The 6th Louisiana Infantry, a largely Irish Confederate regiment, fights at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, also known as the Second Battle of Marye’s Heights, on May 3, 1863, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as part of the Chancellorsville Campaign of the American Civil War. With its ranks filled with Irishmen from New Orleans and roundabouts, the 6th fights in nearly every major battle of the Eastern Theater, from First Battle of Bull Run to the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee leaves Major General Jubal Anderson Early to hold Fredericksburg on May 1, while he marches west with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia to deal with Union Army Major General Joseph Hooker‘s main thrust at Chancellorsville with four corps of the Army of the Potomac. Early has his own division, along with William Barksdale‘s brigade from McLaws’ division and cannons from the artillery reserve. Early is assisted by Brigadier General William Pendleton of the artillery reserve. Cadmus Wilcox‘s brigade arrives on May 3, increasing Early’s strength to 12,000 men and 45 cannons. Most of the Confederate force is deployed south of Fredericksburg.
Early is ordered by Lee to watch the remaining Union force near Fredericksburg. If he is attacked and defeated, he is to retreat southward to protect the Confederate supply lines. If the Union force moves to reinforce Hooker, then Early is to leave a covering force and rejoin Lee with the remainder of his troops. On May 2, misunderstanding his orders, Early leaves one brigade at Fredericksburg and starts the rest of his force towards Chancellorsville. Lee corrects the misunderstanding and Early then returns to his positions that night before Major General John Sedgwick of the Union Army discovers the Confederate retreat.
Sedgwick is left near Fredericksburg with the VI Corps, the I Corps, and the II Corps division of Brigadier General John Gibbon. Hooker’s plan calls for Sedgwick to demonstrate near the city in order to deceive Lee about the Union plan. The VI and II Corps seize control of several crossings on April 29, laying down pontoon bridges in the early morning hours, and the divisions of William T. H. Brooks and James S. Wadsworth cross the river. The I Corps is ordered to reinforce the main army at Chancellorsville during the night of May 1. During the evening of May 2, Sedgwick receives orders to attack Early with his remaining forces.
Sedgwick moves his forces into Fredericksburg during dawn on May 3, uniting with Gibbon’s division which had crossed the river just before dawn. Sedgwick originally plans to attack the ends of Marye’s Heights but a canal and a stream block the Union forces. He then decides to launch an attack on the Confederate center on the heights, which is manned by Barksdale’s brigade, with John Newton’s division. This attack is defeated. Colonel Thomas M. Griffin of the 18th Mississippi Infantry grants the Union forces a truce in order to gather in their wounded. During this truce, the Union commanders notice that the flank of Barksdale’s left regiment is unprotected.
Sedgwick launches another attack against this flank and Barksdale’s front using elements from all three VI Corps divisions, which pushes the Confederate forces off the ridge, capturing some artillery. The first men to mount the stone wall are from the 5th Wisconsin and the 6th Maine Infantry regiments. Barksdale retreats to Lee’s Hill, where he attempts to make another stand but is again forced to retreat southward.
Confederate casualties total 700 men and four cannons. Early withdraws with his division two miles to the south, while Wilcox withdraws westward, slowing Sedgwick’s advance. When he learns of the Confederate defeat, Lee starts moving two divisions east to stop Sedgwick. Following the campaign, Early becomes embroiled in an argument with Barksdale over what Barksdale considered a slight to his brigade in a newspaper letter that Early had written. The exchange continues until Lee orders the two generals to cease.
Sedgwick loses 1,100 men during the engagement. At first he starts to pursue Early’s division but then follows the orders he received the previous day and starts west along the Plank Road towards Hooker’s army at Chancellorsville. Gibbon’s division is left in Fredericksburg to guard the city.
(Pictured: Three men in a tree on Stafford Heights watching distant fighting on Marye’s Heights during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, 1863. Smoke from the battle is possibly visible in the distance which would make it one of the earliest combat photographs of a land battle. The destroyed railroad bridge over the Rappahannock River is in the middle ground of the photo. Source: National Park Service via the Western Reserve Historical Society)