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."
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 on it."
"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 battle.
November 19, 1862 - The Union Army of the Potomac under the command of Ambrose E. Burnside reaches the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. Delays in the arrival of pontoon bridges, however, keep Union forces from crossing the river and allow Confederate commander Robert E. Lee to establish a strong defensive position.
November 25, 1862 - With the arrival of long-overdue pontoon bridges, Union general Ambrose E. Burnside begins looking for places to cross the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg and to attack Confederate forces on the opposite banks.
December 11, 1862 - Union troops cross pontoon bridges over the Rappahannock River and attack and loot the town of Fredericksburg.
December 13, 1862 - The only Union success at the Battle of Fredericksburg comes when Union general George G. Meade achieves a breakthrough against Confederate general A. P. Hill's division.
December 13, 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia crush Union general Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg in one of the most lopsided defeats of the war.
December 13, 1862, 11:00 a.m. - Union general Edwin V. Sumner is ordered to advance on Confederate general James Longstreet's entrenched position during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Heavy artillery fire from Longstreet's men prevents Union troops from advancing, and thousands are killed.
December 14–15, 1862 - Union general Ambrose E. Burnside orders his army to retreat back across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg under cover of night. This move marks the end of the Battle of Fredericksburg, one of the Confederacy's most lopsided victories.
January 25, 1863 - Rather than fire the Union generals who had conspired against Ambrose E. Burnside, including John Newton, President Abraham Lincoln replaces Burnside with Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
March 16, 1863 - Union general Ambrose E. Burnside is assigned command of the Department of the Ohio.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: February 18, 2009 | Last modified: April 5, 2011