Information on the Battle Of Fredericksburg, a major Civil War Battle of 1862 during the American Civil War
Battle Of Fredericksburg Summary: The Battle of Fredericksburg saw more troops engaged than any other battle of the American Civil War, almost 200,000 men. Fought in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 11–15, 1862, it also involved the first major opposed river crossing in the nation’s history.
Battle Of Fredericksburg Facts
December 11-15, 1862
Union: Maj. General Ambrose E. Burnside
Confederate: General Robert E. Lee
Important Events & Figures
Angel of Marye’s Heights
First Major Opposed River Crossing
Largest Battle of the Civil War
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Battle of Fredericksburg Summary: The Battle of Fredericksburg was an early battle of the civil war and stands as one of the greatest Confederate victories. Led by General Robert E. Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia routed the Union forces led Maj Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside ordered one futile frontal attack after another against the entrenched Confederate forces on the high ground of Marye’s Heights, generating astounding Union casualties that eventually reached twice that of Confederate casualties.
Preparation for Fredericksburg
Major General Ambrose Burnside had reluctantly accepted his appointment to replace Maj. Gen. George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac in early November 1862. President Abraham Lincoln was hoping for a military victory to give more credence to and win political backing for the Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect January 1, 1863. Burnside proposed moving the Union army to Falmouth, directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, and making a direct attack on the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, circumnavigating Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces who were then in Culpepper blocking Union advances south and at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley.
The Battle of Fredericksburg Begins
Burnside’s entire Union army had arrived in Falmouth by November 19, but the pontoons that he planned to use to cross the Rappahannock were delayed and, when they did arrive, heavy snowfall prevented all military operations for a week. During this long delay, Lee anticipated Burnside crossing the Rappahannock and ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to a line along the river just outside the town of Fredericksburg. The Rebel troops had ample time to find advantageous defensive positions and establish supply lines and even bring up a large, 30-pounder artillery piece from Richmond by rail to supplement their six- and 12-pounder field pieces.
In the early morning hours of December 11, the Union soldiers began to assemble the pontoon bridges to make a direct crossing into Fredericksburg, hoping speed and surprise would bring success. However, Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippians delayed the crossing by taking positions in the town and shooting the Union soldiers attempting to assemble the bridges. In response, Burnside ordered Fredericksburg to be shelled, though the shelling had little to no effect on Barksdale’s men. Finally, in mid-afternoon, Burnside had several groups of soldiers row across the river to establish a foothold and drive Barksdale’s troops out of the town. After a bloody prolonged fight in the streets, Barksdale’s remaining soldiers finally withdrew and the pontoons could be assembled—but the Mississippians had purchased an extra 12 hours for Lee to establish his forces. Union troops crossed into Fredericksburg on December 12 and looted and vandalized what remained of the city.
Robert E. Lee Digs In On The High Ground
Lee’s Confederates were in a seven-mile long, curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town. Heights south of Fredericksburg to the south end of Prospect Hill were held by the four divisions of Stonewall Jackson’s corps. Burnside decided to attack both flanks rather than strike with the full force at the center. The main thrust would be made by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Grand Division, consisting of the 1st and 6th corps, against Jackson’s position, while Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Grand Division—2nd and 9th corps—would “distract” Longstreet on Marye’s Heights. In a misstep, Burnside waited until the morning of December 13 to issue orders to Franklin and Sumner rather than issuing them after their meeting on the 12th. When he did finally issue the orders, his wording was ambiguous, at best, about how forcefully Franklin was to mount the attack south of the city.
In the morning fog on December 13, Franklin ordered a single corps, Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynolds’ 1st Corps, to move into place south of the city along the railroad. As the fog lifted, Major John Pelham opened fire on Union lines using a single gun he had moved into position on Prospect Hill ahead of the Confederate line. Able to delay the Union advance for about an hour and reveal the Union battle plan, Pelham retreated back to the Confederate lines at about 11 a.m.
Stonewall Jackson At Fredericksburg
After adjusting his lines, Reynolds had the Confederate line heavily shelled for an hour, though with little effect or response from Jackson, who had ordered his gunners to hold their fire until the Federal infantry advanced. As the Union soldiers approached Jackson’s line for a more direct attack, the Confederates responded, pushing them back. An artillery duel ensued, with Union guns now landing hits on their targets. In the early afternoon, Reynolds ordered his two remaining infantry divisions to approach the Confederate line, where they found a hole in the line left by Jackson, who wrongly assumed the terrain—swampy woodland—was impassable. Finding the advantage in attacking the Confederates, Union major general George Meade began to roll up the Confederate lines. Jackson ordered his reserves to counterattack, while Meade sent word to Brig. Gen. David Birney for reinforcements that would never come; Birney refused to coordinate efforts with Meade. Left unsupported and facing an overwhelming onslaught, Meade retreated, with the Confederates pushing their advantage. The area of intense fighting would become known as the Slaughter Pens. By late afternoon, Jackson had readjusted his lines and tried to goad the Union into attacking, but Meade refused to respond. With darkness approaching, the battle south of Fredericksburg came to an end.
Slaughter on Marye’s Heights
The battle to the north, with Longstreet on Marye’s Heights and Sumner emerging from the city streets, was even less successful for the Union. Sumner’s men had to cross about half a mile of open ground that included a mill race (a trench five feet deep, 15 feet wide, and filled with three feet of water) before approaching a stone wall, behind which Longstreet had his men entrenched, with artillery on the heights behind them. As the fog lifted and artillery booms from the battle downriver were heard, Sumner began ordering wave after wave of divisions to advance toward Marye’s Heights. Throughout the day, the Union divisions advanced and were cut down by Confederate artillery and gunfire. Late in the day, the 9th Corps of Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s Grand Division attempted to flank the sunken road but only succeeded in adding more blue-clad casualties to the heaps that lay in the fields.
That night, a Confederate soldier from South Carolina, Richard Kirkland, risked his life to take water and warm clothing over the stone wall to the wounded and dying of the enemy; the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” is an enduring symbol of humanitarianism. Kirkland would be killed at the Battle of Chickamauga the following autumn.
Burnside intended to renew the frontal assaults the next morning, but the commanders of his three grand divisions convinced him not to. The following two days were filled with the misery and suffering of the wounded between the two lines. The night of December 15, Burnside retreated to winter camp in Stafford County.
Aftermath of The Battle of Fredericksburg
Confederate morale soared after Fredericksburg; they had been outnumbered and still prevailed. Union morale was already low after McClellan, popular with the troops, had been replaced by Burnside; Burnside’s missteps in strategy and leadership at Fredericksburg sowed the seeds of insubordination, leading to his ineffective second offensive against Lee in January 1863, derisively called the “Mud March.” Afterward, he offered his resignation, which Lincoln accepted and replaced him with Joe Hooker, who would come to grief at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Burnside, reassigned to the western theater, got a measure of revenge in November 1863 when Longstreet’s corps, also temporarily assigned to the west, battered itself unsuccessfully against his defensive position at Knoxville, Tennessee.
Banner image Battle of Fredericksburg, created by Currier and Ives, Library of Congress.