"The President has just assented to
your plan," Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck telegraphed to Burnside
in November 1862. "He thinks it will succeed, if you move rapidly; otherwise
not." Burnside's proposal was to move the Army of the Potomac from the
Warrenton area along a line of operations following the Orange and
Alexandria Railroad to one based on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and
Potomac Railroad and crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.
Burnside was never a terribly confident general, but he understood well the
pressure to pursue the Confederates vigorously. After all, U.S. president
had just removed his predecessor, Major General George B. McClellan,
from his position as commander of the Army of the Potomac because he judged
McClellan to be excessively prudent. (McClellan, Lincoln believed, had had a
chance to pursue and smash Lee's army following the Battle of Antietam in
September, but instead had held his ground.) Consequently, upon receiving
approval for his plan, Burnside moved quickly.
By November 19, after a series of
rapid marches, significant elements from Burnside's army had reached the
banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. Fortunately for
Lee, mismanagement in Washington delayed the arrival of the pontoon bridges
Burnside's forces needed to cross the Rappahannock. As a result, Lee was
able to reach Fredericksburg and establish a strong position on the hills
just outside the town. On November 25, the long-overdue bridges finally
arrived, and Burnside began actively looking for opportunities to cross the
river below Fredericksburg in order to maneuver the Confederates out of
their positions. The search proved fruitless, however, and Burnside was left
with an unpromising set of options: either anger Washington by calling an
end to the campaign season and going into winter quarters, or make a direct
assault on Lee's formidable defensive position. Burnside chose the
Early on the morning of December 11,
Union engineers rushed forward to lay the pontoon bridges down, only to be
met with harassing fire from the town, courtesy of Mississippians under the
command of Brigadier General William Barksdale. Burnside responded by
opening fire on Fredericksburg with nearly 150 cannon located on Stafford
Heights. Although it took a heavy toll on the town, the artillery failed to
drive off Barksdale's men. Assault parties on boats finally accomplished the
task by late in the afternoon, and by nightfall the pontoon bridges were
finally in place.
After crossing the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg, Union troops engaged in
widespread looting and vandalism, effectively destroying what was left of
the town. "The town was all ransacked. [B]ooks, chairs and every kind of
furniture was lying on the Streets," a Pennsylvania soldier wrote in a
letter to his brother. "Some of the boys got books and some other things.
Haze Boyd got Milton's complete works lying in the Streets."
Lee responded to these developments by
ordering Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to concentrate
his forces on the Confederate right at Prospect Hill and Hamilton's
Crossing. (His corps had been spread out along the Rappahannock almost to
Port Royal, some twenty miles away, in case the Union troops crossed the
river downstream from Fredericksburg.) It was here that Burnside planned to
deliver the first blow against Lee's position on December 13. By Burnside's
thinking, the Union left, under Major General William B. Franklin, would
either crush the Confederate right or induce Lee to shift sufficient forces
in that direction. This would provide an opening for Major General Edwin V.
Sumner's men against the Confederate left on Marye's Heights. Major General
meanwhile, would wait in the center, ready to reinforce a breach in the
Confederate lines, wherever it might occur.
Franklin's attack managed a brief
success in the morning when a division commanded by Major General George G. Meade
fortuitously hit a weak spot in Jackson's line along a wooded ravine.
Franklin's instructions from Burnside were vague, however, and he failed to
put enough force into Meade's attack to support or exploit Meade's
extraordinary advance. This was partly out of concern for his southern
flank, which was then facing a barrage of Confederate artillery fire. A
Confederate counterattack eventually drove Meade's Pennsylvanians back out
of the woods, ending the day for Franklin. He refused to engage Jackson
further, despite Burnside's orders to the contrary.
With the failure of Franklin's attack, hopes for Union success came to rest
on the ability of Sumner and Hooker to break through the Confederate left,
commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Here, however, Lee's line was
nigh impenetrable, with Longstreet's men well positioned at the base of
Marye's Heights, enjoying the cover of a sunken road and the shelter of a
low, half-mile-long stone wall. The several hundred yards in front of them
were to become a killing field. "We cover that ground now so well," one
artillerist advised Longstreet before the battle, "that we will comb it as
with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open
Nonetheless, around eleven in the
morning on December 13, Sumner dutifully moved his Second Corps forward out
of Fredericksburg. In order to attack Longstreet's position, the Union
troops would have to cross a canal ditch, reestablish their lines, then make
the final assault over open ground whose terrain funneled them exactly in
the direction of the stone wall. Under murderous Confederate artillery fire
the entire time, three divisions from the Second Corps crossed the
"We came forward as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet," one Union
soldier later wrote, "our faces and bodies being only half-turned to the
storm, our shoulders shrugged." Confederate fire was so intense, another
soldier wrote, that the Union lines seemed to melt "like snow coming down on
warm ground." Nonetheless, Sumner and Burnside persisted in their attacks,
throwing two divisions from the Fifth Corps and one from the Ninth against
Marye's Heights. Not a single man reached the stone wall, and Longstreet was
able to advise Lee that "if you put every man now on the other side of the
Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty
of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line."
Darkness finally brought an end to the slaughter. Even in victory, Lee and
Jackson were frustrated that they had not been able to find an opening for a
counterattack. Burnside, meanwhile, found himself dealing with a
recalcitrant Hooker. The corps commander, who would soon take Burnside's
job, had been openly critical of the decision to attack at Fredericksburg
and, by his own initiative, had called off the assaults on Marye's Heights
on the grounds that he had already "lost as many men as my orders required
me to lose." A devastated Burnside briefly considered personally leading a
final, desperate charge before being talked out of it on December 14.
Instead, he asked for a daylong truce to bury the dead, which Lee granted,
and ordered his army to retreat across the Rappahannock the night of
December 14–15. Of the approximately 120,000 men in Burnside's army, more
than 12,000 were killed, wounded, or captured, while Lee lost about 5,300 of
the 80,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia who were present at the
The Battle of Fredericksburg brought
an ignominious end to Burnside's attempt to rectify McClellan's mistake and
to pursue the Confederates more aggressively. The thousands of dead strewn
across the field, their corpses black and swollen, many headless and
limbless, created a national crisis of confidence that seemed to mirror
Burnside's personal one. (After the battle, Burnside wept and took full
responsibility for the carnage.) Union soldiers wrote letters home
suggesting that "Virginia is not worth such a loss of life," while rumors in
Washington foretold a Lincoln resignation, a radical Republican coup, even a
military government with an angry McClellan at its head. Morale in the army
was at an all-time low, with desertions totaling 86,330 by the end of
January 1863—almost 27 percent of the entire Army of the Potomac. The Richmond Examiner, on the other hand, celebrated "a
splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil," and the normally
reticent Lee was seen to be "jubilant, almost off-balance." His setback at
Antietam had been redeemed, it seemed, and Confederate independence, in
December 1862, still seemed a real possibility.
Ayers, Edward L. In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Fredericksburg Campaign:
Decision on the Rappahannock. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1995.
O'Reilly, Francis Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign:
Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 2003.
Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
Rafuse, E. S. Battle of Fredericksburg. (2011, April 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Fredericksburg_Battle_of.
Rafuse, E. S. "Battle of Fredericksburg." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
5 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 18, 2009 | Last modified: April 5, 2011
Contributed by Ethan S. Rafuse, an associate professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and
General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.