altered to a percussion gun.
The cavalry was so badly equipped that hardly a company was uniform. Some men had sabers and nothing more, some had double-barreled guns. Some had nothing but lances, and others had something of all. One man would have a saber, another a pistol, another a musket, and another a shotgun. Not half a dozen men in the company were armed alike.”