Live chat Friday on the Battle of Fredericksburg
Donald Pfanz, staff historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, will take your questions on the Battle of Fredericksburg this Friday, Dec. 13, at 9 a.m. on fredericksburg.com. Submit your questions early.
The Battle of Fredericksburg
By MAC WYCKOFF
the snowy night of Nov. 7, 1862, a representative of the U.S. War Department
entered the tent of Gen. Ambrose
Everett Burnside near Warrenton, Va. President Abraham Lincoln had
run out of patience with the army commander Gen.
George B. McClellan, who had a "bad case of the slows" and
replaced him with Burnside. Doubting his ability to command a 120,000-man
army, Burnside had twice before turned down Lincoln's offer, but circumstances
now dictated that he accept the offer.
Lincoln personally liked Burnside and thought his success earlier in
the year along the North Carolina coast qualified him for command. Gen.
Robert Edward Lee a few days earlier had divided his 80,000-man army.
Lee sent Gen. James Longstreet's
half of the army to Culpeper to block Burnside's route south along the
Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The other half under Gen. Thomas Jonathan
"Stonewall" Jackson remained in the camp near Winchester that
they had held since the Battle of Antietam.
Burnside reasoned that a quick Federal thrust to Falmouth would put the
Yankees on the Telegraph Road, the Intestate-95 of the 19th century. Engineers
would quickly bridge the Rappahannock River with pontoon boats and the
Northern hoards would quickly disperse a small Confederate cavalry force
opening the path to the undefended capital.
Thinking that the capture of Richmond might end the war in Virginia,
the Federals set out in high spirits for Falmouth. Lulled to sleep by
McClellan's slow and non-movements, Lee was caught napping and his men
left in Yankee dust. Suddenly aware of the gravity of the situation, Lee
hurried Longstreet's men to Fredericksburg.
The Army of the Potomac settled into Falmouth on Nov. 19 to await the
arrival of the pontoon boats, which they expected at any moment. They
sat and they sat and they sat until their 48-hour window of opportunity
had vanished. Longstreet's Corps arrived and occupied the heights west
of south town blocking the way to Richmond, and Jackson's Corps would
soon be on its way. The key moment of the campaign had passed and without
a single shot fired, the Yankees had managed to lose the Fredericksburg
Why? What had gone wrong?
Burnside had explained his plan to Lincoln who thought it might work,
but only if the Federals moved quickly. Burnside and his men had done
their job in rapidly marching to Falmouth, but sitting in Washington was
General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. He had forwarded Lincoln's message to
Burnside to move rapidly, but later developed the excuse that he did not
know there was a need to hurry.
After crossing the Potomac, McClellan had left the pontoons behind at
Berlin, Md. Rather than send them quickly to Falmouth, Halleck put them
in storage in Washington and for at least a day (during the critical race
to Fredericksburg) the location of the boats remained Halleck's secret.
When they emerged from their hiding place, half were sent down the Telegraph
Road on wagons that bogged down in the mud. The other half waited for
water transportation to carry them to Aquia Landing in Stafford County.
Their tardy arrival would result in the slaughter of men in the upcoming
battle and much property and structural damage in Fredericksburg.
While most Civil War buffs blame Burnside for the Union disaster on the
banks of the Rappahannock, the unseen villain lurked 50 miles north in
the nation's capital.
Despite this interference with his plans by Halleck, Burnside does not
escape free of responsibility for the calamity. Faced with a no-win situation,
Burnside compounded the problem by making some serious mistakes. Furthermore,
he lacked the support and cooperation of several key ubordinates.
George McClellan had given birth to the Army of the Potomac, and his
prodigy had not forgotten its creator. Even after McClellan's departure,
the men's loyalty remained to him and not to their new chief. Burnside
would be ill-served during the pending engagement by two of his three
wing commanders. Gen. Joseph Hooker was a backstabbing ambitious man who
wanted Burnside to fail so he could become commander. Gen. William Buel
Franklin was a McClellan admirer who adopted his former boss's cautious
Burnside also faced pressure from the White House. Lincoln had issued
the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the states that were in
rebellion. This astute diplomatic move had kept the European powers out
of the struggle, but had proved unpopular in the North. The majority of
the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had enlisted to keep the country
united, not to free the slaves.
Lincoln wanted Burnside to win a major victory in Virginia before the
doctrine took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, to boost morale and create support
for the proclamation.
The Army of the Potomac had all these internal problems as well as two
major external ones. Burnside would face the largest Confederate force
of the war that was well-led and rested. He would have to deal with Fredericksburg's
unfriendly terrain. The old seaport, nestled along the banks of the Rappahannock
lay in a valley with high ground on both sides. The Yankees' first task
was to get across the river and then they would have to attack uphill
against a strong, well-positioned foe.
Not knowing Burnside's intentions, Lee spread his army along the Rappahannock
from Port Royal to Banks' Ford with cavalry watching fords further upstream.
For several weeks, while Burnside did little except stockpile supplies,
Lee's engineers examined the terrain and laid out a road network behind
the Confederate line that could be used to quickly shift the position
of troops. West of the city, a series of hills and ridges stretched south
for seven miles from Taylor Hill to Prospect Hill. Beyond Prospect Hill,
as the river bent east toward Port Royal, it left the hilly Virginia Piedmont
and entered the flat coastal plain. Lee placed Jackson's entire corps
on this level ground making it a Confederate stronghold.
Burnside also recognized this area as the best place to fight the battle,
but when his reconnaissance revealed large numbers of Confederate troops
he decided to attack closer to the city where there were fewer Southern
In early December, Burnside seemed ready to have a go at it when a severe
snowstorm delayed operations for a week. On the early morning of Dec.
11, Union engineers started constructing pontoon bridges in three places.
The Confederates did not contest the bridge making a mile south of town,
but at daybreak they opened fire on the engineers at the north and south
side of the city.
The gunfire brought a halt to the bridge construction.
On Stafford Heights on the east side of the river, well over 100 Union
cannon opened fire that rocked the old town.
Fredericksburg's skyline then, like now, was dominated by the steeples
of city hall, St. George's Episcopal Church and the Baptist Church. Each
of the steeples sustained about three dozen hits. Cannon balls and holes
caused by projectiles can still be found in city buildings.
Despite the great damage, no military advantage was gained by the bombardment.
When the shooting stopped, the engineers attempted to resume building
the bridges only to be met by fire from the Confederates who emerged from
their hiding places.
Henry Hunt, the brilliant Union artillery chief, suggested sending men
across the river to establish a beachhead. The 7th Michigan followed by
the 19th and 20th Massachusetts rowed across the stream under heavy fire
from Gen. William Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade. These men from the
Great Lake State and the Bay State became the first soldiers in history
to cross a body of water under heavy fire and establish a beachhead. The
precedent for the heroic Allied efforts in the South Pacific and Normandy
was set here on the calm, rippling waters of the Rappahannock at the foot
of Hawke Street.
Having completed one historic first, the soldiers entered another unusual
phase of warfare - street fighting. The Federals met stiff resistance
from the Mississippians as they attempted to advance up Hawke Street.
Fighting in close quarters, the action was fierce and bloody. Since most
people think of a battlefield as being woods and fields, few realize that
the area bounded by Pitt, Charles, Lewis and Sophia streets is one of
the best preserved battlefields of the war.
Barksdale's objective was not to prevent the crossing, but simply to
delay it as long as possible. As darkness settled in on that short December
day, Barksdale's men began to withdraw to the heights west of town. One
Mississippian would not budge.
Lt. Lane Brandon had gone to Harvard with Captain Henry Abbott of the
20th Massachusetts. Learning that his friend was now his foe, Brandon's
small force took position on the high ground along Amelia Street looking
north down Princess Anne Street toward Abbott's advancing Yankees. Brandon
went berserk and refused to retreat in front of his rival. He had to be
restrained and escorted to the rear. The Federal engineers now quickly
finished the bridges.
The placement of the bridges showed Lee where Burnside intended to attack.
What he needed was time to relocate his troops. The spirited fight by
the Mississippians had helped. Burnside assisted even more by not ordering
his troops across the bridges that night. The large Union army spent Dec.
12 crossing the river into the city initiating a new and highly destructive
phase of the campaign. The residents of Fredericksburg
had left their homes the day before. Women, children and elderly burdened
with their most precious possessions trudged along the muddy streets to
seek refuge in outlying areas in what some Confederates called the most
depressing event they witnessed during the war.
Bored Union troops roamed the abandoned town searching for excitement.
They broke into the bank and library stealing everything they could carry.
Homes and businesses were plundered. What they couldn't take with them
they threw out in the mud. The events ranged from destructive too comical.
An impromptu parade featured soldiers dressed as women. While the Yankees
plundered and celebrated, the Rebels moved into position for the next
Burnside decided on a two-prong assault. The main attack would occur
about five miles south of town. Franklin's Grand Division supported by
half of Hooker's Grand Division, totaling 60,000 men, would swing around
Jackson's flank now anchored at Prospect Hill unhinging the entire Confederate
An army is most vulnerable when it is moving. Thus with the Southerners
in retreat, Gen. Edwin Sumner's
Grand Division supported by the other half of Hooker's command would advance
from town and strike Lee's vulnerable force.
On the late afternoon of the 12th, Burnside met with Franklin and his
two corps commander. Franklin thought they had reached an agreement. Burnside
now made a major mistake. Instead of issuing the order so that Franklin
and Hooker could put their men in motion that evening to be ready for
a dawn attack, Burnside returned to his headquarters at the Phillips'
House more than five miles away. As the hours passed by, Franklin and
his subordinates paced the floor of his headquarters at Mansfield. They
waited until well after midnight before deciding to get needed rest for
the rigors that lay ahead. Sunrise was obscured by a dense fog, which
mirrored Franklin's confusion.
James A. Hardie of Burnside's staff arrived at Mansfield around 7:30 a.m.
and handed Franklin the orders. Franklin's confusion grew as he read the
vague document that little resembled their supposed agreement of the night
before. Instead of attacking with his whole force, Franklin was ordered
to "send a division, at least . . . to seize, if possible, the height
near Captain Hamilton's [Prospect Hill]." A division represented
only 1/12th of his force. Dawn had come and gone without the men even
being in position to attack. Rather that seek clarification of the orders
by using the telegraph, Franklin assumed Burnside had changed his mind
while Hardie silently stood by rather than attempt to clear up the misunderstanding.
Always a cautious man, Franklin choose to interpret the ambiguous instructions
in a conservative way. He thought that assaulting with Gen. Joseph Reynolds'
Corps more than met the directive. Around midmorning, as Reynolds' troops
lined up they suddenly came under flank artillery fire. In one of the
war's most daring acts, Maj. John Pelham and a few gunners created havoc
in the Union line. Reynolds detached Brig. Gen. Abner Doubleday's division
to silence the aggressive Alabamian. In doing so 5,000 soldiers (1/3 of
Reynolds' force) was sent on a wild goose chase after a few men that they
The fight at Prospect Hill can be broken down into four phases. First
came a Union artillery bombardment to soften up the Confederate line that
accomplished little. The Southerners remained quiet rather than give away
their exact position during this hourlong action. The approach of Federal
infantry brought a Confederate response that drove the Yankees back and
began the second phase, an artillery duel. Another hour went by, but this
time the Union gunners zeroed in on their targets. A 14-gun battalion
on the hill suffered damage to 12 of the weapons. So many horses died
that for years the veterans referred to it as "Dead Horse Hill."
Cannon and horses were not the only targets.
A South Carolina cannoneer identified only as "Ben" wrote
his father that this was the "hottest fight I have ever heard of.
All the other fights crowded into one would hardly make anything to be
compared to today's fight." Shells landed nearby kicking up piles
of dirt on him. One projectile clipped off the end of the ramrod he held.
One bounded by within inches of his leg. Another knocked off a piece of
the cannon's wheel that struck Ben squarely in the chest. "I did
not know whether I was mortally wounded or not" he told his father.
Reynolds' two remaining infantry division's now advanced toward a patch
of woods that extended east beyond the railroad tracks, initiating the
fourth act of the fight. Unknowingly, luck was on their side. Stonewall
Jackson had left a gap in his defense thinking the Yankees could not move
across this swampy woodland that remains there even in a recent drought.
Meade's division of Pennsylvanians penetrated the gap and smashed
into General Maxcy Gregg's Brigade.
Some of the Pennsylvanians turned south and attacked the flank and rear
of Gen. James Archer's Brigade. But here the high tide of the Union attack
With the outcome of the battle hanging in the balance, Meade sent word
to Gen. David Birney that he needed reinforcements. A 6th Corps officer,
Birney refused to take orders from Meade, a 1st Corps officer. Instead
of coordinating efforts that might win the battle, Gen. Reynolds played
the role of a corporal on a cannon crew while Franklin and Burnside sat
passively in their headquarters.
The fortunes of war now turned.
Meade's left, Gibbon's division had been stopped by North Carolinians
at the railroad tracks. This bloody stalemate was broken by Confederate
artillery and infantry reinforcements. Other Confederates of Jackson's
command threatened Meade's Pennsylvanians, who also fell back. Burnside's
belated and half-hearted attempts to spur Franklin into further action
were met with deaf ears, causing a relative quiet to settle over the woods
and fields. It had been a competitive fight, in which the Confederates
Meanwhile, five miles to the north, Burnside launched a second assault
that consisted of a series of waves of attack against high ground that
would be known in history as Marye's Heights. For most people, this is
where the battle was fought. In reality, only half of the battle occurred
here. Trying to comprehend this sector of the battle with the mistaken
perspective that it is the entire battle is like unknowingly skipping
every other chapter of a complicated mystery.
With 60,000 men available, the Union soldiers found themselves hemmed
in by the city of Fredericksburg to their rear, a swamp and canal to their
right, Confederates in their front and Hazel Run to their left. As a result,
each of the Union waves crossed open ground devoid of cover with less
than 5,000 in any single attack. The Confederate defenders numbering around
7,000 by the time things got serious held high ground, and some had a
stonewall for protection. With all the advantages in the Confederate favor,
this mismatch became the slaughter of Fredericksburg. After six bloody
hours, darkness mercifully put an end to the uncompetitve fight.
The scene then shifted from a day of bloody fighting to two days of
immense suffering. Lack of doctors and medical care intensified the misery,
as did the extreme cold. While some bled to death, at least one man's
life was saved by the cold that froze the blood to stop the bleeding.
Richard Kirkland, a 19-year-old from South
Carolina, risked his life to assist wounded enemy soldiers in front of
the stone wall in one of the most touching humanitarian stories of American
On the night of Dec. 15, Burnside pulled his men back across the river
and into winter camp in Stafford County. Of the 17,000 casualties, 12,500
had been Yankees. Lincoln's hopes of gaining political support for the
Emancipation Proclamation through a military victory ended in disaster.
In the aftermath of the debacle, Union morale and confidence in Burnside
collapsed while it soared in the Confederate ranks.
Yet, unlike in sports where the objective is to win victories, Robert
E. Lee knew that in war he must achieve more if he hoped to win the war.
A frustrated Lee clearly understood that the Union army had survived to
fight another day. Next time, near a crossroad called Chancellorsville,
he would go for the knockout punch. Time would tell if we would reach
his lofty goal.