The Background of Battle of Fredericksburg:
History of Battle of Fredericksburg -President Lincoln, frustrated at this litany of defeat in the Eastern theater, now took a more active role in directing Union strategy, along with his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. With General Ambrose Burnside they plotted a straight course from Washington to Fredericksburg to Richmond. The only thing that stood in their way was the army of General Robert E. Lee.
Lee prepared defensive positions on the hills to the east of the city, in a seven-mile line facing the Rappahannock River. He relied on the high ground and carefully positioned artillery, rather than trench works; and, as usual, he was badly outnumbered. He had about 78,000 men to Burnside’s 120,000.
Lee’s frontline defenders were Mississippi and Florida riflemen who sniped at the Federals as they bombarded Fredericksburg. The Federals then crossed the Rappahannock River and moved into the city. Lee’s Mississippians, under the command of General William Barksdale, were gallant in slowing the Union advance, but by evening the Mississippians and Floridians were withdrawn (some of the Mississippians had to be removed forcibly, even under arrest, because they were reluctant to yield the ground), and the Federals were, for the moment, uncontested occupiers of Fredericksburg, looting and vandalizing the houses. They would receive a terrible punishment the next day.
The morning opened with a fog so thick that cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart and an aggressive Stonewall Jackson thought the Confederates should launch a surprise attack under its cover. But Lee demurred. Then the Union guns belched smoke and thunder, trying, largely unsuccessfully, to find the Confederates. As the fog slowly lifted, the artillery battle became a duel—a duel between an entire line of Union cannon and a single Confederate artillery officer, Captain John Pelham, with two guns, one of which was quickly disabled. J. E. B. Stuart sent orders for Pelham to retire, but like the Mississippi sharpshooters before him, Pelham had to be compelled with three sets of orders, and then withdrew only after he ran out of ammunition. Lee called him “the Gallant Pelham” and said of his performance at Battle of Fredericksburg: “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”
The Federal artillery barrage intensified. Then the Federal infantry began testing the Confederate line, advancing uphill in force. The Confederates waited until the Union soldiers were well in the open before unleashing a deadly artillery barrage of their own. The Federals fell back, only to come again and again at the Confederate line, and to be repulsed again and again.
While Jackson had some hard fighting on Lee’s right, Burnside massed the bulk of his forces for an almost obsessive assault on Lee’s left at Marye’s Heights. Lee saw the Federals were taking a horrible beating, but warned Longstreet that the Union concentration was so heavy that it might break through. Longstreet, who preferred to fight on the defensive, was phlegmatic: “General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.” The Union soldiers came on, and were shot down, all day.
As night fell, Lee finally ordered his men to dig in. Burnside talked about launching another attack, but his subordinate officers talked him out of it. They had had enough. Federal casualties for the battle of Fredericksburg were more than 12,000 men; Confederate casualties were more than 5,000. A month later, Burnside tried to regain the offensive with what became known as “the Mud March,” which went nowhere. He offered to resign and was reassigned to Ohio.
What You Need to Know About Battle of Fredericksburg:
Fredericksburg helped to build the reputation of the apparently invincible Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia that repeatedly thwarted Union generals, their massive armies, and their plentiful supplies. It also highlighted Lee’s awareness of the cost of war. Lee had witnessed the women, children, and old men of Fredericksburg evacuate the city, trudging through the snow and bitter cold. When the Federals bombarded the city, he said, “These people delight to destroy the weak and those who can make no defense; it just suits them.”16 It was also at Fredericksburg that Lee, overlooking the slaughter on Marye’s Heights said, memorably, “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.”
Following McClellan’s disastrous Union loss at Antietam, Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside, who planned to march to the city of Fredericksburg, getting there before Lee and possibly marching all the way to Richmond. But once they confronted the Confederacy at the battle of Fredericksburg the Federals made 14 total charges that were all repulsed. One Federal general wrote “It was a great slaughter pen. They may as well have tried to take Hell.”
Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see another map related to this battle.
- Change in Command
- After Antietam, McClellan waited a month to go after Lee’s army, and he moved very slowly.
- McClellan wired Lincoln and asked for a large number of new horses. He claimed he needed them because many of his current horses were worn out.
- Lincoln replied, saying “Would you pardon me for asking what your horses have done that fatigues anything?”
- Lincoln finally fired McClellan, the day after the national elections.
- He appointed Ambrose Burnside as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside did not believe he was up to the task, but he accepted it.
- Burnside’s Plan
- Lincoln ordered Burnside to come up with a plan to defeat Lee.
- Burnside planned to march to the city of Fredericksburg, getting there before Lee and possibly marching all the way to Richmond.
- Burnside and the army reached the battle of Fredericksburg relatively quickly, beating Lee there, but he needed pontoons to cross the Rappahannock River and continue toward Richmond.
- The pontoons had not yet arrived and Burnside had to wait.
- By the time the pontoons arrived, Lee’s army had arrived and had taken up a strong position on a hill just west of the town.
- Lee had about 75,000 soldiers, while Burnside had about 120,000.
- Fighting Breaks Out
- On December 11, Union engineers began constructing pontoon bridges. Confederate sharpshooters fired at the engineers from buildings in the town. Union artillery shelled the town in response.
- Finally, the pontoon bridge was completed, and the Union soldiers began to cross. Some also crossed in boats.
- Both armies could see each other very well (more so than in any other battle). The Union army used balloons to observe the Confederates.
- By the end of the 12th, most of the Union army was across the river and in place.
The Battle of Fredericksburg
- The Plan
- Mental Map: Both armies arranged roughly north to south. The Yankees were in the town with the river at their back (right side of the map). The Rebels were dug in on high ground to the east of the town (left side of map).
- Burnside wanted to put pressure on the Confederate center while trying to turn the Confederate right (south) flank. Then he could get between Lee and Richmond.
- The lines were 5-6 miles long.
- The Attack
- The Union corps on the left, led by William Franklin, pushed the Confederate right (under Jackson) back, but Franklin failed to follow up on this. Jackson sealed up the breakthrough that Franklin initially achieved.
- For the rest of the day, Union troops marched up the gentle slope that separated them from Lee’s army, taking withering fire the entire time. The Confederates were protected by a stone wall.
- The Federals made 14 total charges. All were repulsed.
- One Federal general wrote “It was a great slaughter pen. They may as well have tried to take Hell.”
- Lee said to a staff member: “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
- More than 12,500 Federals were casualties, while only 5000 Confederates were.
- That evening, the temperature dropped to 34 degrees, increasing the suffering of the wounded. Many Federals, lying in the field, used the bodies of their dead comrades to protect them from Confederate sharpshooters.
- Burnside was devastated. He proposed to personally lead another assault up the hill, but his generals talked him out of it.
- The Federal Army retreated across the Rappahannock on the 15th.
- Commenting on the status of the town, which Union soldiers had heavily vandalized, a staff member asked Jackson, “what shall we do about the sort of men who could do such things?” Jackson replied “Kill ‘em. Kill ‘em all.”
- The Northern press condemned Burnside and Lincoln.
- Lincoln said “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
- Due to Burnside’s ineptitude as an administrator, the Army of the Potomac experienced shortages in supplies.
- Discipline was lax. During the winter of 1862-63, nearly 200 men a day were deserting.
- On January 20, Burnside ordered the army to again try to cross the river. However, torrential rain broke out, and most of the army’s wagons and horses got bogged down in the mud. This humiliating event was dubbed the “Mud March” by the northern press.
- Burnside’s generals began complaining to Congress and Lincoln.
- On January 26, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Hooker was extremely pompous and even once said that the nation needed a dictatorship.
- Lincoln heard about this and wired Hooker, saying “Only generals who gain success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success. I will risk the dictatorship.”