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At Ease: Skirts, Uniforms, and Pontoon Bridges

Women Who Crossed the Pontoon Bridges

at Fredericksburg


Looking at the Rappahannock River and the pontoon bridge replicas one day, we started wondering: "Did women cross those bridges in December 1862 during the Battle of Fredericksburg?" Combing through some primary sources gives the quick answer: "yes." How many women crossed? That is more difficult to determine.

Today's email takes a closer look at three women who certainly crossed at Fredericksburg during the battle days and what we can learn from their documented stories. Don't miss the new video about Clara Barton at Fredericksburg! We hope you'll enjoy this different perspective of the familiar history from December 1862.


The Infamous Bridges

On December 11, 1862—after a lengthy delay waiting for the equipment to arrive—Union troops laid pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River at three locations. (See circled locations on the map below.) The upper crossing rested positioned near Chatham Manor. The middle crossing reached Fredericksburg at the modern city dock site. The lower crossing (sometimes called Franklin's Crossing) was down river from the town. Where did the women mentioned in the following article cross? Clara Barton likely crossed at the upper crossing. Sarah Edmonds could have crossed at either the upper or middle crossing (harder to track since she was an orderly). The unnamed refugee likely escaped at the middle crossing since a soldier in the Irish Brigade saw her passage.


Barton, Edmonds, & A Refugee

Did you know that at least three women crossed the pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg in December 1862? There could have been more who made the journey from the Stafford side to the Fredericksburg bank of the Rappahannock, but Clara Barton, Sarah Edmonds, and a refugee made documented journeys. By December 1862, Clara Barton had already been present at or near other battlefields that year, including Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Chantilly, and Antietam. Her Civil War work had started in 1861 when she began collecting supplies at her apartment in Washington City to send directly to the soldiers. Supported by family, friends, and strangers across the north, Barton’s operation quickly grew and in 1862 with the patronage of influential leaders and politicians she cut through the military red-tape and received permission to take her supplies directly to the front lines and field hospitals. Overwhelmed surgeons had called her “the Angel of the Battlefield” in admiration for her work getting supplies to their forward positions at the previous battles. In the darkness of December 11, 1862, Barton wrote to her cousin, saying: "It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between – at tomorrow’s dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath…." Hours later as she worked among the wounded who had been brought back to Chatham Manor, Barton received a message from Dr. Cutter of the 21st Massachusetts, asking her to cross to the town of Fredericksburg to assist in his field hospital. Making the crossing on one of the pontoon bridges, Barton reached to accept the assistance of an officer as she stepped ashore; in that moment, an artillery shell plunged between their outstretched arms, ripping part of Barton’s skirt and taking away some of the officer’s coattail. After this rough reception, Barton spent the next days in Fredericksburg and then retreated to continue her work among the wounded at Chatham Manor. While Clara Barton crossed a pontoon bridge in a long skirted dress, another woman made the crossing in an entirely different outfit. Sarah Emma Edmonds expressed a “wish my friends could see me in my present uniform!” Having run away from an abusive home in the late 1850’s Edmonds put on men’s clothing and in 1861 had enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. By the Battle of Fredericksburg, she had months of experience riding to carry messages and mail between headquarters and had volunteered as an orderly during the battle. In her words, “the bridges were soon completed, the troops marched over and took possession of the city. Headquarters were established in the principal building, and a church and other large buildings were appropriated for hospital purposes.” Although her officers and comrades did not know it, Edmonds was one of the women who crossed into Fredericksburg on a pontoon bridge. Some civilians from Fredericksburg escaped from the embattled town across the Rappahannock. Private William McCarter from the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment (Irish Brigade) remembered seeing “a lady dressed in deep mourning” walking with a tall, elderly man. The man claimed he was a minister and demanded passage to the Stafford side of the river for himself and his wife. An artillery shell whistled over their heads while the man swore and begged for safety. In the end, the provost guard allowed the couple to cross on the pontoon bridges, and the minister eventually led “his fair companion by the hand over the bridge of boats.” From these three selected accounts, several conclusions can be drawn about women crossing the pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg. They would have crossed with a purpose: medical, military, or escape. They may have crossed under fire. And it’s likely that more women crossed the bridges disguised in uniform than will ever be known.

(Left to Right) Clara Barton, Sarah Edmonds, Sketch of a Civil War era woman


"It is the night before a battle"

In the early morning hours of December 11, 1862, Clara Barton penned this letter to her cousin:


Parting Shot

Replica section of a pontoon bridge, Chatham Manor


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

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