Battle of Fredericksburg
Dates: February 11-15, 1862
Ambrose Burnside, Major General
Robert E. Lee, General
In late September, 1862, the Union's Army of the Potomac, commanded by
US Major General
George B. McClellan, expelled
Robert E. Lee's Army of
Northern Virginia, from Sharpsburg, MD. On September 17, these armies
engaged in what would become the bloody single day, in U.S. history, and
would be named after a lazy creek that runs through Sharpsburg - Antietam.
While the battle was essentially a draw, it was greeted in the north as a
resounding victory, prompting Lincoln to issue the Emancipation
Lincoln's excitement turned to
despair, as he tried to nudge
McClellan into the offensive, while
was most vulnerable to attack. Finally, in late October, 1862
McClellan put his army in motion, into Virginia, skirting the east side of
the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unfortunately, he moved very sluggishly.
Lincoln, in an effort to speed McClellan, wired his commander that his army
was closer to Richmond, than Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. At the
same time, Lincoln made an internal vow to remove
"Little Mac" if he let
Lee's army get between him and Richmond. On November 7, Lincoln had
had enough. He sent US Brigadier General
C.P. Buckingham, to
McClellan's headquarters, at Rectortown, with orders to remove McClellan.
The same orders placed US Major General
Ambrose Burnside in command of the
Union's Army of the Potomac.
Burnside, was a reluctant commander. Friends, with
preferred to have a supporting role in the east, rather than overall
command. Fearing the commanding role would devolve, upon his nemesis,
Joe Hooker, Burnside accepted the new position. Burnside would be the
third commander of the Army of the Potomac, and was an 1847 graduate of West
Burnside wasted little time. By
November 15, he had his army in motion. His plan was to out flank
Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, crossing the Rappahannock River
above, and below Fredericksburg. By choosing Fredericksburg, as his
point to launch into the Rebel army, near Richmond, he would only have to
cross the Rappahannock. If he were to take the more direct route, he
would have two formidable rivers to cross - the Rappahannock and the Rapidan.
A quick movement, would assure surprise, and would catch the Army of
Northern Virginia, as it was falling back to protect Richmond.
Burnside also changed the organizational structure of
his army. While retaining the overall Corps structure, he organized
his Corps into three grand divisions. The Right Grand Division,
commanded by US Major General
Edwin Sumner would have II Corps (Major
Darius Couch) and the IX Corps (Brigadier General
The Center Grand Division, commanded by US Major General
Joseph Hooker would
have the III Corps (Brigadier General
George Stoneman) and the V Corps
Daniel Butterfield). The Left Grand Division,
commanded by US Major General
William Franklin would have the I Corps (Major
John Reynolds) and the VI Corps (Major General
By November 17, the flanking move seemed to be
Sumner's Grand Division had arrived on the east bank, of the
Rappahannock, and were at Stafford Heights, immediately opposite
Fredericksburg. The rest of
Burnside's army arrived shortly afterwards.
Unfortunately, a mix up, at the war department, slowed the arrival of the
pontoon bridging equipment, necessary to ford the Rappahannock.
Burnside would wait a week for his pontoons to arrive. It was at this
same time, that
Lee's Army was also arriving at Fredericksburg, making
Burnside's plan, for an unopposed crossing of the river, impossible.
The mighty Army of Northern Virginia was clearly
arrayed behind Fredericksburg. Facing
Burnside, was the powerful 1st
Corps of CS Lieutenant General
James Longstreet. His Corps was
occupying the high ground, beyond Fredericksburg, known as Marye's Heights.
Fearing a feint at Fredericksburg, and a general movement downstream,
had position much of his 2nd Corps, commanded by
Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson,
20 miles downstream. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was close to
80,000 troops strong, facing a very impressive Union army of over 110,000
During the overnight hours, on
Burnside deployed his engineers to build pontoon bridges at
three crossings, the Upper, Middle and Lower. Work went smoothly until
the first rays of sun started to burn through the fog. Once the
engineers were visible, they became easy targets for the single brigade
assigned to guard against such a crossing. CS Brigadier General
William Barksdale's Brigade, from Florida, and Mississippi, was posted in
the lower downtown area.
Brigade started its deadly shooting,
Burnside determined to use his heavy
artillery, posted at Stafford Heights, to force them out of town. For
over an hour, the big Union guns fired into the town of Fredericksburg.
All told, over 7,000 shells were fired by 150 heavy guns into the town of
Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, Barksdale's Brigade was unharmed by the
massive bombardment. When the engineers went back to work, they were
picked off easily by the Rebel infantry. Finally, it was decided that
Federal infantry, would use the pontoons, as boats, to storm the opposite
bank. The small "shock" force quickly dislodged
pushing them through the streets of Fredericksburg, in some of the only
urban, street fighting, during the Civil War.
quickly finished the pontoon bridges, occupying Fredericksburg on the
evening of December 11.
In the meantime,
recognizing that there would not be a crossing, further downstream, recalled
Jackson's 2nd Corps, to an area due south of
Longstreet. This line,
stretching south of Fredericksburg, was naturally strong, as Jackson's
troops could dig into the hillside, of a long bluff, under the cover of
trees. Jackson was confident that his position would be very strong.
On December 12, the majority of the Army of the
Potomac crossed into Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, the ransacked town
was too much for the men, and looting, vandalism and drinking were common,
through the streets, parlors and homes of Fredericksburg. After the
main battle, when questioned about how he would handle the Union debauchery,
Stonewall Jackson said, "Kill them, sir, kill every man!"
On the unusually warm, and foggy morning, of Saturday,
December 13, US Major General
William Franklin's Left Grand Division, was
tasked with assaulting the heights, south of town, held by
Corps. Due to rather ambiguous language in
Burnside's orders, Franklin
was given discretion on how he would feed his division into battle.
With close to 60,000 soldiers, at his disposal, he determined to send in one
division, commanded by US Major General
G. Gordon Meade. Later in the
battle he would receive support, from divisions, under US Brigadier Generals
Abner Doubleday, and
John Gibbon. Moving into position, to attack
Jackson's line, Meade's division was enfiladed by one battery of Rebel
cannon, commanded by CS Major John Pelham. The fire from the guns was
highly accurate, and destructive. Gibbon would dispatch one brigade,
of Wisconsin and Indiana troops to tangle with Pelham. These troops,
the only all Western brigade, in the Army of the Potomac, would earn the well deserved nickname, "Iron
Brigade," during upcoming battles.
dislodging Pelham's artillery,
Meade sent his troops against
entrenched infantry, and artillery. The area they struck was a sliver
of woods, that crossed the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad
tracks. While they had heavy casualties in crossing the open ground,
to these woods, they did enjoy a breakthrough near the tracks. In this
area the Confederates would forever lose the services of CS Brigadier
Maxcy Gregg. He would be mortally wounded during Meade's
breakthrough. Jackson, immediately funneled new troops into the area
of Meade's breakthrough, and having very little support, Meade was forced to
pull back, beyond the tracks, and the Richmond Stage Road.
The second phase, and the better known phase, of the
Battle of Fredericksburg, against
Longstreet's 1st Corps, started when
Burnside observed Meade's repulse. Originally designed to start when
Franklin's Left Grand Division had started to roll up
Lee's right flank,
Sumner's Right Grand Division was to assault Longstreet's Corps,
approximately 1/2 mile beyond Fredericksburg, on Marye's Heights.
Wave, after wave, of Union soldiers marched through Fredericksburg, across
the open fields, the Canal Ditch and up the hill, only to be annihilated
before they reach the stone wall, beyond which was the sunken road.
Here CS Brigadier General
Thomas R.R. Cobb's Georgia brigade laid down a
withering fire. While Cobb would be mortally wounded, by an artillery
shell, his brigade would mow down successive waves by brigade, after
brigade. Even the vaunted Irish Brigade would be chewed up trying to
reach the Sunken Road.
By sunset, the
fighting had sputtered to an end. The weather, however, changed for
the worst. Soldiers who had thrown aside their jackets, and blankets,
in the earlier balmy weather, were greeted with sub-freezing temperatures.
The area between Marye's Heights, and Fredericksburg, became a "no man's"
land, where the slightest movement by a Federal soldier, would illicit a
shot from the Confederates. Besides dying from their injuries, Union
soldiers also froze to death. During this battle,
Robert E. Lee was
quoted, "It is well that war is so terrible - lest we should grow too fond
Burnside, determined, to press his
attack, wanted to lead soldiers to the front. His lieutenants
persuaded him against doing so. The army would remain in the field,
for two more days, before retreating across the Rappahannock, in a drenching
rain, in the early morning hours of December 16.
Outcome: Confederate victory
Union: 12,600 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 5,300 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
The butcher's bill for Fredericksburg was very high. The north was
appalled at the waste of life, that occurred at Fredericksburg. What
made it worse was the fact that little, or no good would have been gained by
a victory. In January, in an effort to resuscitate his career,
Burnside tried one more flanking movement, this time against
flank. What would become known as the "Mud March" would further
demoralize his army, and lead quickly to another change in commanders, for
the Army of the Potomac. Both armies would remain in their relative
positions, for the remainder of the winter, before they would meet again,
just a few miles west, at a sleepy crossroads called Chancellorsville. Close Window