by Eric Nelson
Civil War campaigns in and around Fredericksburg, Va., required an advancing army first to jump the Rappahannock River. As a consequence, river crossings loomed large at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. At Fredericksburg in 1862, the pontoon bridge sites became the initial points of contact and men died as engineers struggled to build their floating bridges under fire. The hard lesson was that bridges were best built when an army controlled both sides of the waterway. During the Chancellorsville Campaign in 1863, the Union army again crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, but sent assault forces over first to seize the opposite shore before the bridge building began. These crossings in the tidal part of the Rappahannock River were a diversion from the advance of the main Union force, which occurred far upstream. Where the upriver fords remained usable and lightly picketed, an advance guard could splash across and secure the crossing site. Some fords, however, had become altered by dams and canals, and establishing military crossings there posed additional challenges.