American Civil War: Battle of Fredericksburg

Battle of Fredericksburg
The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Battle of Fredericksburg was was fought December 13, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and saw Union forces suffer a bloody defeat. Having grown angry with Major General George B. McClellan's unwillingness to pursue General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln relieved him on November 5, 1862, and replaced him with Major General Ambrose Burnside two days later. A West Point graduate, Burnside had achieved some success earlier in the war campaigning in North Carolina and leading IX Corps.

A Reluctant Commander

Despite this, Burnside had misgivings about his ability to lead the Army of the Potomac. He had twice declined the command citing that he was unqualified and lacked experience. Lincoln had first approached him following McClellan's defeat on the Peninsula in July and made a similar offer following Major General John Pope's defeat at Second Manassas in August. Asked again that fall, he only accepted when Lincoln told him that McClellan would be replaced regardless and that the alternative was Major General Joseph Hooker whom Burnside intensely disliked.   

Burnside's Plan

Reluctantly assuming command, Burnside was pressured to undertake offensive operations by Lincoln and Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. Planning a late fall offensive, Burnside intended to move into Virginia and openly concentrate his army at Warrenton. From this position he would feint towards Culpeper Court House, Orange Court House, or Gordonsville before quickly marching southeast to Fredericksburg. Hoping to sidestep Lee's army, Burnside planned to cross the Rappahannock River and advance on Richmond via the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad.

Requiring speed and guile, Burnside's plan built upon some operations that McClellan had been contemplating at the time of his removal. The final plan was submitted to Halleck on November 9. Following a lengthy debate, it was approved by Lincoln five days later though the president was disappointed that the target was Richmond and not Lee's army. Additionally, he cautioned that Burnside should move quickly as it was unlikely that Lee would hesitate to move against him. Moving out on November 15, the lead elements of the Army of the Potomac reached Falmouth, VA, opposite Fredericksburg, two days later having successfully stolen a march on Lee.

Armies & Commanders

Union - Army of the Potomac

  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside
  • 100,007 men

Confederates - Army of Northern Virginia

  • General Robert E. Lee
  • 72,497 men

Critical Delays

This success was squandered when it was discovered that the pontoons needed to bridge the river had not arrived ahead of the army due to an administrative error. Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding the Right Grand Division (II Corps & IX Corps), pressed Burnside for permission to ford the river to scatter the few Confederate defenders in Fredericksburg and occupy Marye's Heights west of the town. Burnside refused fearing that the fall rains would cause the river to rise and that Sumner would be cut off.

Responding to Burnside, Lee initially anticipated having to make a stand behind the North Anna River to the south. This plan changed when he learned how slow Burnside was moving and he instead elected to march towards Fredericksburg. As the Union forces sat in Falmouth, Lieutenant General James Longstreet's entire corps arrived by November 23 and began digging on the heights. While Longstreet established a commanding position, Lt. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's corps was en route from the Shenandoah Valley. 

Opportunities Missed

On November 25, the first pontoon bridges arrived, but Burnside refused to move, missing an opportunity to crush half of Lee's army before the other half arrived. By the end of the month, when the remaining bridges arrived, Jackson's corps had reached Fredericksburg and assumed a position south of Longstreet. Finally, on December 11, Union engineers began building six pontoon bridges opposite Fredericksburg. Under fire from Confederate snipers, Burnside was forced to send landing parties across the river to clear out the town.

Supported by artillery on Stafford Heights, the Union troops occupied Fredericksburg and looted the town. With the bridges completed, the bulk of Union forces began crossing the river and deploying for battle on December 11 and 12. Burnside's original plan for the battle called for the main attack to be executed to the south by Major General William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division (I Corps & VI Corps) against Jackson's position, with a smaller, supporting action against Marye's Heights.

Held in the South

Beginning at 8:30 AM on December 13, the assault was led by Major General George G. Meade's division, supported by those of Brigadier Generals Abner Doubleday and John Gibbon. While initially hampered by heavy fog, the Union attack gained momentum around 10:00 AM when it was able to exploit a gap in Jackson's lines. Meade's attack was eventually stopped by artillery fire, and around 1:30 PM a massive Confederate counterattack forced all three Union divisions to withdraw. To the north, the first assault on Marye's Heights had commenced at 11:00 AM and was led by the division of Major General William H. French.

A Bloody Failure

The approach to the heights required the attacking force to cross a 400-yard open plain which was divided by a drainage ditch. To cross the ditch, Union troops were forced to file in columns over two small bridges. As in the south, the fog prevented Union artillery on Stafford Heights from providing effective fire support. Moving forward, French's men were repulsed with heavy casualties. Burnside repeated the attack with the divisions of Brigadier Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Oliver O. Howard with the same results. With the battle going poorly on Franklin's front, Burnside focused his attention on Marye's Heights.

Reinforced by Major General George Pickett's division, Longstreet's position proved impenetrable. The attack was renewed at 3:30 PM when Brigadier General Charles Griffin's division was sent forward and repulsed. Half an hour later, Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys' division charged with the same result. The battle concluded when Brigadier General George W. Getty's division attempted to attack the heights from the south with no success. All told, sixteen charges were made against the stone wall atop Marye's Heights, usually in brigade strength. Witnessing the carnage Gen. Lee commented, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."

Aftermath

One of the most one-sided battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Fredericksburg cost the Army of the Potomac 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,769 captured/missing. For the Confederates, casualties were 608 killed, 4,116 wounded, and 653 captured/missing. Of these only around 200 were suffered at Marye's Heights. As the battle ended, many Union troops, living and wounded, were forced to spend the freezing night of December 13/14 on the plain before the heights, pinned down by the Confederates. On the afternoon of the 14th, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to tend to his wounded which was granted.

Having removed his men from the field, Burnside withdrew the army back across the river to Stafford Heights. The following month, Burnside strove to save his reputation by attempting to move north around Lee's left flank. This plan bogged down when January rains reduced the roads to mud pits which prevented the army from moving. Dubbed the "Mud March," the movement was cancelled. Burnside was replaced by Hooker on January 26, 1863.