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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville

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 by way

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 lead.

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 Fredericksburg.

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 College.

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.”