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  • James Houser

December 13, 1862 - The Battle of Fredericksburg

Updated: May 22, 2021

December 13, 1862. What happens when you fire your terrible employee, but the new guy is even worse? The Union is about to find out when they go into battle against Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The incompetent George B. McClellan is gone, but his successor – Ambrose Burnside – will drop the ball. The result, more tragedy than battle, is one of the Union’s grimmest defeats of the Civil War.

Ambrose Burnside was unfit for command, and no one knew this better than he did. His dubious claim to immortality comes from his enormous mutton-chop whiskers, which were so well-known that a reversal of his name invented the term “sideburns.” But Burnside at first glance didn’t seem like a terrible choice. He was 38, intelligent, healthy, and a West Point graduate. He had fought the Apaches as a young Army officer and been in charge of the Rhode Island militia for some years before the Civil War, gaining a lot of political connections in the process. When the Civil War began, he had led a brigade of Rhode Island troops at First Bull Run and done reasonably well. Finally, in early 1862 he had led the ground forces in a Union expedition that captured Roanoke Island and New Bern in North Carolina, closing off most of the North Carolinian ports to trade and commerce. He seemed to have a pretty successful record on the surface.

But so much of his life was marked by continuous, dismal failure that it’s kind of hard to ignore. As a young officer, he was engaged to Charlotte Moon, a Virginia native born in Danville. When they were at the altar, and she was asked if she took Burnside’s hand in marriage, she shrieked “No sirree bob!” and fled the church, which probably didn’t do a lot for Burnside’s self-confidence. He had gotten out of the Army in the 1850s and tried to found a firearms company, even patenting a repeating carbine called the Burnside Carbine, but his factory burned down. He ran for Congress in 1858 but was defeated in a landslide. Observant eyes should have noted: don’t put this man in charge of anything. But they did.

Abraham Lincoln had finally lost his patience with George B. McClellan, the commander of the North’s Army of the Potomac, the main body of troops operating in Virginia against Robert E. Lee. To a large degree, the Army of the Potomac was McClellan’s baby. He had organized and trained it, and many of the generals were his personal allies and choices. McClellan was an administrative genius, a brilliant planner, and a charismatic leader, beloved by his men and the darling of Democratic politicians in Congress.

There was just one problem: McClellan would never willingly put his army in harm’s way. The thought of sending his brave, well-trained, well-fed young men into the teeth of Confederate rifle fire and cannon chilled him, and in all his campaigns he tried to find any option other than open battle. This was in contrast to his constant foe, Robert E. Lee, who would ALWAYS fight a battle, and used this to gain a psychological edge over McClellan. This mental domination came to the fore at the great Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. McClellan had Lee on the ropes, outnumbered him more than two to one, and had his Confederate opponent trapped against a river. Had McClellan contained a molecule of aggression or killer instinct, Lee’s army would have been destroyed in Maryland on that bloodiest day of the American Civil War. But he didn’t, and it wasn’t. Lee escaped, and McClellan’s army sat exhausted on the field of battle for a month.

President Abraham Lincoln waited two months for McClellan to do something…ANYTHING. But the Army of the Potomac, over 100,000 strong, stayed camped on the Antietam battlefield for a month. When Lincoln urged him to pursue Lee and try to force his army out of Northern Virginia, McClellan complained that his horses were too tired. This prompted one of Lincoln’s only explosions of temper in the war, where he demanded of McClellan on October 25, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” After finally haranguing McClellan into moving from Maryland into Virginia, the general sluggishly plodded south until stopping to “rest.” At this point, Lincoln had had enough, and on November 7, 1862, relieved McClellan of command.

But who would replace him? There was no obvious answer. In August, Lincoln had tried bringing promising General John Pope west to take command of the armies in Virginia, but Lee had beaten Pope so fiercely at Second Bull Run that the Union officer was shuffled off to watch the frontier, never to command troops against the Confederates again. The Union’s truly great generals of the war, Grant and Sherman, had not truly emerged yet, and regardless they were still needed to clear the Mississippi Valley and take Vicksburg. This meant promoting a general from within the Army of the Potomac. But these were all McClellan’s men, and many of them had political interests in Washington that would complicate the command arrangements. The ultimate problem President Lincoln faced was that he couldn’t just appoint people based on military merits: he had to navigate a complex political and strategic situation, as well as find someone that the Potomac Army’s generals would accept.

The conclusion was one of McClellan’s top generals and close personal friends, Ambrose Burnside. The other options had been the arrogant, scheming Joseph Hooker; the aging and bull-headed Edwin Sumner; finally, the McClellan crony and political intriguer William Franklin. Out of these men, Burnside stood out as having won campaigns in the past, so he ended up getting the job over his own protests. Burnside did not want the job, said that he was incapable and not up to it – but he took it. Who else was there? In a crowd of mediocrities, he was the least mediocre.

It was November 1862. The Civil War had been raging for a year and a half, and even though the Union had won major victories in the west and on the coast, the armies in Virginia were basically back at square one. Robert E. Lee and his talented, confident Army of Northern Virginia remained undefeated and undaunted, boosted to 78,500 men by recent reinforcements. Lee was a tough opponent, and had continually frustrated McClellan with his sharp attacks and quick maneuvers. “We understood each other so well,” said Lee with dry humor when he learned of McClellan’s dismissal, mocking his ability to predict McClellan’s movements. “I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don't understand." Lincoln would accomplish this when he found Grant – but Burnside was not Grant.

Burnside’s Army, situated in northern Virginia near Manassas, consisted of 120,000 men – a truly massive force, one of if not the largest ever assembled on the American continent. The problem was in organizing it. McClellan had placed the units in eight separate army corps, a system Burnside tried to simplify by reorganizing the corps into three “grand divisions” under Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin, his top generals. The problems here were twofold. First, this added another unnecessary layer of organization and command, slowing down the transmission of orders and diminishing efficiency. Second, it placed the army in the hands of two generals – Hooker and Franklin – who hated Burnside, and one – Sumner – who was bordering on senility. Hooker, in particular, was enraged that Burnside had been appointed over him, and Franklin was furious that McClellan had been fired. So this was obviously going to go well.

Burnside’s plan for the winter of 1862 was a good one. Lee’s army was divided, with Stonewall Jackson’s troops in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester and Longstreet’s corps at Culpeper in central Virginia facing Burnside. This positioning was meant to threaten Washington if Burnside made any advances south, but Burnside proposed to bypass the Confederates entirely by shifting rapidly east. His army would race to Fredericksburg, reestablish their supply lines along the railroad up to Washington, quickly cross the Rappahannock River and force Lee to come after them. It was a good plan, reminiscent of the maneuvers Grant would pull off in 1864 – but Burnside, again, was no Grant. Any plan is only as good as its execution, and Burnside and his staff bungled the maneuver.

Burnside had only been in command for a few days before he launched Sumner’s Grand Division in a quick march down to Fredericksburg, where Sumner arrived on November 17. Sumner and Burnside were both astonished and disappointed to find that the engineers and bridging material were not where they needed to be, thanks to a snarl of confusion between D.C., Burnside’s staff, and the engineer units. Without these bridges, Sumner urged an immediate improvised crossing of the Rappahannock in order to seize Fredericksburg on the south bank, along with the critical high ground to its south. Burnside, suddenly anxious about Lee’s whereabouts, refused to make this move – which could have salvaged the plan from its initial failures.

The result was that Burnside’s cool plan came to nothing. His army sat and waited for the bridging material to arrive. If there had been an opportunity to make an assault crossing early and seize Fredericksburg and its high ground, that opportunity was lost when Lee reacted and began moving Confederate troops into the sector. Longstreet’s units arrived on November 18, and Jackson’s corps took its time to arrive on November 30. Burnside had Lee’s army divided, and if he’d had a little nerve or sense he could have taken the opportunity when he had it…but he didn’t, so he didn’t. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Although Lee had intended to fall back to the North Anna River in case of Burnside’s crossing of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, his foe’s slowness and hesitancy gave him confidence. Though heavily outnumbered, he realized that the high ground southwest of Fredericksburg was a near perfect defensive position. Though the town itself lay on the Rappahannock, between the two armies, Lee positioned his army on a high set of hills called Marye’s Heights that dominated the plain below. Marye’s Heights provided a perfect position for artillery batteries to turn the fields south of Fredericksburg into a total killing ground. But that wasn’t all. Below Marye’s Heights was a sunken road, worn down by years of wagon and horse traffic, fronted by a stone wall – a ready-made ditch and breastwork for infantry. Behind this position, foot soldiers would be nearly untouchable. General James Longstreet, always with a good eye for ground and firepower, turned Marye’s Heights and the Sunken Road into a double-edged defensive buzzsaw. Who would be dumb enough to attack it head-on?

On November 25, some of Burnside’s bridges arrived, which could have allowed him to cross and attack Longstreet’s corps before Jackson’s arrived. But he didn’t. Only by the end of November did all Burnside’s bridging materials arrive, but by then Lee had his full army assembled and digging in on the ridges, with Stonewall Jackson’s units occupying the lower ground around Prospect Hill to the southeast.

At this point, Burnside PROBABLY should have called the whole thing off. His entire plan had depended on crossing the Rappahannock before Lee could react; now that Lee was dug in across the river and watching his every move, the whole point of the operation was now moot. But Burnside moved forward stubbornly, almost fatalistically.

The first step was getting the bridges built, and his engineers were constantly harassed by Confederate snipers of William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade hiding out in the buildings of Fredericksburg. Burnside’s artillery blasted at the hapless city, sending the civilians fleeing but failing to drive out the snipers, then ordered infantry to cross in boats to drive out the Rebel skirmishers on December 11. As the bridges were completed and the Union army crossed on December 12, the less-disciplined soldiers looted much of the town as the Confederates looked down from Marye’s Heights. They knew an attack was coming, and pre-sighted their guns over the brown, dead winter grass of Virginia.

It’s not entirely clear what Burnside’s plan was for December 13, 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg probably never should have happened, but if it HAD to, there’s no reason it should have happened the way it did. Burnside had crossed Sumner’s, Hooker’s, and Franklin’s Grand Divisions from north to south, so that Sumner was facing Marye’s Heights and Franklin was facing Stonewall Jackson’s position. Burnside’s orders on the night of December 12 called for Franklin to make the main effort, supported by Hooker, while Sumner launched a diversion against Marye’s Heights. But his orders were vague and tentative, and when Franklin pressed him for orders to launch a full attack Burnside sort of ignored the question. It was almost as if Burnside was mentally checked out, expecting *something* to happen but unsure what that something would be.

The Battle of Fredericksburg opened with a Union cannonade on the morning of December 13, 1862. As Sumner moved his troops forward, Franklin on the left received an order to send “at least a division” to attack Stonewall Jackson’s lines on the southern end of the battle. Franklin knew that this was far short of the massive assault he had wanted, but decided to send forward General George G. Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserve Division to attack the Confederate lines. Meade’s veteran units rushed forward in the early fog, crunching across dead grass and harassed by Confederate artillery fire in the flank. The Pennsylvanians pitched forward into the forest where Jackson’s lines were concealed.

Unbeknownst to either side, Meade’s attack had hit the Confederates at their weakest point. Command confusion had left a gap open in the defensive line, and behind this gap the men of Maxey Gregg’s South Carolina brigade were eating breakfast with arms stacked, believing they were protected. They were shocked to receive rifle fire and screaming Yankees charging in through the mist as the Pennsylvania infantry flooded in through the gap, blowing Stonewall Jackson’s lines wide open. The attack turned into a swirling, furious infantry battle in the woods south of Fredericksburg. Both sides took heavy losses, with Gregg killed and many of Meade’s regimental commanders wounded. Meade, courageous and constantly present on horseback, miraculously avoided injury – but his division was not so lucky, and soon found itself targeted by half the Confederate army.

Meade had achieved local success, and sent back for help to exploit it. Without higher direction from Franklin, though – those unnecessary layers of command disrupting quick reaction times – only a few units pulled forward into the bludgeoning battle. Finally Meade had to withdraw, and the Union threw back Stonewall Jackson’s counterattack after three hours of heavy fighting. Meade could have won the battle on December 13, had Burnside’s orders been clearer or Franklin more in control of the situation. Altogether, the battle on the southern flank had been a missed opportunity that would ruin Franklin’s military reputation.

But the battle to the north, on the killing ground in front of Marye’s Heights, would do the same thing to Burnside. What was supposed to be a diversionary attack had somehow become the main effort. The Union infantry would have to walk across 600 yards of virtually open ground, broken by canals and fences and ravines, to even reach the base of the Confederate defensive position at Marye’s Heights. Here Lee and Longstreet would observe the Union assaults to try and capture the heights, as per Burnside’s orders. The broken terrain would funnel the Union troops into tightly packed columns as they tried to rush forth across the open country, exposed to cannon and rifle fire the whole way. It was nothing an army should ever have attempted, but it was Burnside’s order, and Sumner followed orders.

One brigade after another ventured across the open plains towards Marye’s Heights, where all of them were stopped short by a sheet of lead and shrapnel. Hundreds, then thousands of wounded and dead began to pile up on the field as the Georgia infantry in the Sunken Road loosed volley after volley into the onrushing Yankees. The dying Union soldiers represented the ultimate failure of command: miscommunication, poor judgment, and pointless slaughter for no higher purpose. They never stood a chance of taking the heights, even if they had reached the stone wall. When all of Sumner’s brigades had tried and failed to cross the field of carnage, Hooker’s units began to be fed into the booming mill of death.

The junior generals tried. General Couch of the II Corps realized the tactic wouldn’t work the first couple of times, but his orders were clear: take Marye’s Heights. Anything else he tried failed as well. The follow-on units of the IX and V Corps marched forward over the remnants of the II Corps men, even as the wounded and dying tugged at their trouser legs to try and keep them from going forward. It was no use. All told, 14 separate brigades tried and failed to cross the open ground in front of Marye’s Heights, and each suffered horrific losses. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, what would you call the Battle of Fredericksburg?

The most famous attack was led by the Irish Brigade of Thomas F. Meagher, one of the Union’s elite units composed almost entirely of Irish immigrants from New York and Boston. In a bitter twist of fate, they were confronted by the 24th Georgia, also largely Irish, hiding behind the stone wall. With the mournful proclamation, “Oh what a pity! Here come Meagher’s fellows,” the Confederate Irish opened up on the Union Irish. The Irish Brigade sprinted forward as far as they could, but their courage could not overcome the rain of lead. The Irishmen and their green flags probably came the closest of any Union unit – 150 yards – to the Sunken Road.

As for the Confederates, it may have been the easiest battle of Robert E. Lee’s career. All he had to do was watch the Union fail to break his lines over and over. When he expressed concern at one point, Longstreet reassured him, "General, if you put every man 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." It was at Fredericksburg, watching the Union smash themselves to pieces on his defenses, that Lee uttered one of his most famous quotes, a mix of victorious satisfaction and contemplative melancholy: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

By mid-afternoon, Burnside’s attacks had failed on both flanks. Out of stubbornness and incompetence, though, he ordered the assaults on Marye’s Heights to continue. Even when Hooker went out to see the battle for himself – something Burnside had not done – and rode back to try and persuade him against it, Burnside reiterated the order. Union troops continued to charge and die across the fields before Marye’s Heights long after it was impossible to win the Battle of Fredericksburg. Only night put an end to the ceaseless drumbeat of carnage.

By the time darkness fell on December 13, 1862, the Army of the Potomac had suffered a miserable, pointless defeat. It had sacrificed almost 13,000 men killed or wounded, most of them on the bitter field in front of Marye’s Heights, against only 5,000 Confederates – most of them the victims of Meade’s temporarily successful attack.

The next day, December 14, Burnside had to be talked out of leading a last-ditch attack on Marye’s Heights, and the Union army withdrew back across the Rappahannock. Though Lee has been criticized for not interfering with the Union retreat, Burnside had 300 cannon on the heights to the north that probably would have had something to say about that. Lee and his Rebels watched the Northerners fall back with relief, but Lee was disappointed that the battle had not been more decisive. Despite jubilation throughout the South, he believed correctly that the Confederacy was no closer to victory. “We had really accomplished nothing; we had not gained a foot of ground, and the enemy could easily replace the men he had lost.”

The North, meanwhile, exploded into mourning, scorn for Burnside, and criticism of Lincoln. Burnside’s own generals, led by Franklin, launched a plot to try and get Hooker placed in charge of the army; this caused the dismissal of several top officers and a fatal undermining of Burnside’s command. Bitter recriminations and infighting dominated the Army of the Potomac for almost a month, and no one came off well. It took a second failed campaign in January 1863 to bring things to a head; this episode, known as the “Mud March”, never even made contact with the enemy. Burnside’s Yankees bogged down in the treacle-like dirt roads without ever firing a shot, and were taunted by the Confederates, who placed signs saying “Burnside’s army stuck in the mud,” which was at least direct if not clever.

Lincoln bowed to the inevitable and fired Burnside on January 26, 1863, reluctantly replacing him with Hooker. Burnside had never wanted the command, and had accepted full responsibility for all his failures, but was still sad to see it pass to his hated enemy Hooker. The Union’s morale sagged once again. When would Lincoln find a general who could fight? Where was the man who could stand up to Robert E. Lee?

But Grant was on his way, and in the meantime there was a man already in the wings. George G. Meade, whose Pennsylvania division had broken Stonewall Jackson’s line, would take command of the Army of the Potomac in June 1863 – three days before the Battle of Gettysburg began. And when the Confederates charged up Cemetery Ridge into the teeth of Union artillery and rifle fire, the tables had finally turned; the Union soldiers would shout “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” as they slaughtered Pickett’s division. Turnabout is fair play, after all.

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