Following up on yesterday’s posts about the pontoon bridges that were such a part of the crossing of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, here is an additional account on the same – this being written by Doubleday’s staffer named George Noyes in his book “The Bivouac and the Battlefield.” Published in 1863, it contains some strikingly similar remarks to the work of Smith in the history of the 132nd PA. I have noticed this before, and am beginning to wonder if Smith did not borrow ideas at times from the work of Noyes.

Writing about the events of December 11th, Noyes said: “Our entire army was now filling the woods and fields skirting the Rappahannock, and stood grimly face to face with the enemy. But the river must be crossed before the desperate storming of the Fredericksburg Heights was possible, and the laying the pontoon bridges was the first thing in order. … Here early in the day the pontoons were brought down to the river’s brink, and while our leading brigades looked on with almost breathless suspense, and the long line of our gunners on the heights overlooking the river stood ready to open fire at the least hostile demonstration, the laying of the two bridges was at once commenced—the one by the 15th New York Engineers, and the other by the United States Engineers.

[Here is where this is such a similarity to Smith’s remarks that I included in a post yesterday – where each render almost identical editorial opinions in their writing … though I suppose it could be that such was a very commonly held thought of infantrymen about the labors of bridge engineers.]  The work is simple enough, but I can conceive of no duty demanding more true courage. In the charge even of a forlorn hope, every man, as he grasps his musket, is fired by the common enthusiasm, lifted on the wave of a common excitement, feels to the tips of his finger-ends the martial inspiration; but this duty had in itself no warlike incitement—none of the fervid intoxication of a desperate charge; these men were for the nonce [this word means “for the present time or occasion”] not warriors, but bridge-builders, grasping not the musket, but the hammer; not borne forward in a rush of excited valor, but penned up in narrow boats, from which neither advance nor retreat was possible. Every plank they laid brought them, living targets, closer and closer to the rebel sharpshooters, now coolly sighting each his man from the rifle-pits on the other side. [This really must have been a very, very interesting sight – as literally thousands of men are watching this scene unfold!]

fredericksburg pontoon bridgesBut there was no hesitation. The boats were floated out into the stream; each in turn was brought into place; coolly and systematically the engineers united it to the rest with girders, upon which, one by one, they laid down the plank. Nearer and nearer to the opposite bank grow the floating causeways; already they are more than half way across; the anxious thousands watching so eagerly the operation are already beginning to breathe more freely; the silence and suspense are awful, when suddenly a line of fire fringes the rebel rifle-pits, and volley after volley from the rebel sharpshooters is poured upon the courageous workmen. Some are wounded; all fall at once into the bottom of their pontoons, where they are partially protected; and now our artillery posted on the heights sweeps the opposite plain with grape and canister. These terrific discharges soon make every rifle-pit too hot for its occupants, and finally drive every rebel out of his hiding-place. Once more the heroic workmen resume their task of peril, the last boat is floated to its place, the last girder spans from boat to shore; and as the foremost engineer leaps upon the bank, one long, loud, enthusiastic cheer relieves the pent-up excitement of ten thousand spectators, and renders to these brave men the homage of their applauding comrades.

Farther up the river, and just opposite the city, the point at which General Sumner’s right grand division was to cross—our engineers were not so fortunate … suddenly, at the report of a single rebel cannon … the rebel sharpshooters swept the unfinished bridge with their rifles, and three officers and twenty men fell killed and wounded before their murderous fire. To continue the work in the face of this continuous storm of bullets became simply impossible. … It had become evident that the rebel riflemen could not be dislodged from their hiding-places by artillery, and men were now needed who would cross in the pontoons and drive them out at the point of the bayonet. The call is for volunteers. Hundreds at once step to the front, men of Michigan and Massachusetts … With desperate strength the boats are speeding on their dangerous errand. In vain the rebel sharpshooters seek to check their progress; the shore is gained; with loud cheers our heroes rush up the bank, charge with the cold steel upon houses and rifle-pits, capture fifty prisoners, and put the whole rebel gang hors de combat, [Noyes is a lawyer, and writes here a French legal phase that literally means “outside of the combat”]  with wounds more or less severe, or send them flying toward the rear. Five minutes of this bloody work does the business, and they are soon re-crossing with their captives, having met with small loss, to be received by wild and tumultuous cheers and congratulations.

Hardly have these cheers died away before the bridge is finished, and at double-quick our impatient volunteers are crossing to secure and hold it. Nearly at the same period, by a sudden and gallant dash, the 87th Pennsylvania threw another pontoon bridge across a little below this, and now four floating ways span the Rappahannock, and afford free passage to the rebel lair. 

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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