Lee rushes to defend Fredericksburg
Part five of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg
‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz
WHEN AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE took command of the Army of the Potomac in
November 1862, he did so with extreme reluctance, knowing that he would
have to take on Gen. Robert E. Lee. The 55-year-old Virginian had been
in command of the Army of Northern Virginia for just six months, but in
that time he had ruined the careers of two Union generals, George McClellan
and John Pope. Burnside had no desire to be the third.
Lee could field 78,000 men, just two-thirds the number Burnside could
muster, but, with few exceptions, his troops were hardened veterans of
the Seven Days, Manassas, and Antietam battles. A string of victories
in 1862 had given the Confederates unbounded confidence in their leaders
and in themselves.
Lee had divided his infantry into two corps, led by Gens. James Longstreet
and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. When the Fredericksburg Campaign opened,
Lee’s army was dangerously divided. Longstreet’s corps lay east of the
Blue Ridge, near Culpeper, blocking the Union army’s march to Richmond
of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
Jackson’s half of the army was 60 miles away, on the other side of the
mountains, near Winchester, looking for an opportunity to slice behind
the Union army and cut its supply lines with the North.
Burnside did not care for this arrangement, and upon taking command
he rapidly moved his army from its camps near Warrenton to Falmouth. Once
there, he intended to cross the Rappahannock River, seize Fredericksburg,
and push on toward Richmond.
But when he reached Falmouth, Burnside discovered that the pontoon bridges
that he needed to span the Rappahannock had not arrived. Rather than risk
the destruction of his army by sending part of
it across the river, he sat tight and waited
for the bridges.
Burnside’s march caught Lee flatfooted. Not until a Confederate force
at Fredericksburg reported the Union army’s arrival did he realize that
the Union army had shifted eastward. Burnside had stolen a march on him.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis urged Lee to defend the Rappahannock
River line, but it seemed too late for that. Burnside’s army had a two-day
By the time the Confederates reached Fredericksburg, the enemy would
be across the river and marching hard toward Richmond.
Lee accordingly set his sights on the North Anna River, the next defensible
point between Fredericksburg and Richmond. On the North Anna’s banks he
would reunite the divided wings of his army and make a stand. To give
himself time to reach the river, he sent two of Longstreet’s divisions,
commanded by Gens. Lafayette McLaws and Robert Ransom Jr., toward Fredericksburg
to harass the Union army’s advance.
But when the two generals reached Fredericksburg, they found that the
enemy had not yet crossed the river. They reported this puzzling development
to Lee, who promptly directed Longstreet’s remaining three divisions to
By Nov. 22, Longstreet’s entire corps had reached the town. As a result
of the pontoons’ delay, Burnside would now have to cross the river in
the face of 40,000 Confederates rather than the 1,000 who had occupied
the town just four days before.
Longstreet deployed his divisions on the hills behind Fredericksburg,
just outside the range of Union artillery on Stafford Heights. Dick Anderson’s
division held the northern end of the line, running from the Taylor house
(“Fall Hill”), past John Stansbury’s house “Snowden” (near modern Mary
Washington Hospital), and across the ridge now occupied by Mary Washington
On Anderson’s right, Ransom’s small division held Marye’s Heights, where
the National Cemetery and “Brompton” now stand. At that point, the Confederate
line jumped back abruptly one-half mile to Telegraph Hill (now called
Lee Hill), just beyond the modern intersection of Lafayette Boulevard
and the Blue and Gray Parkway.
McLaws’ division held that part of the line, linking up on his right
with John Hood’s and George Pickett’s divisions. Hood’s and Pickett’s
men extended the Confederate line south past Lansdowne Road to Hamilton’s
Crossing on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. In all,
the Confederate line stretched for seven miles and was among the strongest
defensive positions held by Lee’s army throughout the war.
Jackson’s corps did not reach Fredericksburg for 10 more days. Using
the discretion allotted to him by Lee, “Stonewall” lingered in the Shenandoah
Valley looking for an opportunity to strike at Burnside's line of supply,
just as he had done against another Union general, John Pope, three months
earlier. Unlike Pope, however, Burnside did not give Jackson an opening.
On Nov. 21, Jackson headed east to reinforce Longstreet’s corps at Fredericksburg.
It was a cold, grueling march, much of it over rocky ground, and the shoeless
Confederates suffered terribly.
In an effort to alleviate their hardship, one of Jackson’s division
commanders, Daniel Harvey Hill, had his men wrap their feet in untanned
hides taken from slaughtered cattle. Unfortunately, that didn’t work.
The soldiers slipped about the slushy roads as if on ice, and when the
fresh skins dried they stiffened to such a degree that they became positively
painful to wear.
The soldiers finally kicked off the ersatz moccasins in disgust, preferring
to wrap their bruised and bloody feet in rags or straw. The soldiers gained
one thing from the experience, however: a new nickname for the commander.
From then on, Hill was derisively known as “Old Rawhides.”
Jackson’s corps reached Fredericksburg on Dec. 3, having covered 175
miles in just 12 days. The general deployed his troops south of town,
covering the Rappahannock River between Hamilton's Crossing and Port Royal.
With the arrival of his corps, Burnside lost whatever slim chance he
may have had for success. Lee now had his entire army at hand and held
a nearly impregnable position on the hills in back of the river. Burnside
would need a good plan to overcome such disadvantages.
Unfortunately, the Union commander no longer had a good plan; indeed,
as of early December, he had no plan at all.
NEXT: Burnside ponders his options
DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point”
and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”