To Die or Conquer: The 6th Vermont at Second Fredericksburg

The Sixth Vermont Saves the Sixth Army Corps

    By Monday May 4th 1863, the Chancellorsville campaign was well on the way to becoming another discouraging defeat for the Army of the Potomac. General Hooker’s forces had been hemmed in the previous day and now General Robert E. Lee turned his attention to the 19,000 men of General John Sedgwick’s 6th Army Corps that had crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and were marching west to join Hooker. After bitter fighting at Salem Church, Sedgwick’s men formed a defensive circle protecting their path of retreat at Banks’ Ford and around 5 o’clock that evening, Lee made his attack.

          The 6th Vermont under Colonel Elisha L. Barney was among those Federals who faced Lee’s evening assault. The regiment lay in support of a battery and watched in horror as the Federal line in their front crumpled under the Confederate attack led by General Harry Hays’ Louisianans and Robert F. Hoke’s North Carolinians. The battery gamely fought until the Confederates nearly reached the guns then fell back; Colonel Barney waited until the enemy was a mere 20 yards away when he ordered his men to rise and fire. “Up to this time we had not fired a gun but lay concealed from the enemy till they were upon us,” remembered Lieutenant Fred Kimball of Co. D “Now the regiment rose, poured a volley of death among them, and then charged. The air was rent with the shouts of the conquerors and the cries of the conquered. We broke their lines and drove them in dismay and took a greater number of prisoners than our regiment itself together with four colonels, four majors, and about 20 captains and lieutenants. We charged more than 100 rods and the ground over which we passed was literally covered with the dead and wounded of both sides.”

          Eventually the regiment turned to the Provost Marshal over 21 officers of various grades and 237 enlisted men; among the officers captured included two regimental commanders, Colonel Travanion D. Lewis of the 8th Louisiana and Colonel Leroy Stafford of the 9th Louisiana, along with Majors H.L.N. Williams and A.D. Blanc and 17 line officers. The men of the 6th Vermont were convinced that their countercharge had saved the 6th Corps from certain destruction and pointed with pride to the masses of prisoners they brought off the field. It was one of the few bright spots in what proved to be a gloomy campaign for Hooker’s army.

          Lieutenant Kimball was himself wounded May 4, 1863 during the fight for Banks’ Ford, struck on his belt plate by a bullet which saved his life. “I was hit by a rifle ball upon my belt plate and had it not been for that I should be in eternity” he recorded in his diary. “I can but thank my heavenly father for sparing me in that fearful charge. God kept me safe, and I will praise Him. I can but feel that I was kept by thy will. That charge was fearful, and it was the saving of our whole corps.”

          Kimball’s account of Second Fredericksburg and the fight to protect Banks’ Ford originally appeared in the May 22, 1863 edition of the Orleans Independent Standard published in Irasburgh, Vermont.


The members of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Vermont fought well at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and in the subsequent fighting west of town. The 26th New Jersey, a 9-months regiment, also served with the brigade during the campaign but were often teased and ridiculed by their Vermont comrades in arms. "The boys call them '$200 men' and they take wicked delight in playing their pranks on them whenever they have a chance," Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont stated. "Our boys have no particular grudge against the Jerseys but their mischief loving propensities must find vent somewhere and the Jersey regiment furnishes them abundant victims." 

Camp near White Oak Church, Virginia

May 9, 1863

          It is with mingled feelings of sadness and pride that I take pen to address you. My heart beats proud in thought of the noble acts of our brave men, yet I am sad to know that our cause has suffered. The greatest anxiety I know must prevail at home to hear of the fearful ordeal through which we have passed, and I feel it will be vain for me to attempt to portray un any degree the fearful struggle as it beggars language to tell.

          Though we have many times before faced the cannon’s mouth and engaged in fiery storms of battle, yet we have never known or experienced anything equal to the late battles on the Rappahannock in which we have participated. Our corps moved on April 28th; General Hooker had already crossed the river some miles above Fredericksburg and was engaging the enemy. Our force struck the river at the same point we crossed last December and the “Light Brigade” of our division crossed the river in the pontoons, surprised and drove the Rebels from their entrenchments on the bank. Thus a foothold was gained, two pontoon bridges were laid, and at early dawn General Brooks was across with his whole division while our division (General Hovey’s) remained upon this side. In this position with the 1st Corps two miles below us doing likewise, we remained for three days drawing the enemy’s attention as much as possible and thus keeping as large a force from engaging General Hooker as could be while he fought them on the right.

Second Lieutenant Frederick M. Kimball, 1840-1924
Co. D, 6th Vermont

          Each day we could hear the roar of cannon and see thick clouds of smoke rolling over the scene of conflict. At last we received orders to advance on Saturday May 2nd after night had closed over the scenes of battle. That night while the pickets guarded our front, we slept upon our arms and before day we were moving toward the right and towards Fredericksburg. Batteries were planted and the day opened with the sound of cannon. Our position was in a wood between the fire of our entrenched foes. Shells often burst in our midst, yet we considered this nothing. I never witnessed better artillery practice that was there displayed. Our guns tossed shell after shell into their entrenchments and forts which were much higher than their position, dismounting guns and throwing the enemy into confusion. This being kept up until nearly noon, the assault was made by part of our brigade and one other and history fails to record anything much surpassing it.


“Our line was about two miles long and a more magnificent looking sight mortals never looked upon. We had a level plain to cross at least one mile wide and then a steep hill to climb and then we were upon the stronghold that has so long been a disputed point between the North and South. We took 15 pieces of artillery and quite a number of prisoners. You had better believe that our regiment felt well when we gained the heights of Fredericksburg. All the time we were marching, the Rebels were pouring the shot and shell unto us with all their guns, but as good luck would have it, we were not any of us hurt.” ~ Sergeant Oliver T. Stiles, Co. D, 6th Vermont


Major Richard B. Crandall, 6th Vermont

          At noon our star-spangled banner waved upon the heights of Fredericksburg which had so long been held by the traitors and which they considered impossible to take. We captured a number of cannon and many prisoners. Our charge was over an open plain more than a mile in extent and all the way we were under a galling fire of grape and canister from the enemy. They poured canister into us till we were so near they had to fly. The 33rd New York charged in front of our regiment, yet we surpassed them and gained the heights first while the 2nd Vermont and 26th New Jersey charged upon the heights to our left. The 26th broke and had it not been for the 2nd, they would have been taken besides failing to capture the heights. The 2nd lost more than 100 men killed and wounded. Our regiment was more fortunate though we lost some killed and many wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Hale had his horse shot from under him while making the charge. We left the heights not to fall back but to follow the retreating foe. We drove the enemy back about three miles when they made a stand and were met by General Brooks’ division. Grape and canister together with musketry were used with fearful havoc upon both sides. One of the General’s aides Captain Read was struck on the shoulder by a piece of shell which inflicted a severe wound; we have learned that he has since died.

Unidentified troops belonging to the Sixth Army Corps await their turn at assaulting the Confederate line at Fredericksburg in May 1863. The Vermonters took great pride in finally taking Marye's Heights as the memory of the bloody debacle in December was still fresh in their minds. 

          That night we lay upon our arms with skirmishers in front and at early dawn we found the enemy moving round upon our left and had already gained the first heights. Cannonading soon commenced and we fell back toward the river to a chosen position where we held the enemy all day, cannonading and skirmishing going on most of the time. The enemy was strongly reinforced from Lee, Longstreet having reinforced him the night before; therefore more than twice our number were in our front. The 6th Corps was all we had as the remainder was with Hooker. Reinforcements were expected at 3 p.m. but none came. Our Generals grew troubled; they saw we could hold out but little longer and thus matters stood until about 6 p.m. when the Rebels charged with a heavy force upon our whole line. The hour had come to tell our fate: we were to die or conquer.


“We were posted upon the slope of a hill at the left of the 1st Maryland Battery, a noble battery manned by as brave a set of men as ever faced the enemy. This position commands a view of the broad open fields before us over which the enemy’s long gray lines are seen advancing. When they reach our front lines a terrific fight of artillery and musketry ensures. Our men are forced to fall back while the enemy press eagerly on. ‘Two second fuse,’ shouts the brave captain of the Maryland battery and about this time their line wavers but they soon rally and are coming rapidly on. ‘One second fuse’ and soon ‘half-second fuse, bring on the shells’ cries the brave commander of the battery.” ~ First Lieutenant Albert A. Crane, Co. A, 6th Vermont


The Vermont brigade under Lewis Grant fought at the left-center of the Federal line on May 4th. The brigade repulsed General Harry Hays' attack that evening and captured upwards of 500 prisoners, half of whom were captured by the 6th Vermont during their charge. 

          Every nerve was strained for the coming contest as the column of that Rebel horde poured on. The skirmishers were continually firing. Our batteries opened with shot and canister, and it was terrible to see the fearful havoc made among them. They were cut down like grass and still they poured on. I cannot say too much in praise of Lieutenant Martin’s battery [Battery F, 5th U.S.]. Every man stood his post, and they manned the guns till the Rebels were so hard on them that they hit them with their rods while loading the guns. The commanding officer then came to our colonel and told him he could do no more and left his battery for us to save or loss, our regiment being its support. Up to this time we had not fired a gun but lay concealed from the enemy till they were upon us. Now the regiment rose, poured a volley of death among them, and then charged. The air was rent with the shouts of the conquerors and the cries of the conquered. We broke their lines and drove them in dismay and took a greater number of prisoners than our regiment itself together with four colonels, four majors, and about 20 captains and lieutenants.

We charged more than 100 rods and the ground over which we passed was literally covered with the dead and wounded of both sides. If we had the support at that time of one corps we could, I believe, have annihilated the Rebel army in our front, but as we were with our whole force on the line and no reserve, we had to gall back for had we remained there ten minutes longer they would have come on with a heavy force and captured us all. We were obliged to leave all our dead and most of our wounded upon the field. The force we met was a North Carolina brigade and also that legion known as the Louisiana Tigers. Prisoners we took from the latter said they were never whipped before, and they had rather fight so many devils than the Vermonters.


Confederate dead from Barksdale's Mississippi brigade line the stone wall at the crest of Marye's Heights in the aftermath of Second Fredericksburg. The Federals took possession of the heights on May 3rd only to lose them the following morning when Confederate troops swooped around the Union left and retook the position. Sedgwick's corps had Confederates on three sides and May 4th was spent fending off Confederate attacks during the day so that the troops could withdraw to the north side of the Rappahannock that night. The charge of the 6th Vermont was an important contribution to holding off Lee's troops long enough for most of the corps to escape unscathed. 

 “The enemy are literally at the cannon’s mouths. The battery is in danger and is taken at double quick shouting to us as he leaves ‘Stand fast, boys, you are our only hope now!’ It is now time for us to act and rising, we pour a murderous volley into their ranks. ‘Forward charge!’ orders Colonel Barney and in an instant our unbroken line of bayonets is presented to the foe and with a shout we rush on. But the gray-coated fellows not liking the prospect of immediate impalement turned en masse and fled. We overtook large numbers of them, the rank and file throwing up their caps as they surrender and the officers yielding up their swords with a dignity of men who had fought so bravely.” ~ First Lieutenant Albert A. Crane, Co. A, 6th Vermont


Generals Brooks and Howe and all who witnessed the charge made by our regiment pronounced it to be the most daring thing they ever saw or heard of, and history fails to record anything more hazardous and fearful. I can scarce believe my own senses. The loss in our regiment was about 75 killed and wounded. Captain Luther Ainsworth was among the killed while Captain Hutchinson and Lieutenant Albert A. Crane were wounded. My company had seven wounded and one we fear mortally. Some regiments behaved shamefully, particularly the 20th New York which broke and ran; many of them threw down their arms and ran into the Rebel lines. The 26th New Jersey which is in our brigade did little better though the officers were more to blame than the men. If I may be allowed to say it and it is allowed by all, the Vermont brigade was the saving of the 6th Corps. If we had broke, our fate was sealed and all know and the struggle was therefore desperate.

Frederick M. Kimball
About 1900

Our brigade held the enemy at bay while the troops and artillery were removed to this side of the river. They expected to gobble us up, yet they missed their game, and our batteries were got off without losing a gun. They pressed us hard from three sides but still we held them by a strong skirmish line, and they did not advance fast not knowing what they might run into. Our regiment and the 2nd Vermont were the very last that crossed the bridge. They had already begun to take up the pontoons before three companies of our regiment reached the river. We got to this side about daylight on May 5th after being on the skirmish line all night. The Rebels shelled the bridge, yet little damage was done. We recrossed the river at Banks’ Ford some miles above Fredericksburg and now here we are.

Although the chief plan was a failure, yet I do not consider it as wholly a defeat. We punished the enemy severely and they suffered a much heavier loss than our side. I never saw the army in better spirits than it is even now. We think we may move again soon.   

 Kimball Collection:

Kimball’s Diary:

May 1 - Very warm today. I scarce know what is being done by Hooker. We remain upon the banks of the Rappahannock. I gather some flowers. Heavy cannonading up the river. Balloon ascensions. May God give us success in our struggle for our country. We make a feint upon the river with us, but little is done today.

May 2 - I read last night a dear letter from Sue, my darling Sue. Each day we expect fighting. May God keep us through this fearful ordeal. We cross the river tonight at 8PM. I am in command of the company. Probably a battle soon. Get a letter from home & A.

May 3 - I have but little space for events like these to record. Before daybreak we moved. Our skirmishers advance. Cannon open, we move to the right near Fredericksburg. Shells flew over our heads & thick among us. A little before M we charged upon their entrenchments on the hills & in less than one half hour, we gained them. The enemy passed shot & shell into us fearfully but still we pressed on. We took 15 cannon & prisoners. Our Regt. passed the 33d N.Y. on the charge.

May 4 & 5 - We are in the midst of fighting. We pressed on last night more than a mile beyond their entrenchments. The 1st division had hard fighting. The enemy have moved upon our left. They give battle. Our Regt. made the most gallant charge I think during the war. The Rebs charged upon when we rose, passed a volley into them & charged. We drove a whole brigade and took about 500 prisoners. I was hit by a rifle ball upon my belt plate & had it not been for that I should be in eternity. I can but thank my heavenly father for sparing me in that fearful charge. God kept me safe, and I will praise Him. O Father of heaven I thank thee. I can but feel that I was kept by thy will. That charge was fearful & it was the saving of our whole corps. Had we broke we surely would have been captured. Our army had to fall back over the river for want of reinforcements. The day they charged upon us we lost many a brave & noble soldier. Our company had five wounded & one I think mortality, beside two that were wounded in the charge Sunday. I was alone with the company for my Captain came up missing. 9 officers were wounded & one has died. I want to avenge their death, the wrong we suffer for by traitors.



Letter from Second Lieutenant Frederick Marius Kimball, Co. D, 6th Vermont Volunteer Infantry, Orleans Independent Standard (Vermont), May 22, 1863, pg. 2

Diary of Frederick Marius Kimball, Vermont in the Civil War. May 1863.

Letter from First Lieutenant Albert A. Crane, Co. A, 6th Vermont Volunteer Infantry, Rutland Weekly Herald (Vermont), May 21, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from Sergeant Oliver T. Stiles, Co. D, 6th Vermont Volunteer Infantry, Orleans Independent Standard (Vermont), May 22, 1863, pg. 2


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