On the morning of the 11th of December the division was ordered to cross the Rappahannock, from a point opposite the town of Fredericksburg. After considerable opposition a bridge was laid, and the crossing effected. A fire of infantry and artillery was poured upon the troops, while clearing the town of the enemy, which was kept up until late at night. On the morning of the 12th it advanced to the right and rear of the town, under the fire of his artillery well posted upon the heights beyond, and, though suffering considerable loss, gained no apparent advantage.
On the morning of the 13th the advance was sounded, and Hancock and French, closely followed by Howard, went forward, exposed at every step to a front and enfilading fire upon either flank. A strong line of infantry, under cover of the stone wall a short distance belowthe crest, reserved its fire until the assaulting columns came within easy range, when it opened with fearful effect and they were forced to retire. Repeated attempts were made, but all alike proved futile. In this day's work the regiment lost heavily, Lieutenant B. F. Hibbs, of company D, being killed, Lieutenant B. J. MIMahon wounded, and. Lieutenant Stiles Boughton taken prisoner.
At half past ten in the evening an order was given for the Seventy-first to advance in the darkness to a position at the extreme front, marked by a tannery, at that time held by Colonel Penrose of the regular army. To reach it, it was necessary for the men to creep noiselessly upon their hands and knees. The surprise, of both officers and men who were relieved, was excited that fresh troops should have been sent there, Colonel Penrose saying to Colonel Markoe,
"The enemy is in rifle-pits less than fifteen yards from you. Your position is very exposed. Your men must remain noiseless, and, if possible, motionless. You must lie flat upon the ground and receive his fire, which upon the least indication of life he will deliver by night and by day. You cannot return it without annihilation. You have a bad position."
Seeing a line of men lying on the ground some fifteen feet in advance of the position, Colonel Markoe asked who they were, and if they would remain. "Yes," said Penrose, "they will never move more. They belonged to my command. I have lost nearly all of it, and could offer no resistance."
Early on the following morning the rebels opened on the regiment with their artillery, and the ambushed infantry picked off the men from the ranks. The dead in front being mistaken for videttes were riddled with bullets. They kept up an almost uninterrupted fire, with no opportunity afforded of checking it, until one o'clock P. M., when a new battery on the right, which had been fortified and placed in position during the previous night was opened with sad effect. It completely enfiladed the line, and made the position not only a useless one, but untenable. It was accordingly decided to abandon it, and the order was given to retire, and rally on the river front. About thirty men fell before reaching the canal, which was found a short distance to the rear, and into which many of the men leaped for safety. Here they remained until night shielded them from observation, when they crossed and re-joined the command. At nine o'clock that night it was again sent out on picket along the canal. Late at night it was re-called, re-joined the division, and withdrew to its old camping ground. The loss in killed and wounded was nearly a third of its effective strength.
Burnside's second attempt to cross and offer battle proved abortive, and the regiment after hard marching and much exposure returned to camp.
General Hooker was now assigned to command of the army, and many changes in the commands were made. General Howard was given the Eleventh Corps, and General Gibbon the Second Division. In the movement upon Chancellorsville, the First and Third Divisions marched with the main body, while the Second Division was ordered to occupy the old line in front of Fredericksburg, and to cross as soon as a favorable opportunity presented itself. Owen's Brigade was ordered to proceed with the engineers, in advance of the main body, to Banks' Ford. Not arriving there until after dark, the Seventy-first was ordered forward as skirmishers, with instructions to proceed to the river bank and establish a picket line. At eight o'clock on the following morning the command was discovered by the enemy, who opened upon it with artillery, to which a prompt reply was given.
Late in the day Lieutenant Seabury, of company F, with a small force, forded the stream, and charged his pickets in their covers, driving them out, and opening communication with General Sedgwick, who had crossed below, carried the heights of Fredericksburg, and was now pushing forward towards Chancellorsville, driving the enemy before him. Two good bridges were quickly laid and strongly guarded. It was fortunate that these avenues of escape were provided, for soon Sedgwick was met by an overpowering force and driven back, retiring in safety across these bridges. On the night of the withdrawal the regiment was ordered across, and posted on picket on a part of the battle-field. An hour before daylight the men were quietly withdrawn, and, moving to the bridge, crossed unperceived. The campaign ended, the regiment returned to its old camp at Falmouth.
Lieutenant Colonel Markoe having resigned on account of his wounds, Major Richard Penn Smith was promoted to Colonel, Captain C. Kochersperger, to Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Enoch E. Lewis to Major.
Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, Harrisburg, 1868-1871.