Offensive action. That’s what Abraham Lincoln wanted from his new commander in November 1862. The exasperating Maj. Gen. George McClellan was out as head of the Army of the Potomac, and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was in. Burnside reorganized the army into three “grand divisions” and set his sights on Fredericksburg, Va., on the Rappahannock River, halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond. General Robert E. Lee had split his army—Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 37,000 men occupied the Shenandoah Valley, while Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s 38,000 concentrated at Culpeper Court House. If Burnside’s 115,000 men could cross the Rappahannock before Lee united his forces, the road to Richmond would be wide open. No one, from Lincoln down to Burnside’s subordinates, had much faith in the plan, but at least it represented a change in strategy.
Burnside would have to erect temporary bridges to cross the river, and he ordered pontoons to meet him at Fredericksburg. Union troops began arriving on November 17; the pontoons were delayed until the 27th. Even then, the Army of the Potomac stayed put. Rains made the roads impassable; sleet, snow and short supplies made camp life intolerable. Meanwhile, Lee regrouped, summoning Longstreet, Jackson and 3,000 men of Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s “horse artillery” to the Rappahannock.
Burnside finally moved on December 11. He ordered two pontoon crossings at Fredericksburg; a third crossing spot was chosen about a mile downstream. Rebel sharpshooters in the town picked off the bridge builders as if they were targets in a shooting gallery. The Union responded with a massive artillery barrage, blasting the picturesque colonial city with some 8,000 shells. The Yankees managed to secure the town after vicious street-to-street fighting but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The next day was wasted drinking and looting “in the manner of the most Gothic of Goths and the hungriest of Huns,” according to one Union observer, and Lee was still entrenched above Fredericksburg on Marye’s Height.
On December 13, wave after wave of blue-coated soldiers bolted across an open field, scrambled through a 15-foot-wide 5-foot-deep millrace and charged Marye’s Heights—straight into a wall of fire. Confederate infantry was stacked four ranks deep behind a stone wall and covered by an elite artillery unit. At the end of the day, 7,500 Union casualties were lost to the futile assaults on the heights.
Things looked better at the lower Union crossing, where Maj. Gen. William Franklin’s Left Grand Division reached the south side of the Rappahannock virtually unopposed. Franklin was in position to send all six of his divisions against the Confederates on a low rise called Prospect Hill, but he interpreted vague orders from Burnside to mean that he should commit only a portion of his troops. To lead the charge, Franklin selected Maj. Gen. George Meade’s division—with 4,500 men, one of the smallest in the Army of the Potomac. Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s 4,000 men would support Meade’s right. Jackson and Stuart’s 40,000 men lay in wait, screened by woods.
Meade started out on the morning of the 13th as an icy fog slowly dissipated. Then Major John Pelham, Stuart’s chief artillerist, opened up on the Union left, pelting the Yankees with solid shot from a 12-pounder Napoleon. Skillfully maneuvering his gun behind hedgerows, Pelham avoided return fire and rebuffed Stuart’s orders to pull back. Before he ran out of ammunition, the “boy artillerist” stalled the enemy’s advance for an hour and took Brig. Gen. Abner Doubleday out of the fight. Rather than joining Meade, Doubleday was ordered to guard against attack on the army’s left.
When Meade set out again, he broke through a 600-yard gap in the Confederate line. Had Franklin sent supporting troops, the Union might have carried Prospect Hill and divided Lee’s army. But Meade and Gibbon were on their own, and Jackson’s reserves were so deep they extended for almost a mile behind the front line. They turned the Yankees back in a brutal fight that became known as the Slaughter Pen. “All we gained at so fearful a cost is lost,” wrote Jacob Heffelfinger, of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, who was wounded and captured during the Rebel counterattack. “Death has been doing fearful work today.”
The toll was indeed fearful. The Union lost 13,353 men, more than half of them at Marye’s Heights. The Confederacy lost 4,576. After a brief truce to bury the dead, the Army of the Potomac retreated to the north side of the Rappahannock. Ambrose Burnside had failed.
Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.