Before dawn on the morning of December 11th 1862 Union engineers began assembling five pontoon bridges in three areas along the Rappahannock River. Those who were putting them together across from the city came under fire from Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippians. Union artillery fired on the Confederate sharpshooters, but Barksdale’s men were well protected in the cellars of the houses along the water front. After it became obvious that artillery wasn't working, Union infantry was sent across the river in pontoon boats to roust out the sharpshooters. Union Colonel Norman J Hall volunteered to lead his brigade, with the 7th Michigan spearheading the landing for the job.
Commanding Union General Ambrose E Burnside was reluctant to send the men, saying to Hall that "the effort meant death to most of those who should undertake the voyage." Burnside relented and at 3 pm with Union artillery softening the way, 135 men from the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts headed across the river in the small boats. Landing, the Union troops spread out into a skirmish line, fighting the Confederates street by street as the engineers went back to building the bridge.
Some of Burnside’s troops began crossing at 4:30 on the 11th, but most didn't get across until the next day.